I arrive unprepared in Spain's sweltering heat with my photographer in crime, J.Roams. I've been to Barcelona before, but that trip starts to seem more like a cultural expedition compared to what I will experience in the days ahead. Jason and I are no strangers to late nights, city streets and empty bottles, but we find out almost as soon as we step out of our cab and into something akin to a Spanish Mardi Gras that the Sónar festival is an everyone's-invited, three-day bull-run of a party.
Baggage-claimed backpacks still attached, we wait outside the press office for our friend Mateo and his crew from Birmingham and Sheffield, U.K. We fight off the first of many offers to buy or trade for our press passes -- a hot commodity we're told at the office to guard tightly. J laughs and reminds them we're from New York. Mateo and company arrive with a handful of tasty treats. Certainly not our every day, but this is Sónar. Let the games begin. At least three things are going on at all times at Sónar, spewing from enormous speakers artists from all corners of the world. It's impossible to see everything and easy to find your head spinning. Our first night gives birth to our week-long Barcelona mantra: again and again. This goes for the next to take the stage, the next brew, the next spot to run to, the next dime piece to stroll by in sandals. The crowd is a tidal wave awash in drugs, drink and exuberance. You can get swept away if you're not careful. Fewer than six thousand people made their way to Spain for the first Sónar Festival in 1994. Eleven years later, Sónar has become one of the world's premier gathering points for electronic-music heads, artists and record labels. It doesn't hurt that it's held in the heart of Barcelona -- a city fast becoming Europe's most popular destination. This year's festival, held in the middle of June, was dedicated to the late John Peel, the Radio 1 deejay who, until he died last year of a heart attack at age 65, was notorious for his dedication to breaking new artists. True to his spirit, the Sónar organization has again filled the bill with bands and artists they think their crowd needs to see, with little concern for sales history or name draw. The Sónar name has itself come to define progression. There are events dedicated to audio-visual collages, the latest in deejay and recording equipment, even music-related cinema. The festival's posters make heroes of conmen and thieves, making it clear that the focus this year would be on breaking their own rules, meaning that artists who in the past may have been seen as outside their realm were now being invited to take center stage. Georgia Taglietti, head of Sónar's international media department and public relations, said the idea was to create a "more organic Sónar."
How many people were at Sónar this year? GT: Eighty-seven thousand over three days and two nights. That's insane. We have big festivals in America, but that's huge. How do you choose which artists you want every year? GT: After all these years, every day we have input from the labels. Around September we gather up all the material from the labels that send us new releases of next year's albums. Because we do a lot of label showcases, lots of them are just campaigning, like, "How many artists can we get in?" We know you guys are really selective. We were talking to Waajeed from Platinum Pied Pipers, and I know they really wanted to do it. GT: Well, we would have loved for them to do it, too. We got input on Platinum Pied Pipers because one of my best friends is working for Gilles Peterson, who is really supporting them. But we got an input from them around March, and for us February is already too late. We don't really have gaps to fill, so it's almost impossible for someone to get in even if they are becoming really massive at the time. Is the office open year round? GT: Yes, because we do other events too. And you have a record label of some kind? GT: Yes. We have some music that is usually based on the artists involved with Sónar. We did a Francois K live from Sónar because a lot of people asked us to do it, and that was a really big success. But the label is just a small part of the work we do. What we do mostly is events abroad, and we also do some booking management. We have quite a nice roster of artists, and they like to work with us because they know us from Sónar and it's the same structure. Then we do trend marketing for Adidas. Everything is based in Barcelona? GT: Yeah, everything Sónar is based in Barcelona.
The cream of underground electronica descends on Barcelona with Sónar as the magnet, but before, during and after the festival, they will turn up in clubs all around the city to show off their skills, their friends and the latest sounds. Never knowing who will be on the decks (or in the crowd), there is a good chance you could stumble upon some of the world's best deejays in a very casual setting. When you look further than the year-round effort that goes into making this festival work, it's safe to say that Sónar as an event is much more than what is on the scheduled roster. The first night in Barca turns out to be a perfect example of this -- an endless mission from Placa Reial to a place that may very well be a rumor. We know Matthew Herbert and we think we know the name of the club. Eventually a cab swoops in to the rescue, and suddenly we are down past the beach in a beautiful little spot with inset candles, palm trees and a glowing red ceiling. Dani Siciliano is on the decks looking sexy, casual and in control. The kids are a mix of Europeans eager and ready to get this three-day party rolling. The Jungle Brothers "I'll House You" is probably the only track I know all night, but the good mood is contagious and I'm nodding my head to what my man Mateo describes as intelligent electro-house. Herbert is there but never gets on, preferring to let Dani and the other deejays from his Accidental Label set the sound. Later in the night, Brooks is on the wheels and another kid gets busy on an effects board -- pushing the late-night dancers even harder. We leave early by Sónar standards, around 4:30 a.m.
Somehow Sónar by Day hijacks Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art for its headquarters. A beautiful white-tiled complex of high art on Friday becomes a massive heap of garbage. You can hear the music just fine from outside, and it seems like every kid in the city has come down, whether they can get in or not. I see a local dreadlocks drinking a twenty-two and ask him where he got it. He tells me the way in Spanish and when I bring him one back in return (they cost us two Euro) he gives us an astonished "Gracias!" It's pretty easy to make friends in Spain. We take the big bottles with us into the cathedral and are hunted down by a security guard. He doesn't want us to pour them out, just put them in plastic cups so the glass doesn't break. He gives us thumbs up, smiling as we go back in with three cups full of brew. The Sónar Lab looks like an abandoned cathedral taken over by sweating beat-heads. It's worth putting up with the heat to hear some of the crispy snares and thick bass provided by Multipara from the German label Lux Nigra over the typical big speaker sound Sónar provides in every venue. People dance in place, forcing themselves awake by staying on their feet or nodding their heads while sitting on the dirty floor. In the other room they have a cement beach set up with umbrellas and loungers full with crashing nappers looking for a quick recharge. Again and again We cool off in the gorgeous Hotel B pool overlooking Placa de Espanya and head to the Sónar by Night venue completely unprepared. I go to give the cabdriver the address and after confirming, "Sónar?" he waves us off with a laugh. He doesn't need directions. That's where everyone is going. This is a complex, bigger than eight Madison Square Gardens. What we originally think have to be separate spots are all under one roof. As soon as we're past a security check we get assaulted by the massive sound -- and we're still outside. On the Sónar Park stage Roisin Murphy seems a little overwhelmed by the size of the stage and attention of the crowd but still manages to sound sultry and sincere. In the next room we find a stadium-sized rave -- thumping house, blink-blurring lights and bumper cars. Bumper cars! We don't even pay. We just jump in and keep acting like our car is broken -- won't take our tokens and we don't speak Spanish. This lasts about five rounds and then we buy five more. Georgia said this flash of brilliance started around 1998. "We had a night venue that was by the sea and was much smaller, and we had an area that was for parking that we had to do something with," she said. "One of my bosses at that time came up with the idea: If we have a park, why not do a park kind of thing? And so we started having this one. "The first year it wasn't very popular -- not that many went on it," she said. "But then all of the [members of the] organization and a lot of the artists, just to blow some energy off, went in there. We had a huge reportage and Richie Hawkins, Jeff Mills, Jeff Mills's wife, Laurent Garnier, his wife, really just everybody from the back. And the audience is just dancing totally oblivious to the fact that all these super VIPs were in the bumper cars acting like kids. I think I even scraped my knees because we were really playing and going pretty harsh. After that we knew it was going to stay." The press area within the complex is an oasis. No standing in line for portable toilets. Sexy Spanish bartenders. Open air. Plastic patio grass and umbrella-covered benches. Friendly international conversation. It really makes all our hard work worth it. We troop through the complex aimlessly, amazed at the spectacle of it all and happy just to be amidst so many kids looking for nothing more than a good time and finding the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Martin L. Gore of Depeche Mode and 2 Many DJ's providing the soundtrack. These big electro sounds can start to blend if you're not in tune to who or what they are, and the night can start to turn into somewhat of a blur. Then suddenly we're outside, walking home under Spain's rising sun because the bus goes in the opposite direction and catching a cab is a joke. This is a quicker sober than coffee. But we're not the only ones walking. We all suffer together. Sónar Day Saturday finds me lounged out on the all-white slant backs in the park's press area. A little drained, a little overwhelmed. People attempting to recover from the night before sip from big bottles of water. Others trade their email for beer tickets, trying to get the party started again. A deejay spinning a rare taste of hip-hop gets me up out of my seat and out to the park. J.Roams has already put a store-bought six-pack of Voll Damm Extra Dark to his head and is nodding his bright blue NY hat to an ear-pleasing blend of Jay Dee, Madlib and DJ Premier. Our friend Mateo -- civil engineer by day, derelict by Sónar -- arrives at the park with a burnt out smile and a thumbs up to an offered beer. Again and again The scene is typical of an outdoor festival: big speakers, beers, blankets and bikinis. The acts during the day are generally more laid back, but there are always dancers and when a song catches the crowd they come alive as if on cue. But as I sip another can and the moon rises over the tallest of the MACBA buildings, I force myself to remember that this is all just a prelude to Sónar's fireworks finale. Read part 2 Click here to post comments on the message boards Sónar photo gallery