Decibel Festival will return to Seattle this fall from September 28th through October 2nd.
Now in its eighth year, Decibel describes itself as an "International Festival of Electronic Music Performance, Visual Art and New Media." The bill has expanded for this year's event, with an extra day of programming and a number of new venues participating, including a few all-ages spots. As in years past, a diverse collection of electronic acts will perform, with headlining sets from Moby, who will DJ, and Amon Tobin, who will bring his much-lauded ISAM audio-visual live show to the US for the first time.
Late last week, we called up event founder Sean Horton in Seattle to talk about Decibel Festival and how it fits into North America's ever-changing electronic music scene:
You grew up just outside Detroit, and had your first experiences with electronic music there. Was there a particular night that made you think, "this is what I want to do"?
Yes, it was a Plus8 party. It took place in the Packard Plant in Detroit, where Richie Hawtin did Plastikman for the very first time live, and there were two rooms—one of which was an ambient room, one of which was this really dark, sensory venue. It was very loud, very dark, a typical Plus 8 warehouse party. The people I met there, the music I experienced and the overall aesthetic value, I think it was probably the most impressive warehouse party Detroit has ever seen. It happened to be one of the first parties that I really came to with an open mind and was able to let go of any perceived notion of what a rave was or what a party was and just have a good time.
Is that an experience you’re trying to recreate for people with Decibel?
For sure, it's definitely an experience that I hope to create with a lot more of the warehouse vibe events we're doing, like the after parties and a lot of the events we're doing at Neumos. To me, Neumos kind of represents the warehouse vibe of Decibel. It has a warehouse feel to it; we bring in plenty of sound and keep it minimal in terms of lighting and aesthetic value, while booking artists that conducive to that atmosphere, like Green Velvet, for instance.
Are American laws and regulations a significant barrier to what you're trying to do?
Yes, for a few reasons. One, that we have to wrap at 1:30 AM. That can create a disconnect—there’s this experience that everyone’s enjoying, then you flip on the lights on and tell everyone they have to leave immediately. To me that kind of ends the party on a sour note; it's a shame we can't just let the event naturally peter out. I think that from a lot of people's perspective that's a jarring experience, and it's not something people are used to, particularly the artists from Europe. The more recent issue we've had is that they are restricting artists from drinking on stage and, if you ask any European artist about that, it becomes an issue. In some cases it actually affects the performance.
I'd think a lot of artists are still getting used to the smoking ban.
Yeah, the smoking ban was the first issue that came up with the European artists, particularly artists from Berlin where it’s kind of part of their performance—smoking and drinking and really getting into the mood of the venue and the mood of the crowd. Sometimes it's difficult for artists to really find their groove if they don't have some vices that they can turn to.
Do you think it's harder for American audiences to get in the groove with all these restrictions?
No, not at all. People are used to it, it's become part of the landscape, if you will, where people expect to have that experience where, come 1:30 AM, people are starting to ask about where the after party is. It does create an after party culture which, in some ways, is great—the fact that we can really section out the festival between the early evening, the evening, and then the afterhours events makes for a cool progression throughout the night. That's the way we dealt with it—focusing on "OK, let's just throw a really killer after party and make sure everyone knows about it."
You started putting on parties and other events in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, right around when the American rave scene imploded. Did you ever have trouble finding an audience?
What we do is very far removed from the all-ages dance and rave community and it always has been. I'd say post-rave is kind of when we came up in 2002; at that point, there was a strong interest from an adult audience, a 21+ audience to experience underground electronic music in a club venue, in a venue where they could drink, a venue where they could mingle, a venue where they felt at home. So, that's always been there and that's been our core audience from day one—this adult, a little bit more intellectual audience, I would say, not as prone to taking drugs, more prone to maybe just having a few drinks and hanging out with friends. As we've progressed, however, we've started incorporating more all-ages events and expanding the program. As you're probably aware of, electronic music is back in full swing in the US, possibly bigger than it's ever been, so we're now trying to essentially merge those two cultures and make it work without losing our integrity. I think we've done a good job of that.
What other festivals were a model for Decibel?
I think Sonar and Mutek are definitely the two that I would cite. Club Transmediale in Berlin also. Maybe those three considering they all started ten years ago and they all had a similar aesthetic value in terms of their very technical, very intelligent branding, and then they all seemed to share similar artists as well: Richie Hawin, Villalobos, the whole Berlin minimal scene and the kind of experimental AV scene. To me, those three festivals, in a way, set the tone for what Decibel, being the next generation of that type of festival, has brought to the table in the US.
Those festivals all balance parties with more intellectual, concert-style events. Is that something Decibel tries to do?
Yes, without question. And I think the reason why I'd cite Mutek as being influential is that we have a similar format—where we're using an urban club based environment so we can build each venue as its own separate experience, as opposed to festivals like Movement where it's one giant outdoor festival. I really like the idea of each venue carrying a different experience—a sit-down event where you can experience experimental and ambient art or a warehouse type venue where you can experience techno or even an outdoor venue, much like they do with Piknic Elektronic, where you can just have a free-for-all party. I like the idea of a modular festival. I went to South West by South West and had a similar experience where, if you didn’t like what you were hearing at one venue, you could walk down the street and hear something completely different.
Decibel has grown substantially each year. Are you surprised at how successful the festival has been?
I didn't really have a five year or ten year plan. It was more or less to fill a need—a creative need, but also a need for doing these types of events in Seattle. I'm a bit surprised about the reemergence of electronic music in recent years; it's something that Alain [Mongeau] from Mutek and Malcom from New Forms Festival and I have talked about a lot: "When is North America going to pick up on electronic music the way that Europe has been doing for decades now?" I feel like that point has come, and my hope is that we don’t get drowned out by larger electronic music festivals, like Identity or Ultra or Electric Daisy Carnival who are obviously hoping to create a much younger, more rave-like experience. For us, it's really crucial that we keep our identity. We keep our integrity and, in a way, embrace the love of electronic music that North American youth have rediscovered.
You mentioned Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival. Do those events distract from what you're trying to do at all?
You know, I've changed my opinion on this over the years. Where I'm at now comes from experiencing all of those festivals. I don’t talk shit till I've actually experienced it, seen it first hand and got a better perspective on it. I don't like people who cast judgment without seeing what it's about cause I don’t want people to do that to us. So, I’ve been to those festivals and they do have merits. They have a great ability to influence youth and get them listening to electronic music. And we all started at point A, when we were 15, 16, 17, or whatever, in terms of what our experience with electronic music was. Without festivals like that, I don’t think we would have a future audience.
Do you think it's especially hard to put on this kind of event in the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to somewhere like New York or LA?
I think the benefits of the Northwest are that it's a technological mecca, very educated, and it's a corporate city, so in a lot of ways and there's a lot of money here. Also, the great thing about when we do it, from a standpoint of the date, is that it's absolutely the most beautiful time of the year in Seattle—the end of September, no rain, 70 to 80 degree weather. If you've never been to Seattle, it's an absolutely beautiful city under those circumstances. To me those benefits outweigh any of the issues that we have with, say, the liquor control board or a lack of audience. We're a fairly small city, in comparison to New York, Chicago, LA obviously, but, the thing that I like about Seattle most is that it is an intimate, tight knit community. The basis of what we do has always been that community. So, for me, there's not any other city in the US where I'd rather be doing what I'm doing.