Malta has long been a tourist hotspot, but this new festival is making it a destination for dance music fans. Carlos Hawthorn tells the story of Glitch.
"A couple of months before, we had a big referendum about spring hunting here, so the country was split," explained Ellul. I was sitting with the four founders in a lively public square in Silema, a resort town on Malta's east coast, on the eve of Glitch's 2017 festival. Chatty and ebullient, they talked over each other in the way that only close friends can get away with. "You were either with the bird people or with the hunting people. So the issue was still a little bit hot. And the only time they actually agreed on something was because of Glitch."
The founders spent the morning frantically phoning lawyers, but in the end neither group, nor the police or local government, contacted them and the second day went ahead as planned. (As for the 60 or so birds of prey, they stuck around, seemingly unperturbed, for the duration of the festival.) The venue, Buskett Roadhouse, hosted one more music event after Glitch before Malta's environmental authority stepped in and enforced the preexisting (but until that point ignored) EU law to protect wildlife. For its second edition, Glitch would have to find a new home.
"We turned a really tricky situation into a positive one," said Attard, the most energetic and talkative member of the group. Ellul nodded in agreement. "We were either going to change this into a good thing, or scrap everything."
Glitch is currently one of only two underground dance music festivals in Malta. Unlike the other—Annie Mac's Lost & Found—it's run entirely by locals, four music lovers and part-time promoters who together have more than 60 years of experience putting on parties. It's also primarily a techno and electro event, building on the small scene incubated by Malta's best club, Liquid, over the past two decades. Dozens of foreign-run festivals have come and gone in that time, but not since an event called Tribu, which folded in 2005, has Malta had an underground dance music festival to call its own.
"One of our bigger hurdles when we started last year was trying to sell it as a festival," said Ellul. "Cause there were a lot of festivals around here that have been just a couple of commercial names in a club, and that's it. Nothing much more to it. It's just like a fancy club night. So it was hard to convince people that you're actually going to do a festival."
Glitch is a collaboration between three different promoters, all of whom host roughly 90% of their events at Liquid Club. Shift (run by Grech since 2007) and Badbox (run by Farrugia since 2008) book a mix of big-room and deeper techno acts, while Squadron skews more towards electro, Italo disco, Chicago house and Detroit techno. (Attard started Squadron with his cousin Rudy Agius, AKA Jupiter Jax, in 2003. Ellul, who's also their cousin, replaced Agius in 2008.) Combined, the three outfits make up Glitch's musical character, which, in 2017, stretched from international names like Palms Trax, DJ Stingray and Marcel Dettmann to local acts like Kerg and Jupiter Jax.
For Attard and Ellul, the most anticipated name on this year's lineup was Legowelt, an artist whose relationship with Squadron dates back to 2003. Attard, who describes Legowelt as "still his number one producer," started the party with Agius when they were just 17. At the time, they were huge fans of '90s techno and electro, in particular The Hague scene, devouring releases on Bunker Records and spending hours on the label's dedicated online forum, Global Darkness.
"I don't know how to explain it," Agius told me after his set at the Glitch boat party. "It's like we were hearing something new, aged like 15 or 16 years old. There was the stuff I used to listen to on television, or like trance was popular in Malta, and then suddenly I hear this totally different thing. That's it, we got hooked from that."
Squadron launched in April 2003 at a small, run-down venue by the sea called Strings, where around 100 people gathered to watch the Belgian DJ Spacid. "I think this was the first time many people were hearing electro," Attard said. "And it left a really good impression."
Later that year, in December, they booked Legowelt, followed by the likes of Le Syndicat Electronique, DJ TLR, Luke Eargoggle, Alden Tyrell and Serge. Pretty quickly, the local crowds developed a taste for these alien sounds, and the performers became minor celebrities.
"These guys were impressed when they used to come here, because when they used to play abroad in other countries, they weren't considered to be big artists or anything," said Attard. "Here they had a big following."
After the gigs, fans would queue up to ask the artists for signatures and photos. "It was out of proportion and awkward for those kinds of parties," said Ellul. "I remember one time, Alden Tyrell was saying he had to stay next to Legowelt because the people were really panicking him. Like 'How do I act?' 'I don't know what to sign!'"
"Legowelt used to say to us, 'I'm not used to this, I'm not used to this attention,'" Attard said. "He used to draw turtles and cats instead of signatures. It was really strange how it happened, how it became that strong. In fact, they still talk about it now."
Needless to say, Malta's party landscape looks very different in 2017. Glitch's four founders agreed that the scene is saturated, clogged up with too many promoters trying to do the same thing. Liquid Club is booked up months in advance, and then when you do get a date, it's an uphill struggle to get enough people through the door. Attard remembers pulling 1,500 people for a Bunker Records showcase in 2006; today it's difficult to attract those kinds of numbers "even if you bring Nina Kraviz and all the big guys."
"Promoters used to plan their agenda," he added. "And they used to speak between themselves, like 'We're gonna have a party here, then let's keep a two-week gap.'"
"Now you're lucky if there aren't two or three events on the same night," said Ellul.
Dissatisfied with only running two or three events per year, Attard and Ellul decided to set up a meeting with Farrugia and Grech in March 2015. The four of them had long been competitors and weren't exactly friends, but there was a strong mutual respect. Within ten minutes, they were all on the same page. "They tried to act cool like, 'Yeah, we'll talk tomorrow,'" joked Ellul. "And then the next day, 'OK we'll do it.'"
"It was something I always wanted to do," said Grech.
18 months later, Glitch Festival launched at Buskett Roadhouse. By all accounts, the debut edition went well, but the birding issue forced the team to find a new venue for 2017—one year earlier than they'd initially forecast. They settled on Gianpula Village, a large, remote, open-air complex with seven clubs with names like Groove Gardens and The Temple. Usually reserved for lowest-common-denominator pop, dance and reggaeton events, it's one major perk was the empty field at the back of the space. This was home to Glitch's main stage, The Fortress, which was decorated to look like a cartoon castle, complete with turrets and flags in the festival's signature purple. Once the music finished there, at 2 AM, the action moved to three of the pre-existing venues—renamed Rooftop, The Hydro and The Cosmic Stage—for sets from harder, deeper acts such as Blawan and Dax J.
Moving venue and erecting a full-blown stage meant incurring a fresh set of one-time costs, which Ellul estimated to be around €50,000 in total. Then there were all the inflated artist fees, some of which, Ellul admitted, increased between the time the offer was placed and the agent confirmed it. These are serious sums of money for a festival with a capacity of just 4,000. Sales from tickets, which were fairly valued at €70 for the two days, would only stretch so far.
"Financially it's very hard to put something of this level here with this kind of lineup, when probably if you had the same lineup in Amsterdam or London, it would sell out," added Attard. "You'd have more than 10,000 people for sure. Here you can bank on a max of 1,500 locals if you're lucky."
Glitch is mostly self-funded, but without the support of the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), it's likely the festival wouldn't happen. Tourism, one of three main industries on the island, is big business. According to a report published last year by the MTA, tourists pumped €1.7 billion into the local economy and supported more than 27,000 jobs in 2016. Between 2015 (1,799,213) and 2016 (1,988,447) the number of visitors increased by 10.5%; in August 2017, that figure hit an all-time high of 2,880,321. Dance music tourism, though by no means a major player, is contributing to this steep incline, resulting in unprecedented levels of support for events like Glitch. It's an investment that appears to be paying off—people from more than 50 countries bought tickets for this year's event, making up roughly 40% of the total audience.
"Doing this seven years ago probably wouldn't have been feasible," said Farrugia. "You would've had to bank on just the locals attending, and you wouldn't have had any government assistance, because it was still considered as a taboo, a party, drugs... The only thing they used to fund was [free annual pop music festival] Isle Of MTV."
During my 90-minute conversation with the Glitch founders, the four of them took turns checking their phones for weather updates. Malta, like most of the Mediterranean, is dry and hot in summer, and temperatures had recently reached highs of 43°C in an oppressive spell nicknamed Heatwave Lucifer. Now, though, a storm was on its way, forecast to arrive on Friday—the festival proper's second and final day—or Saturday, when the team had organised a boat party. When I asked the group how they were feeling with the opening only 24 hours away, Ellul and Farrugia replied almost in unison. "Worried about the weather."
Thursday was another typically bright, dusty day in Malta. By the time I made it to Gianpula, at around 9 PM, the air was fresh and perfectly mild. The site was small and simply laid out, with the three clubs feeding off a single path that took you all the way to The Fortress, a large stage with sound so booming there can't have been many places on the island out of earshot. A local artist named Manthrax was coming to the end of his warm-up, rolling out spacey techno while the next act, Recondite, fiddled studiously beside him. Backstage, Grech watched with his wife and son, who wore oversized green headphones.
The first proper crowd had formed by this point, several hundred bodies flapping their arms to the proggy tunes. Drinks were cheap—€2.50 for a beer or spirit and mixer—and there was little else to do onsite but dance, which gave the evening a sharp focus. Jon Hopkins, who only just made it after missing his original flight, gave the first show-stopping performance, dropping hits like Daphni's "Tin" that dovetailed nicely with the sudden release of fireworks midway through his set. As the sky effervesced with reds and blues, Farrugia erupted into fits of laughter.
The opening night peaked with DJ Stingray, who closed The Hydro, a square, mid-sized space enclosed by towering foliage. The Detroit DJ stood at the back and watched as a small audience gathered for the warm-up act, Kerg, one of six (out of a total of 19) local artists booked. Kerg was impressive, slinging out a mix of new and classic electro. Stingray went a little heavier on the hits, slamming between tracks like Gesloten Cirkel's "Submit X" and Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash."
There was a poignancy to Stingray's set. The day before, I'd asked the festival's promoters about talented Maltese producers, and Farrugia was quick to mention Rhys Celeste, AKA Microlith, who died in a quad biking accident in February. He was only 24, but he'd already established a strong relationship with Sheffield label Central Processing Unit, which released three excellent EPs and an album that showcased a fresh, stirring take on electro and IDM.
"I remember you guys saying he'll go crazy when he sees Stingray on the lineup," said Ellul. "But he passed away like five days or a week before we released it. It was so sad. He was very, very good."
Late on Friday morning, I peeked out of my hotel window to find great sheets of rain battering the palm trees in the courtyard below. Heavy thunder and lightning followed. The storm didn't let up for a good five or six hours, during which time the Glitch founders decided the only safe option was to cancel The Fortress and move all the scheduled acts to the smaller stages. A Facebook post went out, but then, at around 7 PM, the storm suddenly abated. After much deliberation with their production team, they reopened The Fortress. When I got onsite, I immediately bumped into Attard and Ellul, who both wore tired smiles.
"That was the most stressful day of my life," said Attard. "It was so windy and there was water everywhere, it was scary."
"Now feels like another day," said Ellul.
"It hadn't rained in 171 days, that's how lucky we are," said Attard.
In the end, the damage was manageable: a broken flagpole, a new set of projectors and fewer lights on The Fortress. Puddles littered the site—I even saw one cautious raver in wellies. Palms Trax, whose early set time meant he played the cosy Cosmic Stage, bolstered the positive mood with cuts of fruity house full of tribal rhythms and steel pan melodies. Later at The Fortress, Legowelt moved from dancehall to rave to acid techno, playing so funky that Mr. G, who stood enjoying a drink about five feet away from him, couldn't help but limber up with some choice dance moves.
Performing for the first time in Malta as Mr. G, the karate-kicking Englishman stole the show. Within minutes, he was out in front of the booth, leaping about and jolting his whole body to every fresh clap or kick drum. The crowd was rapt, feeding off his energy and imitating his moves. When he finished, replaced by Ben Klock, Mr. G resumed his position by the side of the stage, smoking, necking rum and taking photos.
For roughly 100 people, the festival ended a few hours later at Rooftop, an intimate space with a small pool that overlooked The Fortress. DJ Seinfeld, easily the most playful act on the bill, showed little regard for convention, rolling out bangers like Faithless's "Insomnia," Robert Armani's "Up" and, out of nowhere, Drexciya's "Digital Tsunami." The vibe was silly and smiley: members of the crowd brandished a toy horse's head, while a dozen others splashed around in the pool. Attard and Ellul, the only ones in their small group on dry land, were drinking beers and dancing hard.
That zesty end-of-festival feeling carried through until the following afternoon, when around 250 weary punters boarded a large, two-floored boat named Captain Morgan Cruises. The weather was back to its best—golden sunshine with a nice breeze—and the founders seemed determined to get as sloshed as everyone else. Later in the evening, during the looser moments of Space Dimension Controller's headline set (Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," Mauro Picotto's "Lizard"), Farrugia and Grech laughed as Attard and Ellul led the crowd in chants of "Eyyyyyyyy, ohhhhhhhh." At one point, as I sat admiring the pastel sunset, Kerg, the electro artist from Thursday, plonked himself down beside me. "I can't believe it's over," he said smiling. "Usually I have to catch a flight somewhere else to experience this. I don't want it to end. It's been like a dream come true."