Andrew Ryce heads to the Pennsylvania woods to report on a thriving scene that many dance music fans probably don't even know exists.
Later that night, Jackie House is playing at a pagan stone circle, which lights and fog turn into a mystical rave. Once it gets too cold out, Pittsburgh's Clark Price plays at the Open Haus afterhours, a space that's usually a cafeteria, and is now a church-themed dance floor with stained glass and chandeliers made from bouquets of emptied bottles of poppers.
Back at the Hemlock Hole the next day, Jasmine Infiniti and Cali Rose—AKA New World Dysorder—throw down one of the most intense DJ sets I've ever heard in the glare of the afternoon sun. Hardcore techno? Sure. Throbbing acid? Why not. A '90s house-style remix of Rihanna? OK. "The Macarena?" What else?
A couple of revelers cool people down with a homemade lavender water diffuser, while Pittsburgh DJ Chad Beisner walks around with a jar filled with the remnants of all those poppers bottles from Open Haus. You can smell it from a few feet away. A whiff is enough to knock you into the giant mud puddle that's opened up like a sinkhole in front of the DJ booth.
Welcome to Honcho Campout, an annual summertime festival that, along with the like-minded Gays Hate Techno festival in the springtime, has become a gathering point for what I once dubbed the gay American techno underground. Honcho Campout takes that idea, trades "gay" for "queer" and invites DJs and promoters from across the US to create an eccentric but cohesive patchwork of sounds and ideas.
It's a simple but powerful concept. Get a bunch of queer people together in a secluded space and soundtrack that with some of the greatest queer DJs in the US, and you've got yourself something special. Something that balances self-expression and liberation with acceptance, respect and safety, where under-the-radar DJs can play their weirdest sets to receptive audiences. All of that with a crowd small enough that you'll know everyone by the end of the weekend.
Name an LGBTQ+ party or DJ from the US and they've probably been represented at Honcho Campout, from scene stalwarts like DC's Keenan Orr to up-and-comers In Training or New World Dysorder. Showcasing artists who have put in the work to create space and togetherness in their local scenes, Honcho Campout is home to a thriving scene that many dance music fans probably don't even know exists.
This community is part of a long-overdue subversion of a hegemonic gay culture dominated by expensive circuit parties, where chiseled white bodies dance to boring, over-commercialized house music. Ask any gay American who is remotely into dance music: something like Honcho Campout, where you can hear techno, house, dubstep, drum & bass, ambient and IDM, sometimes all in the same set, played to crowd of excited and receptive people, used to be a pipe dream. It's becoming less rare thanks to events like Honcho Campout, which is working to break norms through music, curation and the increasingly diverse crowd it attracts.
Honcho Campout happens at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania, in the southwest corner of the state. Four Corners is a church on an expansive woodland property that hosts all kinds of events year-round, from dubstep weekenders to Burning Man reunions to full moon rituals, pagan Halloween (Samhain), a German archery festival, "alchemical fire circles" and an "alternative" 4th of July celebration. There's a permanent campsite for Radical Faeries that stays put all year round.
When you check in at Four Quarters, you're required to pay a $65 fee and then read a pamphlet about the sanctuary's safety rules, which you'll be quizzed on immediately after. There's a strict leave-no-trace policy, with no garbage collection or cleanup staff, as well as stated rules of respect and personal boundaries that you are essentially required to recite as a mantra. It's a serious, sober entrance to a venue that means business, but also provides a one-of-a-kind space for this kind of event. It's a shelter of sorts, too. As a registered church, police—hardly friends of the queer community—are not allowed on the Four Quarters land.
Within the setting of Four Quarters' safety and respect-oriented church, Honcho had policies in place to keep their own flock safe. There was a refreshingly hands-off approach to people bringing whatever they wanted to their campgrounds, but there was also a zero-tolerance policy on GHB, a drug that has been tearing through gay communities in the last few years, killing people at parties and getting venues and events shut down. (Honey Soundsystem had recently courted controversy by posting "Zero tolerance for GHB, go die somewhere else queen" on an event listing for the Folsom Street fair in San Francisco.)
The festival's setting at an interfaith sanctuary added to some of the headier, more spiritual feelings. Four Quarters operates on a mishmash of New Age symbolism and pagan ritualism, as well as ideas and concepts taken from other religions (Eris Drew, who played the festival in 2017, decried the sanctuary's use of the term "sweat lodge" as "appropriative garbage"). That main stage is one example: the circle of shaped stones are used in a birth ceremony by Four Quarters church members that involves passing a baby through a hole in the main stone. (At Honcho, some used it as a glory hole.) Add some lighting and it's an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind setting, just one of a few wacky but impressive designs dreamed up by the festival and its volunteers.
"Everyone took a shift in some way or another," said Chris Cruse, who runs the Spotlight party in Los Angeles. "I was taping over all the power outlets at the Stone Circle dance floor to keep that area waterproof when we saw there was rain in the forecast. The NeedlExchange crew from DC designed the Open Haus afterhours space, transforming the mess hall into a rave church complete with stained glass installations at night. Geoffrey LaRue from Detroit built another very psychedelic afterhours space with huge paintings of poppers bottles that looked like they were pouring into a low-lying fog machine."
The whimsical decorations initially fed into my preconceptions that I was in for a weekend of next-level exhibitionism, public sex and general hedonism. And while there was some of that, the festival was mostly about music, and dancing to music together. Everyone seemed down for anything the DJs threw at them, and the eclectic programming meant that you could hear some pretty unusual things.
In addition to those incredible sets from Jacq Jill and New World Dysorder, Chris Cruse played a UK garage-heavy set that seemed to not only summon a rainstorm but rip open the mud pit early on in the first evening. Cleveland's In Training conjured witchy vibes with broken techno and bass music, making way for a jaw-dropping set from Carlos Souffront, a San Francisco DJ and member of Detroit's No Way Back crew, who played a captivating set of vintage IDM, ambient and other oddities with a slow hand—barely even mixing—in the light of a vivid moon on the final night of the festival, memorably ending with Basic Channel's "Lyot Rmx."
The music was so diverse that I found myself surprised at almost every set. Bret Bowerman—a DJ from Michigan I'd never heard of—was blistering and psychedelic at the afterhours. Aaron Clark and Jason Kendig went back-to-back at peak-time, bringing out some tracks that sounded like prog house. New Orleans crew Trax Only busted out some footwork by the river. San Francisco's Jordee delivered a wide-ranging performance of house music and more broken sounds.
"I think most people attending were there to hear music they didn't necessarily know but knew would be interesting to them," Cruse explained. "There were definitely surprises at all hours of the day and night. There was dub techno at 10 AM and that undefinable high-intensity New World Dysorder set in the middle of the day—and everyone was into it."
"There's not a lot of the pretentiousness that can be found in some other dance music scenes around the world," Beisner said. "No one is here to judge, no one's going to think you're dumb if you don't know someone's entire discography."
Almost every DJ was American, plucked from cities around the country where they inhabit the same niches and draw the same kind of crowds as Honcho does at its parties in Pittsburgh. It became clear that, in this queer scene, it's not just that the parties are wild, but that their resident DJs are among America's best and most forward-thinking selectors.
The festival barely needed any international guests, and those who did fly in for the gig—Por Detroit from Mexico, DJ Leeon from Colombia, Dorisburg from Sweden, Gideön from the UK—fit right in and hung around all weekend. The presence and enthusiasm of Gideön, a gay dance music lifer who hosts Glastonbury's beloved NYC Downlow, felt like a stamp of approval on the fledgling festival. He participated in one of two "Lunch + Learn" sessions moderated by Honey Soundsystem founder Jackie House, speaking about activism. Both talks were hosted relatively early after two nights that raged until 6 AM, but people made a real effort to show up, whether they were running on fumes straight from the party or working off a few hours' sleep. The memorably-named Suck It! pavilion couldn't even hold everyone who wanted to watch—remarkable for any festival, never mind one with such a small crowd to draw from in the first place.
The busy Lunch + Learn sessions showed that people weren't just trying to hear new music or hook up with people; they were genuinely interested in the culture around this music, the festival, and what it means to be queer in dance music, or just to live in a marginalized community. Some of those broader ideas seeped into the music, from Jacq Jill's choice of Moderna & Theus Mago's "Tecno Misogino," to Gideön's Sunday morning set, which included a monologue that repeated the names of dead civil rights activists and recent victims of racial violence. That moment, and the visible reactions to it, highlighted the inherently political nature of a queer event like Honcho Campout. Yes, people were there to party. But they were also there as a community of people marginalized and often rejected by wide swathes of society. In this scenario, partying becomes a form of solidarity, of power in numbers.
Honcho Campout has its roots in the Honcho party at Hot Mass, a Pittsburgh nightclub situated underneath a gay bathhouse that has since become one of the most buzzed-about venues in the country. At first, Honcho was part of a small US network of parties, linked with events like Wrecked, Honey Soundsystem and Deep South. Now, thanks to Hot Mass and the campout, Honcho is one of the major players in this growing scene.
"We were trying to do events outside of the club," says Aaron Clark, who runs Honcho Campout with fellow resident DJs Clark Price and George d'Adhemar. "It started with a pool party at a large house in Pittsburgh, then a boat party. Then a friend named Aaron Arnold told us about this gay resort in West Virginia that would be fun to do a weekend at. It was pretty loose at that time."
Honcho Campout has its roots in gay resorts, which acted for decades as secluded refuges for people with alternative sexualities or identities. They provided shelters that were—and still are—the only place some people could ever truly be themselves, away from the judgment or condemnation of their families, jobs and communities. Michael Moraine, another Pittsburgh resident who helps with Honcho Campout, grew up going to that West Virginia resort in his formative years. It's called Roseland, and it offered almost everything a first-time festival promoter could need: built-in lodgings, swimming pools and hot tubs, and a cafeteria serving pub food. Some rooms even had satellite TV.
But there was a problem. Roseland, which has been a gay men's resort since the '80s, is exactly that: a gay men's resort. Only men are allowed.
"Roseland is a safe space for folks that still aren't out," Moraine explained, "living in rural towns and not big cities. These are people working at utility plants on the Ohio river, and this is their level of comfort. They don't have much exposure to the trans community, and their thinking is not progressive. The thing they're fighting for is the same thing we're fighting for, but they're doing it differently and for a narrower audience."
Honcho did their first two years at Roseland because an established venue with so many creature comforts was an easy way to start throwing festivals, but the men-only policy made it untenable.
"Once we realized there was a discrepancy between our audience and their audience, we tried to make an exception for that week," said d'Adhemar. There were several unproductive meetings with the owners of Roseland. "When that wasn't an option, it was time to look at new venues."
"We can't look our friends in the eye and tell them they can't come and then pretend we're doing something good for the community," said Clark. "This scene does not exist without women, without our trans friends and trans artists."
"It doesn't reflect who Honcho is back home," added Moraine.
The search for a venue that was in the general vicinity of the festival's core communities—Pittsburgh, DC, Baltimore and Ohio—ultimately landed them at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. Aside from a single camp house, a cafeteria, a few toilets and showers and a stand selling homemade mead, Four Quarters had few urban-dweller amenities, which was a drastic change from the comfy confines of Roseland.