So, brick by brick, he and a group of friends started building a nightclub—on Minecraft. After collectively buying a private server, the virtual venue opened to the public on July 13th, 2019, six months before COVID-19 would eliminate the possibility of in-person events for the foreseeable future.
"This is something that has a bit of a legacy to it," says Spoons, who first got to know similarobjects by booking him for a web party six years ago. A veteran of Boston's '90s-era techno and industrial scene, he lost access to the DIY community he'd grown up with when his family moved to South Carolina, where he still lives. A two-hour drive from the nearest club, he found the small conservative scene there impossible to be a part of. "I tried to bootstrap stuff here, but as you can imagine being in the most evangelical state in the US and being an out queer DJ is not the easiest thing in the world." He had to change his artist name twice as promoters claimed it was "too gay" to go up on flyers. The only available spaces nearby were "shit-kicker bars," where forward-thinking bookings were out of the question.
"So I turned to doing online parties," Spoons says. Listening intently as he traces this lineage are the six other Club Matryoshka organizers on our group call. Either wearing chunky gaming headphones or beaming in from dimly lit bedrooms, they each have their own unique barrier that online clubbing has come to dissolve.
Club Matryoshka's bouncer is a Google form. Prospective attendees must fill out an application made up of questions like "Describe yourself using 100 emojis only" and "Write us a haiku."
"The form isn't there to test people's knowledge about anything—it's there to test how much effort they'll put into joining Club Mat," says Seadollar, who handles, among many things, the project's administrative work, including reading the applications. The form was first invented by similarobjects, who wanted to filter out people who didn't know how to have fun or took themselves too seriously.
"In Manila, there's a lot of people who are like, 'I only listen to real music,'" he says. "I like the people I'm with in Club Matryoshka because they go hard in their music habits. They listen to everything but don't have the ego of someone who says, "'I only listen to hard shit.'"
I saw the positive effects of this selection process first-hand on Sunday while attending Club Mat's biggest event yet, a 24-hour long streaming festival called Infinite Summer. They spent a month building a new world for the occasion. There was a massive skull-shaped stage with a DJ booth in the mouth, as well as mysterious underwater worlds, foreboding jagged alps and playable mini-games. "mcdonald's = imperialism jollibee = successful imperialism," one user said in the Twitch chat, reminiscing about pre-pandemic fast-food favorites.
Conversations range from this flavor of casual banter to track ID requests to fanatical compliments for the DJs. Just like parties offline, audience enthusiasm is often the secret ingredient for a good night. "It's in how the audience participates with the DJs and the organizers when they type things in the chat or on Discord and give us live feedback," says Maengo69, who, alongside John Pope, run the club's Twitch stream from their home in Jersey City. In these moments, organizers can watch people play with the world they built and respond with adjustments and fine-tunings in real time.
The event, which ran for a full 24 hours, had a lineup with serious breadth. Japan's Meh Shua represented the 8-bit sound with tracks like "Rararainbowmuffin" by Tsundere Twintails and the Paul Ursin Benny Benew remix of "Safe" by Ryan Mullin. While certainly rowdier than Minecraft's original C418-composed ambient soundtrack, these selections gelled perfectly with the game's aesthetic. In delightful contrast, DJ sets from Gabber Modus Operandi and bod [包家巷] took us on eclectic journeys through the shadowy crags of experimental club music.
Where other Minecraft efforts, like that exact Berghain replica that blew minds last summer, have attempted to recreate the offline world in digital space, Club Matryoshka doesn't let itself get bogged down by reality. Spontaneous Affinity head Lychee, for instance, met their untimely death after being murdered by a friend of a friend on the dance floor shortly before starting their set at Spoons' stage.
"I found the experience of being rapidly slaughtered after every login quite funny, in a 'this is a very internet-specific experience' kind of way," they tell me in an email. Lychee also spent their youth growing up in conservative America, finding fun and refuge in music and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (known as MMORPGs). "These types of spaces can be so healing and essential to people who feel isolated—which is now a much broader group," they explain. "But it has always applied to young queer people for whom it may not be safe to come out IRL, or who may just be beginning to explore these facets of their identity."
Every club in the world is home to its house brand of asshole. For Club Matryoshka, that's not Axe-drenched letting agents nor Soho House cokeheads but instead chaotic evil club goers with a thirst for pure destruction. If you're gamer-illiterate like me, the technical term for this kind of asshole is "griefer." Whatever their game of choice, they set out to disrupt the play of others in the most annoying way possible. The club has beefed up their security to combat griefers. The form is one part of that, but they also whitelist, block and cap Minecraft attendance at 200. "We want to keep it secure and make Club Mat a very, very safe space for all kinds of people," Seadollar explains. "Club Matryoshka was started just because all of us friends wanted to have a good time, and slowly, we're inducting people into that circle, and it's getting bigger." This circle is open to everyone on the fringes, a home as they put it for "underground and unorthodox music mutants and artists."
One of the most important things about Club Matryoshka is it attracts ravers for whom IRL clubs are often inaccessible. "I have some friends who are LGBT[QIA+] who feel safer in an online club," says AHJU$$I, who helps with audio tech and musical direction for the project. "Because, you know, sometimes in a physical venue there would be harassment, but in an online space it's safe." Web parties provide a unique and comfortable venue for self-expression. The platforms that host them usually let you customize your own character, presenting an opportunity to explore gender affirmation and identity without real-world consequences. Maengo69 says that, if trouble does arise, banning someone is effortless. "You don't have to be afraid of them. Because if you get griefers or people who say something racist, it's easy, it's one click."
Unfortunately, the ease and accessibility of these games is a double-edged sword: it means constructing life-giving safe spaces in an environment subject to the whims of a larger metaverse platform or game. Parties hosted online almost always come with caveats that include data-mining and an inherited set of rules and regulations.
"In the '90s, when I was 16, we couldn't have parties, because bars were 21+," Spoons says. "So we'd literally just find the spaces other people weren't in. And when you're in a decaying industrial city as I grew up in, there's a lot of empty spaces. You just walk into them, bring sound, and you have a party. [Club Matryoshka] reminds me of that."
Ravers have always managed to claim space using little or no resources. Like dandelions squeezing up through narrow slivers in the concrete, raves flourish in unfriendly conditions. In the same way kids turned post-wall Berlin into a lab for techno experimentation, kids raised on the internet turned virtual world-building games like Minecraft, Second Life Tiny Chat and IMVU into the clubs of their dreams. "Overnight, you can hold a show that has different people from different parts of the world, and that wouldn't be possible in an offline event," says John Pope, who helps with building and moderation for Club Mat. He goes on to note that in Club Matryoshka they don't have to worry about the constraints of a physical setup, so any genre becomes feasible.
Granted, virtual raves present a few problems. Copyright issues, artist payment and whether or not playing a pre-recorded set can be considered "live" are just a few of streaming's critical flaws. Despite this, and whatever else your screen-fatigued brain might want to add to that list, the lineups on many recent streams are some of the best I've seen all year. Without a ton of extra fees in the way, the curatorial eye of smaller promoters and collectives can be combined with the kind of global booking possibilities usually only enjoyed by adventurous music festivals in Europe.