Wallflowers of the Polo Field
Why you won't see L.A.'s dance underground at Coachella
There is something brewing in L.A. right now, something that could trigger revolution on the dance floor. Its beats are programmed, its instrumentation is electronic, and the ultimate goal is to make you move, but it can’t be classified as techno, house or electro. The new sound is noisy, frantically rhythmic and difficult to pigeonhole, created by folks as drawn to performance art as they are to drum machines and turntables. Nearly every night in Los Angeles, you can feel its racing pulse inside venues like the Smell and Pehrspace and at parties hosted by the likes of Droid Behavior, Part Time Punks and M/R/X-Wolfpak. You won’t, however, see any of this at Coachella.
Where Coachella has consistently featured the brightest young L.A. rock bands, the city’s dance underground has yet to make as much as a minimal blip on the desert festival’s roster. Although one of the few internationally revered L.A. DJ/producers generally makes an appearance at the annual event, as Sandra Collins is this year, the new crop of dance-music artists, the ones who are redefining the genre, will be left in the warehouses and art spaces back home for the weekend.
After almost a decade since its inaugural festival, Coachella has gone from a regional gathering to a globally recognized event highlighting this year’s hottest emerging artists and a smattering of established stars. In the dance-music realm, this means combining some of the megaclub fan favorites, like Collins, James Zabiela and Junkie XL, with the artists currently generating digital buzz. Paris’ Ed Banger crew will be at Coachella in full force, while Booka Shade and Modeselektor will be representing Germany, and a host of Brits (including M.I.A. and Simian Mobile Disco) will perform. With this in mind, the question isn’t Why is Coachella ignoring Los Angeles but Why can’t Los Angeles play with the big kids?
It isn’t for a lack of vision. Artists like Baseck, Captain Ahab and Birth! are reconfiguring dance beats into unconventional models, replacing the lengthy, syncopated intros and outros that are a genre standard with concise blasts of energy as dance-floor-friendly as they are geared toward highly visual performances. They are toying with elements of L.A.’s long under-discussed dance history — electro, hip-hop, hi-NRG, industrial, techno — without directly referencing the past, pushing not just the sound of dance music but our physical response to extremes. Where the underground is heavy on talent, though, it’s low on exposure. The people who are part of that scene, whether it be as artists, promoters or observers, know that something special is happening, that right at this moment, there is no better place for electronic music than Los Angeles. But they seem to have difficulty spreading the word.
L.A.’s electronic underground speaks with a muffled voice, and this should be no surprise. This is, after all, a city whose reputation relies on myths and stereotypes. L.A. is where you go to get famous, not to make art, we’re led to believe. And what the international dance community knows about our club culture is reflective of this: exclusive nightspots pumping generic music to a crowd of people waiting to see if the latest starlet-in-trouble will projectile vomit while table dancing. The underground is all too aware of its place in the shadows of a celebrity playground, existing with full knowledge that it will perhaps always be ignored in favor of red-carpet door policies and tabloid-friendly exploits.
Whether a conscious effort or not, the L.A. underground is the ultimate act of rebellion against the Hollywood nightlife beast. Cover charges are low, dress codes are nonexistent, and the closest you’ll ever get to bottle service is successfully sneaking a flask into the party. There are no publicists working to garner press for the artists, no hipster bloggers championing the city and its new sound, and few DJs spinning the tracks. MySpace and a limited run of paper fliers distributed at local clubs are the only links between this small but dedicated community and the outside world. Relegated to off-the-radar venues, their music and performance style has developed to fit the needs of their surroundings. Heavy distortion helps mask sound-system deficiencies, and the near-complete eradication of the wall between artist and audience fits with spaces that lack stages. This is a movement that thrives on the moment, where artists create because there is no other way to live and we dance because they have evoked our most primal emotions. No amount of hype could enhance the urgency of the digital freak-outs that exist inside the darkest corners of Los Angeles. Something is happening here, it just won’t take place on Empire Polo Field.