The Do Lab Built a Massive SoCal EDM Community. Next Stop: Egypt
Kevin ScanlonLeft to right: Dede, Jesse and Josh Flemming
It's a hazy afternoon in early fall and the three brothers Flemming are working from home. In the living room of a converted Venice duplex, Jesse and Dede flip through invoices and stacks of library books written by radical Egyptologists. Out back, Josh paints bamboo panels with his girlfriend. For the better part of a decade, the Flemmings have been known to the Los Angeles electronic dance music community as founders of the Do Lab, the exuberant collective of artists, builders and promoters that has improbably jelled into a lucrative event-production enterprise.
Dede, the youngest at 31, is the one with his feet on the ground. The business works, he says, because his brothers have the vision and he takes care of the logistics. "We have these roles," Dede says, "so we can support each other."
He's texting with his office staff, preparing for a show he's booked tonight at the King King, a cavernous club in Hollywood featuring the electronic bouillabaisse of dubstep, house, trance and reggae favored by the Do Lab's denizens.
Defined broadly, they're a subculture of club kids who seek higher consciousness through dancing, not by meditating in an ashram.
Through a shock of brown hair curled over big round eyes, Jesse scans his laptop. Thirty-four years old, he's the brother behind the Do Lab's Coachella stage, a miniature musical city of handcrafted canvas tents and 100-foot-tall pastel art towers designed by his twin brother, Josh.
"We don't just build a stage," Jesse says. "We bring the party."
Fall is usually when he prepares for Lightning in a Bottle, the Do Lab's marquee music and wellness festival, a multimillion-dollar event held at Irvine's bucolic Oak Canyon Ranch. Since 2004, it has brought the Burning Man experience to a younger generation of low-wage EDM fans and hippie-chic artisans.
But this year is different. The guys are focused on the Great Convergence, a three-day musical event in Cairo, which kicks off with a party they've booked at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It goes down Dec. 21, the night the planet begins a 26,000-year-long era of enlightenment or enters a Mayan-divined apocalypse, depending on your source.
An ambitious planner, Jesse's in love with the epic implication of soundtracking a pivotal moment in modern spirituality to Do Lab music. That includes sounds provided by close friends from their warehouse days (Oakland-based polyglots Beats Antique and the peripatetic singer-DJ Random Rab), chill-out tent regulars (Bluetech, Govinda and Desert Dwellers), recent allies steeped in minimal house and glitch (Berlin's Apparat, San Francisco's Eskmo), and the Moontribe DJ collective, trance-music royalty at whose outdoor raves in the '90s the brothers first dreamed of going big.
The Great Convergence is more luxury travel package than music festival, a potentially immersive experience diced into priced tiers. Tickets to the music and Egyptology panel discussions start at $555. Five-star accommodation plus board is twice that. Take a guided trip to an ancient ruin, or a camel ride to a bazaar, and it creeps up more. (Bag lunch included.) Stick around for a five-day cruise down the Nile River, and a ticket to the Great Convergence can cost an attendee up to $3,400 -- 15 times the price of a weekend at Oak Canyon Ranch -- and that's before the round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Cairo.
Considering that the majority of their fan base is unlikely to shell out, the break-even plan is to convince a few Burning Man lifers to forgo their annual trip to Black Rock City in favor of top-shelf treatment on the Nile, and to use some European festival connections to court high rollers on holiday.
Later that week, Josh works in his fabrication shop in Lincoln Heights. He's focused on a massive, caterpillar-shaped tent called Quinoa, which he intends to rent to a summer festival looking for an edgy food court. While his brothers concentrate on booking shows and festivals, Josh is the artist. Curators at festivals in England, Ireland and Portugal pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and install lights, tents and stages, which he rents out repeatedly until they break. (He's best known for those lit bamboo pods called lumis that you see at Coachella.)
After years of relying on volunteer labor, Josh hired a full-time studio manager in 2010, and he regularly contracts to a pool of carpenters, painters and seamsters.
"When festivals call up and ask what we've got, it sounds like we're a catering company," he says, affecting a faux-business voice and naming his installations. "'Well, we've got Quinoa, Scrambled Eggs, Eggplant.' Even our colors are named after candies."
Josh is built like a rock climber, and like Jesse his wide grin is framed by a curl of brown hair. (Josh's dangles to the right.) After a brief tour, he bounds up a floor-to-ceiling storage rack to grab a ratty yellow bag. Inside is a diced-up 80-foot parachute, which he stretched on tree branches to light some of the earliest incarnations of Lightning in a Bottle. "When we first started out, this was our whole business," he says. "That and a red pickup truck."
The brothers hail from Morgantown, Pa., a small farming community on the edge of Amish country. They got into the party business as teenagers, rocking high school dances as Tremors Lights and Sounds. One played Guns N' Roses and Biz Markie on a set of CD players, another worked a homemade dimmer rack and the other lined up the gigs and convinced their dad, a screen printer by trade, to print beer koozies.
Years later, they moved to Los Angeles to get into television production. While Josh and Jesse learned the ropes of sound, camerawork and postproduction, Dede was soliciting for game show audiences on Hollywood Boulevard. "We actually thought it was going to be a creative outlet," Dede says.
The details are fuzzy now, but the brothers recall that the local Burning Man scene was big for them in the early 2000s. On weekends, they hit up generator-powered "tribal gatherings" in forests and deserts and showed off their lighting designs at parties in the warehouse district. Jesse worked the rig and Josh made the filters.
"I still remember the first time we got paid $500 to set up some lights," Jesse recalls. "I couldn't believe it. Just to hang some fabric up there."
Thinking they could make it big with their own lighting company, the brothers maxed out their credit cards and took out a lease. Hoarding discarded equipment from work, they put together a portfolio of intricate and increasingly architectural designs and showed them off at a summertime birthday party at a popular raver ranch in the Angeles National Forest. They called the party Lightning in a Bottle.
In 2004, Coachella took notice. Philip Blaine, a legendary rave promoter who'd been curating their installations, commissioned the brothers to build a summer-themed dome for a few thousand dollars. "They totally overdelivered and kicked ass," says Blaine, who later joined Insomniac and now is independent. "I was just transported. So next year, I gave them a bunch more money to turn it into a complete environment."
The brothers booked a day's worth of DJs to spin inside a cardboard tree and recruited two dozen volunteers to build a 60-foot dome in exchange for free tickets and kombucha. "You weren't at Coachella," Blaine recalls of their second year. "You were at the Do Lab."
With money from festival commissions and a side stream of commercial TV lighting jobs, the brothers in 2006 moved Lightning in a Bottle to a campground in Santa Barbara, and a $25 ticket to pay for generators and DJs became a $100 ticket to cover site rental and parking fees.
To expand the audience, the brothers invited friends and artists to build their own installations, and they established an on-site boutique marketplace for independent designers. A meditation temple and sustainability workshops followed.
By 2010, the festival had pulled in 14,000 attendees, attracted top-shelf talent like Shpongle, the Glitch Mob and Thievery Corporation and, most importantly, allowed the brothers to pay themselves handsomely and hire their most dedicated volunteers as full-time staff.
"It got bigger because it was so good," says Jesse. To this day, he adds, "We can afford to keep adding to it because we know tickets are gonna sell."
Producing the Great Convergence has not been as straightforward. For the party, access to the concrete plateau at the base of the Great Pyramid is controlled by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, a conservative if entrepreneurial body. Although most sites run by the council are available for rental, disrespectful activity such as meditation, ritual performance and scantily clad raving are forbidden on the plateau.
The brothers' team hired Abercrombie and Kent, a luxury travel agency favored by the council, to push the permit application through. Aware that tourism has plummeted since the Arab Spring, the agency put together a familiar, revolution-proof pitch: a private dinner event for an international group of tourists who come to Egypt to appreciate timeless antiquities. Traditional cuisine served in an authentically decorated Bedouin tent, followed by dancing. "It's like throwing a wedding party," Jesse jokes.
Back at the dining room table, he shuffles a mess of quotes and contracts. From the décor to the staffing, it all seems too expensive to him. Normally Jesse wouldn't stand for it, but this time he's letting it slide. After all, in addition to the party, he's booked panel discussions in Cairo with folks like Carmen Boulter, a renegade academic who believes aliens built the pyramids but that the evidence was washed away by a great flood. Then there's Daniel Pinchbeck, a hipster eschatologist riffing on the global impact of the Mayan calendar. In Egypt, that talk could be considered blasphemy. If the authorities knew about these panels, Jesse thinks, they might revoke the party permit. He can't afford another misstep.
That's because days earlier the brothers canceled Rise and Shine, a yoga-first festival they hoped to throw on a private estate in Simi Valley, because production costs had spiraled out of control. Its expensive tickets weren't selling, either.
The cancelation, their first in years, has forced a reckoning of their business model. There's talk of hiring a chief financial officer, of promoting more club shows, of enticing upstart festivals into using Do Lab promotional and ticket platforms. They might scale down production on flagship events. At the very least, they're re-evaluating their volunteer system.
For a time, Jesse and Dede toyed with designing a Do Lab stage for the Egypt party. But they abandoned that plan, Dede explains as he whips out an Instagram he snapped of the Great Pyramid. "That's the best set ever," he says. "We're not trying to compete with that."
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