I consider festivals like Electric Forest to be a learning experience more than anything else. I learned that the new, more lenient fireworks regulation in Michigan was a horrible, terrifying mistake. I learned how to eat with my hands while ignoring the fact that four days of dirt covered every groove of my fingers. I learned nicknames, price ranges, smuggling methods, selling tactics and the many creative ways of baking and eating drugs. And, of course, I learned of some artists I’d never heard of before. But while Electric Forest is undeniably a music festival, hosting huge artists like the String Cheese Incident and Bassnectar, music was clearly only one of many, mind-altering priorities.
For those who aren’t familiar, Electric Forest is a four-day festival in Rothbury, Mich. co-produced by Madison House Presents and Insomniac Events. It’s almost a perfect hybrid of Bonnaroo and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Electric Forest combines flocks of jam band-following hippies and all the dusty, dirty, slave-to-the-elements aspects of camping with hard drugs and bass-heavy electronic dance music that keeps people moving until the morning hours.
Despite my beliefs that Electric Forest was a Michiganders thing, people really do come from all over. This mixture of origins allowed for a Kumbaya-ish atmosphere you don’t find at non-camping festivals like Lolla and DEMF. Forty minutes after setting up camp, I found myself freckled with green spray paint, holding up a large stick while my neighbors created our “community pole.”
My first day was mostly spent over-ambitiously exploring the grounds since music wouldn’t start until later. I weaved through our campsite, past middle-aged men advertising “Mollay Mollay Mollay” to no one in particular and the skinny dreadlocked squirt gun warriors who were taking no prisoners. I made my way to Sherwood Forest — an elaborately-decorated amalgamation of earthy shrines and hand-crafted artwork that glowed into laser-lit life at night.
While in the forest during daylight, I discovered the solar-powered DJ booth with a nearby take-something-leave-something shrine that represented the unselfish atmosphere of the festival (barring, of course, drug deals). There was the hammock world full of snuggling couples — but after discovering that they were all privately-owned hammocks, I sulked off for a pokey nap in the wood chips and dirt. There was a meditation circle of closed-eyed people discovering Zen while gongs hummed around them. There was the Human Avatar Project — I never actually found out what that was but it looked creative. A few sorry-looking disco balls hung lethargically during the day, coming to life when the sun (fire demon of skin-burning misery) went down.
Upon sunset, I visited Wolfgang Gartner (Joey Youngman) at the Ranch Arena, who instantly earned a thumbs-up with his remix of Miike Snow’s “Paddling Out.” I didn’t spend too long at Wolfgang Gartner, though, not wanting to miss EOTO — an electronic duo consisting of Michael Travis and Jason Hann. They played at Sherwood Court, the stage deepest into the festival that offered the most expansive space for dancing. EOTO similarly gained my attention with a recognizable remix — a much bubblier rendition of Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.”
After EOTO, I stayed at Sherwood for Beats Antique, a trio that combines a wide range of sounds — the most obvious influences being Middle Eastern and electronic. The show began with its bedazzled belly dancer Zoe Jakes, her slowly waving arms greeting the audience like pulsing blobs suspended in a lava lamb. She was accompanied by a live violin and drums, kicking off a dramatic set that served as entertainment as much as music. Jakes’ morphing stomach was the focal point of the show, covered at one point by a giant marching drum.
Then — suddenly and inexplicably — everyone had animal heads, fitting Beats Anique’s description as an “animalistic, raw musical event” on its website. Jakes scurried across the stage as a mouse craving cheese, while additional creatures in short shorts pranced around, eventually ripping off the masks and revealing themselves as a female rap group — a welcome addition to the male-dominated nature of electronic festivals.
The next day, I wandered past the hula hoop workshop with Luna Breeze to the Forest Stage, appropriately placed inside the forest, where the New Orleans-based Soul Rebels were playing a jazzy, brass-heavy set. There were plenty of dancing forest people, and the band uttered the proclamation, “Let’s knock down some trees!” Overall, Soul Rebels were a nice fit for the daytime — friendly, charismatic and unassuming, offering the slightly corny plea at the end of their set to like them on Facebook.
Nightfall, I caught Paper Diamond at Sherwood Court remixing popular tracks like Kanye’s “Power” and SBTRKT’s “Wildfire.” Inching (grooving) forward in the crowd during Paper Diamond, I managed to get front row for the five-piece STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9). Oddly enough, two people offered me water while I shoved past them, leaving me confused and maybe a little happy with humanity. The set began with a helium voice conveniently explaining how everything in the universe works, leading into a two and a half-hour electrojam session filled with bursts of glow sticks spraying the sky (the very same glow sticks that had already been banned from festival grounds).
After STS9, I caught the introduction to Steve Aoki’s set, which involved him screaming the word “fuck” over and over again. The “fuck” spree continued when he played his crowd-pleasing remix of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness.” And the audience could even be heard shouting the profane lyrics from the campground.
Saturday I visited the Wagon Wheel, an indoor stage overlooking a lake that was closed for reasons that wouldn’t have concerned most Electric Forest-goers. Inside, there were two DJs whose bodies twitched dynamically with each beat — impressive energy given that there were about 20 people inside the Wagon Wheel who were only just waking up. By nighttime, the Wagon Wheel would become packed with sweat, steam and bodies, forcing people outside of the venue to dance.
Later I headed to the Colorado-based String Cheese Incident playing one of three four-hour sessions, affirming their status as one of the top jam bands around. Their best cover of the night was, without a doubt, Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).” After Cheese was the act I’d been waiting for all along: Gregg Gillis a.k.a. Girl Talk, the one-man mash-up genius known for his elaborately-energetic performances. Having seen him last winter when he visited the Blind Pig for a “secret” show, I was interested to see how the sets were different, but the truth is that they weren’t really (well, except for the fireworks).
The show began with a slowed-down repetition of “Girl Talk,” creating a slightly-menacing chant of “Guhh Tah.” Those who recognized this gimmick joined along in the chant, and soon everyone was shouting it — proof from the start that Gillis had us under his control. Once he heard the audience’s beckoning, Girl Talk burst onto stage in his signature outfit — layered sweats that would be thrown off his body piece by piece throughout the show. The inevitable swarm of backstage concert attendees crowded the stage soon after, about which I have one question: How does Gillis pick who gets to dance on stage? At least this batch of on-stage dancers was slightly entertaining rather than the usual obnoxious hams, performing acts like an onstage battle to the death with invisible Lightsabers.
Along with the sweats ensemble, there were many other Girl Talk concert staples. There were the confetti sprayers and confetti balloons. There were the giant bags of balloons (oh, the primal joy of ripping apart the innards of a balloon bag with 20 other screaming individuals). There were the toilet paper cannons (bitterly ironic given that 100 feet away were 20 porta potties all disgustingly devoid of any scrap of toilet paper). There were the cold air blowers reserved for early birds at the front of the crowd. There was Gillis’ nonstop manic dance moves, ending with him head-banging against his Saran Wrap-covered laptop. He played some older hits like “Play Your Part (Pt. 1)” and “Here’s the Thing.” Though, as with any Girl Talk concert, Gillis made sure to mix up tracks in his mash-up repertoire. The biggest difference with this show: sparks shooting up and raining down on the stage for the finale, along with fireworks exploding above the audience.
Afterward, I went to Major Lazer, a project of Diplo, at Tripolee Stage, where he was already in the middle of commanding audience members to take their shirts off. He was actually very insistent about the shirts thing, along with audience orders to “JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!” right up until the end of the show. By the end of the night, the crowd seemed visibly exhausted, almost defiant against Major Lazer’s strenuous instructions. And if you happened to wander into the Major Lazer crowd, you’d have no trouble figuring out who the artist was as demands to chant the group’s name were also rampant.
Other Major Lazer orders for the night included putting up your hands if you smoke weed and coming up on stage to dance if you have a “bubble butt” (the name of one of Major Lazer’s songs). Ladies on stage were then ordered to “express themselves,” after which Major Lazer commented on the amount of humping onstage. Probably the most bizarre command was for “Jesus” — Major Lazer’s nickname for the one male who was invited to come on stage — to lie down on the ground and stay still while women “danced” with him. Major Lazer shouted out directions to remove the man’s belt and pants, which gave me an overall icky vibe.
Major Lazer’s set ended with the mandate for everyone to make peace signs with their fingers while he played Bob Marley’s “One Love” — odd given the whole Jesus thing minutes before. The most frustrating aspect of Major Lazer was the cross-over between his DEMF show and Electric Forest set. From playing the “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” to Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” — after which he repeated his same rest-in-peace MCA speech he recited at DEMF — it was almost like watching a DEMF rerun. Major Lazer was danceable as always, but needed to switch up the act a little.
Sunday, Electric Forest received about 20 seconds of rain, and then it was back to a scorching search for shade. Come nighttime, the festival closed with Bassnectar at Ranch Arena and Big Gigantic at Sherwood Court. Lorin Ashton, the San Francisco-based artist better known as Bassnectar, gored ears with dubstep, pausing only once to chastise some fun-ruiner who sprayed him onstage with a squirt gun. Fired up from Bassnectar, just about everyone headed to the last act of the festival, Big Gigantic, a duo from Colorado that adds live saxophone and drums to electronic music. The boys of Big Gigantic teamed with GRiZ at one point, playing a new track called “Power,” and the sax throughout the night was a welcome, jazzy relief from the grimmer sound of Bassnectar.
Returning to the campgrounds that night, I realized the extent to which Electric Forest is truly an alien land. The moon hung low in the sky, an orange face appearing like a nearby planet. A steady stream of golden flying paper lanterns journeyed into the atmosphere, set off by campers who all seemed to have gotten the flying lantern memo this year.
Fireworks cried out at all hours. And dubstep infiltrated my dreams, booming throughout the night from neighboring campers who didn’t have time to spare for sleep — not when they’re at Electric Forest.