With a population of approximately 450 permanent residents, the township of Rothbury, MI, explodes to nearly 25,000 visitors during the four-day Electric Forest Festival. Produced by the Boulder-based Madison House Presents, in conjunction with EDM-stalwarts Insomniac Events, Electric Forest is an eclectic convergence of Colorado’s heady vibes and Southern California summertime hedonism. Located on the normally Old West-themed Double JJ Ranch, the sprawling grounds are transformed into a prolific multisensory experience with new discoveries continually flowering from the forest floor.
During Electric Forest, attendees are not only urged to discover new music (85% of which is combed from the extensive roster of Madison House), but coaxed to live outside of themselves: to lose the heels and climb a tree, forget about raging and raving and find solace in the expansiveness of nature, and most importantly, drop any facade and discover their own transcendent connections. This might seem like a lofty goal, but with free gong medications, yoga, drum workshops, live art, a swapping tree, the “Reincarnation” zone, and a new Observatory area all established with little noticeable corporate sponsorships and no lasting negative environmental impact, EFF exceeds the due diligence needed to create a temporary utopia among the radiant woods.
Like many massive festivals, the last hurdle before the late-night splendor of EFF is the lengthy line of cars flowing into the campground. With all direct lanes leading into the ranch used for festival traffic, one begins to wonder how locals can even escape Thursday evening if an emergency would occur. But while maneuvering through the sea of autos, it seems the township’s residents (at least the ones that remain) have embraced the culture and financial implications of the festival. Between the security teams, cleanup crews, vendors, site prep, and law enforcement — who are out in full force but truly epitomize the term “serve and protect” — the festival could very well employ the entirety of the township for those four days.
Noticing this symbiotic relationship between the townspeople and festival led me to search out a more local perspective on the event. Finding an eager participant certainly didn’t take long. Syd, who normally heads for quieter pastures during the festival, took the time to provide an extra set of eyes for this third installment of EFF. Usually reserved, Electric Forest 2013 saw Syd bust out of his shell and take a fresh look at the party beneath his tress. Electric Forest isn’t for everybody. Its treasures are only for those daring enough to make the journey. Here are our highlights!
Trying New Things… and Failing
Surrounded by open-minded people — many of whom will turn into family over the weekend — there is an unspoken agreement at Electric Forest to exist outside of yourself. With most of the stages empty until mid-afternoon, the morning was time for making new connections with travelers from around the world and taking in the mind-expanding activities lining the festival grounds. Exposed to so many new adventures with an excess of free time, personal walls fall away and you try something outside of the comfort zone — be that making kandi, attempting to spin poi, playing hacky sack with quick friends, or one of the other 1,012 activities keeping folks busy. Personally, I excelled at slack-lining, but efforts in yoga, hula hooping, enjoying the silent disco, and hacky sack were all futile.
Ana Sia and an Intermittent Rain Storm
Prior to Bay area beat-freak Ana Sia taking the Tripolee Stage Thursday evening, the stage manager came on the mic and warned everybody of an impending rainstorm. Feeling the doom and gloom in the man’s voice, Ana Sia stepped to her laptop early and shared an array of cerebral, bass-driven, hip-hop instrumentals. As Sia introduced a tribal creep, the field filled with people undulating beneath a refreshing evening drizzle. As the music and dancing intensified, so did the rain, until Mother Nature deemed the festival officially purified and turned off the faucet. With dust at a minimum and revelers still feeling the rush of releasing first-day jitters, an organic dance party erupted and a mood was set for the remainder of the weekend.
Fool’s Gold Takes Over the Tripolee Stage
When I first got word of traps at Tripolee, I was scared for my forest brethren. After finding a safe place to witness the likes of Nick Catchdubs, Flosstradamus, OLIVER, DJ Craze, and A-Trak, my fears shifted to the growing mass of half-naked bodies. Surely that much “twerking” cannot be good for internal organs! Label co-founder A-Trak acted as a doting father Saturday evening, introducing each of his hip-hop-meets-EDM disciples as they stepped up to the decks.
The multiple remixes of Boys Noize (“Go Hard” and “Ich R U”) showed a common interest for chopping rave-techno, but the group would have benefited from sitting down beforehand and limiting the number of times the collective would play “Simon Says” by Pharoahe Monch and GTA feat. DJ Funk’s “Booty Bounce”. The scratching abilities of Craze and A-Trak were a marvel to watch, but it was the track selection of OLIVER that left the longest impact.
Unlike the crew’s standard hip-hop flair, Oliver (represented solely by U-Tern on Saturday) pulls the worlds of deep house, electro, and techno together and even has enough artistic charisma to successfully start a set with a remix of “Get Lucky”.
Recuperating from Saturday with Lynx
Waking up Sunday morning, my body was in need of some much deserved relaxation. Upon finding a comfortable hammock near the Forest Stage, some new friends and I were treated with the organic, down-tempo electronica of the Bay Area’s Lynx. A one-woman band, Lynx performed on the guitar, sorted through her own productions, and even beatboxed near the end of her set of chill-out selections. 2010’s “Young Blood” remains as captivating as the first time I witnessed Lynx perform it in the forest in 2011. With hundreds of people singing along and dancers swaying beneath the track’s visceral, aural oscillations, it’s difficult to contain the wealth of emotions that the forest has a way of triggering.
Finding a Moment To Breathe
Some might think that it’s easy being a squirrel, but avoiding hawks, hoarding food, avoiding traffic, and chasing other squirrels is no easy endeavor. Even with multiple acts competing for attention, the forest has a way of slowing you down. Approximately three hours from both Chicago and Detroit, EFF is a beacon for those needing relief from urban sprawl. Fests like Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, and Summer Camp all feature similar rural settings, but none come close to the serenity of Sherwood Forest. For four days, one will continually uncover new artwork, rock gardens, LED displays, and crowd-sourced exhibitions that simply stop you in your place as you scurry toward what you previously thought was a can’t-miss act. It’s during this moment of clarity that even a rodent realizes that sometimes you must take a few moments to appreciate now.
Electric Forest Goes Synthpop
Historically reserved for jam bands, Friday night at Sherwood Court was instead home base for fans of high-energy synthpop. Hosting both Holy Ghost! (11:00 p.m. – 12:15 a.m.) and Passion Pit (1:00 – 2:30 a.m.), the field was an unexpectedly popular third option trailing the bass mayhem of Krewella and late-night jams of The String Cheese Incident. When looking into the eyes of Holy Ghost! frontman Nick Millhiser and Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, I could see a sense of amazement when they realized how many people had shown up that deep into the evening. This reciprocal energy kept them bouncing across the stage for the duration of their respective performances. The ability of Millhiser to sing plus play percussion and analog synthesizers kept the Holy Ghost! founder in great favor with the jam band faithful. And, to credit both the men behind the scenes and on-stage, Angelakos’ falsettos had no difficulty ringing though the early morning air. When he worked into “Little Secrets”, a sing-along erupted that challenged the group participation experienced at a Cheese show.
Although Passion Pit exited the stage 20 minutes early, they did make up for it with an extended secret set at the Silent Disco. The headphones weren’t a great fit, but I could definitely tell that the group loves remixing Radiohead.
At Electric Forest, it’s important to keep your ear to the ground. Aside from Passion Pit’s late-night Silent Disco set, Paper Diamond showed up to host Elm and Oak’s Takeover of the Silent Disco Thursday night (more reason why EFF holds claim to the best Silent Disco experience) and appeared again at an intimate, ground-level set near the former Wagon Wheel Stage, plus Big Gigantic (who weren’t even on the bill) turned up to perform alongside GRiZ and Gramatik as Big GrizMatik.
Five members in total, the crew is armed with two saxophones, four laptops, one guitarist, and one hell of a drummer in Jeremy Salken to amplify the already dynamic energy of their various takes on the soulful Colorado party sound. Other sightings included members of Beats Antique with a roaming marching band and The Floozies’ guitarist stepping in to assist Chicago’s Manic Focus. With many of the artists choosing to hang out for the entire extended weekend, crazy one-off collaborations are an Electric Forest guarantee.
Learning How To Stay Cool with The Polish Ambassador
The westward-facing Tripolee Stage had its challenges near dusk: namely the glare that was reflected onto the computer screens and the heat from the direct sunlight. Donning colorful ski suits, The Polish Ambassador and VJ Liminus battled the setting sun Friday evening and were simply the coolest guys at the festival. Serving up choice, glitched-out remixes of Kelis’ “Milkshake”, Justice vs. Simian’s “We Are Your Friends”, and Young MC’s “Bust a Move”, the mix was recognizable enough to be enjoyed by all while T.P.A. maintained his signature production watermark. After dancing my way through the crowd, I was hoping to steal a move with T.P.A., but alas, he was too busy shuffling behind the controllers to notice my intentions. T.P.A. doesn’t always produce mid-energy glitch-hop (check out Ecozoic and Superpowers for his more ambient creations), but when he does, not a single fan can resist his spell.
Listening to People Discover Empire of the Sun
Upon first sneaking to the front of the Ranch Arena for a prime viewing angle of Australia’s Empire of the Sun, I couldn’t help but overhear a group of people discussing the band’s “gimmick.” First off, for a festival that has featured the Shpongletron, EOTO’s Lotus Flower, and Ghostland Observatory’s laser onslaught, the makeup and choreography of Empire of the Sun barely touch historical theatrics. Second (and lastly), the word “gimmick” was quickly eliminated from the conversation when fans actually saw the abilities of drummer Nick Littlemore and frontman Luke Steele. When surrounded by great friends in an awe-inspiring location, it’s hard not to fall for tracks like “Walking on a Dream”, “We Are the People”, and “Alive”, as they each represent the prevailing mindset of the communal festival.
The discussions didn’t just end once the lights dimmed and stimulants wore off. On Sunday morning, Electric Forest was abuzz about the exploits of Steele and company. The performance wasn’t perfect — the bass cabinets would intermittently rattle and affect the clarity of Steele’s vocals — however, everyone, ranging from the most devout Cheeseheads to the youngest EDM converts, placed the set atop their lists of Saturday talent.
People-Watching During The String Cheese Incident
The extended grooves of The String Cheese Incident allow for effortless people watching; just beware of what you might see! SCI net a wide array of fans, including aging hippies, their grandchildren, coeds, aimless wanderers, and for some reason, a large assortment of service dogs. And these fans love to party. If you’ve ever been concerned about your dance moves, as I was when I first began shaking my tail feather, just spend some time watching the moves of the SCI audience. All you have to do is move your feet, sway your shoulders, and try to find an appropriate partner. If all else fails, just go in for a hug-and-jig. The term “family” is often overused during gatherings; not the case when you are surrounded by the SCI family.
The final moments of SCI’s last set was a jam for the ages. Leading into the electronic talents of Pretty Lights, whom SCI guitarist Bill Nershi accurately claimed would “blow this place up,” the six-piece broke into a fusion of bluegrass and hard trance. (If Avicii thinks he’s ahead of the curve with “Wake Me Up” featuring Aloe Blacc, he has either never sat in on a SCI set or he’s hoping his fan base hasn’t.) As bodies flailed and dust rose, a series of fireworks shot overhead and signaled the final moments of SCI’s time at Electric Forest 2013.
On that note, SCI enlisted at least two more members into their extended family–a group eager for another reunion in 2014. Until then, remember to find those moments to breathe, and always try to see the opportunities that lay in new (mis)adventures.
Photographer: Derek Staples