Local promoters, partyers, and DJs have transformed Burning Man and in the process redefined SF's club and underground dance scenes.
By Steven T. Jones
THE LINE OUTSIDE 1015 Folsom stretched around the block, though most of the Burning Man types were already inside, decked out in playa-inspired getups, grooving solo or with their tribes to drippy breaks, ass-shaking electronic bass lines, and soaring crescendos.
The Get Freaky organizers had put the word out to their community that presale tickets were the way to go (if you wanted to avoid getting held up outside) for such a big-name event with a lineup including Freq Nasty, Krafty Kuts and A Skills, Lorin, Smoove, Adam Ohana (who puts on the Get Freaky events), Dimitri, Ooah the Turntablist, and other DJs; live Indian music; fire spinners in Mad Max finery; acrobats and circus freaks from Xeno, El Circo, and other local artists' collectives; and performance artists of all stripes.
It was a scene transplanted to San Francisco clubland directly from Burning Man, where all the featured DJs had made names for themselves among tens of thousands of Bay Area residents, as well as far-flung burner tribes like the Freak Factory from New York and Clan Destino in Santa Barbara represented tonight among the crowd at Get Freaky.
Tribe.net and other electronic gathering places had been buzzing for weeks over the DJ lineup. Freq Nasty, a dreadlocked breaks DJ from the UK, had spun at some of the earliest Burning Man dance camps. Berkeley-based beat freak Lorin's epic performances on burn night (when the eponymous icon gets torched) had elevated him to a DJ god with an international following, while up-and-comer Ooah mixing his breakbeat grooves with well-placed samples from other big names on hand rocked the front room at 1015 to a bouncing frenzy rarely seen outside the main room.
During the Burning Man theme-camp fundraiser season that runs from around May through August, there are parties like this almost every weekend , from illegal ones in warehouses to legit functions in the biggest clubs in town sometimes several a night. Among the San Francisco-based camps now lighting up the scene are El Circo, Opulent Temple of Venus, Sound of Mind, Space Cowboys, Deep End, and House of Lotus.
The draw and energy of the Get Freaky party, held in January (and every couple of months throughout the year), stands as a testament to the growing year-round influence Burning Man and its participants have on San Francisco nightlife. The vibe is felt everywhere from venues like 1015, Mighty, Nickie's BBQ, and Sublounge to street fairs like How Weird and Decompression, from art spaces like SomArts Cultural Center and CELLspace to random warehouses around SoMa and Potrero Hill.
It wasn't always like this. The rave scene that was the forerunner to today's burner-influenced dance scene was slow to be accepted in Black Rock City, while the culture that has developed around the event was separate and distinct from urban clubland. But as Burning Man has grown from a few thousand souls back in the mid-'90s to more than 35,000 today with by far the most participants coming from the Bay Area the scenes have merged and morphed, symbiotically feeding off one another to create something entirely new under the sun.
• • •
I entered this scene shortly after arriving in San Francisco more than two years ago, although I knew about it from prior visits to both SF and Black Rock City. Through the Internet and word of mouth, I tapped into the parties. And through the parties I became friends with DJ-promoter-psychologist Syd Gris, who staged events under the banner Opel Productions and was forming a Burning Man dance camp called Opulent Temple of Venus, which I eventually joined.
Right now our core group of 40-some people is working to create a large-scale sound camp with a 20,0000-watt wall of speakers. We'll build from the foundation of the massive steel DJ booth we fabricated last year, adding to it an open-air bamboo dome, an enclosed chill dome, crazy visual effects, and a variety of offbeat art projects still being developed.
To support that effort and meet our $25,000 budget, since April we've been throwing monthly fundraiser parties featuring DJs popular from the playa and gathering new members along the way. Loads of other SF-based camps are doing the same, throwing some of the best parties in town. And each time they do, their ranks grow, a cycle that has helped Burning Man expand and city nightlife thrive.
Recent parties we've thrown at Paradise Lounge and the Anon Salon space have simply entailed lining up the entertainment, promoting the event, a bit of decorating, and working the door. But more ambitious efforts in spacious warehouses (like an amazing spot we found in South Beach, where we partied in April and will return July 23) are all-hands-on-deck affairs with challenging logistics like importing everything from the sound system to chill-room mats, days' worth of decorating, managing the party and its myriad risks, and cleanup that lasts well into the next morning.
Even in fully licensed clubs like Mighty, a favorite with the burner crowd because of its outsider vibe and isolated location, bringing playa life to the city can hit hurdles, as the Space Cowboys recently found out.
After taking their famed Unimog a thumping sound system with video screens built on a vehicle resembling a modified Humvee through the Carnaval parade May 29, the Space Cowboys (along with fellow camps Fringe and Low-Pro Lounge) parked it in front of their benefit party at Mighty that night.
When I showed up around 12:30 a.m., DJ Mancub was rocking the Unimog, bopping the huge crowd gathered in the cordoned-off area in front as two beautiful women in skimpy costumes spun flaming poi in the street. It was a lively scene that had everyone smiling until one cop with a particularly bad attitude shut it down.
People knew this wasn't the anything-goes desert, so they took it in stride and just filed inside, where the bass-heavy beats had a packed house of burners dancing until almost dawn and dreaming of those late-summer days when the party never stops.
"People will go to a Space Cowboys party because they're cool and people know them from the Unimog," Syd tells me. "That's what's so great about the scene here it's a little piece of the playa. You can go to parties that have the same DJs, the same decorations, and a very similar crowd."
• • •
Promoter Joegh Bullock who throws the Anon Salon parties (including New Year's Eve's popular Sea of Dreams) and was an early advocate within the Burning Man organization for allowing amplified music explains that the term "burner" has become shorthand for a certain style of party, a sort of code for the freaks who like to dress outrageously, dance madly, and be embraced for doing so.
He identifies a palpable difference between clubbers and burners, something that's mostly about attitude and identity: clubbers have money, or act like they do; burners don't have money, or act like they don't. So while a clubber might wear an expensive-looking shirt and buy rounds of cocktails, burners are more likely to wear fabric they stitched together themselves and drink mostly water all night.
Discovering that this community exists, Bullock says, can be an epiphanic experience: "Suddenly you knew that you weren't alone now. You know that you can go anywhere and recognize a burner."
And for the DJs and promoters, tapping into this vibe can be the key to bigger audiences and an expansive sense of community. Ohana resists overtly associating Get Freaky, which he's been staging for the past three years, with Burning Man. But he and most of those involved are longtime burners, and he agrees that the event and the local scene have a symbiotic relationship.
"I think they both influence each other," he says, adding that he resists labels for his parties and his music, which he wants to be constantly evolving, an attribute he also applies to Burning Man. And many Get Freaky events are overtly associated with Burning Man tribes, most often El Circo, with whom Ohana has formed a close relationship.
Before moving its base of operations to San Francisco over the past couple years and hooking up with Ohana, Lorin, and other Bay Area locals, El Circo began as an annual party up on Mt. Ashland, in Oregon, thrown by a bunch of young hippies, circus freaks, and music lovers who lived in Ashland. Electronic musician Random Rab recalls the group's decision to go to Burning Man, in 1999.
"We really had our feelers out and realized what the whole thing was about," he says. They absorbed it and metastasized it, returning in 2000 with their iconic teardrop dome and huge sound system to stage a fashion show, perform fire dancing and metal work, and become the music-centered artists' collective they are today.
"What we do is an echo of what we first learned at Burning Man," Rab says. "We became what we adored and admired about it."
Just a few years ago, Ooah a 23-year-old breaks DJ whose shaggy-haired good looks, cheeky style, and turntable skills have garnered ever larger audiences was a hippie kid who showed up in Ashland in a van and started hanging out. One night at a party he stepped into an open DJ slot and "just got up there and killed it," Rab remembers. "And he hasn't stopped. I see him going far."
Although he's now based in southern California with the LA Breakbeats Association, Ooah's in the Bay Area almost every week and has become closely associated with the El Circo crowd. And he testifies to the power of his adopted scene with the zeal of a convert.
"People that don't go to Burning Man or have never been to Burning Man notice the style and energy around the music and movement that we bring out, and become interested," he says. "There's a certain sound that the underground DJs and producers represent. There's that freedom of playing the most uplifting, funky, abstract, bass-whomping, moving music possible for as many people as possible, all things you don't get to hear on the radio or at almost any mainstream club out there."
• • •
While use of the term ravers is now sort of derogatory shorthand that many artists use to describe dance camp denizens, it's certainly true that the dance camps grew out of the underground rave scenes in San Francisco and other urban centers around the world.
The word had such strong connotations of drugs, reckless behavior, and illegal parties that Burning Man organizers (who needed official permits to stage the event) avoided becoming associated with electronic dance music. Longtime board member Harley Dubois, who now handles theme camp placement, said, "The cops told us that if they hear the word rave, 'We're shutting you down.' "
But by 1995 raves were getting huge. That was the year that Brad Olsen and a group of travelers who had ended up in Goa, India going to huge parties with trance music decided to settle in San Francisco. They rented a huge warehouse on Howard Street, pitched in for a sound system, and started throwing underground trance parties (known as the CCC warehouse parties) that developed a big following.
"So when we heard about Burning Man, we said, 'Hell yeah, let's bring our sound system out there,' " Olsen says.
When Olsen and the CCC crowd showed up in 1995, they joined up with another group of ravers from Wicked Sound System and set up camp about three miles from the Burning Man camp. They were only loosely connected to Burning Man, which had a few thousand people and few restrictions or signs of civic organization.
"I don't think they even dropped us a single Porta Potti," Olsen says. "We were completely on our own."
The next year, a member of the music community named Turbo Ted made contacts with the Burning Man organization, and the "techno ghetto" became more of an officially recognized camp, albeit still placed a few miles away from the main camp.
"He was the one who came to Larry [Harvey, founder of Burning Man] and said we want to do electronic music," Bullock says of Turbo Ted, who is still an active musician in the East Bay.
So Olsen, Ted, and the rest of the Community Dance organizers set up the camp and booked some of the biggest names in the international trance movement to play, as well as DJs from the burgeoning house scene.
"Ninety-six is still my favorite year. It was awesome," Olsen says. "We had our autonomy, which basically went away in the coming years."
But it was also a tragic year. Early Monday morning, three people sleeping in a tent got run over by someone driving back from the techno ghetto. "That made everyone realize that the rave camp had to be a part of things," Bullock says. One of the resulting changes was restrictions on driving, which meant the dance camps needed to be brought into the camp.
"Larry Harvey didn't want anything to do with electronic music," Olsen says. "Larry and the top dogs just weren't into it. They wanted to create a counterculture that they thought was the counterculture, so they kept neglecting us until they couldn't anymore, so they let us have just one night."
Bullock and fellow Burning Man staffer Michael Gossney fashioned the compromise: the Community Dance, one night only, after the burn, for just eight hours. Everyone agreed that the name was a little dorky. It was wholesome-sounding enough so police wouldn't think it was a rave, but the growing legions of music lovers would get their night.
The first dance was pretty ho-hum by most accounts, largely because it was an especially cold night. But 1998 was the year that many say Burning Man and dance music permanently fused. Bullock actually got Olsen and the Community Dance crowd some money for lasers that year, the only time Burning Man has given money to a dance camp.
"So as soon as the man burned, the UFO started shooting off the lasers and the Community Dance was on. Everybody came over, and it was a big hit. People were just dancing and grooving," Olsen says.
But the tension between established artists and this new medium would spill over into the storied standoff between Jim Mason and the metalheads and Goa Gil and the ravers. Mason led his mob in the Veg-o-Matic, a pedal-powered boring vehicle with a massive flame-thrower. He came to stop the music and burn the UFO. The DJ stood his ground and refused to back down, but the incident solidified the division.
"It was very mean-spirited and intimidating," Olsen says, but Mason still maintains it was "a joke" and piece of performance art, although he admits that his animosity toward the dance camps has only grown since then.
"We were pretty pissed off and disenchanted at that point. For us, it was the straw that broke the camel's back," Olsen says, noting that they burned the UFO themselves and didn't clean it up very well, further fueling the division and accusation that dance camps don't even clean up after themselves (today, Burning Man cleanup crews say artist camps can be worse than dance camps).
But the die was cast. Gone was the Community Dance, replaced by Dubois's idea of placing large sound camps along the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock radials, aimed out at the open playa to minimize their disruption of other camps.
"We solved the problem by zoning," Harvey says of the noise conflicts.
Dance camps got more organized and responsible, largely shedding the baggage from the irresponsible ravers in the city and the poor cleanup job in 1998.
"I have more and more respect for large-scale sound camps," says Dubois, who is in charge of deciding where all the theme camps at Burning Man go. She said they have declined in number because of their cost and logistical difficulties, but gotten more creative.
A half dozen big sound camps showed up in 1999, in addition to smaller sound systems throughout the event.
"There were just parties everywhere," says Olsen, who burned out on doing sound camps but still attends Burning Man. "So things went full circle just like they were meant to from the get-go."
Today sound camps provide the soundtrack for the event. It doesn't always fit everyone's musical tastes (many complain it's too focused on electronic dance music, although it's also big enough so that just about every kind of music is somewhere to be found) or the desire of some burners for quiet solitude.
"Burning Man tends to think that Burning Man is not about music and they shouldn't fund it. Burning Man was very much opposed to rave music and rave culture from the beginning," Bullock says. "But if you walk around BM today, it's sort of like one big dance party.... What they bring out there now is immeasurable."
• • •
Even today, the organization does little to facilitate large sound camps, leading popular longtime camps to burn out and fade away, as Lush did this year. Few last more than three or four years, perhaps because they cost from $20,000 to $40,000 to stage and require hard work over many months from a minimum of 40 people, with all that money and effort going into just one big week in the desert. It's a lot to ask of people trying to make a living.
"There's definitely a life span on the sound camps," Syd recently told me over pitchers of beer at Zeitgeist that I had to buy because he's broke. "You and I are paying out of our own pockets so people can have this party at Burning Man."
Syd and Laird Archer, another big DJ in the scene (and a former Bay Guardian employee), last fall talked about approaching Burning Man for a sliver of the $7.5 million in ticket sales to support the sound camps. After all, the organization gave out almost $400,000 to art projects this year, but sound camps have never gotten funding.
"They charge all this money, and then the people who entertain everyone have to do it for free," Lorin says. "There should be more diversity in the share of the capital, period. And I'm not talking about paying DJs. I'm talking about forklift rentals, generators, sound systems, and workers who set up the nightclubs that rage this festival."
But when the visual artists staged their "Borg2" rebellion over inadequate arts funding last fall, Syd dropped the idea. Part of the rhetoric of Borg2 instigators Mason and Chicken John has been to bash the "ravers" as somehow sullying the true Burning Man culture.
Mason, whose animosity toward ravers is the stuff of legend, characterizes them as people who take from a unique event and give little back, an assessment that is galling to many who put so much effort into building sound camps, as well as those who see the sonic landscape as an integral part of the experience.
"That's why I was mad at Chicken John's thing, because the artists have been funded and celebrated," says Anon Salon's Bullock, who has attended every year since '94. "If you took away the dance and theme camps now, you wouldn't have Burning Man." And, he points out, dance camp fundraisers create a year-round Burning Man scene in San Francisco, with all the money that's generated getting plowed right back into making the playa event better.
Burning Man founder Harvey occupies the middle ground in the debate. No fan of dance music, he points out that "unlike other forms of art, sound travels, and you can't escape it." But he also scoffs at the notion that dance camps have hurt his creation's vibe: "People were concerned that some partial subculture was going to take over the larger culture, and it's never happened."
• • •
After burning out on building dance camps at Burning Man, Olsen turned his efforts toward re-creating that vibe on the streets of San Francisco. To that end, he's one of the principal organizers of the How Weird Street Faire, which this year drew almost 7,000 people filling the blocks around 12th and Howard Streets with a distinctly burner vibe May 1, heavily costumed creatures grooving at seven stages, most hosted by Burning Man veterans.
"We want groups that are hot on the scene and have a following. And Burning Man is sort of a test of what's hot," Olsen says, noting that How Weird is held at the start of the burner fundraiser season. "Right now is when they start kicking off."
The How Weird stages were hosted by El Circo, Get Freaky, Space Cowboys, Low-Pro Lounge, Anon Salon and Opel, Tantra, and Sunset, while the Lush offshoot Sound of Mind offered art it built for its camp. Among the DJs were Michelle Bass, Goldilox, Nathan Vain, Goa Gil, el Papachango, and Random Rab. In years past the event has drawn talent from a variety of dance camps, including Sol System, Lush, Illuminaughty, Oacious, and Space Lounge.
But it was about more than just the music. There was a craft area and a stage featuring a range of creative expression as well as a certain sense of style prevalent throughout, something emanating perhaps most strongly from the stage of El Circo, which has fused a musical style and a fashion sense that are major departures from the old rave scene.
Bullock and others credit El Circo (as well as the Death Guild, whose members build the Thunderdome and dress like road warriors) with creating the postapocalyptic fashions that many now associate with Burning Man. Most of the original El Circo fashions, which convey both tribalism and a sense of whimsy, were designed by member Tiffa Novoa, who has since hit it big with her Onda Designs.
"That is the Burning Man look now, and I give them credit for that," Bullock says, noting that in the early days of Burning Man, nudity was the dominant fashion, something that began to change with the arrival of the ravers. "It's a lot more fun and sexy to wear a skimpy costume than to be nude."
That fashion sense has carried over onto the streets and into the clubs of San Francisco, giving an open and otherworldly feel to many parties. There's a constant updating of wardrobes, with much of the shopping done at fabric stores and sewing collectives like Stitch Lounge, and other outfits constructed from modified thrift store items or outrageous duds from places like Haight Street's Piedmont Boutique.
"By now everyone in San Francisco has a closet full of costumes. You don't see that in LA or anywhere but here," Bullock says. "It's also an icebreaker. How many times have you gone up and said, 'Wow, that's a really great costume,' and then you can start to talk or flirt."
It can also be a personally transformative experience. "At first, this was all costuming, but now it's who I am," says Matty Dowlen, who manages El Circo's operations and looks like a cross between a carny, a hippie, and a trapper. "I really love Burning Man. It helped me discover who I am as an artist."
Of course, it has helped that many of the people in both Death Guild and El Circo are, in a word, hot. "A lot of the women in El Circo were some of the most beautiful in the world, and [Novoa] dressed them up to look even more beautiful," Rab says, noting that it changed how the denizens of El Circo conceived of themselves. "One day everyone was all hippied out, and then they were all tribal and tattooed."
Much of what El Circo have done since arriving in town has been to try to re-create in San Francisco what they developed on the playa. Dowlen says they're always wrestling with this question: "How can the flow be maintained and re-created in the city?" Lorin and his El Circo buddies contemplate that as they strive to be about more than just music, cultivating a new kind of culture and communal ethos.
"Some of the deepest and most magical moments of my life have been involved in the dance floors and freakish movement ceremonies that occur on the playa," Lorin says. "I feel like, collectively, we are channeling forces of nature that don't exist anywhere else in the world. That's why the sound system aspect of the festival is so sacred."
There are many others now trying to do what Lorin does, but only a few convey the transcendent experiences that keep people engaged to the degree that burners are. It requires just the right mix of music, culture, energy, and that certain unnamable cosmic something.
"You can go out on the playa and find 6,000 sound systems with some dude and his speakers, and he has decided that he too is a DJ, and that's cool," Lorin says. "But there are only a few spots where it really goes off, where everybody comes and it just erupts. And of course, it's the same in the city."