Music

Dispatches from the E.U. Rave Scene

Despite the decline of rave culture in the U.S., the scene across the pond is strong as ever.
Reading time 10 minutes

Photography by Mr. Wong

Despite inventing techno and house, Americans aren’t very good at raving to it. There are house and techno festivals in the U.S. They’re just few and far between; there’s DEMF in Detroit, and a few smaller ones like Heidi Lawden’s Dusk Camp, which just happened in San Diego County, or Factory 93’s Secret Project, which brought Peggy Gou and Bicep to Los Angeles’s Chinatown. So when they happen, it’s quite unique.

Not so in Europe. Europeans are spoiled with bountiful riches—house and techno raves happen on a regular basis. In Amsterdam, for instance, there might be three or four happening in different city parks over one weekend during the summer months.

FRIDAY MAY 10

CLARA BERRY IN FRONT OF CHÂTEAU DE CHAMBORD

I’m staying in Amsterdam with Esma, who smokes hash cigarettes every day and runs an art gallery in Paris. We met on a dating app last year but immediately decided we were brother and sister instead. She wakes up and finds out a friend of a friend has scored her tickets to the sold out Cercle Festival at Chateau de Chambord.

She shows me a drone video of Carl Cox djing at the first one, he’s playing in front of this huge castle, and we decide it’s too good to pass up, so we quickly make plans to fly to Paris, and Esma finds a ride down to Chambord with her ex.

We already have tickets to the Music On Festival in Havenpark in Amsterdam, so we book Thalys high-speed rail tickets back from Paris in the morning. We drink Heinekens and smoke spliffs that night with some Dutch friends, but head up to her apartment early to listen to Solomun mixes and pack supplies, and then take melatonin to go to bed, because tomorrow is the start of our two-day rave marathon.

SATURDAY MAY 11 

FRENCH DJ PETER PAN & JOURNALIST MAXWELL WILLIAMS

We wake up at 6 a.m. to take the tram to Amsterdam Centraal Station, and the city is completely empty (Dutch people are basically required to party on Friday night so everyone is sleeping). We make it to Schiphol Airport with plenty of time to relax and have a coffee and cheese sandwich and make sure our party supplies are well secured.

The flight is an hour and a half, and the drive down to Chambord is about two hours through the French countryside. We arrive in the early afternoon through a quiet forest road with birds twittering. The gendarmes direct us around a corner, and the castle reveals itself to us, and I don’t want to sound clichéd, but really, fairytales clearly happened in this castle. French 20-somethings sit in the grass in its shadow, getting drunk on wine before venturing into the festival.

I tuck some drugs into my underwear, and we head in.

We enter and smoke some hash and drink a beer, before finding the media tent, and I say, “I’m with L’Officiel,” and a nice guy named Paul with Cercle Festival finds me and Esma VIP press wrist bands, which gives us access to massages and champagne and clean bathrooms and a quiet spot to the side of the festival.

We spot three guys and a girl all dressed like Marie Antoinette as their rave outfits with curly white wigs and aristocratic ruffles.

“You are my valet,” the girl says to Esma.

“No, I’ll cut your head,” Esma quips back, and we all laugh and drink some more.

We meet Matthieu Guillermoz, a French photographer, and I quickly corral him to take photographs of all the people in the VIP area. He urges me to take a picture of Clara Berry.

“She was on the cover of Lui,” he says, Lui being the great French erotic magazine—the Playboy of Paris. Rihanna did a cover a few years back, remember? “She’s the person I wanted to photograph most in the world.”

She has a very cool look, slouchy and tattoos, with a classic French sensuality. I get why they love her on Instagram and beyond.

“I’ve never been here, but it’s the first time,” Berry tells me, looking out at the castle, which is glows golden in the sunlight. “I don’t really know this kind of Cercle Festival—it’s my first time—but it was really close to Paris, so it was nice to go. There are many Parisian people and they are so fucking happy to be out of Paris. They are smiling, and even if it’s raining, they don’t give a fuck. You can pretend that it’s summer.”

Cercle is a promotion company that prides itself on producing raves in unusual places, attracting top DJ talent to play—a boat on the Seine, in front of the Eiffel Tower is Nina Kraviz, last year’s festival with Carl Cox. This year’s festival is headlined by Solomun and Stephen Bodzin, a massive one-two punch if you love tech-house and techno.

I run into Jean Tonique, a young French disco house producer who was playing sunny, bouncy music when we entered the festival in the afternoon, and he tells me he played one of the first Cercle parties on a boat during La Fête de la Musique, the national day of music in France, held on June 21st every year.

“Phil, one of the guys from Cercle told me earlier that all of the guys that are playing today, they’ve already played with us, and it’s kind of a family thing,” Jean Tonique née Antoine Roux, says. “I don’t [personally] know Solomun and Stephan Bodzin, but I know Polo & Pan and Bon Entendeur.”

I ask him what it’s like to play house music in front of the 16th-century castle built by Francis I, the patron king of the Renaissance. Francis, I was the original owner of the Mona Lisa, and Da Vinci visited and worked on Château de Chambord.

“It’s kind of crazy, actually, because at some point I just turned around, and looked, and it’s one of the most beautiful castles in the world,” Jean Tonique tells me.

DJ Peter Pan (born Alexandre Grynszpan), one-half of electro duo Polo & Pan, is similarly in awe. The duo recently got off stage after playing a polished set of funky, groovy house.

“I have no words,” he tells me. “It’s amazing, and Cercle is so talented to make the owner of Chambord trust them. They are so professional. The best media is Cercle. Tonight was really special for us, because we decided to only play unreleased tracks. When you have two hours gig, it should be surprising for people.”

DJ Pan concurs with Jean Tonique that, despite their ambitious undertakings, Cercle is a familial vibe.

“Cercle contacted us two years ago; we were not big, but we had something,” he says. “And they told me, ‘Yeah, you know, we’re creating something—it’s going to be huge. Trust us.” We went to the first one, and it was amazing. It’s a media that’s growing up a lot, and a lot of people know us because of Cercle. This is the best media for livestream. I’m sorry to Boiler Room, but they really need to work harder now.”

We all head out into the throngs and get drunk and high and watch Stephen Bodzin, beloved worldwide for his punishing live techno sets, and the headliner Solomun, considered to among the best house producers and DJs in the world. The Hamburg-based DJ pumps tech-house out like it’s addictive candy and the crowd eats up every second, and everyone gets loose. Esma and I end up dancing with the chevalier (horse-master) of the castle, a bearded, long-haired woodsman-type.

At around 2 a.m., we head out as Solomun is still going. We have a two-hour drive back to Paris.

SUNDAY MAY 12

FRENCH DJ JEAN TONIQUE

Hungover, but not too hungover, Esma and I drag ourselves to the train station, stopping for croissants and coffee on the way. The seven-hour Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam is quiet, and I nap most of the way, and peek out the window the rest of the way. Esma and I listen to techno mixes.

We arrive back at Esma’s flat in the early afternoon and have a beer and a bit of relaxing, before grabbing an Uber to Havenpark on the west side of Amsterdam. This large parkland is the location of the second annual Music On Festival, organized by legendary Italian DJ Marco Carola.

Carola is best known for his party, also called Music On, at Amnesia in Ibiza—although recently, he left Amnesia to head to rival Balearic club Pacha. Ibiza is a favorite spot for Manchester techno heads to go and party, and it seems like the Music On Festival in Amsterdam is similarly Mancunian.

We arrive just as Jamie Jones, a Welsh DJ known for his groovy house concoctions, and a longtime resident at Ibiza club DC10. Esma points out that the giant rave tent (the main stage) is dressed up to look a bit like Amnesia. She goes every year, at least once a year. I’ve never been, and it kills me every time she talks about it. Raver paradise. I feel lucky I’m getting a small taste of it in Amsterdam, though outside the tents it’s pretty cold in Amsterdam.

The bitter taste of drugs in my mouth, we dance our faces off to Jamie Jones and bounce around when Marco Carola starts. He plays a sample-filled set, starting and stopping, teasing the ravers with big open lulls before driving us into a frenzy by sliding heavy techno beats into the open spaces.

The music ends at 11 p.m., which is regular for Amsterdam raves. It’s kind of nice, not worrying about staying up all night long. That’s for club nights—the outdoor festivals are made for daytime partying.

After the rave, we wait as everyone clears out, not wanting to fight the throngs to get to the exit. The empty tent is strewn with empty baggies and other signs of fun. The evening ends with us by one of the small campfires that have been set up for the festival, and we meet a Spanish guy who is there with his mom, in her 60s, still going strong.

Finally, we start to walk from the park so we can find a place where Uber is less surging, and on the way, we enjoy a nitrous balloon, one of the drugs that’s in a liminal space in Amsterdam. Then we find a small bar and drink beers until we can stand no more, before heading back to Esma’s to pass out, the secret champions of house and techno raves.

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