Ever since I’ve moved to Seattle, there’s one event that is invariably one of the highlights of my year, and that’s Decibel Festival. The 4-day electronic music and media festival brings artists and fans from around the world to the city of Seattle, for a weekend filled with music that pushes boundaries, rewires brains, and shakes dancefloors, sometimes all at the same time. 2009 was my fourth year attending the festival, and my third year as a volunteer.
Volunteering for the Festival is always an interesting experience, and usually a great way to meet people (or at least people-watch). It’s also usually a little disorganized, despite the best efforts of the Festival staff. Last minute issues always pop up, signals get crossed, people don’t show up for their scheduled volunteer shifts, and so on. But everything ultimately works out, and I’ve never seen a major disaster arise from one of these situations.
For example, at the opening gala at the Seattle Art Museum (which also doubled as a 10th anniversary party for the Ghostly Internationallabel), the Decibel merchandise that Donna and I were supposed to be hawking didn’t show up, leaving us a little confused as to what we would be doing. We ended up running the Ghostly merch table that evening, selling Tychoprints, Ghostly t-shirts, and CDs (end even a branded Ghostly beach ball!). We ended up having a blast selling this stuff, all while watching Clark Warner and Michna DJ, followed by a live set from local favorite Lusine, whose new album, A Certain Distance, just came out on Ghostly. It went so well, in fact, that we ended up scoring some free CDs and posters, and giving some of the Ghostly kids a ride up the Hill to the Mad Professor show at Neumo’s.
The next night was another merch shake-up, as we arrive at Motor for the dubstep showcase, only to find….no Decibel merchandise again! Instead, we got shifted to door duties, and spent the evening taking money for tickets and trying to figure out guest list and will call issues. It was a busy night, as the crowd steadily grew to capacity, and people kept flowing through the door right up until 1am, when we stopped worrying about ticketing. As a bonus, we had a good sightline of the stage, meaning we could see pretty much the full show just by turning around. Dubtek and Monkeytek weren’t all that amazing to my ears, but Boxcutterwas better than I’d expected, and UK Dubstep champions N-Type and Caspakilled the decks with choice cuts. I saw a lot of people walking out with limited run dubplate singles that night…
Saturday was my first evening without a volunteer shift, and while $140 worth of sushi kept me away from a couple of the opening acts I wanted to see, like Nosaj Thing and 214, the rest of the Bass Lovers Unite showcase was pretty incredible. Daedelus absolutely killed it with a much harder set than I’ve ever seen him play, while still keeping the retro-inspired whimsy he’s generally known for. The real highlight of the night, though, was Mary Anne Hobbs, the BBC Radio 1 DJ for the late night experimental music show. Her taste-making selections were on point, mixing the expected (Joy Orbison‘s ecstatic anthem ”Hyph Mngo” made an early appearance in the set) with new and unheard cuts.
The Decibel in the Park event on Sunday started off nice and mellow, with an deep and textured set from Kilowatts (I missed the actual opening set by DJ Eddie, who I’m sure was excellent). Sub Swara brought a dancehall infused performance next, which didn’t exactly keep my interest, but provided a nice background for the people watching and relaxing in the mild fall afternoon. The Gaslamp Killer took over with a varied and entertaining DJ set, full of banter and flailing arms, but we ended up skipping out to go warm up over a bowl of pho.
The grand finale took place at Neumo’s, and I showed up in time to catch Jerry Abstract taking the stage, dressed in a fur-lined parka, and watched him unleash some driving minimal techno from behind his laptop. It was an unrelenting set that got the steadily building crowd moving, right up until he knocked his laptop from the stage, killing all sounds for a few minutes. Fortunately, no serious damage was sustained, and the beats were flowing again shortly. Then Tim Exile took over, with an insane improvised set built on a capella vocals, beatboxing, drum machines, and spastic effect processing. This was truly a next level live performance, very demonstrative and engaging. Especially the part when he left the stage, and continued his set using nothing but a wireless headset and joystick. Absolutely mind-boggling.
As usual, there’s so much going on at this festival that I missed some sets that I would have loved. I didn’t see any of the Optical content this year, which is often a sensory immersion highlight. I didn’t get to any after hours events, due to other obligations that prevent me from being out to all hours of the morning. But of course, one of the main draws of the festival is that there’s so much to take in, and such a wide range of styles that you’re almost guaranteed to see something amazing, and discover something you never would have expected. This year was no different in that regard, and I’m sure next year will be the same.