Doing HARD Sober
Is a dance music festival any fun
without drinks or drugs?
By Theo Bark
Photography by Glenjamn
I know a few sober DJs. Some are sober after years of drug use, others are sober just because they are, but they’re about as rare as a hit song by Kreayshawn.
The majority of my friends who DJ or work in nightlife consume alcohol like an office worker drinks coffee, and some do cocaine the way people do cocaine. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. I drink coffee and I drink tequila. I don’t do cocaine.
I’ve been covering music festivals for years, and lately it feels like things are getting out of hand. Kids are dying at large-scale electronic music festivals with such frequency that overdoses have become commonplace—at least 21 festival deaths have been reported so far this year worldwide, the majority of which are said to be drug-related.
Most of us are drawn to music festivals primarily to see our favorite artists and DJs perform—it’s about the music. But for a consistent segment of the planet, festivals have always been about the party. From Woodstock to Up in Smoke to Ultra, festival music has provided an ideal soundtrack for decades of drinking and partaking alongside a few thousand close friends. Now, with new events popping up every weekend, is there anything left to celebrate?
What’s it like, I wondered, to attend a music festival as a sober adult? Shouldn’t we just stay home and watch the live stream? Of course it can be done, and many do it, but is it any fun? In early August, I attended HARD Summer festival in Southern California, and I talked with fans and artists of all ages and levels of sobriety. It would have been a lot easier if I’d been drunk.
HARD is a Los Angeles-based electronic music festival brand founded in 2007 by longtime house and techno DJ Gary Richards, who performs as DESTRUCTO. Richards threw his first event, Magical Mickey’s Holy Water Adventure, in Irvine, CA in 1991. The following year, he orchestrated what would be known for years as America’s largest rave, RaveAmerica, a NYE bash that drew over 17,000 kids to Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County.
Returning with HARD in 2007, Richards offered a live platform for big room house and electro, a more tasteful alternative to major EDM festival events like Electric Daisy Carnival, which Richards created in the early 90s. In 2012, HARD Events was acquired by Live Nation Entertainment.
This year, HARD Summer took place over the first weekend in August, changing locations from downtown Los Angeles to Whittier, a suburb best known, according to its website, for its urban coyotes. The two-day festival’s headliners included some of the biggest names in “big room” dance music—Tiësto, Axwell, Jack U (Skrillex and Diplo), Martin Garrix, Bauuer, DJ Snake and Dillon Francis—alongside house and techno artists like Disclosure, Brodinski and Seth Troxler.
I spent the night before HARD in the studio with disco-house duo Oliver, who had a prime 6PM Saturday slot, but hadn’t begun thinking about their set. Instead, we were geeking out on hip-hop breaks and forgotten late-80s R&B tracks until just past 2AM.
As I head home through a sea of yuppies milling outside the bar next door to the studio, the notion of adulthood crosses my mind. In particular, how little I know about it. I’m 34, as far from updating my Facebook relationship status as ever, still hanging out backstage, perennial “friend of DJ,” which is hardly a job title, at least according to my bank account.
We exist in the liminal period, the in-between career teens, pulling all-nighters in the studio, dumbing out on YouTubes and WhoSampledWho while responsible people our age couple up over a bottle of rosé at the bar next door.
On Saturday, Aug. 2, I walk over to Los Angeles legend DJ Thee Mike B’s apartment at 10:30AM. Mike is playing his fourth HARD, and his first as his hip-hop-inspired house alias, Brillstein.
For a brief period in the early ‘90s, Southern California was home to the country’s wildest rave scene, with escapades ranging from a 1200-person takeover of Catalina Island to desert events with extravagant backdrops— outlaw spectacles in the spirit of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, reimagined for the L.A. PLUR movement. The heyday was lamentably brief, however, and the local rave scene soon dissolved, thanks to the growing popularity of amphetamines, inter-promoter squabbles and problems with police.
Twenty years later, Richards’ officially-sanctioned HARD Summer draws more people in a weekend than all of the early renegade events combined. It’s likely that the festival’s founder is the only one at his event who understands the magnitude of that statement.
It’s 1PM in Whittier, almost time for his performance, and in his artist trailer, Mike B, who rarely drinks, is very excited about the variety of sodas he has received. He mentions it several times.
“HARD are the only promoters who actually give me a real assortment,” he says, waving at the half dozen or so cans as if they’re an of exotic spread of fly-colored fruit.
We head to the HARD stage, the main stage of the festival, not to be confused with the HARDER stage, which is confoundingly not the main stage. I see kids dancing around the field, jacking their knees up high, like MMA fighters on speed, sky-stepping, juking, crossing at the ankles, spinning in place. It’s a dance straight out of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” a derivation of a style I used to see at east coast parties in the 90s, updated for corporate raves like EDC and Tomorrowland.
These events are largely populated by college kids and young professionals, thirstily reliving a past their type turned their noses at 20 years prior, a co-opted version of PLUR for the bottle service set and their younger siblings. I wonder how they’ll have the energy to keep dancing until the 11PM curfew. I assume they must already be on “molly”—once a reference to “pure” MDMA, but now a meaningless euphemism that allows dealers to peddle all kinds of unhealthy garbage.
“That phase came and went, dude. Now it’s gotta be organic and real,” Cord, a cheerful 25-year-old in a tank top shouts, while stomping the field. “Then you find the real music you like. You find the music that speaks to you, instead of the music speaking to the drugs.”
I ask him if he thinks anyone else is on drugs.
“Absolutely! Everybody’s on different levels, man, you got people Jedi-flipping, you got people flipping Jedis!” He crows, explaining that Jedi-flipping is “when you take ecstasy, shrooms and acid all at once.”
“I’ve never walked the walk, that’s like, next-level-mega,” he adds. “If I see them floating over the crowd, then I’d be like, that fool’s Jedi-flipping!”
He whirls into the crowd, and I head back to the stage, where Mike plays a set he carefully planned overnight, combining his own original productions and re-workings of others’ tracks. His label boss, Jesse Rose, looks on with a grin.
“Being an adult at a dance music festival sober is shit,” Rose, a respected DJ and veteran of the UK house scene, says.
“If you go to a festival, and Stevie Wonder’s playing, you can be sober and have a great time. This is about being young and having energy and not going to sleep for three days. We might do that as older people, but it’s not really right,” Rose says, in a way that makes me somewhat self-conscious about my Berghain techno indulgences.
“But if you’re slightly off your head, whether you’re drunk or on drugs, it gets you into a place where this music makes sense,” Rose concludes.
He’s right, HARD is optimized for kids on drugs, and try as I might, I will never again be a kid on drugs. I’m too old, today I’m too sober, and honestly, I would never want to be high in a giant dust bowl in Whittier.
“Guess we learned that the kids don’t care about house and techno,” Mike mutters, after his set, as we push through the packed HARDER crowd, where the pitched down vocal samples, booming sub-bass kicks and ominous synths of TWRK’s trap set draw a dense swarm.
I watch the kids stomping hard, going ape. They spin, solitary boys and girls in various states of undress, spiraling around the field like young dervishes. I’m a bit surprised by the underwear the girls are wearing. Some of them appear self-conscious, like the shirtless bros who maybe don’t spend as much time in the gym as their friends. They look not quite comfortable enough with their bodies to be so naked.
We wander over the Green Tent to watch a member of headliner Brodinski’s Bromance crew named LOUISAHHH!!!, whose career has taken off since leaving Los Angeles for Europe. She plays pounding techno and from the looks of things, the kids are for it. She looks comfortable on stage, like someone who has been living in France. She gives a half shake with her shoulders, then smiles, self consciously sweet, and the kids cheer.
Mike excitedly hugs LOUISAHHH!!!’s mother Brown — a tall, elegant woman whose smile matches her daughter’s as she watches proudly. She is with her friends; it seems inappropriate to ask their age in this context, when everyone around us is so young, and we are so obviously old. Instead, I ask what they think about the festival, and what it feels like to be here as an adult.
“I’m amazed by how bad the fashion is. Is that just Los Angeles, or is that everywhere?” Brown laments. I tell her it’s both.
“It’s too bad they don’t have mirrors at home,” her friend Noreen jokes. “Or friends.”
A shirtless guy with thirsty eyes plants himself in the middle of the dirt dance floor while his friend slowly twirls gloved hands with lit fingertips—spirit fingers—in front of his face. His eyes cross. Behind him, a boy in a bear suit sweats, looking uncomfortable, waiting his turn.
I ask the adults what they think about seeing kids on drugs.
“I don’t know, drugs,” Brown says. It’s a subject she’s perhaps grown weary of, since her daughter is in recovery. “I don’t judge. To each his own, right?”
I watch another shirtless kid behind them cradle his hands, eyeing them lovingly, tracing the air in slow motion. Just his bare hands, he eyes them with wonder. This is how rave dancing started, over 20 years ago, a guy playing with his hands on drugs.
Juan MacLean takes the stage and begins playing house, and the kids clear out.
“It’s not an age thing, it’s just a totally different genre,” Juan says after his set. “I just mystified an entire group of people.” I ask what he thinks about attending music festivals sober, something he has been doing for almost a decade now.
“I never really think about it that much,” Juan says. “I actually like music. There’s a whole world of people who actually like the music, and that’s more the world that I come from.”
I also like the music, sober or otherwise, but I feel like I may have struck a sore spot, so I switch tacks and ask Louisa how it feels to have her mom attend her show.
“I was thinking about it this morning, because we were meditating together just before we left. It was awesome,” she says, laughing. It sounds so nice.
“I didn’t get successful doing this until I got sober. I remember the last weekend I was using drugs, it was the only time my dad came to see me play. Now [my mom’s] been to every L.A. show in the last year, and I’m unafraid to have her be there because I nothing to be ashamed of. We have real jobs, like, look,” she says, gesturing at the crowd.
We pass Bro Safari, who seems to have drawn the majority of the festival attendees for a trap set at the HARDER stage that is indistinguishable from the one that preceded it. Maybe Mike B is right, the kids don’t care about house and techno. They don’t seem to care about DJs either, really, they want performers, I conclude. Bro Safari, with his hype man and militaristic aural assault, does a better approximation of hardcore rave music for this crowd than one person behind turntables could possibly attempt. The music itself is not enough, they expect antics and entertainment.
“For house and techno DJs, there are lots of guys who are more revered as they’ve gotten older. That’s awesome,” Juan says, pondering the future of trap, the rap-inspired offshoot of EDM, a blanket term created to designate a genre of music enjoyed by people who don’t understand the term “blanket term.”
“I don’t know if this world, if it’s gonna pan out that way. I don’t know where those people land, really. What is trap gonna be? What is a 60-year-old trap DJ? There won’t be one. It’s nothing against it, I just don’t know how it’s gonna work out.”
Jesse Rose and I ponder the situation over tacos, overhearing a kid, high out of his mind, attempt to describe his location to a lost/high friend.
“Bro, I’m at Bro Safari bro. Bro, I’m at Bro Safari, bro. Bro? I’m… bro, bro, Safari, bro, bro I’m at Bro Safari. No bro, Bro Safari, bro…”
I try to talk to him, but he’s incapable of speaking. Nearby, a girl dressed as a strawberry, with a Dillon Francis-inspired strawberry hat, sits cross-legged on the dirt, frowning, in the dark throes of a bad drug trip. Her boyfriend, in an elf costume with matching strawberry hat, consoles her half-heartedly, his hand on her shoulder, his head in the clouds. He’s having a fine time.
I ask a group of kids if they’re here for the party or for the music.
“We’re here for the music! The music! The music is awesome,” they shout.
I ask if they feel naked.
“No, no not at all,” replies CJ, a 19-year-old girl in glorified pink lingerie made out of pieces she took from the stage at EDC 2013.
“This is what I wore at EDC, I just recycled it. It was from a mechanical owl. It was part of the stage design.”
None of them are doing drugs. I assume they’re lying, but they seem pretty sober.
“I sometimes drink,” CJ says. “I have irritable bowel syndrome, though.”
Mike, Jesse and I head over to watch Oliver play to a decent-sized crowd. They tease the bassline for Adonis’ “No Way Back,” a Chicago house classic from 1986, and the kids cheer.
Josh Wink takes the stage. I want to see what he’ll play, I’m standing right next to him. I watch Mike excitedly meet him. He’s straightedge, my vegan hardcore friends used to design rave fliers for him in the mid-90s. He was a DJ in that scene who we related to. It’s too loud to ask him anything about feeling old. He plays great, looping techno, and the kids clear out again.
Back at the HARDER trap stage, Baauer has scaled a tower behind the sound booth to perform in the middle of the enormous crowd. The kids eat it up.
DJ Snake, the man of the moment, whose collaboration with Lil Jon “Turn Down for What” has gone platinum, plays perhaps a pretty safe set of EDM standards. It’s hectic and bombastic and sends me running to the artist area, where people are really going for it. In the artist area it’s been mostly beer and booze, but they’re making quick work.
Our assortment of sodas now long gone, I wander into Oliver’s trailer. Someone passes around a bottle of Moet. A bottle of Belvedere materializes. We pop in and out of trailers, then head out to check Jack U, the highly touted collaboration between Skrillex and Diplo.
They won’t let us on the stage because they need room for dancers, so we watch from the side. Pyrotechnics blaze across the horizon, baking the tops of our heads. A kiss cam broadcasts make outs amongst the crowd. The visuals are wild as always, and the music combines Diplo’s hip-hop club aesthetic with Skrillex’s aggression. They run through older tracks like Kanye’s “Power,” Benny Benassi’s “Cinema” and a drum-n-bass-inspired Andy C Major Lazer remix of “Get Free.” They also debut a new collaboration, taking turns jumping on the decks, throwing their hands in the air, engaging the crowd. It’s easily the day’s most exciting set. It will be hard to top.
We retire to the artist area, pack our things, pile into Mike B’s truck and drive home, stopping to get tacos. It’s quiet, too quiet for me. Everyone heads to Mike B’s hot tub to dip their feet, and I head to a vaguely illegal afterhours in a former bowling alley. It’s dark and weird, the way I like. The festival safely over for the night, I dance and sip tequila like an adult, while Maxmillion Dunbar plays vibey house tracks. For me, it’s like a detox.
When I wake up, face stuck to my pillow, I can’t imagine heading back to Whittier, but I meet up with cameraman Glenjamn and his crew and we head to the festival, where the vibe feels heavier than the day before. I hear there were quite a few arrests, but thankfully no one died.
I spend a good part of the day traversing the field, until the dust kicked up from the dirt dance floors forces me into the comfort of the air conditioned trailers.
“Surprise, mothafucka!” hometown hero Dillon Francis announces, dressed in a suit, as a yawning, sighing chainsaw sound loops over assault drums, to kick off his set.
Girls are wearing even less today, if possible, too hot for yesterday’s lingerie. I watch a pair of girls in pasties and bikini bottoms twerk on the bathroom line, bent over, missing their turn.
I sidle up to two women in their mid-sixties and quiz them.
“We like the music,” Robbie, who is attending her first rave, explains, resting on a bench in the VIP area. “I just like the beat. I like the jumping. I love the fire!”
“They’re pretty sexual,” her friend Pattie adds, when I ask her about the kids’ festival style.
“I guess their mothers don’t know how they’re dressed.”
They’ve left their kids, who are close to my age, at home, and don’t seem particularly concerned about drugs or partying.
“I haven’t seen any drugs,” Robbie says. “I did it in my day, I can’t say anything about it!”
“Let’s fuckin’ lose it!” Francis shouts, climbing the DJ booth of his Frank Gehry-inspired stage set.
“Pop that pussy!” a grown woman yells.
I pass armed sheriffs in green fatigues, and as I push through the crowd, I spot my friend Guru, an artist manager, the only turban in sea of tanks. Next to him stands Glenjamn, who is filming a man humping a railing.
I want to talk more with the kids, but it’s either too loud, or they’re too zoned out to talk. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m too edgy. I know if I had a few drinks I’d probably have no problem fitting in. It feels like they’re suspicious of me, and with good reason; with my shaved head and tattoos, I’m frequently mistaken for an undercover cop, and I kind of feel like one.
“Do you feel like an adult?” I ask Guru as we head back to the artist area.
“I feel awkward, but that’s just me on a daily basis. That’s why we stay in the back and drink. Makes me feel like an alcoholic,” he jokes. There’s likely some truth to what he’s saying though, for us both.
I ask if he thinks he could attend the festival sober.
“Yeah, I can do this sober, of course,” he laughs, before qualifying. “If I went to all the music. See, I’m not even going to all the music.”
As Disclosure performs at the HARD stage, a group of girls deplore the lack of available drugs. They’re in their late 20’s, they’ve got a bit more experience with raves. One says she found a pill for $50, but that was split between three. All they’ve found since then was some GHB.
Disclosure plays a live set, using an Ableton-based rig, with synths and drums, triggering vocal samples. The drums are unnecessary, but it works for the sake of the performance. It’s soul music for the festival kids, and I’m not surprised when Mary J. Blige joins them for their collaboration “F For You” — she’s been popping up with them at shows and festivals all year.
Fans film the performance without looking at their phones, talking in friends’ ears, hopping, smoking, distractedly capturing a moment they aren’t really present for, which they’ll probably never watch.
Despite working in music for over a decade and a half, I have never seen one of the biggest DJs of all time, so I convince Guru and Glenjamn to stop and watch Tiësto with me. It’s boring. His trance literally puts me to sleep.
We walk the grounds, a man passes with a beaded Bane mask, things are getting dark. Nero plays some brooding industrial-sounding stuff, I’m not sure what it is. Apparently their new album is moving into techno territory, after achieving headliner status via dubstep/EDM.
“This is that ill minor key classic scary Dracula shit,” Guru says.
We push through Cashmere Cat’s crowd as he plays his hit, “Mirror Maru.” The vibe is plush at the Purple Tent, all blues and violets, with pulsing white lights. The crowd moves to the heady synths and strings. The festival is coming to a close, as we head to the Green Tent to catch the second half of French DJ Brodinksi’s set. He bangs it out, playing high BPM house and techno, with a sprinkling of rap, running through everything from Danny Daze to Young Thug.
The Bromance squad is mellow. A group of Frenchmen with extended Los Angeles family, they’re all smiles. We talk about music and vibe out, then head back to the artist area on a golf cart transport. Cashmere Cat wanders over, he’s quiet, subdued. He doesn’t look like someone who’s just played a headlining set at a huge festival, but neither does Brodinski, despite having received an excellent crowd turnout and response.
“I think people are still right to take that much drugs, because it opens your mind, but they should use it in a better way, listening to better music,” Brodinski explains, when I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to have fun at this festival without drugs or booze.
“I don’t want to come anymore. It’s a bit sad, but it’s difficult for me,” he says of the current state of dance music in America.
It’s a familiar sentiment. The kids don’t care about house and techno anymore, at least not at HARD.
Nightlife is hard on the body. It’s hard to keep those hours, and harder still to feign interest in being the life of the party, night in and night out, without participating or imbibing. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. And as Juan MacLean said, you have to really love the music.
We head out. On the way, we pass a group of kids huddled on the sidewalk, passed out in front of a Shell station which advertises a free taco with Facebook check in. It’s so Spring Breakers it hurts. We drive away, blasting old school R&B, Usher and Amerie, heading to Brodinski’s house in the hills, where we talk about Atlanta rap and drink beer until 3 in the morning. At the end of the night it’s always just us teens, drinking and smoking and talking about rap music.
Afterwards, I read the accounts. About 40,000 people each day. 7 felony arrests, 114 total arrests, and sadly, a 19-year-old dead of an apparent overdose of methamphetamines and ecstasy. People keep dying at music fests, despite organizers’ best efforts to distance themselves from the rave, banning kandi bracelets, offering free water. I wonder what Gary Richards thinks. Can we really hold festival operators responsible for the decisions of every attendee?
Perhaps they should stop treating drugs as contraband—accept that they’re part of the experience, and support organizations like DanceSafe, who have attempted to provide on-site drug testing. Are there too many festivals without enough on-the-scene oversight? Can electronic music exist without drugs?
I’m no closer to an answer than I am to typical adulthood, but I keep thinking about it. And despite myself, I have to admit: I made it through the music festival sober, but I wouldn’t recommend it.