The prospect of adventure has always been an irresistible temptation for me. A treehouse home in a swamp? I’m there. A month in Central America? Living out of a backpack? Moving to an ashram? No questions. Yet somehow the most common forays into the wild side for someone of my age had eluded me. Not only was I a novice to clubbing and the music scene, I’d never had a desire to experience them. That was, until I met Amani and a year later ended up on tour with Shpongle and Desert Dwellers.
My beloved is an extremely talented music producer. And I’m grateful for it. Had I begun dating him only to discover that Desert Dwellers was a punk rock or emo indie band, I would have been more reticent to take my life on the road with him now and then. But occasionally, now, you will find me front and center in some city I may or may not remember the name of, dancing myself into a blissful trance.
While I have always loved music, the term “electronic” used to conjure the repulsive thought of repetitive techno beats. mmch mmch mmch. I had no idea that it actually encompasses such variety. It is a versatile form of music with endless possibilities of expression. It has been said that a modern electronic music producer must have the mental capacity of a classical music composer. He must create brand new sounds from scratch and co-ordinate an entire orchestra of different instruments. His ears are constantly alert for new noises he might be able to capture and funnel into a rhythmic compilation. To which world will this or that track transport the listener? The answer may tell a tale as complex as a Beethoven symphony. In both styles of music, subtle intricacies lend a different experience to each listening of a song. We can disappear into the spaces that are created within complex music, and be guided through that sonic architecture by a skillful DJ.
The past year has been a foray into a subculture of music, dance, trance, and the community who congregate to celebrate them. In short, things that all humans have done since the beginnings of tribal culture. As an anthropology hobbyist and rewilding enthusiast, I have embraced this new emanation of ancient ritual with curiosity and zeal. And it has brought me to people and places I could not have anticipated.
On the most recent journey, I joined 8 California shows along the midway point of a 42 show US tour, “The Museum of Consciousness Tour”. Desert Dwellers, the duo consisting of Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe, teamed up with Shpongle, Simon Posford. Shpongle, a monument of innovation in psychedelic electronica, has been creating mind-bending music for decades, and Amani and Treavor have been fans of his since the beginning.
I remember the day Amani told me that DD would be opening for Shpongle. He broke the news slowly, building suspense as he spoke. Finally he revealed the big surprise — SHPONGLE! His face lit with thrill. I tried to match his gusto, but it nearly sounded like he’d sneezed. I could only muster “Wow! … Um… That’s great honey, Congrats! What IS a shpongle?” I have since learned that he is not only one of the most famous and well loved electronic producers of all time, he is also a friendly, down-to-earth person with an endearing demeanor and a penchant for mischief.
Each night of the tour encapsulated a brief geocultural microcosm, a small window into the unique energy of it’s town. In San Francisco, for example, my friend Cereal and I walked to the venue with young men half naked in full drag, and passed a foot fetish store on the way. In LA we stepped on the names of people whose lives’ work amounted to shiny gold stars we ignored on the way to a concert filled with as much silicone and name dropping as with music and dancing.
I’d hoped to find that cliches and stereotypes would disprove themselves, but these towns only take after themselves. Predictability may only hold true in the music scene though, as I’ve seen these cities more than break their molds in other contexts. Even Santa Cruz seemed to be exclusively young “alternative” people. It was the type of town where you might get a pickup line like, “Hey girl, I don’t know what you did for that karma in your last lifetime, but you sure manifested a sexy meatsuit in this one.” His dead-pan delivery was the best. These vignettes were so exaggerated, it became really entertaining.
Each green room we encountered was ironically a different color. The rare green one always excited me, but never as much as those with several rooms and hidden nooks where Amani and I could practice some contortionistic creativity to avoid touching anything, as most were thickly dirty… perhaps decades unwashed. Rock stars have no reputation for being the cleanliest folks.
Despite their obvious variety, a common and unmistakable thread of contagious fervor wove through every show. Just walking amongst the crowd invoked an overwhelming desire to abandon oneself into a wild full-body throb of bass. I danced myself drenching most nights, letting the music move me. Whoever you are, from whatever background, you will find it in your genetic memory to dance, to open your body to sonic resonance and let it heal you. Especially when the experience is shared with a group. The collective energy of our movement creates a group consciousness on the dance floor. It is transcendent. I suppose that’s how trance music earned its name. It brings one beyond the mundane trivialities that occupy day-to-day spaces in our lives and connects us with something larger, if only slightly larger. One group of people. One harmony of chords. One night, plucked from time.
On some nights a beautiful performer would join Desert Dwellers on stage, diverting attention to a feminine radiance that complemented the naturally feminine flow of their music. Shpongle’s set was a spectacle in and of itself and needed no accompaniment. An abstract shape framed Simon every night as the physical manifestation of sounds which, translated through Zebbler the Light Master’s brain, became a display of intricate imagery. This creation, the Shpongletron, a feat of modern engineering, is pure collaborative alchemy. It added an entrancing visual depth to the visceral experience, which together invoke in the audience a state of being “Shpongled”.
For some, these shows become even more transcendent with the influence of entheogens. I hope that uplifting music from producers like these will help make hometown life a safer space to explore other realms. But personally, I would not recommend such flights. Clubs are dark, dingy places even in the daytime. At night they become sweaty, heaving, groping alcoholics. Nevertheless, psychonauts would open their minds at these chaotic shows night after night.
One such evening a young man around my age brought his body to the dance floor, leaving his mind to explore elsewhere. He stood front and center, facing the audience, hands raised like a Sunday morning Gospel preacher. His eyes opened wide in awe. He moaned in ecstasy, praising and swaying in turn. His bright yellow shirt spelled “Christian Ministries”, and I wondered how this church boy got here, who may have dosed him, or if the shirt was satirical. Whatever his story, he was welcome. All are embraced in the heart of this musical mass. Soon his clothes came off. He stood at the front of our close-knit throng and leaned backwards, in a trust fall. The crowd surfed him in an ungraceful backwards-floating stagger. It wasn’t long til the boxer clad boy rushed towards the stage at full speed. He jumped the railing and vaulted himself onto Desert Dwellers’ table! Madness in his eyes, shock in theirs, the whole crowd gasped. His foot was inches from their soundboards! Just in time, a guard grabbed him and thrust him back into the crowd. After second attempt to physically enter the DJs’ heads, he was finally taken away into the night.
Surprisingly, I have more faith in the sanity of these one-night trippers than of the more consistent crazies. The boys, Simon especially, are the honored recipients of many fans’ adoration. It often borders on obsessive, sometimes overstepping that distinction right into stalker territory. One night towards the beginning of tour, while I slept happily at home, the crew were busy bringing their music to the masses of Florida. That night’s highlight was a new-age ultra-fan who held a cup of water above her head and hummed incantations into it for several hours while they played their sets. The swaying woman stood in the middle of the dance floor, arms outstretched overhead, eyes closed, murmuring. When the guards refused to let her onstage halfway through Shpongle’s set to ritualistically bestow her libation, she threw a temper tantrum. Simon stepped offstage only to be greeted by an outraged “goddess”. “This is sacred water,” she whined, holding the plastic solo cup, “This is an offering of the divine feminine to your masculine essence! The spiritual community here is very upset that you wouldn’t allow this ceremony to heal Universal duality in the Shpongletron.” I wasn’t there, but I can just imagine her stomping her little foot with righteous indignation. Ever the diplomat, Simon graciously accepted the gift, lightly diffused her anger with a thanks, and quickly retreated back to the tour bus to pour it down the sink. No one wants to drink that mojo.
Later that night, as the tour bus began its long haul to the next spot, the crew hung out in a post-show glow. Sipping their un-blessed coconut waters, they swapped superfan stories. Amani shared his tale of a Russian stranger who convinced herself that they were soul mates and nearly ended her life over this unrequited love. Simon told the story of a woman who thought he was speaking to her directly through the lyrics of his music. She believed she was his secret muse, and based landmark life decisions upon imagined conversations. They all had a laugh and passed out in their bunks, exhausted as usual.
Two days before Mardi Gras, they landed in New Orleans. NOLA was already knee-deep in pre-festival celebration. Without a doubt, this town has mastered the month-long party. Krewes of parades had ruled the streets for weeks already, and local anticipation had built to such an intensity that the city seemed ready to burst into purple green and gold explosions at any minute. Amani and Treavor went out on the town after their concert, eager to get a taste of New Orleans for a late dinner. They ran into a couple of cute fans who invited them for Cajun. Mid-way through the meal, one girl started talking about her close, personal relationship to Simon’s music. “He’s never led me astray,” she explained. “Once when I couldn’t decide between grad school or moving to Hawai’i, he told me to flip a coin. It was the best advice I ever received. He really looks out for me.” The boys stealthily captured a photo of her and texted Simon, “Is this the stalker?”
“Run.” he replied.
Then it was on again to the next one. I have no way of knowing whence these men muster their patience and enthusiasm ad nauseum, 6 nights per week, for 8 weeks. This includes the entire crew. The tour manager, Ben, is one of the most organized and prudent people I know. He is the cohesion that holds each detail in place to ensure everything runs smoothly. The production manager, Hippie, is the stalwart co-ordinator who designs, delegates and orchestrates the stage and equipment every night. Zebbler is the mastermind of light who conducts hypnotizing displays on the Shpongletron. And Grumpy Pete, of course, who drives the bus while the crew sleeps, and sleeps while they are awake. I was so impressed to witness the hard work and talent they each bring with such consistency and professionalism.
In Santa Cruz, Amani and I caroused with a few friends at the beach under a particularly periwinkle sunset. Then the crew gathered to embark on the evening’s mission. Simon, Zebbler, Hippie, Amani and I walked together, missing Treavor. The brotherhood was one man short without him. But “no man left behind” be damned, a bridge awaited Zebbler’s bravery, and nothing would stop him. Legends of vampires begged investigation.
An eerie golden light lazily disturbed the dark humid night, illuminating old roller coasters along the boardwalk. We passed them one by one, each looming taller than the last, their wooden frames tilted, paint chipping, boards creaking. Across the road to our left a hidden child laughed. It gave me chills. In the distance to the right waves rushed against the shore. We walked in between, along the fence of this empty amusement park. Our destination was the infamous bridge whose historic daredevils and ne’er-do-wells included the likes of rowdy retro vampires. It held Zebbler’s fate in it’s railroad ties.
Train tracks always seem to carry in their very metal the foreboding threat of danger or adventure. It would seem at any moment they will begin shaking and one must bolt or be demolished by a barreling giant. Or, in quieter times, it beckons with the promise of untold fortunes. One never knows what the distance might hold up it’s sleeve if you’ll play your wild card and follow where they lead. But tonight was made for neither travel nor a narrow escape. Tonight’s quest was height. Egged on by Simon, an incorrigible hellion in a feathered cap, Zebbler descended the large wooden rafters overhanging an arroyo. He gripped their old timber tightly and hung with either great stupidity or great courage from the great height of the bridge. We all watched with baited breath as he held fast. Finally, Simon conceded the challenge won, and Zebbler, now officially the Lost Boy of the Museum of Consciousness Tour, muscled his way back onto solid ground and hurried with us to the venue where hundreds awaited a show of their talents.
And show they did. These several hours each night are the point and purpose of the tour. Hours every day build up to this climax, and hours resolve it back into an empty club and mobile crew each night. The time that contains the show itself is a brief space wherein magic happens. It’s the vehicle to momentary musical transcendence, and is the only facet of a tour that most folks experience. But behind this facade, life on the road portends less glamor and excitement than one would expect.
Pure stamina propels them through thromping loud wompful laserlit nights until early morning beckons them back to their black, cavelike bunk cocoons. They live half nomadic human, half rockstar vampire lives. In mid afternoon they awaken, still in darkness, and check their phones to find out what city they’re in (having missed all the scenery en route). They stumble into sunlight in search of potties, as they’re strictly forbidden to use the bus lou. Hippie, Ben and Zebbler go straight to work preparing while the musicians catch a meal, twiddle their thumbs on gadget games, and take an occasional walk through identical americana box stores or a historically charming downtown area. They actually spend most of their time alone. In early evening they return for soundcheck. Dinner. Lights. Music. Action. Minds blown. They sometimes greet fans, sign souvenirs, receive gifts. They sometimes retreat back to the comfort and silence of their rolling spaceship, or their man caves. Then Hippie, Ben and Zebbler deconstruct what they’ve built and soon join the other three.
One night Hippie broke the monotony with a surprise. “I’ve been working on this all week” he said, leading us into an alley behind the venue in Arcata. Everyone suspected he’d been working on something, but no one could guess. The unveiling revealed, to the guys’ delight, a tennis table secretly and skillfully constructed from random tour equipment. Be warned, America. You don’t want to challenge any of these men to a match. At their level of practice by now they could make Bruce Lee eat his ping pong balls.
To anyone complaining of ticket prices to concerts, or to those who would prefer to pirate than pay for music, please remember how much time, teamwork and self-sacrifice go into each show. They live to bring peak experiences to you. And nothing makes them happier than to hear how much it you appreciate it. And breasts. Breasts actually make them happier. Take the hint, fangirls ;-)
They persist in this timeless routine, seeing only a specific crosshair of America: a certain small niche and demographic, with the same archetypes of people, in the same style theater every night. It could be terribly un-grounding to wake up in a new city every day with no recollection of the journey in between. But they manage to keep stir-craziness at bay. And some nights shine as bright exceptions to the rule of tedium. That’s when the crowd dances harder than usual, they see old friends or meet new ones, they sell a lot of merchandise, they play a tight set, and they remember clearly why they love doing what they do — why it’s their mission and purpose in this world, and how important and downright fun that dharma is. Regardless of the broken glitchy bass record on repeat in their reality, they are acutely aware of how blessed and lucky they are, and are grateful for every moment.
I love to step back and observe the coalescence of these elements. Often times after a show, Amani and I will walk through the crowd. I should say, we attempt to walk. Instead we are stopped every several steps by fans to meet half of Desert Dwellers, to thank Amani for his music and the positive effect it has had on their lives. We often hear phrases like, “Your music changed my life completely” and sometimes even hear, “Your music saved my life.”
For yoga teachers and tantric practitioners especially, Desert Dwellers soundscapes provide a backdrop to their life’s work. But many people choose to make it THE soundtrack to their daily existence, an uplifting reminder within the chaos of life to stop, be present, and listen. The music seems to say, as you go through your day, “Here is a melody to match your breath. Just breathe.” The night of their Flagstaff show, Amani read to me an e-mail he received from a girl with acute anxiety. “Your music has been the only medicine to ease my social fears,” she confessed. “I’m nervous to attend this weekend’s show. But I want to meet my musical heroes in person.”
It’s connections like this that cut through the exhausting continuum of travel and clubbing. No one in this tour crew is a partier, and the general vibe of alcohol consumption and frenetic environments can wear on your spirit. But producing music on the whole is vastly rewarding, and the inspiration it carries into the world spurs their passions further and further.
When we bring our presence to any moment, whether creating music, dancing to it, traveling, writing, or doing the same thing you’ve done day after day for two full months, you develop an appreciation for subtleties. A clarity of awareness arises that brings discord into harmony, and freshens the humdrum. This is the effect of beginners mind. It’s something touring musicians must cultivate in order to stay sane within their Groundhog’s Day. And it’s something that has blessed me with an appreciation for the experiences centered around this new (to me) transcendent music experience. I hope this glimpse into the scene, and behind the scenes, opens a beginner’s mind to the magic therein. Come play with us. :-)