I was given the privilege of speaking to the director of Electronic Awakening AC Johner. This groundbreaking film discusses the beginning of the rave & dance music culture. Moving through Moon Tribe, Burning Man, psy-trance parties & other foundations of the scene, the music is stupendous, as is the commentary.1. Was this project your baby, or did someone approach you to direct? Electronic Awakening is my baby. I directed and produced the film under my production company Federation of Earth. I began the film in 2006 when I set out to explore the culture under a grant from my university. After my initial fieldwork, I invested to expand the project into a feature film. After 4 years, interviewing and filming, I built a rough cut of the film strong enough to attract finishing funds from a successful Kickstarter Campaign, as well as a production partnership with Keyframe-Entertainment. Last but certainly not least, Philip Wood and Satsi Jaquith of Ammo played a huge role in getting the ball rolling on production.
My conception of the project began during my undergrad thesis in anthropology when I began researching electronic music culture. Having never been to any events, I was inspired to read that the parties had encouraged so many participants to engage in more conscious lifestyle to the point that some had established a spiritual kinship with the music.
Coming in as an outsider, my perception of EDM was little more than a stigmatized imagery of teenagers with glow-sticks dressed up in fury costumes celebrating a drug-high to obscure music. My perspective broadened after discovering the research of anthropologist Graham St John, Scott Hutson, and religious studies scholar Robin Sylvan, whom all had contributed a wealth of scholarship towards the spirituality underlying the culture.
While the media had reported little on this side of the culture, I set out to explore it first-hand. I sought out events such as Burning Man, Moontribe, Shambhala, outdoor psytrance festivals, and other events now heralded as transformational festivals. When I arrived on site and witnessed the alters, ceremonies, and wealth of participants professing the dance floor in a sacred context, I knew that this religiosity reported by the aforementioned scholars was all very real, real to the point I had questioned if this were some new form of religion rising up through the dance music underground. 2. When is the soundtrack for this movie coming out? It’s one of the best in some time! Our intention with the soundtrack was to mimic a party with a building intensity to a moment of crescendo, then getting darker and more cryptic until finally finishing out with the warm and energizing sunrise music. And it really took watching the entire cut over and over again to make sure we were getting the build and moments right. The film score certainly didn’t come together overnight. Many of the tracks are ones that I discovered over the years hearing them on the dance floor whilst dancing, and then thinking “I want that in the soundtrack!” When I moved into post-production I enlisted several music directors into our crew to help out with selection process. DJ Kahn, Brad and Dela from Moontribe, Julian Reyes, DJ Basilisk of Ektoplazm, Drew Martinez, Saturnia Corybant, and Satsi Sonic all brought in a wealth of incredible music which congealed into the soundtrack you hear in the film. Once we had acquired a strong catalogue of music, a lot of the work was between Drew Martinez (editor) & I spending many nights working until 4am figuring out which tracks worked the best in which parts of the film. As far as releasing a soundtrack, we have brought this idea up several times and would all like to see it happen, unfortunately we are a small team with limited bandwidth, but if any labels out want to join forces and tackle it with us by all means get in touch! 3. How do you think the SFX/Live Nation buy-outs of festivals have affected the potential for festival culture to provide these spiritual experiences? I think it only increases the potential. Of course, there’s a segment of the EDM community primarily dedicated to extracting those experiences from events. Psytrance and transformational festival organizations are keen on amplifying that transformational element. But the core experience of dance and music does not require further complication in order for those moments to occur. For many in the broader EDM community, the “spiritual” experience isn’t always defined as “spiritual.” Even at the more commercial festivals where that language is for the most part absent, massive groups of people are still experiencing communal ecstasy and having powerful dance floor experiences. To me that’s the real spirituality of electronic music—one that’s undefined, unintentional, raw, real, and beyond expectation. Groups akin to the transformational communities exhibited in Electronic Awakening are modeling ways to amplify those kinds of experiences and gauge them with a particular intention, such as the establishment of values and a deeper sense of community. While I applaud their intent and the community that has arisen out of it, discerning this as a purpose to be embodied by the rest of the dance culture is missing the point. For this reason, the commercialization of EDM is a good thing in my opinion. The experiences that are universal among electronic events are now popularized in the mainstream. I wouldn’t say that all the kids who attend EDC are going to erect an electronic religion 20 years down the road, but they are having the same powerful life-changing experiences that have positively shaped so many others in the culture. Going back historically, many any of the individuals now leading transformational festivals were once raving teenagers themselves. But going ‘transformational’ doesn’t have to be a trend adopted by everyone. What’s important is that ecstatic dance is finding a revitalized root in mainstream culture, and big industry is providing a foundation for that to happen. 4. Do you support the growing movement to have harm reduction services such as DanceSafe at these kinds of events? Or do you feel that’s a decision each tribe needs to make on their own? I fully support the movement of harm reduction and applaud all that DanceSafe has done for the community. This culture is mainstream now, and its chemical appendage has coat-tailed along with it. Although we’ve recently seen a growing popularity of MDMA, and other psychedelics in pop-culture alongside increasingly positive media exposure, the danger of these compounds isn’t going to dissolve underneath all that. Raving is an extreme-sport. And you’re always going to have a few broken arms on the double-diamonds. If anything, the widespread popularity should catalyze more organizations like DanceSafe, privatized or government sanctioned, to create a foundation of positive support. 5. Do you have a favorite event out of all of the ones that you showed footage from? Boom Festival was incredible. Sure Burning Man is near top on that list for its explosion of cultural novelty, but as far as a dance music experience—Boom takes the cake. It was the first time I had seen a dance floor 60,000 massive, from 85 different countries, all stomping their feet in unison for 6 straight days. In terms of dancing, I had not seen anything in the United States anywhere near the dedication I saw in Portugal…however, the insurgence of massive EDM festivals in the US may have me putting my foot in my mouth very soon. 6. How has the movie been received so far? Do the founders of Moon Tribe, Alex Grey and the veritable “who’s who” in dance culture feel this has been successful? We have had an astounding reaction among the culture worldwide. Since the film’s release, it has screened in over 100 venues, and in dozens of countries. Because of the films subject, these screenings are not happening in traditional theaters and instead at electronic events themselves. Promoters all over the world have turned film screenings into dance events at conventional rave sites— nightclubs, outdoor festivals, and warehouses, always following the film with a dance party. 7. Have you been approached by any festivals or people named in the movie to connect & do showings at events? We have screened at Lightning in a Bottle, Symbiosis, and Burning Man. However, most of our attention has come from outside of the US as we have screened at many other electronic music festivals across the globe at events like Boom in Portugal, Earthdance South Africa, and Cosmogenisis 2012 in Mexico. This response, despite the film’s focus on the EDM communities in the west coast of North America, has proven that the subject has global appeal. Even after 4 years we are still screening worldwide, just this month we have three new screenings at Lucidity Festival in Santa Barbara, Seattle, and Berlin Germany. 8. How can people who agree with you help spread the awareness of this project do so in ways other than buying the DVD or just talking to their friends about it? I wouldn’t say they would have to agree with my perspective…I’m still as skeptical about it as the next person. I believe the film captures what’s happening on the dancefloor from the perspective of the participants—which is the only real perspective you can gather as the experience itself is beyond words and bounded by direct experience. There is a shadow side to all of this that certainly warrants skepticism. But the dark half of the phenomena should not over-shadow the often inspiring lesser-known half of their story. I would encourage anyone curious to watch the film and decide for themselves.
9. What are the next steps? Where do we as a dance-music infused culture go from here? I can’t really say where the culture is headed. They have certainly built up an astonishing history thus far. For me, it’s been an interesting journey to watch the growth for almost a decade now. When I first began research on the community I certainly foresaw its potential, which it seems to have reached the full-fruition of that in the last three to four years. And I think there are various trajectories in play. Transformational festivals are moving in one direction, the EDM industry is moving in another, psytrance continues to spread across the globe and even Gabber is making a resurgence. The one universal trajectory is its sheer growth. Electronic music is massive and seems to be laying the groundwork for generations to come.
10. What event are you personally looking forward to most in 2015? Finishing grad school!
*If you enjoy this film and want to show your support, you can view the film for $2.99, or get the DVD for $19.99 at www.electronicawakening.com. The proceeds from our website go directly to helping payoff the production of the film.