It’s About Participation:

The Outsider’s Guide to OCML’s EDM Shows

Sept. 5, 2018
By Mark Berman

Recently, the Orange County Music League has booked a significantly larger amount of electronic music shows. As they probably should. After all, reaching out and connecting with a whole new scene and culture can only be a net positive for both OCML and the local music scene as a whole.

Here’s the problem: I’m not a part of this culture, and now I have to write about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a flat-out rockist. As far as electronic music goes, I’ve become a casual-to-devoted fan of the likes of Big Data, Robert DeLong, M83 and Eric Taxxon, among others. Most recently, one music reviewer friend specializing in the genre got me hooked on early Jean-Michel Jarre records. Hell, even the 2nd Law-era Muse shirt I wore on this particular evening shows I’m quick to defend a band’s choice to dabble in those styles.

That said, I hesitated at first when asked to do a write-up on last Friday’s House Hits Home show at The Rush Bar & Grill in Lake Forest. I can represent the feeling of an alt-rock club rager just fine, but a small bar’s free EDM night will take a different approach. Then I figured: why not double down on my cluelessness for all it’s worth? Many a local music fan are in a similar position as me, perhaps on the fence whether even the trip out would be worth it. You know, social interaction and all.

Well, allow your friendly neighborhood introvert to give you a few pointers on what to expect.

View of the floor from the comfy table I stationed myself at.

#1: THE ACTUAL MUSIC

I’ll start with the obvious disclaimer: if you have absolutely no tolerance for the pulsating, bassy sound of house music, shows like this may be a harder sell. For the most part, every downbeat has a kick and every upbeat has a hi-hat, only broken up by the occasional buildup to a smooth drop. That said (assuming this show is a good example), don’t live in fear of the kind of blaring synth tones you’d find on your average Calvin Harris or Zedd hit. One DJ on the lineup, Keith Craig, aka Phonolis, explained to me that the soundtrack to a show like this isn’t meant to overwhelm the senses.

“Not a lot of people [in Orange County] are die-hard electronic music fans,” Craig says. “So, when they do go out to bars, music is kind of an afterthought. It’s more of a social atmosphere… very different from going to a dark warehouse or a dark bar that’s specifically for dance music.”

That confirmed an observation I had early on: many people in this bar might be just as out-of-touch as I am. Just with a little less inhibition to get up and move when they feel like it. The DJ’s goal is to make them feel like it.

“It’s music first, dance music second,” Craig says. “Especially in Orange County. You have to play music that’s gonna catch their ear, and not a lot of overly repetitive music does that.”

As an audience member that night, I can say I experienced just that. Repetitive and groove-focused enough to fade into the background when need be, while throwing in a cool sonic idea every now and then to keep things from getting monotonous. The beat even keeps going between sets, as one DJ walks off the stage to pass the digital baton to the next without a word to the crowd.

“If you hear about the party, look up the DJs online, listen to what they’re playing,” Craig suggests. “If it’s something that suits you, come out and enjoy the party. Not all dance music is created equal.”

View of the bar, just a few feet from the last pic.

#2: THE PARTY (& why you shouldn’t worry about it)

Like you may have gathered by this point, shows like this (again, if this night’s any indication) aren’t that worried about getting your undivided attention. The DJs play a key part, no question about that. But you probably won’t see much in the way of stage banter between songs, plugs for the merch booth, or other practices you’d otherwise call standard at a bar venue like this.

This affects the general structure of the night too. Unfortunately, because of some unexpectedly long stops, I ended up arriving half an hour late at 8:30. Lucky for me though, the show had still barely started, a chill vibe with the first DJ pumping a steady stream of thrumming grooves into the room. If you’re apprehensive, don’t worry; you aren’t thrown into the house fire (so to speak) quite yet.

About 20 minutes later, I spotted the first hints of dancing. Again though, it’s gradual, as a small handful of people crowd around the open floor area between the tables and the stage for some low-key swaying and bopping. More than anything, things are getting a bit looser. Lights turn off one by one.

By 9 only the bar and the floor are occupied, the latter with a growing cluster in the middle (following samples the DJ triggers at one point to “C’MON” and “DANCE”). But even at the peak, you can still find people casually migrating between the two. The peak comes not when everyone’s dancing, but when anyone can feel comfortable to if they want. Case in point: the traditional couples-dancing set to the four-on-the-floor beats that briefly popped up around 10.

By this point, I get a key part of the appeal; it feels like less of a focused gig you need to stay until a headliner for, and more of a leveling-up of your average Friday night bar trip. I can respect that.

#3: OTHER COOL STUFF

So you’re sitting at the bar and you’ve gotten the general idea. But say you feel weird about getting on the floor, and conversation’s dried up for now at the bar. Aside from the light show on the floor and some low-key people-watching, this event doesn’t give you much to work with as a spectator.

Enter artist (yes, like artist-artist) Amy Kells. After setting up shortly after I came in, she spent the night to the side of the stage treating The Rush to a live painting session. If you need a sense of performance, and the DJ’s subtly-evolving loops don’t totally scratch that itch for you, Kells knows just how to fulfill that. As she explains to me, her experience curating art for festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis Gathering proves her specific chops for complimenting these kinds of underground nightlife vibes.

“I have no idea what I’m gonna be painting,” Kells says. “It just comes out of me. I’m inspired by the energy around me and it gives a different flavor to the art that I make live, rather than the art that I make in the studio.”

Kells also adds onto Craig’s observations about OC’s chiller attitude toward this kind of culture, compared to much of her work with the Noise Revolt collective in the LA area.

“Having something like this in Orange County, where it’s just a humble and good collection of people…” she says. “It gives a home to this culture in my backyard.”

While not the flashiest part of the bar that night, to me this added an extra dimension to the show. It feeds into the culture a show like this is trying to reach, the other side of the coin from the bar experience I detailed earlier.

“Ultimately it’s about participation,” Kells says. “The people who come in the doors, you’re a participant too. Like I encourage people to come up and engage with me while I’m painting, to take photos, that’s fine.”

CONCLUSION

All this observation brings us to the question I posed at the start of this: “I’m not normally into this stuff. Should I go anyway?” Believe me, I was asking that for myself just as sincerely as any of you…

Here’s the facts: it’s a light, low-investment dip in the culture that’ll only cost you gas and drink money. If you see one of OCML’s house/electronic shows happening near you and you’re the least bit curious, it’s worth stopping by for an evening.

I left around 10:30 with a confirmation the night will more or less continue the same way for the next three hours or so. If nothing else, that’s another nice thing that separates it from your average gig: even if you don’t like it, you’re not obligated to stay the whole time.

OCML’s next big house show is tomorrow’s Resonate, the next in a new monthly event at Que Sera in Long Beach. Tickets available now for $5-10.

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