by Eric Evans

Most festival attendees can be divided into two groups: those who are there for the music and those who are there for the atmosphere. The former consider buying a ticket based on the line-up. How many artists on the bill are exciting enough to merit going? The latter certainly may love music, but the specifics are incidental to the main experience, which is immersion into a like-minded community. You might think that specializing in EDM would differentiate What The Festival’s audience, but you’d be incorrect. The WTF crowd boasts a surprisingly high Birkenstock percentage, suggesting that, to a significant number of people, a fest is a fest is a fest.

But What The Festival isn’t just another fest. It’s acres of land, featuring 8 stages, some huge and some intimate. One’s in front of a pair of huge wading pools so hundreds of people can splash and dance and hurl inflatable toys into the air. Another, accessible only by trekking through the Illuminated Forest art exhibit pathway, is shaped like a massive Chinese dragon with a pagoda structure on its back so the DJ stands 10 meters above the dance floor (which is grass), surrounded by trees on all sides.

Other, more intimate, stages are nestled into smaller areas, like the Shinto A Go Go just off the main drag. The Shinto area has a small torii entrance with traditional noren to walk through and features multiple miniature open-air tea houses brewing matcha and herbal blends; Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba fame played a set there Friday night and sounded fantastic. Just down the forest path is the LOL Stage, where decidedly un-techno acts like the LoveBomb Go-Go Marching Band or The Saloon Ensemble might play a half-gypsy, half-flamenco version of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”. It could happen. And after midnight, when the two main stages shut down, the Silent Disco starts up midfield, underneath the massive disco ball. There are few sights as surreal as seeing 200 people swaying in total silence, their wireless headsets glowing blue or red depending on which one of the two DJs they’ve chosen.

As you’d expect the two big stages are where the bigger acts play to crowds of thousands. Visiting the major stages is a breeze, you can pick one and dance nonstop for hours or ping-pong back and forth between the Effin’ Stage and the Main Stage.  Friday night’s dueling stages began to heat up at 8 when StéLouse was on the Effin’ Stage opposite duo Sabota on the Main Stage. Members of Camp Waldo – one of the more visible camp tribes, definitely a thing at WTF – must have been delighted by half of Sabota wearing nautical horizontal stripes and a red woolen beanie, but none could be reached for comment.

Friday night’s Effin’ Stage lineup peaked with twins Kendrick and Sherwin Nicholls’ Two Fresh. StéLouse handed them a good groove and they ran with it, their vocal-heavy, hip-hop-infused, dance music sounding different enough from what had come before to be novel. It helps that both Nicholls are born performers who use every inch of the stage and fire up the crowd, but credit where due: those were some amazing beats. The only quibble with their music might be their frequent use of “bitch” and “ho”, tired tropes that are deeply ingrained into the fabric of old-school hip-hop. But yeah, that’s a quibble. Two Fresh was a top-10 set of the weekend, easy.

When Daktyl played Portland last year, supporting Slow Magic, he was solid, but somehow unremarkable. Perhaps being on tour empowered him? Less than a year later at the WTF Splash Stage his set was unexpectedly bold, featuring an unusual number of tempo changes, as if he was daring the crowd to keep up with him. It worked. He walked a rhythm tightrope, keeping the party going while flirting with less and less traditional beats, giving himself multiple opportunities to drop (and re-drop) the bass. He read the roaring crowd perfectly and delivered one of the most musically memorable sets of the festival, in the sun, at 5 p.m. – no small feat. He had a solid lead-in by Ambassadeurs and made the most of it, upping the ante on the crowd minute by minute.

At a typical rock show there may be a 15 to 30 minute gap between performers to allow breakdown and setup of gear, but at most EDM events these transitions happen organically, as DJs seamlessly blend sets to keep the momentum going. It’s unspoken, but understood that if another DJ or producer is plugging in during the end of your set, it is incumbent upon you to pass it off to them as gracefully as possible. So it was shocking to see a performer pull the musical equivalent of dumping water on a campfire at the end of his set. QUARRY had a challenging time slot; 7 to 8 p.m. is between the poolside Splash Stage closing and the 8 p.m. headliners coming on, when the plurality of attendees get food, rest, and change clothes for the evening festivities. His crowd was not massive, but he had a solid few dozen people dancing when he seemed to have technical difficulties. A hard crackling stop mid-beat, some dialog, then a final track of synth washes, which seemed beatless, capped off by a dead stop, silence, then him saying “That’s it.” Uncool, and enough to dissipate the crowd.

By the time Ellie Herring started her set a moment later, a scant 8 people stood a good way back from the stage. Understand, this isn’t starting from scratch – it’s way harder. This was earning back spurned attention and having to overcome the lure of a very effective Little People set in progress just across the great lawn. You can see both stages, so it’s obvious when one scene is happening and one isn’t. Laurent Clerc a.k.a. Little People had a 15 minute head start and was banging, his trademark electronic sound effects punctuating solid beats that had attracted a large, and growing, crowd.

Some know Ellie Herring from her hooky, minimalist tracks like “Always Just OK,” but her 2015 work has been more muscular and driving – insistent without being aggressive and without the whisper-passive vocals featured on most of Kite Day. It’s a near-complete stylistic reinvention, different and good. Her WTF set picked up where her May tour with Dot left off, lots of percussive beats and short vocal samples that insinuate themselves into your earholes and demand body movement, at times sounding like next generation Jose “Chep” Nuñez or Tuta Aquino’s mid-’80s mixes.  As people poured back onto the festival grounds, heads turned and trajectories were altered as Herring soldiered on. A few minutes in she said “Hi, I’m Ellie, come dance with me.” and they did: 8 became 40 became 120 became 300 and upward, and the music soared. By the end of her hour long set she was handing Sweater Beats a hot crowd in a great mood. It was the biggest turnaround of the weekend and the talk at one of the campfires at 2 a.m. “Did you see Ellie Herring?” “Holy shit, YEAH.”

On paper, the Main Stage has a bit more firepower, lining up artists like GRiZ, Keys N Krates, Machinedrum Vapor City Live, Slow Magic, and Big Gigantic. The latter 3 artists, in particular, benefit from using analog instruments in performance. Watching someone thrash a drum kit or play sax can be a good visual break from the DJ hunched over the controls, not to mention a sonic differentiator. The Main Stage also has LED display screens built in to several vertical surfaces, allowing most of the stage to luminesce.

The first of the headliners to close the stage was GRiZ, who took the opportunity to stretch out his trademark funk; the vocal samples were there as well as slinky Chic-esque guitar snippets and occasional blasts of horns. GRiZ is one of the few artists at WTF whose sound could translate almost identically to a really tight live band, but he did it all himself. Imagine the sound of excellent tracks like “Funk Party” and “Get Down” writ large, with a thousand people stomping along in the dust. His music plays better live than most, he pushed the crowd hard, and might have singlehandedly convinced hundreds of people to consider a move to his hometown of Detroit. His work has always had an earthy, party vibe and that was ideal for the festival setting. Great, great set.

Machinedrum Vapor City Live’s work is less bombastic and more subtle and inspires a more mellow, groovy response. Like the crafting of a good mixtape, WTF organizers were cautious to mix things up from set to set, and Machinedrum’s near-downtempo washes of synth and voice over not-quite-but-almost drum & bass percussion was a kind of hourlong exhalation for the crowd after Hustle and Drone and Little People. Not that the set wasn’t exciting – it was, magnetic even, and an ideal crowd prep lead-in for Big Gigantic’s saxophone driven dance funk.

In scientific terms, people went ape shit for Big Gigantic. The duo – Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken – are veterans of Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, and seemingly every other festival and it shows. Their set started sick and got progressively more insane as it went. Their set also marked the first sighting of one of a pair of massive, luminescent squid puppets, 5 meters high and requiring a minimum of 3 puppeteers. More than most, WTF inspires attendees to want to glow and present their tribes with costumes, signs, and pike-mounted objects that can be seen above the crowd. The massive squids were overkill of the best kind, dancing their way back and forth through the crowd, as Big Gigantic pounded their way through one of the best-received sets of the weekend. Big Gigantic’s set offered strong visuals on the LED screens as well – was that dancing Honda ASIMO robots as well as Apollo astronauts?

As for the other squid, he was undulating his way through the huge mob STWO handed off to TOKiMONSTA. Jennifer Lee’s work can be aurally challenging at times, demanding a careful ear, much like the rest of the Brainfeeder crew. But the set she played at WTF avoided her (at times) dissonant aspects and more experimental time signatures in favor of sleek beats and clever transitions. Fair enough – TOKiMONSTA’s style seems to change up from record to record anyway, and only the most churlish fan would expect her to step on the vibe by breaking out the more avant of her garde. More importantly, TOKi was beside herself, grinning, clearly enjoying the sight of a thousand or so people throbbing up and down to her music.

More than most events of its size, What The Festival places a premium on the variety of experiences offered to the guests. In addition to the stages of various sizes and the silent disco, the Illuminated Forest offers an interactive and beautiful break from the sun and sounds. Take a right at the outdoor hookah lounge and you’ll almost immediately be struck by the otherworldly beauty of the various art installations peppered through the woods.

One retro/futuristic device had hundreds of vintage slides being pulled along several belts which passed backlighting and magnifying glasses. Aside from being visually arresting as an object of curiosity, the feeling of sitting at its base and gazing into those lenses as the images passed by was like a steam-powered View-Master. Directly across the path is a wooden sculpture facing a screen and a Microsoft Kinect: like a giant multitrack theremin, it reads your gestures in conjunction with your selections and allows you to create music by waving your hands in different directions. Further down the path is a queen-bed-sized fiber-optic garden which encouraged tactile interaction.

Turn back toward the main lawn and you’re met with several fantasy forest guardians woven from branches and twigs, each with a luminous heart at its center, as well as a sculpted metal luminous pegasus whose every surface was open for personal messages to be written in the chalk provided. Other installations were less experimental, but just as welcome, such as the huge cushions inside a neon clamshell labeled “We Need New Friends”, the three-animal totem on which line art was projected, and a Mario Kart station. Artists were working on some installations all weekend long, often inviting input or help from attendees.

Cliché as it sounds, the best part of WTF is the people. Tribes representing themselves with costumes, wigs, and standards on 3-meter lengths of PVC; dancers and hoopchicks lighting up the night with luminous hula hoops, whips, and fur collars; yoga practitioners striking precarious poses at the edge of the Splash Stage pool; goths and punks and B-boys and heshers and vape geeks all gearing up and cruising the grounds to see who’s who and what’s what. (That guy with the dreds who flips a stick between two other sticks showed up too, but he goes to every festival – he hasn’t changed his poncho in years.) In most cities they avoid one another, but at WTF they all somehow mesh and become the friendliest crowd imaginable. Maybe the common denominator is loving Big Gigantic.

More photos can be found here.