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MoogFest Festival Review

MoogFest was indeed comparable to a Disneyland for electronic music and tech connoisseurs alike. Spanning May 19-22, it took place at several venues located in downtown Durham all within walking/biking distance to each other. This event was so unique in its format of learning, engaging, and networking with other festival-goers in the day and partying at night. It’s safe to say there was literally something for everyone– film festivals, conversations, concerts, interactive art, music, and tech installations, workshops, lectures, and a combination of everything in between. There were themes for each event that included Transhumanism, Art & Artificial Intelligence, Afrofuturism, Technoshamanism, Hacking Sound Systems, Radio & the Radiophonic, and Instrument Innovators. My experience with Moog was nothing short of memorable, inspiring, and non-stop booty shakin’ magic.

Upon first arriving at Moog, I was overwhelmed by figuring out the logistics about where everything was taking place and how to decide what to attend. At all times there were at least 4-5 events happening and a plethora of additional installations to visit. Thankfully, Moog provided a physical map of Durham with all of the venues labeled, a schedule of events, and a phone app that worked seamlessly and was updated in real time with any minor changes in scheduling.

The first event I attended was A Cyborg’s Synaesthetic Pedicure in the Durham Arts Council Theatre. This event’s theme was Transhumanism and involved Neil Harbisson, a man with an antenna device permanently implanted to his head, and Pau Riba, Catalan versatile artist and musician, who played an acoustic set. The antennae device allowed Neil to hear the frequencies of color and in turn, he painted Riba’s toe nails with the colors he “heard”.  After the performance there was a q&a session open for discussion in which Riba and Harbisson explained how different notes correlated to different shades of colors. I wandered out of the theatre and got in a short line to enter Realiti – Inside the Music of Grimes. Microsoft and Listen partnered with Moogfest to develop this interactive installation in which participants could push and move their hands along a stretchy mesh webbing to remix Grimes’ 2015 track “Realiti”.

Next I walked over to The Armory, a large indoor space with an upper balcony, for a VIP Opening Party featuring DJ/producer Laurel Halo. Her sounds are eclectic, spanning Detroit to Germany, from Jamaica to the UK. Halo is currently based out of Berlin and hosts a monthly radio show on Berlin Community Radio. She definitely had a refined deep house feel and really got me moving.

After warming up my dance moves and my liver, I headed over to an outdoor venue, Motorco Park, for an acoustic/electronic-fused band, Hundred Waters. The lead female vocalist’s voice was beautifully chilling backed by flowing organic and electronic beats and sounds. Similar to producers like Stereolab, Four Tet, and Bjork, this band has gained fans and admirers across the music spectrum. Hundred Waters is signed to Skrillex’s successful label, OWSLA, and they have toured with artists like Alt-L, the XX, Jack U, Grimes, Julia Holter, and more. Give them a listen here!

Next door to Motorco Park was the indoor Motorco Music hall where I heard Finnish Jaakko Eino Kalevi’s electronic set. His set could be described as 80’s hazy electronic pop, disco, and soft rock. I enjoyed his set and would suggest listening to his song “Deeper Shadows” and “Hush Down” to get a feel for his sound. The next move for me was back to the Motorco Park to catch Floating Point’s performance. Producer/composer of Floating Points, Sam Shepherd, simultaneously created his jazz, electronic, and soul album, Elaenia, while working towards his PhD in neuroscience. This musical mastermind had me transfixed and mesmerized throughout the set and his visualizer was on point.

A couple blocks away at The Armory, I caught Qrion’s DJ set. Hailing from Japan, Qrion has worked with Ryan Hemsworth and released her latest remix of Giraffage’s “Tell Me” on Fool’s Gold record label. Her set was high energy, booming with bass, and had really cool visuals like one of sushi pieces streaming up in front of a twitter post, “#Sushi is the most good way to get high”. I wandered over to Motorco Park to catch Grammy-winning Miike Snow’s performance. His set was upbeat and had everyone grooving to their hits “Paddling Out”, “Genghis Khan”, “Silvia”, “Black and Blue”, and had an encore to their top-hit,  “Animal”. To finish off my night I caught Ryan Hemsworth’s set at the Armory. The talented Canadian Record Producer/DJ’S music blends hip-hop, R&B, indie rock, and dance music in one cohesive set that was bumping until 2am.

My second day at Moog took off at The Carolina Theatre with a live Podcast recording, Song Exploder, in which the two producers from Odesza took apart one of their new songs and described how each layer was created with host, Hrishikesh Hirway. They discussed that they were exhausted with heavy electronica and wanted to return to making music that first got them interested in producing– natural, soothing ambient sounds, hence their newest album. Furthermore, Odesza credited their friend and musician, Sean, as one of the key proponents in their music. When they’re starting to create a song, Sean creates a tune on his guitar that is turned into the backbone of their songs. To check out Song Exploder podcast click here.

After having a drink at Bar Vergil, I caught a few unique short film screenings directed by Maf Lewis including, ‘Gagglebox, The Silence, and Zombies 1985’. They were all performed with a live score by Tara Busch of I Speak Machine. It was fantastically creepy to hear Busch’s vocals and to see her work her magic on an analog synth live to the films. I’ve come to learn that the suspenseful emotions emitted from a horror film is at least half, if not more, originating from the musical score.

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Professor Toon was next on my agenda. I got to experience this high-energy producer, rapper, and songwriter perform and get the crowd hyped. He tells stories through his trap, modern hip-hop, electro music and has worked alongside GZA, Meek Mill, De La Soul, Mike Posner, and Big Sean. Next door at Motorco Park, I checked out duo Bob Moses. Consisting of Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance, the performance was enjoyable and had me grooving to Howie’s sultry vocals and guitar playing while Vallance created deep, flowing instrumentals. Listen to their song Tearing Me Up here to get a feel for their sound.

I stayed at Motorco Park to get a good spot for the next seemingly popular and anticipated performance by Grimes. Canadian-born singer, songwriter, record producer, and Music Video director, Claire Boucher, put on a hell of a production. She had a backup singer and two choreographed dancers joining her on stage while she performed her high-energy electro synth-pop, darkwave, and witchy screamo. Her sound reminded me of a eclectic, out-there mix between Crystal Castles meets ABBA meets K-pop. Check out her self-directed music video to Realiti here. At the same venue, Odesza performed next. Electronic Seattle duo, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, played an incredible instrumental set with two drum pads and backup instrumentalists on the trombone and trumpet. Recently they have embraced more of an ambient, visceral sound that was still high energy with strong seamless beats and catchy, blissful lyrics and harmony. Listen to their latest album, In Return.

At midnight, American rapper, producer, and former Wu-Tang Clan member, GZA, performed at Motorco Park. His set was meaningful and moving as he would start off a song with spoken word poetry to convey his messages that were along the lines of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a need for police reform, education, and real-life stories recanted. He would break into song and his funk-filled band would join him. I was really impressed with the band backing GZA’s lyrics and was appreciative to have seen this icon perform. I finished off my night at The Armory seriously dancing my ass off to a female dance music Pioneer and creative director, The Black Madonna. Her music ranged from techno and disco, from deep detroit house to progressive minimalism. I’m absolutely in love with her music, mixes, and the high-energy she emitted at Moog. Do yourself a favor and check her out here.

Saturday I started my day off attending a keynote speaker on the Future of Creativity featuring the humble, progressive, and interesting pioneer of Virtual Reality, Jaron Lanier. His speech quickly jumped around subjects but I really enjoyed what he said about the original and intended goal of virtual reality devices to be a tool of empathy, of music and technology and how they are being used wrongly as weapons, and his optimism that the future of creativity needs to and will encompass love, humanity, and empathy through technologies. Lanier also introduced and played an ancient musical instrument from Southeast Asia. He described its origin and how this device ultimately influenced the rest of the entire world’s technologies during the Silk Route leading up to today’s most technical tools and devices, even the internet! Lanier’s mentor was Bob Moog, he grew up creating high-tech musical instruments called, Theremins, and even worked alongside Al Gore to politically push the start of the Internet.

At a smaller grungy venue, Pinhook, I got to experience RBTS Win perform. Hailing from Asheville, powerful vocalist Cliff Worsham, synth player Javier Bolea, and guitarist Josh Chassner played an emotionally charged, high energy, dark wave, and nature-inspired set. In between songs, Cliff expressed his love and appreciation for the audience and acknowledged the HB2 bathroom policy and pretty much told Pat McCrory to shove it. Furthermore, Cliff introduced the band’s song, “Mountain Child” by telling a story of himself sitting upon a mountain top, gazing at the landscape, calling out to the mountains, and saying “this is what the mountains called back”… Their set was nothing short of moving. You can listen to their music here.

Back over at the Armory, I sat down at a lecture/performance titled IBM Watson Cognitive DJ Battle. This event was neat in that a DJ would create a short tune and then software, IBM Watson, would take about fifteen seconds to process that tune and create its own version of a song. It was basically a DJ battle between human and computer and it was so fascinating hearing what the computer came up with because it was vastly different from the original sound. I hoped on my bike and rode over to the American Tobacco Campus, a historical tobacco factory turned business and food marketplace, to watch internationally known vocalist, beatboxer, musician, and comedian, Reggie Watts. His performance was 100% improvised, catchy, and hilarious in Watt’s unique entertaining way. He created a song “Endure Durham” on the spot and had the entire crowd nodding and jamming throughout.

Shallou, Chicago-based electronic producer, played at the Motorco Music Hall. His sound comprised of upbeat ambient and progressive melodies that sampled natural sounds. His voice was beautiful and reminded me of Chet Faker but without the australian accent. Click here to check out his sound. Lorely Rodriguez aka Empress of, vocalist and songwriter, performed at the Motorco Park next. Her set was nothing short of soulful, empowering synth-pop. She performed from her album Me which is beautifully written about the different stages of a relationship. Listen to Empress of here.

Demo Taped, 18 year old Atlanta native, put on an incredibly energetic and soulful performance unlike anything I have heard/seen before. He’s a one-man band with a sound that can be described as r&b infused electronica and soul. It’s hard not to vibe with vocalist and musician, Demo Taped, as his emotions are so genuine and infectious. Not going to lie, the next performance I caught, Sun O))), kind of trolled me and the entire crowd who were not familiar with their music and performance style. Picture a couple of men dressed in long black hooded robes, constant thick fog rolling in front of them, and a constant heavy demonic bass. No lyrics. No beat. No melody. Essentially the crowd was quite impressed at the dramatic get-up at first and then confused as to if anything was going to happen. But, hey give them a listen for yourself here.

Honestly, I’m biased when it comes to the next review of electronica-pop duo YACHT. Comprised of the lovely singer/scientist/theorist Claire Evans and the ever-talented high-school dropout/musician Jona Bechtolt, these two are non-stop energy that can described as playful, cynical, witty, and Tom Tom Club-esque. They played a variety of songs from their albums, Shangri-La, See Mystery Lights, and new songs off their album I thought the Future Would be Cooler. The entire crowd was jumping and singing along to their facetious song “I Wanna Fuck You Till I’m Dead”. I remember Evans introducing their song Black Magic as being about death and then stating that the rest of the songs would be about sex. They’re so much fun and a treat to see live. Check them out here.

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The last set I experienced at Moog was at the Carolina Theatre of the musical masterminds Explosions in the Sky.  I was really excited to have made it to this late-night show in time before they closed the doors due to maximum capacity. I bought a popcorn and found a seat in the front. Explosions is one of the most commercially successful bands of their type scoring several motion pictures and being featured in tv shows, films, and video games. Their sound was powerful, progressive, and moody indie rock.  Across the row from me I observed a pregnant woman holding her belly and her husband’s hand as he was being moved to tears. Their unborn child may have been the luckiest to experience Explosions in the Sky pre-birth. The entire crowd seemed to be at peace and transfixed on the entire set and it was a great way to end the long day.

The final day of MoogFest included installations, speakers, and film screenings. One of my favorite parts of the entire festival was attending a workshop in which I tried out a Theremin led by instrument master, Dorit Chrysler. This musical instrument, created by Leon Theremin in 1919, was the first electronic instrument ever invented. It is played without being touched and uses two oscillators to react off of one’s hand and arm movements as it enters and moves about the electromagnetic spectrum. One hand controls volume and tones the sound while your other hand controls the pitch. It’s truly a magical instrument and I must confess that my next paycheck will go to splurging on Moog’s Theremini. After the workshop I checked out the Modular Marketplace which is a store with Moogs and other technologies on display for demo. I played with a Moog connected to a circuit-board that participants could rewire to their heart’s content. I was so impressed that the store was more of a play space for trying out all of the various synths and technologies than an actual store just trying to get products out the door.

Finally, as I wandered back to my car exhausted and sore from dancing the entire weekend, yet intellectually and emotionally fulfilled, I couldn’t help but reminisce on the whole weekend. I thought of the wide variety of people I met– from the kind CEO of a successful former “start-up”, to the young man, Xela, with blue hair and black eye-liner who unexpectedly became my new friend/dance partner-in-crime. I remembered and appreciated the plethora of styles of music I heard– from Wu-Tangs’ GZA to disco-pop YACHT, from deep house & techno master Black Madonna to 18-year-old soulful Demo Taped. I thought about the inspiring and quirky speeches of Virtual Reality creatives/technology pioneers and the educational and moving workshops and films. Moogfest will forever remain the theme park/party palace of my dreams and the dreams of other musically-inclined tech geeks. My only suggestion is buy the ticket, take the ride. You won’t regret it. Oh, and bring your bike!


Check out my photos from Moog below!


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