Inside the tiniest tent at Coachella with the biggest speakers, a minor crisis is brewing. A couple of eager folks who have been granted backstage access at Despacio, the bespoke 50,000-watt dance floor setup making its North American debut at the California festival and coming to Panorama in New York this July, are abusing their privileges. There are reports of unsanctioned entries into the DJ booth, of attempted high fives. Such schmoozing is par for the course at Coachella, whose reputation as a VIP meetup often threatens to eclipse its status as a music festival. But at Despacio, which is as much a feat of sound engineering as a bold experiment in crowd engineering and, well, manners, a line has been crossed. The guests are — politely — booted.
You can't entirely blame the intruders for not getting the memo. Coachella has to be the most celebrity-obsessed of all major music festivals currently in operation, and the man behind the decks at the moment happens to be James Murphy, the founder and lead singer of LCD Soundsystem, who closed out the main stage the night before in a high-profile, much-blogged-about reunion show. But once you're inside Despacio, the main stage may as well be in another galaxy. The crowd is lighter by a few tens of thousands, but that's not the most interesting difference between the two settings. Rather than a horde of festivalgoers aiming their attention at a stage and angling their dancing bodies toward the people on it, the energy in Despacio is decentered. The revelers in the cozy tent aren't paying attention to the booth; they're paying attention to each other, and the music.
Watch 360 video from the Despacio dance floor
"I think that in the States, even moreso than in Europe, dance music has become almost an oxymoron." I'm talking to David Dewaele in the cramped artists' trailer parked behind the tent, where the bass from Murphy's set blurs with the thumping pyrotechnics coming from the nearby Sahara tent. He and his brother Stephen — of the band Soulwax, and the DJ outfit 2manyDJs — teamed up with Murphy back around 2012 with the intent of creating a kind of dance music utopia, partially as a response to the current landscape of DJ shows. "It's not about dancing anymore," he says. "It's about facing a stage, it's about looking at some kind of god-like figure. There's no space to really dance."
Worlds away from the Sahara tent
Walk into Despacio, as I did many times at many different hours of the day across the weekend, and you will see no shortage of really dancing. For a while I post up near the door, watching people enter the tent for the first time, looking up in wonder as the huge disco ball looms overhead and their fellow Coachellites cut loose to disco and soul tracks. It's cleansing, and chill, and not just because the tent is equipped with A/C — the polar opposite of the sweaty, hyped-up sets playing out across the polo field. Murphy and the Dewaeles tag team on the decks, and the tempo stays in the mellow 100 bpm range, gradually increasing over the course of the afternoon. Security has been instructed to keep the headcount under 950 — the tent can hold more, but giving everyone ample space to express themselves across Despacio's surreal checkered floor is paramount. There are flocks of rave bros getting their Saturday Night Fever moves on, girls in flowy sundresses finally free to twirl with impunity. There is also a fair amount of PDA.
"Almost every photo yesterday was of people making out," David says. I tell him I witnessed some grinding during a slower end of the set, and he nods approvingly. "That's the biggest compliment we can get."
Throughout the weekend, there are always a few sound snobs hovering around the edges of the tent, taking reverent photos of the speakers on their phones. They're beautiful — and I say this as someone with next to no capacity for gear fetish — eight 11-foot stacks of analog McIntosh amplifiers, their Gothic-font logo glowing in the dimness of the tent, power output needles swinging wildly against electric-blue monitors. The speakers were vetted carefully by Murphy and the Dewaeles, and were the same model used at Woodstock and by the Grateful Dead for their Wall of Sound. The sound they pump out from the all-vinyl set is warm and huge, but never abrasive. The vibrations feel like something edible. Being in the presence of these things is like being surrounded by undetonated WWII bombs — they're heavy as shit, and they could totally blow your head off.
While the sonic purists and LCD fanboys certainly make up some of Despacio's target demo, what Murphy and the Dewaeles have enjoyed most is the sense of discovery in their little analog refuge. "There's a guy in there, he's dancing, and it's insane; it's beautiful to watch," Stephen Dewaele says, shortly after stepping out of the booth. "I just wanted to go out there and say, 'thank you'. He was doing the craziest moves. He was totally in that world, which makes it all worth it."
In Stephen's observation, some of the most enthusiastic attendees have been those who walk in knowing nothing. "Someone came up and was like, 'Hey, I don't know what this is, but could you play some Gary Numan?'" He grins contagiously, shaking his head. "I thought it was really cute. It was totally — he had no idea who we were, or who James was."
There's very little in the way of explanation before entering Despacio, only a block-lettered sign reading "ENTER" and a snaking row of barricades leading to the door. It makes the Yuma tent, the indoor dance floor that was instated in 2013 to introduce a more alternative dance scene to Coachella, seem ostentatious by comparison. There's no setlist posted outside, and usually no crowd. It feels improbable that the festival would allow such a low profile for a setup that's so expensive to install. The speaker towers weigh in at 30,000 kg, and this is the first time they've hopped the pond, after several runs at European festivals. The astronomical cost means that Murphy and the Dewaeles never see a profit from a Despacio gig. Where they've set up shop thus far is entirely dictated by what venue is willing to pay to lug those speakers to the site.
"The fact that it's a [financial loss] for everyone —what that does is drive everyone to do it because you really want to do it," says David. "It's like, 'Can we do it? Yes! Someone's paying for it? Yes.' We'll be there. We'll cancel everything else."
There's nothing more than a sheet of black-painted particle board separating the dance floor from the booth, but it's high enough to render the DJs almost invisible from across the room. The obscurity is crucial to the ethos of Despacio, but it doesn't keep a few folks from sticking their phones over the barrier to get a candid shot of Murphy. For the most part, though, people seem to enjoy getting lost in the music. On more than one occasion, after dancing for who knows how long, I look up and try to reorient myself, and for a second I can't — the room is virtually the same from every angle. It's an unpredictable space to be in, people move in ways they perhaps wouldn't feel comfortable moving in at other parts of the festival. At one point, a security guard abandons his post to dance with the crowd, and they welcome him eagerly.
Over the weekend, Despacio becomes a shared special secret within the Coachellaverse; several people I talk to cite their time there as the most pure fun they have all weekend. After a couple hours in the tent my friends and I make a brief, requisite visit to Do Lab, the most Burning Man corner of the festival. The Do Lab space is a different flavor of trippy each year; this year's set up resembles something between a treehouse and the hull of a wooden boat. It feels oddly cramped, and much too bright — "I'm very aware of how everyone's looking in one direction," my Verge colleague Liz Lopatto says at one point. We eventually leave because it smells too much like feet.
Spending a prolonged amount of time at Despacio does make you realize things about most live dance experiences that you wouldn't have noticed before. The limited movement, the predictable builds and drops. "Despacio isn't necessarily a reaction to that, but it was more all of us looking around the world and going, 'Shit, the balance is out of whack,'" David says. "It's not that that shouldn't exist, but there's only this. And instead of being old dudes in the business-class lounge complaining about how life isn't good anymore, we should do something about it."
At the end of the night on Sunday, the warm banks of bulbs circling the Despacio tent fade up, and a remix of "Here Comes the Sun" fades in. The sparse attendees who've stuck it out until now begin swaying, basking in the artificial sunlight. Murphy thanks the crowd for coming out in as sincere a way as he seems capable of, and the applause is deep and grateful; an acknowledgement of what a true labor of love all this is. As the lights go down, Murphy puts on Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place." It's on the nose, as my friend points out later, but sometimes things are on the nose because they work. Murphy lets the whole song play out, and for four minutes a room full of strangers are singing along to each other under Despacio's roving spotlights. "I'm just an animal, looking for a home, and to share the same space for a minute or two," David Byrne wails over the formidable sound system. This must be the space.