Skrillex, King Of The Dance Club Hit-And-Run
It had been snowing all day and raining all evening when the doors opened at Output on Friday night right after 10 p.m. for Skrillex's appearance, so I felt ready for anything. Not that anyone was expecting too many surprises — a lot of hard, hiccuping beats and jackhammer bass, trap and dubstep and Dutch house, the lingua franca of mainstream nightlife the last few years — in short, what people mean by "EDM."
Output is a club in Brooklyn, open one year, and the hub of Williamsburg's increasingly robust dance-music presence. Their schedule is a who's-who of the international DJ scene, either via the club's own bookings or through external promoters such as Bryan Kasenic of The Bunker, which throws its parties regularly at Output; Q-Tip has a regular DJ gig there as well. Its no-photo policy and lack of promotional interviews, as well as its talent buys, clearly mark it as a destination spot, as does its Funktion-One sound system, widely (though not unanimously) considered the best in the biz.
I have deeply mixed feelings about Output. The staff is very friendly, which is refreshing, and the music is loud and clear from all angles. There are lights and speakers throughout the rectangular venue, so even the upstairs, where soft benches line the two long sides, can and do function as dance floors, and the crowds tend toward the friendly as well. But it's been assembled so carefully it feels antiseptic. It's a tough place to feel truly at home in. There's no grit, no sense that something unexpected might occur. There's been a lot of overstatement in the passel of memorials for the recently shuttered DIY venue 285 Kent, but it's easy to see why someone might have loved that hole. It's harder to imagine anyone loving — not liking, loving — Output.
That isn't nearly the case with its side venue, the Panther Room, where the second floor is way higher than the dance floor, like a lodge in the Pacific Northwest; it has a dozen times the character of the main room. It was partly because I'd first understood that Skrillex was playing the Panther Room that I wanted to see him there; the other was more purely voyeuristic, not to mention journalistic. It helps that I like Skrillex as a producer and DJ — his edition of BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix was one of my favorite sets of last year. But in the end, I'm glad I saw him in the main room, because the smaller venue would have been unbearable. It was difficult enough at times to move through a space four times the Panther Room's size.
The Output appearance was part of what Skrillex's people, and thus the media, referred to as a "Brooklyn takeover," meaning he was playing in a number of venues during Fashion Week — some secret parties, some not. (Output wasn't one of the secret shows.) Often, this sort of event blitz lays the groundwork for a big upcoming album or its like, but for Skrillex, moves like these are the norm. He likes to hit-and-run, dropping in on each of the first two Holy Ship! EDM cruises unannounced and making a cameo during Alvin Risk's set on the first weekend of last year's Ultra Music Festival. (The two released a single together, "Try It Out," this winter.)
It's also, in a way, a demonstration of legitimacy. Yes, Skrillex can get hundreds of people to show up at a random warehouse with little notice; hell, Skrillex could sell out Madison Square Garden if he wanted to. But these hit-and-runs display him as a gigging DJ who likes to throw parties, and keeping things relatively low-key means he can mess around more than when he's sitting in a hydraulic contraption cuing literal fireworks to go off. Legitimacy is the bulwark Output upholds, so seeing Skrillex there made far more sense than imagining the club booking, say, the cake-throwing Steve Aoki.
The night began with Tommie Sunshine, who played his first raves when Skrillex was five years old. He opened with some vintage sounding garage — whose pulsing, on-beat keyboard parts have a sensuous punch to them that, on that big system, revealed themselves as precursors to the body-centricity of wobbly dubstep bass, riffs traveling through the body as well as the ear. Sunshine spent an hour traveling through a lot of earlier house and garage before shifting gears, subtly but surely, to the EDM present, dot-connecting to new tracks like the Morse-code riffing "Gecko," by Oliver Heldens, to the Disco Fries' "Philtrum," whose lockstep laser-bass drops had some enthusiastic dudes getting their Riverdance on upstairs around a quarter to midnight.
This is a good time to mention that this was, point blank, the nicest crowd I've been in for a long time — absolutely no attitude, everyone focused on the music and their friends, politeness the rule. Everyone seemed to genuinely be enjoying herself. I had wondered about this going in — a den of vanguard dance music hosting the most paradigmatic artist of the new dance mainstream; who would win the tug of war? The answer is no one, because no tug of war existed. Some people dressed up more than others, but in the main there was almost no flash, by which I mean neon. These were adults, not the younger kids you see at many of the big festivals (or, I'm told, the warehouse events Skrillex played elsewhere in Brooklyn). You could barely move on the dance floor, but elsewhere there was little of the harried jostling for position that usually accompanies a big show in a small space like this one — especially during Fashion Week.
Moreover, they were adults with jobs and lives outside the club. Often, what separates EDM fans from the folks who usually go to Output — Pitchfork writer Tim Finney once suggested the term "dahnce," pronounced with a Euro or Aussie tinge, to differentiate the hipster-leaning stuff from the mainstream — is class. At Skrillex there was a noticeable thinning out around two a.m., halfway into his set. (It filled back up in a hurry, rest assured.) These were, in the main, ordinary people who liked this guy so much they were willing to stand out in the freezing rain for (at least) an hour to make sure they got in to see him. They came for a good time, and they got it.
That good time had two clear parts. Skrillex came on after the unfortunately named Bro Safari, whose trap-dubstep-etc. mélange was a lot more fully amalgamated than the headliner's first hour (not to mention the more self-conscious variants on the same template a few months ago at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival). The first half of Skrillex's set was full of new material that leaned on rough house beats far more than dubstep ones, and including plenty of quick cameos from obvious touchstones: the Prodigy's 1996 "Firestarter," (I think) Switch's 2005 "A Bit Patchy," Bingo Players' 2011 "Cry (Just a Little)," and, from last year, A$AP Ferg and A$AP Rocky's "Shabba" (which also popped up during Sunshine's set) and Green Velvet's "Bigger Than Prince" — all reliable thrills, anchoring a set with a lot of change-ups, little of it holding still for more than a minute or so.
None of it cohered like the Essential Mix or hit-you-like-a-kiss the way his Electric Zoo set in 2012 did; clearly it's a work in progress. That's the advantage of doing small shows for the diehards — you can figure things out in real time for a real crowd. The other advantage, especially for the diehards, is that the second half of Skrillex's set was far more brutish and bass-heavy — filled with his big hits ("Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," "Bangarang," his remix of Nero's "Promises"), the way Neil Young might throw in "Heart of Gold" after six or seven previously unheard songs, a reward for letting the headliner stretch out.
It was a needed energy boost. The rivet-gun bass lines' return certainly seemed to relieve some of the audience, including one guy on the second floor whose air-beatdown aggro dance looked like he'd learned it from the fight scene of an old Fleischer Brothers Popeye short. They also made it plain how uneven the Skrillex corpus is: "Bangarang," yes now and forever (especially following TWRK's "Badinga!" like it did Thursday); his Doors "collabo," not so much. The latter anchored the set's most cartoony stretch, full of bass lines woolly and willful as finger paintings. When they tightened up, those dubstep clichés breathed and gained force, like straightening a frame on a wall and bringing a room into focus.
Not that a regular-sized club with a super-sized headliner can be called "unfocused," precisely — even with Skrillex getting on the mike too many times, an energy-diffuser in this context. (None of these folks needed his instruction to scream when the bass lines dropped.) But in a space that can feel too streamlined for its own good, Skrillex's rambunctiousness was a tonic — just as it was an up to see someone who could remain an aloof pop phenomenon get his hands dirty for people willing to do the same for him. In the best possible way, they deserve each other.