Brits have their mud-drenched, guitar-soaked Glastonbury, while Stateside hipsters sweat through the indie inferno that is Coachella. But leave it to dance enthusiasts to take the concept of a music festival to a whole other level. Holy Ship! is a three-day mother load of all things electronic music, and last weekend it sailed its maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale, onto the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. We were there.
“Back in ’97, I was on a boat with a bunch of German techno guys, and the idea of a cruise like this popped into my head,” confessed Gary Richards, the producer of LA’s HARD Fests, and the mad genius behind Holy Ship! With a roster of enviable contacts from his DJing days, an active imagination, and serious balls, Richards’ vision coalesced into a weekend-long dance party, spread across several venues on board of a swanky, sixteen-floor, floating skyscraper. He managed to squeeze in over 2000 international guests, and 29 performers that included Fatboy Slim, Diplo and the crew from Paris Social Club (not to mention Ms. Dita von Teese and her favorite stage prop—a gigantic martini glass.)
“My goal has always been to keep this genre credible, by booking artists who are well respected among the fans, and I’m not talking about cheesy, overblown guys who get a lot of radio play,” added Richards. “And when you put that together on a cruise ship heading to Bahamas, then you got something.” Judging by the euphoric fist-pumping crowds, that was something pure magic. “It’s so surreal,” said Margaret Reynolds, who drove down from Chicago before boarding the ship. “The music is amazing, the sky is clear, and we are in the Bahamas. What’s not to love?”
Maybe because the HARD crew was worried that deep bass in the middle of the see might cause a tsunami, they at one point shuttled everyone on board to a private beach, where Fatboy Slim and Dillon Francis performed on top of a pirate ship, to a legion of half-naked fans, all dancing waist deep in the crystal clear ocean. “I love these kinds of gigs,” said Fatboy Slim, who on average plays seventy-five shows per year. “I never go in with an exact plan of what I’m going to play. I feed off the crowd, and here they are so happy, and so is my music,” he added, before closing his set with Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
This type of symbiotic relationship, where a set’s trajectory can intrinsically affect the crowd and vice versa, seems uniquely attributable to electronic music. “That’s the difference between the rocker fans and these guys,” explained Motley Crew’s Tommy Lee, who was onboard spinning with DJ Aero. “They are totally chilled out and nice and just happy to hear this music. My rocker fans will try to have me sign t-shirts so they can auction them off, or ask if I can speak with their buddy back in Arkansas. Here, it’s like peace and love.”
For someone like Tommy Lee, not the first name that pops when it comes to DJing, his love of electronic music is just a natural extension of his love for the medium. “In my head, it’s not like I’m switching back and forth from electronic to rock and roll,” said the drummer, who, starting in February, will be performing with his legendary band for three weeks in Hard Rock Las Vegas. “It’s all music, and having done this for thirty years, I’d be fuckin’ bored with just one thing.”
Holy Ship! made it feel like electronic music was the most popular genre in the country, but despite a few brand names—and especially if measured by radio playtime (not counting the soaring synths you hear on just about every Rihanna track)—it is virtually nonexistent. But that doesn’t deter Richards; if anything, it motivates him. “Look, radio is a relic that in some ways killed music as we knew it by playing the same thing over and over,” he explained, wearing his finest captain hat. “Today we don’t need radio anymore. Most of my reach out comes from Facebook and Twitter.”
Steve Aoki, who rocked the boat with several sets, and whose assortment of side projects includes Dim Mak Records, merchandising, and his new restaurant, Eveleigh, agreed. “What I like about this particular time is that everyone has to do their own homework,” he said. “It is the time of YouTube and Spotify. You’ve got to go out there and find what you like.”
On the second day of the maiden voyage, the boat slammed into a sandbar, keeping its future in jeopardy. “We hit an iceberg!” screamed a panic-stricken passenger. But for this crowd, dressed in animal masks, and carrying glowsticks, any reason is a good one to party hard. The crowd went bananas. (Several towboats eventually freed Holy Ship! from its grainy misery.) “Yeah, we are stuck at sea,” shouted out Cat Burns, from Connecticut. “This is totally awesome and I’m signing up for next year.”
The slight mishap didn’t scare Richards, however, who boldly proclaimed he wants to take his floating party “To the moon in a rocket ship. That would be cool. But for now I’ll be all right with a Holy Ship! around the Mediterranean.”
Steve Aoki, Diplo, and Skrillex.
Photos by Drew Ressler at Rukes.com. Fatboy Slim photo by Erik Voake.