Report From Distortion Festival 2012

This was my second year attending the Distortion Festival — the “celebration of Copenhagen nightlife” that basically takes over Denmark’s capital city for a week every year — and once again the experience did not disappoint. Essentially a week long street party/pseudo-rave, the festival takes over various neighborhoods in Copenhagen throughout the week, flooding the streets with over 100,000 people who turn the city into a giant dance party (complete with endless street drinking and lots of questionable fashion choices) the likes of which would never even be attempted in most big cities. My Distortion week got off to a rocky start as I accidentally slept through the Chromatics’ show on the festival’s opening night (Thinking that you can take a short nap after not sleeping for two days and spending 12 hours on airplanes is similar to the lie you tell yourself in college that you’ll just wake up extra early in the morning and study before the exam — it never works out), but I feel like I more than made up for it. The weeklong party is a veritable smorgasbord of DJs from around the globe working within every possible genre, as well as a smattering of dance-friendly bands playing at night. My main problem with the daytime DJs was that half the time I had no idea who I was actually seeing/hearing spin; an understandable problem when the often makeshift DJ booths are scattered around the city and are generally obscured by thousands of impossibly stylish Danish teenagers losing their minds in the middle of the afternoon. Attending Distortion also guarantees that you start drinking/dancing around 3pm every day, which means by the time you make it to the big-ticket nighttime parties, you are ghost being kept alive by energy drinks and test-tube Jagermeister shots.

Still, the nighttime highlights were plentiful. On Thursday evening I managed to survive the day parties and keep it together long enough to see Sissy Nobby (bringing the bounce to the Danes) at a Dancehall party and Lust For Youth perform at the party hosted by Danish label Posh Isolation. Each of Distortion’s four days offers a dizzying array of options, including a series of pop-up parties that happen in an around Copenhagen. On Friday I was invited to board a “raverbus” that would take us to a semi-secret pop up in the Copenhagen suburbs. The bus came complete with a trance DJ and enough booze to stock a small liquor store in Brooklyn. The bus ride alone was worth the price of admission (which was free), but things got truly crazy after we were deposited in a vacant lot under a random highway overpass about 30 minutes outside the city. Within a few minutes of our arrival, the lot was suddenly home to a traveling sound system, S&M-inspired Extra Action Marching Band from San Francisco, and about 1,500 kids. I was offered free beers by at least a dozen friendly strangers, all of whom were concerned that I didn’t appear to be drinking enough, which was actually a good thing otherwise I would have never made it to the big parties happening later that night. There were a total of six different themed parties happening on Friday night, but I opted to see Trentemøller and Tim Sweeney at the “house” party in Enghavevej. At some point I staggered back to my hotel, not realizing that my entire back had been covered in Distortion stickers while I stood in line at a beer tent. I woke up with one on my arm.

The enormous final party on the last night of Distortion was like a scene out of some apocalyptic rave movie. Located at a repurposed shipyard at the edge of the city, the epic party played host to nine different stages of various shapes and sizes, all of them scattered around the massive industrial location. The “Raverbus” that had shuttled us to the pop up party on the previous day was filled with lights and smoke machines and hoisted via crane several hundred feet above the dancing crowds, which were now more than 40,000 strong. Even when making a concerted effort to visit every stage at least once (several of which were housed in massive circus tents), it’s virtually impossible to take it all in. I made a point of spending time in the Kompakt tent (where Michael Mayer and Tobias Thomas were spinning) and the stage hosted by 100% Silk (offering Nguzunguzu and Maria Minerva) before going to watch Kasper Bjørke on the Electro stage (and breaking for the most shockingly tasty Thai food I’ve eaten a music festival, which was located across from a liquor stand that sold only mojitos) At some point in the AM, after catching an excellent performance in the inevitable Vice/Noisey tent by Brooklyn’s Zebra Katz (and enjoying listening to a crowd of Danes screaming, “Ima read that bitch!”), I ended up watching Matias Aguayo on the big stage and later Awesome Tapes From Africa (awesome!) in another random tent before making the executive decision that I had officially lost what was left of my Jager-soaked brain and I should go home. With so much music hitting you from so many directions, I found that the music itself almost became secondary to just enjoying the collective sensory experience, plus most of the DJs were turning in pretty short sets, so unless you parked yourself at one stage and tried to follow the lineup, it was easy to miss things.

As the sun came up on Copenhagen, I got back to my hotel just as many of fellow music journalist nerd friends were drunk tweeting from the Primavera Festival in Spain. I fell asleep thinking about the difference between Distortion and a gazillion other more traditional music festivals I’ve attended. While it certainly caters outright to electronic music and less to marquee name bands, Distortion succeeds at something that few other festivals could even attempt. Each day the festival embeds itself in a different neighborhood in the city (for which the streets are closed and everyone is encouraged to chill the fuck out and do whatevs), so visitors to Copenhagen who manage to make it through all the day parties leave with a strong sense of what the city is really like (and a surprising knowledge of the subway system). Distortion is certainly more of a vacation destination kind of festival than almost any other I’ve been to, but that’s really what makes it so endearing. Even with over 100,000 people crowding the streets and clubs over the course of a week, there were less than a dozen reported arrests. (Take a second and imagine if someone tried to do something similar in NYC. Horrifying). Earlier in the night I asked Distortion founder Thomas Fleurquin (who arrived to the final night party via a helicopter that swooped over the crowds) just how difficult it was to pull off such an increasingly massive party each year. “We have over 800 volunteers, so that helps,” he said, “but most people in Copenhagen love Distortion and will really look out for each other. They just want to have a good time, so we’re just trying to give them the best possible ways to do it.”

[Street party photos by Clint Heyer.]