Sounding Board

Vaporwave Finally Makes An IRL Connection At 100% ElectroniCON

“I just watched the Fyre Fest doc,” George Clanton tells me backstage near the start of his own potentially madcap takeover of Brooklyn’s enormous three-room club Elsewhere with the world’s largest ever gathering of vaporwave artists. He doesn’t specify which of the two recent films on the infamous festival is fresh in his mind, but it’s working as a motivator. He’s already obsessed over every detail — from design to booking to a live stream — since the idea for 100% ElectroniCON hit him nearly a year ago, and in the moment he seems equal parts stage manager and festival headliner.

He’s on the move, only off crutches for a month after severely breaking his ankle jumping off a stage in Denver earlier this year. Clanton’s often very funny onstage and online — even his label name started as a joke on the vague definition of “electronica” that echoes vaporwave’s own amorphousness — but his drive and dedication are laser-focused. He finished that Denver show before going to the emergency room and continued touring in a wheelchair. He brings the same conviction here, to his own mini-festival, and even if a Fyre Fest-level fiasco isn’t in the cards, he knows the risk involved.

In this sense, Clanton has never changed. His earliest gigs in New York, then performing under the name Mirror Kisses, involved long bus trips from Virginia, lugging music equipment — and a programmable LED-studded sheet that functions like a giant, animated Lite-Brite board — to play incredible shows to sparse crowds. “There’s no one who wants to book an untested thing,” he says about the challenge of curating such a niche lineup.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

It’s something he knows firsthand. Clanton’s grind over these five years has resulted in a rapidly expanding fanbase, a growing label, and a maturing discography. Last year, he and his partner Lindsey French, AKA Negative Gemini, filled Elsewhere’s smaller room, Zone One. Now they’ve sold out the entire building, inviting iconic vaporwave artists together to meet and, in some cases, play live for the first time. The result is a special and dreamlike moment in a scene that has largely thrived only online this decade.

From its earliest days on the internet, vaporwave was performative and communal music. Social circles were born on the now defunct Turntable.fm and parties such as SPF420 were thrown through TinyChat. That early 2010s era — which spawned artists including Vektroid, Saint Pepsi, and Clanton’s own ESPRIT 空想 project — is long past, but vaporwave’s ability to bring like-minded people together was a nascent sign of how well this music translates to a live setting even if it took the audience and artists a little longer to find each other IRL.

“Until today it’s been very URL,” Alex Koenig tells me. “I played my set, I’ve been here for hours, and it still hasn’t hit me.” Koenig, who as Nmesh has become one of vaporwave’s most beloved artists, grew up playing in ‘90s North Carolina metal bands before getting drawn to producing IDM. Years later, his psychedelic soundscapes and encyclopedic ability to layer obscure ‘80s commercial samples lined up perfectly with vaporwave’s aesthetic on the genre classic Nu​.​wav Hallucinations. This was Koenig’s first Nmesh performance in over a decade — meaning his first since vaporwave even existed — and he played it to a packed crowd of hundreds of fans. “Surreal” was the only word he could muster, and he wasn’t alone.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

Delivering one of the best sets of the night was French’s Negative Gemini, which has shifted more and more from a one-woman project into a working band. French’s music has been influenced by vaporwave, club music, and synth-pop, particularly on her excellent 2015 album Body Work, but she finally introduced live instrumentation on her following EP, Bad Baby. Playing with a drummer on stage, her work felt fluid and constantly evolving, at one point turning the clubby Body Work highlight “You Never Knew” into a psych-epic that recalled Deerhunter.

“I felt like everybody in the audience was on my team,” says French. Currently playing with a drummer and bassist in LA — where she lives with Clanton — she explains taking on the challenge of finding ways to translate her solo work into something for a band and finding new ways to write. “When I’m making music I’m thinking more about how it’ll feel in a live setting,” she says, which she’ll have more opportunities to explore this fall when she tours with Kero Kero Bonito.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

The definitions of vaporwave have always felt blurry enough to encourage endless variation, and whichever room you moved to throughout the night reinforced that in the best way possible. Vaperror delivered foggy grooves indebted to video games in front of projections from Earthbound, the ’90s cult RPG that featured enemies like New Age Retro Hippie and Annoying Old Party Man. Satin Sheets delivered Xanax-infused vibes, turning Zone One into a temporary chill-out room. The roof provided a venue for veterans of vaporwave’s spaciest elements, like Golden Living Room and Telepath, to soundtrack the gradually setting sun. The energy picked up in a closing set from Death’s Dynamic Shroud spinning disjointed pans and microspliced pop loops into convulsive rhythms as pitch-shifted vocals and weed smoke filled the night sky.

Meanwhile, Angel Marcloid used her set as Fire-Toolz to briefly transform the room into a metal show. Fusing gauzy Muzak with dense prog-inspired drum fills and metal screams, Marcloid’s set was remarkable for its precision. She played songs from her new album Field Whispers (Into The Crystal Palace), released just the day before, and the crowd already reacted to new tracks and even crackles of static with cheers of recognition while moshing in the neon-hued light.

The night reached a peak with Clanton’s own set, appearing before headliner Ryan DeRobertis’ mythical return as Saint Pepsi. Clanton’s sets have always felt like they’re being played to crowds this big, and even moving slowly from his injury, his performance was a cathartic, wondrous thing. The small curtain of lights he’s always performed in front of has grown into a towering wall, which he called “version 4.0.”

Songs like “Make It Forever” and “Dumb” were met as singalongs by the crowd, cheering underneath a giant net of alien balloons that was likely intended to be dropped at some predetermined moment. That moment remains a mystery after the audience eventually brought the net down themselves and assembled a row of alien balloons bobbing their heads in unison. One eventually made its way to Clanton, who promptly bit its head off. And even with that freshly healed ankle, he dove right into the audience, crowd-surfing over the top.

The set ended to roars of applause and chants for another song, but Clanton’s focus was keeping the schedule tight. He calmly and hilariously settled the audience down with a simple, “Guys, it’s cool! Saint Pepsi is next.”

DeRobertis remains a cult hero of the scene, but hadn’t performed under the name in about half a decade. For most in the audience, it was the first time they’d ever seen a Saint Pepsi show. The excitement went both ways. DeRobertis has connected with a fairly large audience through his work as Skylar Spence, but the response to playing as Saint Pepsi again left him in delightful awe.

Shifting between laughing disbelief and a beaming smile, DeRobertis pulled out countless favorites from early vaporwave albums like Empire Building, Hit Vibes, and Studio 54, every shift into a new track inspiring cheers from the audience like they were watching fireworks. Using tight loops of funk and new wave samples, Saint Pepsi has always had a glimmer of the Avalanches in its DNA; seeing that quality connect on a dancefloor only reaffirms it. “I dropped out of school for this!” DeRobertis shouted at one point, and perhaps to drive the point home, grabbed a guitar to close with his Skylar Spence hit “Fiona Coyne.” After hearing so many songs that sound like strange approximations of pop music, it’s a reminder that he’s actually writing hit pop songs now.

“It was surreal, honestly,” DeRobertis tells me later. “Having made most of that music from a dorm room in college, or my parents’ couch, always in headphones. I never in any of those moments pictured myself playing them to a crowd like that. I never imagined the response every single one of those songs would get. I felt so lucky to have that opportunity to see how music can affect people on so many levels.” That word came up again: It is surreal. Every person I spoke to seemed to use that word and I get it. I felt it too; I can’t shake it.

When you write about music, you strive to be objective. You do that because it’s important to the piece, but I think it’s also to protect ourselves sometimes. When you really care about an artist’s work, you want them to find an audience more than anything. You want people to see what you see in them. A lot of times that doesn’t happen, and it’s painful. I try to be objective, but all of these artists bring back memories.

A Band To Watch on Saint Pepsi was the first article I ever pitched to Stereogum as an intern in 2013, a time when vaporwave felt nearly impossible to explain to friends, let alone pitch to an editor. I remember sitting with DeRobertis at Brooklyn’s iconic and long-gone Glasslands, before he played his third show ever, but believing so much in the small audience’s positive reaction — and later my concern for this kid stressed about whether dropping out of college was the right decision.

I remember every time this genre was declared too dumb or too intellectual or outright dead and just kept pushing and growing and connecting with listeners. I look around at all these people — strangers talking about how far they traveled, fans wearing Macintosh Plus shirts, Nmesh telling me how good a friend Fire-Toolz has become and how excited he is to meet her in person for the first time — and for once I can really appreciate how far it’s all come.

Most of all I remember how I met Clanton. I had premiered the Mirror Kisses song “Bleed” on this site in 2014 and later saw him play a small show at a venue in Brooklyn. We talked after and he thanked me for writing about it. I said something like, “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal,” because that’s how you tend to feel when you write about music all day — that it’s not a big deal. And he stopped me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “No, you don’t understand how long I’ve been doing this. I’m putting everything on this.”

I don’t know if this festival amounts to some profound symbol for the state of vaporwave. The variety of all these artists is so wide, it’s redundant to even fit them all into that box. What I do know is I never dreamed to see any of these people on a stage like this, a sentiment many in that sold-out audience, and even most of the musicians, seemed to share. With another ElectroniCON set for the fall in Los Angeles and more planned after, the possibilities feel limitless. The positivity, friendships, and collaborations born from this are real, and this entire community — from fans to musicians — feels just a little closer after all these years. Clanton told me once that he was putting everything on this. This weekend proved it was worth it.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete