Discovery: The Oral History of Daft Punk’s First American Show
In 1996 — before they got lucky with Pharrell, before they were in Kanye's clique, before the robot helmets — Daft Punk were two Frenchmen playing in a wet Wisconsin field
On Memorial Day weekend, 1996, electronic music history was made on a muddy, rain-soaked Wisconsin campground. Two young humans known together as Daft Punk — who ultimately would become far more famous in robot guises — played their first American show. The soggy, chaotic setting was the 1996 Even Furthur, the third installment of the infamous Furthur outdoor festival and campout series thrown by Milwaukee rave producers Drop Bass Network. Daft Punk touched down at Eagle Cave Campground not only before their debut Homework was released the following year, but before anyone in the Midwest aside from a few DJs knew who they were at all. Drop Bass leader Kurt Eckes — along with his Furthur promoting partners, Minneapolis’ Woody McBride and Chicago’s David J. Prince, founder/editor of Reactor zine (and onetime SPIN staffer) — knew they’d scored a coup, though time would show precisely how much of one it was.
From its inception in 1992, Drop Bass raves weren’t just the biggest in Milwaukee; with the exception of Richie Hawtin’s Detroit-area parties, they were the biggest in the Midwest. In turn, Furthur ’96 wasn’t legendary for Daft Punk alone: The late Scott Hardkiss of San Francisco dropped his remix of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and brought shivers to a 3:30 a.m. crowd. Mixmaster Morris, the event’s official headliner — Daft Punk were second-billed — spun a six-hour overnight ambient set, and also took turns on the decks of smaller systems that the Midwest’s true believers had carted to the site on buses, trailers, and pickups. Even Furthur ’96 hasn’t lasted in everyone’s memory — many participants were simply too blotto. But others recalled the weekend in detail for this oral history, which begins with the festival’s origins in 1994.
Chris Sattinger, a.k.a. Timeblind, Minneapolis-based DJ: Really, the Midwest scene was like the hardcore punk scene. After the U.K. decided punk was over, the Americans made more rootsy, more honest, and much louder, nastier punk. Hardcore techno, especially in the Midwest, was really hard. Drop Bass parties were an endurance test.
Kurt Eckes, a.k.a. Jethrox, founder, Drop Bass Network: [In 1993] I had read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. At that point, we were over doing Ecstasy and were taking acid instead. This book was all about these people doing this every day. I was like, “Holy shit, we’re thinking we’re on ’10,’ but we’re only on ‘5’ or ‘6’ — these guys have it turned all the way up to 11. We’re not doing this right. We need to kick this into high gear. What is the next level?”
Woody McBride, a.k.a. DJ ESP, co-promoter, Even Furthur: Kurt knew how to deal with police and how to negotiate with business owners, and how to break the reality of what was going to happen to them in a gentle, professional way.
David J. Prince, founder/editor Reactor; co-promoter, Even Furthur: Kurt had his shit together in a world where a lot of people had their shit falling apart.
McBride: People from all over the country made this pilgrimage [to the original Furthur in 1994].
Frankie Bones, Brooklyn-based DJ: I don’t think it stopped raining for three days.
McBride: It got real muddy and unforgiving, as far as setting up and camping, moving speakers around. I remember digging speakers out of a foot of mud, and having to scrounge up wood to set speakers on.
Terry Mullan, St. Louis/Chicago-based DJ: I was surprised at the scale of it. You’d come back to your tent and somebody would be sleeping in it you didn’t know. It dawned on me: “Wow. We have a movement here.”
Matt Bonde, editor, Milwaukee fanzine Massive: I spent an embarrassing amount of time during the first Furthur curled up in a tent with my girlfriend just trying to stay warm. I’ll say it right now: I missed Aphex Twin. It was just too damn cold.
Prince: I remember going around, hyper-aware but definitely high, and said to Kurt, “This party needs some nudity.” He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” Then I climbed up on the speaker.
McBride: I look up, and David Prince is raging in his birthday suit.
Dan Martin, a.k.a. Dan Doormouse, Milwaukee-based DJ: [It was like] “Look, there’s that guy from Reactor having a great time.”
Chicago’s DJ Hyperactive, on-mike as Aphex Twin played “Quoth” at Furthur 1994: Is anybody bugging out there?! Let’s make some noise for the Aphex Twin! Let me see them fucking hands in the aaaair! Make some goddamn noise!
Prince: I loved that. So Midwest.
Eckes: We did a second one in ’95 that was at a ski hill in northern Wisconsin. That one I didn’t do with Woody. I think Woody and I had a falling out over the record label at the time. The main headliner was the Spiral Tribe.
Prince: It was really messy. Everyone was camping on these slopes, and it just poured. We definitely came out of the second one going, “Next year is going to kick ass.”
Eckes: [The 1996 festival] was actually near where I live now in southwest Wisconsin, at a campground called Eagle Cave. They do a lot of Boy Scout retreats, BMW, vintage motorcycle campouts — nothing like what we did.
Nick Nice, Madison, Wisconsin-based DJ: I moved to Paris [in January 1993]. I stayed there about three years. I got a tryout at the Queen Club, which is still there. David Guetta was the artistic director at the time. It’s funny, the fact that David Guetta is a pop star. No one of us could have predicted that at the time. Thomas Bangalter would come out to the Queen, and you would see him dancing. They’d be working on tracks, getting ideas.
McBride: I played at the Rex Club [in Paris], and a hot duo opened up for me in ’95. I knew these guys were going to be big and cool. That was Daft Punk.
Eckes: Woody was super-hip to the way they were making music.
Brad Owen, former editor, Massive: Everybody in the Midwest had become familiar with Daft Punk through Terry Mullan’s New School Fusion Vol. 2 mixtape [released in 1995]. “Da Funk” was on there. That was the biggest-shit mixtape of that year.
BRENDA bEAN, from Chicago-based zine bEAN #6, summer 1996: You know, [it was] the last song on Mullan’s New School Fusion 2 tape…”Meow, meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow, meow meow, meow…”
Bonde: People called it “that Terry Mullan song.”
Terry Mullan, DJ: I’d mixed the tape. I was about to send it off that day. I’d gone to Gramaphone [Records in Chicago], and Daft Punk’s “Rolling and Scratching” b/w “Da Funk” had come out on [the Glasgow label] Soma. Soma was almost a buy-on-sight label. I’d always loved acid. It had this gnarly, crazy bass sound. The tape was already done, so I just spliced it on at the very end: “I have to put this on here. I don’t care if it’s not mixed.” The first New School Fusion sold about 6,000 over a couple years; the second one sold almost 10,000.
Nice: I remember driving [to Even Furthur ’96] in a torrential downpour, fearing for my life the entire time. It was pouring, pouring, pouring rain. It felt like Night of the Living Dead. It was already dark. Everybody was fucked up on God-knows-what. They were all swarming my car — coming close enough it was making me uncomfortable, but not enough to run them over.
Owen: It didn’t rain the first night, the Friday, but it definitely rained the rest.
Dan Doormouse: It was a mud pit.
Davey Mason, a.k.a. Davey Dave, Chicago-based DJ: It was hard to put up a stage in mud — dangerous, too… This is the difference between the festivals now and the music back then. The rave scene was built on music and people’s camaraderie between each other. We took away the rock-star aspect of it. You were there strictly for the music.
Prince: I remember people telling me stories about being afraid to touch their microphones because they were standing in a pool of water. Any outdoor [DJs] tried to block the wind out of the turntables and [were] taping quarters to the top of the tone arms.
Bonde: A number of friends injured themselves. One fell with his leg down a pipe and basically skinned the front of his leg. He was walking around with a flap of skin. My friend Ray was walking in the dark and got his scrotum attached to a barbed-wire fence and was rushed off to the hospital. In the end, it saved his life because they figured out he had testicular cancer.
Sattinger: No injuries that I know of, but I do remember they were selling drugs out of the ambulance.
Will Hermes, former arts editor, Minneapolis City Pages: The drug use was off the hook. Those of us who were a little older were moderate in our consumption. But there were young kids there. And frankly, I don’t remember it being so much a musical experience. I remember it being kind of a war zone. People were just fucking high. I mean, really high.
Eckes: It was totally out of control. By then, people had figured it out: “I am going to be somewhere for three days. I am going to go freaking nuts.”
BRENDA bEAN, from bEAN #6, summer 1996: Fucked-up shit that happened:
• Guy wigged out next to us on some crazy Kentucky E.
• Guy wigged out in the upper campsite, and busted some windows, and claimed he was God.
Hermes: At 6 a.m., we heard this thumping and yelling — somebody going around the tents, yelling, “Who’s got speed? I need speed. Who’s got acid?” It became clear we weren’t going to get any sleep. I saw this young guy who was clearly off his nut. People were trying to calm him down. At one point, this guy jumped up on a car and dented the hood, deeply. Then he started jumping on the roof to the point where the windshield shattered. The top of the car crushed. Somebody grabbed him, pulled him off, pinned him down, and held him. [An] ambulance came. They took him away. It was like, “We’ve had enough. We’re going home now.”
Sattinger: There was a sense of total freedom. This was not a club or even a warehouse. This was not civilization.
Nice: The [main] tent was at the bottom of this hill. You had to walk up. It was very hilly.
Graham Ryan, Minneapolis-based DJ: It was a green-and-yellow striped circus-looking tent, maybe 120 by 60.
Nice: Daft Punk played Saturday night. Everybody knew that was the show.
Guy-Manuel De Homem-Cristo, Daft Punk, to Stop Smiling, 2007: We were 20-year-old kids, and I thought it was really one of the best festivals we’d done. It wasn’t huge, but it was in the woods, in nature, really outside the city. Techno music was known in Chicago and Detroit, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. It felt like a special moment; we have great memories of it. Even now, people go on YouTube to get videos from that night — it was true energy.
Nice: It was one of those things where everybody’s racing to the tent.
Davey Dave: Once I heard them play “Da Funk” live, instantly I knew exactly who it was, and that’s when I rushed the stage.
Frankie Bones: It was totally an epic moment when they did “Da Funk.” I remember that totally. People were just going bananas.
Clinton Mead, poster, MW-Raves mailing list, May 28, 1996: The main tent was packed like a rock concert and people kept cheering at every song and buildup.
Davey Dave: There was no stage show. There was no huge LED lights or anything. It was a basic laser light show and a decent sound system. But I’d put that moment over any moment that happens at any festival, any day.
Nice: You didn’t have everybody focusing on the stage. In that tent, everything was level. There wasn’t an elevated stage. Unless you were at the very, very front, you couldn’t even see them. Watching the video on YouTube — that’s more than I saw them that night.
Mullan: Is there YouTube footage of it? No! Wow! I’m Googling it, right now.
Bonde: The center frame through nearly the entire video is Matt Verbos, lit up on a pin spot in the middle of the frame the entire time. He did security for [the festival]. If you get your hands on Homework, that’s him, printed inside the album cover. On YouTube, I’ve read comments like, “Is that one of the guys?” It’s funny how much they’ve obscured things by going into this masks thing.
Sattinger: I was in the back of the VIP area, right behind them, while they were playing. DJ Slip was hitting on one of them because I guess dude looked like a lady.
Prince: It was really dicey to set all that up in really bad weather. The whole thing about touring back in those days: Shit would get stolen or broken. That stuff’s not meant to travel. Those Roland machines were not made for live performance. There weren’t flight cases built for them. People would come with their shit in suitcases, duffel bags.
Frankie Bones: I remember when they performed, we all had cups, because the rain was leaking. Everybody was holding cups to catch the rain.
Davey Dave: The stars aligned perfectly for that party. Every DJ slot, everything, everything about the party went perfectly. If Daft Punk went on three hours after that, who knows how people would have responded?
De Homem-Cristo, to Stop Smiling, 2007: America is very different from one city to another, always bringing you to different places. We were in a crazy dynamic of going around different countries for the first two years, just having fun. It opened up our view of the world.
Mike Davis, poster, MW-Raves mailing list, June 26, 1998): [After] Furthur ’96 I drove home covered in filth (head to toe), walked in [the] shower with everything on, and undressed there.
Additional thanks: Joel Bevacqua, Anthony Cammarata, Dory Kahalé, Hector Merida, Jana Sackmeister, Alan Sparhawk, Patrick Spencer, Charm Stadtler, Mark Verbos, Tom Windish.