Barcelona's Sónar festival is the last place you'd ever expect to hear Heart's "Magic Man." Sónar, after all, is known as a festival for "advanced music" — that is, cutting-edge club music, left-of-center pop, and multimedia experiments. Whereas Heart are, well, Heart — AOR icons, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and pretty much synonymous with '70s hard rock.
But no one batted an eye when, on a Thursday afternoon last month, the song came wafting through the speakers in a room tucked away in a hidden corner of the festival's sprawling daytime complex. And that had everything to do with the selectors responsible for putting it on: LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and David and Stephen Dewaele, of Soulwax and 2ManyDJs.
Actually, that's not entirely true: Quite a lot of the credit also went to the sound system they were playing on, which rendered the sisters' strummed acoustic guitars and flanged power chords in unusually vivid detail, practically as visceral as the beads of sweat streaming down dancers' faces in the packed, humid room. It was a safe bet that you'd never heard "Magic Man" quite like this — or anything else the DJs played during their three-day mini-residency at the festival, spinning for six-hour stretches on a custom-made system they had brought over from the U.K., and mixing up space disco and acid house with prog rock and, well, whatever else they had in their bags. And what big bags, too, with some 1500 pieces of vinyl between them.
The system, called Despacio, is a collaboration between Murphy and the Dewaele brothers and McIntosh, a manufacturer of high-end audio components. Consisting of 50,000 watts of sound, distributed between eight 11-foot-tall speaker stacks, it was first unveiled for a series of dates in Manchester and then traveled to London. Sónar marked Despacio's international debut—and a trial run for an eventual trip to the United States.
Shortly before Sónar, SPIN caught up with the Dewaele brothers to find out more.
I've read quite a bit about it, but I'm having trouble wrapping my head around exactly what Despacio is like. How would you describe it?
David: It's hard to describe and it's also not picture- or phone-friendly. You really have to experience it, because of the physicality of it. What we set out to do was to make the ultimate party that we would want to go to. It's not necessarily a reaction to what we do on a weekly basis, which is go to clubs set up for somebody else and play off a USB stick so kids can put their hands in the air. It's more that we wanted to do something really beautiful for ourselves. And we were super lucky, because it's such an incredibly ambitious and stupidly expensive endeavor that it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had so many people around us get involved. It cost about a million Euros, just in terms of the speakers and the setup and the amps, and we were super lucky to have the company McIntosh so into this crazy idea. They got involved and they supplied us with the amplification. It's basically like the Glastonbury main stage, so.
Stephen: Whenever James, Dave, and me end up spending time together, there's a lot of ideas flying around. The Despacio idea came out of frustration with the gigs that we were doing, the gear that we were playing on — being vinyl freaks and maybe perfectionists. Then a couple years ago, Dave and me rented a villa in Ibiza. James came over, we did a gig with him, and we ended up making a studio. We were talking about it, like, "Hey, how beautiful is this island? But it's full of discotheques and parties, and that's not really our thing. How great would it be if we could make a sound system and just put it here in Ibiza, and it's open air and we could just play the music that we would like to play all day?"
David: You know that scene in Spinal Tap where they draw Stonehenge on a napkin? Only ours didn't have such a comedic ending. We were like, “Why don't we do a party in Ibiza that's proper Balearic?” All the crazy stuff, all these strange records that we've been collecting from traveling all over the world, these strange little 7-inches that we can't play anywhere else. And we'll throw a party and we'll do an all-night thing, and we'll do it in Ibiza. That's how we came up with the name Despacio, because it's Spanish for "slow." And we were like, we want to do something where we play all these records and slow them down, which is kind of what happened in the mid '80s in Ibiza, but also in Belgium with New Beat and before that in Italy with guys like [Daniele] Baldini. It was going to be a weekly night in Ibiza where we would just play, all three, and we would get a house and spend a summer by the beach, and we were really looking forward to this. Unfortunately, it fell through because the guy that we were going to do it with couldn't get his license. So then we just took it somewhere else.
What are the chances you could bring it to Ibiza and install it for a summer, as you originally intended?
Stephen: The crazy part is now there's a lot of people who want to do Despacio. It's a very complicated and very costly thing to do, but we get all these offers. And the only place where there's been no offers is Ibiza. So, ironically, we did a thing for a certain island with a certain Spanish name, and it probably will never get there. It will probably travel all over the world but never get to Ibiza. Which in itself actually is kind of cool itself, I think.
When you bring it to Barcelona, what are the logistics of getting it over from the U.K.? Are you bringing it over on trucks?
David: We were lucky that the sound system could fit into just one truck. And then obviously we'll have a van for everything else. You know, we bring about 1000 to 1500 vinyls. There's a specifically built DJ booth that comes with it. All the turntables are modified and rebuilt. There's a rotary mixer built from scratch: a new Bozek with separate isolators and effects — it's crazy, the whole thing is nuts. Even to us, when we look at it, it's a bit ridiculous. Because it's so nerdy, no one else does this. But it's like, if you're going to go all the way, I mean, go all the way.
Stephen: I can see Despacio moving into completely different worlds if we keep doing it. If the boat doesn't sink when we take it to America or something. That's what we fear, taking it to America or anywhere else, it's like, "Do you guys understand it's ten tons?" We have to ship it on a boat, and we'd have to get it through customs — it's not an easy one. It's exactly the opposite of a guy traveling with a USB stick.
What kind of modifications have you made to the turntables?
David: So some of it even goes over my head, but everything from basically the stability to the speed that you can go up and down. So this one can go, I think, plus-or-minus 32 whereas a normal one can go plus-or-minus 8. That's one big aspect, where we take these records that are maybe quite fast and then we slow them down, and it gives you a whole other dimension to the song. But it's also the stability: the feet, the arm, the needles. Same with the mixer, the guy took an existing Bozek and basically replaced everything and then we added a bunch of functions. So it's bespoke, you know, all made for Despacio.
Stephen: Most of the records we play are slowed down. I think minus 8 or minus 12 is kind of where we go; it's kind of the groove that we go for.
Did you build a reverse setting in?
David: That's the next one. We were going to send them back in June and get the reverse built in, but you know, there's a trick you can do with turning it around. I haven't tried it in a few years, but we used to do it, back in the day.
That's where you turn the needle upside down and you set the record on top of a spool of tape? That really works?
David: Yeah, it works. The best way to do it is with a record that's reversed to start with, and then you play it in reverse, which makes it sound forward. Something like “Are You Experienced?” by Jimi Hendrix. If you turn that around, that really shows the trick.
That's amazing. Are there any rules when you play together? Is it strictly a back-to-back-to-back thing?
David: In these eight times that we've done it together, it really has been just back to back to back, so each guy gets one record. It's quite long. We usually play between six or seven hours. We always want to go longer. And I guess because we're all excited, everyone's always eager to be like, "I'll play the next song, I'll play the next song."
I guess if you're doing this back to back to back, there's not a lot of planning going into the direction of the set.
David: At Roundhouse, we didn't tell anyone beforehand, but we made it space-themed. In terms of decorations, we had the whole galaxy, all the planets, around this huge glitter ball up in the air. We had space blankets and we gave out astronaut food, and we made all these space disco edits. All these strange, weird space 7-inches that we had, we made all these edits and had them pressed onto vinyl.
David: They're acetates. We have a guy in London who I just send him the files and I tell him, "Shit, man, I really need it by tomorrow, can you do these for me?" and he works overtime and he's really nice. And then I pay him.
What were the records that surprised you the most after hearing them on that system?
Stephen: The one that sticks out for me was 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." We dropped it two hours in, and I could see some people, like, almost with like tears in their eyes. It's such an emotional song, and the way it sounded on that sound system was truly amazing, really special. I think we're starting to find a lot of tracks that you normally would never play in a club, but that for some reason make sense in that sound system and make people go, "Ah, amazing."
Were there records that didn't sound good?
David: Yeah, and not just records but also just pressings. It's very eye-opening in that sense, in that there are these songs that you know and you think they're going to sound really good, and then you put them on and you say, "Hey, this doesn't sound as good as I thought." And you then you check, and, "Oh we have another pressing of this," and you put it on and you go, "It's amazing. Wow, it's exactly how I remember it." So now we have to be really careful and check which versions we take with us.
Can you remember any of the first records and last records that you played?
David: Oh yeah. Bear in mind, the first hour, we play music that people don't really need to dance to, so it could be anything. One was Steve Reich. There was a Vangelis one; like, a little bit more spacey, esoteric stuff. Then ending, a couple times it's been Jaydee's "Plastic Dreams" and one time it was "This Must Be the Place" by Talking Heads. One time it was "Underwater" by Harry Thumann. Because we gradually go from, say, 95 BPM and we end at maybe 125. So for quite a few hours it stays between 102 and 115, and then towards the last hour we go up for a bit, so we end with more traditional things that you would maybe hear in a normal club. You know, what you'd hear at 11 PM you'd hear at 2 at Despacio.
Have you found that people have come to your Despacio nights with different expectations?
Stephen: A lot of people don't know what to expect, and they come in and it's a completely different experience than what they expected. There's a lot of people that have come around and said, "I used to go when I was a little kid to the Boccaccio in Belgium," or "I went to go to all these raves in the U.K. and this is the closest I've ever been to it, sound-wise and community-wise." Which is a really big compliment. Some of them say it with tears in their eyes, which is really nice. But I see a lot of people being confused because what we do in the club isn't just difficult music, we also play a lot of techno and a lot of weird electronic new stuff. And there's been a lot of people that have come up to me and said, "You can't play that track on minus 12; you can't do it." And then you have to go, "Well, I just did." And they're like, "Yeah, but you're turning my world upside down, you can't do it." And I like that. I think the worst thing is if people would leave and go, "Eh, it's ok." We want people to talk about it, and I think we want to provoke a little bit, also.
In your own experiences as clubbers, what comes closest to the atmosphere of Despacio?
David: To be honest with you, nothing. One thing that's happened in the last 10 years — and I think both Steph and me, and maybe James, in a sense, are kind of partly responsible for it — is that the DJ show where there's a guy on the stage and everybody's facing that direction and putting their hands in the air and jumping up and down, that's kind of omnipresent right now. And the biggest surprise the first time we did Despacio is that we were kind of hidden, no one could really see us. We're not really the stars of the show; the stars of the show are the speakers and the setup. So it makes for a beginning where it's slightly confusing. People are like, "Ooh I don't know what I'm looking at." But then they get really into the music and start dancing, and that kind of thing, to be honest with you, even when I was a kid going out, that's kind of the closest it gets to. I remember as a kid going to small clubs in Belgium. We didn't know who the DJ was, we didn't even look at the DJ, we were just there to check out girls. And I remember what seemed very normal to me back then was to hear something like an R&S record at the same time as a Serge Gainsbourg record and then, whatever, the Stones. And then it became this really exaggerated version where the DJ is the performer and almost like a little bit of a demagogue.
Stephen: James has always told us that we're a little bit to blame for all of this, because we ended up with 2ManyDJs headlining big festivals, rock festivals, and closing after big, big acts. And people would say, "Oh, wait a minute, you can just put two guys there instead of having the whole band!" And I think what we're kind of doing now is trying to go back to making our own little world.
After Despacio, it must be difficult to go back to playing normal club and festival gigs.
David: You know what? To be honest, no. The very first Despacios we did, it was like Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Sunday, just by accident, we were booked to play together with James at a festival in Germany. So we had these three nights — bear in mind, the very first time we had ever experienced the system, and, you know, we were so happy and surprised and relieved that we pulled it off and it worked. And then we got on a flight and flew to Berlin and played at this festival where it was essentially, like you said, more like a normal gig. There was a big PA and lights and we stood on stage. And the only bummer, really, was the sound. I'm not saying that the sound was horrible, it just didn't have that thing that gave you goosebumps, it didn't have that thing that's like, "Wow, this is magical." But at the same time, it's almost like having three days of having incredible, 3-Michelin-star food, and then the next day you have an incredible hamburger. And it's like, "Wow, this is really a good hamburger."