Last week, XLR8R made a trip to the coast of Croatia, specifically the relaxed seaside village of Tisno. While there, we soaked up some sun, hung out on the beach, hopped on some boats, ate some seafood, made some new friends, and, oh yes, went to The Garden Festival. It may seem odd that the festival, which featured scores of DJs and live acts, wouldn't get top billing during our recounting of the long weekend, but that was the whole idea of Garden—the music was more of a backdrop than an all-out spectacle. Amazingly, this year's festival hasn't even ended yet, as it's scheduled to wrap up on Wednesday night. We may not have been able to stay for the entire affair, but after four days and nights, a few things certainly stuck out in our memory, which we've detailed in an effort to share a bit of the Garden experience.
The vibe at Garden was incredibly relaxed. This was a good thing.
Tisno is not a big place. Normally home to about 3000 people, it's quite literally a charming and picturesque little village on the Adriatic Sea. The summer sun is plentiful, and the town is surrounded by clear blue water, beautiful views, and a network of small islands that dots the landscape. Simply put, it's a holiday destination, albeit one that hasn't been grossly overrun with crass commercialism. People come to Tisno to relax, and the place seems more than happy to oblige. Given that, one might expect a large-scale music festival to disrupt the laid-back spirit of the town, but Garden actually fits right in.
Part of the reason is that Garden isn't actually all that big. Even though the festival runs for an almost unbelievable eight days and nights, less than 3000 people attend each year. As such, being on the festival site—which is conveniently located just a short walk from the center of town—was never an uncomfortable or stressful experience. Also known as "The Garden," the festival locale almost has the air of a family vacation park; there's a restaurant on site, plenty of green grass, lots of trees, a small beach area, and plenty of room to maneuver. Granted, the environment feels a tad manicured, but being at The Garden Festival is an undeniably pleasant experience, particularly for those looking to unwind.
As one might expect, this is all by design. Although Croatia in recent years has become a sort of festival hotspot—there are now something like 20 major festivals during the summer months—Garden has been operating for eight years. And while many of these other festivals take a "bigger is better" approach and slap together as many "name" acts as possible to attract eyes—and income—Garden's organizers have a different vision. The festival was the first of its kind in Croatia, and though the promoters are not natives (three are from the UK, one is from the US), they have resided in the country for approximately a decade. As such, it's not surprising that they have created something which fits naturally into the local landscape. It certainly appears that they're doing something right, as other festival organizations are already following their lead; this summer, "The Garden" site in Tisno will actually play host to five consecutive festivals. The Garden is first, but will be followed by Electric Elephant, Soundwave, SuncéBeat, and Stop Making Sense.
There was plenty of quality music at Garden, but it was almost an afterthought.
It may seem odd that the music wouldn't get top billing at a festival, but that was truly the case at Garden. Make no mistake, there was a lot of solid music on offer—the Garden line-up featured more than 120 DJs and live acts, and each day, there were at least two or three stages going at all times, not to mention multiple boat parties. On top of that, after midnight the festivities would shift over to the (relatively) nearby Barbarellas Discotheque, a superb open-air venue which stayed open until dawn and actually hosted much of the festival's top talent.
Yet even with this abundance of options, being at Garden rarely felt like an intensely musical event. The soundsystems almost invariably sounded great—especially on the Main Stage and Beach Stage—but the various stages and locales were never overcrowded, even during the festival's most anticipated performances. But it was more than that—whether we were chilling by the beach, hanging out at the club, or cruising around the Adriatic on a boat for a few hours, the music often seemed more like an accompaniment than the primary focus of our activities. That's not meant as a critique; our time at Garden was absolutely enjoyable, but it was also something noticeably different than the in-your-face experience offered by many of today's festivals.
Psychemagik at the Beach Stage
Of course, the line-up itself had something to do with all this. Looking over the roster of acts tapped for Garden, it's clear that the organizers had a very specific booking vision. There weren't many big-name headliners, and the vast majority of the music at Garden was house and disco, although some bits of funk, soul, boogie, and R&B also colored the proceedings. Within those worlds, the curation actually went quite deep—record-digger types and DJs' DJs littered the bill, and it was interesting how many of the acts were long-running residents from UK club nights or niche producers who had only put out a handful of well-loved but relatively obscure records. One the whole, the Garden line-up often seemed more like an expanded network of friends (and friends of friends) than than a precisely curated festival.
Tech-house and disco make a lot more sense by the sea when the sun is blazing.
As music-oriented entities, XLR8R and Garden are admittedly a bit different. While our publication generally focuses on unearthing and documenting the latest sounds and genres from across the electronic spectrum, Garden's organizers simply know what they like and prefer to stand pat and wave the flag for the sounds that they love. We're not saying that one approach is better than the other, but it's fair to say that the Garden line-up wasn't especially forward. Again, we're not saying that the bill didn't include plenty of credible acts, but more abrasive, experimental, urban, and—some might say—inventive sounds like techno, dubstep, garage, grime, bass music, jungle, abstract beats, etc. were almost entirely excluded from the festival. Even the house on offer was of a particular style—those seeking raw Chicago sounds or even proper deep house likely would have left disappointed.
At its essence, Garden's curation focused on a very specific lineage of dance music, one that could be traced from funk and soul through disco and the subsequent styles of house that continued to pull heavily from those genres. As such, the festival had a relatively narrow sound palette—organic drums, soulful vocals, and rubbery basslines dominated the soundtrack. Basically, there was a lot of rare groove, disco, and Hot Creations-style tech-house happening. And if we were at home, or in a club, or even a different sort of festival environment, it would be easy to describe these sounds as... unadventurous, to say the least.
However, in the context of Garden, this music was entirely appropriate. While people undoubtedly came to the festival to dance and party, they also came to soak up the sun, spend some time at the beach, hang out with their friends, and enjoy a break from their regular lives. There were a number DJs and music heads in the audience, but most of the people at the festival were clearly in Croatia for a sunny getaway. Given that, the festival's soundtrack made perfect sense; after all, there's a sort of collective familiarity with the sounds of funk, disco, and certain kinds of house. As such, even when DJs were digging deep in their crates—which they often did—enjoying the music didn't require a harsh learning curve or additional context. Just about everyone can understand a disco groove, and in a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere like Garden, even the cool kids (ourselves included) stopped scratching our beards and got into the spirit.
By festival standards, the crowd was incredibly well behaved.
We realize that starting any sentence about group behavior with the phrase "by festival standards" is setting a remarkably low bar, but a big part of what made Garden a pleasant experience was its crowd. Before our arrival in Tisno, we honestly weren't quite sure what to expect. Given all the talk of Croatia as the "new Ibiza," we were definitely prepared for the possibility of finding ourselves in the middle of some "British lads on holiday" nightmare.
As it turned out, we were right... and wrong. The crowd at Garden was heavily British, and there were definitely a sizable contingent of young people on holiday. Pasty skin, terrible sunburns, mildly alarming intoxication, hideous sunglasses, bad tattoos, and body glitter were all in abundance, and plenty of of kids definitely came to Croatia primarily in hopes of getting smashed and partying. However, even factoring all of that in... it wasn't that bad. In fact, it wasn't bad at all. Part of this could be directly traced back to how much space there was at Garden. Simply put, we never felt trapped or surrounded by insufferable behavior; every once in awhile, something dodgy would go down, but avoiding it was as simple as walking in any direction for all of 10 seconds and finding a new spot to hang out or watch a performance. Garden was roomy—and comfortable—and that allowed everyone at the festival to have fun as they saw fit.
Other factors played a part in Garden's good vibes. Although the crowd was certainly young, it wasn't overly young; there were plenty of festivalgoers who were in their late 20s, 30s, or even older, and these more mature folks certainly helped to keep the proceedings relatively sane. The music also played a role; we might call out poke fun at disco for not being the most cutting-edge genre, but it's also not a sound that generally incites young louts to go apeshit and get rowdy.
Chez Damier has still got it.
After arriving in Croatia on Thursday night, Chicago house veteran Chez Damier was one of the first artists we saw. Headlining Thursday night's party at Barbarellas, he put his 20-plus years of experience to good use, pulling heavily from the '80s and '90s house canon while dropping one soulful vocal anthem after another. The music was uplifting, the dancefloor was bustling, and it was a pleasure to see that Damier hadn't lost his touch. In retrospect, it was actually one of the weekend's more refreshing performances; during our four days at Garden, we heard plenty of soulful music, but there wasn't a lot of soulful house music. Damier filled that void nicely, and we would have been thrilled to see more DJs in his mold over the course of the festival.
Catz N Dogz spinning at a boat party
A bunch of New York nu-disco guys came together at Garden—and it was fun to watch.
A strong crew of nu-disco DJs peppered the Garden bill, including Tim Sweeney, Eric Duncan, Justin Vandervolgen and Lee Douglas, and though they all played separately at various times throughout the festival—Vandervolgen's and Douglas' joint DJ set as TBD on Sunday night at the Beach Stage was particularly good—they all came together on Friday night at Barbarellas—along with Portuguese DJ/producer Tiago—for a Beats in Space party and an epic B2B session. While these artists are all known for their disco proclivities, much of the night actually centered around a chugging style of house, although Tiago kept tossing in curveballs—Dorian Concept's "Trilingual Dance Sexperience" was certainly a surprise. Although many of these guys live relatively close to one another (or used to) and probably cross paths on a regular basis, it was clear how much they reveled in getting the chance to all hang out and play together. With the DJs switching off every few songs, the booth was full of smiles, and that enthusiasm carried out onto the dancefloor, which stayed full throughout the evening.
Krystal Klear and Floating Points both delivered the goods.
Krystal Klear and Floating Points are both artists who regularly appear on XLR8R, and they were paired up for two separate Resident Advisor parties on Saturday at Garden. First up was an afternoon boat party, which found the two DJs divvying up a four-hour cruise around the Adriatic, and they met up again after midnight in the Barbarellas DJ booth, where each man did a two-hour set.
Keen readers might remember that we weren't especially thrilled with Krystal Klear's set at Sónar in Barcelona last month, but his performances at Garden were much better. Anyone who's heard the Manchester-based artist's productions knows that he has a real pop streak, and while that might have gotten the better of him at Sónar, this time his DJing nicely walked the line between deep cuts and established hits, as he strung together feelgood sets that incorporated bits of house, boogie, disco, and R&B. On the boat, his selections dipped further into vintage territory, while his nighttime session found him delving further into house. Beyond that, his mixing was on point and his smart use of effects and EQs added a little extra drama to the flow of the music. Most importantly, in both locales, he delivered sets that were unquestionably fun and upbeat, and when he did pull out a pop smash or two, the effect—and the audience response—was especially strong.
As for Floating Points, the guy is just flat-out talented. Known for his digging prowess, he showed up with a bag of records—and an E & S mixer—and proceeded to put together ace sets of funk, soul, disco, and house. During the boat party, he even managed to mix in some samba without losing the dancefloor. His set went down smoothly on the water, and though he employed many of the same excellent selections at Barbarellas, his music may have been a bit too groovy for a Saturday-night crowd that was hungry for some late-night raving. It didn't help matters that Thugfucker was impatiently waiting in the wings and hovering behind Floating Points during a significant chunk of his set. Of course, once the American-Icelandic duo came on and immediately began dropping a goon-friendly assortment of bland, Ibiza-ready tech-house, the quality of the music dropped in a hurry and we quickly called it a night.
Metro Area's live show has rounded into form nicely.
Metro Area is another act that ran into some problems at Sónar last month—the latter portion of the group's set in Barcelona was marred by technical problems—so we welcomed the chance to see the long-running NYC duo once again at Garden. On Saturday evening, the pair worked its way through an hour-long live set on the Main Stage that was thankfully without incident; in fact, Metro Area sounded great. Although some of its tracks are now a decade old (or older), the duo's unique blend of house, disco, and electro has held up well, and songs like "Miura" elicited a rapturous response from the Garden crowd. The music was clean, the delivery was smooth, and the 60-minute set quite honestly went by in a flash.
Space Dimension Controller (at a boat party)
Space Dimension Controller's live show was the weirdest set of the festival... and we loved it.
Belfast-based oddball Space Dimension Controller played live on the Main Stage on Sunday night, and his set was undoubtedly one of the festival's most adventurous. As it happened, it was also one of its most enjoyable. Over the course of an hour, he rolled out an infectious array of silly/sexy electro and electro-funk, tweaky acid, floaty pop, and stompy techno, performing the entire show in character as Mr. 8040—the titular Space Dimension Controller from the elaborate backstory that accompanies the project. The musical variety was more than welcome, especially after four days of mostly disco and tech-house, and though we certainly enjoyed the Detroit flavor and extra low-end heft, even better was the fact that Space Dimension Controller himself looked like he was having such a good time. Based on the enthusiastic crowd response, it was apparent that the audience was having a ball right along with him.
Garden was full of pleasant surprises.
With more than 120 artists scattered over so many days, it would have been impossible for anyone to see everything at Garden, but we nevertheless did our best to check out as many acts as possible. While some were unremarkable, a few artists unexpectedly caught our attention, either by being surprisingly good or simply doing something we didn't anticipate. London duo Land of Light performed on Friday evening for a sparse crowd, but those in attendance at the Main Stage were treated to a live set of truly excellent Balearic sounds. The addition of live guitar really added something special to the music, which at times recalled the work of Studio or even someone like Tycho, albeit with a more propulsive rhythm. Outboxx also performed live on the Main Stage on Friday, and while the Bristol duo's live house constructions were certainly serviceable and compared favorably with its recent album, the music really jumped a level when vocalist Naomi Jeremy hopped on the mic. The girl could clearly sing, and added some extra dynamism to the proceedings. Moving forward, it would be an excellent idea for Outboxx to incorporate her into the picture as much as possible.
Naomi Jeremy (performing with Outboxx)
Yet perhaps the festival's biggest surprise was Maurice Fulton, not because he was good (for the record, he was good, and we definitely expected that), but because of what he played. Of course, entering into a Maurice Fulton set with any sort of expectation is always a risky idea, as the man has proven himself capable of delivering quality DJ sets that delve into nearly every corner of the electronic spectrum. Still, we never anticipated that he would show up and deliver a two-hour party set that primarily revolved around disco and funk jams. Whether it was intentional or not, Fulton wound up fitting right in with the general vibe of Garden, and it's unlikely that anyone would have bet on that before the festival started.
Next year, we're staying longer.
As we mentioned at the top, the 2013 edition of The Garden Festival is still happening, as its parties are slated to continue through Wednesday night. Unfortunately though, our schedule only permitted staying through Monday morning, which meant missing sets from the likes of Axel Boman, Bicep, Idjut Boys, Theo Parrish, Danny Krivit, and Genius of Time, not to mention a Wednesday afternoon party on a private island with Joakim and Permanent Vacation. Somehow, this Monday through Wednesday in Tisno, Croatia is going to feature more stacked line-ups than just about anywhere else on the planet. Kudos to The Garden Festival for ending things on a high note, and shame on us for ducking out early. After having such a good time on the days we were at Garden, it's not a mistake we'll be making again.