The second annual Dekmantel Festival is taking place this weekend in Amsterdam, which prompted us to take a closer look at the impressive crew making it happen.
In the wake of last year's inaugural festival, the name Dekmantel has quickly shot to prominence. And while this ascent may have seemed swift for the casual observer, the story of how the small team behind it—which also maintains party promoter and record label arms under the same name—got to this point is one of slow and steady development, lifelong friendships, and an unshakable passion for music. As Thomas Martojo—who runs the company alongside his childhood friend and co-founder Casper Tielrooij and newer addition Matthijs Theben Terville—explains, the group first began to take shape when its members were quite young.
"There was a group of about 10 us who all lived in The Hague," he says, "which is a relatively big place by Dutch standards, but still feels like a town. In our teens, we discovered electronic music but there wasn't much going on there, so we started getting into the party scenes in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. It became a tradition to get on the train every weekend and go to big techno parties in these places." To anyone with a reasonable understanding of the history of electronic music in Europe, The Hague of 10 to 15 years ago might sound like the perfect place to start out; however, for Martojo and his friends, this wasn't The Hague of I-F, Viewlexx, Bunker, and the Cybernetic Broadcasting System. "We were only 15 or 16 during the final years of that notorious scene," he says. "The kinds of house and techno we were listening to were totally different to the stuff coming out of The Hague. That scene was so incredibly underground, with parties for maybe 150 people in squatted buildings, that at our age we just didn't know that it was going on. It's a shame really, because these days we book those guys all the time—they're heroes in our book. It just came too early for us though."
Dekmantel Soundsystem: Casper Tielrooij, Jan van Kampen, Thomas Martojo
Having cut their teeth by going to big events in the larger cities of the Netherlands, the friends moved en masse to Amsterdam in their early 20s, which is where things really started to happen. "We were getting into a lot of American house music," Martojo says, "but there wasn't really any of that getting played in Amsterdam at the time, so we started to do our own parties. San Proper played our first one [in 2007], which was at a 200-capacity club where we just put 200 of our friends on the guest list." Never tying itself to one club, Dekmantel allowed the size of the venues to grow with its own popularity and the profile of its guests, from 200 to 400 to 600 and up to 1,500 for the crew's third birthday party. Detroit was a major focus of those early years; artists like Robert Hood and Moodymann were among the earliest guests, and kept coming back—their total Dekmantel appearances now reach into double digits. In parallel to these relationships with legendary Detroit names, Dekmantel also developed close ties with a raft of top-flight UK talent (Floating Points, Joy Orbison, Ben UFO, and the Numbers crew are all regular bookings) and the Ostgut Ton/Berghain family, amongst others. And while Dekmantel's ace curation continues to be at the heart of its appeal, the guys themselves aren't exactly slouches when it comes to DJing. Martojo and Tielrooij team up with Jan van Kampen to form Dekmantel Sounsystem (pictured at top), and while the trio reliably warms up Dekmantel events, it's increasingly finding itself being tapped for other promoters' bills as well.
Once the parties had become established, the next part of the Dekmantel operation to take shape was the record label, although it actually happened in the most unplanned of ways. "We had gotten to know Juju & Jordash, who played one of our parties and then gave us a load of unreleased music that they couldn't find a label for," says Martojo. "We were blown away by the quality of it, and we thought, 'If nobody wants to release this stuff, then we need to start our own label to release it, because it needs to be heard.' So the first things we ever released [were an EP and] a full album by them, and then an EP by San Proper." Those first releases appeared in 2009 and 2010, and since then, more material from both Juju & Jordash and San Proper, plus EPs from the likes of Joey Anderson, Mark du Mosch, and Vakula, have cemented the label's reputation as a go-to hub of interesting, high-quality house music.
Matthijs Theben Terville
Still, it was last year's introduction of the Dekmantel Festival that truly elevated the crew to another level. A three-day event in a forest near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, the festival garnered ecstatic reviews—including one from XLR8R—for its blend of a fantasy line-up (John Talabot, Levon Vincent, and Move D featured among dozens of similarly impressive names), boutique scale, and happy, relaxed atmosphere. "Not much about last year could have gone any better," Martojo admits. "We really had no idea what to expect, but we found when we started booking for it that we could pretty much just put together the ideal line-up of artists. That's pretty extraordinary because the Dutch festival season is one of the most crowded in the world—in Amsterdam alone, through the summer there are between eight and 10 festivals to choose from every weekend. It certainly helped that we already had long-standing relationships with a lot of the artists we wanted to book, but everything just turned out amazingly well, not only in terms of the program, but also in terms of production and the crowd who came along."
The festival's original capacity of 5000 is to be raised to around 8 or 9000 this year, a move that Martojo says is necessary from a financial standpoint but shouldn't compromise the event's original charm. "When people came last year, I think they expected it to be a big festival because of the strength of the line-up. It wouldn't have been financially viable to keep the capacity at 5000 again, but we're really confident that we can take the capacity up by a few thousand and still keep the small-scale mood of last year." Along with the increase in capacity will come the addition of a fifth stage, the purely DJ-focused Selector Stage, which will feature the likes of Ben UFO, DJ Harvey, Gerd Janson, Prins Thomas, and Optimo. XLR8R, Resident Advisor, RBMA, and Boiler Room have been enlisted for the other stages, which reflects the widespread stamp of approval that Dekmantel has been given.
Having personally curated every one of the almost 100 names on the bill this year, Martojo reacts with amused indignation at being asked to pick a highlight. When pressed, however, he picks out the booking of Three Chairs (Moodymann, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wilhite and Theo Parrish) as the one he was most happy about confirming. "We've been trying to get them booked since day one, but it's so complicated to get them all together inside a venue. Last year they weren't available, so this year, they were the first booking. We've been fanboys of all of them for so long, and now they're coming to play a six-hour set for us, which is just amazing really."
Save for the medium-term possibility of starting occasional parties outside the Netherlands, Dekmantel's events calendar seems to have grown to what the crew considers to be an ideal size. On one end of the spectrum, the teams heads up a couple of not-too-big festivals (Dekmantel also runs the one-day Lente Kabinet event), yet the crew also has carte blanche to hold parties big or small in Amsterdam whenever it sees fit. "We don't really want the festivals or parties to grow any bigger," Martojo says. "I think 2015 will be the year to really step things up with the label and maybe branch out a bit on the music that comes out on it. If you look at the festival, the line-up really runs from A to Z, so we'd like to try and see if we can make that shine through more on the label. With whom? You'll just have to wait and see."
Dekmantel crew at Dekmantel Festival 2013