Symbiosis Gathering's Tenth Year Crowns the West Coast as New Festival Mecca

Galen Oakes
Bob Moses performs at Symbiosis Gathering held in Oakdale, California from Sept.17-20, 2015.

Burners flock to three-day Oakdale festival to decompress and enjoy forward-thinking dance music.

With the dust having barely settled on the Playa from this year’s Burning Man, the unrelenting West Coast festival scene threw another eccentric event for the left field art and music community that shambles from desert to lake to forest in search of something more than a sound system and an expensive light show.

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Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of Symbiosis Gathering, a sporadic staple of the burgeoning alt-festival scene, which returned after taking a break in 2014. Held on a peninsula reaching out into the pristine Woodward Reservoir in Central California, the festival maintained its tradition for embodying an ethos of creativity, sustainability and experimentation through its vibrant art installations, esoteric lineup and infectious vibes.

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This was the first year that they had returned to a site, typically opting to experiment with locations based on their astrological or environmental significance. But the Woodward Reservoir was the perfect site for the organizers break that tradition. Flanked on all sides by a serene lake strewn with elaborate art boats, floaties, and near or completely naked bodies, it was an ideal location for a festival that celebrated the coming together of people and the elements -- a central theme to the event.

Nicolas Jaar, Four Tet, Damian Lazarus, Max Cooper, Bob Moses, the Dirtybird players and Extrawelt all brought the kind of progressive techno and house sounds that have quickly become an integral part of this scene. They joined psytrance, downtempo electronica, dubstep and the old drum circles that defined the early years, and pushed the culture’s popularity beyond the outer echelon of California’s transformational scene and into a wider dance music audience of equally odd souls.

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But music only represents a portion of what Symbiosis is about. In dusty teepees and intricate wooden temples, a series of lectures, dance performances, interactive theatre and healing practices continuously snatched at your attention and exposed a lot of people to experiences they mightn’t have known even existed.

“It’s a common theme here that the artists and performers are continually amazed at what each other are doing,” said Kevin KoChen, Symbiosis’ head of production, who joined the festival after attending in its first year. “It’s creating an incredible feedback loop where everyone is continuously upping their game and creating art that they hadn’t really anticipated.”

All across the grounds there were curious structures and immersive installations, some of which have been appearing at similar festivals throughout the year. The famous HYBYCOZO geometric structures from Burning Man greeted you as you entered the festival ground, and revered scene artist Shrine On had built a stark wood and tin-can temple atop a knoll that also featured a gallery of psy-art within a geodome. Under the massive California blue sky, the hillside looked like a surreal base on some distant, sparse planet.

It would be difficult to overstate the enormous effect that Burning Man has had on the transformation of this culture. The long running immersive art experience in Nevada has shifted and defined an entire era of left field individuals, spawning countless mini-burns and parties up and down the West Coast.

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LA-based promoters The Do LaB, responsible for Lightning in a Bottle, Woogie Weekend and much of Coachella’s alternative vibe, have long been catering their events to a similar crowd, as has British Columbia’s Shambhala, Sunset Campout and Lucidity. A couple of years ago, San Diego’s Desert Hearts (who took over the Juke Town stage on Thursday) threw their first festival for about 300 people on a native reservation, and this has since grown into a subcultural phenomenon in Southern California, adopting the holistic elements of this festival culture but aligning the focus on a single stage of house and techno for 72 hours straight.

These more low-key parties are becoming a haven for people that look at the dust storms, the heat, and the price tag of The Burn and wonder if it’s really for them. This year was noted by some as particularly challenging, so many Burners used the more forgiving Symbiosis as their decompression, and the vibes of the event unquestionably benefited from the mindset.

But while the scene wholly embodies inclusion, it was hard not to notice quite how white it all was. All around us was the oft-maligned appropriation of traditional and foreign culture, particularly Hindi and Native American -- something which has been lambasted since California’s first generation of New Age disciples started sitting in lotus poses and weaving dream catchers in the late 60s. But to be fair, it’s all pretty harmless, and inevitably makes people more culturally aware, if not sensitive.

Logistically these alternative festivals can often be a headache. The excitement and zeal to pitch your tent and get your hippie on can often grate against the lackadaisical pace of the staff, and at a first glance, the campsite organization can start to give you a migraine that even the deepest huff of burning sage couldn't calm. But once we had chosen our star sign-labeled campground (“Uhhh, I think we’re on the corner of Libra and Sagittarius, bout halfway up Jupiter street...”) and started to walk around the grounds, we were immediately wired on the event's carefree positivity.

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The lineup was strong and extremely diverse, lumping lots of mismatched sounds together to keep you exploring. Four Tet closed Friday at the Grotto stage with an eclectic warp through his extensive library, though he always reverted back to a steady house/techno groove. Max Cooper was working the spatial, romantic techno that he’s become known for, while Minus producer Gaiser, Mumdance and Desert Hearts were the big draws on Thursday.

Nicolas Jaar, one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, was a little meek for his Saturday midnight session. He teased us with his indulgent long builds that rarely merited their length, though Bob Moses did a solid job of warming us up with a live debut of their new album Days Gone By, which was released the day before. Tipper's dreamy sunrise session, which this writer sadly didn't have the juice for, was the buzz on Sunday.

Damian Lazarus, who was scheduled to perform with his world house group The Ancient Moons, sadly flew solo on the Sunday, but did dish out one of the best sets of the weekend at The Spring stage. The Crosstown Rebels boss’ evolution into a world music purveyor and general poncho’d desert vibesmith has been cemented in recent years with big performances on Burning Man's Robot Heart bus, and he channeled that sound superbly at Symbiosis.

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The stage production was another of the festival's highlights. Aside from Big Island (the “main stage” of sorts) the stages all had a dreamed-in-the-trip, built-in-the-shed look to them, with Juke Town, a little cul-de-sac of house fronts you can climb all over, being one of our favorites. The Grotto was a skewed temple with LiB-style wing structures at the back and trees surrounding it, but the Big Island certainly stood out as an alien structure. While executed tastefully, it was akin to a provincial EDM festival main stage, and its aluminum rigging and spotlights didn’t quite fit with the general production theme of the festival.

The enduring memory for many will be the daily ‘Swimbiosis’ parties held at a stage overlooking the reservoir. The scene was like an acid-bleached spring break party where hundreds of people split between stomping it out on the dust hazed dance floor and raft lounging in the warm lake. Shpongle’s psytrance legend Raja Ram was a big draw on the Friday afternoon, while Justin Martin smashed it on his Saturday sunset session with some Dirtybird-patented booty house, and rogue cuts of breaks. The bass-fiending future hippies got their taste on Sunday when Glitch Mob members edIT and Boreta were the special guests.

These younger, music-driven festival goers are at the root of the scene’s dramatic expansion in recent years. As electronic music witnessed its EDM-fueled surge in popularity, many Kandi Kids are now growing out of the neon hum, and finding new sounds and environments planets away from EDC and HARD Fest that are more interesting to them.

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Spoilt with choices across the West Coast, they can attend festivals that truly cater to their tastes for a fraction of the cost of a monolithic rave. As the EDM generation matures, they’re getting a little weary of being treated like consumers by corporate sponsors, and like children by the oppressive security and police presence at major festivals. At Symbiosis, you bring your own food and booze in (as long as you clean it all up), and you’re free to do what you want if you do it like an adult. And that translates to a significantly safer, more enriching experience.

While the inaugural Dirtybird Campout, CRSSD fest and Desert Hearts are all still to come this year, Symbiosis sort of marks the end of a long, rudderless festival season that forgets exactly where it started. It's strangely admirable to see just how rinse-hardened and overtly positive this diet of dusty Funktion beats, tempeh-based meals and morning yoga can make people. We tip our steampunk top hats to your valiance, troops.

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But with near perfect weather all year round, a blossoming underground dance music scene in LA, and a history of embracing alternative cultures and spiritual exploration, it makes sense that a festival scene this weird would appear here. The hope is that it will continue to grow and send people back to their lives with a more collective viewpoint and a stronger sense of empathy for the world around them.'

Leaving Symbiosis on the Monday morning was an abruptly sobering experience. I found myself prancing around the suburban Modesto In-N-Out, flashing unrequited smiles at middle-aged strangers and giving a namaste of gratitude to the lady that took my Double Double order. But even as the experience is starting to fade into memory and the social norms of the real world start to reform around me, I'll try to keep sprinkling those Symbiosis vibes around because the world could do with a bit more of the unbridled hedonism and humanist compassion that we enjoyed in abundance.