If you haven't been to Electric Zoo in New York City in a few years, you might find its scale a bit shocking.
It's not that Randall's Island has gotten any larger; it's the stages themselves. They are towering, technological feats of wonder, and this year's 6th Boro theme looks to be a grand creative achievement. It's a visual love letter to NYC and all its overwhelming characters, fleshed out across six stages, each representing a different neighborhood, sound and aesthetic that is decidedly New York.
Electric Zoo 2017 is just around the corner -- Friday to Sunday, Sept. 1 to 3 -- and because all this stuff is pretty neat, we caught up with chief marketing officer of Made Event Michael Julian and Electric Zoo creative director Jeff Wright via email to talk shop and find out how these wild, urban sight and sound machines come to life.
What came first: the theme or the stages?
Michael Julian: This has been a very consistent process since we started creating unique themes for EZoo back in 2015. Jeff and I have worked together for many years now, and we’ve learned how to complement each other. Ideas of different theme concepts and names somehow come very naturally to me. Then, the two of us brainstorm together, work out the details, and eventually present our concept to the whole team. The next step is all Jeff, who really needs to imagine how the concept we’ve developed can come to life, especially in terms of the stage designs. Once he has his first drafts, we go back into a huddle with the team, officially adopt the theme, and start working towards realizing this vision.
How was each stage approached to cater to the various styles of music that will be played on that stage?
Jeff Wright: The main stage has to be massive and flexible. It has to be able to deliver the highest-impact, biggest moments of the festival, and it also has to evolve through many different styles of music and a building energy level throughout the day.
Hilltop Arena will be home to some heavy bass, some really aggressive hard-partying high-energy music, and then on Sunday it also has to be a place for uplifting house vibes. The lighting design gives us a lot of options for creating different effects and moods in this area, and on Saturday night, there’s a huge transformation that takes place overnight with lots of colorful Bollywood-themed deco coming in for Elrow on Sunday.
Riverside is going to be the place for very diversified talent who’ll make the fans dance to the best of Trance, Bass and Electro House. We love keeping this stage open-air as it can work perfectly with any genre of electronic music this way.
Awakenings had to be dark with overpowering lasers and breathtaking colorful visuals in order to create the environment which would make all the proper techno and underground music fans feel right at home.
6 Pointz is a stage where some of the best local New York artists get to showcase their music. We wanted to make it so that the fans can have a closer connection to the DJs and create a street-art focused party atmosphere in the area.
What was the inspiration behind each stage? And what kind of research/location scouting was done beforehand to create an authentic representation of New York's scenery?
Wright: The Main Stage is inspired by asking the question “If New York is an animal, what kind of animal is it?” And it’d be too obvious to just say New York is big, so it’s an elephant. But of course that’s part of it to me -- that it’s just enormous and powerful. But elephants are also highly intelligent, and they can be fierce and scary but they can also be gentle giants. So the elephant to me is a metaphor for the hearts of the people of New York.
Hilltop Arena is a vision of a futuristic subway station, the main station for the 6th Boro. There are wires hanging down from above everywhere, which is a recurring theme throughout the 6th Boro, but otherwise it’s a very sleek place where the trains run fast and smooth and there’s a party going on all around you.
Riverside is the stage that had previously been our giant octopus for the last 2 years, and we knew it was time for something new. But I wanted it to continue to have a water theme. So it’s this underwater dome, like an experimental neighborhood within the 6th Boro, because land is scarce in New York, and not everyone wants to live in a super-tall skyscraper. The ocean has the serene beauty of bioluminescent creatures and colorful coral reefs that I think will be a great visual complement to trance, and it also just so happens to work very nicely with Jauz’s Off the Deep End stage takeover. It’s also a stage design that’s more flexible than the octopus. I’m thinking about developing some video content for it to put the dome in other environments, too, like it transports itself from deep underwater, to outer space, to some virtual geography of the mind, and back again. The dome will take us all there.
Awakenings is a techno brand with a 20-year history, and I really wanted the Awakenings creative team to do things their way for their area. They have a design approach that I think works really well with the music, where they like to create overlapping layers of elements that partially hide and partially reveal the other layers. They like to highlight the underlying structure, and play with your perception. It has to be as dark as possible so you get a club feeling from it. You step inside, and you’re entering that world of lights and smoke. You don’t want to be watching a show in there, you want to be enveloped in the atmosphere so you can meld with it.
6 Pointz is our tribute to a place that no longer exists, that was called 5 Pointz. It was a mecca for graffiti artists, and the name 5 Pointz signified the five boroughs coming together as one. So, being the 6th Boro, this spot is naturally called 6 Pointz. We’ll have graffiti artists making art on the walls here throughout the weekend. It’s a place for an outdoor rooftop or backyard party kind of vibe, where it’s really about the music and being around people who are there to get together and dance, maybe take a break from the huge walls of LED and lights everywhere else, feel more part of something small but no less satisfying.
How have you seen Electric Zoo's visual experience evolve over the years?
Wright: In the first several years of Electric Zoo - I think maybe 6 years? - the production design was done by Jon Goldstein, whose work I respect very much. He’s a great designer and he had a team of really talented people working on video content and projection mapping and they even did some very cool 3D visuals for some of the sets. When I came into this position in 2015, unfortunately Jon had decided to move on to other projects, and Electric Zoo was at a point where it was time to try something new on a lot of levels. What I really wanted was to have the main stage be something that looked beautiful in the daylight as well as at night. I also thought it should be somewhat abstract, kind of architectural, kind of technical - not too literal and not overly decorated.
There had previously been some big art activations each year - some cool big sculptures, an interactive piece called Sonic Forest, graffiti artists painting school buses. And our site art & deco team, still headed today by the wonderful and talented Patty Gutarra, started collecting big fiberglass animals and painting them and re-painting/re-surfacing them each year. And that’s something I still like to push forward each year - the return and rebirth of those animals, and adding to them.
Now it’s all one integrated vision - the stage designs and the site art and deco, and costumed performers (we’re bringing back Big Nazo Studio this year, but they have some special new bio-mechanical animals that are made specifically for Electric Zoo). I want to go so much further with it, really making a complete world around you from the moment you walk through the gates.
What were the primary challenges faced in designing the stages?
Wright: It’s always a balancing act. You get inspired and excited, you come up with an amazing idea, and then you find out there are some tree branches in the spot where you want to put something that are a little bigger than you thought they were because it’s hard to have a fully accurate 3D map of the entire park, and sometimes they even plant new trees. Everything costs a fortune in New York, but challenges are what drives the creative process, and that’s what makes it so exciting when it all comes together. We (the creative team) are supported by the most experienced, driven, and intelligent technical production team, who are the unsung heroes that help us figure out how to build these huge temporary structures that are made of a million pieces of steel, cables, video screens, and lasers.
What are the most noteworthy specs of the stages this year -- any record highs?
Wright: Creating stages that allow you to get lost in the moment, feel like you’re in another place, have an experience of awe, and make memories that last a lifetime, those are the things that are important to us. That comes from having a strong, clear vision, and then paying attention to the details. You have to keep tapping into the part of your brain that dreams and laughs and goes down twisting mysterious alleys in your mind. Creating an environment that puts people in a frame of mind to have fun, laugh, dance, and make memories together is the most important part. If you can make someone dance, make them laugh, put them together with other people who are smiling, give them something that reminds them of being a kid again, that’s the essence of a good experience. It takes imagination and passion, and that’s what we’re made of.