I ♥ You, Las Vegas … But I’ve Chosen Techno

Our city has one of the largest electronic-dance music scenes in the country—just not for everyone

Techno Tour Trivia

Cities visited: Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin.

Approximate miles traveled: 33,130.

DJ that played everywhere I went: Chris Liebing.

DJs rarely seen in the U.S., but who play everywhere in Europe: Ricardo Villalobos, Pan-Pot.

Average price of festival admission: €50/$65.

Earplugs lost: 5.

Track that got everyone’s hands up: “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer.

Best track: “Body Twitch” by Lee Curtiss ft. Debbie Rennalds.

Lessons learned: Americans love furry boots and glow sticks; European festival bathrooms—even port-a-potties—are almost always immaculate.

What Las Vegas has that Europe generally does not: Decent cocktails.

Number of cocktails costing €15/$20: 0.

It was during 2011’s inaugural Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival that I asked myself: How is it that I live in a town that touts some of the most amazing clubs in the world, yet there’s no one I want to hear? If Las Vegas is “the next Ibiza,” then why do I still have to go to Ibiza to hear music that I like? Why, in this apparent electronic-music renaissance, am I not sharing the joy with the masses? While EDC gave me a little taste of the sound I love so much, I decided that it was up to me if I wanted to hear more.

First, I should clarify: When I say “techno,” I am not using it as the generic catchall label that the uninitiated do for electronic music—we’ll call this “EDM” for now. When I say “techno,” I will never be referring to Skrillex, Deadmau5 or Afrojack. When I say “techno,” I am not referring to dubstep, electro or trance. Techno is a specific genre of electronic music that has its roots in mid-to-late 1980s Detroit, pioneered by DJs such as Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. Newer acts include Richie Hawtin, Chris Liebing and Dave Clarke. Characterized by having 130-140 beats per minute, and relying on drum machines such as TR-Roland 808s and 909s, techno at its very essence raises your heart rate, throbs in your head and lets you see in the dark. No soaring vocals, no synths and most definitely no “drop.”

Learning to appreciate electronic music is like when you first start drinking. No one begins their drinking career appreciating the nuances of a complex premier grand cru Bordeaux. At first, you start off with something more like Boone’s Farm—sweet and candy-like. It goes down easy and gets you drunk without too much effort. It’s only over time that you learn about the various profiles and depth of flavor that comes with a good wine.

Techno is like this. It’s not candy. It’s not easy. It’s about intricate layers and building songs that exist only at that moment for you and the DJ. It is not about the DJ standing there with his arms outstretched or being passed over the crowd in an inflatable boat.

So while everyone else gets excited when Steve Aoki’s life raft makes an appearance or when Deadmau5 is doing whatever he does in his helmet, I have to search elsewhere for my fix—my Bordeaux so to speak—as there’s essentially only Boone’s Farm being served in this town. So I set out on a great techno adventure. I began booking trips to go see acts that never come to Las Vegas, and declared 2012 the Year of the Techno Tourist!

It’s no surprise that talent bookers here aren’t bringing more underground acts. Recent appearances by Luciano and Eats Everything are anomalies to be enjoyed on holiday weekends. This is the same town where Underworld, one of the biggest electronica acts ever, played at The Joint in 2009. By the end of the performance, the crowd had dwindled to about a hundred for a group that was used to playing for thousands.

This is also the same town where Chicago house-music legend Mark Farina was made to stop performing because he was playing “too much house” (at least they got the genre right). So if groovy, soulful, easily palatable house can’t make a stand here, how can we ever expect techno to thrive?

My tour began innocently enough in February with Swedish techno pioneer Adam Beyer and Ida Engberg in Chicago, which then led to the U.K.’s Surgeon in L.A. a month later. I went on my annual trek to Detroit for the Movement Festival. Las Vegas even threw me a bone when I got to see Richie Hawtin play at Drai’s After Hours the week before Electric Daisy Carnival, but then Mother Nature took it all away when the festival was shut down because of high winds the night Hawtin was to present his “ENTER.” concept.

I saved my ducats to attend Amsterdam’s AwakeFest, one of the major techno festivals in Europe and one that is very different from EDC. Where EDC places emphasis on the festival experience with a carnival, nightly performer parades and art installations, AwakeFest is supplemented simply by walls of bass. Now in its 15th year, Awakenings’ annual summer festival features the crème de la crème of techno acts banging it out on big stages with massive sound systems. Playing in the expansive field just outside of Amsterdam were acts such as Ricardo Villalobos, Cari Lekebusch, Pan-Pot and Carl Cox—huge names within their field that have never, save for Cox, set foot in Las Vegas, let alone into one of its DJ booths.

I returned to Holland later in the year for the Amsterdam Dance Event, now the largest electronic music festival in the world, attracting more than 200,000 visitors and beating out Winter Music Conference in Miami. Hundreds of parties during the five-day event speak to the legitimacy of the scene outside of “kandi kids” rolling their faces off (though you can still see plenty of that, too). I went there to see Brian Sanhaji, a German producer who only plays live P.A.s and rarely performs in the U.S., on a houseboat that was so hot and had such poor air circulation that sweat from other partygoers dripped from the walls and the ceiling. For a second time, I got to see the enigmatic Surgeon, who is so serious and methodical during his driving, brutal and borderline-industrial sets. When his set ends, he doesn’t stop playing; he powers down.

I also made a pilgrimage to the techno mecca, Berlin, for Berlin Music Days, another weeklong, citywide series of parties, seminars and shows in early November. Most of the scene’s major labels have taken root in Germany, but Berlin has been a special place for techno artists to nurture not only their craft, but also other young talent. I raved in the boiler room of an old city swimming pool for TommyFourSeven and (again) Surgeon, and in a massive airport hangar for German favorites Sven Väth and duo Pan-Pot.

I returned home to Las Vegas with a mental arsenal of one-of-a-kind performances and acts. Believe it or not, my tour made me even slightly more appreciative of what the clubs offer here: a gateway to go to the next step of electronic music. Of course, I know that some people will only move on to the next “Gangnam Style.” But there are those whom when this wave dies down, when the masses have become bored with watching DJs press only one button at the beginning of the night, I hope will follow the thumping bass further down the rabbit hole. I’ll have a glass of Bordeaux ready for those of you who find their way underground.