Kaskade boards a chopper that'll take him to his headlining set at Mysteryland
The sun has just set behind the rolling green hills of Bethel Woods, New York, once the site of Woodstock 1969, and now home to the first-ever Mysteryland USA. As if on cue, rainbows of neon lights start looping through the darkness, like a swirling fog of psychedelic fireflies.
It's that point in any festival when you can feel a change in the air—as darkness falls, the air start buzzing, the chemicals kick in, and people start pulling towards the castle-like main stage, in anticipation for the climatic act of the night: the dance music king known as Kaskade, an undeniable crowd favorite whose greatest hits are shining examples of EDM at its most exultant—soothingly sweet female vocals singing about endless love and morning light over groovy progressive house beats so warm they wrap around your body like a fuzzy blanket.
Less than an hour before he'll take center stage beneath a giant pink LED-lit heart to steer the two-day festival into its dramatic, fireworks-crackling climax, Kaskade strolls into the press center looking like a slice of all-American pie—backwards baseball cap (that he later removes for his set), blue jeans, and a well-worn blue hoodie. He offers his hand. "Oh, you're from VICE?," he asks, eyes twinkling. "I'm not going to talk about cunts… are you still going to interview me?"
The author blowing bubbles with Kaskade, who was instructed by his publicist to retake the photo because he was "making a crazy face."
That quip, so casually delivered, perhaps best encapsulates the schism at the heart of what Kaskade is about. Presumably, he won't talk about cunts for the same reason why he doesn't drink alcohol or condone drug use, but does counts church choir practice as one of his musical influences—Kaskade (or rather, Ryan Raddon) is the first—and only—practicing Latter Day Saints superstar DJ in the world. Even his DJ name is a reference to a "cascading" waterfall—a common symbol of the Christian Holy Spirit.
While he doesn't wear his cross on his sleeve, Raddon also doesn't pretend to be ignorant about the sea of unapologetic hedonists, amphetamine-fueled vampires, and lusty paramours shaking their bodies in ecstatic reverie during his sets. He believes—and has said so in past interviews and in his opinionated blog posts that EDM—and particularly his melodically-driven strain of it, best exemplified by his hits like "Angel On My Shoulder," "I Remember," and "Atmosphere" (a song he has called his most personal)—does not require you to be gurning your teeth off to lose yourself in a joyously uplifting reverie.
Asked if he buys the recent chatter that the big room mainstage house sound of EDM is on its way out, Kaskade says, "I think that's the silliest thing I've ever heard. The only people saying that are the deep house guys… and Seth Troxler." He laughs. "Look, there will always be a need for bigger sounds. More energetic music works in front a large audience. I make music that's very deep and emotional and slow that could be played in the all-vinyl tent"—referring to the vinyl-only stage at Mysteryland where Dimitri, Soul Clap and Lee Foss were spinning for delighted purists—"but I'm not sure if that would be the right fit. My career spans two decades, and for the first half, I was playing in small rooms for five hundred, maybe a thousand people."
Indeed, Raddon also recently wrapped up an intimate, nine-date tour called It's You, It's Me Redux, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of his first full-length on OM Records—the San Francisco label that launched his career. Instead of the large-scale arenas he could easily fill, he opted to play in small, dirty clubs for audiences capped at 300.
This was, of course, the tour where a scalper infamously attempted to sell a ticket for about five times the list price. Kaskade pretended to be an interested buyer, and confronted the confused scalper in his hotel lobby. "That poor kid. He was shaking. He freaked out," Kaskade says, bragging a little. "I don't think he'll be scalping tickets anymore. He was scared straight."
When he announced the tour on his Tumblr, Raddon had written that this was a concept that he'd come up with himself—fueled by a need to go back to "where I was, where the scene was, ten years ago." He continued, "I love the big feel of huge crowds, anthems and mayhem. But sometimes it's good to go back and touch base with the foundation. This is mine. Hope to see you there."
With the tour completed, Raddon beams, calling it "totally awesome." "It's kind of important for me to do things like this occasionally," he explains. "As the production and elements around electronic music get bigger and bigger, going back to my safe place feels like putting on an old pair of jeans. It's fun. It's natural."
These types of back-to-the-roots tours reflect a changing direction in Kaskade's long career. With his Ultra Records contract having run its course, he's a free agent for the first time and he's been celebrating his newfound liberation by posting his entire back catalog online for free. "Everybody goes and cruises the crates on iTunes right now," he says. "I've been putting [my music] up on YouTube and making it more accessible."
Bypassing the traditional modes of distribution seems like an act of rebellion to the control that Ultra Records had exerted on his career since he'd signed with them in 2006. Looking back, Raddon reveals a certain ambivalence towards the commercial aspects of work he felt pressured to produce. "It's hard to be controlled by any label because there are expectations for what electronic music is that are a bit silly."
"It's very pop-leaning," he clarifies, "When I signed with Ultra Records, dance music hadn't been on the radio since Madonna. Then along came guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris, and [the label] was like, 'Why don't you make records like this?'"
He looks down towards his lap, and his voice turns into a soft mumble. "But I don't make records like that. I don't know. That's what they do. They do them, and I do me."
He looks back up and quickly pulls back into his usual cheerful, confident tone. "What's most important to me is finding an outlet that will let me do what I do best. I've been cooking up my big plan for a couple years, [ever since] I saw that my contract was coming to an end. But… I'm not ready to talk about it just yet."
I decide to take a guess. "So… you're going to start your own label?"
He reverts to the aw-shucks shyness of before. "Yes," he says, noisily clearing his throat. "Yes. Some variation of that."
It turns out Raddon is referring to his plans to build a comprehensive website where his music will live, independent from the long-armed reach of both record labels and music-hosting services like SoundCloud.
In fact, SoundCloud eventually pulled a large chunk of the tracks Raddon had uploaded to his account, citing copyright violations. That spurred him to confirm on Twitter that he's "move forward with constructing my own portal where I can share what I like when I like."
Also in the works: a new album that he "just started tinkering around with" in the last few weeks, as well as a digital release of his "Redux EP," which will include a new track that wasn't in the vinyl version. "At first, I was like, no—[the album] will only be on vinyl!" he says, slapping his knee with every word for emphasis. The DJ's crowd-pleasing tendencies ultimately got the best of him. "So many people were pissed. So I'm like, OK, that's kind of dumb because no one can listen to it."
His headlining slots at major festivals this summer like Bonnaroo, TomorrowWorld, Electric Zoo and Tomorrowland will also cater to satisfying the needs of his massive following—that is, to hear a non-stop set of his hits, after hit, after hit. "I've produced eight albums, so when people come to a Kaskade show, it's more of a concert." He even draws parallels between himself and the reigning queen of pop. "Beyoncé spends millions of dollars producing her concerts. Electronic music is no different."
When asked which experience he prefers—the small and dirty digs or the massive festivals—Kaskade refuses to pick sides. "It's like comparing apples and oranges. I love them both." His face erupts in a giant smile. "I love fruit."
Michelle Lhooq loves rave fruit too. - @MichelleLhooq