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The Founder of Awakenings on How Lighting, Lasers, and the Grateful Dead Shaped One of the World’s Biggest Techno Parties

We caught up with with founder Rocco Veenboer before the festival's big US debut this weekend in New York City.
February 12, 2016, 10:35pm

On Sunday, February 14, Valentine's Day, one of the world's longest-running techno parties, Awakenings, will commence in the United States for the first time ever. The traveling event first began in Amsterdam in 1997 and has grown into one of the biggest brands in techno since. Back in 2014, the financially beleaguered SFX purchased the festival's parent company, Monumental Productions B.V, as part of their publicized buy-up of dance music brands and festivals. Part of SFX's intention in the purchase was to bring the festival across the world, something that now is finally coming to light with a one-night takeover at Manhattan's iconic Hammerstein Ballroom. The debut edition is set to feature huge techno names embarking on b2b sets including the inspired pairings of Adam Beyer and his wife Ida Engberg along with Nicole Moudaber and Victor Calderone.

Jeff Mills at Awakenings. Photo by Merlijn Hoek.

Since its inception nearly two decades ago, the Dutch event has grown to take place in a variety of formats and locations; sometimes held in indoor locations like Amsterdam's mammoth Gashouder venue, as well as a yearly outdoor open-air festival which will take place this June for its 16th year at Spaarnwoude Houtrak, which borders a picturesque golf course. The festival's classically a who's who of massive techno names (Villalobos, Klock, Cox, Hawtin) as well as more recently a slew of slightly more house-focused talents like Maya Jane Coles and Jackmaster.

But in addition to their drool-worthy bills of brain-rattlers, a focus on otherworldly production has always been at the core of Awakenings. Utilizing the expansiveness of giant, dome-shaped venues, as well as vast outdoor fields with creatively-constructed stage structures, fans are consistently treated to an array of piercing lasers, LEDs, and even actual fireworks, that all serve to compliment the relentless audio vibe promised by the event. If there were ever a partly likely to literally earn the designation "face-melting," well Awakenings is probably it.

Sven Vath. Photo by Merlijn Hoek.

Ahead of the festival's big US debut, we got the chance to to chat with the event's founder, Rocco Veenboer, about how lights, lasers, and an unexpected experience at a series of Grateful Dead shows in NYC in the early 90s inspired Awakening's unique pounding vibe, both visually, and musically.


As a special bonus, Rocco also sent over a collection of amazing photos from Awakenings' early history, taken by photographer Marlijn Hoek.

THUMP: Tell us a bit about seeing the Grateful Dead in 1991 in NYC. What exactly did that experience do for you?
Rocco Veenboer: I really had no idea who the Grateful Dead were before I went to the run of shows. Everything from the production, to the community around the music was really inspiring for me as an event producer. The entire Dead experience was so immersive that it seemed to completelY take hold of everyone who was there just as it did for me. I felt at home immediately, which was a really foreign feeling for me.

From a production standpoint, even though we were in a huge stadium, all the fans were transported to another world. Even if someone wasn't initially interestedin the music they became totally captivated by the visual experience and couldn't help but dance to the songs and try to sing along. It was the first time I had seen lighting work and lasers on that level. Everything was seamlessly linked to the music and really enriched the whole experience.

All I wanted to do [with Awakenings] was replicate this type of dedication and separation from daily life—an escape from reality that helps people get through their day to day and inspires them to do the best they can no matter what their path may be. I think that techno events can be seen in a similar light in many ways; people go to their first warehouse events to listen to an often eclectic type of music, and it is the community and the production that really pulls them in. Once they are fully immersed into the experience the music starts to take hold of them, people can go from not knowing anything about the music to being a dedicated member of the community in one night. It is this escape and embrace of the scene that is so powerful and is definitely something that I have seen at the Dead shows i've been to. People are coming together to not only celebrate music, but really lose themselves to a community that is so different from typical life.

Photo by Merlijn Hoek.

Who do you guys work with to oversee your production?
The mastermind of the Awakenings visual experience is our Technical Director Jasper Schimmel. He has been working with us for 15 years and enabled us to keep a consistent brand while still constantly pushing the limits. This guy is an absolute visionary when it comes to lighting and production. Jasper has been working with LEDs and lasers since they became accessible and has really helped push their development and the artform behind them. Without him it is safe to say that Awakenings would not be what it is today.

Photo by Merlijn Hoek.

How have you utilized lasers throughout the history of the event?
When we first started using lasers it was the wild wild west. No one had ever seen them used before so we were truly blowing minds. People had never seen anything like this in their entire lives. As Awakenings is such a music-focused event we always tried to accent the music with the lasers, meaning every time they were used it was to create a dramatic moment in a set and really help the DJ control the crowd. This doesn't mean using these visual elements to trick people into thinking that bad music is good but rather help an extremely talented artist connect with their fans through a profound moment. Nothing really compares to that moment when someone is already entranced by the music and then is thrown into this A/V experience. The crowd reaction is out of control.

Photo by Merlijn Hoek.

What's the secret to having a perfect balance in the production of massive parties?
I really think this comes down to the music and how it interacts with the visual experience. You can have all the lighting and production rigs in the world but if the music is stale and predictable then it's not going to be that impactful. The beautiful thing about a techno set is the dramatic arc and journey that artists take fans on. And the purpose of production is to enhance these stories and emotions that an artist is trying to convey. When the production outweighs the meaningfulness of the music, it becomes all about pretty lights. This isn't what music is about and it's not what helps drive creative culture and inspire people.

I think there are some other events that come close to this 'perfect balance' as you say, but most mainstream events really do not. This is a product of the music and of the lack of community around it. Our job is to tip toe that balance line—not taking too much away from the music while still trying to blow minds. I think this is how we have made a name for ourselves and we are really excited to bring this message to NYC this weekend.

Awakenings takes place Feb 14 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. More info on Facebook.

David is staring at lasers—on and off Twitter.