"You put a condom on. Anything will come off your wrist, including a wristband," says Hannah, a British girl I've met on the train to Melt! Festival, a three-day blowout on the outskirts of a tiny German village called Gräfenhainichen. Hannah is explaining how she plans to sneak in. Like most of our group, Hannah is from South London, which means she's a master at slang and an expert at drugs.
"NRG is an awful drug. Some bullshit drug that you find on a website somewhere," she explains. "You can smell it being wrong."
I met the others in my group at Berghain the week before. My plan was to meet Simian Mobile Disco and their manager Oli at the festival, but for now, I'm pounding Club-Mate and gin on a train to Dessau, telling secrets with strangers like old buds.
"The only drugs that leave me feeling fresh the next day are sort of non-existent," Hannah trails off.
We exit the train, day-drunk and laughing, and head for the campsite, a lengthy hike along a lake, past miles of tents affixed with handmade signs (both nonsensical and utilitarian) that say stuff like "Hakuna matata–sold out!" and "We need weed."
I have no idea how to find the teepee I'm allegedly sleeping in, so I throw everything I own into someone's tent. The crew passes around Jägermeister, "mosi repellent," a nitrous cracker, and balloons.
Melt! takes place on a former surface mining site-turned-industrial monument, with much of the equipment left intact. Oversized disco balls hang from giant excavators, decommissioned machines from a steel age long past appear now dormant. The strip mines are now lakes, the brown coal supplanted by ticket sales.
By night, it looks like a rave on the abandoned set of Alien 3. By day, a summer camp for the children of Panoramabar.
Despite its rustic setting, Melt! offers a variety of conveniences. The lake, albeit dingy, is a welcome addition to the site. The security appear chiefly in an assisting role--which is pretty much the case at virtually every European music festival I've attended.
It's 8PM and we're in a festival mood, so we start the almost hour-long stroll to the concert site. As we enter, I immediately lose the crew, weaving a reverse route through the festival grounds to the check-in desk to get my credentials, thoroughly confusing the staff. "But … how did you get here without a pass?" they ask at the artist check-in, and it occurs to me that perhaps Hannah won't need to jump the fence.
I immediately run into Oli, Siman Mobile Disco's manager, who upgrades my wristband, and we walk on to the side of the Big Wheel stage, accidentally catching the end of Scuba's set.
There's good and bad news. SMD won't be arriving until Sunday, but Oli also manages Andy from Bicep, who's following Scuba with some techno of his own. Oli says I can cover the festival with Andy instead, but I lose him after he finishes his set.
My texts to my crew aren't going through, so I cut through the Mainstage crowd and catch The Knife, whose interpretive dance performance abruptly transforms from "live" show into some kind of elf-themed jazzercise "danceoke" routine. No one is playing anything, they're flitting around in capes because the "world is going to hell in a hand basket anyway," which is a decent joke in theory, I suppose, but comes off a bit flippant in the face of thousands of disappointed fans.
I ditch The Knife and find the rest of the Berghain gang on a swing set by a shipping container. We catch up and head out to check an apt one-two-three punch of Function, Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock at the Big Wheel Stage, which is plagued with thin sound. There's nothing coming from the back at all, and it's so quiet I can hear myself exhale. The low end sounds like its being transmitted via police scanner.
We're clamoring for metal on metal, cold gusts, restraint and revelation. People load up on Ketamine and speed, then head over Modderat, at which point I give up.
Then it's over to Moderat, at which point it's 7AM and I've decided that I'm giving up and heading home. One of the creeper-wearing guys I drag behind has a ball gag dangling from his backpocket, nonchalently.
In the morning I wake up with the sweaty teepee canvas covering my face like a mask, my body arranged with the others like a starfish, head to feet, ankles to knees. In the middle, a girl without sleeping bag or mat is curled up like a cheez doodle in orange jeans and a hoodie despite the sweltering heat.
The sun isn't getting any lower, and the teepee's a gym sock sauna, so I step out into the heat. Dazed kids exit an adjacent tent one by one, shaking their heads, no, at my "good mornings." It may not be good, but it's 10AM, so we stumble to the lake which is already populated by lobsters.
Pale-skinned kids pass out on air mattresses that's floating out on the brown water. They're lying on top of each other each other; one kid is sleeping on a girl like a bed. The median age is about 19.
A group of Swedes, clad only in Ray-Bans, flick each other's dicks and drink beers by the shore. I dive in to wash the tent sweat off my face and overhear a group of young British girls debating hygiene as a DJ across the way plays Nicki Minaj and Frank Ocean.
"How do we know how much soap is too much?" one inquires.
"Just get all in there," her blonde friend instructs, one hand behind her back.
"In London, 'open airs' and festivals are 18 and up," Alex explains when I return. "They can't get into clubs, so this is their first taste. I was running around clubs at 15. I'd hate to meet myself back then."
I imagine what it would have been like, running around clubs at 15. I looked like a chipmunk. It took me a decade to get my door game up to par. Alex and I wander over to check out Motor City Drum Ensemble at the Sleepless Floor, a sandy beach with drink shacks on the right and a blue-canopied DJ booth at the back with a hand-painted "Sleepless" sign.
A tank-topped bro in shades hoses us down from the roof of the shacks, while others take down casual nitrous balloons on the concrete steps.
MCDE plays beach disco, shirtless and boyish, looking like a character out of Kids, alternately dropping jams, sucking down beer and kissing his blond girlfriend. He plays Oliver Cheatham's "Get Down Saturday Night," and the casual nitrous zone erupts in cheers.
I want to check Michael Mayer on the Big Wheel stage, but the vibe's perfect on the Sleepless beach and the sound's infinitely better. We pound a bottle of warm rum and apple juice and Alex meets every female in range.
After a couple of hours, we head back to the camp to reconnoiter and break out the last of our Club-Mate, which we mix with Jager and Jim Beam. We're almost out of booze. Ketamine makes the rounds, and a young Brazilian couple poke their heads out of a collapsed camo tent to purchase a handful of heart-shaped pills that are guaranteed to supply "the best sex of their lives."
I break out my laptop to charge my phone, and they ask me to play something. I put on Oni Ayun's "OAR003-B," still bummed about The Knife.
"What is this, my personal iTunes playlist?" someone asks with a laugh. Everyone knows everything, everyone's a head. They correct my pronunciation. I'll always be an American, I'll always be late to the game, getting by on sincerity and good will, but at least I'm here.
We stop to fill up water bottles at a water station. Girls line up for the showers. Others brush their teeth. A girl next to me shaves her legs unceremoniously at the trough, feet in the mud, as I wash my face.
We head to Disclosure, because I've heard a lot about their new and improved live show, and because most of us are from the UK. Alex and I watch from the stage with Oli and his wife. There's nothing technically wrong with the set; it sounds great, and they're playing live in the sense that they are playing instruments, but it's odd to hear the choir of phantom vocalists absently singing the lead.
We bounce during their closer, "Help Me Lose My Mind," which is still killer, and check out French neofolk multi-talent Woodkid, aka Katy Perry/Lana Del Rey video director Yoann Lemoine, whose live show thoroughly confuses me. He charges around the stage in basketball shorts, backed by soaring symphonic buildups and horns. I recognize a track sampled by Kendrick Lamar, and decide he killed it.
We wander to check out DJ Koze, playing the thus-far disappointing Big Wheel stage. The sound is muddy, though it clears up, and remains quiet, despite the warehouse techno he plays. I can hear my ears ring from the Sleepless Floor. He runs through his Herbert remix, Jon Hopkins' "Open Air Signal," then returns with a monster mask on. Why not? Between MCDE and Koze, today has already topped the previous night.
We cut through the crowd, pass future vikings in a the midst of a power huddle, neon face-painted data analysts, and more kids. I get a whiff of that festival odor—rank, sweat, socks and ammonia.
James Holden comes on, lanky, smoking shyly, and plays an absolutely impeccable set, easily the highlight of the festival, and perhaps the summer. Progressive, perfectly timed, vibey, we know every track, we can't remember their names. "Plastic Dreams" is a highlight, Alex calls out "Renata," from Holden's new album, The Inheritors. He closes out with Atoms for Peace's "Before Your Very Eyes," and the crowd can't stop cheering. Frank from Âme and Henrik Schwarz, whose Schwarzmann gear has been fiddled with for the majority of Holden's set, appear equally impressed, shaking their heads as they applaud.
We meet up with the crew by the swing set again. Hugs all around. One girl flashes her underwear, with a German slogan taped on, "mit vergnügen," which translates to "with pleasure." We're in great shape and we jet back to the Sleepless Floor to catch Michael Mayer at Kompakt's 20th anniversary event with Barnt and Tobias Thomas. I'd like to catch Karenn and Ben UFO, but I feel like the beach is the move.
Mayer plays a collection of Kompakt jams as the sun rises behind him. We're vibing out, and they're obviously still serving so I order two double-shots of Jäger, water, and a Jäger and Red Bull. Drinking is the only way I can keep going.
One of the festival's tents is uprooted and passed around the crowd at a rakish angle, making several polite trips around the dance floor. The nitrous queen presides over the casual whippet corner, holding court with a bottomless blue balloon. Alex and I can't contain ourselves. It's too good.
"Yo man! So glad you came!" he shouts. "In the space of a week…"
"Let's do it again!"
"No! Next time, Fusion. This is tame!" he shouts. I can't imagine how. I look around; young-faced Swedish girls palm pills, washing them down with something brown.
Barnt takes the stage. The sun is fully up. We're awash on a sea of beach trash. Belle is asleep on her feet. The rest head back to our camp to regroup.
I realize it's time to send myself home as well. Alex is talking about meeting someone somewhere, I promise to tell the others. My head is pounding. I have to be on a plane to Barcelona in a couple of hours and the teepee is a dubious place to sleep.
This is my tenth music festival of the year. My mouth tastes like a band-aid. The kids next to us are still drinking. They're sitting around the camp, playing Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line." Girls pass by in towels. Others sip coffee and beer.
In the teepee, Belle is curled up in her orange jeans again. Sleeping hard, like a marsupial. Everyone but Alex is out cold. The smell is insane. Plastic packages of cheese sweat, a small pond of spilled water, Euro cents, socks, underwear, gum.
The kids are partying so loud outside that I'm tempted to just say "fuck it" and join them. Earlier in the year, I would have, but now I'm beat.
I brush my teeth next to our tent, no décor. Suddenly, I see the rest of our group, hair wet, looking clean. They've changed outfits and they're heading back to the Sleepless Floor. I almost join them. I can't. I relay Alex's message. Everyone's having fun without me. I can't believe it.
"Because you're mine, I walk the line," Cash sings.
I sleep, I'm dead.
10 AM: I wake up, face sopping with teepee flap, baking in the sun. The tent is empty except for Belle. A shirtless blonde pisses on a 20-person Danish army tent, bottles of liquor are passed around. It doesn't seem like anyone's planning to sleep.
I give Belle my sleeping bag and mat. I decide to dive into the lake again before hopping the train. On the way, I run into Hannah, the fence-jumper, whom I haven't seen since the gate. She just left the Sleepless Floor.
"When I left, everyone was getting absolutely spangled," she explains. "Just moisture-socked human beings, really, all dried up."
I know what she means. My face feels the same.
"I have a day of birthday parties back home to deal with. How do I look?" she asks.
"Great," I lie.
A parade of kids pass, shout that they're marching back to Berlin. They have toilet paper flags.
I jump into the lake, I swim. Kids make out on an air mattress. The sun is high. The Sleepless Floor's still going, playing something Balearic.
I should stay to interview Simian Mobile Disco. I should miss my flight.
It's a moment.
I look over to the shore. A group of shirtless kids huddle in the mud, giggling in a circle. They're doing poppers. It's time for me to go.