Photos courtesy of NLS
"OMG," I thought, as banner ads for a steampunk rave called Machina² began to creep up on the Resident Advisor website more than a month and a half ago. "This is going to be some next-level shit." Next Level Shit (or NLS, in short) was incidentally the name of the promoter behind this confluence of heretofore seemingly disparate ideas—steampunks and Brooklyn techno raves.
On said ads, pocket-watch gears—the dead-giveaway trope of the steampunk aesthetic—were masterfully arranged to form a cat's visage replete with a stove-top hat. International techno DJs like Germany's Marc Romboy, Amsterdam-via-Bogota's Lake Avalon, and Tel-Aviv-based Ran Salman were listed against a smoky backdrop of more gears. A conspicuous "BUSHWICK WAREHOUSE" postscript sat at the bottom of the ad.
Save your eye-rolls: to me, it made sense that this was happening. The genealogy of the Brooklyn rave scene, though incredibly diverse, in fact has its roots precisely in this sort of crunchy shit. Stylistically speaking, a steam-punk jam isn't that far off from the hippie-dippie, aerialist-circus-y situations that parties like Rubulad, Danger, and Robot Heart have been pulling off for over a decade—well before most of us even knew how to spell Bushwick.
You can still catch a lot of that vibe over at the House of Yes, meaning that this movement not only survives but also thrives. Many of Brooklyn's indie and electronic venues, like 285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Steel Drums—which were only a few years ago held up as signs of the borough's thriving DIY music scene—are dead and gone. House of Yes? Printing money.
So before you saunter off to play an Oak-clad wallflower at your next dark techno afterhours, remember that it was a bunch of guys in stovetop hats and raggedy-ass coat-tails who used to throw insane ragers in Morgan Ave warehouses... and then set them on fire back in 1999. I was there.
So forgive my excitement about this steampunk party: the small universe of artists, artisans, welders, carpenters, tall-bicycle clubs, DIY flotilla builders and hundreds of other restlessly creative garden-variety freaks—the original gentrifiers who plowed their way through deserted industrial Brooklyn nearly 20 years ago—are nothing short of fascinating to me.
They are the ones who gave rise to the popularity of art cars—now ubiquitous at festivals everywhere—and a little thing called Burning Man. They didn't chase press mentions or likes; in fact, they ran in the opposite direction to build a world of their own, and we sort of followed.
So, anyway, I'm excited.
The party was held last Saturday (April 30) at a sprawling furniture shop and storage space located in a characteristically industrial quadrant of Bushwick. I've been to this spot before for previous raves and it's major: a low-slung former warehouse with wood floors, several cavernous rooms, ample bathrooms (very important), a big backyard, and just the right amount of furniture bits and mirror frames from the shop to set the right granola mood.
As with previous events at this spot, I expected to get in through the secretive side door, snaking past stacks of wood and sofa parts, catching furtive looks from the purportedly shady owners hovering over a vile hookah.
No such thing. Even though the party didn't appear to be a totally legal affair, the main doors were brashly flung open to the streets, making it easy for everyone passing by—including cops—to see what was happening inside. Garish tech-house thumped in the distance; excited and chatty patrons-to-be, mostly men, lined up to get in. Given the vibe, I half-expected an LED-doodad-twirler guy to run out and entertain everyone waiting outside—and almost prepared my cold shoulder for him—but he never came.
Once I got to the door, a gentleman thrice my size in camouflage cargo shorts checked my name off an iPad list. Past the nicely-organized coat check and up a short flight stairs, in a room dubbed "The Edison Room," a young, smiling girl manned a lonely graffiti calligraphy station. Above her, pieces of beige canvas were hung on the ceiling for no apparent purpose. Asian-style red lanterns, papier-mâché stars and sparse Edison bulbs—the sole nod to steampunk theme thus far—served as both lighting and decor, casting off a bright glow untempered by even a hint of fog or haze.
Wandering towards the back, I found a smattering of seating and a double-headed lamp with some extraneous metal parts on it: steampunk reference #2. More Chinese lanterns illuminated the backyard, where extremely cheerful staff offered me a taste from the taco table.
Next, I moved into an adjacent smaller room called "Steam Engine," which seemed to lack a single reference to any steam engine whatsoever. Instead, the second stage was set up with a DJ table and an old-school light box the size of an iPad displaying the DJ's name: Cooper James. The music in both rooms flowed between very danceable chart-toppers and slower, moodier tech-house full of embellishment and high-end production—the kind of stuff I heard, if hazy memory serves correctly, when I went to a festival in Tulum this past winter.
But wait. Where were the freaks? The elaborate and dangerous metal installations? The promised 3-D mapping projections and fully customized sound systems? Any fire-breathing metal dragons I could ride? A "truly unique and immersive experience" this wasn't.
A sudden burst of bright light caught me by surprise—a strobe! No. It was the event photographer's flash going off for just a moment.
As I stood outside of the dancefloor collecting my thoughts, a woman waved to get my attention. She made a gesture that said, lighten up! I tried to give her a terse smile and realized that I was frowning, deeply.
In stark contrast, everyone else was having a great time and the place was beginning to fill up with nice kids—probably with the day-jobs needed to pay the ticket price, which ranged from $25 to $45 (and likely more at the door). They were here to have fun and unwind before another long work-week. Who am I to kvetch in the face of that?
Maybe me and my dashed hopes for relieving the 20-year-old past can suck it. The Bushwick nightlife freaks have clearly either moved on, or built clubs of their own to make up for decades of struggling. I am not now, nor will I ever be, that old dude angrily and helplessly shaking his wrinkled fist at gentrification—a natural process that, in the long view, is as beneficial as it seems destructive, like everything else in life. There is simply too much incredibly diverse culture happening around us right now in the Brooklyn nightlife scene to vilify a new thing and lionize the old. It's not even that hard to find great parties—just scratch the surface and it all pours out. And a personal lesson: a real underground rave doesn't post ads online anyway.
Seva Granik is a nightlife degenerate and party promoter in New York City. Follow him on Instagram.