To Heaven and Back: I Experienced the World's First Zero Gravity DJ Set
Here's what happened when we sent our writer 30,000 feet into the sky to listen to EDM in total weightlessness.
This article ran originally on THUMP UK.
Things are happening right now. Illicit things. Seedy things. The kind of sinful things that can taint entire lives and wreck whole families. In a thousand hotel rooms right now, right this second, bonds are being broken, rules rewritten. As chandeliers dim and the sun begins to rise slowly above the purple-tinged mountain ranges that sit flat-footed on the horizon, another day in some kind of paradise stumbles into view, bleary eyed and faint.
I check my phone: it's 5:03AM. I drag a thick curtain open and the city unfurls before me, stretching lazily into the distance, seemingly endless, seemingly infinite, seemingly nondescript. A shower. A change of clothes. A lift from the 28th floor. The whole place heavy with the cloying sweetness of industrial strength air-freshener. Crumpled suits and battered trainers. A Jason Derulo song battles for aural supremacy with the perpetual clank of the slot machines. Croupiers sit in contemplative silence, destined to forever smell of strong straight cigarettes and spilled drinks.
Half-asleep and in search of the kind of comfort only weak instant coffee brewed in catering-friendly sized batches can offer, I make my way through the opulent rabbit hutch that is Las Vegas' SLS hotel. In my tracksuit bottoms and cheap t-shirt I'm studiously ignored by the team in the high rollers room, or as ignored as anyone can be in a casino in a city that's as surveillance heavy as Las Vegas. In a few hours, I think to myself as I get in what I'm pretty sure is the correct lift, I am going to experience something that I'm pretty sure 99.9999% of world hasn't. And it's making me feel quite nervous.
The reason I found myself in a hair and makeup room, ten hours and five thousand miles away from home is simple: in just a few hours from now, the world's first zero-gravity DJ set would be taking place. And I was going to be there to experience it. In that plane. Floating about. Above the Mojave Desert.
The insanely ambitious early morning flight was the result of immensely hard work carried out by a vast team assembled by beer manufacturers Desperados, who'd invited a select few lucky souls from all around the world to spend a few days on the west coast for the Bass Drop experience. From scientists like Robert Alexander, through to stylists, filmmakers, and pilots, a ton of talented people had come together to do something that had never been done before. This—everyone was thinking to themselves through the odd silence of an incredibly early morning—had better be good.
Sat in a chair gormlessly observing row after row of clothes that looked more suited to the VIP area Studio 54 than the backrow of a Boeing 727, my mind couldn't help but wander. What if I, unlike the cool, calm, and collected bunch I'd seen in the instructional video we all gathered around a swimming pool to watch, spewed everywhere? What if, rather than floating gaily through a plane as if it were a daily experience of mine, I managed to backflip myself into a neck brace? What if, and this was the scariest prospect of all, it wasn't as fucking amazing as experiencing a DJ set in zero-gravity should be?
Luckily there wasn't a vast amount of time to properly tuck into one of the narratives of doubt I'd started conjuring up. Peter, a Berlin based noise musician, artist, and stylist, grabbed me by the wrist, sized me up, and stuffed a sequined jacket into my hands.
"This is the one," he said.
"Are you sure?" I said.
"Absolutely. Put it on now. Oh, and these. Yes, these as well, please."
Peter handed me a pair of thick, blood red football socks. I'd gotten off relatively lightly. Later on in the week, during what was quite possibly the swankiest party this writer's ever been invited to, Peter confessed that he'd sensed my abject fear—which is why I managed to sidestep the gold lame get ups that most of my other passengers had been poured into.
Even the makeover I was subjected to was relatively harmless. For reasons only known to two other people on the planet—neither of whom wanted to give said reasons to me—I was turned into a kind of conflict-battered all American high-school football action hero. With my pseudo-shredded neck giving me the effect of a painfully sunburnt holiday-maker, I was strapped up with a kitted-out Fitbit of sorts and told to make my way into another room where a trampoline and a slow-motion camera were awaiting me. Reminding myself that I was in Las Vegas on a Tuesday morning rather than the office, I did as I was told. You can see what I look like jumping very awkwardly off a trampoline—looking for all the world like a bloke who's just eaten a massive fucking roast dinner, or an unmasked Darth Vader, or Shaun Ryder after a long week—below. Reader, I did this for you.
Having spent at least half a second in the air, it was time to bundle onto a coach and zip down the world famous Vegas strip. All of us—around 30 people in total, gawked at the supreme gaudiness unfolding on either side of the bus. Look, there's the Bellagio! There's the Venetian! Oh wow, is that the Trump Hotel Las Vegas? You betcha bottom dollar it is! It was all margarita bars and circuses. Well, it was for all of us except Ralf Schmerberg, the German director tasked with turning the four zero gravity flights that were taking place over two days into art. Ralf took his task seriously, and with a kind of Teutonic efficiency that'd be beyond parody had it not actually happened. A DSLR camera was brandished with the kind of seriousness usually reserved for combat zones; voices were hushed; awe and fear instilled in each and every one of us. "Don't look at me," Ralf said, ensuring he had everyone's complete and total attention, "when you are experiencing this moment of otherworldly excitement, I don't want you looking at me. Anyone who looks at me is out."
With those words ringing round our heads, we trundled into the business end of McCarren airport where our plane was patiently waiting for us. In single file we hopped in via the rear entrance, like soldiers ready to be parachuted into deep, dense jungle. We took our seats and, just like on a real, normal, commercial flight, we quietly sat through the safety demonstrations. It was at that point that you sensed that we'd all realized that this really wasn't going to be like a real, normal, commercial flight. Noticing the pair of decks and two sets of massive speakers where the other seats should be, the lack of windows and jet black padding covering everything else, it was clear: this was a nightclub.
Before we get to the nitty gritty of the experience itself, a little on the science. The zero gravity excursions offered by Zero G utilize parabolic flight. Essentially, parabolic flight involves a plane flying upwards at an alarming angle, reaching a plateau, and then immediately dropping back down again, nose-first. This procedure generates a sense of genuine weightlessness. I just about scraped a C in my science GCSEs so many of the details as to how this is possible are slightly lost on me. Even the Wikipedia page for it brought back not-exactly-fond memories of wet Tuesday afternoons in November trying to cheat on module tests—which, let's be honest, is about as far away from being in a FLYING NIGHTCLUB as it's possible to be.
Looking around the plane, my gaze fell on the guy tasked with soundtracking this and the following flights, Mike Cervello. Cervello is an Amsterdam based DJ who plays and produces the kind of big-room ready EDM that sits somewhere between Skrillex and London on da Track. While everyone else onboard looks like they're about to perform keyhole surgery wearing a blindfold and boxing gloves, Cervello sits calmly and quietly, patiently waiting for the nod that tacitly means "you are about to perform a special DJ set in zero gravity and if you fuck it up, even slightly, then lots of people are going to be very, very, very cross, so please, please, please do not fuck this up in the slightest." Mike Cervello didn't look like a man who ever fucked anything up.
Cervello's bass-heavy sound was perfectly suited to the project, and while his signature brand of flash-bang-wallop dance music might not have been the kind of thing you'd usually catch me listening to, up there, 30,000ft above the real world, it sort of made sense. After all, this was about pure unadulterated bass, about what happens to our hearts and minds when we experience the bass dropping while we float around like weightless children. As such, it probably wouldn't have been wise to book Larry Heard or Sassy J. Mike Cervello knew this too. A wry smile crept over his face. He was ready. The flight staff were ready. We, I supposed, were just about ready too.
So there I am, laying on my back on the floor of a plane—staring at the ceiling, just like I've been told to—getting ready to float. Music starts playing, and the music gets louder, and the plane starts to feel strange. The combination of the lights and the sound and the physical confusion of it all starts to remind of laying in bed after a night out—body brimming with fuck knows what, chemical reactions taking place by the tonne—and I start to feel distinctly odd. I look to my left and spot a competition winner—an incredibly boisterous competition winner who I never saw without a bottle of beer and a cigarette on the go throughout the week—going ever-so-slightly grey. Keep an eye on him, I thought.
A voice on the tannoy snaps me back into some kind of reality. "In thirty seconds we will perform our first drop. You're going to experience Martian gravity. I repeat, you're going to experience Martian gravity."
Thirty seconds later, we experience Martian gravity. Martian gravity feels odd. You're very aware of your own physicality, of being a lump of meat in a plane, but at the same time, there's a subtle difference. Things feel lighter. A lot lighter. Flipping over without any difficulty whatsoever, we all start doing push ups. Back here on sad and sorry Earth, I cannot do single push up. In the imagined Mars of that plane I could do a thousand without breaking a sweat. I was an Adonis.
At this point Mike Cervello is keeping things pretty chilled, playing the kind of wafty ambient you might hear on a daytrip to the Great Yarmouth Sealife Centre. It's appropriately calming. Mike Cervello is in control. Mike Cervello is strapped to the floor of the plane. He is experiencing human gravity. DJ gravity. He is not doing push ups. Ralf, stern, commanding, endearing Ralf, is a roving and probing extension of his camera, a gaudily-dressed eyeball beamed in from the deepest recess of Berlin, somehow up there way above the clouds.
The natural progression from Martian gravity is, obviously, to take things lunar. So that's what we do. This gradual easing into total and utter weightlessness is incredibly pleasant. Sure, at this stage it's obvious that a nervousness is hanging over everyone, but we're having fun at the same time. Actual fun. Actual real, genuine, fun. On a plane. The voice on the tannoy gives us another warning. I brace myself and close my eyes and the next thing I know I'm moonwalking. I am Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and for fifteen seconds I forget everything I've ever known about movement. We hop and bound and high five and adopt the kind of expression you'd imagine an iron-age ancestor might when presented with a ring-pull tin of tomatoes. Cervello's selections have gotten harder and heavier, Ralf's movements more acrobatic. Something is happening here: the anticipated's becoming a reality.
After our brief lunar excursion the plane starts to wobble a tad. It'd done the same on the way up but most of us had chosen to ignore it. After all, what's a little turbulence between friends before zero gravity? I couldn't help but notice a tinge of consternation on the faces of those overseeing the project. The rehearsals were over and this was the first real flight, the first time the Desperados team had shown their work to the world. Things, evidently, obviously, had to be right. Things, from our perspective, were going fine. More than fine. Things were fantastic. Cervello was in full flow and had we not been under strict no-alcohol conditions—to the point of having been breathalyzed prior to boarding—I could have quite happily chugged down a beer or six. Turbulence be damned. We were headed for the holy grail—we were diving towards weightlessness at an alarming rate.
If you've not experienced total weightlessness, it feels something like this: imagine swimming underwater, except there's no water there and you're not actually swimming. Focus on that sensation of pressure, though. Hone in on that. Imagine it coursing through every fibre of your being, every cell rendered into a kind of beautiful nothingness. You are nearly there. Now, take that feeling and start doing forward rolls and backflips. While a bigger-than-Jesus bassline rumbles through a fucking plane that is hurtling towards the ground. The video below shows you what happened to me and my body during that freefall.
You have fifteen seconds at your disposal to exploit, fifteen seconds with which to do whatever you can, whatever you so please. Funny, isn't it, how strangely subjective time is, how utterly elasticated it can become. When the soothing voice-over on the instructional video tells you that each parabola will last fifteen seconds you catch yourself trying to segment fifteen seconds into something real and relatable and liveable. Fifteen seconds, you think, is the time it takes to eat a banana really quickly, or put some swimming trunks on. Fifteen seconds is nothing. Down here at least. Way up where a celestial blue is nearly all you can see, where atmospheres begin to merge and mutate and an unblinking, unceasing, total and utter darkness edges into view, fifteen seconds becomes something malleable. It becomes alien. You can do a lot in fifteen seconds.
During those first fifteen seconds I find myself flailing, twirling, feeling totally out of control. I bounced off one wall into another. I nearly knocked stoic old Mike Cervello over. I gripped onto a guide rope and pretty much tore it down. And it felt incredible. Few experiences in life ever reach the giddy heights of the unbelievable, but this was up there. A group of strangers had been united, bonding over the sheer surreality of what was happening, and how it was happening, and why it was happening to us. All except for our grey-faced competition-winner, however, who had floated away from us and was being profusely sick into a bag. As the tannoy boomed its "FEET DOWN" warning—signalling the end of our first parabola, the end of our first taste of real weightlessness, firmly reminding us that gravity rules everything around it, and that bones can and do break—I breathed a sigh of relief that specks of puke hadn't made their way into the cabin and that my makeup hadn't been tarnished by the regurgitated remains of coffee, nachos, and hummus. Even here, in heaven, the corporeal cannot be escaped.
There was that wobbling again, and again, those faces of consternation. The plane's wobbles became almost indiscernible from those that Mike Cervello was pinging at us. The fancy-dressed amongst ourselves smiled through it, like children who'd been taken to the funfair only to have the waltzers run at half speed. In theory, we had fourteen more goes at zero gravity, fourteen more bites of the most transformative apple you've ever tasted.
The reality was slightly different. After our second descent—more measured than the first, each of us having gained at least some understanding of how our bodies worked in this new world we'd been lucky enough to inhabit—turbulence took total hold. We were going to have to turn round and land a lot quicker than anyone had anticipated, and more crucially, wanted.
The most American looking man I've ever seen ushered me back into my seat. Mike Cervello turned the music off. Ralf, who we'd all stopped looking at, trundled back to his chair in a state of emotional devastation. We sat quietly, coming to terms with our newly restored sense of balance. The experience had, it seemed, been beyond words. We were each given a bottle of water and a bag of crisps. Eyes shut, heads down.
We landed with a bump, trooping out the way we'd come in, single-filing our way onto the coach. It was a cloudless day in Las Vegas. The desert stretched into the distance. To my left was a huge billboard for a French Montana show, and to my right a succession of Cessnas. Our zero gravity dream had ended abruptly, but we were no less thankful to try something that only a handful of others in this life ever have or ever will. The brief—to create a nightclub without gravity—had come off. I had done it. I had been to the world's first zero gravity DJ set and lived to tell the tale. I had, in a moment that hasn't and probably won't ever sink in, heard "One More Time" by Daft Punk as I zipped through the cabin of a plane, flying high above the Mojave Desert.
The coach left the airport. I looked out of the window. A smallish plane had just landed. It was Donald Trump's. We were definitely back here on Earth.