Feeling present on the dance floor is becoming increasingly difficult. We have a lot to contend with in the world these days, and more often than not, once we've dealt with a constant stream of text messages and snapchats, the queue at the bar, finding a good spot to see the DJ, and securing an Uber home, the moments actually spent with the music end up few and far between.
Sat around a small wooden table in the corner of a pub spinning with early-evening business, Stephen and David Dewaele are broaching this very subject. After bouncing a few variations on the theme off each other, they eventually come to one conclusion: "people barely dance anymore."
The Dewaele brothers are probably better recognised as 2ManyDJs, or better still as Soulwax. The pair have been mixing, remixing, and DJing parties for the best part of 20 years, yet we have met to discuss a project that they first debuted as recently as 2013. Along with their friend James Murphy, the illustrious once-frontman of LCD Soundsystem, the brothers have designed, and formed, Despacio. The best sound system in the world, and the greatest party you've ever been to.
Their idea for Despacio was the product of years DJing, increasingly in new clubs where "the last thing they will invest in is sound". From this frustration, married with the desire to throw "the sort of parties we'd love to go to", a massive idea was born. "It came at the point James had just finished LCD," David tells me, "we went for food with our agents, and typically when the three of us get together all we talk about is whatever we are obsessing over at that moment. We mentioned this idea, building a soundsystem, and our agent said 'I can make this work'."
While the technology to facilitate the plan came later, the initial seed had its roots in Ibiza. "When we first went, however many years ago, we hated it. We were in and we were out. It was everything I hate about anything. It was bad music, the clubs were terrible," David continues. "Then we started meeting these crazy people who had been there for 20, 30 years who had such amazing stories about the island." Stephen adds, "There is a super rich history there that tends to be forgotten. The emphasis is very much on this VIP, jet-setting culture."
Discovering the island's balearic heritage played a huge role in defining what the project would become, as Stephen details, "Baldelli in Italy, the New Beat guys in Belgium or Alfredo in Ibiza, pre-Brits, before 87 — they were all taking records that were on 45" and slowing them down to 33". That's kind of where the name Despacio comes from: slow."
The balearic connection is key to understanding Despacio, beyond just the Spanish translation. Far from using an element as limiting as genre to anchor the night, the parties are centered around the energy of the party community, throwing an event where the music moves with and among the motion of dancers. Stephen was keen to impress the importance of the White Isle's influence, "the talk had originally been to throw the party in Ibiza. We wanted it to be open air, playing really great music, which is when James suggested, we should design the soundsystem."
To turn this Ibizan fantasy into a reality then took the combined obsessiveness of the Dewaele brothers, and the apparently famously fastidious Murphy — "he's very well known for his attention to detail" Stephen tells me wryly. From here, collaboration became key. The Despacio trio teamed up with Manchester International Festival to make the first event happen, as well as combining with premium acoustic engineers McIntosh. "It's funny," David laughs, "when we were asked who we wanted to build the speakers with, we sort of said McIntosh as a joke because they are so good, but then to our surprise they said yes!"
With the expertise of McIntosh, the Despacio system was built to offer an unprecedented range. "The way it is designed, in simple terms, to have the highest range of dynamics we really don't push the amps at all. To get the most variation they are probably at about 30% capacity," Stephen details. Naturally, if they are only firing at 30%, the question of what happens at 100% is raised. "Well, we had a tent of 30 or 40 people at one point at Glastonbury, but we had the same amount of power as the Pyramid stage. We didn't use it of course, but it was there."
With the soundsystem designed and built, the decor arranged (one mirror ball, surrounded by meticulously placed lights), the next element was selecting the music. "We'd built this unbelievable soundsystem, so we wanted to get all of our records out," David animatedly explains, "let's show people. It can be anything from Paranoid London to 10CC's "I'm Not in Love"."
Stephen is also keen to point out the transformative effect the system can have on music. "There are records that don't work when you play them on generic sound systems. They're not dynamic or strong enough. But then you play them on the Despacio system and they suddenly work. Ten minutes of percussion on a normal system and people will lose attention, they will be waiting for the next drop. But in the right environment, with Despacio, they come alive."
We talk for a while about music, their shared love for hearing the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle" on the setup, or the time they were blown away by the explosiveness of "Another One Bites the Dust". The more they exchange tunes, everyone from Mim Suleiman to Maurice Fulton, the less Despacio seems like an event and the more it seems like a celebration of something greater. A dedication to facilitating the music, and allowing for the purest interaction with it possible. In the process of this, the Dewaele brothers and James Murphy completely decentralise themselves from the process. Despite being DJs who could secure ticket sales on the basis of their names, they are barely visible in the Despacio room which frames the dance floor as the sole focal point.
Stephen assures me this has an amazing effect on the evening. "Because there are seven stacks, we are totally removed from focus. We also try and keep the capacity low, so it leaves space for people to dance around. It's weird to say this, but on the first one we did, the biggest surprise for us was how much actual dancing there was. People were pulling actual moves!"
This sense of pursuing joy in the midst of the technology that is powering Despacio seems to be the key balance on which the project rests. There is a nerdiness in the way the Dewaele brothers approach it, something they themselves acknowledge, but equally they are throwing a party. "It's perfectionism to a level. But at the same time we don't want to take it to far because then we would only be playing Dire Straits," Stephen explains. "It's like having a Stradivarius violin and being able to play Velvet Undergound on it. We should be able to play a CD pressed recording of an Italian woman moaning over a disco beat."
The resultant euphoria can't be fully expressed in videos, or photos. In fact, as someone who has yet to experience Despacio first hand, I tell Stephen and David the closest I have come to "getting it" was seeing a photo of my younger brother's brightly beaming face as he visited the system at last year's Glastonbury. "But that's it!" David responds excitedly, "people just smile so much the whole time!" Stephen leans forward, "I hate saying 'oh you've got to be there,' but it really is the case."
Before we part ways, I ask what the future is for Despacio. They are set to host a tent at Lovebox in London's Victoria Park this coming weekend, but beyond that how do they see things moving forward? Stephen starts to explain why it can be such a challenge, "It's a project that is incredibly hard to pull off. When we did the first London one we looked at thirty plus venues, and it took us four or five months to get it set up. We've been trying since January to do one in New York!"
David on the other hand was prepared to offer a slightly more optimistic take, "But the three of us never planned to do it again after the first, but on the third night in Manchester we realised we had to carry it forward." Stephen nods and smiles, "When it's good, when the planets align, you're not listening, you're feeling. If I read that I'd be like, "alright fuck you", but it's true."
You can (and must) catch Despacio at Lovebox this weekend.