What's your philosophy in life? What's the trite axiom that you've heard trotted out so often that you've passively started to believe it? "Seize the Day," Don't Shit on Your Own Doorstep, Never Shag Your Housemate—that kind of thing. That kind of philosophy. Sub-Alain de Botton philosophy.
But what if you'd taken a more hedonistic approach to life? What if your guiding principle was more concerned with having a good time than not falling asleep with socks on? What if your maxim was just, 'Dancing and Happiness'? Well, you'd probably be part of the Arnau family, the inter-generational squad behind elrow, the globally-infamous party throwers.
The question is thus: how do you turn that philosophy into a party that's got what's tantamount to a religious following? If anyone knows, it's the Arnau family themselves, and even they've spent a long, long time thinking about it. Not just six years, or six decades, but six generations. Essentially they've been throwing incredible bashes since 1870. Before Serato, before vinyl, before the gramophone. The family history reads like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel with the violent political revolutions swapped for really fucking great nights out. There's still that all-important pinch of magical realism in the punch though.
The story stars in Fraga, a rural town in northern Spain. Jose Satorres had tired of the family business—farming—and opened a cafe on the Monegros estate. This became a social club known as Cafe Josepet, a popular spot where farmers could have a chinwag about crops and the like. Over the next century the estate didn't have the smoothest of rides—there were two world wars and numerous marriages, and it was won and lost in card games. Today, Cafe Josepet is Club Florida 135. Things are similar to how there were 146 years ago—except the interior's gone all Blade Runner.
That's the very potted history, anyway. But I'm more Andrew W.K. than Andrew Roberts, and found myself sent to the elrow HQ in Barcelona to speak to the family about what keeps them going after all these years.
While I'd never been to an elrow party before, I'd heard stories of neon inflatables and sunglasses, tales of the kind of parties with production values that make your standard night in a Kingsland Road basement look like, well, a standard night in a Kingsland Road basement. They seemed like the kind of events that demand total and utter dedication. Meeting the current incarnations of the Arnau family did nothing to quash that suspicion.
"We don't have hobbies. We live this life," Juan Arnau says, matter of factly.
"I don't know about football, I don't know about cars, I don't know about anything else except this business," chimes in Juan Sr.
And it seems like they know a lot. After detailing the family history to me, Juan Sr told me a lot of tales of raves from the early days. Raves in Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy, back when Laurent Garnier was only 18 and everything was illegal and in massive warehouses. The man must have seen it all. So I wanted to know, what's the secret to throwing the perfect party?
"The people have to dance. If they dance they are happy, if they stop, they are bored. It's that simple. People don't want to be quiet, they want to be dancing," he says, lightly banging his palms on the table in front of him to accentuate every word.
That seems simple enough, but then how do elrow go about ensuring people are always dancing, always happy? It sounds a straightforward task but as many club promoters will tell you that's very much not the case.
"The key of everything is that the people are the party. The music is important of course but the DJ is not the party, the people are. We don't want to be the most underground or coolest with the biggest names or whatever. The DJ's we bring in we bring because we know they will play a good set," Juan Jr says. He adds, "The most important thing is that people have fun. My grandfather always said to me, Juan, the people are paying and so people must have fun."
"For me when the DJ's are looking at his decks, they are a bad DJ. When their eyes are up, and they are looking at the crowd? Great DJ." Juan Sr emphasises.
They're a passionate pair whose talk is constantly peppered with references to "fun", "dancing" and "happiness"—brushstrokes of genuine emotion across their conversational canvas. Partying, for them, is a serious business, and you'd have to assume it's that can-do attitude that's kept them going for well over a century. I couldn't help but wonder, though, if they were ever influenced by other parties, other operations.
"If you have to copy from someone, in this business, it is hard, " Juan Jr explains. "We don't like to copy because you always have to stay one step ahead of your competitors."
It felt like the adult playground vibe—confetti, inflatables, ball-pits—was a pretty widespread aesthetic these days. Did the Arnau's feel like competition was possibly, just possibly, diluting their USP?
"What we do is so complicated they could never do what we do. We have full time staff working at a warehouse on the outside of town making our costumes, decorations, inflatables, everything," Jr counters.
"We make everything ourselves, everything," Sr adds.
There was one particular story I'd heard that tallied nicely with the level of dedication and attention to detail that Jr and Sr had pressed into me. Before their first UK show, they hired confetti from a local company. The confetti wasn't up to Elrow's standards, so they shipped their trusted brand of confetti over from Spain. After spending time with the Arnaus it makes sense. If even apparently minor concerns like confetti are treated with such reverence, how do they keep afloat financially? Juan Jr explains:
"We are saying no to a lot of promoters around the world at the moment because we are not ready. Bali, Australia, China, we say no to all of them at this moment. People in Spain have offered us €200k to do a show and we say no. And it's not easy to say no. Even now, we lose money on certain gigs we do in England."
"We don't care about the money. The only thing we want to do is make everyone happy, including my son, daughter, my wife and everyone in the team as well as the customers," Juan Sr states proudly.
"But we like to invest, because when they see what we do they always want more and more. We are thinking about the bigger picture. If you wanna be in the business for 100 years then you have to think about the idea first, then the money will come," Jr concludes.
It's a noble idea, and while I'm not saying that the family don't ever think about the financial side of their operation, it's incredibly refreshing in this age of churn and burn events, to hear people speak with such devotion about the simple desire to throw a really fucking great party.
During my time with the family the word "tomorrow" kept popping up. I was told that I'd see everything tomorrow, and that I needed to be fresh for the party. And they probably had a point but I was a young man in Barcelona with a thirst for crisp, cold continental lager and a desire to get out and about so, like an sitcom teenager sliding out of their bedroom window, I slipped out and went to a Villalobos set.
Despite a slightly sore head, I woke up like a child on Christmas morning, ready to unwrap a SNES. Except the SNES was a rave. And Christmas morning was the last Sunday of Off Sonar week. The main thing is that I was really, really excited. Listening to the Arnaus felt like a pre-match team talk from Brian Clough and by the time I had reached Row14 and was greeted outside by Juan Sr—he still stands on the door of every party he holds—I was ready to do anything and everything.
And what a load of everything and anything there was to do. As I made my way through the dusty grounds, I saw a super club but with something extra special shot through it, like jam in an oversized doughnut. I stumbled my way through a game of Twister, won a free shot playing Spin the Wheel, got covered in confetti, danced with an actor selling giant novelty doughnuts—doughnuts again!—and bought a neon pink hat covered in acid smileys with elrow brand money, which is kind of like real money except you use it for novelty sunglasses rather than nail scissors and Spirulina. This was chaos. Beautiful chaos.
It bordered on sensory overload. The shock of colour on display was almost unbearable. Superhero costumes and tribal masks abounded, every surging drop was met with rainbows of confetti, arms were perpetually aloft, and, just as the Arnaus had told me, everyone was dancing. I'd never seen a crowd so big—there were roughly 4000 partygoers in attendance—display so much energy from first kick to last. It was relentless, exhausting but truly amazing to be apart of.
This was the kind of party where the line up wasn't the be all and end all. Aside from Art Department, De La Swing, and Subb-an, I was virtually clueless as to who was playing and when. It didn't matter: my fist only stopped pumping when I went for a pint or a piss. Just as promised, maybe I hadn't heard of many of the DJ's, and maybe I ended up not really even paying attention to who was playing, but I was always moving, always enjoying whatever was being played. This was unthinking-fun at it's finest.
In "Weak Become Heroes" Mike Skinner says that raves are where "mad little events happen" and that's exactly what goes down at elrow. From the moment I stepped through the door to the moment I left I never stopped smiling, beaming full on rays of light out of my face from start to finish. I mean, I got married for fuck's sake. Yes, my elrow wife had a long term boyfriend and I wasn't sure of the credentials of the priest because he could only speak Spanish but I have the paperwork, it's official. Signed by elrow themselves. I am a married man.
The Arnaus have created their own brand of magical realism. They've crafted little worlds of euphoric madness, places and spaces where time is elastic. As I left—having been embraced in hugs by the whole family—I felt a tad bereft. I've been to countless raves over the years, but this was up there with the very, very best. I think I've got a new life philosophy now.
elrow are coming to the UK on the following dates:
15th & 16th July - Lovebox Festival Arena, London
31st July - Feria de Abril Beach Party, Studio 338, London
29th October - Halloween, Manchester, UK