FACT’s John Twells traveled to Latvian capital Riga to check out the second edition of Erica Synths’ Kontaktor festival, a community-focused celebration of techno and technology.
When I arrive in Riga, the first thing I notice is the city’s eerie, semi-manicured landscape. The post-Soviet city announced its independence in 1990 (it was made official in 1991) and was admitted to the European Union in 2004, so remains visibly in-development. As I wander through pretty cobbled streets, marveling at the city’s Baltic architecture – an attractive hybrid of Scandinavian, Austrian and Eastern European looks – I attempt to lock into the voices surrounding me. Russian is common (around 38% of the country speaks the language), as is Latvian of course, but the disoriented packs of tourists, tripping over the city’s many historical monuments, mostly chatter to each other in Swedish, Danish or German.
I’m in the city a few days before I’m startled by a British voice asking for a cigarette; Americans are even rarer. The more I explore, the more I began to feel like I am wandering through an immersive alpha edition of a modern videogame; there is an unfinished perfection, a stark, unfamiliar newness, juxtaposed with Riga’s aging, ornate architecture, that feels hyperreal. It’s the European experience in miniature, a decade or more removed from the accelerating cyber-cultural epicenters of London, Berlin, Stockholm or Paris.
Riga isn’t a city I’d given much thought until last year when, while covering Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival, I ran into Latvian curator and promoter Eliza Aboltina. Aboltina works for the Riga-based modular synthesizer company Erica Synths, and giddily described her city to me, gushing over its growing underground electronic music scene and the festival she puts together, Kontaktor. At Berlin’s CTM Festival earlier this year, Aboltina sat me down for a kebab and gave me a stronger pitch: she wanted me to see Riga’s burgeoning scene as she saw it. She, like me, has traveled from festival to festival, both as a fan and as a curator and promoter, and the more she has witnessed, the more her understanding of her own city has developed. Now, Aboltina wanted another pair of eyes on the festival.
I have an extra day before the festival begins, so I head to the Erica Synths headquarters, which sits on the coast next to an area I’m assured is bustling with locals in high summer. On the other side of the water is a gigantic empty warehouse that was supposed to be the location for the festival; that plan fell through, but the building looks impressively rave-ready all the same. Inside the office I’m introduced to the passionate team of engineers, artists and fans that make up Erica Synths; one of the developers – Latvian breakcore/IDM veteran KODEK – is celebrating his name day, so we sit down to eat traditional Latvian cream cake, toasting with sparkling wine (fizzy water for me).
The large office is a labyrinth of testing zones, synth displays, studios and workshops; KODEK shows me a Serge system, a recently acquired MC-808 groovebox and a broken Buchla (the power supply needs fixing), and we stumble across local band Origo Boys rehearsing in the basement. Erica Synths might make modular synthesizers, but the company offers far more to the community than merely a few acclaimed modules and the notorious “Techno System”, their presence feels vital to the next wave of innovative Latvian electronic musicians.
The next morning, Erica Synths founder Girts Ozolins takes me, along with a few other visitors, to ALFA, the factory where its modules are manufactured. This imposing post-Soviet building is everything you’d want from a synthesizer factory; the floors are confusingly planned and uneven, an administration error apparently, according to Ozolins. It makes the journey through the honeycomb of offices, machines and stairways surreal and memorable, particularly since HBO’s Chernobyl is still fresh in my memory. Ozolins has also been watching and lights up when I mention it. “I can never watch any other TV again,” he tells me, completely sincerely, before recounting the story of how he and his family naively hid in a basement to escape the fallout from the disaster when he was just a young child. The show’s tiny details depicted a past he hadn’t been able to visualize in years; meanwhile, I’m noticing weathered reflections of those same details – brand new to my outsider’s eyes – in the Riga of 2019.
The festival begins at Magnetic Latvia, an incubator and co-working network that encourages creativity and collaboration among small businesses in Riga. There are lectures from Create Digital Music’s Peter Kirn and legendary soundtrack composer Marc Caro alongside presentations from Bastl Instruments and Teenage Engineering, but this is where my visit to Riga takes a surprising turn. I’ve been on this circuit for close to two decades, and I’ve inhabited many roles in the industry. Do it long enough, and you end up bumping into familiar faces in unexpected places. A few minutes after I enter the building, I’m surprised to see my old friend and collaborator Michael Holland. We worked together in Manchester well over a decade ago, putting on shows and frequently DJing together. As it turns out, he’s a volunteer at the festival. “Remember when you used to play harsh noise and Beyoncé and everyone hated it,” he laughs before asking me to play a show alongside him that weekend. Some things never change.
That evening, Marco Haas, better known as T. Raumschmiere, gives a lecture about his label, Shitkatapult, and how he’s handled being in the music industry for 25 years. Haas is older than me and it’s clear from the beginning of his talk that his ideas are not quite in tune with my own. His words are encouraging but flawed: he’s a self-styled Gen-X punk, and tells the crowd of young Latvians that they should “just do it”. This is on-brand for Haas (and, funnily enough, for American multinational corporation Nike, Inc), but doesn’t feel particularly useful in an era that has left archaic, whitebread notions of “punk” behind. But Haas, like many in his position, is skeptical of the new generation and wonders aloud if contemporary electronic music is lacking creativity. I can’t hold back, and challenge Haas. Not only do I think it’s problematic to espouse these views to a young, thirsty audience looking for direction and inspiration, it’s simply not true. Dance music is more interesting and more vital than it has been in a long time and innovation is flourishing outside of the obvious cultural hubs. It’s not coming from Germany, certainly; it might be coming from Latvia, if it’s allowed to.
When I reach the venue the next day, I’m stunned by its vastness. This is not my first warehouse party, and I grew up inhaling the decomposing corpse of heavy industry in the British Midlands, but RER, a steel factory in the heart of Riga, is a staggering sight. With each kick drum, the windows that coat the building throb and vibrate as if they’re about to burst. Large doors and concrete steps greet me at the entrance, where there’s a demo of Gamechanger Audio’s quirky Motor Synth. The unique device, which uses eight motors to generate sound, bleats atonal drones over a local food truck’s private soundtrack of hard trance and EDM. It’s already a party and I’ve not even entered the venue.
Radical American performance artist Ron Athey captures my attention as I fight through a crowd in a dark, concrete room to try and see what’s happening. Athey might seem like an unusual booking for a Baltic warehouse techno party, but it was all part of Aboltina’s plan – and a collaboration with performance festival No New Idols – introducing a night of sweaty hedonism with a confounding performance entitled “Acéphalous Monster” that challenged notions of sexuality, gender, race and power. The energy was vital: a packed room watches as Athey preaches his sermon, backed by familiar images of extreme anal penetration and bodily torture. Athey kills God, leaving a vacuum of questions and emotions. Minds are now set in place to lap up a long evening of rhythm, bass and awkward, flawed humanity.
In the main room of the warehouse, Erica Synths’ KODEK channels his manic energy into a set that morphs from bassy electro into delightfully punishing breakcore, IDM and gabber. He’s on home turf here, playing to a crowd that bounces and vibrates as he belts out sliced amens and squelchy basslines. Back in 2012, KODEK won Best Electronic Music Album at the Latvian Music Awards for his Flavors from the Future full-length, and his status is confirmed by Riga’s rapturous reaction.
The crowd thins a little as Emptyset trial new algorithmically-generated material that sounds a bit like Autechre being piped through a plughole. It’s distorted, involving and challenging and Latvia’s quirkiest club kids are enthused, jumping onto the stage to dance before being pulled down by security. Eventually, Emptyset dig out older material, bringing the 4/4 groove forward and the crowd back to the dancefloor, priming the space for Detroit electro mainstays AUX88, who delight a room full of electro devotees.
I get a breather in the back room, where Peter Kirn is powering through a woozy set of innovative hardware techno that feels like a voyage into a parallel universe. Afterwards, I step outside the warehouse for air, and a woman is serving traditional Eastern European beetroot soup. I ask how much it costs. “It’s free,” she replies with a smile. She just thought people might enjoy some soup at 4am. She’s right.
Back inside the warehouse, the energy has transformed from reverent and respectful to messy and jubilant. Emils Dreiblats, aka Multilux and one third of “underground boy band” Origo Boys, is on stage, breathlessly pummeling through one of the most energetic performances I’ve seen all night. He’s flanked by Latvia’s group of flamboyant club kids who dance around him as he commands the room. It’s a powerful show, swerving through the techno formula and missing any obvious routes, tripping over form and function. This is a scene that knows each other and embraces each other’s mess and difference and a celebration plays out on stage as a handful of friends laugh, scream and sway energetically.
When I return to the back room, instrument builder Tatsuya Takahashi – the chief engineer at Korg who was responsible for the Monotron, Volca range and Minilogue – is standing between two original TR-808 drum machines and in front of a box filled with circuit boards that I assume he had a hand in creating. The music is indescribable, honestly; the 808s are either very fast or very slow and Takahashi’s rhythms don’t remind me of anything, old or new. This is truly psychedelic electronic music, and as Takahashi performs, his friend rolls and lights cigarettes, occasionally praising him or signalling to the audience that Takahashi is a genius, giving prayer hands and nodding to everyone or nobody. It’s one of the most unusual shows I’ve seen in a while, centering the technician as artist in a way that truly fits the philosophy of both Kontaktor and Erica Synths.
The clock strikes gabber as Cruel World II – West Coast breakcore don and synth tech Baseck and interdisciplinary artist and organizer Felisha Ledesma – set fire to the main stage. The duo’s set is perfectly timed and distorted kick drums light up the room as synths wheeze and groan expertly. It’s a masterful inversion of the gabber formula and comes to life in a Baltic warehouse at 5am. Afterwards, T. Raumschmiere impresses the brave team of stopouts with a distorted set of sloshed, grinding techno. He stands on top of the stage, contorting his body and gesturing with the microphone as dancers mosh and sway into the sunrise.
After a couple of hours sleep, I don’t have time to do much preparation the next day, so I grab my USBs and head to a mysterious apartment, where Pink Moon, a local live-streamed private party that’s nothing at all like Boiler Room, is held. A few guests arrive, and I play a fairly typical blend of old and new tracks and chat to some local club kids in the daylight, outside of the rave. Here, I start to learn about the Latvian scene outside of a festival environment, and drink tea with the next generation of innovative local artists before heading back out to the club.
That night’s festivities are held at Golden, Riga’s oldest gay club. It’s a more intimate space than RER, and guests pile in around Puffin, who opens the evening with a set of lurching, brittle hardware techno. The night’s main event is a performance from Origo Boys, who have a devoted and vocal following. The band’s sound is hard to describe; they’re billed as an “underground boy band” and as ironic as that might sound, it’s pretty accurate. The three members rap, chant and sing together while trading beats with desks full of hardware. Musically, it’s somewhere between ’90s Eurodance, gabber, hard trance and contemporary SoundCloud rap, and it’s as confusing as it is contemporary. It’s like eating Pop Rocks, Marmite and Marshmallow Fluff at the same time as smoking a blunt laced with ketamine. It’s the streaming experience enjoyed from another planet, and this is exactly what makes the Latvian scene so enjoyable.
I’m reminded of this performance the next day, when I find myself still in Latvia, attending an art school degree show. My accommodation in Berlin has fallen through, so I decide to stay in Riga for a little longer – I like the city and need to work, plus it also gives me a chance to explore a little more and get some more context for Kontaktor. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and I’m encouraged walking around Riga’s art school that the work displays such a high standard. I remember art school in Birmingham well, and don’t recall the art being quite so powerful.
After the exhibition, another mini-festival erupts outside, with a series of performers and bands flanked by stalls and a multi-generational audience of artists, friends and interested locals. The music is characteristically quirky and helps me see what Riga’s made of outside of the tiny underground techno scene. The first performer of the night is Elizabete Balcus, who catches my eye immediately with her unusual display of fruit and vegetables that appear to be connected to a table of electronic gadgets. When she finishes, she unplugs the pineapple, cabbage, leek and other delicacies and throws them into the crowd. There’s a break and a Latvian polka band play music I have little context or tolerance for and while some of the crowd seem to love it, the cute crew of dancers in full body suits and my own group of friends get to sit this one out.
When I return, The Bubble Gum Explotion (not a typo) are collapsing Nine Inch Nails-style industrial pop into acid and metal, adding a sparkly, PG-13 blast of sexuality. It’s a spectacle, another expression of Latvian eccentricity and the current generation’s desire to challenge the rigidity of post-Soviet society. This energy is infectious and while the music is clunky sometimes, it hardly matters, that isn’t the point. What The Bubble Gum Explotion and Elizabete Balcus and Origo Boys and the rest of the Riga scene have shown is that they are signalling something particular to their fans: urging them to take risks and challenge stereotypes.
As the week goes on, I get to see more of Riga. My new friends introduce me to arty local bar Ce and bookshop-cum-venue Bolderāja, where I catch Norwegian experimental artist Jon Wesseltoft perform on his way to Russia. Unexpectedly, the Pink Moon crew tell me they’re putting on their first warehouse party, in a brand new space, and ask me to play since I’m in town. My friends live close to the venue, in a converted squat that’s part of the Free Riga project, a radical Latvian initiative to “revive the empty buildings of Riga” and “open spaces for creative and social activities”. We eat a picnic on the roof, before heading into the venue, an intimate space that feels like a miniature version of Manchester’s White Hotel, all the way down to a bar that’s sunk into the ground. I’m playing late, so first I get to enjoy sets from Peanutbutcher, who plays sexy house and bubbly electro with rap and R&B, host Alisher Sherali, who digs into the psychedelic zone and ELI$EVA, who manages to find a mid-point between the doomy jazz of Eli Keszler, Rian Treanor’s zippy futurism and the sweaty energy of the Dance Mania back catalog.
It’s inspiring to see artists taking these kind of risks in this environment, and encouraging to find a local scene that’s so supportive of messy, joyful experimentation. This is a scene that exists outside of multinational brands and corporate sponsorship, and when I chat to ELI$EVA later that week, she tells me that the reason she wanted to play music in that way was because she’d been inspired by seeing Manchester mainstay Tom Boogizm perform in Riga a few months prior, not because she’d studied Boiler Room. She felt freed by the fluidity and flexibility of what she’d seen, and used that freedom to combine her own suite of musical interests, from jazz and classical to techno and noise and beyond. When I eventually leave the city, I leave a group of hopeful, open and progressive young minds, propping up a new wave of cultural innovation that rewards honesty, passion and community and is suspicious of awkward, faceless globalized gentrification.
It troubles me that what Riga really reminds me of is Berlin, but not the Berlin of 2019. It reminds me of the first time I visited the city, back in the early 2000s, when the music scene was fractured, dangerous and urgent. It reminds me of Manchester as grime and dubstep bubbled to the surface. It reminds me of all the small scenes I’ve been invited into over the years, outside of the new era of rave feudalism. Riga isn’t a place that’s expecting a surge of European clubbers looking for a unique, authentic techno experience and that’s not what it offers. Kontaktor isn’t a destination festival and Riga is not a place to fly into, vomit over and escape from. It’s an example of a local scene that’s growing quickly and Kontaktor is a festival that is amplifying and elevating its community, as well as exposing it to art from outside their frame of reference. It’s a reminder of not just how things used to be in another era, but how things could be in this one.