By the time the sun rose on Monday morning, something was different. With dew covering the grass and our eyes dry from lack of sleep, my friend Jesse and I begrudgingly packed up our little tent and prepared for the 6-hour journey home. But then it hit us. If there was one thing we learned from Electric Forest, it was to go off the beaten path. To “do the opposite” as Nick Monaco had told us. So we looked at each other with our weary eyes, thought about that 6-hour trip and said “fuck that” and took the 10-hour way home. If anything, it would give us time to think about the key takeaways from this year’s expanded festival, reassess our lives and try and sort out what the hell just happened.
“That was such a weird way of going about that” Monaco said somewhat confused as he rested in a blue hammock roped up in the Sherwood Forest. “Like that guy… That guy was really funny”. Monaco had just finished performing at the Forest stage. A stage so remote and unusual you have to compete with trees to get a good view. Monaco, Jesse and I had just finished collecting metaphorical stones in the forest for the Queen of Versailles to fill her bathtub with when something strange happened...
Moral 1 of the Story:
Every day has its weird twists
“Hey guys! I see you! You can’t hide from me! You can’t hide from me!" Some dude interrupted as the three of us were hammocking. "See I’ve seen this before. I know what I’m doing here. This ain’t my first rodeo.”
We waited for the punch line… but were hit with nothing. The guy said he was an official medic, but we were literally just swinging there in some hammocks, talking as people do. “Nice pupils. I’m loving it. Very dialated.” We all kind of chuckled and then it got serious… “See what’s gonna happen here is… no hammock zone.”
You could almost hear the gears turning in our heads. “See I was just messing with you guys a little bit. But if you see the people who own these hammocks, could you tell them to move? And if you need medical help at all, I got you.”
Fair play. Weird. But fair. The real weird part though was that Monaco had told us seconds earlier how “every day sort of has its weird little twists.” If you’ve seen the original Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum is talking about chaos theory and then people start jumping out of the moving vehicle… it was just like that.
Bonus Moral: Marco Benevento was absolutely amazing. Get his music and go to a show.
Of course, when you’re walking through Electric Forest, you should prepare to be sidetracked. Trekking back through one of three forest paths one day, Jesse and I stumbled upon the Jive Joint. This was a little cartoonish pop-up hut surrounded by a crowd of people hip thrusting into the fresh forest air. And who else to lead such an affair than the lovely McDongal family? We knew immediately that we had to jump in. Shortly thereafter, the Strongman tried his best to start a fight and got knocked down trying (don’t worry, it was all theatre).
Then, of course, there was the unexpected guest who showed up for The String Cheese Incident one night. As you may have heard, that guest was Skrillex. And he was up there strumming away with Bill Nershi.
Going into Electric Forest for my third year, I though I was pretty prepared. Not only had I read survival guides, I’d written them. But for my cowriting companion and BFF, Jesse, this was his first rodeo. And let me tell you, I wasn’t far behind him in astonishment of what Electric Forest has become.
After adding the massive medieval market square and stage that is the Observatory last year, Electric Forest went even further in 2015 and added two totally new areas. The Hanger and Jubilee stage.
Need an old-timey barber? Pin-up pictures? Tattoo? Electro-swing tunes? Body buffer? The Hanger is the place. If you didn’t need a drink before, you needed one now. And they had those too. Jubilee was a brand new stage under a tent, the only covered stage aside from The Hanger at the festival. Overall, Electric Forest said they had "45,000 attendees [...], over 125 live music performances on 7 stages, 20+ larger-than-life creative installations and gathering spaces, 250+ colorful roaming characters, 22 disco balls."
We planned to see plenty of artists, but honestly that all falls apart rather quickly once you start exploring. But even though it seemed a new twist was around every corner, as we strolled along with Monaco to “absorb all the absurdities” as he put it, something became very clear. Every one was standing out, and everyone had a unique story. Police included. Hannah and her horse included.
Set against the vertical array of trees, Monaco sat draped in his spotted polka cape with a High Life in hand. When asked what his go-to drink was, he replied “I like a Negroni. It’s an Italian cocktail. It’s Campari, gin and dry vermouth. It’s kind of sweet. [...] I ordered one at a BJ’s one time - you know, kind of like an Applebees - and I had to write down the recipe for [the waitress]."
“Destabilize the norm”
Monaco has been known to do his own thing, especially given that he just finished an album for his all girls group the Precious Fems, of which he's the only male. And he showed no signs of slowing down at Electric Forest. During his performance, there were no explosions, there were no flames, there was no Strongman. Instead, there was a dancer slowly seducing the audience with moves that would make the Virgin Madonna blush. Now this isn’t out of the ordinary for Monaco, he’s well known for embracing his self-described femininity within what he calls the "hyper-masculinity that's pervading dance music right now."
"I was in theatre in high school so there was a lot of gay/trans people in theater and I got to know them and hear their stories. So I empathized with them. [...] they get bullied and shit and I would hang out with everyone so I kind of had everyone’s point of view. But I never understood why the weird kids always got bullied and shit. That always pissed me off so I always connected more with that crowd - the weird kids, the theatre kids. [...] I’ve always been more in touch with my feminine side. Quote-unquote feminine. Whatever that means."
The weird is definitely something to be cherished at Electric Forest. And we heard plenty of weird or unusual stories. One of our camping mates, Andru, was from Argentina and had moved to Chile, ventured down the Amazon, and eventually landed in Illinois. While stopping for a breather in the forest, we met a girl resting in a hammock with a masquerade mask who told us she was training with her horse for the 2020 Olympics. Her name was Hannah. Hannah and her horse. She showed us a picture of her horse and in all honesty, it looked just like the one from those commercials. So much so she had already created a meme about it.
It wasn't just Foresters who defied the norm of course. We had heard about talent shows taking place at an old-century community trading post in the forest called The Grand Artique, so we had to drop in. A sign inside read "Genuine & Unusual" so we set our expectations pretty high. Still though, when we saw who was on stage, our jaws dropped.
There, standing on stage, appeared to be a group of Michigan Police in full uniform. Sure enough, when we checked back with one of the Artiquers (Ian), he confirmed that what we witnessed was very real. Apparently, the police had been hanging out befriending the Artiquers, noticed the talent show and asked if they could join at the last minute to sing happy birthday to a friend. But that's just the beginning. They got in on the trading post too. Ian told us that a police officer traded his police cap straight up with a girl for her hat. It was kind of a joke Ian said, but the cop did let the girl wear the hat for a while.
It was easy to see that labels had no place at Electric Forest. And as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes pointed out, you aren't what others define you as.
During their performance, lead vocalist Alex Ebert made a rather stunning confession. If you know their song "Om Nashi Me", then you know the comforting, cozy lyrics "I will love you forever". But before they played the song, Ebert revealed that their word "nashi" was rooted in a meaning completely opposite of its original intent. After creating the song, he said he looked into what "nashi" actually meant. There was no definition for "nashi" as they spelled it, but they did find words rooted in nash, and apparently "they all have to do with destruction." By combining that with "Om" which he says means "yes" or "amen", and "me" meaning "me", he found what he had been chanting.
"Yes my destruction, yes my destruction, yes my destruction" he laughed in humility. "Oh shit, that's what I was sayin this whole time?" But then he turned it around and defied the definition completely. "But why it felt so liberating is because what I feel like I was doing was [deconstructing] all the shit, and becoming free. [...] A step in the right direction."
Monaco may have been talking about music when he told us his belief in "destabilizing the norm", but a larger connection had become apparent. A straight man known to wear lipstick, Monaco told us that part of the fun is in forgetting to take it off. "Sometimes I get to the airport after performing and I still have a bunch of lipstick marks all over my face. Guys see it and are like, ‘oh that’s kind of fun’". Little did we know that they day we interviewed Monaco would be one for the nations's history books.
Uh oh. Is that French you speak? Good thing we have French Club President, Nick Monaco!
Today's like winning a championship" Monaco told us after his performance as we swung underneath our forest trees. Monaco is known for giving back. His lipstick line, for example, raises money for sex reassignment surgeries. So how fitting it was that hours earlier, the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide. “That energy was kind of inside a lot of people today. Like hope. It’s pretty amazing. Maybe I was just projecting that, but that was definitely inside of me and I felt like I wanted to help, you know, dedicate my set to that.”
Once I start wearing lipstick, everyone starts wearing it.
The purpose for wearing lipstick goes beyond the donation however. By expressing himself in this way, he's essentially making it ok for others to do the same. Similar to one of his "huge influences" who he says "set a precedent for androgyny" - David Bowie. And while it was a successful day for equal rights, there were plenty of other causes going around.
We stumbled upon a private party one afternoon taking place inside the Illumination fort set up by another creative collective - Jenkstars. This party, set up through Electricology, consisted of free pizza, drinks and a special performance from Dixon's Violin. It was set up for those who were spotted picking up trash and keeping that Michigan Earth healthy throughout the festival. Good thing too, because in an alternate universe, Earth has a big problem we found out. And while I'm not astrophysicist, at least by degree, I feel like this could be an indication of where our Earth is headed.
While at the party, we spoke to a girl by the name of Arial. She had won the ultimate camp contest with her crew of Camp Space Recyclers who she said came from another Earth that was destroyed by pollution. According to Electric Forest, the contest looks "to find the most splendiferously organized, entertainingly sustainable campsites." And talking to Arial, it was pretty clear they checked all the boxes. She talked about having a dishwashing station so you wouldn't need plastic, solar powered lights and a DIY clothing workshop at their site. Aside from that, their costumes were made from recycled fabrics. And this is to say nothing of their spaceship.
Being one with the Earth was also supported by The Grand Artique. Their old-century set up included a steeple, giant wooden barrel, stage and even a little schoolhouse. Almost all of it was sourced and built from local scrap materials. Materials taking on a totally new life according to Ian.
"This guy from Muskegon, he lived there for 100 or some years," he told us afterwards while on retreat in Colorado with fellow Artiquers. "He had like 20-acres of double-wide trailers, old school barns, and he owned all these business in Muskegon like a roller rink and car dealership and a fabric shop or something. There was a little sadness because you've seen the place and what it looks like now. And it's just like, old Model-T cars, and engines and like, all these roller skates and tractors and this train and it's just like this mess. So we got a lot [of material] from there. A lot came from this estate sale and other backwood alley findings in the area."
The Grand Artique carries this spirit of giving throughout their set-up as well. Their iconic Trading Post is set up for more than swapping hats with police. It's really for "finding the different values of different things in people's lives and letting them create their own value," Ian said. An idea he literally doesn't let go of.
Last year at Electric Forest, he said, an artist wanted to trade with him for a necklace spotted at the Trading Post. "[The artist] pulled out this sketchbook and her art was so beautiful. So I traded her this necklace for two of her original pieces. Then she came back like 8 hours later and drew me a picture. If you go to my house in San Diego, I still have all three of those pictures framed. So stuff like that, it's just sentimental."
Another Artiquer, Shane, put this into perspective. It reminded us not only of the trading post, but the importance of giving back and how impactful the seemingly small things can be. "As soon as we started to give" Shane said, "we started to receive so much more".
By the end of our 10-hour trip home, all of the seemingly chaotic moments had come together. "I didn't expect it to be as transformative as it was" Jesse pointed out when we finally returned. The emotions, memories and body odor lingered like Monaco's smeared lipstick left on at the airport the day after a show.
When we first arrived at Electric Forest, we were diverted to an overflow camping lot. You may have heard about this, but because we were late arriving (thanks to my tardiness and the fact that we were pulled over for driving in the left/passing lane), the GA camping had filled up. We were a bit bummed at the time, but in the end, I wouldn't trade it for a thing.
The little twists along the way, the destruction of definitions, and the contagious giving spirit were far more than music to our ears. Electric Forest has become a haven for pioneers, and a festival officially Freak Flag certified by Nick Monaco (yes, he confirmed this).
Thinking back, there was one particularly notable spot tucked away at one end of the Forest. It was a mysterious circular structure surrounded by doors. The only description outside of it read "Wheel of Fortune". Once we entered, we found that each door corresponded with a different ideal, value or path in life. There was no way to choose which door you entered from, but now it was up to you to choose your way out. And with that, one last moral comes to mind. This time, from The Fungineers...
Don't be a fucking lamo. The power is yours.
JD Ball contributed to this article