From the Outside: Getting Shpongled
Shpongle. Shpongle. Shpongle! When someone tells you to check out a band with a name like Shpongle, you should probably listen. I did.
After an acquaintance threw the name at me over Facebook, I pushed play on the Museum of Consciousness album in my apartment and was taken right back to my early college days, when one of my very first forays into EDM was Infected Mushroom. I adore Infected Mushroom as much now as I did then, and Shpongle’s dark, trancey sound brought me right back. I wasn’t sure why until I mentioned it to a friend, who said, “Well, yeah, they’re both psytrance.” Okay, that makes sense.
Anyway—Shpongle is comprised of a British dude who wears a funky feathered hat (Simon Posford) and his musical partner (Raja Ram), and I got to see their fabulously psychedelic live set in Philadelphia recently. Turns out, it’s as fun to see them live as it is to say the artist’s name. Not much surprise there: Shpongle’s been around since 1996 and has quite a following, not just because of the quality of their music but also because of their onstage act. But we’ll get to that later.
Just days after I Shpongled my computer speakers for the first time, something in the universe aligned and I found out they were coming to Philly—to the Electric Factory, no less, where I’d experienced The Disco Biscuits a few weeks before. The great thing about being a writer as well as a fan is that I can justify going to shows as “work”—sure, I’m not getting paid, but exposure is basically a form of currency in the writer’s world. I figured I could justify the time spent away from my schoolwork. So I bought tickets, played Museum of Consciousness all the way through while getting ready, and arrived at the now-familiar venue right on time.
Okay, I actually arrived a few minutes late, because that’s just how my life is. But there’s something to be said for walking up to a venue to the beat of bass so loud it’s making things vibrate outside, while the giggling guys smoking cigarettes outside wave because they can tell with one look that you’re headed to the same place. I walked inside, and it was like I had walked back onto my undergrad college campus—seriously. Beautiful hippies, feathers in hair, hoop dancers, cool glowing light-up things all over the place, interesting hats, and everyone just kind of bopping around and having a good time. You could be wearing or doing absolutely anything and you would fit in. (Unless it was a business suit and you were doing your taxes. Almost anything.)
I had come to this show by myself, again, just like I did with The Disco Biscuits. I have friends, I swear! But they all work in the service industry, so Saturday nights are pretty much out, or they live far away, or they’re broke at the moment, or it’s just not really their thing. It’s all good. The choice is sometimes either to go to a show alone or not go at all. And going alone can be a lot of fun sometimes.
I wasn’t completely on my own, though, since my associate Kyle Cannarella (my partner in crime for the Biscuits) turned up at this show too. The first time we met, he was leading me around the Electric Factory like I was blind. But this time, the venue felt more like home—or like a giant adult playground. There’s the coat check, there’s the bar, there are those cool cabanas way up at the top, and everywhere you look is a potential dance floor. In the cabanas, where I found Kyle, people had cultivated kind of a chill house party vibe. Once you’ve been to the Electric Factory once or twice, it really does start to feel like that cool friend’s house you hang out at all the time.
I went to check out the view of the stage from the top, where opening artist Desert Dwellers was settling into their set and warming up the crowd. I’d been warned—in a good way—to watch out for Shpongle’s wild visual onstage setup, but there wasn’t much going on just yet. The artists were bouncing to the beat inside some sort of odd onstage contraption, sort of like a stage-slash-screen, but nothing out of the ordinary was going on. For that matter, there wasn’t much happening with the lights either, compared to the rainbow lasers I’d burned into my retinas at The Disco Biscuits’ show. But it was early, with plenty of buildup yet to go before we got to the big act.
Early as it was, it was impossible not to dance, even while just standing around meeting people and looking around. After a long week of schoolwork I was ready to move, excess energy just about pouring from my body, and Desert Dwellers was giving me the reliable beats I needed. Knowing it would likely be a long night, I tried to chill for a while, but I didn’t make it long before I announced that I was heading to the dance floor. Actually, a set break had started, but I figured it would be a good time to find a spot near the stage.
I went down there by myself, like I do, already knowing the easiest route to get up towards the front. Everyone was swaying to the beat of the background music and having a good time. A few people were even sitting on the floor, saving their energy for when things got going hard. This is one thing I respect about what I’ve seen of the EDM scene so far: the dance floor is a safe, comfortable place where you can really make yourself at home.
Observing all the little communities of friends around me, I felt a pinch of loneliness that I haven’t felt at a show in a long time. It’s risk I take when I head out on my own: even though I’d met lots of nice people there, I had no one on my energy level that I could drag around with me. Usually I’m happy to be an independent explorer, but tonight felt like I was missing something. But I have been practicing yoga and meditation recently, part of which is learning to acknowledge feelings for what they are without letting them hang on and cloud your mind. I acknowledged the loneliness for what it was and set an intention to have a good time anyway.
Just a few minutes after setting that intention, I looked to my right and saw that Kyle and one of his friends had materialized next to me. Funny how these things work. “This is getting a little weird,” Kyle said, referring to how long we’d been waiting for Shpongle to come onstage. It had been a while, but everyone around me seemed so laidback that I’d hardly noticed. Now I saw that nervous employees were trotting back and forth on the stage, fiddling with knobs and wires. Never a good sign. Perhaps sensing the growing restlessness in the crowd, Simon Posford came out and reassured us in his peppy British accent that whatever the problem was, it would be worked out soon. Sure enough, not much later the lights dimmed and the crowd started to buzz with excitement.
White lights began to flash overhead, and I could see the shadow of that funky feathered hat bobbing against the backdrop of the set. (Speculation happened backstage as to whether Simon and the hat are ever separated. It was decided that they are not. He even wears that hat in the bathtub, man.) The music was fairly light, ethereal stuff, though with a haunting undercurrent that made my spine tingle. I started practicing some freeform dance moves, letting my body flow around without focusing too hard on what I was doing. It’s great practice for anyone who wants to get in touch with their body and reinforce the mind-body connection (this is something I learned at my hippie-alternative undergraduate college).
The bass started getting a little heavier, and that weird contraption they were playing in (the Shpongletron 3.0) was transforming into an ever-changing projection screen. Now it’s a six-eyed rainbow rhinoceros, now a field of blossoming plants, now something geometric that’s in space. There must have been nearly as much work done on those visuals as on the music itself—and the music was impeccable. Everyone’s bodies started to warm up and flex a little harder to the changing beat.
I found a higher vantage point with a better view of the visual situation and snapped a few photos, knowing that if I waited any longer to take pictures I’d get lost in the music and forget. Video screens around the venue showed the unfolding imagery onstage, but the colors and patterns on the screens paled in comparison to the actual thing. No wonder I’d been told, “You’ve got to see Shpongle live.”
And then, all of a sudden, the music was Latin. We were now dancing to world music, just like that. What? It made so much sense—lots of world music is bassy and beat-heavy; why not mix genres up a bit? I love other kinds of genre-mixing, but this was something new—and it was kind of the best thing ever. The crowd seemed to agree, as I watched the floor below me dissolve into a seething froth of joy. When the set abruptly ended, I knew there was going to be an encore. Even if Shpongle wasn’t usually the encore type, no artist in their right mind would leave this crowd right now.
All too often, encores feel like tacked-on endings, little more than a meeting of expectations and an excuse to hype the artist’s most-popular song. But Shpongle didn’t make us wait, building hype and forcing the audience to cheer louder and louder, like many artists do. They came right back like they couldn’t wait to give us more. Not only that, but they seemed to just about change genres again. It was still Shpongle—but like, dubstep Shpongle. I don’t actually know how they did it, but it was a completely different sound, while still preserving their distinctive, darkly psychadelic vibe. And all the bass you could ever want! Surely even innocent bystanders outside the venue were transfixed by what they could hear. I go out dancing quite a lot, but for once I was actually tired by the end of the set. Even considering the technical difficulties, it was impressively long, and just, well, impressive.
Did I get my money’s worth? Definitely, and far more. Take my advice and get yourself Shpongled when they come to your city. Even if you go it alone, the unique music, good-weird vibe, wild set, and interesting crowd make it an experience you won’t soon forget.