Dance Dance Revolution

In search of Euphoria: Spotlighting Austin's under-the-radar dance club scene

Spotlighting Austin's under-the-radar dance club scene

Euphoria Musical Festival
Photo courtesy of Euphoria Musical Festival

How can I ever forget those six-hour sets by the legendary dance music DJ, Paul Van Dyke. (Six whole hours ... nonstop.) Very few people know this, but I used to be a Crasher Kid.

What's a Crasher kid? When I did my undergraduate degree in England at the end of the 1990s, the dance music scene was just peaking in the U.K. I lost myself in the swirling lights and pumping dance floors of legendary nightclubs such as Sheffield's Gatecrasher and Cream.

After I came to Austin in 2010, faced with all the hype about it being the "Live Music Capital of the World,” I couldn’t help think, "Okay, great, but where are the banging dance numbers?"

It’s remained a lament ever since. But things appear to be improving, evidenced by Austin’s annual Euphoria Music Festival pumping since 2012. This year it moved from its usual spot at Carson Creek Ranch to three venues in downtown Austin: Mohawk, Empire Control Room, and Barracuda.

I arrived at Red River’s Mohawk around 6 pm for Auxymorons, a pair of UT students who kicked off the night’s festivities, and clearly knew what they were about. As I took a break for some sustenance at a nearby burger stand, I could hear that hypnotic rhythmic thud in the near distance — and I felt the spirit of Gatecrasher coming alive again.

It continued awakening as I bounced between Mohawk and Empire, surrounded by glow sticks, bikini-clad ravers, and raised hands slicing the air, and listening to belting baselines from the likes of Atliens, Cray, Blackgummy, and K?D, all of whom could have held their own at Gatecrasher.

At the same time, though, there were some signs Austin still doesn’t quite get it. The third stage at Barracuda had a load of experimental electronic stuff going on, which, while all credit to the artists for passion and musical instrument dexterity, wasn’t nearly euphoric enough or fitted a dance festival’s bill. Every time I stuck my head in, I walked straight out, feeling the euphoria draining.

Also, one of the final supposed headline acts was, well, totally lame, and nothing like the two UT students who had to play to a tiny crowd with such an early billing. (Hang in there Auxymorons — your time will come.)

And what is with the Twitter-ization of DJ sets?! Every time K?D dropped the most amazing tune and began building it up beautifully, making my skin tingle, just as it seemed he was about to open the gates of heaven he suddenly mixed into an entirely differently tune. 

Nevertheless, I left the festival hopeful for Austin’s dance scene. A few days later, I told a couple I met at a barbecue about how it had intensified my yearnings for more dance music in Austin. They told me to quit my moaning, open my eyes, and get downtown to Kingdom, tucked away in an alley just off West 5th and Brazos streets.

After walking in around 10 pm the following Friday night, my initial reaction was that I’d been duped. The music was ticking over nicely but the place was empty. I could get a better dance vibe going in my bedroom with my curated YouTube trance playlist (I don’t like to boast, but it’s pretty good) and a strong margarita.

“Around midnight it will pick up, and then it gets crazy during the afterhours party once the bars have closed,” I was told by Tyler Lyssy, Kingdom’s general manager. “Austin has always been about live music, but in the last seven years dance music has grown. We play all types: Deep house, techno, trance — even dubstep.”

He was true to his word, and by 4 am, a sense of euphoria reigned among the intimate club, which holds just over 200 jubilant souls.

“It’s a tight community, and the place was built for what it does,” Lyssy said, noting how the club’s residence in a protected historic building ensures its intimate size. “So you get a special vibe. It’s very personal between you and the DJ.” (I can relate to that. I still claim I once caught Paul Van Dyke’s eye during a set and he acknowledged my manic grin with a couple of flicks of his hand my way as "For an Angel" kicked off.)

When it came to signs of appreciation from Kingdom’s revellers, I was particularly impressed by Zoe from San Antonio, who met the DJ dropping a fat tune with some impressive celebratory ululating, and which took me back to my journalistic travels around the Horn of Africa.

“If I had my friends with me and could drink, I’d be getting more into it,” said a patron named Dayton. Leaning against a wall, Dayton explained he was visiting from out of town and had Kingdom recommended by a friend. (Those under 21 are allowed in the club with a wristband preventing them from being served alcohol, although with a good DJ on the go, bottles of water appear the preferred beverage of Kingdom’s clientele.)

One thing I liked about the crowd, at odds with the scourge of many nightclubs the world over, was how no one seemed to be taking themselves too seriously.

“Hello baby, you’re very handsome,” remarked Miguel in a sailor’s hat as he patted my cheek before wandering off into the dancing melee (that didn’t happen in the Horn of Africa).

During a breather outside, I found myself being given a discourse on the philosopher Nietzsche and the problem of how to live a life with meaning from Rosa, who does a weekly commute from San Antonio for her euphoric fix at Kingdom. “San Antonio hasn’t got anything as good as this,” she told me.

Music is so subjective. What to someone is euphoric is meaningless repetitive popping noises to someone else, but I will argue that dance music may yet save the world. Scroll through most readers’ comment columns on media websites, and you come away fearful about the mental state of a very angry human race. But read the comments below a YouTube trance video, and you are reminded we humans are not necessarily such a bad bunch, seeking as we do the beautiful and transcendent — freedom from ordinary limits.

Hence the need for musical variety to cater for the masses, which Austin has become known for doing so well — up to a point. Now it’s addressing that blind spot. Is Paul Van Dyke still touring? Otherwise, Auxymorons: More of it, please, boys!