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Interview

Decibel Festival founder Sean Horton prepares for a weekend of sleeplessness in Seattle

By Joshua Glazer
Sean-Horton_Founder-and-Curator-of-Decibel-Festival

Over the past nine years, Decibel Festival has made the Pacific Northwest an unlikely destination for lovers of underground electronic music. Taking place throughout Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the September gathering, which kicks off tomorrow and runs through the 30th, has energized the techno and experimental scenes in a city where the shadow of grunge still looms large. Decibel founder Sean Horton arrived in Seattle from Detroit in the early ’90s, when Kurt Cobain was still alive. Fueled by a love of both Mudhoney and Plastikman, he threw the first Decibel in 2004. It has since grown to rival events like Movement and Mutek when appealing to American techno tourists looking for something outside of the mainstream mega-fests. In the week leading up to the ninth annual event, Beatport News spoke with Horton about what makes Decibel, and its PCW home, stand apart.

What do you think makes Decibel different from other festivals? With so many gatherings on the calendar these days, what would you say to convince someone to come to dB?

I founded Decibel at a time when electronic music existed far outside of mainstream culture in North America. Though “EDM” is seeing a resurgence in recent years, our focus has always been on leading-edge live underground electronic music and visual art. From a programmatic standpoint, we’re quite different from Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra, and Electric Zoo, which seem to book the same dozen headliners year after year. For me personally, it’s about taking risks, paying homage to pioneers, and exposing attendees to something new and original.

I also feel that the wide variety of venues, artists, and genres make us one of the most unique festivals in the world. Decibel attendees are treated to over 50 showcases ranging from seated A/V performances, to boat parties, to dance club events, to outdoor park events, to afterhours. You add in the conference, films, installation art, networking, and interactive media, and it’s much more than a just music festival. We want people to come away inspired, educated, and connected through the experiences they have here. So far, it’s working.

When I first attended Decibel in 2007, I was mainly impressed by the real community spirit of the attendees—like the guys from Montana who drive 500 miles to Seattle on a regular basis to hear techno. Do you think the relative isolation of the Pacific Northwest has helped develop that feeling?

Definitely. Seattle is a gorgeous and prosperous city that has a long history of attracting people to its lush urban landscape. I myself ended up here when my van broke down on a road trip from Detroit. There’s definitely a strong sense of community in the Northwest, which keeps people coming back. As a result, Decibel isn’t just a festival; it’s a social community that has a tendency to build lasting relationships. I actually met my wife and most of my friends though Decibel, which is not uncommon.

A lot of smaller underground festivals have had mixed reactiosn to the explosion of events like Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo. One assumes a rising tide lifts all boats, but is that really the case when the crossover between dB acts and EDC acts is pretty much zero?

With the commercialization of electronic music in North America has come a wave of thoroughly homogeneous DJs and producers all trying to be the next Deadmau5 or Skrillex. Though I respect both artists in terms of their initial production (we actually booked Deadmau5 in 2007), I don’t see the culture that has emerged out of “EDM” in recent years as having any longevity or originality.

That being said, I made a conscious decision this year not to jump on the bandwagon. Instead, I went back to my roots (Orbital, DJ Shadow, Carl Craig, Biosphere). I also wanted to highlight the more soulful and feminine aspects of electronic music (e.g. Erykah Badu, Kimbra, John Talabot, Dixon, Shlohmo, Star Slinger, Baths, etc). Whether or not we can pull it off remains to be seen, but I’d rather fail as a business than support the commercialization of something that I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into for over 20 years.

Going back to commercial “EDM,” if there’s one positive takeaway here, it’s that a younger generation of fans are getting exposed to electronic music. Hopefully that exposure will act as a gateway for younger fans to seek out more adventurous sounds. We are seeing our audience get younger and younger every year, which is a good sign.

This year is probably the most impressive Decibel line-up yet. Who was the biggest “get” for you personally?

Almost 20 years ago to the day, I was working at Harmony House records on Woodward Avenue in Berkley, Michigan. At the time, I was a big fan of industrial music (e.g. Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Ministry). I remember seeing the Orbital 2 album in the promo bin and though I knew nothing about them, I decided to give it a shot. I was immediately struck by the complexity, beauty, sound design, and overall composition of the music. Orbital were the inspiration that guided me towards Detroit techno, house, electro, and ambient music in the early ’90s. Later that year I attended my first Plus 8/Richie Hawtin party, which transformed me for life.

For dB regulars, what is the one new thing you’d like to make sure they notice this year?

From a programmatic standpoint, we’ve increased the number of events this year from 34 to 55. Much of the growth has come in the way of afterhours, boat parties, and the OPTICAL A/V events, all of which are intimate, highly entertaining, and usually not on everyone’s radar. For the regulars, these are the events where the deepest connections tend to happen.

There’s a few other key partnerships this year that have really helped raise the bar. First, we’re going to be partnering with the legendary Do-Over party out of LA for our dB in the Park event. Though we can’t announce it yet, the lineup is stellar and it’s absolutely free. Next, we’re very excited to be hosting the Boiler Room at Decibel this year. Be sure to tune in Thursday and Friday 6 PM to 9 PM PST. Also, we’ve taken our long-standing relationship with Resident Advisor to the next level this year with six incredible events, including three dB + RA after hours at Re-Bar and three live RA Exchanges, which will be taking place as part of the dB Conference (Wednesday through Friday, 12 PM – 6 PM).

When we first met in the early ’90s, you were a grunge-loving highschooler. Tell me about your personal evolution to electronic music.

Monster Magnet for life! I’m still a rocker at heart and play guitar to this day. To be honest, I love all music, which is pretty obvious when you look at how eclectic this year’s lineup is (Erykah Badu, Orbital, Ariel Pink, DJ Shadow, Biosphere, MiMOSA, Monolake, Kimbra, Nils Frahm, and Carl Craig). I think Decibel might be the only festival on the planet that boasts that type of diversity, which I’m very proud of. As a musician, DJ, producer, and engineer, I tend to have a very unique perspective on sound as a whole and the ability it has to make people feel sad, happy, energetic, euphoric. What attracted me to electronic music early on was seemingly endless sonic possibilities you had at your disposal. This is why it drives me insane to hear so many EDM DJs and producers playing nearly identical sets, festival after festival. You’d think with all the tools we have out there people would be more inclined to experiment both in the studio and on the stage.

The Conference portion of the festival seems to lean very heavily on producer-oriented seminars. Is that by design?

We’ve been hosting workshops from Ableton and Native Instruments going back to 2003. I remember people lugging out desktop computers! Seattle has a massive tech industry and consequentially a lot of electronic music producers. In the past, workshops have always drawn well and have given local producers a chance to interact, trade secrets, and learn from some of the top instructors on the planet. They’re always free, which for me is another aspect of the festival that defines who we are. We truly want people to come away from the dB Conference not only with skills to produce/DJ, but also with ideas on how to better market and distribute their music and art. I wish I had that type of interaction when I was starting out, and I don’t think that “music education” in schools really touches the tools needed to succeed. This year’s program is nearly three times the size of anything we’ve done prior, including a dozen workshops, eight panels, six live interviews, four keynotes, three lectures, and several demos. It’s quite massive and the topics are fascinating.

This is the ninth DB Fest. Are you already plotting the big 10 year? If so, what do you envision?

dB10 will be a landmark edition for sure. Our challenge today is that we are still predominantly a club-based festival, which I personally prefer to large outdoor festivals and crowds. However, we are looking at some park options for dB10. I’d only want to go that direction if we can keep it urban and somewhat personal for the audience. I think Movement does a good job of taking a large outdoor experience and transitioning that into evening afterhours events, which we do as well. The question is, who could we book that would draw that sort of crowd without losing the festival’s integrity? I can tell you that my short list of about a dozen artists would do just that. Hopefully we can find the funding to pull it off.