Sometime between dancing in the rain to psytrance with a bunch of butt-naked streakers and climbing a “tree” fashioned out of metal, it became obvious to me that this vacation was not going to be a “vacation.” When I came back from Oakdale, I was going to need some time to recuperate. Symbiosis was that kind of festival to me. I don’t regret it at all. The strange thing is that it didn’t have to be that way.
I rolled into the festival solo at about half past seven, right as the sun began to sink behind the horizon. People who haven’t been to festivals might not understand that the waiting in line is as much a part of the experience as getting high in a tent and listening to dubstep: it’s just one of those things that’s going to happen, and you’ve got to find a way to enjoy it. Had I been traveling with other people, it would’ve been a lot more fun. I did try to be genial with a group of friendly looking people in a nearby Volkswagen Westfalia, but I had packed super light. The only peace offerings I had were a box of Gushers and a half finished pack of Bud Light. Interestingly, that probably would’ve been fine at Coachella. It’s a very “beer and snacksy” type of crowd. Here though? I would’ve been better off with weed and kombucha.
That, on the whole, speaks to the general vibe of Symbiosis Gathering. I don’t really feel bad by slapping a big, fat “hippie-approved” label over the whole thing. I’m not ragging on it at all, though; that’s just the easiest way to describe the general attitude of everyone I met. To put it another way…I have never seen more dreadlocked white people in one place in my life. The air was constantly tinged with either the perfumed smell of incense or the pungent stench of freshly burned weed. I could hardly walk five paces without seeing someone clasp their hands together saying “namaste.”
If your comfort zone doesn’t include regularly cleansing your chakras, performing in a traveling troupe, or wearing clothes made from linen, you might feel a little bit put out at first. Don’t. The truth is that the people there were some of the most friendly and open that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting at a festival. Maybe there was something to this whole lifestyle that I was missing out on.
They do know how to party, though. That’s for damn sure.
Because Symbiosis is located many, many miles from humanity on a lake, they don’t really have to follow any rules when it comes to performance time limits. So long as you have the energy/chemicals to keep yourself awake, there’s something for you to do. The first night there, I collapsed into a heap of exhaustion and slept at around two. Well, at least I tried to. A few intrepid partiers arrived to the festival in a replica of Jabba the Hutt’s barge from Return of the Jedi. Yeah. It was really cool. Even though they were blaring dubstep until 4am. This was in the camp site.
Musically, the festival was very diverse. The flyers cited well over 100 musicians, and they definitely weren’t lying. Similar to Coachella, the different stages each had a different musical theme. The Big Island was for larger acts, The Cove was the stage for bass-heavy music, The Juke Shack played psytrance for five days straight, and two of the domes were reserved for yoga and spiritual pursuits.
The first act that I caught (unintentionally) was the tail end of The Shotgun Wedding Quintet. This group was totally foreign to me, but they earned my admiration with a kick-ass live R&B medley. Weird? Kinda, but they could really play the shit out of their instruments. Covers are just good fun anyway. That, and they covered a lot of hits straight from the nineties, which really wooed my heart.
Next up was Body Language. This indie-dance trio from Brooklyn is one of my favorite band discoveries from the past year. Their music is fun, and poppy, and energetic, and sunny. It’s like listening to sunshine. This was actually my second time getting to see them live in the course of that week. As I mentioned in my review of this show, I think they had a great performance…but I think their crowd was a little light. Maybe because it was during the day. Maybe because they just don’t pull as big as a following in the Bay Area. I really don’t know.
Afterward I wandered off towards the Empire of Love stage. It was adorned with a towering wooden sculpture resembling a temple. Mobiles of glittering silver disks hung from the black and yellow rafters over the DJ. The dance floor area was covered by fabric to block the sun, giving the whole area a kind of reverent feeling. It wasn’t dissimilar to a church, actually. Well, a church with dirt floors and loads of bass. This stage was located on the end of a peninsula. If you wanted a sunset, this was the place for it.
Things got a little bit more lively as the sun went down. The festival grounds were alive with stage lights and roving art installations. Compared to the big festivals like Coachella, however, there weren’t as many. Even the massives that Insomniac throws have more in-your-face artwork and attention-grabbing installations. The thing is, though, more isn’t necessarily better.
I found myself appreciative of the darkness, glad that I didn’t have to deal with swarming throngs of e-tarded teeny boppers and bros. I didn’t have to wade through a cuddle puddle when walking under the “light arch.” That’s definitely telling of both the type of people that show up at Symbiosis and the type of environment they want to create. With the right people, it would be an excellent environment for tripping. Let me be clear: there’re are plenty of other ways to stay entertained through the night beyond chemicals, but this certainly wouldn’t be the worst location for it… (Don’t do drugs!)
I decided to check out the Star Slinger/Cashmere Cat/Lunice/RL Grime back-to-back combo at the Cove. Star Slinger brought the bass. Cashmere Cat slowed it all down and made it sexy. Lunice turned the crowd into a roiling mass of hip-hop fury. I stayed through most of RL Grime’s traptastic assault, but I ended up stepping out sometime between 3 and 4 am. It was late, I was filthy, and the thought of driving back to Los Angeles the next day dirty AND sleep deprived was not terribly enticing.
As I crawled into my tent and tried to salvage some sleep from the night, there came a howl. It was muted at first. Distant. Then other voices took over the cry as the noise came closer. At first I was confused. It quickly became obvious that the noise wasn’t a shockingly brazen pack of wolves, but people. We howled like wolves for no other reason beyond the low-hanging moon and a desire to do so. I still can’t really tell you why I joined in; it just felt right to do so.
Maybe it’s the post-Burning Man after glow that makes it special. Or maybe it’s just the hippie attitude that creates that environment. Or maybe it’s just the weed. Look, I don’t know. I do know that I had an excellent time that struck me as more profound than I had first anticipated. Yes, the music was good, but if that’s the only reason you’re going, then you’re missing out.
Even after all this text and photography, the truth is I’ve barely touched on all the things that Symbiosis had to offer. I could go on for pages, but the important message I want to get across is this: Symbiosis is a great escape. The soul-killing grind of normal life and social norms take a backseat for five day out in Oakdale. That experience alone is freeing and worth the cost. I absolutely hope to get weird with them again next year.