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Sustain-Release Music Festival

An immersive experience for the underground music community, limited to 500 people in upstate New York

by Nara Shin in Culture on 08 July 2014

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With festival lineups looking more and more identical, and the overall experience becoming synonymous with struggle and exhaustion, two underground music veterans are offering a new kind of escape that ensures an intimate experience for their familial community—not to mention reasonable bathroom lines and a roof over your head at night. Sustain-Release is the brainchild of Brooklyn-based video artist and music producer Aurora Halal and NTS radio host (and halcyon staff member) Zara Wladawsky. For the weekend of 12-14 September 2014, they're taking over a summer camp located in the Catskills Mountains—less than two hours from New York City. Festival attendees (limited to 500) will have access to Camp Lakota's cabins equipped with showers, electricity and bathrooms, an open field for camping, heated pools, a lake and two indoor stages featuring a sound system from Tsunami Bass, whose founders spent their life savings to build it.

Halal and Wladawsky have gathered an eclectic mix of "forward-thinking, badass" artists thus far, from dancer-turned-producer and deep house DJ Joey Anderson to electronic duo BLONDES (off of Brooklyn-based RVNG) to Xosar, who in her performances eschews laptops for hardware toys like Korg Electribe sequencers and Kaos pads. Halal herself will also be taking stage and more artists will be announced over the next few months, with the number of performers expected to reach 20 in total. We spoke with the founders about why they created Sustain-Release and their passion for throwing large-scale events.

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How did you two meet? Have you ever attended a festival together, and any memorable stories?

Aurora Halal: I think we met at a PS1 Warm Up because we were both wearing Minimal Wave bags. And then later, at Unsound two years ago—while I was there to perform visuals for Hieroglyphic Being & Ital, and she was managing the festival’s audio recording and live broadcasting through NTS. So in a way, we did meet at festivals. Though I have gone to far fewer than Zara; she's the real expert. Unsound was fantastic, the city of Krakow is fascinating to explore, and of course there were great performances and people throughout the whole week. We watched Atom™ from backstage and there was a guy filming him for a documentary who was doing crazy gymnastic moves while frenetically thrusting the camera in and out of Atom’s face—it was hilarious, we were laughing a lot.

Zara Wladawsky: There was a lot of drunkenly eating beef goulash and other Polish treats into the wee hours during the club nights at Unsound! What better ways to meet someone to collaborate on a festival with than over tons of vodka and awesome music!? I spent my first 10 “adult” years in the UK, and my summers were chock-filled with regular weekend excursions to all sorts of festivals in the country and on mainland Europe.

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This event maxes at 500 people, and every element of it is forward-thinking and non-commercial. It’s intended for open-minded, artistic audiences who want a truly immersive experience with music and friends.
There are so many festivals out there these days—what did you find lacking or problematic with the current offerings?

AH: I personally do not like big crowds, and the word "festival" is a bit cringe-y to me because what we have in the States especially is associated with EDM and a bunch of corny, commercial music and people I don’t want to meet. So I can’t say that this is project about "festivals" for me as much as celebrating the underground community in a bigger way than what I’ve already been working on with parties in the city. This event maxes at 500 people, and every element of it is forward-thinking and non-commercial. It’s intended for open-minded, artistic audiences who want a truly immersive experience with music and friends.

ZW: I too am not a fan of these massive EDM festivals and, while they serve a purpose, they’re not what a lot of us are craving at the moment. Festivals like Glastonbury still get it right being huge and genuinely fun (or at least did when I was younger) but for the most part, it’s these smaller boutique festival experiences that really make an impact and are also easier to cope with as we head well into our 20s and beyond.

Freerotation in Wales has been my favorite festival for the last six years I’ve attended; it’s well under a thousand people, the musical curation is impeccable across underground house and techno, the venue kills it on all fronts, and there’s a real sense of family, immersion, and belonging throughout the weekend. I’ve always wanted there to be something like that over here to share with my friends and wider musical community, but a version that’s definitively American/Northeast and celebrates a time and place in our local scene.

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You've both thrown some great parties in the past, such as Mutual Dreaming. What are some valuable lessons you've learned from party planning that you're applying to Sustain-Release?

AH: Mutual Dreaming occupies a unique territory in that its always underground and uncompromising, yet I’ve managed to get a thriving good party going with lots of people dancing hard. This is a hard balance, and I’ve learned that its mostly about putting effort and thought into all the details and pursuing what I really want to see, communicating real enthusiasm and faith in the art displayed instead of chasing trends or crowds. It's a “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, and it's really scary to be taking a leap with this festival. But it's beyond exciting to see it happen because I’ve been dreaming about this concept for a long time—and I know Zara has too.

ZW: I used to throw large-scale events in London with my friends that were terrifying to mount, and involved risks like throwing Cluster into large loft spaces alongside James Holden, and hoping people would be into it. The big thing I learned is: no matter how scared you are going into it, someone’s gotta do it! If no one else, then go forth and attempt it, and with enough passion, sensible planning, and good fortune, it’ll always pay off. I am so fortunate to be doing this with someone so talented and like-minded.

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What was the criteria you imposed upon yourselves when choosing acts for the inaugural line-up?

AH: Nice people who we want to hang out with was a big priority. So far it’s mostly American, forward-thinking, badass artists who are leading their field in terms of innovation. At the same time, we wanted exciting dance floor acts who provide a powerful experience.

ZW: The curation is in line with the same ideology I wrote above; taking a snapshot of what’s happening within and around us in Brooklyn and the wider community, and transferring it to the festival setting. We selected our favorite artists who we also have personal connections to as well, either from previous working relationships or having been blown away and deeply moved from seeing them play live or DJ before.

Tickets for the inaugural Sustain-Release are $98. That price includes cabin rental for those who sign up early; only 495 tickets will be sold. Visit the official website for more information and to book.

Lead portrait courtesy of Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky, all other images courtesy of respective artists

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