Myth, Ritual, and Revelry: A Talk with Damian Lazarus


 

It’s daybreak at Burning Man, and the most beautiful, bizarre dance party on the planet is reaching its crescendo. Perched high atop the colossal Robot Heart roving sound system is Damian Lazarus, founder and A&R guru of Crosstown Rebels, one of the most influential and forward-thinking record labels in electronic music today. Over the past 10 years, the London-born DJ/producer has curated a distinctive style of underground house music that is edgy, unusual, and an achingly perfect soundtrack for the dreamlike splendor of a Playa sunrise. As he weaves in another mystical track, waves of bliss ripple through the thousands of dusty dancers frolicking below. Time melts away in the soaring music and enveloping fiery glow...

To be sure, this is not your typical night at the club. Stoked by the ceremonial flames of Black Rock City, Lazarus and his label mates are out to transform the clichéd image of house music as mindless bump-and-grind fodder to techno-spiritual mantras steeped in myth, ritual, and irrepressible funk. As a lifelong devotee of the genre, I must say, it’s about damn time. House, that foundational source from which the myriad flavors of electronic dance music find their roots, has for too long been relegated to the realm of the secular. There’s something deeply transformative brewing beneath the hypnotic kicks, claps, and bleeps—a unifying message and a medicine that aims straight for the soul. With the rise of Lazarus and his cadre of house crusaders, a new paradigm of sacred boogie has arrived.

For his next foray in high-vibrational revelry, the Crosstown Rebels impresario has set his sights on the stars. Enter Day Zero Festival, a marathon dance party synchronized to trace the course of the final 24 hours of the Mayan calendar ending on December 21st with performances from such electronic luminaries as 3D (Massive Attack), James Lavelle (U.N.K.L.E.), Jamie Jones, and Trentemøller. The backdrop for this monumental get-down is suitably epic—a Mayan theme park in the jungle of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, not far from ancient ruin sites, complete with stepped pyramids, two lakes, and four swimming pools. Picture Chichén Itzá meets Ibiza, with a Terence McKenna twist.

The inspiration for such an ambitious and visionary shindig is encoded in the cosmos. The December 21, 2012 date marks the end of an astronomic cycle of 25,625 years and, according to the Maya, heralds the beginning of a new world age. Rather than tipping off some great cataclysm, Lazarus embraces the belief that this transition may usher in a new era of positive progression for humanity. With the prophetic deadline fast approaching, we will soon find out if the popular speculations about an imminent apocalypse or evolutionary shift carry weight. In any event, Day Zero intends to ring in the galactic climax with ceremony, celebration, and no shortage of earthshaking basslines along the way.

I recently caught up with Damian Lazarus to discuss the Day Zero Festival, Burning Man, and the role electronic music is playing in the evolution of consciousness.

ST Frequency: As dance music festivals go, your vision for Day Zero is very unique. How do you imagine it will be different from other events you’ve been involved in?

Damian Lazarus: The significance of the December 21st date has helped me thread the entire event together—all the different facets, from music to performance, lighting to food offerings, have been shaped by the fact that the Mayans decreed this to be the end of the current life cycle. I have tried to put a lifetime of festivalgoing and playing into consideration in creating Day Zero. I am hoping it reflects the best moments I have experienced in the past and produces some truly magical moments that are yet to unfold.

The site looks amazing. What drew you to this particular location, and how is it being transformed for this party?

I was very lucky to be introduced to the site by a good friend in Mexico, Sidartha, a truly great man who learnt his art as a sitar player under the guidance of Ravi Shankar. The location has been created as something of a cultural learning centre for Mayan life in the heart of Playa del Carmen. It has not yet opened to the public and we will be the first people to create an event there. The idea of making a 24-hour festival in this place of beauty in the middle of the jungle surrounded by three pyramids is so exciting. We aim to make it a feast for all the senses.

There’s been a lot of anticipation around the 12/21/2012 date. What are your thoughts on its significance? How will Day Zero reflect this potent moment in time?

I think we can all agree that it is unlikely that the world will end. However, with the galactic alignment on this date, who knows what physical shift might occur. My opinion is that this is an opportunity for us to take stock of our lives, to consider our place in the universe, to consider what we put in and take out, and then together enter into a new chapter, a new beginning. We are planning a number of special ceremonies during the event, which will culminate with a very special closing section leading to the 6:11pm time on the 21st, the exact moment the calendar is ending.

Speaking of cosmic events, the line-up you’ve put together is pretty stellar. Give us an idea of your musical vision for the festival.

I wanted to bring together the very best music in the electronic community performed by artists with an open mind and open heart. The idea of having Massive Attack perform alongside UNKLE, Trentemøller, Jamie Jones and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs is so exciting. I guess this really is a case of making a dream come true. The addition of a second stage featuring the best Mexican artists in the electronic community adds so much to the event, plus we will have some special surprise moments that have not yet been announced. I simply wanted to curate 24 hours of the most perfect live soundtrack leading up to a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A 24-hour dance party sounds epic, if not a bit exhausting. Will there be spaces and activities for people to relax and recharge?

Yes, of course—a camping area is set up for those wishing to create their own space, and we are building areas for people to take a rest, practice yoga, hang out and learn with the Huichol people, meditate and swim.

Your sunrise set on the Robot Heart bus at Burning Man this year was truly magical. I hadn’t been to the Burn in several years, and it was so exciting to see the arrival of the underground house and techno scene on the Playa. What’s your take on the whole Burning Man experience? How has it influenced you as an artist?

Burning Man has been very special for me as an artist. It has relit a few fires that were needed in my creative energy. The entire process—from planning, to the traveling, to the seven days and nights of magical moments, to the assessment and recovery at the end—is both exhausting and exhilarating. The constant opportunity for “eureka” moments as you travel the playa is so enticing every year, and the emotional swings and the fun times that are ever-present is like no other festival experience. It has been a real blessing to be able to make some kind of mark at the festival with our sound, and I like to think that our parties with the Robot Heart guys on Wednesday night are becoming a pivotal reason to be there year on year.

Many people are noticing an increase in psychic phenomena and synchronicities guiding their lives. It seems there is an evolution of consciousness taking place. At the same time, our world faces many serious crises. Do you think electronic music culture is something of a distraction or escape from these problems, or does it serve a deeper evolutionary role?

So many people around me have been discussing this phenomenon all year. It seems we are all being guided into new situations, life-changing directions by an unknown force. I feel that the music I play, release, and promote through the Crosstown Rebels label is similarly affected. There is a reason certain tracks find their way to me; there is a reason I select the music I do when I'm playing. It's all becoming more apparent that there are certain artists and certain styles of music that feel more connected with the universe than others. I think that this level of electronic music neither offers a distraction to the world's problems nor an escape. I think it simply soundtracks the issues, good and bad, around us and offers a deeper explanation as to how to move forward.

I read that you brought a shaman with you to a Day Zero press conference. What have your experiences with shamanism been like?

Last January I was told by a shaman in Tulum, Mexico that I needed to place myself underneath the moon with my arms raised towards it for one hour between 10 and 11 in order to draw power from the universe. With my legs apart and feet digging into the sand, I raised my arms to the sky and within seconds I felt the strongest sensation: the universe was sending a very powerful energy through my hands, arms and entire body, and I was locked into this electric forcefield. And finally when I let it go, after some 15 minutes as it was so strong, I fell to the beach exhausted. I rejoined my friends and everybody could feel a bizarre heat coming from my hands hovering over them. They told me that it was a sign and I needed to realize what it meant. With Mayan ruins just further along the beach to where we sat, I decided there and then to create Day Zero.

The tagline for Day Zero says, “This is the end of the world. This is a new beginning.” What does “a new beginning” look like to you?

Bright and magical.

Listen to Day Zero: Sound of the Mayan Spirit, a special mix by Damian Lazarus to commemorate the Day Zero festival.