Of all the people I’ve been surprised to learn have gone to Burning Man Festival, it’s got to be techno/tech house DJ and Lot49 label owner Meat Katie, who’s hard-edged sets that include breaks, broken beat and minimalist I only imagined stayed within the cold walls of stripped down clubs.
It turns out that the legendary far out art and music festival-event-circus-lifestyle that takes place every year out in Nevada’s inhospitable desert made a deep impression on the DJ. One could even call it a soft spot.
I talked to Meat Katie (Mark Pember) about why, how and again why a club DJ would ever find himself at a glorified love-in with a bunch of hippies. He tells me about the the miracle of consumer-free living, porn, eggs, and why this is one festival the loo roll comes provided. PLUS check out his live mix from Rockbottom.
Amy Riley: Hi there, how are you?
Mark Pemberton: Okay. I was supposed to be playing in Greece, but instead I’m sitting on my sofa, sick. Where we work, we have a block of studios that I share with other DJs like Alec Metric – so now we all have the flu and having to cancel our gigs.
AR: So the question I’ve got to ask: what’s a DJ doing at Burning Man? Wasn’t it just a hippy fest?
MP: I had the same reservations about Burning Man. The thing is, I’ve got a really good association with some promoters in San Francisco called Opal. I’ve been doing their parties for the last 8 years. They got involved in Burning Man right when it got started, about 12 years ago, and then it just grew. The weird thing is they kept saying, ‘You got to come, you’d love it’ and I thought ‘hippies, no way’.
Slowly but surely, other djs were playing for them – they went there and said it was amazing. I fought it for six years – ‘you’re lying to me, it’s going to be crusties with no clothes on’. Well, it’s kinda true. There’s a lot of crusties and a lot of people naked, but it’s more than that’ (laughs).
This year I decided to go and the promoter gave all our DJs – the Saturday night. I took on the daytime shows. That video clip you see is at Rockbottom, which was on at 4 in the afternoon. Because of time, Elite Force and I did back to back sets, which was good since our music is quite similar. Doing the day time parties, it meant I arrived early. I didn’t know what to expect. People said ‘it’s not what you think it is.’ It’s not hippyfied. The art side of things is not tie-dyed – it’s amazing sculptures and fire . They have fire orchestras, half the size of a football pitch.
AR: How is the music organised?
MP: All the soundsystems have their own vibe. There’s no sponsorship – Burning man don’t give them any money. It cost 70k to put one on.
AR: Why do they do it?
MP: People put on stuff because they want to do it. We got there Monday (early) and there was forklift trucks to put soundsystems up. There’s nothing like it here.
AR: Is it like the rave scene used to be here?
MP: It’s like early raves, but it’s organized so they’re set back from each other.
AR: What soundsystem are there?
MP: It’s crews of people based around cities. A lot of people from San Francisco because that’s where it started. Denver. Crews from Florida have started coming out. They have all their own sounds.
AR: What kind of music were they playing?
MP: A lot of dubstep and glitchhop – which suited heavy electronic and desert and Mad Max anarchy. It was a nice backdrop for that. I didn’t hear a lot of trance, which I was expecting. There was a lot of minimal and techno, which I like.
When I wandered around, I discovered there was an amazing number of international DJs who made the pilgrimage to be there. Armand Van Helden was there -he played a really underground set, not the euphoric hands in the air set he normally does and he’s not being paid 50k to be there either. He did himself lots of favors by playing there. I met Carl Cox when were were both DJing out there. We bought our own tickets and paid our own way.
AR: So is Burning Man in your top ten festivals?
MP: It’s my number 1 event – nothing even comes close. I walked out of there with my jaw on the floor. Coming back to UK and hooking up with people who had been there, everyone said the same thing. It’s such a harsh envionrment you’re in, the way people brave this terrain to be there and do this, you get something from it. I don’t want to sound like a hippy, but I gained something from it and the benchmark was lifted to unrealistic level for anywhere else.
AR: What do you like most about Burning Man?
MP: That you can’t spend any money. When you go to normal festivals, you don’t even realize how caught up you get in spending money and you don’t realize how branded and corporate it is. At Burning Man, you’re not being sold anything. All they do is provide a a perimeter fence around the site and you have to make your own fun. It’s a totally different type of experience to any other festival, where you go based on the lineup so you make a decision based on what you’re going to get – at Burning Man, there’s no lineup so you go. I’d be happy to go even if I wasn’t playing.
They supply toilets as well, and not once where there was no toilet paper and they were always clean, which is quite an achievement.
AR: Any advice you’d give to punters?
MP: Prepare properly. If you want to go, don’t just turn up with your camping gear. Its important where you stay, but people are so friendly. Goggles, face masks.
AR: Oh what, people need to dress like that? I thought they were just trying to look cool with those stupid vests.
MP: I know you look stupid, but the sand is everywhere, it’s unbelievable. And then you get the sand storms, the white outs where you can’t see your hand. I was walking to our camp and there was a white out and it was like being sandblasted and there’s some people having sex and we just walked around them. You couldn’t see them until you were right up close.
You have to queue to get on the site – it’s not like Glastonbury where you can stay in Bath or Bristol – you’re there for the duration – seven days – it swells out on Thursday and Friday. Some people say there for two weeks.
AR: Where there a lot of drug casualties?
MP: I got a sore throat half way through, just from dust. I went to the medical centre there – it was all run by volunteers, it was like M.A.S.H – and I didn’t see anyone there freaking out on drugs. It was mainly people who fell off vans. When the doctor saw me, I gave him ten dollars, and they went to Reno and picked up my prescription for me. They say Black Rock City is the only place in America where you get free medical care (laughs).
Lot49 are running a competition to discover a new producer for a lucky 3 EP deal as part of their New Lot competition, which closes on 1 December. For more details, check out our post on the competition or go to the Lot49 site.
More from Meat Katie on Burning Man Festival 2009
MP: I got to be honest with you, my jaw was on the floor – I spent eight dollars in eight days. You can’t spend any money there. Before I went there, I was like’ how does that work?’ People asked for water in exchange for noodles. It really did work.
In the morning, there were places with soundsystems at night, then serving breakfast in the morning for nothing. There was this one place that looked like a ranch called Porn and Eggs, and that’s what they did – you could eat your eggs while watching porn. It was the most hilarious thing. They must have sat around and thought ‘this is what burning man needs’.
There’s a place called the Temple – it’s made out of wood, designed by a proper architect, with walkways and really detailed woodwork. People go there and pin things – letters, bits of clothing – for people or loved ones who died.
On the Sunday night, they burned the whole thing. It was symbolic of letting go, and it was actually an emotional thing. Things like that I would have never appreciated. I never realized how many thousands of people were there. It was like an Indian type of temple.
The atmosphere of the place is amazing too. People take their rubbish with them. Every night, there was a BBQ for 250 people- it was for all the volunteers who helps build the stage for Opal. The stage has this feature where fire blows out the top and when you DJ, you can push buttons to make the fire blow when the music peaks. It’s straight out of Mad Max.
There’s a bit on facebook of footage of Thunder Dome, my favorite bit of the festival. Do you remember that bit from Mad Max where there’s people on elastic strings? They have one at Burning Man with a compere – the structure is made up of scaffolding, and everyone’s hanging and looking in. The first time I went in, they were blaring heavy metal, and the compere said they had a husband and wife who were going to sort out their differences. They bounce on these pulleys things, flying around. It’s a must, an absolute.