Even Furthur: A Conversation With Kurt Eckes Of Drop Bass Network

This is part of our ongoing series covering Even Furthur 2016. Read previous parts here and check back in the coming weeks for Furthur coverage.

As far as Midwest rave legends go, Kurt Eckes is head and shoulders above the rest. The promoter came up throwing parties in the Milwaukee area in the early 90s, but he really made a name for himself and his Drop Bass Network with a party series called Furthur, a nod to the Merry Pranksters and their bus. Perhaps best known for introducing Daft Punk to America, the series left a huge mark on a generation of ravers from around the country. Seeing the writing on the wall from the passage of the R.A.V.E. act and numerous busted parties around the country, Eckes closed up shop after a New Year's Eve party in 2003.

Sensing a changing climate and the desire of many old school ravers to reunite, he got the band back together to produce Even Furthur '16. We connected with Eckes to discuss what went in to the preparations and what kind of impact the event will have.

How do you feel Even Furthur went this year?

It was a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of emotion, and really a lot of reflection [laughs]. Just as much as every other piece of this was on a bigger scale than ever before, the afterthoughts are too. In the past I would be thinking about the next event already, but I’m still trying to make sense of what the hell just happened.

I assume that you anticipated that throwing another event after so long would be a lot of work.

The workload that it took to do it this year was mind-numbing. Way too much for me personally. I did a majority of the planning, but in the past I had a lot of help with that from my partner at the time, April. I have a super good crew and they haven’t worked on an event in thirteen years either, but they were able to not only do what needed to be done, but exceeded anything that they had done in the past.

That’s badass. You’re referring to Drop Bass Network?

Yeah, and the Support Squad that works with us. There’s a core group of about 20 people that make everything happen and they understand my vision and know how we do things. I was like “Alright, just make a rave like we used to do it,” and that’s what they did.

Most of the Support Squad and Kurt at the Drop Bass Network HQ. Photo courtesy Jason Tertadian.  Back  (left to right): Dug, Noel, Saj, Craig. Middle : Mickey, Abe, Mel, Eunice, Kat, Thea, Kurt. Front row: Jason, Frank, Jared, Kimm. Not pictured: April, Janice, Scott, KK, Tom, Steve, Jesse, Lucky, Jared.

Most of the Support Squad and Kurt at the Drop Bass Network HQ. Photo courtesy Jason Tertadian. 
Back  (left to right): Dug, Noel, Saj, Craig.
Middle : Mickey, Abe, Mel, Eunice, Kat, Thea, Kurt.
Front row: Jason, Frank, Jared, Kimm.
Not pictured: April, Janice, Scott, KK, Tom, Steve, Jesse, Lucky, Jared.

I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of being the promoter - you are experiencing the event in a totally different way. I suppose you are digesting a way bigger meal than everybody else.

Yeah, Thanksgiving squared! I did not expect that things would turn out as well as they did. Everything went way, way better than we could have hoped for. So there are two sides to the coin. On one side, it just adds to the legacy we had leading up to Even Furthur 2016. It puts an exclamation point on what we did. On the other side, we have a lot of momentum and maybe we should use that to do something else. 

Right, like is it an exclamation point or a question mark?

That’s exactly the way to put it. What’s the punctuation here? If it’s a period, we’re all in jail.

What inspired you to do another Even Furthur?

Mostly because people really wanted it. When I quit doing parties and moved out to the middle of nowhere, I was pretty disconnected from it all. I was over it and just assumed that everyone else was. The idea was kind of running around in my head, but it was just in my head. As long as nobody knew, it was safe. But through social media, I saw that people were into the idea of something happening again. Then I went on Dustin Zahn’s podcast in the summer of 2015 and I put the idea out there. Once I did that, I felt obligated. I didn’t want to be a person who’s all talk and no action.

Do you have anything in the works for the future or are you just decompressing now?

This one killed me! Back in the early nineties, we used to throw parties once a month or so. Those were smaller parties so they were a lot easier. I was working on Even Furthur constantly from April through August. There’s a lot more that goes into doing this now because the industry has gotten bigger. Everybody expects more. Artists used to be more dynamic and just let things happen. Now everybody wants to know every detail about everything beforehand, even though none of that matters because it’s all going to change when the party starts. It’s just a pain in the ass. Like, why would I waste all this time going over details with 22 different people when everything ends up changing anyway? We used to get people to come to our parties on the fly.

So you feel like the professional aspect of the industry has changed? Like the accommodations you have to make and other things you have to do to book the artists?

It’s just so much bigger now, so much more of a business. The artists used to do everything themselves and were a little less concerned. Now they have professional people who take care of everything for them and they want all the “I”s dotted and “T”s crossed. Which can be done, but its just a lot of extra work.

I suppose that’s one of the trade-offs with things being more official. Because regardless of how underground the artist is, they still have expectations for how things should go. Do you think Even Furthur is an outlier, in terms of being a more DIY-minded festival?

It turned out that way. I was never going to do a festival during the EDM boom. An EDM festival wasn’t what I wanted to do and it wasn’t what a Drop Bass party was. It wasn’t our aesthetic and it wasn’t the way we do things. We were doing Even Furthur as a reunion event so that we were totally free to do it the way we used to. At the same time, we wanted to bring in new kids to show them how it used to be, maybe convert them to more of a techno/underground thing. But also because we knew it would be a good party. We thought about that a lot as far as getting people to play.

How did you incorporate that into the lineup?

We intended to do some bass artists along with the techno, to draw in different people, and we ended up doing that with Reid Speed and Desert Dwellers. We had bigger plans than that too, but we didn’t want to add people to a festival that didn’t really fit the bill. We got Reid because she has played for both me and Woody before at techno events, even if she plays a lot of bass stuff now. Same with Shortee and the Desert Dwellers. They were fans of the Drop Bass record label before they were EDM artists. We found people who were crossing that divide rather than people who were just on the other side of it.

In the midst of it all. Screen shot from Even Furthur 2016 recap video.

In the midst of it all. Screen shot from Even Furthur 2016 recap video.

Was there anyone you were particularly stoked to have at Even Furthur?

Since it was my event, I knew what I wanted and I got those people right away. The first people I talked to were Fixmer and McCarthy, because I’d wanted to have an event with Terence Fixmer since like 2005. He was actually the first booking that came together back in March. Same thing with Perc. He was someone I was a big fan of. He’s harder and cutting-edge but still part of the techno world. Some people on the Support Squad went to see him in the UK and spoke to him there. They told him he would be contacted by Drop Bass to play this party, so by the time I talked to him he was all in.

We hadn’t done a party in thirteen years, so we spoke to a lot of people and when we told them about what we were doing you could tell that they were down. It was more than just another booking, like they really wanted to be a part of it. And when you have that with the talent, it makes the party that much better. When you have that, it’s not just another DJ gig. Even Perc. He’s a big name techno DJ, does all kinds of festivals all over, but he knew he was playing a Drop Bass party in the Midwest. Doing what he normally does would have worked, but he played way harder than I think he has in a long time and he did it just for Even Furthur.

That’s badass. I was the most excited to see Perc.

Half of the artist didn’t even want hotel rooms. They wanted to be at the festival and they stayed in the house we had. They stayed up for two days and partied and had a good time. It was cool that they were there just as much for the party as they were there to DJ. The music is driven by that, you know? It’s all emotion. So when an artist is putting themselves into it, that comes across and the people at the festival are receptive to that. It just makes everything that much cooler. 

I think that’s really cool - when the line that separates the audience and the performers from one another is blurred. Because then it’s clear that we are all there for the same reasons. You can’t make that music and entertain people on that level without being involved in the other side of it. 

Totally. That’s exactly it. These artists didn’t suddenly become performers. It started on the dancefloor. Some of them, their early parties were our parties. They knew exactly what it was like to be at a party in the Midwest. So it wasn’t a stretch for them to tap into that. 

People always say these event are about the music.  One important aspect in that regard was how we set up the main tent.  The DJ was off to the side and at an angle, almost hidden by the speaker stack.  This was completely intentional to remove the performer focal point.  You don't see this at events anymore.  Then we set up that massive system in four corners so that you couldn't escape it.  If you were in the tent the only option was the music. It was magical.  It's rare that the sound system becomes the star of the show like that.

Taking in the main stage. Photo courtesy James Kloiber.

Taking in the main stage. Photo courtesy James Kloiber.

What’s your motive for throwing a party like Even Furthur?

I just like to party [laughs]. It’s really the powerfulness of the whole experience. It’s what drives me. it’s obviously what I was meant to do because I do it well, and then I have a really good crew of people who support that same idea. it feels really good to put something together like that. For me, especially the way it’s evolved over the years, all the pieces have meaning. This year we chose the theme “you are everywhere.” It’s about a connection on a bigger level. It’s about how we aren’t here in one specific spot at one specific time, we’re everywhere all the time. We’re this consciousness. Although our lives are all over the place at any time, we are still the WE. Things like “we shall all be set free” and “together to gather.” We always had themes about togetherness for all the Furthurs.

That is something that attracts me to these parties and to this kind of music. That element of transcending boundaries. The strange, common thread that brings us all there. I drove 4 hours with my friends and I knew Even Furthur was THE festival for me. That’s neat that you are putting this together and you have the same feelings that a lot of us do. 

It was mind-blowing when it all came together. People thank you at parties, give you props and whatnot, but it felt like literally everybody was sincerely appreciative. It really meant a lot. People had been excited for a long time leading up to this, so it was a crescendo of excitement once it all came together. It wasn’t just a handful of people, it seems like everybody was doing something to make it special.

Absolutely! How has you perspective on throwing parties and on techno changed over the years, since the last Even Furthur?

You’re in these scenes in your twenties, and in your thirties you are getting your life together, and in your forties you think about your twenties again. You always kind of want to go back, and usually you don’t have the opportunity to. In this case, we were giving people the opportunity to go back to that time in their lives and reflect on what got them to where they are now. That in of itself is pretty cool and special.

I think it was really significant that it was us, Drop Bass Network, doing this one event. Other promoters could do a throwback event and it wouldn’t be the same. Furthur has a long history, and a long list of people who have been touched by it over the years. It really took a certain set of circumstances for things to turn out as good as they did. For all the other things that didn’t go well, to have created such a special event was more valuable than anything else. Somehow, magically, we dropped an event into like 1996 again. It literally was the exact same way we would have done that event in ’96. Nothing changed. Everything about it wasn’t the way you would do an event now, and that’s part of the authenticity of what we did this time.

Kurt with Support Squad members Jason, Abe, and Eunice. Photo courtesy Jason Tertadian.

Kurt with Support Squad members Jason, Abe, and Eunice. Photo courtesy Jason Tertadian.

I think the DIY ethos of what you and Drop Bass Network do definitely contributed to having a super genuine event. Things like that definitely come across, it gets to the core of why we are there. It wasn’t about festival frills or about the name. You were authentically paying homage to your roots.

Totally. After we determined our line-up and announced the set, there were other EDM artists who contacted us, people who were making well into the 5-figures on their gigs. They’d say “you don’t even have to pay me, just provide me with a hotel and I will come play,” but the only reason they were trying to do that was so that they could add it to their resume - so they could say they had some street cred. That was going against what we were trying to do. We weren’t doing this to make them cool, we were doing this because we have always been cool [laughs].

It’s cool that people recognized the importance of what we were doing and feel like its worth their while. Still it’s like, “no, you can’t be a part of this because it’s not you.” They would have been using it for the wrong reasons. Anything big that has happened in the past was mostly by accident. We didn’t book Daft Punk in ’96 because we knew they would be Grammy award-winning super stars. We booked them because they were a dope ass live PA from France and they played analog gear and made acid music. It just happened that what they became made our event legendary, rather than the other way around. They weren’t using our event to get big.

However much electronic music has changed in the last thirteen years, its a bold move to do what you did and very genuine to not try to pander to any of that other stuff, whatever the modern festival is.

One of the coolest aspects of the event is that you’re setting up these temporary autonomous zones where people go and freak out and figure their shit out and find out who they are. Throwing bitchin’ parties is awesome, but it’s also great to be a lightening rod for people to figure shit out. Now, thirteen years later, I get to see firsthand the result of that. 

It was awesome for everybody to be able to come back and for everybody to share their stories. A majority of people have their shit together. They have houses and families and are’t drug-messes. They became good people, which speaks well of the things we did to help get them to that point. At the same time, there were more old school people out at the main tent in the early hours of the morning than there ever were before. It was super awesome to see that everyone around me at 6 in the morning was over thirty-five, partying harder than any 19-year-old I’ve ever come across. It’s like “we may have our shit together, we may be adults now, it may be the one time of the year that this happens, but fuck we can still go really hard,” [laughs]. After the weekend, they get to go back to what they normally do, and they’ve figured out what they needed to and they bring this experience out into the world with them, what they did here with us. They get to revisit the experiences that we gave them back in the day, which was to help them feel comfortable with themselves and show them the way life can be, that it doesn’t have to be just a struggle.

The OG Support Squad circa '96. Photo courtesy Kurt Eckes

The OG Support Squad circa '96. Photo courtesy Kurt Eckes