Brooklyn, N.Y. – It might have been the dragon, rivaling any flying lizard from Game of Thrones in size, or perhaps the humanoid chicken happily crowd-surfing its way through the club while roosted in a raft.
Then again, it could have been the stilt-walking parrots and camels, or the flag-waving hippie pirates, or the industrial-strength confetti guns, or the array of inflatable whatnots bouncing above the revelers’ heads. Or maybe it was the fact that every square foot of the massive room was covered with random faux-mythic and quasi-surrealist imagery, fluorescently pulsating to a propulsive, churning tech-house soundtrack, or possibly the state-of-the-art visuals that silhouetted the DJs against a hypnagogic halo of computer-generated imagery.
Whatever it was—and most likely, it was the cumulative effect of all that and then some—it was pretty evident that this wasn’t your standard, dancing-in-a-dark-room kind of clubbing experience. That’s because this wasn’t just any party—it was an extravaganza helmed by elrow, the Barcelona-based purveyor of experiential clubbing that, in recent years, has set its sights on taking over the world.
Held this past April in Brooklyn’s massive Avant Gardner clubbing complex, with a lineup that boasted Eats Everything, Steve Lawler, and elrow residents De La Soul and Toni Varga (among others), the affair wouldn’t seem to have an obvious appeal to New York nightlifers more accustomed to the kind of stripped-down approach to clubbing exemplified by popular venues like Output and Good Room. Instead, this was more akin to a full-on, sensory-overload carnival, a little bit daft, but undeniably fun.
Young ravers of all stripes, veteran revelers there to hear the headliners, neophytes who’d borrowed their eccentric uncle’s tie-dyed tee or Hawaiian shirt for a splash of color—they all succumbed to the spectacle’s pulsating charms. Even a gaggle of ’roided-up gym addicts who sullenly patrolled the edges of the crowd early in the evening were all glitter-smeared smiles by the end of the night. It felt like an incredibly ambitious, hugely budgeted, and exceedingly freaky high-school prom gone berserk.
The elrow team had brought its traveling circus to the city before—it made its Gotham debut at the Electric Zoo festival this past Labor Day weekend, and has been back a few times since—but the recent Avant Gardner bash marked the official start elrow’s New York residency. This October, another residency begins in Vegas—fitting, considering elrow and Sin City’s shared affinity for over-the-topness—adding to a full dance card that already takes in locales as far-flung as Dubai and Uruguay, along with its Spanish, home-base throwdowns in Barcelona and Ibiza. Also, elrow is the force behind the Monegros Festival, a massive desert rave held in northeastern Spain—the fest is currently on hiatus due to land-use issues, but hopes are high to revive it with a year or two.
This all just marks the latest chapter in elrow’s history, a convoluted, music-and-clubbing saga that spans six generations of the Arnau family. We’ll skip that story’s many twists and turns here—it would take a hefty tome to do the tale justice—but suffice it to say that elrow is now in the capable hands of Juan Arnau Lasierra and Cruz Arnau. Juan’s dad – Juan, Sr. – succinctly summed up elrow’s current philosophy in a 2016 interview: “The people have to dance. If they dance, they are happy; if they stop, they are bored. It’s that simple. People don’t want to be quiet; they want to be dancing.”
Toni Varga’s been a big part of the saga since the early days of this decade, both as a resident DJ and one of the main artists the elrow label, helmed by De La Swing. Just a few days after the Avant Gardner gathering, DJ Times caught up with Varga, jet-lagged, but still cheerful and charming, via Skype at his home just outside of Barcelona.
DJ Times: What was your entry into the DJing arts?
Toni Varga: I first was a promoter in my hometown, A Coruña, a town in the northwest of Spain. I was really into the parties and the music, and finally I thought, “Hey, I have to try this.” I had been fond of electronic music for many years anyway, so one day I started to play. This would have been around 2001 or 2002. In the beginning, I was playing small local clubs, because A Coruña is a small city, which didn’t have big productions. They were really underground clubs, with 200 or 300 people. I wasn’t thinking that this would become my life.
DJ Times: Were there any DJs, producers or labels who you looked up to back then?
Varga: When I started, I was influenced by American house producers like Joeski—he is such a super-legend for me, and I have all of his records—and labels like Siesta and Twisted.
DJ Times: You can hear slight echoes of those labels—that tough, tribal-house sound—in your sets and productions.
Varga: Yes, but everything changes, of course. Maybe now it’s maybe a bit more tech-house, or even more techno, depending on where I’m playing. Big festivals with big stages in front of 20,000 people… those people are going to want very energetic music, more techno music. But, in the end, everything comes from the same place it always has. I think the roots are still there.
DJ Times: I assume you were playing vinyl back when you started?
Varga: Yes, vinyl—there was nothing else!
DJ Times: And how about now?
Varga: I normally just play with thumb drives and Pioneer CDJ-2000s, and for the mixer it’s a Pioneer DJM-900. I was playing with [Native Instruments] Traktor Scratch software and a laptop – but now the CDJ is almost the same as a laptop, you can do so many things with them. After a while, I felt that the laptop was no longer necessary.
DJ Times: When did you start playing in Ibiza? It was well before you hooked up with elrow, right?
Varga: Very much—I actually was a resident at [Ibiza superclub] Amnesia, starting in 2004 or 2005. I was working with the Amnesia team for around six years. At one point around 2010, I got a call from elrow, and they asked if I wanted to be with them – and here I am.
DJ Times: Was leaving a residency at an iconic club like Amnesia an easy call for you to make?
Varga: Here’s how that happened: After first time I played an elrow party, Juan, Jr.—who is now a really close friend—was really happy with my set. This was around the time that he was starting to really build the brand, to bring it around the world. He said something like, “This is what we are looking to do,” and it sounded really interesting. He didn’t ask me to be a resident right away, but he gave me another show, then another show, then another show… and after five or six shows, he proposed that I become an official part of the team. I really believed in the elrow project, and I was really happy with the whole elrow team, and I realized this was my moment to make a big change in my career. I think I did right! [laughs]
DJ Times: What’s it like to work for the Arnau family, which has such a long pedigree in the clubbing business?
Varga: They are such good people, and they’re the most professional people I’ve ever worked with in the industry. They’re so respected by everyone in the business. It is a job for me, of course—but like I said, we are also friends. We have the same vibe.
DJ Times: Sounds like a good situation to be in.
Varga: Yes, having good relations with your boss is a very good thing with any job, I think!
DJ Times: Flash-forward a few years, and you are now a big part of elrow’s worldwide expansion. You’ve played with elrow in the New York before, but was there extra pressure since this was the launch of the New York residency?
Varga: Not really, but playing in New York is still very exciting. When I first played there two or three years ago, it was like a dream come true. New York house is such a big influence for me, and there’s such a clubbing history there—it’s a place that has always been on my mind. I can remember thinking that I would hope to play there someday. And now I will be there often— we’re planning on doing four or five parties a year in the city—so I am very happy.
DJ Times: Beyond New York, what do you think of the club and festival scene in the States in general? Do you find that people here are into the style of partying that elrow embodies?
Varga: I think so. This is still a new market for us, and we are really just beginning—but the first sensations we’ve been getting have been really, really cool. People at are parties seem really happy. We are thinking that we can make something really big in the States. America is going to be very important for us.
DJ Times: When you add elrow’s U.S. dates, along with its expansion in the rest of the world, to your Barcelona and Ibiza schedules, you’re going to be a pretty busy DJ.
Varga: Yes, and it’s not just me, but the rest of the team. For example, the production team is super-busy; they travel around like DJs all over the world.
DJ Times: It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of effort involved in putting an elrow event together—and now that there are so many elrow events, the workload must be mind-boggling.
Varga: It’s a lot of work. I think there are now 300 or 400 people working for elrow in total – and we need that many people. Each elrow party is a major production, and it takes so much to put them on. There are lots of jobs to be done.
DJ Times: As the DJ, you have the best job of all.
Varga: Yes, I think so!
DJ Times: With so much happening at an elrow party, is it difficult for you to keep the focus on the music? Is there a danger that the music becomes subsumed by the rest of the sensory stimulus?
Varga: I know what you are saying. There are a hundred things happening at once at elrow. So yes, it is sometimes a bit difficult to keep the attention on the music. But elrow is actually a team of people working together, and it’s the way that everything works together. When people leave an elrow party, they think about the entire experience. They’re not just talking about the style of music, they’re talking about the whole thing. But, of course, the music is my part—so I believe the music is the most important thing. [laughs]
DJ Times: As a DJ, do you coordinate at all with the lighting people, the performers and all the others, or is it more of an improvisational affair?
Varga: There are only two or three times a night when we really coordinate, and that’s when we make the confetti show. When the production managers are ready for that to happen, they contact the booth and ask the DJ—resident or guest, it doesn’t matter—to play something really special, something with a big break or a big drop or whatever. But that’s the only time. The rest of the night, we just do our thing.
DJ Times: I unknowingly was standing two feet in front of a confetti blasters at one point during the Brooklyn party. I’m still picking pieces of confetti from my clothes.
Varga: Yes, it’s a like a thousand tons of confetti! My bags are always full of confetti when I get home.
DJ Times: Can you see much of the craziness of what’s going on beyond the stage when you spin?
Varga: Yes, you do see lots of funny things. For example, one day I saw someone in a Spiderman outfit climbing up the walls of the club, and I figured it was one of the elrow team. But then they told me he was just a guy at the party. Everyone is free to do what they want at elrow.
DJ Times: With all the gigging, do you have much time to produce music?
Varga: Sometimes it is difficult, but yes, there is always some time. I am actually in my studio right now. Even if I am super-tired, I try to go into the studio three or four hours a day. As much as I love to play for people, making music is my passion. It gives me almost the same feeling when I am in my studio, doing my own music, as I do when I am DJing. It’s so exciting when I finish a new track. And then I can try out that new track on the elrow dancefloor, to see how people interact with it.
DJ Times: To see a huge crowd of people reacting to a song you just made must be hugely satisfying.
Varga: It can be really special. It can be one of the best moments for me. But there are other times where it’s more like… OK, I have to go back into the studio and change this. Things are not always working, but that is part of the process.
DJ Times: What kind of set-up do you have in your studio?
Varga: I use Ableton Live as my sequencer. I really like [Native Instruments] Maschine to make the grooves, and [LennarDigital] Sylenth for the melodies. And I have synths – from Moog, Jupiter, [u-he’s] Diva and a few others. I have the studio in my home. I live in the mountains, and I can be as loud as I want with no problems.
DJ Times: You had mentioned some influences from your early days, but who are the artists or DJs who you are feeling nowadays?
Varga: For producers, I really like people like Butch, Jamie Jones and Solomun. For DJs, people like Kerri Chandler, Marco Carola and Sven Väth, who I think is one of the best DJs ever.
DJ Times: When you were first starting back in the early ’00s, were you thinking that maybe would be what you were doing as your career?
Varga: No, not at all, not at this level. I wanted to dedicate my life to music because it’s my passion—but I never thought, in my best dreams, that I’d be playing at big festivals around the world. I couldn’t even imagine it.
DJ Times: What’s your next step?
Varga: I have the dream of making an album one day. I’ll need to take some time off, so that I can be in the studio every day—albums take a lot of time!
DJ Times: Do you ever miss the days of playing in little underground clubs, like you did in your early days in A Coruña?
Varga: I actually still get to play smaller clubs sometimes. Like after the New York party, we did an afterparty at [Brooklyn venue] Analog BK where I was playing back-to-back with De La Swing for maybe 400 people for hours. It was so much fun, and that’s a part of the industry that I don’t want to miss. You make so many connections with the people at parties like that. I’ll always do it. But I wouldn’t trade it for what I have with elrow.