Kurt Eckes reflects on the festival’s roots, its future, and Daft Punk.
This year’s installment of the Even Furthur festival marks the 25th anniversary of an event that literally put the Midwest rave scene on the map, and laid the groundwork for the near-global phenomenon of modern-day EDM festivals. Known during the 1990s as the first destination-style techno happening between the two coasts, the ever-evolving parties, organized by Milwaukee-founded label and promoter Drop Bass Network, featured cult producers and DJs like Aphex Twin, Frankie Bones, Adam X, Thomas Heckmann, and Terry Mullan, in addition to hosting the first-ever US appearance of an upstart acidic electro-wielding duo named Daft Punk. In 1996, the pair only had a few tracks out in the world, but their appearance was heavily anticipated by a crowd that was braving a horrendous weekend of typical Spring Wisconsin weather. Daft Punk’s world-beating debut album, Homework, would be released a year later, with a photo of the boys on a drenched stage just outside of Spring Green gracing the CD booklet.
Since rebooting the festival in 2016, co-founder Kurt Eckes has remained mercurially committed to pulling off Even Furthur in more or less the same spirit as its early days. Returning to its present home in Highbridge, Wisconsin, where Eckes and his crew of volunteers have successfully established friendly relations with Ashland County’s tourism board, Even Furthur blasts off on August 8 and runs through August 12 with a potent lineup of meaningfully curated techno, ranging from returning legends to up-and-coming true believers to downright A&R coups; the standout acts include Woody McBride, Cruel World II (the duo of Felisha Ledesma and Baseck), Skinny Puppy co-founder cEvin Key, Twin Cities veteran DVS1, and The Mover. Ahead of this year’s Even Furthur, Eckes spoke with Tone Madison about the event’s history and how he’s tried to keep it current.
Tone Madison: Our readers love to find out about weird, off-the-radar stuff happening in Madison and beyond, so I have a feeling they would enjoy hearing from you about preparation for this year’s edition of Even Furthur and more about how it how this event came about in the 1990s.
Kurt Eckes: And that story is not a short one.
Tone Madison: I bet. I feel a little familiarity with the festival even though I’ve never gone. I grew up on the east coast, in the late ’90s I was going to a lot of punk and hardcore festivals and shows and stuff. As I’ve gotten into techno and dance and stuff like that, the ’90s rave scene out here seemed like such a faraway idea, but as I started to read back more into the history of Midwest rave, I’m realizing that it’s not totally different from what I was involved in. I mean, the music is completely different, but the spirit of it is really similar.
Kurt Eckes: Right. It’s funny you say that because that was similar to my background. In the ’80s, it was just punk and metal and then industrial into dance music. A lot of people that do this stuff this that’s where they came from. Especially being from Milwaukee too, which is just a darker, harder kind of town, musically. It was just a natural progression. That’s how we got a lot of our kids back in the ’90s from, was from those [local punk and metal] scenes, you know? That’s why we pushed the angle that we did, with like the darker imagery and the tongue-in-cheek stuff. It resonated with the people going to these parties because that’s the scene that they came from.
Tone Madison: I’m reading about how far people drove to go to the first Furthur (in 1994) and I’m thinking, “we used to drive from basically New Jersey to Ohio to go see punk bands play in a VFW hall.”
Kurt Eckes: When we started throwing parties in the early ’90s, they were just, you know, local events done wherever we could find a place to do them. The big things, the really cool parties, were not around here. So, sure, I drove to San Diego and San Francisco and New York multiple times, just to go to these cool bigger events and experience what that was like.
Tone Madison: And then you end up with that happening on a similar scale here, right? Where people were coming from Iowa, because they didn’t have anything going on in Iowa.
Kurt Eckes: Right, come on up here.
Tone Madison: San Francisco is one of the birthplaces of this type of scene, right?
Kurt Eckes: Well the sound is all originating from Chicago and Detroit but yeah, the style of the early San Francisco parties was a huge influence on us. The Wicked Crew. One of this year’s headliners is DJ Garth. He came over from England in the late ’80s, founded the Wicked Sound System [in San Francisco]. We were so into what they were doing out there, just as far as the culture goes.
Tone Madison: Can you go into more of the performers this year that have ties back to the original roots of the scene?
Kurt Eckes: I hate using the term “bucket list” or whatever because we don’t actually have a list, like, “Okay, who are all the people we never got to have play before we quit doing parties?” We did parties, just go-go-go, for close to 12 years. Once we rebooted the festival, l realized there was all this music that I wasn’t really appreciating as much I could have or should have. In the past few years we’ve had one or two artists that kind of fit that bill, like “This is someone we should have had in the ’90s if we’d done things right.” This year it just turns out that there’s several people on the bill that are major influences. Not intentionally, that’s just the way it turned out. Starting at the top with cEvin Key from Skinny Puppy. Anybody that got into industrial and dance music back then was into Skinny Puppy. Their whole stage presence, the darkness and the energy in their shows, all of it. I was a huge Skinny Puppy fan the late ’80s, so when we started doing our events, we applied some of those theatrics to what we were doing. I didn’t realize cEvin Key DJs, I just found out through a friend of a friend and it came together that way.
Tone Madison: What kind of stuff is he gonna play?
Kurt Eckes: I don’t know, really. I’ll leave it up to him. Our friend Baseck, who’s also playing this year, is good friends with cEvin. He schooled him on what our parties are like rather than just sending him in blind and just playing tracks he would normally play. Another co-headliners is this guy called The Mover, or Marc Acardipane. Our whole thing that we did during the ’90s was called “hardcore techno,” and then gabber and then just hard techno. The Mover had another alias called Mescalinum United, early on, and he has this track called “We Have Arrived,” which was basically the first hardcore techno track ever made. That’s the start. There was a record label out of the east coast called Industrial Strength, and the very first release they did was a licensing of that track. So he’s kind of the roots of this for us, but unfortunately when we were doing parties in the late ’90s, when we could actually afford to have a guy like him come over, he had moved on to this more “party-core” kind of stuff that we weren’t really into, and then he just went off the map. But now you have DJs like Nina Kraviz and Perc playing old Mover tracks, because you can play that stuff digitally and and slow it down to a tempo that will work, like 130 BPM.
Tone Madison: Yeah, some of his stuff I’ve heard is even kinda dreamy, almost.
Kurt Eckes: He refers to it as “arena,” with the big synths. Dreamy is a good word for it, but a very dark dream. It’s a big deal because he has never played in the United States as The Mover. It’s been four years in the making, getting him to come over and play. He’s excited, he’s been a fan of our label as much as we’ve been a fan of his and he knows what we do here. That’s how we are with a lot of our bookings, you know, we don’t just reach out to agents and say “Hey we want to book this, here is our offer.” We try to contact these people directly and say, “Hey here’s this event, this is what we do, what do you think?” You can tell right away if they’re into it. If they reply, “Well, what’s your offer?”
Tone Madison: Then they probably aren’t into it.
Kurt Eckes: Yeah. It’s not a big sanitized festival like a Coachella or something like that. They’re not going to get royal treatment when they come here.
Tone Madison: They’re not getting trailers.
Kurt Eckes: No artist trailers. No catering. You’re in the in the woods in Wisconsin and you’re playing for a crowd that’s been doing this for 30-plus years. You gotta want to do it, you gotta be into it. More often than not, that translates into these artists doing something really special for us. They know the crowd accepts them. We’re all making moments together, you know? Garth from the Wicked crew, they were some of the originators of U.S. rave, and back in the ’90s they had a big Greyhound bus they just toured the country with, so we never had them play because they were only able to play when they were touring, you know? They didn’t fly to gigs. So it never lined up. Sync, another headliner, is Woody McBride and DJ Hyperactive together. They helped start the Midwest scene with us. They’ve been involved since the beginning. They’ve done about a dozen releases for my label, but they haven’t played live together since the late ’90s. That’s gonna be one of those super cool things that’s unique to the event. We’ve also got DVS1, which is this guy Zak [Khutoretsky] from Minneapolis.
Tone Madison: Yeah, he played here in Madison a few years ago. One of the freakiest nights ever at the High Noon.
Kurt Eckes: Zak’s a Midwest guy who’s now a resident DJ at Berghain. He’s a huge deal in techno, someone we’ve been trying to get back for the past 4 years. But you know August is a hard month to book a party in the United States, since it’s festival season in Europe, and this year it finally worked out.
Tone Madison: Since these bookings are really special to people who have been involved in the scene for this length of time, I’m curious as a relative outsider about the crowd at the festival. Is it mostly made up of people that have been going to raves for decades? Is anyone younger?
Kurt Eckes: We’ll that’s what we’re up against. I wouldn’t necessarily call it the problem, but it’s the big challenge. It’s not accessible, in that it’s six hours away, and it’s not on an established festival grounds. When we brought it back in 2016, we billed it as a reunion, the 20th anniversary of the Daft Punk party. We had discounted tickets that year for what we called “old schoolers,” people who were 35 and older. We had about 2,500 people at that event and I’d say 60 or 70 percent of them bought those tickets. I was pretty shocked but you know, you get to the point in mid-life or whatever where you’ve got your job and your daily grind and you miss the carefree days of going to raves every weekend. This was the one time of the year where all these people were like, “Oh, we get to do this again!” But when we decided to keep doing it, we didn’t want to be billed as the “old person rave,” so we’ve kept looking to book more dubstep and bass music. It’s a real community here, and the crowd is interacting a lot more than at your typical concert. So we hope the older people and the younger people are hanging out together and spreading the message, like, “Hey bring some more of your friends next year.”
We’ve had people who maybe got a flyer outside of North Coast Music Festival or the Spring Awakening who come out and are like, “Holy crap, this is the real deal!” When we first did Even Furthur, it was the first event like this in the United States. There were big multi-day festivals in U. K. for years, but this is the original U.S. event that like all these other festivals can be traced back to. It’s raw and it’s real, there’s no corporate anything. It’s like a Burning Man for techno. I can’t think of any other way to put it.
Tone Madison: I’m curious about the DIY stages. So they run during the day and the headliners play at night?
Kurt Eckes: Yup. Since we’ve first started it, it’s always been a single main stage event. We spend a lot of money and time curating this one stage that we want everyone to experience, and not running around between 10 different stages. This is based on the acid tests from the ’60s: everybody was on the same trip, in a communal experience, in one spot, living one shared moment. The do-it-yourself soundsystems run the show from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then we do the main stage from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and that’s the only thing going on.
Tone Madison: So the DIY soundsystems are bringing in their own gear?
Kurt Eckes: Way back when, we’d just invite whoever, but it got to the point where 30 sound systems show up and it just sounded horrible. You could never get away from the volume, and there was overlap. When we rebooted it we decided to just pick eight of the crews that we can work with as promotional partners in the event and have them book the local DJs. They’re into it just as much as we are. The drum-n-bass guys are bringing up some huge soundsystems, walls of JBL speakers from Chicago. And some of their headliners are acts that could play, or have played, the main stage of the event. They go all out, and they don’t get much from us, they’re just doing it for the love of it. They’re selling tickets too, which funds their way up here.
Tone Madison: You aren’t paying them directly?
Kurt Eckes: It’s one of the cooler aspects of the event. People who have been going for years understand that the DIY soundsystems are doing it on their own, so they buy their tickets and merch from them directly as a way to support them. Everyone gets the idea that we’re all in this together.
Tone Madison: That’s a pretty brilliant way to divide up the promotional side of things too.
Kurt Eckes: Truthfully, when we did it in the ’90s, we would give the crews a couple tickets and just say, “Some of you are gonna get paid, but most of you aren’t.” But now, you’ve got soundsystems coming up where they’ve spent like $4,000 or $5,000 on their gear and we can’t have them not getting paid. Now they’re able to cover their costs, because people are paying for entry to the festival by supporting their particular crew. If I were a promoter just starting out now and I came out and said this is the way I want to do it, it wouldn’t work very well. But there’s 25 years of history tied to it, so it’s a big deal for people to tap into that history by being a part of it now.
Tone Madison: Speaking of history, let’s talk about Daft Punk for a minute. I’ve read a lot about it over the years and watched that footage over and over and it seems to me like it was an extremely cool experience, emerging from an extremely hellish environment. I’m curious what that felt like in the moment.
Kurt Eckes: It’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily realize it at the time, you know? That was when we really established our identity. We were no longer the kids that were going to parties and festivals on the coasts that we looked up to, we had it going on. Parties were starting to get big in the Midwest and you knew things weren’t going to be the same anymore. It was reaching that moment where we don’t know everyone here [at the festival] anymore. Hunter S. Thompson has a piece where he’s talking bout the moment in the sixties where there’s a crest on this wave, and it felt like that was our crest. For me personally, I remember standing in the middle of the dancefloor on Sunday night during Scott Hardkiss. Everybody talks about Daft Punk being the big thing that year, and it was…
Tone Madison: But they weren’t a big deal yet.
Kurt Eckes: Right, they became a big deal about a year later. People only knew a couple songs, so the tent really exploded when they played them. But Sunday night, after putting up with the rain and the mud, and all the people, and the hellish stuff you mentioned before. The people that were left by then, the quote unquote survivors, a real tight group. Scott Hardkiss is playing a super emotional set. That moment right there was when I realized, “Holy shit, it’s never gonna get better than this.” It wasn’t just me, this was written about by lots of other people in books and articles and stuff: it was just an electricity in the air, you didn’t even have to realize it was special, you just knew it was.