EDM music / Backstage at Southeast Asia’s only underground electronic festival

By: Amanda Kaufmann - Posted on: April 2, 2019 | Culture & Life

Three years ago, a group of Russian club owners started a small festival on the shores of Phu Quoc, Vietnam, with the aim of introducing international DJs to the region. Now with 37 Southeast Asian DJs in the mix, the 11-day fest has turned into a truly international cross-cultural exchange

Art installation at Epizode 2019 Photo:Jessica Cariad Hopkins
Art installation at Epizode 2019 Photo: Jessica Cariad Hopkins

High above the clear blue shoreline of Vietnam’s most popular tourist island, atop long, spindly legs three metres high, stand four elephants. They amble along, emulating the movement of the beach’s party-goers, catching the sound of dance music emanating out to the water from four separate stages along the beach. The people below also spend the day – and night – absorbing the music of DJs from around the world, while dancing on the beach, swimming in the ocean, or lazing in a hammock in one of the artfully created nooks.

Sculptures dot the path along the beach that winds its way from stage to stage. At first one may not notice the egg-shaped bungalow nestled in a tree, or the DJ stage tucked inside a conical seashell shape. That’s because almost all of the additions to the beach that were built for the festival were made of bamboo and designed to blend into the natural environment. A path finds its way between what seems to be two natural rock surfaces, but at second look are the divided head of a Buddha. Above the bar on one end of the beach is an intricately-designed series of bamboo hallways connecting cozy seating areas strewn with oversized throw pillows that provide some respite from, as well as a view of, the mad party below.

Over 11 days, people from all over the world wend their way up and down the beach to see acts that are carefully scheduled across the venue’s four stages to complement each other from morning to the wee dawn. Daytime yoga on the beach takes place next to the frisbee-shaped stage where the more restive lay down or look out to the sea and take in the penetrating hum of minimalist electronic music reverberating from the speakers. In the darkness of night a massive lightshow befitting a stadium concert cuts across the sky above the large central stage where a popular hardcore DJ plays. To its side, a smaller stage under the glow of light-up, egg-shaped orbs plays to a smaller crowd who would prefer a more experimental sound. As the sun rises, a DJ takes over another small stage to bring deep house to the sizeable handful of people who are not ready to stop dancing.

There are no rules or a prescribed way to best enjoy this festival. The attitude is very much of children being given access to a playground and letting their hearts and imaginations take it from there. The schedule divides the week into “chapters”, each led by an inspiring quote from a movie, as if each day is its own step of a journey to enlightenment.

All of these details are meant to holistically combine music, movement, visual arts, and nature into one experience that encourages attendees to be not merely a spectator but an active participant. Originally dreamed up by a Russian nightclub investor who wanted to spread his wings and try a new challenge on the international level, the undertaking involves hundreds of people – including 140 DJs performing – from around the world in a variety of professions.

Before, during, and after the event’s third instalment, Epizode³, Southeast Asia Globe caught up with the people who organised and performed at the fest to get their take on the electronic music scene in the region and where Epizode fits in.

Coming up

Sunju Hargun: I guess with dance music, Europe has always been the destination for parties and festivals for many years. Even for someone like me and my colleagues and my friends, we’ve been trying to push this music in Asia for more than ten years now. In the beginning, we struggled a lot because of the acceptance part. You know, “we can’t accept this music yet. We still need to find a way to accept it,” but in the meantime, all this mainstream music still wins. I like that they have also discovered that Asia’s scene is still so young and so fresh, but still so far ahead in its own time. Asia’s electronic scene has been there, has been present in Asia. It’s just that nobody has discovered it, and nobody has brought it out.

Mikhail Danilov: Epizode is a bridge connecting Russia and all Europe with Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We are creating a platform for a dialogue between cultures. Epizode helps us to understand each other better. This is, perhaps, the main message of the festival. We want to get away from the concept of “music festival”. Epizode is much deeper and more conceptual. The essence is in the desire to combine electronic music and contemporary art, to develop the creative side of the festival. Epizode³ is conceived as a gathering point, a community for all lovers of modern art, music and travel from all over the world.

Artem Kharchenko (Tyoma): As the title says, Epizode is meant to be a cinematic experience, where we call the lineup – soundtrack and visitors, actors or directors – where everyone can create their own scenario. So chapters are sequels of episodes of the movie; quotes we place on the artwork are also from movies. The festival is created as a parallel universe.

Gorana Romcevic: We doubled the previous year’s attendance with more than 10,000 people from 79 countries. We welcomed 140 artists playing on four stages, including some of the greatest worlds’ and regional names.

Sunju Hargun: They’ve come in here and said “Okay, we know that Asia’s had a longtime experience with this music. We’re going to take it all and manifest it and blossom it out.” I mean it’s so nice. They’ve come with the right intention, and I like how they’ve not neglected locals and regionals. They’ve brought people together; they’ve brought us artists together with Russian artists, together with European artists. It only encourages inspiration, you know. Meeting new people. It’s like when you go somewhere – somewhere new that you’ve never been to before – and you meet strangers and you make new friends: it teaches you a lot about yourself. So I like that they’ve gone more personal.

Ocean Lam: And they also have a stage for the regional artists which is also really nice. So you can feel that they want to get people together. Not just throw a festival with a lot of big stars. It’s quite warm vibes, I would say.

Artem Kharchenko (Tyoma): Our goal is to become a winter meeting point of clubbers and industry people, and to showcase the regional scene as much as possible while growing in the same time with it.

Ocean Lam: I’m very happy what it [Asia’s electronic scene] is right now because it only happened last five to six years. Before it was really like each place was its own thing. So like the last couple of years it’s getting stronger and stronger, the community.

Zig Zach: You know it’s a very small scene for electronic music in Asia in general. It’s a very new thing. It needs to grow, and everybody needs to grow together.

Sunju Hargun: It’s evolving in a different kind of way because different communities joined together to build different experiences. Like in Vietnam especially. What I believe is that Vietnam has had a music presence for a long time but obviously given the politics and current system of the country, it’s quite difficult to put on large events because the government and the culture don’t understand it. Not from that background. Look at Amsterdam and what they’re doing. They’re so far ahead; they’re doing outdoor parties in the streets with techno music or house music. We couldn’t have that culture because the old generation doesn’t understand it. So it’s nice now that slowly things change, but yeah, it’s coming to a good point.

Weng Weng: In China they had two waves. One wave started in 1996-1997, when I was beginning to DJ. So during that year, electro music was just coming. Some foreign students and our friends, they [started to] make really great underground parties, underground parties in the basement. So, really fucking cool, the feeling, you know. Because it’s a new sound for everybody – for the local people, [and] also because it was 1996, it was for the European people. It was a new sound, too: acid techno and tech house. So we were really excited about that because it was a new sound…. Second wave is I think 2000, from the start of 2000. It’s since grown up really fast.

Zig Zach: The music scene in Singapore is really, really good. We’ve had a really amazing scene because we’ve had Zouk. Zouk is one of the oldest clubs in Singapore. It’s been voted like top ten clubs or something in the world. So we’ve had that club for twenty or thirty years maybe. We’ve had ZoukOut festival which was the first beach festival in Southeast Asia. It used to be very much electronic underground techno festival and then it kind of slowly changed. They needed the numbers, they needed to branch out, they needed more EDM acts. So it’s changed a lot. So there’s only really Epizode that’s only underground acts.

Art and Progress

Mikhail Danilov: The first Epizode was kind of a trial; we tried to understand the prospects of the festival, worked out the logistics and format. The second Epizode impressed for real. We attracted famous artists to participate. We achieved that the public believed in us. We collected good mass media. The third Epizode reinforces this success. We have finalised the concept of Epizode and the festival this year should “show the good face” as we say.

Sunju Hargun: It’s my third year. [It feels] like a family. It really does. I’ve never felt so connected especially with like-minded people that share similar interests. We wake up and breathe the music every day. It’s such a beautiful thing to see that on such a scale as this, you know…. It’s just nice to be welcome and being here since the first year has made me feel that. It’s just the beginning. The moment I met the crew for the first time – it’s, like, instant.

Zig Zach: This is my second year coming to Epizode. Yeah, like I said, it’s slowly evolving and you can see there’s more diversity in the crowd, also the regions that are being connected and working with as well. I think last year we didn’t really have much representation from China and this year we’ve started to see Chinese DJs and clubs coming down to work, kinda connecting everyone.

Weng Weng: I have been to many festivals in China. But they make huge stages, even at the EDM festivals. So I like this kind of decoration. They’re outside, really close to people, close to the natural. Not only a show for the people who say, “We are the superstar.” I don’t go [much] to other Asian countries, but to compare here to China sometimes they go the wrong way. They make everything bigger. Everything is big. But the people cannot feel themselves. They cannot feel natural, cannot relax. Only the view [makes “in your face” gesture].

Sunju Hargun: The beautiful part is, since I’ve been playing at Epizode, the art has increased. My buddy was just saying it’s amazing how they’ve evolved with their art as well. So they’re bringing in artists from Russia. Did you see the shell stage? That was the entrance to the festival last year. It was the pathway from the gate to the beach…. It’s beautiful. So cool. It looks like a tunnel, like a void, going in.

The Salvador Dali elephants – that was the first one. They’ve been there since the first one. It was the first art installation in the first year.

Artem Kharchenko (Tyoma): At first glance, the installations are all very diverse – from the most futuristic to more natural. But we seek to build everything so that the art objects harmoniously combine with the tropical landscape and local Vietnamese flavor. Epizode is [filled] with peculiar sculptures, light installations, recycled art, interactive objects and a whole bunch of even more.

‘For DJs by DJs’

Artem Kharchenko (Tyoma): We are bringing something new in this region, starting from the music selection, to the length, artistic moment. Some people haven’t been familiar with some of the artists from the lineup, and that’s one of our goals – to bring something new, to educate and bring variety to the regional scene.

Ocean Lam: The people who are coming for the music are really into it. Like, after I finished my set, I walked over everywhere and everyone was like “Oh your set was so good!” So many people find me on Facebook [and] I don’t know them. Or on Instagram. “Oh, here you are! I really like what you play!”

Zig Zach: The only other festival is Wonderfruit which is in December. It’s like a 4-day festival. It’s a bit more eco-friendly. They talk about sustainable living, being a little more conscious, woke, so it’s a bit more a hippy kind of festival. It’s cool, but this is more about partying. It’s more about music; it’s all about music really. So it’s very different. The crowd here are coming for the lineup, for the DJs…. People are very clued in about music and it’s really amazing as a DJ because it’s very fulfilling for us to play for an appreciative crowd. You know – people who understand the music, understand what we’re trying to do, like telling a story with the music or trying to take you on a journey. When you have people who react to it, then it’s really, really soul-filling. It’s like “wow! that’s so amazing.”

Sunju Hargun: They run a festival that is curated by DJs, who are DJs – professional, quality DJs that I look up to so much since I met them.

Zig Zach: The Epizode team, they’re all DJs. All the people who run the things are all DJs, so they have a really good understanding of music. They have a good understanding of what needs to be put into the event. And as a clubber, because they’ve been partying for years, you know. So it’s a music festival for DJs by DJs. They’ve covered everything for us.

Sunju Hargun: Music is just experience on a whole other level. It really is. And this is why I love Epizode. I get the same feeling from them. They’re very passionate and they really want to make sure that everyone is happy.

Artem Kharchenko (Tyoma): Music is my main job since I was 18; started out as a DJ, then producer, then event organiser. Due to the fact I’m on both sides of the stage, I know all aspects of this job, and it helps one to each other a lot. I know how the artists think and feel, as well as crowd, artists, everyone involved. Both experiences are just priceless.

Sunju Hargun: By being in Asia, they learn something new from the culture over here, which is great as well, you know. Coming from Russia, coming from Europe and stuff. They come to Asia and they experience Asian culture, so that’s great to have that side of it as well. Plus we experience their culture. Build bridges and share bonds and you create experiences.

Ocean Lam: In terms of the lineup etc. this is the quality shit. Yeah, yeah. This is the one!