Dr. Yes: What first brought you to the playa?
Syd: Like many, my gate way to Burning Man was the SF underground dance music scene. I had already heard of Burning Man as early as '97 when some friends I worked with at a group home were going. But it wasn't really on my radar until I had started going clubbing in late 98' and heavily into '99 and 2000 when I was volunteering at Red Melon events and helping organize an intentional underground party called Radiance. That party grew from another underground called Gratitude organized by 'The Community' who were all very influenced by Burning Man communities and culture, as well as Landmark and later Arete.
Radiance always invited other communities to participate to create each party, so I got to know many SF crews and playa collectives. In addition, my first involvement in parties always were 'parties with purpose' and that's influenced me to this day. My friends Tamo and Fannie finally convinced me to go in 2001 and I camped with their group of friends called Garage Mahal, organized by Pleasure Sean and others. Great group of friends, amazing first Burn. I dove in head first, it was the first and only year I wasn't involved in a project, had no responsibilities and acted accordingly.
Dr. Yes: What were the sound camps like then? What were the major ones?
Syd: I remember distinctly standing in front of IllumiNaughty in 2001 on the 10:00 corner and being blown away at what they had created and brought out and set up. As if planting a seed to later overcome, I even remember thinking to myself "Wow I could never pull that off..." I also remember the neon maze at Xara, the Wizard of Oz motif at Emerald City and the small domes that made up Space Lounge. That was also the first year I believe the Space Cowboys Unimog had hit the playa for a full mobile party experience.
Dr. Yes: Why’d you found OT? What moved you to say to yourself, “I should definitely sign up to spend a significant portion of my time producing a sound camp?”
Syd: Haha if only I knew...
Well, in the summer of 2002 I had been laid off and used my severance to have time to help build the Garage Mahal Art Car under the direction of Captain Ken at this house & shop in Mill Valley. It was (and still is) a double decker bus built out of an Entemann's bread delivery truck. In '02 (pre-ubiquitous mega art cars), it was impressive! I also founded Opel Productions in 2002 originally as a vehicle to throw benefits for causes I supported around SF, and so also helped fundraise for it. It was early Burning Man project creation and fundraising practice.
Had a blast DJ'ing on the Art Car but wasn't very good at it yet, and was hungry to create my own manifestations of bringing people together, sharing art and music on a bigger scale than what the Art Car afforded. In 2002 I also met Rich Martin and Chris Sia. Chris was the leader (of sorts) of the Infinite Kaos (IK) performance and music collective when they still had their space on Taylor St. Rich, a fabricator and general mad scientist, worked with IK on their camp in 2002 building a huge steel pyramid and doing sound for them. Rich wanted to work on a new and bigger project for 2003 and approached me to get involved on the production and fundraising end to make it a proper sound camp on 10:00 along with Infinite Kaos. The theme of BM in 2003 was 'Beyond Belief', so to reflect the theme and the communities we called it the Opulent Temple (to reflect the spiritual implications of the Beyond Belief Theme) of Kaos (IK). Chris Sia named it, I later regretted the confusion it caused between my party throwing vehicle in SF (Opel Productions), and the Burning Man camp I was a part of (Opulent Temple). I didn't help by trying to help raise money for BM projects using the Opel name in early parties before I figured that needed to be separated better.
We were located at 10:00 and Creed and built a huge open air steel tension dome, as well as other art projects for the camp such as paper mache statues, a stage that never made it up, and fire lanterns that leaked kerosene. The Infinite Kaos crew lived up to their name, and we had a great time. Even in our first year, I was keen to bring in what I considered more interesting and higher tier talent than just SF / Burner locals, so I brought out Sandra Collins and Josh Gabriel (from Gabriel & Dresden), and IK had invited Tipper, Bassnectar, and others. Partly my motivation was just to be sure I got to hear the music I wanted to hear at Burning Man! Nothing worse than being high at Burning Man itching for a dance floor experience and not being able to find good music.
Dr. Yes: Did you know at the time how much work it was going to be?
Syd: The first year in 2003 was ideal cause my job was to fundraise, organize and book talent, things I was good at. The IK guys provided most of the labor to set the camp up and take it down so it was a nice way to ease into the beast that it became.
We've learned the hard way just how much work it can be because when you're full of great ideas and ambition, you have a tendency to to say yes to too many ideas, and every 'yes' is full of action steps, obligations, money promises and execution problems. We usually came out all right but we've also had some major project failures that were painful lessons.
Dr. Yes: Tell us about one of those failures?
Syd: The biggest was what I still call the 'weird year' of 2007, aka the bamboo disaster. Weird because Paul Addis tried to burn the man down on Monday night during the lunar eclipse, among other reasons. We had two projects to choose from to add to the production that year. One was a bigger version of the Synergy Dome we erected in 2003, and the other was an elevated stage that Rich had designed that was supposed to be in the shape of a star, aka the 'Star Stage'. Feeling that we wanted to push ourselves hard this year, and take 2008 off from any projects, we decided to do both. Spoiler alert - bad idea.
The stage was conceived to be a great platform for a large group of performers, as it provides, in many ways, an ultimate performance venue because it sits 10 feet above the crowd. It would be largely self funded by Rich (taking loans from anyone that would help, parents included), with about 25% of the costs shared by the camp. Out on the playa, due to a design snag, Rich decided to 'open' the stage and not enclose the 'star', though it was delayed getting up because of the problems with the Bamboo Synergy Dome..
The dome, this time made out of bamboo instead of steel, was supposed to be about a 100 feet in diameter. Myself and Dutch led the construction following the same design plans Rich devised in 2003, modified for the bigger size, at a warehouse in West Oakland. Simultaneously while one team was working at the Box Shop on the Star Stage, another dedicated team busted ass to get the bamboo dome pieces done, complete with a hellish night of loading the 50 foot truss pieces onto a flat bed semi trailer right before we left for the playa. On playa, lots of build challenges. Just when we thought we'd have to scrap it due to running out of time, we problem solved and were ready to lift. We used 2 patient cranes from Art Services, and our own forklift to bring it in the air. We were almost there.....
The Bamboo Dome is probably one of the all time great failed projects in BM history. During lifting, a rope got caught under a tire, a key truss broke, and the project was still possible but not safe so we chose to scrap it. Flushing $25k and a summer's worth of work down the drain. We kept the bamboo around a few years for a fence, a bar, etc, but we never had the heart to try again.
Dr. Yes: Ouch. Opulent was already legendary when I started coming in 2010, and it seemed to me that you guys and Root Society were the majors that ushered in the modern age of sound camps. How accurate is my perception there?
Syd: I credit Sol System in 2003 (the pyramids) and '04 ('Sol Henge' and sonic runway) and Lush in 2004 (that crazy twisting wood organic structure and all those palm trees) for kicking that off production wise. For the time, what both of them did in those years was huge and inspired the scale that we evolved in the on-going years. We did have the first (as far as I know) raised line array sound system on scaffolding that escalated the size of sound rigs people brought out.
As some of those earlier generation camps stopped coming, and OT and Root Society held down the corners from like 2006-2010 we both continued to elevate our games.
Dr. Yes: Did you know what OT would turn into? How was its first year compared to now?
Syd: Definitely not. I caught the creative bug that Burning Man sparks in so many. You see a costume, an art piece, a theme camp, etc and it inspires one to want to make and create yourself, and you follow that passion. I was really passionate about the SF underground dance music scene even before BM as a vehicle for spreading joy and therefore (if intentionally channeled), perhaps a force for good. And so once I got into BM and its creation and community spheres, I applied that ethos there too. And we just kept going, and as we rolled we added more talent, and with added talent comes added capabilities and ideas to continue to grow, evolve, create, and challenge ourselves. Meanwhile BM became more known to international producers and DJ's who play the world's biggest and best parties and they came to learn BM was an amazing place to play (except for the part where they had to play for free).
So through my efforts and the event's growth, we were able to host some of the biggest names in dance music and for better and for worse (there's definitely 2 sides), that's standard fare now at the event.
We've come so far, as has the event, that a sound camp with the level of production we had in '03/04 wouldn't even get placed now.
Dr. Yes: In 2005 you brought Tiesto, arguably the biggest DJ on the planet at the time, to play OT. You’ve had big names in the years since (Armin Van Burren, Infected Mushroom Skrillex, Diplo, Carl Cox, etc) but 2005 was way before Burning Man had entered the general consciousness. How the did you pull that off?
Syd: The trail blazing distinction of world class DJ's playing Burning Man belongs to Paul Oakenfold, who at the height of his popularity played for IllumiNaughty in 2000. (Rumors of Oakey playing BM again abounded my first year in '01, but he didn't come back until '05, same year as Tiesto). Tiesto has part of his claim to fame owing to Oakey putting his classic 'Silence' remix by Sarah McLachlan on one of his mix CD's, and I'm pretty sure Tijs (real name) knew about BM from Paul having gone. In 2005 he was touring for Gods Kitchen who had partnered with local West Coast promoter Spundae on some dates. I had worked with Spundae on some benefits and knew their team, one of whom was working with Tijs on shows and somehow they got talking about BM and she pointed him to me and Opulent Temple.
We also had Paul Oakenfold that year, who incidentally only came when he heard Tiesto was coming. (For more competitive than friendly reasons I think.) We got major shit from certain segments of the BM community because by virtue of them being popular, they are automatically too commercial for BM. We don't see it in that way. Being popular should not exclude one from participating at BM, as long as that participation is in the spirit of the event. Which -of course- it was, (ie., no one gets paid and they participate in the project in some way.) Given that the OT also exists to be a vehicle for a message, we see things that elevate the platform of the message (within reason) to be in line with our vision. Anyway, most of that comes from trance haters anyway so we take it with a big fat grain of salt. We also owe it to Oakey that it was him who told Infected Mushroom they should come and play for us, and they've returned many times and put on some of the most memorable performances at OT.
Dr. Yes: This might be a touchy subject, but do you get help from the Org in the way other artists do in the form of grants to help defray your costs?
Syd: We wish. We get nothing from the Org. We don't get tickets, we certainly don't get financial help. We aren't allowed to even apply for grants for new art pieces at our camp and be judged on the same merits that art pieces on the open playa can apply for. We don't get a thank you or a visit from any Org higher-ups to acknowledge in any way the massive contribution ours and the other sound camps make to the success of the event. Only Maid Marian [Burning Man's CEO] has ever said thanks, and made any moves to help us, but that was some years ago. We appreciate her for that, but overall the taste in our mouth when it comes to the Org is very bitter. They tolerate sound camps 'cause we drive ticket sales, but Larry in particular had disdain for what we did, wrote us off as 'the ravers', and last we heard, in our entire history had never come up to 10:00 or 2:00 at night to see what was going on and what we did and how many people were enjoying our offering. Too late now of course.
Of course there's awesome people who work for BM. The Governess has been (mostly) awesome, except the year she wouldn't place us cause we weren't interactive enough. That hurt because it took no account of our previous contribution, but was a heartless 'what are you doing for us this year' calculation. They don't want to treat sound camps like they're special, even though it could be argued - they are. Of course we know some Burners hate sound camps and how ubiquitous the 'thumpa-thumpa' has become with roaming art cars and not being able to escape the ever-lasting pounding bass, and I totally empathize with that sentiment too.
You learn to deal with it and remind yourselves the reason we do what we do has nothing to do with the Org. Of course it'd be nice if they tried to make our lives easier instead of harder. It's astounding we're (as in the sound camp community) all still here contributing in the ways that we do year after year. We are a big reason the event now sells out every year, because it is an international destination for dance music enthusiasts. But they just want to have their art festival while enjoying the financial resources the 'ravers' bring them. I also understand we bring them headaches with law enforcement. Overall they take us for granted because they can. If we stopped coming out, some other camp would take our place and while some within the Org might care, overall the 'Org' as a decision making body couldn't care less.
Now that there's an ego-driven millionaire / billionaire pissing contest around sound camps and massive Art Cars, the Org has even less reasons to support community driven camps like ours with limited resources.
Dr. Yes: So, how do you guys fund yourselves?
Syd: We are funded by our supporters who come to our events, camp members that pay dues, and 3 (literally) supporters who've made helpful donations when we've needed it because they believe in our vision. Our camp budget this year (which includes some year round storage costs that are considerable) is $196,664. This year we threw 11 fundraisers in 5 cities that raised $89,232. (Note - almost half of that was raised in one night when the very awesome and generous Seven Lions played for practically nothing at Mezzanine in SF in April). That party was an outlier in our annual fundraiser plan. Most events make $1500-$5000 so it takes a lot of events. We have 225 people paying dues + crew, production staff etc. In 16 years of OT going to BM, we've ended the week in the black on 3 occasions.
Dr. Yes: What do you think about the sound systems on the playa? What do you guys use?
Syd: I'm amazed (though by now I shouldn't be), at the quality of sound systems people bring out there because sound systems get pulverized in the dust and weather. Concert-level quantity and quality, on the big flat desert. We really have it so good for an incredible music experience to take place. OT's system this year is 20 L'acoustics V-DOSC tops and 24 L'acoustics SB218 subs. We pay a lot for our sound guys to bring it out (from Texas!), but we certainly don't pay close to market rate because they are awesome and believe in what we do and why we do it. (We've used the same sound company since 2006 every year).
Dr. Yes: One last question - you said your first year on the playa was the first and only year you weren't involved in a project. Would you ever like another year like that at Burning Man?
Syd: Not at all. In some respects I'm textbook Jaded Burner guy, and it's a wonder I've gone what will be 18 years in a row. It's the group of friends / community co-creating the annual project and the joy of that process that keeps me coming back. Everything else is diminishing returns.
I can’t emphasize enough that Opulent temple exists and continues to show up because of the awesome people on the core team. Great people, diverse skills and in it for the right reasons.
Dr. Yes: Thanks so much for this, Syd. See you in the dust!
I'm Dr. Yes, Professor of Affirmatology. Just say yes, folks!