This year when I got back from Coachella and people asked me who my favorite act was, I had to consistently try to explain that it was not in fact an artist, but a sound system slash immersive musical experience that I felt was impossible to put into words.
It was Despacio, a 50,000-watt sound system developed by James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), Stephen and David Dewaele (of Soulwax/2ManyDJs) in partnership with high-end audio manufacturer McIntosh and audio engineer John Klett. In short, it’s a musical experience unlike any other.
From L to R: Stephen Dewaele, David Dewaele, James Murphy; Image: Ellis Reid, Despacio
In the days after Coachella ended, I waited patiently for my favorite music sites and news outlets to publish articles lauding how spectacular Despacio was in the desert, but I found just two articles, neither of which were able to quite capture my feelings. Last weekend, Despacio made its second ever appearance on US soil at Panorama Festival on Randall’s Island in New York City. I expected the Internet to be flooded with articles about this magnificent sound system, but mentions were short and few and far between compared to the coverage of the other acts.
So, I decided that it was time for me to finally attempt to put the splendor of Despacio into my own words, despite previously deeming it impossible. And, given the lack of photographic evidence that my friends and I managed to collect as a group, on a personal level it felt necessary to try to document this transformative musical experience.
Here goes nothing.
Let’s start with some basic facts. Despacio is made up of seven, 11-foot speaker towers that surround the intimately sized, circular-shaped room and the crowd – typically less than 1000 people. It’s a vinyl-only sound system with 4.5 tons of amplification. It means “slowly” in Spanish. It’s beautiful.
Image: Rod Lewis, Despacio
Instead of your usual club set up where the DJ spins on a highly visible stage as people dance (but mostly watch the DJ), Despacio itself is the main attraction. Murphy and the Dewaele brothers remain nearly out of sight in a low lit space on the outskirts of one side of the room. They’re back there, rummaging through crates of records, drinking wine, and doing their thing (for hours on end, back to back) while the audience is focused purely on the music and people around them – a dance party in it’s truest, purest form.
When we walked in for the first time, we were immediately transfixed by the sheer physical beauty of the speaker towers.
Image: Jenna Starkey
Then of course, there was the sound. Every noise, rhythm and instrument was crystal clear and perfectly balanced in a way I never thought could be possible in a room filled with hundreds of people. It was loud in all the best ways, but with none of the ear-ringing that happens after exiting a regular night club. For a more technical explanation on how the speakers were engineered to perfection straight from Despacio’s creators, watch this short video.
I could hear every sonic detail – with percussion, guitars riffs, vocals and certain electronic instrumentations being particularly out-of-this-world vibrant. Songs like Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (which I’ve heard hundreds of times before) sounded like completely new pieces of music while emanating through the Despacio speaker towers. I was nearly hypnotized during the sections of the set that were literally just bongo drums – it was as if someone was playing the drums right next to me, only with more richness than seemed possible in real life. And in the middle of a not too overly crowded, climate controlled dance floor with a massive disco ball that was undeniably Coachella’s best kept secret. For lack of better words, I was in heaven.
And the music. I could go on for hours – and we did stay in Despacio for hours on end throughout the weekend. Everything felt like it was chosen with such care and craft, to delight and surprise us song after song after song. The eclectic mix of music showcased just how impressive this sound system really is, and the depth of sound it creates. Genres ranged from disco, soul and 70s/80s dance tracks (and a seemingly constant homage to the Talking Heads) during Murphy’s components, to techno, acid house and electronic styles during the Dewaele brothers time on the decks.
As they mention in their interview with B.Traits on BBC Radio 1, the Dewaeles play tons of their own edits of records they’ve amassed while traveling the world. So much of what we heard in Despacio doesn’t really exist anywhere else except in their personal collection. Thus the sets were a unique paradox of being some of the most memorable DJ sets I’ve heard in my life, while simultaneously some of the most elusive.
The sets were filled with some of my favorite tracks that I could barely believe were being spun in such an exquisite environment, mixed with hours of deeper cuts I’d previously never heard but sent me into soaring into euphoria. I’m fully convinced that these men are not only expert curators and song selectors, but potentially actual sorcerers. It was if they knew exactly what we wanted, better than we even did, and handed it to us hour after hour.
“We played all these tracks we can’t really play normally in clubs”, David Dewaele told WIRED magazine in this 2013 interview feature. “You can’t really play Steve Miller in front of 10,000 people at a festival. It just doesn’t work. But if you are in the right environment and you have a Serbian disco track with an amazing percussion and the right sound system, then it works”.
And let me tell you, it really really works.
Be sure to check out Lineup #98 for a playlist featuring music from Despacio and some of our most memorable moments.
Sources used to write this post (and more reading/listening material):
Despacio: the 50,000-watt sound system designed for discerning audiophiles – WIRED, November 2013
Despacio: Powered by McIntosh – McIntosh Labs
Inside James Murphy and 2ManyDJs’ Insane Audiophile Soundsystem – SPIN, July 2014
Inside Despacio, James Murphy and 2manyDJs’ dance music utopia – The Verge, April 2016