Is Ultra Music Festival bringing dance music back to the Australian circuit? That's the narrative surrounding Road To Ultra Australia 2018, held exclusively in Melbourne's Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The one-day (and single-stage) event is a precursor to a full Ultra Music Festival roll-out descending on Melbourne and Sydney next year. Auspiciously, Road To Ultra (RTU) – with international DJ headliners like Axwell /\ Ingrosso, Afrojack, Carnage, KSHMR and Andrew Rayel – is sold-out.
Of course, the Australian scene does have credible, curated techno festivals (and the national, quasi-urban Listen Out). But the demise of Stereosonic left a vacuum for EDM. And, it transpires, far from dance music returning underground, EDM is as popular as ever. No attendee minds when, the day prior to RTU, it's announced on Twitter that Ingrosso can't make the date "due to unforeseen circumstances". Solo Axwell is a #god.
Ultra Music Festival launched on Miami Beach in 1999. The brand has since expanded globally – Australia continent number six. Next month, the flagship fest will celebrate its 20th anniversary with acts including Axwell /\ Ingrosso and Afrojack plus… Azealia Banks. RTU delivers as a spectacle with epic screens, lighting, pyrotechnics and cryogenics. Ultra even has its own dance troupe, the Ultra Angels (they're on Insty!). They provide something akin to an EDM Victoria's Secret show. The Myer Music Bowl may have a dowdy image but, at dusk, there's no venue like it for a major production. Ingeniously, RTU's VIP area on the balcony has a pop-up bar.
The day's opening DJ is Tokyo's Skrillex-endorsed Moe, followed by Tigerlily – who plays back-to-back with Mashd N Kutcher. Indeed, RTU has a healthy roster of homegrown draws – among them Timmy Trumpet and Will Sparks, who are now bona-fide internationals, placing in the influential DJ Mag Top 100 DJs Poll. Initially, Sparks is unrecognisable, wearing a hip Diplo-style man-bun. The Melbourne bounce stalwart is canny at self-promotion, too. During his set, staff distribute giant customised balloons and fans. However, the most curious micro-trend is the DJ-on-a-mic. Pre-EDM era, it was deemed uncool for a DJ to ever engage in stage banter (Moodymann excepted). Today it's part of a DJ's performance – as is periodically standing on the decks. EDM isn't preoccupied with pretentious divides between dance and pop beats, either. Many a RTU DJ drops a chart fave. Rayel, Moldavia's first global trance star, spins Everything But The Girl's Missing – or, rather, his remix of Mark Sixma's cover with Emma Hewitt.
Backstage, the RTU DJs prefer to give interviews pre-set (they unwind after). Sydney DJ/producer/trumpeter Timmy Trumpet (aka Timothy Smith) is attired in black, with shades, hat and smart Honolulu bomber jacket. But his most conspicuous accessory is a moon boot necessitated by injury (he's also been using a wheelchair). "We were in Denver a couple of weeks ago and I was on stage and then I was in hospital," Smith relates cheerfully. "Now I'm wearing a moon boot. It's not too bad, though – nothing broken; just some torn ligaments. In about six weeks, I'll be able to jump again." Smith's rebellious streak saw him booted out of the Sydney Conservatorium Of Music as a teen. Eventually, the instrumentalist embraced house music – and integrate DJing with trumpet-playing. Smith became a worldwide sensation on the back of 2015's Freaks, with the Kiwi rapper Savage. It's Ministry Of Sound's biggest-ever single. Nonetheless, Smith still jokingly describes himself as a "struggling jazz musician".
The DJ has used his recuperation period productively. "I've finished so much music. Normally I'm stressed about finishing but, with the injury and whatnot, I've finished most of it now. So the next few releases are ready to go. I've got a brand-new one with Vini Vici, who are these psy-trance gods in the industry – and to work with them was incredible. That drops in March."
Smith has a bold prediction for EDM. "What I'm liking is hardstyle – specifically reverse-bass hardstyle," he says, referencing the Dutch rave offshoot. "When I first heard Melbourne bounce, I liked that bass, but now it needs to be harder and bigger. I feel like what [The] Chainsmokers did – I totally applaud them, they're crossover and do that more chill-out vibe, it was really beautiful, Flume created that kinda genre and that sound – [but] now people wanna go harder. I think too many people have jumped on board that Chainsmokers thing, whereas I wanna do the opposite of what they're doing. I never liked [hardstyle] when I was young. [But] now I'm working with a lot of hardstyle acts and trying to combine the elements I like with them and trying something different." And, having played Ultra events internationally, Smith welcomes the franchise's takeover here. "It couldn't have come at a better time for dance music in Australia," he says. "I'm absolutely stoked."
The trap DJ Carnage (Diamante Blackmon) – sporting quirky white sunglasses with red lenses, heavy jewellery and an Adidas jacket – is also into disrupting EDM. The braggadocios Guatemalan-American, who shares his artist handle with a Marvel supervillian, even has fresh comic book inspo. "I'm the Black Panther of EDM!," he states. Blackmon has just released PLUR Genocide, a funky hardstyle collab with Steve Aoki and Lockdown. Considering that PLUR is the old rave acronym for Peace, Love, Unity, Respect, that single title offers provocative juxtaposition. "PLUR Genocide is just an amazing song – it doesn't go deeper than that," Blackmon maintains. "[But] everything is really stale – I'm just tired of everything being stale. Maybe from the way that I'm looking at it, everything's just stale and boring to me. So I thought I wanted to stir things up and piss a couple of people off." PLUR Genocide is the latest taste of Blackmon's upcoming sophomore, Battered Bruised & Bloody – which, he says, "is about to be one of the best electronic albums of years." The playful Blackmon flosses some more: "The first three singles are crushing it. I Shyne [with Lil Pump] had almost 15 million streams in less than a month!" In fact, Blackmon has acquired an impressive profile in hip hop. Last year, he and Young Thug unveiled the EP Young Martha. "Young Thug is one of the most amazing artists I've ever worked for," Blackmon praises. "He's so good – like talented; really passionate about his work." For all his swagger, Blackmon is a softie. The chat is interrupted as Sparks bounds up to bearhug him.
Late in the afternoon, Rotterdam's Afrojack (Nick van de Wall), pioneer of Dutch (electro) house, arrives backstage – towering in black T-shirt, jeans and gleaming white sneaks. He is jetlagged – graciously requesting a coffee and imploring that the bright lights be dimmed. Regardless, van de Wall is rapt to finally DJ in Australia again. "I'm not nervous, but I have no idea how they're gonna react," he says of his RTU slot. "It's gonna be like, 'Yay, Afrojack!' or it's gonna be like, 'Wait, who? Afrojack… how long ago was that?' So let's see." Ironically, as he chats, members of the production crew creep up just to behold his presence.
Though known for his tough EDM, the onetime Pitbull producer has just released the synth-laden single Bed Of Roses (featuring Stanaj), which Billboard called a "bedroom anthem". "I heard a lot of people say, like, 'Yeah, it's such a new sound – it's such a crazy sound,'" he laughs. "To me, it sounds very natural – it was very natural to produce. It's a bit on the lovey-dovey side, but I think the melodies are very beautiful and very sing-a-longable." Van de Wall has a steady studio partnership with David Guetta – the pair recently airing Dirty Sexy Money (featuring Charli XCX and French Montana). Years ago, he assisted Guetta on a Grammy-winning remix of Madonna's Revolver. Van de Wall's biggest solo remix is surely that of U2's Get Out Of Your Own Way, the Irish band consciously reinventing themselves. "I was talking to [U2's guitarist, The] Edge on the phone and he was very excited about it. When I started on the remix, I wanted to make something that they understand and, at the same time, [that] works at the festivals. It was very difficult to find the right sound. I think I spent four days – like 16 hours a day – just finding the direction and then another week for the mixing, while usually I do a song in one day. So this is a lot of time for me, but it was actually worth it. They were very happy – and my friends also really liked it. It's a good situation."
Minutes later, van de Wall hits the RTU stage with his MC, Ambush – and, magically, any vestiges of fatigue immediately fade. The DJ puts the 'bang' in 'banger' for the festival's most lit set. He sneaks in The Weeknd, a personal fave, and Daft Punk's One More Time. Towards the end, Ambush leads a chant of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie." There's a ticker tape shower.
RTU's last DJ is the media-shy Axwell – the most famous of the Swedish House Mafia (SHM) trio and its ancillary Axwell /\ Ingrosso. In December, he and Ingrosso unleashed an album, More Than You Know, via Def Jam. Surprisingly, the Swede goes back to his early '90s roots with driving warehouse techno. Axwell then veers into popdom with Post Malone's rockstar – and a mash-up of Kendrick Lamar's Humble and Quintino's Carnival. When he spins his own productions, the crowd sings along. And this rockstar knows how to close climatically: segueing from the Fugees' Killing Me Softy into Axwell /\ Ingrosso's euphoric Sun Is Shining. Fireworks erupt on the hill above the amphitheatre. "Dance music is back in Australia right now!," Axwell declares. Did it ever really go?