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Add Holy Ship to your list of unmissable dance music experiences.
Words: Duncan Dick
Photos: Rukes.com/ Dave Vann
"It’s a three-day party on a cruise ship, with DJs and music and, erm, things like that.” Mixmag is on a shuttle bus on the way to Port Everglades in Florida. We’re surrounded by mix of beefy security guards and tattooed roadies, first- aiders and film crew, all wearing their Holy Ship T-shirts. Oh, and a friendly tanned couple in their 60s, cameras round their necks and guidebooks poking out of their matched luggage, who don’t quite know what they’ve wandered into. “Oh right,” smiles the lady of the pair in relief, and leans in conspiratorially, “I thought maybe it was some kind of religious cult.”
Not quite, but ‘three day party on a cruise ship’ doesn’t quite do Holy Ship justice either. This might be only its second year of existence, but Holy Ship can be added to the clubber’s ‘bucket list’, alongside things like a week partying in Ibiza, Creamfields, Berghain, Glastonbury and Burning Man. The ship sets sails for the Bahamas today, a few days after New Year, with a line-up of DJ talent that would make most big festivals jealous, plus 3,000 committed party people. This is big.
The MSC Poesia, Holy Ship’s floating fun palace for the next three days and nights, is a hugely impressive sight. At 92,627 tons, 6o metres tall and 300 metres long, its 16 decks loom over the dock like a gleaming city block.
Friday is spent getting people on board and acclimatised, a painless process that involves checking in, trading your cash for drinks tokens and, later on, grabbing the lifejacket from your cabin’s wardrobe and heading to the assembly point to learn the emergency drill. Food is included, from sit-down service in two restaurants to burgers and salads in the cafeteria.
At 7pm the ship slowly, smoothly, pushes off. At first the its motion adds a slightly disorienting edge to everything, from striding down the long ribbons of corridor to sitting at the bar. This can be negated by drinking several Long Island Iced Teas in a row and joining everyone on board for the party on deck. Major Lazer begins with one Holy Shipper on the mic proposing to his girlfriend – and just gets crazier from there on. Next up, A-Trak (who finishes with the theme from Love Boat) and Boys Noize set the tone with kinetic sets full of technique.
As Justice take over, hot rain starts strafing the decks, a reminder that we are on a huge cruise ship chugging through the tropical sea. The crowd welcome it with upstretched arms, the tech crew with towels and plastic sheets for the equipment. As if by design, it ceases the second the beats of their first tune kick in.
A jet-lagged Mixmag heads for our cabin for a quick shower and regroup, thus missing the first ‘Holy Shit!’ moment of the cruise, when an unannounced and super-secret Skrillex takes to the decks. He pops up everywhere during the weekend: a Holy Ship enthusiast and de facto ship’s mascot.
By this time the ship’s four inside venues are in full effect, and will stay that way ’til 6am. In the Zebra Bar (a plush lounge amidships upholstered in silver and white stripes), the ‘Tight And Bright’ theme night builds through Oliver and Rory Phillips to Skream and friends’ ‘80s Prom Night Anthems’. In the S32 Disco the Dirtybird crew are in charge. Nadastrom, Crookers and Baauer’s ‘Rump Shakers’ party rules the opulent red velvet Pigalle lounge on deck 7, while Knife Party, Zedd and Kill the Noise helm a full-on rave in the Teatro ampitheatre that fills almost the entire prow of the ship.
The last thing we witness on Friday night is an impromptu takeover of the main stage on the top deck by Justice, Brodinski, Gessafelstein and friends. With most of the revellers downstairs for Knife Party, they take turns to outdo each other in the dark stakes, dropping everything from Nine Inch Nails to The Horrorist to a small but ecstatic crowd.
Waking in your cabin with the curtains closed you could easily be in a hotel room. Then something comes along to jolt you back to reality. “My name is Captain Buzzkill!” declares a voice over the PA before reeling off a series of ‘Don’ts’, each one finishing with a chorus of ‘Respect the ship!’ This morning we’re moored alongside several giant floating palaces at the harbour in Nassau in The Bahamas. Hundreds disembark to sample the beaches on Paradise Island, drink cocktails out of coconuts and (in the case of Mixmag), forget to put sun block on our feet and burn them bright red.
Back on board, things are getting random. A floating DJ pops up in odd areas with his soundsystem and decks. Diplo has organised a ‘scavenger hunt’ onboard, with partygoers given a list of missions to accomplish including getting a mullet from Tommy Trash, slow-dancing with Skream and drawing a portrait of A-Trak in ketchup. New York tech-house DJ Gina Turner is hosting a yoga class on the tennis court up on deck, next to Dillon Francis’s ‘Second Annual Single Malt Invitational’ on the crazy golf course. We’re starting to see Holy Ship as a big festival, folded up and assembled like flatpack furniture. This thought is slightly confusing.
We meet up with Destructo, aka Gary Richards, who besides smashing up various arenas with his mixture of thrashing techno, house and electro (his ‘Technology’ track on Boys Noize Records is perhaps the most caned tune of the trip) also happens to be the creator and driving force behind Holy Ship itself.
Gary has been DJing for 20 years and has built up his company HARD over the past six to be one of the biggest promoters in the US, running the huge annual HARDfest in LA. Despite this, he says he still feels like an outsider, a supporter of alternative, fresh dance music rather than whatever’s hot. It’s a philosophy reflected in his programming. “I’m trying to teach these kids that there’s more to it than just the banging stuff. [Because Holy Ship] sells out before we announce DJs, I can book new talent, bring through new stuff, without the pressure.” Certainly the line-up, while containing plenty of huge commercial draws like Skrillex, Zedd and Knife Party, is no EDM fest. Best of all, the fact that no-one has to shoot off straight after their set to catch a plane, and the camaraderie between the HARD stable of DJs and the carefully chosen newcomers means DJs can get back to the thing they love best: playing records to their mates and drinking heavily.
The inspiration for Holy Ship, Gary says, was a German techno cruise he went on in 1997. It’s only recently, though, that he’s been in a position to make his long-held dream a reality. “It’s a multi-million dollar endeavour. To rent this boat you have to give them one million dollars. If we don’t sell out we’re fucked!” This year the 3,000 tickets were sold out in the first day, with a 30,000-person waiting list. Priority is given to those who came on last year’s inaugural event, says Gary, to help the community vibe – “they get first option on tickets and a special payment plan.” This loyalty is rewarded by the effort each shipper puts in to their participation: by nightfall, the costumes come out for tonight’s ‘Haunted Ship’ theme, from the ghost pirate crew to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Three thousand people in varying states of undress pack the shoreline of Great Stirrup Cay’s private beach, a long crescent of golden sand set against a turquoise bay. The ship is moored on the horizon, about a mile out to sea (we got here aboard waterbuses, 2–300 at a time). From the DJ booth Brodinski warms up the crowd with a swinging hip hop set, before A-Trak takes over, launching a pinyata into the crowd to be ripped apart in search of the ‘Fools Gold Golden Coozee’ (nope, us neither). Everyone is here, including Jens and Isi from Digitalism whom we last met at the Mixmag DJ Lab a couple of weeks back (“We’re a long way from your office now!” grins Isi), and US up-and-comer Twelfth Planet “the first day was tough, but I’ve become a full seaman now”).
As a helicopter starts to buzz the beach, photographer hanging out the side door like a machine gunner in a Vietnam movie, Diplo is up. Kicking off with ‘Au Seve’, he drops a moombahton-heavy set that’s squeakier than a mouse in a balloon factory. He has fun with the crowd – when not telling them to all splash in the water at the same time, he’s exhorting the girls to ‘shake their ass and titties’ as the song instructs. Later he tells Mixmag of an unexpected distraction during his set. “There was a couple having sex on the beach!”
Justice appear, standing out among the flip-flops, shorts and tees in the same double-denim and leather that they wear for every gig, and proceed to play one of the most perfect party sets that Mixmag has ever heard, a French Touch tour-de-force, from Phoenix to Daft Punk to Alan Braxe. When they drop the Fresh Prince’s ‘Gettin’ Jiggy With It’, it just might be the greatest moment of the trip.
Back on board later, and despite the exertions of the beach party, tonight everyone is going hard, wringing maximum juice out of their last night. The Moombahton Massive has taken over the Zebra Lounge and turned it into an anything-goes sweatbox. Every tune, from heaving rollers to rave classics, is sliced and diced and chopped up for maximum bass-face. As Dillon Francis finishes up with Daft Punk’s ‘Digital Love’, Skrillex turns up, trailing a 20-strong entourage like a comet. Nadastrom asks the crowd to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his wife before Sonny takes to the mic to inform us that ‘These guys invented moombahton, this is big!”.
In the Teatro, Baauer and Boys Noize are throwing an impromptu hip hop party. The Pigalle Lounge has been taken over by L-Vis 1990 and Bok Boks’ Night Slugs label crew and draws a curious crowd. Here we meet one of the furthest-travelled Holy Shippers, Rob, who has come all the way from Anchorage in Alaska. Last year his friends brought the then-reluctant dance music virgin along, and now he’s back, a changed man. “Next month I’m playing my first set in my local club,” he tells us.
We see out the night at the Disco, at the Destructo And Friends party; it not only feels fitting, but we decide the club’s rearward location somehow means the party will last longer. We’re rewarded with the surely once-in-a-lifetime sight of Claude VonStroke playing back-to-back with Skrillex.
The decanting of 3,000 partied-out Holy Shippers at 7am the next morning off the ship and through US customs is as gruesomely traumatic as it sounds. But all religions require sacrifice, and Holy Ship is no exception. Praise be!