On a Wednesday night at the Palace, a lanky man dances behind a big screen as swirling, colorful shapes project onto his silhouette. A couple sits tucked away at the bar sipping cocktails. A hula hooper swivels under sea-green lights in the middle of the otherwise-empty dance floor. When the hoop tumbles to the ground, he steps back into the shadows to take a break. On stage, Holly Fry, aka DJ HauLi, stands in front of another screen that's pulsating with bright geometric shapes. She is bumping to the rhythm of the music, changing out CDs as she layers one song on top of the other, matching beats. She thrusts her arm in the air with her lips slightly curled in a badass punk-rock sneer, as a voice comes on the speakers, singing over and over, "I can't breathe.'" Somehow her set seamlessly veers from a tribute to Eric Garner to Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It," before she speeds up the tempo like a record going from 45 to 78 RPMs and, finally, ending the musical stream of consciousness on a snippet of the Darth Vader theme song.
"I like to come up with different moods for each set," Fry says. "I've always been a maker, creating things. This is kind of like being a collage or mixed-media artist. You're taking two to however many different sounds and creating one sound in this seamless sort of fashion. The crowd hears one thing when it's really pieces of other people's creativity."
Fry's set is part of Milkcrate Wednesdays, hosted by Travis Mendenhall, aka The Milkcrate Mechanic, a weekly showcase of new and veteran DJs from Missoula and elsewhere. From an outsider point-of-view, it's maybe not what you think of when you imagine live electronic music shows with laser lights and the surging sweaty masses of, say, GirlTalk. Milkcrate is the equivalent of a DIY punk show at the VFW: some nights turn into mad dance parties and others stay mellow. Either way, it's more of a clubhouse basement vibe than a show. It's intimate and collaborative.
- photo courtesy of Keaton Foley
Fry, 37, is one of several veteran DJs who has been part of the evolving electronic music scene in Missoula. The first generation of the town's electronic DJs emerged in the early 1990s. Now they're grown up, many with families and professional jobs, but still with a love for EDM music and culture. That shift in age has widened the scope. Yes, late-night dance parties, rogue shows in warehouses or in the woods, and the pursuit of sick beats continue to be strong characteristics of the scene. But the older generation of DJs and promoters—along with younger associates—have had the chance to hone their mission over the years, to create a fairly unified music community and cultivate a scene that feels just as grown up.
One significant move toward a more developed electronic music community is the establishment of the Digital and Analog Technologies Conference. DAT, which premiered last year, is the brainchild of longtime promoters Tara Emery and Logan Foret. It's three days of music, film screenings, panel discussions and art shows centered on all things electronic. DJs like Fry and Mendenhall participate both as performers and panelists.
"We focus a lot on the intersection between art and electronic music," Emery says. "And that's one aspect of electronic music that doesn't come to Missoula as much as the other stuff. We have artists who are innovators in live audio visual performances and a lot of times they've invented these techniques themselves. There's definitely an academic element to it."
Emery first got connected to the scene through booking shows at The Other Side and The Loft (now Flathead Lake Brewing Co.). She became a true "techno lifer" after visiting Burning Man in 2007. She started going to festivals around the country, including the Decibel Festival in Seattle and Communikey in Boulder. Recently, she spent two weeks in Europe investigating several EDM festivals there. Her intent has been to bring urban electronic culture to what is usually a community focused on the outdoors.
"We have a bit of urban music culture here that we are trying to expand upon," she says. "Some of it is really techie—a lot of analog modular synth that wouldn't necessarily be pulled off in a lot of the outdoor festivals we're used to here."
She and Foret have also reached out to the community, including the University of Montana's sonic arts program, to help with the education component of DAT.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- DJ HAuLi started playing electronic music for Dark Dreams in the early 2000s.
"I feel like Missoula is a rock town and always has been, which is great too, but we are trying to educate people about how there's more to dance music than the shitty EDM that's on the radio," she says.
The conference is intended as a place for everyone in the EDM scene to come together, but it specifically looks for ways to include an older generation who spent their younger years at all-night shows and are perhaps a little burned out. After-hours parties are a given, but the conference also includes a daytime soiree at Caras Park with kid-friendly dancing and yoga, a group float down the river and evening mixers.
"The amount of positive feedback that we got from members of the community that did attend last year was huge," she says. "For the people who came from all over the country, it was something different. We kind of used the city and all its venues to almost tell a story as this weekend-long tapestry."
The second annual conference takes place July 31 through August 2. This time, Emery says, they will offer more classes for women taught by women and programs oriented toward a younger crowd. Women DJs were rare in the early days for Missoula electronica. And while they are still perceived as being in the minority, their presence in the local scene is another thing that sets Missoula apart.
Before Fry became known as DJ HAuLi, she was known as the "unofficial fabric girl." Starting in 2002, she and her friends would throw electronic dance music parties inspired by New Wave, industrial and krautrock styles. The events were under the moniker "Dark Dreams" and the atmosphere required, as one might guess, darkness. Before each party, Fry would bring fabric to whichever venue they could book, and cover up every Keno machine and neon sign, snuffing out the harsh lights. With the help of "decorations"mannequin legs and other curious objects often pulled from dumpsters—and borrowed sound equipment, the room would be transformed into an underworld scene rarely found anywhere else in Missoula.
"We got all manner of people," Fry says. "We got people who are rivetheads, people who are interested in the fetish scene, people who are just wanting to go somewhere to dance, people who like to get all dressed up fancy just wanting to be seen—which is not really a thing you can do in Missoula a lot of the time."
The idea for Dark Dreams came from Tim Greiser, a technology consultant who made music under the name Ir8 Prim8. The shows they put on surprised even them. Their first one was at the now-defunct Loft and they expected about 30 people, but they ended up packing the tiny room with 175. Fry was learning to DJ from Greiser, and she eventually became a regular on the stage. A few years after the first show, they hosted a Halloween party at Club Q (now The Real Lounge), where a line curled around the corner and down the block, waiting to get in.
"We were just sort of stunned that there was this kind of hunger or desire for something that was different in Missoula," Fry says. "But I think because people are so learned and intelligent here, and like exploring new things, this was something fresh."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- In the last decade, Missoula’s electronic music scene has shifted from being a misunderstood subculture to a dominant form of entertainment.
Between 2002 and 2013, when Greiser moved to Seattle, Dark Dreams hosted an average of three big shows a year, plus smaller DJ showcases. By the end of Dark Dreams' run, electronic music was no longer such an obscure genre in Missoula: you could see an EDM show at the Wilma Theatre on almost a weekly basis. And at venues like the Badlander and Palace, especially, the more independent electronic scene was thriving, as it continues to do now.
Fry has changed, too. She is an oncology researcher applying to medical school. She has switched from the darker, odd-tempoed goth style to house music and other more mainstream styles. At the Palace, she ends her set and grabs a drink at the bar with some friends. The act of DJing was a good way to express rebellion and youthful angst, now it's become a way to provide balance for a sometimes stressful career. It keeps her young, she says, and connected to a scene she's not ready to let go of.
"I've found that kind of the whole point of being a DJ is just to really give people a way to unplug from their life for a while," she says. "And, no matter what music I'm playing, that's what's really gratifying to me now."
For more on Missoula's electronic music scene, visit The Green Room at missoulanews.com.