Time Warp, the Most Prestigious Techno Festival in the World, Makes Its Way to New York


For three months, Time Warp found itself in limbo. The first festival in the city where it is still based — Mannheim, Germany, having debuted in 1994 — Time Warp has grown to become the most prestigious techno festival in the world. But that didn’t mean getting to New York would be easy.

Two years ago, Rob Toma and Antonio Piacquadio invited Time Warp founder Steffen Charles to check out New York. Charles knew the two men, now working at Space, from their years in Ibiza. After a six-day working holiday, Charles says he was blown away by the vibrancy of the local underground dance scene.

“What I see going on in New York,” Charles says, “is people playing regularly, underground artists with a huge following. That’s super-great. Not a lot of other big capitals have developed such a vibrant underground scene over the last two years. I’d talk to promoters who’d say, ‘I play this little warehouse.’ You only hear about EDM, but there’s all these underground spaces that don’t play commercial music at all.” Not just in “outlaw” spaces, either: Charles was equally impressed by the lineup at big rooms like Pacha, Output, and Space.

On September 3, Sinatra’s iconic crooning of “New York, New York” announced Time Warp’s first U.S. events, on November 28 and 29. Although both Kraftwerk and Donna Summer’s ur-techno song “I Feel Love” originated in Germany, there’s no question that techno really began with black DJs experimenting in Detroit. So for Time Warp, the 20th-anniversary year took on new meaning as a homecoming of sorts.

After obvious choices like Pier 94, which couldn’t make a commitment far enough in advance, were ruled out, the selection of Kingsbridge Armory seemed inspired. With its huge layout (180,000 square feet) and the Bronx’s strong association with underground music, the armory harked back to the genre’s roots in Detroit’s abandoned warehouses and factories.

Then, on October 16, the Daily News reported that “the party’s over for ravers looking to takeover [sic] Kingsbridge Armory.” The News wondered whether the party would happen at all. For the next few weeks, ticket buyers and scheduled artists wondered the same thing. In a strong — not to mention unusual — show of support, however, most ticket buyers expressed strong support on social media. The first night, November 28, had already sold out.

“None of the artists were worried that it wouldn’t happen,” Charles says. “They knew from 20 years that we have never had an event canceled.” Brooklyn-based DJ Francis Harris, booked as Frank & Tony with Parisian DJ Anthony Collins, tells the Voice he was philosophical about it: “I figured there’s nothing you can do. Things fall through all the time. You keep your head down and hope for the best.”

Only two weeks before the first night, it was announced that Time Warp had secured the 39th Street Pier in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For two nights, the warehouse will become “the Cave,” a traveling total-design concept with dozens of laser lights beaming between rows of man-made stalactites. Charles must have taken Sinatra’s optimism to heart; he shipped the Cave from Germany before signing the final papers.

Charles has agreed not to reveal what went wrong. “We had signed an agreement,” Charles says. “We were good to go. The process is complicated. New York,” he adds, in a classic understatement, “is a little different and a little tricky.” He’s especially sorry for community leaders who hoped the event would herald a Bronx renaissance.

The city has a well-earned reputation for red tape that could put Old World capitals to shame. Back in the mid ’90s, during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s war on nightlife, pioneer rave producer Matt E. Silver was able to obtain the necessary permits only by telling officials they were for bar mitzvahs. When the inevitable raid came, he was tipped off that a competing promoter had phoned in the complaint.

Far from schadenfreude, “Everybody has been pretty supportive,” Charles enthuses. Not only that, but the city has apparently come a long way from “Giuliani Time”: “The authorities,” he adds, “were very helpful in finding a new venue.”

Getting past the State Liquor Authority, the police, FDNY, and myriad other city departments is only the beginning, however. There are rules for everything from
security (one guard for so many attendees, regardless of ticket sales) to ticket sales (forbidden on-site). “We were chaperoned through the process, but yes, it was difficult,” says Stephen Pevner, producer
of the annual Black Party in March.

Pevner estimates the cost of installing a state-of-the-art nightclub for a few nights at upwards of $400,000. When Pevner wanted a trial run, he managed to piggyback with another event to amortize the cost. But the owner decided, for reasons unknown, not to turn on the heat. And the Greenpoint location mandated shuttle buses from the subway.

For his part, Charles is impressed by New York’s liberal hours — far more than those granted in most European cities. Time Warp will begin at 9 p.m. and end early the next morning. The 39th Street Pier is near a subway stop serviced by four lines, which eliminates shuttle buses. It’s also near the clubs that will host the inevitable after-parties.

Anyone wondering why Time Warp is being greeted with such wild enthusiasm need only look at the DJ roster. Many of the 19 DJs scheduled are more video artists than superstars. Dubfire, for example, will present the U.S. premiere of his “liveHYBRID,” a show that weaves 3-D animation into his set. Joining Ritchie Hawtin, who has done avant-garde installations at distinctly non-raver venues like the Guggenheim, Art Basel, and the Olympics, are fellow techno pioneers Sven Väth and Josh Wink; all three first played Time Warp in 1995.

Harris himself has collaborated on an installation in a Chelsea art gallery and released an album, Leland, featuring orchestral, jazzy arrangements and a Danish singer in the breathy tradition of Brazil’s Astrud Gilberto. Harris says his much briefer Time Warp set will be straight-on techno — unlike the seven-hour “journeys” at Output that might begin with a composition by the Finnish late-Romantic composer Jean Sibelius.

For his part, Charles doesn’t disparage giant EDM festivals or the giant paychecks for hands-in-the-air headliners. A few attendees, he says, are sure to wander over to the smaller stages. “Big EDM festivals bring in all these people to hear headliners,” he says. “But they go to the secondary stages and hear more underground DJs.”

A veteran clubber, Charles was running a record shop when he became intrigued by customers who’d formerly opted for “really shitty commercial music” asking for more experimental fare. After a brief, disastrous stint as a DJ, he formed friendships with DJs while working as a booking agent. Twenty years on, he, marketing director Robin Ebinger, and a dedicated staff have not only helped to preserve techno, but have seen it move from underground venues in Berlin and New York back into big rooms.

If the Thanksgiving gigs are successful, New York will likely be added to Time Warp’s regularly scheduled cities. It will also, Charles adds, likely be the last such addition. “We don’t rent out a license or a brand,” he says. “For this event, we have already put more work into it than any other event that has come before. We don’t want to get too big.”

If Time Warp were to be bought by a public company or an international party brand, Charles says, his close personal relationship with DJs would inevitably go corporate as well. “We don’t want to go to artists asking for favors — ‘If you play this venue, you get that one,’ ” he says. “I can’t give Champagne to resident DJs. The artists have always seen me as one of their own, not a promoter just out to make money. We need to make a living, but I don’t have to drive around in a Porsche.”