Music Festivals

The Almost-Disastrous Debut of Deadmau5's Thunder Dome

Deadmau5's Saturday night headlining set at Governors Ball was almost over before it even started — or at least ten minutes after it started, which would have been an even greater tragedy. The EDM giant used the festival to unveil his highly anticipated new thunder dome stage setup, but just as it was beginning to show off its full, seizure-inducing capabilities, technical problems caused the audio, a key element to any electronic music show, to cut out. Teenagers groaned and shrieked into the night as Deadmau5 and tech hands scrambled to remedy the issue. After a few false starts and one extended break, the rig was up and running again, and the DJ/producer was able to win the crowd back and finish a spectacular set. Thank God, because otherwise trippers might still be wandering up and down the East River searching for answers.

Since becoming popular enough to be able to consider such things, Deadmau5 has been known for his elaborate stage productions and lighting displays. He was one of the first EDM artists to focus on making his live sets as trip-friendly and visually spectacular as possible, typically operating behind a platform designed to resemble a V-shaped arrangement of blocks that also doubled as a visualizer. The focal point of his new setup, which he co-designed with legendary lighting designer LeRoy Bennett, was to be some sort of geodesic dome. Other than that we didn't know much outside of how it was going to blow everyone's mind. Nary a tank top-wearing bro could wait to see what Deadmau5 and Bennett had come up with.

Fifteen minutes before his set was scheduled to begin, the geodesic dome, which had been looming onstage for about an hour, began to shimmer, constellations spangling its rungs. Chimes started playing softly. The lights went down. Eventually it became clear that Deadmau5 was not only inside the dome, but inside another dome within the dome. The eyes of his signature mouse helmet had been turned into spotlights, tracking across the front of the audience as he moved his head. The outline of the ears was not visible. The first beat dropped, fans tossed glowsticks in the air, and the dome, the dome within the dome, and a stage-spanning backdrop of panels began to render a dynamic, awe-inspiring light display that's hard to describe. As Bennett said in a recent interview, "If you suffer from epilepsy, [it's] probably not the place to go."

After the technical issue was resolved, the geodesic dome split open horizontally, and the smaller dome that contained Deadmau5 opened vertically, like a hatch. This allowed Deadmau5 to lord over the proceedings, but before these Russian nesting dolls of neon geometry unpacked themselves, the structure's effect was almost eerie. Because Deadmau5 was hard to discern within it — and especially because it continued to light up after the audio cut out — the setup seemed to have a life of its own, existing autonomously as a pulsating electronic organism that had more agency over what was transpiring onstage than Deadmau5 himself. Maybe I felt this way because I'd just seen Ex Machina and had A.I. on the brain, but there's no denying the structure's presence was overwhelming. It was so complex and the displays of light and how they were rendered so diverse that it was hard to fathom that a little Canadian in a mouse hat was inside orchestrating the whole thing. (Now's probably a good time to assure you I wasn't on drugs.)

Though a bunch of fans left during the technical fiasco, once it became clear the problem was fixed, the gaps in the crowd repopulated, and for the next ninety minutes, the massive expanse of muddy, sodden grass in front of the Governors Ball main stage transformed into a frolicking, communal dance party. While there is a certain sense of gravity to hip-hop shows, especially Drake's Friday night Governors Ball set, EDM by nature is about letting go of any and all inhibitions and channeling your inner spirit child. It was remarkable how the fleshing out of this energy was able to turn a delay that once seemed certain to doom the entire show into a footnote in the minds of fans. Deadmau5 did an excellent job of facilitating this revival, sure, but, again, I'm not wiling to rule out that the thunder dome could have had magical powers of its own.

Note: Our sister paper, The Village Voice, spent the weekend at Governor's Ball. We're bringing you a few highlights from their coverage; to see much, much more, visit Sound of the City
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Ryan Bort