This November, Asia launched its first dance music festival aboard a cruise ship. AWOL scored a cabin on It’s The Ship – here’s what we learnt.
“Cruise ship.” The very phrase evokes retirees taking low intensity aquarobics classes and stopping off in exotic destinations to buy pashminas and tacky trinkets within walking distance of the ship. There’s a semantic disconnect, then, in bringing together cruise ships with debauched dance festivals – and yet all of a sudden they’re everywhere. Miami’s Groove Cruise started the whole trend, the envy-inducing hedonism fest of Holy Ship! perfected it, Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint launched its own version this year, and even dance guru Pete Tong has tried to get his own cruise ship festival started. And now Asia has its very own version, with the launch of Livescape’s It’s The Ship festival.
The ship sails from Singapore, pushing punters’ party chops to the limit with four days and nights of music, plus a stop-off midway on the tropical Malaysian island of Langkawi for a secluded beach party. And strange as it may seem, the “cruise ship festival” concept makes great sense: you get all the benefits of a multi-day camping festival, like a wide range of music, the disconnection from day-to-day reality, and the sense of community that comes from partying with the same strangers for days, but without all the major drawbacks. You get to sleep in a real bed in a cabin that doesn’t turn into a sauna at 7am, there are hot showers in your room, swimming pools and spas, mini golf and a casino, and a limitless, 24-hour selection of free food.
But even though the ship is the size of a mega-mall, it’s still possible to get claustrophobic, with the small cabins and utter helplessness of being adrift for days miles from shore. The only other Australian media on this year’s It’s The Ship – a fashion writer from Sydney and her friend – were stressing out and ready to abandon the boat before we met in the casino bar. Three hours and a few drinks later the bar had filled up, we’d met a posse of artists who were also flying solo, and all of a sudden we had our party crew for the next four days. Here’s what AWOL learnt at sea.
# 1 It’s an alternate reality
The outside world quickly became a vague memory. With WiFi access patchy-to-zero, there was no way to call home, no hope of checking work emails, no access to Facebook or the news: the entire world became about sleeping, eating and soaking up the sun, then tracking down friends to get you back into the party mood.
Miami’s pioneering Holy Ship! earned a large part of its cult appeal for breaking down the divides between artists and punters, with no VIP areas and the DJs roaming the ship freely. It’s The Ship took it to the next level – with only a couple of thousand people aboard the Voyager of the Seas, it was inevitable that you’d bump into famous faces all over the place. Bring out your best chat, make friends and you too could soon be losing at blackjack with Alex Metric, discussing the finer points of Storm Queen remixes with Aeroplane or talking movies and manga with Louisahhh.
The ship’s main stage was its top deck, with the DJ booth – positioned above a small cluster of swimming pools and hot tubs – playing host to a disparate mix of everything from local big-room and hardstyle DJs to Basement Jaxx, Dash Berlin and Bromance’s Louisahhh (who played the best set of the trip, closing the festival’s final night with 90 minutes of deep, lush techno). Tucked behind the mainstage was the Hot Tub Time Machine stage, where acts like Craze, Jillionaire and Aeroplane threw down sets of trap, soca and disco, and hidden in a tiny bar beside the video game arcade was the After Hours Social Club – a welcome respite of house and techno away from the thumping drops of the main stage.
When the pounding tunes and bikini-clad podium strutters became too much each night, the action moved to the blackjack tables in the casino. Weirdly, for a bunch of novice gamblers, the casino became the epicentre of the entire ship – a place where random partnerships and friendships were made, dealers were bestowed with charms of fortune or failure, each winning hand was an unbeatable thrill and small fortunes were made and – inevitably – lost.
On any given night, between bouts of table tennis, you’d consistently find Shanghai-via-Brisbane DJ Reggie, British producer Alex Metric, fellow gambling ingénue “King” with his limitless selection of varicoloured Nike jackets and talent for getting picture cards, round-bellied Indian dude “Burberry” with his taste for tweed and dropping outrageous sums on unlikely bets, blackjack sage “Yoda” with his pile of green chips as long as his forearm, and myself, dubbed by a dealer as the “Silent Assassin”, quietly accumulating chips and then steadily feeding them back. Which is why you can…
#2 Expect to spend a lot of money
Food in the (extensively stocked) buffet and fine dining restaurant was all free – but drinks were not, and at $7.50AUD for a beer or $125AUD for a bottle of vodka, it was impossible to be thrifty. Everything bought on board was paid for with a Sea Pass linked to your credit card, making it far too easy late into the night to sign off on the next round of drinks, or buy back into the blackjack tables with another $100 of chips. But when you owe a round of cocktails and your boy Roberto – who’s been dealing you good hands every night – slips back into the dealer’s slot, what’s another hundred or two of “imaginary” money?
#3 Asia’s music tastes are changing
Dash Berlin’s pop trance may have brought out the biggest local crowd for the Saturday night headline set, but It’s The Ship proved that Asia’s well on its way to developing a taste for more underground sounds. The festival had an even split of big room and hard dance acts alongside names from the worlds of techno, trap, disco and house. “It’s really exciting,” Livescape’s Iqbal Ameer told AWOL. “This time we got to book more than just the big name acts – we got to branch out a little.” Even indie-dance band CHVRCHES were there, playing an impressive closing night set in the on-board ice skating rink (without the ice, for obvious reasons).
#4 You’ll collect a year’s worth of bizarre memories
Surreal moments were everywhere. The restaurant wait-staff throwing down an impromptu dance to ‘Gangnam Style’. Lil Jon’s 200kg security guard, whose only job was to pour drinks of Patron. Sasha Grey explaining her love for English music and visual arts group Throbbing Gristle to a room of awestruck local media. Bloody Beetroots and Crookers chilling in a corridor, just killing time. Some random kid getting “No Ragrets” spray-painted on his forehead. An elderly lady sitting in the middle of Dash Berlin’s set looking thoroughly bewildered. The casino bar’s resident piano man playing Disney classics to himself. These are all things you may see and later have trouble explaining.
#5 You’ll probably get Ship Flu…but it’s worth it
You can’t spend four days pushing your body and breathing the recycled air of 2000 other people without paying the consequences. Leave the boat with a minor dose of the flu and some dehydration and you’ll have gotten off lightly. After a short four days living the touring lifestyle, I now understand why so many festival circuit DJs are clean and sober – going from performing to partying to a red eye flight then rinsing and repeating for months end will take its toll. When I caught up with Aeroplane and Alex Metric during a scheduled midday mini-golf contest with fans, they both looked close to collapse – not surprising, considering the ship’s punishing party schedule.
It’s impossible to compare It’s The Ship to any other festival experience: it was shambolic at times, hilarious at others, but most of all it was a ridiculous amount of fun. I even flew home with a collection of pashminas and tacky tourist trinkets.
Nick travelled on It’s The Ship courtesy of Livescape Asia. Photos courtesy of All Is Amazing.
Nick Jarvis is the editor of global dance music community inthemix, and the former editor of Time Out Beirut, The Brag and 3D World. He writes for Junkee, FasterLouder and various other outlets.