*written by A’Damaged Pro for Electronica Life
What do you call the feeling when you lose yourself in the music, and are you truly ever lost if you belong to a community of your peers? What distinct advantages are there to recognizing the transcendent qualities of an environment and culture that promote individuality as well as harmony as a group? Andrew Johner, the creator of the film “Electronic Awakening” and a founding member of the Electronic Music Alliance (EMA), hopes to unlock the mysteries of possibility that reside within electronic music and transformational culture. I spoke with him to discuss: the origins of his groundbreaking project, his personal experiences within the electronic community, the shamanistic roots prevalent in contemporary “rave” culture, and the potential spiritual and metaphysical impact the global electronic presence can have on the world.
A’Damaged Pro – Where did you grow up?
Andrew Johner – I grew up in Decatur, Illinois. It’s a Midwestern version of Billy Joel’s Allentown; economic depravity, abandoned factories, a deep Springsteen mentality- the few of us that made it out had no other option but to be eccentrically artistic.
A’Damaged Pro – What were your earliest musical influences?
Andrew Johner – I grew up listening to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Dead- a lot of early, mostly unheard of psychedelic music from the 1960s. I would research these early experimental psychedelic bands- like the 13th Floor Elevators- and then go hunt them down in record stores and libraries. I was always seeking something different, something I thought was nonexistent in my generation….once I found electronic music I felt as though it was the sound I had been searching for.
A’Damaged Pro – What’s your fondest musical memory from growing up?
Andrew Johner – I remember reading about Grateful Dead fans, and the concert experiences people were having. The Dead would ‘play the room’ as they identified their jam genre. At first, I wasn’t into the music as much as I was interested in the group culturally. To this day I still haven’t been to a single one of their concerts. I was curious from a social perspective- what was happening to the audience at their events? I read everything I could about them. When I first started listening to their bootleg tapes, I started to realize something deeper was happening at the events. Little did I know that right around that same time the whole rave phenomenon was happening….I wouldn’t discover it until much later. However my previous armchair research into the Deadhead movement certainly served as a foundation for my later exploration of electronic music events.
A’Damaged Pro – What inspired you to get into the music/media business?
Andrew Johner – I wasn’t a fan of electronic music when I first chose to investigate the culture. To me it sounded like a storm of 8-bit noises. At first, I was interested solely from a research perspective. I attended my first EDM event armed with a camera and notebook to begin my investigation into the spirituality of the culture. While trying to retain an outside perspective- the music immediately drew me in. Almost overnight I found myself bonded with the community through a shared passion for the music and the experience. The music is the greatest souvenir of all my years in the field, one that will stay with me the rest of my life.
A’Damaged Pro – How has the scene changed from when you were first introduced?
Andrew Johner – The transformation of the culture has been tremendous in terms of not only its commercial expansion and influence on pop culture, but in solidifying an identity- both as a musical genre and as a culture. Ever since the culture’s emergence in the 1990s- and downfall- it was for the most-part nameless and underground; known only to those who were truly dedicated to the music and community built up around the events. I began researching the scene while it was in this period of incubation. The first individuals whom I interviewed were foretelling a future expansion of the culture into a mainstream phenomena. At the time, it was yet esoteric and ghostly. The sense of prophecy and transformation has been a strong undercurrent of the EDM community over the last decade- now we are seeing how some of it has actually played out. EDM is now a massive multi-billion dollar industry. Group ecstasy is now a mainstream leisure for the next generation of youth. While many of the old-school devotees complain the new movement has become too big, watered-down, cookie-cutter and commercial- they are overlooking the fact that the central core of the event has remained unchanged- the moment of oneness and unity on the dancefloor. Early rave culture reached a similar peak of commercialization, mainstream popularity, and lost meaning- inevitably leading to its decline. However, when looking at EDM from its full and complete history, we know a seed had been planted way back then. Many of those involved with that moment in the 1990s are the ones leading the transformational movement now. From watching their accelerated change over the last decade I would surmise the new commercial EDM scene must undergo a comparative trajectory; over time interjecting wellness, community, and celebration back into society.
A’Damaged Pro – What is your position and what are your current responsibilities within your company?
Andrew Johner – I am creator of the film Electronic Awakening. I am also the owner of the production company Federation of Earth Productions. Electronic Awakening was the first big project to go out under our label. Beyond my film work, I am an author and ethnographic journalist. I write, research and speak on topics of electronic music cultures, spirituality, and transhumanism. (For more information, or to book a presentation visit my webpage here)
A’Damaged Pro – What is the most rewarding part of your job? Most challenging part?
Andrew Johner – Seeing Electronic Awakening come to completion all the way from my initial conception was by far the most rewarding. A part of that reward, is hearing back from someone that the film helped solidify deeper feelings they may have had about dance music and had yet to find a way to express it. Believe it or not, the project was conceived on the dancefloor- during my first electronic music event. Call it a bolt of lightning, or pink laser beam from God- I felt called to make a film which expressed exactly what it was people were experiencing in that moment. The anthropology and research came easy, making a film however was a whole new experience. I was working in a whole new medium- coming from a background in writing, the crossover was challenging. Financing a film of this nature was the most challenging, and time-consuming part of the process. I spent the first few years applying for grants, sponsorships, and investors- to no avail. Like most first-time independent filmmakers I had to build the film a little bit at a time from my own paychecks. There is no doubt that Electronic Awakening was a labor of love in this regard. Luckily I was also able to find dedicated support from other production crews, Keyframe-Entertainment, Advanced MultiMedia Operatives, Yerba Buena Films, Gallixsee Media, and our editor Drew Martinez who brought us to the finish line.
A’Damaged Pro – Can you walk me through the creative process for “Electronic Awakening?” What were you hoping to accomplish with this film?
Andrew Johner – Electronic Awakening began as a research paper called ‘Disco-Shamanism,’ which gave a comparative analysis between contemporary rave events and traditional shamanism- namely ecstatic trance dance experiences. As I began researching the topic I was surprised to learn that the culture was based upon the core elements of shamanism- trance and ecstasy. As trance and ecstasy were highly sacred, ritualized techniques for shaman, I immediately questioned the role spirituality played in the electronic community. Throughout the course of my initial field research, I continuously encountered stories of life-changing experiences happening on the dance floor at these events. As an outsider to the scene, I was deeply intrigued to discover that the deep spirituality I proposed to unveil was incredibly prevalent within the community. I thought this connection to the sacred was what lay at the core of EDM culture and was the explanation of its evolution as a community.
From those first few weeks of my fieldwork, I knew that I wanted to make a feature-length film and full book ethnography on the subject. With the film, I was hoping to express the fundamental role spiritual experience has played in the formation of the culture, and in its transformation into a movement of revitalization as we are seeing with Transformational Festivals, Burning Man, and the growing Global Tribe of Psytrance (see Graham St John’s book).
A’Damaged Pro – What was the research process like when deciding what festivals you wanted to include into this project? Were there distinct elements that you were hoping to capture, as each festival has its own pulse, vibe, and heart?
Andrew Johner – As I began research as an outsider to the scene, I knew nothing of the events. I couldn’t distinguish a difference between EDC and Burning Man. I read about all there was to read about EDM, but nothing can prepare you for visceral immersion. I was interested in seeking out events that were incorporating elements of religion, ritual, and ceremony. This was long before the birth of the ‘Transformational Festival’ label. I was seeking out any events that advertised spiritual symbols, theatrical ritual, or spiritual workshops into their line-up. Today, I wouldn’t have to look too far- however back in 2006 when I began filming and conducting my first field research, these elements were just starting to sprout up as popular features of festival events. Initially, I hoped to explore the mysticism erupting within the community, however my exploration was paralleled with the community’s own first-time exploration into these ideas and themes. Soon I realized what I was capturing with my film was something yet in a process of autogenic growth and cultural revitalization. I wanted to capture it as it was happening.
A’Damaged Pro – Has your viewpoint on the spiritual and mystic elements addressed in the film changed since the project was concluded?
Andrew Johner – Since the release of Electronic Awakening, I immediately began work on my book Electronic Revival. The book is a further exploration into the subject as the film- however from a broader theoretical perspective; the role of spirituality in our biology, the function of religion in the building of community, and the future role of technology in the evolution of sacred practices.
A’Damaged Pro – How would you describe “Electronic Awakening” to someone who has never heard about it?
Andrew Johner – Electronic Awakening is an ethnographic documentary which explores the spirituality of electronic music culture, why it’s there in the first place, and what role it has played in their transformation as a community.
A’Damaged Pro – How did you become affiliated with the Electronic Music Alliance (EMA)? What potential did you originally see in the EMA? What are some of your proudest achievements as a member?
Andrew Johner – I first became affiliated with EMA just after the release of the film. I was invited by Janine, the founder, to host an Electronic Awakening booth at one of their events. Throughout the production of Electronic Awakening, I had higher aspirations to see an allegiance of the global community come together. After first learning about the EMA, I felt as though I had found the organization that was a carter of that same vision. From that moment I was immediately on board, and dedicated to assist in whatever I could to help the organization achieve that vision.
A’Damaged Pro – As you’ve seen the organization grow, how has your view on the EMA’s potential to incite change evolved?
Andrew Johner – I am proud of the organization, not only in its initial vision- but in what it has achieved in a short period of time. The EMA has become a voice for the culture, one that speaks up for the improvement and empowerment of the dance music culture. EMA seeks to link the momentum of the community with charitable causes. Myself, and the EMA included, believe that Electronic Music Culture is a powerful vehicle for change in the world. The EMA is making a profound move towards enabling the full potential of the momentum of our movement. Electronic Music is a powerful game-changer for the culture of our generation, and its going to be groups like EMA that help organize and steer it in the right direction.
A’Damaged Pro – The media has reported and, in some cases, sensationalized incidents that involved a breakdown in the compassion and attitudes of some festival goers for their friends and contemporaries. An example would be people sending their friends, that need medical attention, home from festivals instead of pursuing helping them. Besides for providing empirical evidence for the press to note that these behaviors are being addressed, what trends can you see emerging as more people adopt a code of conduct along the lines of the EMA’s “Party Pledge?”
Andrew Johner – Unfortunately, before groups like EMA, and DanceSafe came along- improving party codes of conduct was left up to a lot of trial-and-error. We cannot overlook the fact that raving is like any other extreme sport- while transformative and invigorating, you’re going to get a few broken bones on the black diamonds every once in a while. It’s sad to think that popular culture finds it cool to abuse alcohol, yet shun drug use at electronic events. The sensationalism of the media is not going to last for long. The appeal of psychedelics is in too deep now. What is likely to advance is our maturity surrounding the use of such compounds. This will happen through the creation and dissemination of values relating to use. EMA’s Party Pledge is an excellent example of what is being done to help create those new value-systems that will help guide the rest of the community. Right now EDM is in place to be a role-model for the rest of the world in terms of incorporating ecstatic experience into community, so we have to set a good example.
A’Damaged Pro – What are some direct benefits that you can foresee of events and festivals incorporating the “Party Pledge” or a variation into their respective safety programs?
Andrew Johner – I think the best example of a similar dissemination of specific values into an event is Burning Man. The whole Burning Man experience is built around their core values. They are not hidden within the fine print, they are front and center. The majority of Burners can recite most of them by heart. The values organize experience. The same could be true of the rest of dance music culture if such a pledge was put in place, and popularized by the community. I think its great the EMA is striving to make this happen.
A’Damaged Pro – What are a few focal points of change that you would like to see instituted into the global EDM community?
Andrew Johner – I stand behind the values of the EMA and would like to see them further integrated within the rest of the global dance community. I would like to see more attention be given towards safety at events- more from the patrons themselves than from the organizers. EDM is long due for an upgrade in collective values. The transformational festival community is a great example of a group’s ability to create new social-guidelines and propagate them throughout an event or community- however they are a bit extreme and can create more division than inclusivity through their rigid ethos-structuring. The global EDM community needs to find a good middle ground between these two extremes.
A’Damaged Pro – How do you feel that different forms of media (whether film, print, or social media) can be utilized best to encourage people to adopt a more caring and ecologically-sound attitude?
Andrew Johner – The media generates and regulates culture; especially now, in a society driven by social media memes. I think those who are involved in media arts with the intention of activating or progressing our social attitudes are going to be the ones to make some of the most profound changes in our culture.
A’Damaged Pro – What is your take on the potential therapeutic and healing properties of music?
Andrew Johner – I think that sound is moving into a whole new paradigm of science and technology. It will have a more profound role to play in our daily lives; for healing, meditation, and the transfer of information. I see the Electronic Music Culture as a metaphor for where the world is going once new sound technologies are available.
A’Damaged Pro – Are there any other projects that you are working on now that you can talk about?
Andrew Johner – My next project is my book “Electronic Revival: Religion, Technology, and the Rise of Electronic Dance Music.” The book covers the conscious evolution of EDM from a leisure culture into a movement of revitalization. More than exhibiting the biological core of spirituality through the ecstatic practices of dancing, music, and entheogens- electronic music and the transformational festival culture display the fundamental role spirituality plays in the organization and evolution of culture. The book is an ethnographic and theoretical exploration into dance music- incorporating such concepts as the perennial philosophy, complexity, rhythmic entrainment, cosmocultural evolution, and the significance of ecstatic dancing in our evolution as a species.
A’Damaged Pro – What are a few charities whose causes you hold in high regard?
Andrew Johner – I am a strong supporter of the United Nation Foundation, NPR, and the Boy Scouts of America with whom I was involved with directly for several years and was able to see preform positive change in local low-income communities where I was growing up.
A’Damaged Pro – Please list three global issues that you believe deserve immediate attention and your potential solutions for addressing them.
Andrew Johner – 1. Access to information. While I live in the United States where it is relatively easy to gain access to a computer, the internet and social media, countries in economic depravity, or the third world do not share this luxury. I believe that the core of this problem is in providing easy access to technology for communities in the third world, remote areas, or in areas under economic or political hardship.
2. Energy consumption: I see this a more of an affordability problem than anything else. While its great to see affluent groups embrace sustainable energy, the majority of the world lives below the poverty line and are more concerned with basic survival needs than switching to new sustainable technology. Beyond the propagation of awareness of sustainable energy, our political systems need to play a more intrinsic role in making clean and sustainable energy accessible and affordable.
3. The lack of funding for anthropological research. From my perspective the study of humanity and culture is the most valuable in our understanding of how we operate as a society. The structure of our social, economical, and religious systems should come with this knowledge in mind first and foremost. We have Smartphones, why not SmartSocieties. The DIY culture-construction of Burning Man is a good example of what can happen if we infuse more cultural knowledge into the arrangement of our social systems. For me, anthropology is the source of much of that understanding.
A’Damaged Pro – What goals have you set for yourself for the next year? 5 years?
Andrew Johner – In the next year I plan to complete both my book Electronic Revival, and complete my Masters degree. In the next five years, following completion of my book, I plan to complete my next film and book project, “The Simulated Man: Virtual Reality, Social Media, and the Transformation of Society.” The film and book will give a comprehensive look at how virtual reality will play an intrinsic role in the basic functions of our society allowing for a new and more complex form of culture to emerge.
A’Damaged Pro – Is there anything else you would like to share about your yourself or projects that you’ve worked on?
Andrew Johner – I would like to thank the EMA in all of their efforts in mobilizing, activating, and unifying our global dance culture. I would like to thank all of our partners who made Electronic Awakening available to the masses; Keyframe-Entertainment, Advanced MultiMedia Operatives, Drew and Mark Martinez, our Kickstarter supporters, all of our fans and the electronic music community on a whole. I also would like to extend a thanks to Electronica Life for taking the time to conduct this interview and helping connect the work of many in the dance community to the growing culture.
For more information visit our film page at: www.electronicawakening.com
To find out how to book a presentation of “Electronic Revival: Religion, Technology, and the Rise of Electronic Dance Music” visit: www.acjohner.com
A’Damaged Pro’s final words…
It’s disheartening to acknowledge that society has certain parameters for acceptable means of perception imposed on it through calculated manipulation of both government and mass media. Andrew Johner, and individuals who share a similar vision, are motivated to help recalibrate our “traditional” model of normative behavior. Exploring the connection between the transformative elements of electronic music culture and the potential implications of an “electronic awakening” strikes me as an ideal way to usher in a next evolution of collective consciousness. If we are destined to move beyond the confines of our present state of mental stagnancy, we must look to the power of the music, comprehend its potential, and capitalize on what we are capable of learning from one another.
Andrew Johner is a founding member of the Electronic Music Alliance (EMA)
Connect with EMA: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest