electronic dance music
Techno-crats (from left) Eileen Chan, Alyssa Kokilah and Kim Khan Zaki aka DJ Zig Zach are changing the nightlife scene with their guerrilla-style parties.

It’s Friday night in the middle of April and I should be home playing Dota. Instead, I’m on a riverboat that used to house a floating A&W restaurant and is now tethered to a pier at Marina South, on assignment to cover a party. (Note: I am not a party person.) It’s jointly organised by The Council and independent music media website Bandwagon, and the unusual venue is fitting for an event where music – or more specifically, the love of techno – is the main draw.

On the second floor, what used to be the space where families chomped down on Coney Dogs and root beer floats in the ’90s has been transformed by atmospheric red lasers while the hypnotic, genre-bending beats of Australian DJ Oblique Industries pound over the speakers. Regulars of The Council’s parties will recognise the light show as a signature of the local nightlife promoter’s first permanent space, Headquarters (or HQ, as it’s affectionately called) located on the touristy strip that is Boat Quay.

Over at HQ – closed for the evening for this off-site boat party – the walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with scribbles, and the DJ for the night usually commands the crowd from behind a chain-strapped cage. The whole grungy-meets-industrial vibe carries through with no-frills couches and an absence of bottle service and sparklers – not unlike at techno music institutions such as Berlin’s Tresor. But packaging (or rather, the lack of it) goes only so far.

Joining the same cultural rally of boutique nightlife players like the four-year-old Kyo on Cecil Street, and Kilo Lounge that moved to Tanjong Pagar Road late last year, HQ is ultimately about the music. Its masterminds – Eileen Chan (who goes by the moniker Cats On Crack when she’s spinning) and partner Clement Chin – are adamant about playing only techno, and quality techno at that.

Opened last May, HQ has a purist approach that has led to a roster of headliners ranging from up-and-comers such as Amelie Lens (a former Jean Paul Gaultier model-turned-music producer) to bigwigs like German minimal tech maestro Robag Wruhme. Compared with EDM (electronic dance music) acts like The Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, or any other DJs who’ve turned up on the commercial music charts in the past four years, the ones who turn up the dance floor at HQ are niche. Says Chan: “The techno scene will always remain the underground; the alternative. Some may even say it’s an acquired taste.”

But that’s partly what’s made the likes of HQ, Kyo and Kilo the nerve centre for a small but tight-knit community of music fans made up largely of expats, indie kids and creative types. Some of the most respected names in local fashion, music and design are regulars, including creative consultant Tracy Phillips; architect/co-founder of DJ collective Darker Than Wax, Dean Chew; and model Nadia Rahmat (who oversees events at Kilo). Even the emo singer/songwriter Gentle Bones has been spotted. Says Phillips: “There’s such a broad spectrum to explore within techno music… I love how it draws me in and moves both my body and mind.”

The History Of Techno

What exactly is this breed of electronic dance music called techno? Before you associate it with cheesy tunes you might hear blasting from your neighbourhood phone accessories kiosk, those in the scene will have you know that it’s a sub-genre of house and disco that originated in Detroit in the US some time in the mid-to-late ’80s.

According to Kim Khan Zaki (aka DJ Zig Zach and a regular fixture at Kyo and Kilo Lounge), Berlin has since become the epicentre with a more “evolved” sound and scene. Alyssa Kokilah, who holds pop-up techno parties here under the Super 0 name and is now based mostly in Berlin, points out that partygoers in the German capital are “very open-minded”. “For a DJ, it’s probably one of the best places to play at as they get the creative freedom to steer the dance floor any way they wish and the crowd reciprocates,” she explains.

That’s not to say that Singapore’s slowly burgeoning techno scene is new. Before EDM invaded (some say perverted) virtually every major club, it occupied a substantial slice of the nightlife pie here in the ’90s and early ’00s. Zaki credits veteran radio jockey Chris Ho with opening his eyes to ambient and electronic music with his experimental show, “Hip Parade: The Now Sound Of The Future”. Phillips, who was marketing manager of Zouk at the time, adds that clubs like her then-workplace and promoters such as the now-defunct Kinemat helped champion it.

She says: “Zouk’s resident DJ Jonathan Yeo had a weekly techno night and the club would make an effort to book key players in the international scene – from Detroit legends like Jeff Mills and Carl Craig to German acts like Sven Vath and M.A.N.D.Y, who still play here almost every year.”

The Party Evolution

But mainstream clubbing culture these days is a different beast. Blame it perhaps on reality TV shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians and the rise of the super rich in the mid-2000s. “(Wearing) flashy clothes, getting a table, and ordering endless bottles of champagne and vodka eventually became the norm and people started to forget that going to a party could simply mean getting together with friends and losing yourself in the music,” says HQ’s Chan. “It feels as if the younger generation equates going out on weekends with spending lots of money.”

Incidentally, this trend of splashy bottle service has dovetailed with the rise of equally brash EDM – the kind freelance writer Jakob Bouchal of popular Vienna-based music blog Disco Demons describes as “simple, catchy melodies (with) a big drop, lots of bass, gritty synths and white noise”. In short, the kind of music played by The Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris and the like that’s swept the music industry (want a sure-shot way of making the Top 40? Just team up with Harris, Skrillex or Diplo, if the latest hits are anything to go by), and become the go-to soundtrack for just about any event.

The folks behind the independent or small techno clubs here are quick to point out that what they’re pushing isn’t an EDM backlash. Says QH Yeo, head artiste booker at Kilo Lounge: “There are so many ways of looking at this. One could say that EDM is a gateway to dance music for a lot of kids who don’t yet know what (other types) there are out there.

“They start off with accessible, popular dance tracks played on the radio and when they tire of formulaic EDM, there will be a handful who will then dig deeper and discover house, techno, disco and everything else in the spectrum… For a lot of us, dance music is a never-ending process of discovery. Everyone’s just at a different point of the journey.”

Join The Techno Trip

To get on board the same wave as Yeo, Chan and co (quite literally, in my case, with the boat party) calls for a sense of adventure. What these events lack in five-star VIP service and setting, they make up for with a cultural experience.

electronic dance music
With no-frills decor and a sophisticated techno line-up, clubs like Kilo Lounge in Tanjong Pagar bring a slice of Berlin’s nightlife to our shores.

Besides no-frills permanent spaces (while not as grungy as HQ, Kilo is also largely bare with cement walls and flooring), these techno troopers often hold parties at unexpected locales. Kokilah’s hosted Super 0 gigs at Gillman Barracks; a warehouse at Bukit Merah; and most notably, the former Singapore Airlines Changi Sports Club with its drained swimming pool as the main dance floor. (She’s working on the next, she says.)

Last September, Zaki launched his own series of techno pop-up bashes called Escape 56 that have become an insider must-go for their mix of top DJs, Insta-worthy laser visuals, a dose of art (one edition included film screenings) and unpredictable venues. More recently, an offshoot collaboration with Kilo’s Joshua Adjodha, “Blackout x After Dark presents: Island Escape”, brought the party to St John’s Island and saw revellers dancing till sunset to the beats of Indonesian producer Jonathan Kusuma, Kyo’s EJ Missy, Zaki himself and more.

Says Zaki: “(The idea) is to make people go ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this place like this before’.” Party regular and PR consultant Chua Chin Chin adds that because music forms the heart of these events, the unpretentious venues only add to the party spirit. “You can have a s**t-looking club, but if your music is amazing, everything else doesn’t matter. That’s why the best parties are always the ones held in unlikely locations such as back alleys and warehouses,” she says.

Clearly, it’s not a scene for everybody, but that in turn has created one of its biggest draws: an intimate clubbing community where exclusivity is based not on wealth but on music and creative interests instead. Zaki’s events, for example, are usually limited to just 300 to 400 people. (“I know at least 70 percent of those who come,” he adds.) HQ’s Chan is even known to hold by-invite-only parties for regulars and “their closest friends (whom they know) will enjoy the experience.”

Think of it as Fight Club for the tasteful EDM lover. As Kokilah puts it: “If you keep going to the right parties, then you are bound to be invited to the subsequent ones, but you must pay your dues first before you can get onto the guest list.” Now, when’s the next riverboat gig again?

This story first appeared in Female’s June 2017 issue.

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