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Rock that beat: Why DJs love spinning Coldplay, Van Halen and other rock bands

During their set at the 2016 Sunset Music Festival, the Chainsmokers played snippets of songs by Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand and Third Eye Blind, among other rock acts.

Luis Santana

During their set at the 2016 Sunset Music Festival, the Chainsmokers played snippets of songs by Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand and Third Eye Blind, among other rock acts.

You should’ve heard all the hits at this amazing music festival I attended the other day. Coldplay. The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Killers. Fall Out Boy. Blink-182. Van Halen. The White Stripes. Jefferson Airplane.

Wait a second, you might be wondering. All these rock giants appeared at the same music festival? In 2016? Even the ones who broke up years ago?

Nope. This was the Sunset Music Festival, a sprawling electronic music carnival at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. None of the bands in question were actually on hand, nor did they have any idea their biggest hits were rocking upwards of 30,000 bodies per day.

But it was a curious thing: During the 20 or so hours of nonstop party music cranked out by nearly 60 DJs on three stages Saturday and Sunday, I kept hearing familiar rock hooks and choruses sprinkled in among all the club bangers, pop chart-toppers and mind-melting remixes.

More than once, I heard DJs spin Coldplay’s Adventure of a Lifetime, the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and Bastille’s Pompeii. Audien, a DJ and producer who’s worked with country trio Lady Antebellum, mixed Van Halen’s Jump into Twenty One Pilots’ groovy hit Stressed Out. Miami DJ Borgeous dropped the Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge and Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love. 3LAU spun the Killers’ When You Were Young and Fall Out Boy’s The Take Over, the Breaks Over. NGHTMRE played Blink-182’s silly pop-punk jam What’s My Age Again.

Even the headliners rocked out. On Saturday, Dutch A-lister Hardwell, who’s not known for crossing into mainstream pop waters, dropped Linkin Park’s tense, melancholic In the End to huge screams. And in one of the weirdest drops of the weekend, near the end of their eclectic closing set Sunday, Skrillex and Diplo, a.k.a. Jack U, sprinkled in the bright piano intro lick to Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is.

Explaining the appeal of live DJs to someone who doesn’t care for electronic music can be complicated. Yes, almost all of what they play is pre-recorded — we’re using the term “play” loosely here, since few of them actually sing or play instruments — and most of the music they play isn’t even their own.

But the best live DJs view the audience itself as their instrument. They have an inherent knack for reading and sustaining a crowd’s energy; seamlessly flowing one carefully chosen track into the next; constantly jolting your cortex with huge, anticipatory builds and exhilarating releases of bone-crushing bass. You don’t have to know a thing about EDM to know when a DJ is clicking with an audience of 30,000 — or when he’s falling flat.

Because there are so many DJs utilizing so many of the same proven formulas (oh, wow, look, another 32-bar build followed by a big, squelchy drop), standing out from the pack, especially at a crowded festival like Sunset, isn’t easy. That’s why tossing in an unexpected, left-field song is a risk that often pays off.

Take Anna Lunoe, an Australian DJ known for her taste-making playlists (she hosts a show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio). On Sunday at Sunset, mixed British bass music and American gangsta rap with older, alternative-leaning songs like the Beastie BoysIntergalactic and a trippy mix of Blur’s Song 2. Her set was one of Sunset’s most memorable, simply because it sounded like no one else’s.

Marshmello on Sunday played a lot of predictable pop crowd-pleasers (Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen, Drake’s Hotline Bling), but his boldest move was spinning Adele’s hushed, dramatic ballad Hello. That’s not a rock song, but it’s also no one’s idea of party music. Yet it was a brilliant choice — the entire audience sang along at the top of their lungs, and when the song built back into the next big drop, everyone went wild and resumed dancing.

The best moment I’ve ever witnessed at the Sunset Music Festival involved a rock song. It was 2014, and the festival grounds had been evacuated due to thunderstorms. When the gates reopened after a lengthy, soggy delay, New Jersey outfit Cash Cash took the stage waving an American flag and blaring Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the U.S.A. The effect was euphoric; the drenched, dreary crowd instantly roared back to life. It was the perfect song for the moment, and everyone knew it.

What DJs have found over the last few years is that a selectively deployed rock song can deliver the same nostalgic rush for 20-something millennials as the latest banger from Future or Kendrick Lamar. That’s why, at this year’s Coachella, New York duo the Chainsmokers brought out singer Stephan Jenkins of cult ’90s alt-rock holdovers Third Eye Blind to sing his hit Jumper.

“We’re huge Third Eye Blind fans, and we just thought it would be one of those Coachella moments that people don’t expect,” said the Chainsmokers’ Alex Pall. “And it was really fun. Stephan Jenkins killed it, and it turned out to be a great call. That sort of thing is what kind of sets us apart.”

The Chainsmokers dove back into their bag of alt-rock tricks on Sunday at Sunset. They played Franz Ferdinand’s fuzzy, punkish Take Me Out as a build-up to their own huge hit Roses — and then, for good measure, mixed in the sing-along chorus to Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life. Then, by way of an intro to their current No. 1 hit Don’t Let Me Down, they dimmed the stage lights and spun Coldplay’s Yellow.

Golden sparkles sprinkled down enormous LED walls behind them as tens of thousands of fans swayed and sang: Look at the stars, look how they shine for you... For a moment, it was almost like Chris Martin himself was up there on stage, not a couple of DJs he may never meet. The joyful effect was the same.

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2016 2:29pm]


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