“People have learned to trust us over the years,” explains Bass Coast co-founder Andrea Graham, otherwise known under her on-stage moniker The Librarian, as we find refuge from an oncoming dust storm at the festival’s 2023 edition. It’s fairly typical for British Columbia to see such changeable weather, I’m told, and legend goes that these dust storms are enough to prepare anyone for a week-long slog at Burning Man. “People know that they’re going to find new music here, and while they come for the music, they really get involved with the art,” Andrea says. “It’s a full sensory experience, and I think that’s what really sets us apart from other festivals here in Canada.”
Andrea is one of Bass Coast’s two co-founders alongside Production Manager Liz Thomson, an all-female team of authority who curate this festival down to the fine details, forming an atmosphere that's fun, comfortable and safe, and they've kept the quality levelling up across the board into its 15th year. The pair have nurtured Bass Coast from its earliest edition in 2009, expanded it with a team of friends and creatives behind them, and now welcome more than 6,000 people each year, from a starting capacity of 450. “It’s hard to even believe where we are now,” Andrea smiles. “But Bass Coast is also a boutique festival, and with that, we want to make sure that people feel cared for, and that it remains a size that fosters community. It’s big enough to be exciting, but small enough that you’ll keep running into the same people.”
Bass Coast sits in a quiet valley in Merritt, British Columbia, known for little else but logging year-round. This small pocket of Canada recently made headlines across the globe as it was ravaged by wildfires in the Spring, and though the festival site sits in a desert-meets-forest landscape on the River Merritt, it was also a victim of flooding in 2021, the same year Bass Coast was forced to postpone a planned edition due to continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite it all, Bass Coast made a miraculous return to its home site last year, on the same land that festival organisers acknowledge as the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Nlaka’pamux and Syilx people - making it known to all those who visit the festival each year.
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More than 150 acts spanning the global bass scene are on the bill, including a strong selection of artists who apply directly to the festival to play, with more than 700 making their case for the 2023 edition.
While the mainstream dance music festival circuit around North America is dominated by EDM-heavy line-ups, Canada’s West Coast has a particularly soft spot for bass music, taking inspiration from UK sounds like grime and dubstep and building its own thriving bass music culture. This year boasts the largest selection of international talent in Bass Coast history, with DJ Lag, Batu, SICARIA, Galcher Lustwerk and Yu Su among its heavy-hitting roster.
As the festivities kick off on Thursday, earlybirds flock to the river after setting up camp where they laze under the blazing Canadian sun. It’s a clear hotspot for punters over the weekend, and a chance to listen to music from the nearby stage, Slay Bay, said to be a favourite for Bass Coast returners. As part of the festival ethos, and general environmental safekeeping of the area, festivalgoers are cautioned not to use soaps in this river since it’s a natural spawning point for salmon, and talks about the area's wildlife are hosted at the festival’s educational tent, The Brain. It’s an idyllic location that truly serves as the ultimate backdrop for a party, let alone one with such a stacked line-up.
The initial buzz of Bass Coast’s opening day doesn’t tail off by sunset, it ramps up - crowds head to The Cabin after dark, an aptly named stage tucked into the woods inspired by the skiing lodge where founders Andrea and Liz first met. South Africa’s DJ Lag takes a smooth step up onto the podium armed with chest-rattling log drums and rolling basslines that offer something different from the rest of the Bass Coast schedule. Lashings of amapiano and gqom are chased up by a rumbling 140 set from London’s SICARIA, whose adoration across the pond is affirmed by the packed-out crowd.
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Over on the main stage, where an impressive 10,000 hand-strung streamers are individually hanging overhead, Ivy Lab protogé OAKK delivers a sub-shaking set before handing over the reins to Friday’s headliner, Paris-born CloZee. “People can expect lots of new music tonight,” she tells Mixmag before stepping onstage. “We wouldn’t be able to have a festival of this kind in France, bass music is still quite underground and it feels rare to have an opportunity like this. Bass Coast has been on my list for years.”
By night, the festival’s art programme comes to life, giving space to independent artists with more than 60 sculptures, interactive artworks, and DIY creations across the site. Over the years, Bass Coast has invested more than $200,000 into its art programme which speaks of its dedication to the vision of the festival and the artists who help to curate it. In 2012, the winner of one grant was awarded the job of designing Bass Coast’s main stage. Every drink purchased on site goes back into the art programme, which funds all the fun elements that make the forest area of the festival - where many of the artworks sit - something to ogle over. From fairy-lit chill out areas to interactive hand-built games and even a letter box that promises to deliver your letters to friends on the festival site, the art programme is one of Bass Coast’s most impressive feats - a triumph that shows why the festival doesn’t just bill itself as a music one.
Overlooking the rolling mountains of British Columbia, the Cantina stage holds a consistent crowd over the course of the day on Saturday when Keep Hush takes the helm. It proves a fast favourite, kicking off with a giddying booty bass and ghettotech set from local duo Greazus before London’s Jay Carder takes control and rolls through UK bass and half-time, upping the pace to a rapidfire 160 BPM by close. “It’s a whole new country, new people, and it feels like everyone here is a music head, so there’s a lot more pressure when playing,” she tells Mixmag after her set, which happens to be her first-ever performance in North America. “This festival is a really good interconnection between the UK and Canada, there’s so many locals playing but lots of great UK and international artists too.”
Keeping up the pace at the Cantina is New York’s Ayesha who shells a seamless selection of hasty breaks and electro, with a real hands-in-the-air moment at the drop of Hudson Mohawke & Nikki Nair’s summer anthem ‘Set The Roof’. The Librarian also matches the Keep Hush energy when she makes her annual homecoming on the stage with a blistering array of UK-centric sounds, which marks a prequel to her enormous main stage performance that night alongside Mat The Alien, a good friend of the festival which draws a throng of fans. Later, the after-hours antics come to a lulling close - Batu plays his first set of the weekend at the intimate Slowtempo stage, which also doubles as a yoga spot in the daytime, with a selection of obscure ambient tunes.
Bass Coast’s closing day is perhaps its best, and with many returning artists over the course of the day, fans already know what to expect when the likes of Doctor Jeep show up. Despite the slight threat of an oncoming dust storm, the New York-based producer holds down a consistent crowd at Slay Bay with an off-the-cuff collection of Latin club rhythms and his own productions, proving to be a highlight of the weekend.
Between the ebbs and flows of tempo on Sunday night, and a very welcome melodic live set from Jasper Tygner over on the Cabin stage, a hot and heavy performance from LA’s Bianca Oblivion is just warming up. “I’m gonna really take people on a journey, classic Bianca Oblivion style,” she tells Mixmag ahead of her enormous set to close out the night. “A lot of global music, grime, Jersey Club, maybe some rave and jungle in the mix. I want to show people what I can bring and keep the energy high.”
As Bass Coast comes to a close, it feels like a bittersweet display of precisely everything that many festivals could be improving on. The levels of production, cleanliness, and non-linear approach to dance music make this festival shine, right down to its safety measures with 24-hour harm reduction and drug testing tents, ‘Safe Coast’ staff who stand on platforms above the crowd to lookout for incidents like crowd crushing, and safeguarding for women with talks on consent, Bass Coast’s founding female team have cracked the code to a tightly organised event.
Even after some 15 years, Bass Coast remains wholly independent with a no-frills attitude toward music and art that makes this festival feel like one giant free party. “We’re just really excited about new music,” says The Librarian. “There’s a sense of safety, a feeling of community, and freedom to be your true self. People often share with us that they’ve come into their own here, and put the confidence that they’ve gained here back into themselves at home.”
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Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Assistant Editor, follow her on Twitter