There are many mini worlds contained within the sprawling universe of Ukraine’s premier house and techno nightspot Closer, a club that is unlike any other on the planet. Housed inside a former ribbon factory in north central Kyiv, the building holds a labyrinthine network of corridors, staircases and balconies connecting indoor and outdoor spaces used as bars, dancefloors, a record store, clothes shop, and more. We’re dining in the vegetarian eatery Savage Food, named after riotous resident DJ Alex Savage, a stylish area right in the eye of the venue featuring attractive Art Deco tables and verdant greenery spilling from plant pots. It’s calm, but all around us a storm is raging.
We’re here for the annual Strichka festival, the flagship event in Closer’s calendar and the unofficial start of summer, marking the first point in the year its outdoor dancefloors are thrown open. On a ‘normal’ night in Closer – if any can be labelled as such – you’ll find several rooms open to explore. At Strichka, the entirety of the vast complex is unveiled.
Strichka started in 2014, when local hero Nastia proposed combining her birthday celebrations with Closer’s spring day party, inviting a number of her DJ friends to perform and transforming the event into a small festival. Now an annual tradition, it’s grown into one of the most exciting electronic music events in the world.
Preparations are a year-long endeavour, the line-up of international and home-grown stars planned well in advance. This year’s bill includes Ross From Friends, Vera, Norm Talley, Burnt Friedman and Lena Willikens alongside the rich pool of local talent. No expense is spared on the production. Structural renovations begin a month out, as new passageways are built, floors are pulled up and replaced, plants are seeded, and walls are painted. The final decorations are put together in the week leading up to the event. In total, more than 200 people work on the festival, including many volunteers.
And the effort shows. Ravers enter like wide-eyed explorers, and even those clutching set times and venue maps are surprised around every corner. Inside one room called The Pool we find a concrete room covered in long strips of silver foil that people are merrily splashing around in. Another doorway takes us into an incongruously tropical den with a genuine water feature: a gushing fountain flowing through a stack of rubber paddling pools with inflatable palm leaves and bunches of oranges hanging from the ceiling.
As a festival inside a club, the mood at Strichka reflects the sweet spot it hits between the two. Good club nights tend to gradually unfold, the warm-up and the peak time uniting to lock you into an optimal headspace. Festivals can be more unwieldy, stretching out a journey of discovery that’s about the lulls as well as the highs. Strichka blends both in a kind of coherent chaos.
The music runs for more than 30 hours across seven dancefloors, starting at 9:PM on Saturday and rolling non-stop through to the early hours of Monday. It starts bold and experimental, and ends trippy and deep. In between it feels like anything can happen.
Opening act Heinali & Volodymyr Shpudeiko perform a beguiling live set. Heinali, the younger member of the family duo, generates head-spinning electronic throbs on a modular set-up, while his father vigorously tap-dances as living percussion. The Dvor courtyard is already bustling as they begin, but the bar queue remains empty as everyone watches, transfixed. Burnt Friedman follows with a live set that evolves from bleepy and sparse tones to an enthralling groove, before Recent Arts takeover with a blend of airy but powerful vocals and off-kilter soundscapes. Striking visuals of people gyrating beneath a black veil and performing ballet movements tracked by dim shadow trails are projected on the red brick walls surrounding the stage.
At midnight all the indoor areas open and the full potential of the club is revealed. Pahatam opens up the main Closer dancefloor, immediately getting stuck into wonky electro synths, weighty basslines and rolling percussive hits in front of a bouncing crowd. “I knew the dancefloor would be full within ten to fifteen minutes. There’s no time for warm-up vinyls so I picked the records I was sure of,” he tells us. Lena Willikens packs out the spacious Otel’ room and impressively weaves slinky grooves into dizzying siren-esque synths as cold blue searchlights spiral overhead.
The heat in the roasting third floor attic is borderline unbearable, and ramps up as Paranoid London power through a ferocious live set of pumping acid and rasping vocals that keeps the heaving sweatpit at capacity throughout. Respite is found on a towering bridge of a walkway out the back that’s dotted with giant bean bags for relaxing in the cool night air.
The energy feels more leisurely than a gruelling Berlin-style club marathon. Less about clinging on in a peeling basement until the final crumb of stamina leaves your body, and more about soaking in the full breadth of the action at a comfortable pace, with plenty of room for hedonism. “The venue is very comfortable,” agrees German DJ Vera, who performs on Sunday night. “You feel like you can hang out there forever without getting bored. There are many nice little corners and rooms, gardens and terraces that invite you to stay. All in all it feels like a big, thriving community without the outdated hierarchies of VIPs. A very liberating feeling.”
In the hazy early hours, we emerge from a sweaty dancefloor and stumble into a makeshift tea room serving up hot brews and cream cakes to people lounging on a selection of Persian rugs. Expressions are cool and relaxed, like this is a totally normal thing to be doing in the middle of an extended rave session. “The venue during Strichka is an ecosystem. All rooms differ, but at the same time work together to complete each other,” says Closer’s PR manager Alisa Mullen. “Each year we rethink the space. It’s hard to impress, but we do everything to surprise not only visitors but ourselves.”
The marathon timing is not to everyone’s taste. Skee Mask looks tired as he arrives, and takes to Twitter after his 7:30AM finishing set to encourage promoters to book him for earlier slots if they want to get the best out of him. Many of the graveyard shifts are handled by Closer residents whom we’ve seen mingling in the crowd from the start – and who hold it down flawlessly when they step up many hours later. Alex Savage and Timur Basha close out the Otel’ and Metaculture stages respectively, through to 9:AM, while Noizar and Borys hold down the Dvor courtyard from 6:AM until 10:AM – all managing to keep the vibes electric.
On Sunday afternoon the Leznoy Prichal, an outdoor area connected to the main Closer room, opens for business. Melliflow co-founders Alexandra and Vera perform alongside local artists SE62, Bambu & Trippsy, and Shakolin, laying a soundtrack of trippy grooves and woozy basslines. The atmosphere is still lively, with a mixture of hardened punters in amongst the fresh faces adding an enjoyably wiggy edge. Some people are fast asleep on benches. Security stroll past and eye them with a smirk before leaving them to rest. A group of people in animal onesies writhe together in a corner while a photographer snaps photos of them like he’s on some kind of sesh-head safari. It’s hard to tell whether it’s performance art or some sort of sleep-deprived game. Elsewhere, Nastia rides the outdoor swing with her daughter, who she is thrilled to bring to Strichka for the first time.
There’s no hint of tension in the crowd of steezy 20- and 30-somethings, who all interact with good-natured warmth. In a seating area located atop the rusting carcass of a ship’s bow in the side garden of the venue we meet Sergei, who tells us he lived in London for seven years and thinks the Kyiv party scene is far superior, with friendlier crowds and less clinical clubs. Strichka and Closer are becoming better known, attracting higher numbers of foreign visitors each year, but it doesn’t end there for Ukraine. Illegal parties in the city’s woodland are commonplace, events like Cxema transform many of the industrial locations into experimental rave dens, and so too does Closer’s out of house festival Brave! Factory.
“There was a time when I had to prove to journalists that it’s not just another rave,” says Alisa. “Now I have to close the accreditation because of the huge amount of publications that want to come. It means that Strichka becomes like [a source of] national pride – it is something people are talking about all over the world, and associate with Kyiv and Ukraine.”
All those who make the journey leave impressed, not only by the dazzling club space but by the strength of the local artists. Romanian DJ Alexandra and fellow Melliflow boss Vera pick out Ukrainian artists like Shakolin, SE62 and Jana Woodstock as among their favourite sets of the weekend. “It was my first time listening to Jana Woodstock and I totally loved her set. Her slow, trippy, electro punk and industrial music was something new, interesting and very attractive to my ears,” says Alexandra. “Shakolin reminded me of Rhadoo. Perfect transitions, masterfully woven together without rush, letting the music take control and guide him,” says Vera.
Alexandra arrived at Strichka following gigs in London and Berlin, and will leave it to go play in Ibiza. She tells us Closer is her favourite club in the world. “I really love the vibe of the crowd, it’s so beautiful and intense,” says Alexandra. “The Closer crew is gifted with common sense and inner depth, both musically and on a human level, paying strong attention to detail. They didn’t create a club or a festival, but more a little magic world, in a comfortable space one could rather call home.”
Closer resident Trippsy notes how the influx of foreign guests to Strichka has “made some major influences for the scene”, including bringing the Ukrainian artists to wider attention. In May, Closer hosted its first ever UK showcase at London club The Pickle Factory and advance tickets sold out.
But like many clubs in the region and beyond, Closer has also been the subject of unwanted attention from political forces. A series of police raids targeted the venue in 2015 which unearthed small quantities of illegal drugs. A trial followed, at which Closer was not represented, with the court ruling that the venue was a hub for illegal drug trafficking. Closer fought back strongly and successfully, blaming police corruption for the troubles, which the club said started when it refused to pay a bribe. Having now secured its status, the Closer team is committed to building a legacy the Ukrainian underground can be proud of. And Strichka is testimony to its success.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter
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