There's a pink elephant padding around the floor of NV Nightclub in the Old City sometime after 11 p.m. on a Friday night. A pink elephant, accompanied by—but of course—a penguin.
They're the only two non-human representatives of the animal kingdom present at the club this moment, but it's not uncommon to see other species wandering the cavernous floor, engulfed in multi-colored strobes and frenetic DJ beats of NV's regular Friday electronic dance music show, Midnight Voyage Live.
Why would two full-grown and presumably right-minded young men frequent a crowded public venue, garbed in comic costume-party throwaways? (The elephant suit, at least, is a little lame; it looks more like a rabbit with pathologically cartilaginous ears.)
"Because they can," says Brian Coakley with a broad grin. The friendly, bespectacled Coakley is the founder of Midnight Voyage Productions, promoter of Midnight Voyage Live and a host of other shows, many of them in conjunction with NV and its ownership, Carleo Entertainment.
And the critter costumes are of a piece with the rest of the show's psychedelic bacchanalia, from the dance floor with a ceiling that suddenly soars to cathedral heights to the strobing lights set about the room and casting a lurid glow on the stone walls and dancing, rootless patrons; artists' work on the walls, and a live artist or two on premise working on paintings in the oscillating shadows of the performers on stage; kids twirling LED lights; and even, at some point, a live masseuse with a chair.
By the time the fourth of the evening's four DJ and electronica-related acts hits the stage well after midnight, more than 400 people will be swinging, bobbing, jumping, and careening across the floor, generally losing their collective mind to beats with names like dubstep and psyfunk (Coakley's own term) and even a dash of "old-fashioned" electronic pop—stuff that, five years ago, nobody would've guessed would have made for a weekly staple of Knoxville's club and music scene.
And it's all due to the determination and prescience of a scruffy 27-year-old Chattanooga music nerd and a free-spirited expatriate German divorcee. In a town full of venues that either booked their shows in-house or relied on one of the most successful promotional agencies in the South in AC Entertainment, they've carved out their own special niche. In the process, they've helped usher in what Spin called in 2011 the "new rave generation" of EDM.
"I think it's a strong market for EDM now," says Benny Smith, station manager of WUTK—the primarily student-run college rock station at the University of Tennessee—and a former AC employee and independent concert promoter himself. As a UT student, Coakley worked under Smith and founded Midnight Voyage as a weekly EDM radio show in 2008, the seed from which came Midnight Voyage Productions.
"The approach Brian took helped, a very organic approach," Smith says. "He has an entrepreneurial spirit, and he got on the front end of it before anyone else.
"And then you have whole party aspect of the phenomenon. That doesn't hurt either. The shows have a carnival atmosphere, a lot of people just having a good time."
For those of us who haven't kept up, EDM isn't just for turntable jockeys anymore. Nor is it solely the province of computer geeks, tech nerds who create programmed beats because they can't play "real instruments." Today's EDM scene encompasses a broad culture of DJ/producers and bands of various types who are apt to combine sampling with live instrumental and vocal performance, in ways that are both surprising, even revolutionary, and winsomely traditional. Its influences draw deeply from the wells of the avant-garde and traditional rock and heavy metal, as well as from expected sources such as hip-hop and R&B.
That diversity is what first drew Brian Coakley to the music in the first place, during his early college experience in Florida. He was a self-professed music geek from his grade-school years in Chattanooga, recording pop songs off the radio, through his emergence as a metalhead in junior high, through his high-school years, when he learned to play guitar. "I developed even more of a passion for music when I started playing it," he says. "Especially high-energy music, stuff that got your blood flowing. It went in all kinds of directions, from classic rock to jazz to hip-hop, just everything."
But EDM wasn't part of the equation. Not until, as a college student in Florida in 2005, he attended the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, one of EDM's biggest events. "It was my first big EDM experience, and it was pretty mind-blowing," he remembers. "The amount of production they put into it, seeing the way people reacted to it, it was exciting. I started to get into the music on my own.
"As I started listening, I was hearing a lot of sounds I hadn't heard before. The range of frequencies and emotions that can be captured with electronic music are some of the most broad I've ever heard. I heard a lot of depth in the music, which made me really excited."
Coakley eventually transferred, came back to his home state and the University of Tennessee. A musicology major, he involved himself in the student station, WUTK. Perceiving a void in the station's programming, he inaugurated a Friday night show, the Midnight Voyage, devoted to dance and other electronic music.
"That's how it all began, as a radio show," he says. "It was just meant to be a specialty show, not necessarily all dance music; we did a lot of electronic music that was ambient or experimental as well. We did a little bit of everything."
That was 2008. As the show grew, Coakley networked with artists and promoters, getting into promoting shows that fit with the program's format. Many of those shows were held at the Valarium, the warehouse-sized concert venue off 17th Street which has since reopened under new ownership as Blackstock. Coakley began helping them part-time.
And he had vision. Says Smith, "He got it; the light went off. He did exactly what we hope students do when they work at this station—he helped jump-start a career.
"We were working with promoters, artists, and other media all the time here at the station. He also knew I worked more than 15 years in concert promotion. And there wasn't a day go by that he didn't ask questions about how I did it, about putting a show together."
When Coakley graduated in 2010, his work with the Valarium became full-time. "I dabbled in a lot of stuff at first, anything that needed doing," he says. "Then I refined my role as I went along, marketing and booking."
Andrea Kerns' journey to Knoxville was a long and unlikely one, starting in her hometown of Duren, Germany, and continuing in a detour through design school, followed by a lengthy stopover in France; then she and her new, American Air Force officer husband moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., before settling in East Tennessee to be nearer to friends and in-laws in 1993.
But when the mother of two divorced nine years ago, she was at loose ends. "I was like, what do I do with my life? I'm a house frau," she says in a light German accent, seated on the NV front patio on a late Friday afternoon.
Her answer came in the unlikely form of her then-15-year-old daughter Meryl's Christmas wish. "She said, ‘What I want for Christmas is two tickets to see Sound Tribe Sector 9 at the Tabernacle in Atlanta on New Year's Eve,'" she says. "I had no idea what that was. All I heard was ‘sector' and ‘church.' It sounded bad, like a cult. I told her she couldn't go."
Her daughter came up with Plan B. "'Mother, mother, you're so mean, all my friends are going,'" Kerns says. "'I'll buy two tickets and you can take me.' So we go to the show, and I was determined to hate every minute of it. Then Sound Track Sector 9 comes on, and I danced off 16 years of marriage. It changed my life."
Already a rock 'n' roll enthusiast—her first concert was a Pink Floyd performance of The Wall—and fan of the German opera, she started listening to EDM, too. When her friend Suzie Dew opened a club on Market Square, the World Grotto, Kerns pitched in on booking and other tasks. At one point, she convinced Dew to book the Crystal Method.
"We couldn't afford them," she says. "But I said, let's go for it. And we did. We oversold the place, and everyone loved it, including the band. It was great."
When the Grotto's business foundered, she found work booking for other local clubs, first at a venue called the Catalyst in the Old City, and then for Duane Carleo's Carleo Entertainment—owner of several Old City locations—in 2009. She also met Coakley, with whom she partnered on a number of occasions for promotions in conjunction with the Midnight Voyage radio show.
In 2010, while employed full-time at the Valarium, Coakley was asked to put together a weekly dance night. "I was thinking it would be cool to connect it in some way to the radio show and make it focused around EDM, because that seemed to be picking up steam," he says. "It seemed like it would work."
Working in conjunction with Kerns, in whom he'd found a kindred spirit, Coakley set the weekly dance night in the Cider House, the big bar adjoining the Valarium concert hall. It was dubbed Midnight Voyage Live, and promoted hand-in-hand with the radio show. Early performers were mostly local, with occasionally regional DJs and producers from Chattanooga, Asheville, Nashville, and Atlanta.
That was November 2010. Shows were free, at first, and the budget for paying the artists was necessarily small. "We just wanted to gauge interest," Coakley says. "As it progressed, more people became interested and some of those regional artists became more well known. We started making more connections with agents, other promoters, and then some national people started to want to come in for this electronica night we were doing.
"It naturally evolved to something where we'd have national artists that we'd mix with the regional and local people. And that worked well, because it helped the smaller people get recognition for what they do by putting them in front of more people. That's how it evolved."
And Coakley and Kerns' booking and promotional efforts evolved, too, placing the two of them in the unusual position of booking both from within and parallel to the businesses they were working for. "It was a unique situation, to say the least," Kerns says.
At the beginning of 2011, Midnight Voyage Productions obtained a business license, and its two principles maintained their full-time positions until the Valarium, which had begun to experience business problems of its own, closed in November of 2012. After moving a couple of planned Valarium shows to Carleo properties, Coakley took a job with Carleo Entertainment. The closing of the venue also saw Midnight Voyage Live, and Midnight Voyage LLC's base of operations, find a new home at NV on Jackson Avenue.
Coakley and Kerns' relationship with Carleo is still unusual—"a business within a business"—but the partnership allows greater latitude for Midnight Voyage Productions, and for bigger stakes in the shows they produce. "We're booking for Friday nights, and for occasional other electronic shows," Coakley says, relaxing in his comfortable, cave-like little office upstairs at the NV building on a warm afternoon. "And also booking for Carleo Entertainment. They're separate, but together at the same time.
"Because everything I do for Midnight Voyage benefits Carleo Entertainment, and everything I do with Carleo is another outlet for me personally. Midnight Voyage could be full-time, but I like to be able to do a broad range of things. Carleo does all genres—metal shows, country tribute bands."
But EDM, in particular, seems to be on the upswing. WUTK's Smith has noticed through the growth of the Midnight Voyage radio program—which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, having continued beyond Coakley's tenure at the station—now airing for three hours on Thursday nights.
"I think the show was sort of the first catalyst, the spark that lit the fire," Smith says. "Brian got ahead of the curve. We see it now in the number of requests that we get for electronic music, enough to put a lot of that stuff in regular rotation. It started with Pretty Lights and Bassnectar and Girl Talk; now there's a whole new wave of artists taking over."
And Friday shows have grown, too; the artists have gotten bigger, as have the crowds. "We didn't think we could do it during the summer, at first," Kerns says. "Then when we tried it, and it worked, we learned our market isn't just college kids. They're still young, but they're not necessarily in college."
Now the Midnight Voyage Live features a weekly array of well-traveled national and regional performers, often peppered with locals in the opening slots, with ticket prices running as high $15 for some of the better-known acts. Coakley says the company tries to hold at least one free or low-cost show every month. "We want to try to keep it affordable," he says. "This is something we want to see happen as a company; we're not trying to get rich. And we want to support the local and regional artists as well."
Despite the higher ticket prices, Midnight Voyage Live has grown in its NV home; Coakley says that since January, Friday night's paid attendance averaged around 450, while ticket prices have averaged around $10.
Midnight Voyage Productions enjoyed perhaps its greatest single moment to date when, on March 6, a crowd of 1,300 braved freezing weather conditions to watch dubstep producer Vaski, Colorado producer Paper Diamond, and the headliner, Canadian DJ/producer Excision perform under darkening skies in the Old City Courtyard. (The reverberating performance also generated a number of complaints about the noise.)
Besides being one of the more popular acts Midnight Voyage has brought to Knoxville, the Excision Executioner tour was something of a landmark on its own terms, featuring a technologically opulent stage show that included 420 square feet of video-mapped animations.
Coakley describes the experience as simply that of "a unique dubstep producer that makes very aggressive sounds people enjoy losing their minds to."
It's the first of what he hopes will be many shows to come in that performance space; Midnight Voyage has a May 26 show scheduled with headliner PANTyRAID, a collaboration between popular producers Ooah and Marty Party.
One thing Coakley and Kerns have learned is that certain portions of the EDM spectrum are particularly consonant with the Knoxville market; and that's been both a help and a hindrance, as they've strived to build Midnight Voyage Productions on a foundation of diversity as well as strength.
"It's very much about the dubstep here," says Kerns. "But we don't want to succumb to that at the expense of everything else. Brian and I bounce ideas off each other, about what will work. We want to broaden people's horizons. There's so much music out there."
Born in England in the '90s, with putative roots in Jamaican dub and the English club scene, so-called dubstep took on any number of permutations when it left the U.K. in the 2000s. The popularity of its stylistic offshoots here in the U.S., says Coakley, may be traceable to its cross-pollination with other, more recognizable forms, like hip-hop and heavy metal.
"I think a lot of people got turned on to electronic beats that were more broken up and infused with hip-hop, and I think that's why a lot of people are more into dubstep," he says. "And in America, you also have something called brostep, where it's gotten a lot harder and heavier, but still with this broken-beat structure, with the focus on bass as the primary characteristic."
Meanwhile, house music—still hugely popular in parts of the U.S. and worldwide—struggles in East Tennessee. "A couple of years ago, [Dutch DJ/producer] Tiesto played the Valarium," Coakley remembers. "Some would say that, worldwide, he's maybe the biggest DJ. He played at the Olympics' opening ceremony. At the Valarium, he didn't even sell out."
What that means for Knoxville, and Midnight Voyage Productions, is that acts like Excision and Mimosa and ill.Gates and Pretty Lights—to name a few of the larger dubstep-oriented acts the company has brought here in the last couple of years—are what pay the bills. But that doesn't mean Coakley and Kerns run a one-note operation.
Kerns was still working for the Catalyst, and working with Coakley the radio DJ, when she had the opportunity to book Shpongle, an English psychedelic-electronic duo that features a mix of synthesizers, DJing, and live instrumentation and vocals in the service of trippy musical explorations, a few years back.
The cost of the booking made it a gamble, and she was still unfamiliar with the artist. But Meryl was taking a road trip to Asheville to see Shpongle perform live, and Kerns decided to base her decision on her daughter's appraisal.
"She called me after the show and said, ‘Do it, mother!'" Kerns says. "I put up my paycheck for the artist's fee, ate ramen noodles, and rode my bike for a month. And the show was a hit."
Shpongle has been back five times since, a favorite of both hers and Coakley's. "[DJ Hallucinogen] showed up with a feather boa and a box of CDs that first time," she recalls. "Now it's with tour buses. It's great to be part of an artist's growth like that, like watching a baby grow."
On a given Friday at NV, the night's slate of performers—in addition to DJs—is apt to include electro-pop acts, synth groups, even full bands that make heavy use of electronics; the stage is set about with a veritable mountain range of amplifiers and instrument cases, rocky tiers of keyboards, lines of guitars, and a rich mahogany-colored drum set.
And many of the performers, too, are local, DJs and producers such as 25-year-old Nikolai Borziak, aka Magmablood. Borziak, who played trumpet, then guitar and piano as an Oak Ridge schoolboy before teaching himself how to produce and record electronic music in his late teens and early 20s, produces a brand of electronica influenced by "southern hip-hop, drum and bass, dubstep, and my first love, house music." (His goal, he says, is to create a soul/electronica fusion with horns and female vocals.)
He's also a visual artist, responsible for creating all of Midnight Voyage Productions' graphics. As with the market for EDM, so has the community of local DJs grown: Borziak estimates there are up to 20 active DJ/producers in the Knoxville area.
"It's a tight-knit community, and the local producers co-exist well," he says. "That isn't the case in a lot of markets, and it's one reason things have blossomed here.
"And I think it has blossomed. Lots of people talk about this being an up-and-coming party city for electronic music—people in Georgia, people in North Carolina."
That would be a big payoff for Midnight Voyage Productions and its two principles, whose investment of time and resources speaks more to a love of the music than to any larger commercial ambitions. "I roll out of bed in the morning and go 11, 12 hours," Kerns says. "We're very diligent at it. There's a lot of P.R., accounting, online stuff, media."
She adds with a laugh, "A lot of people think we get paid to party. Well, once in a while, maybe we get to party. For one or two hours."