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We meet Samoth (Thomas Haelterman) mere days after the media-hyped teknival in Brustem, Belgium. As one of the free party scene’s backbones here in Belgium, we’re eager to hear what he makes of the past media frenzy. While the free party scene remains shrouded in mystery, it’s abundantly clear it embodies strong, human-centered core values that started to seep in the regular club scene as well.

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— What happened there in Brustem, the last weekend of april?
The second ever teknival in Belgium - and a very successful one as well. While free parties are locally organized by one sound system or a predetermined group of sound systems, a teknival is more open. People would travel from all over Europe to attend one. In terms of music, it’s not only about tekno or hardcore; way more genres are represented. You’ll find circus acts, stalls with handicrafts, people with food stalls, …

Both free parties as teknivals serve as an answer that it’s becoming harder and harder to organize a barrier-free event on such a scale, in this day and age. For instance: there’ll be no ticket fee, but a donation system. The aim is to organize an easily accessible, low-threshold event, for everyone.

Some media would portray this type of events as reckless and irresponsible, but really, it’s the complete opposite. They will paint an exaggerated picture, focusing on the stuff that will make people click the article. 

“ Free parties as teknivals serve as an answer that it’s becoming harder and harder to organize a barrier-free event on such a scale, in this day and age. ”

— This is of course not a new phenomenon, but some media had a frenzy about that weekend. How come?
Nothing else news-worthy was happening that weekend. I guess that made for the fact that they focused so intensely on this event. And that, in itself, is part of the fact why it got so hyped. Some claims about the event were downright false. The amount of substance abuse is not higher than in the legal party circuit. There were, by no means, 15.000 people. Sensation sells, I guess.

On the other hand, I have to say that some news outlets were actually quite nuanced. For instance: a good friend of mine was invited by the late-night news and the interview felt genuine. Other articles emphasized the true incentives behind organizing events like these, so personally I think the tide is turning.

“ Let’s say I didn’t go to a lot of scouts parties. ”

— How does one start organizing an event like this one?
I’d say it takes four to five months to properly prepare it. Inviting sound systems and artists, making sure everything is settled in terms of production and technical stuff - that’s the easiest part. The biggest chunk of work is figuring out how to get everyone there, setting up meeting points, figuring out how to approach the terrain - all without drawing too much attention.

The organization(s) behind events like these happens in very shielded and closed-off circuits, to not draw unwanted attention. The emergence and rise of social media surely didn’t make it any easier in that perspective.

Organizing an event - whether it’s legal or illegal - always comes with possible pitfalls. Of course the aim is to minimize mistakes, complaints and damage. Especially since you know the organization will be looked at with a magnifying glass.

“ For me personally, the values and standards are the reason I became so invested. The scene is about freedom - it exceeds music. ”

— How did you end up in this scene?
When I discovered electronic music, it didn’t take long before I took a deep dive in underground sub genres such as drum and bass, acid and hardcore. Let’s say I didn’t go to a lot of scouts parties.

Ending up in the free party scene, however, happened by accident I guess. My parents moved at some point during my youth. In our new neighborhood, I stumbled upon a group of people that were involved in the scene. Up until this day, they are very dear friends of mine.

— How important is the ideological aspect of the free party scene for you?
For me personally, the values and standards are the reason I became so invested. The scene is about freedom - it exceeds music. Everyone should feel welcome and unbiased. If you can’t afford to give a donation at the entrance, you’re welcome to enter anyways.

Anti-sexism, anti-racism, LGBTQIA-friendly, … are all ingrained in that movement. Everyone feels responsible for everyone - keeping an eye out, in case things take a turn for the worse. Fifteen years ago, these concepts were still quite new in the electronic music scene and I felt thrilled being able to be a part of it all.

Nowadays, you see a lot of clubs in the regular and even mainstream scene implementing concepts like safer space, measures like awareness teams, free tickets for the ones that need it, … There’s more and more common ground between the club circuit and the movement. And that’s a good thing.

Funke is actually a prime example. It’s certainly part of the reason why I enjoy visiting, playing and being a part of that place.

— Can you tell us a bit about the number “23” and what it stands for? It pops up widely in the scene - how come?
According to some, everything can be traced back to that number. It represents chaos and there are a lot of theories revolving around the “23”. It was introduced by Network 23 - a record label founded by the Spiral Tribe sound system in 1994. That group organized free parties in the UK but fled the island in 1992, fleeing pending trials after organizing the Castlemorton Common Festival.

Afterwards, they traveled through Europe and spread “the virus”; in The Hague, Prague, Berlin, … They kickstarted the scene here on the mainland - they were the pioneers, leading the way, really. So “23” became some sort of a mark or a stamp, representing the scene. 

— Your projects carry that number as well - can you tell us about them?
Exit 23 is a sound system, an event series and a label, founded in 2008 and run by a group or like minded friends. The common denominator is tekno - throughout what we play, throughout the acts we program on our events and through our own label. But everyone plays and loves other genres as well.

Lab23 is my record store. Although the shop is not directly linked to tekno or free parties, it might not exist if I wasn’t so knee-deep into the scene. By organizing parties and spinning records myself, I got immersed in the wondrous world of vinyl. I run a label as well, so owning a records store was the next logical step - it had been a long-time dream anyways. I was a stage technician before the pandemic hit, but being out of work for so long gave me the chance of figuring out and realizing this dream eventually.

When you come to think of it; almost everything I have, or everything good that ever happened to me, kind of derived from the whole free party scene. My girlfriend, who I met 15 years ago at a teknival in France, understands what it’s all about and she supports me in what I’m trying to achieve in the scene. We have a kid. We bought a house. I’m involved in music on so many levels. I feel blessed, really. The only thing I’m really looking forward to is a proper, long holiday. I can honestly say that's my goal for the next year.

Interview with Samoth + words by Hans Empereur