Into the Tunnels: Austin’s Electronic Dance Underground
By Sofia Vargas Karam
Photography By Pierce Blankinship
The scene looked like the Cavern in Liverpool, England, reminiscent of the early days of the Beatles. The space was dark and dank. Candles flickered, while party lights illuminated the work of graffiti taggers.
Amidst it all HONEY — the performing name of Eric Wieser — worked his turntable and manipulated his electronic mixes to drive his audience into a jubilant dance in Austin’s underground.
“I have to remind myself that the goal isn’t necessarily to be the king of the underground or the king of odd, cool, obscure kinds of parties,” Wieser said. “I make sure that I’m enjoying it in the time that it’s happening.”
Underground parties are private, smaller events that are held in secret locations for a limited audience. They consist of multiple live DJs playing electronic dance music that is much heavier than the mainstream tunes that are mixed at bars. These raves are usually an inclusive, diverse environment held at warehouses, run down homes or in this case tunnels. Wieser started After Hours, a set of tunnel events, after noticing a lack of uniqueness in the party scene in Austin.
In comparison to more traditional music events, tunnel parties provide a more intimate and up close space, Wieser said, adding the underground scene in Austin is growing, but it is not fully developed.
“I think there’s kind of a perfect storm of things starting to take off,” Wieser said.
Wieser moved to Austin from California last summer when he started studying at the University of Texas at Austin for his master’s degree in energy and earth resources. In Texas, he said he noticed there was a gap in the electronic music scene. That’s when Wieser decided to pursue his passion of music production and mixing.
He began his journey of elevating DJ events at Lady Bird Lake this past summer. He realized there was already a captive audience paddling on hot summer days.
“Everyone was out there drinking and having a good time,” Wieser said. “I figured I could kind of do whatever I want. So [I] figured out all the gear I wanted, I scootered up to the U-Haul center, rented a U-Haul pickup and drove it down there.”
His sets at Lady Bird Lake embodied the summer energy in Austin. Crowds of people on paddle boards surrounded Wieser’s stand with their hands up in the air moving to the beat of the music. With sunglasses on their eyes and tossing drinks around, the experience liberated the spirit of summer time.
Despite the success of the events, Wieser said performing at Lady Bird Lake was not sustainable. He said he feared water damage to his new equipment. So, he took his party underground.
While dark and mysterious, at least tunnels are dry.
Small candles lit the way from the Austin High School parking lot to a concrete passageway underneath the highway. After crossing a wooden bridge, the music got louder and louder as bright lights greeted the invited guests. A private party in a public space. BYOB. People chatted outside with drink in hand, and dancing in the dark on their mind.
Jordan Pierce, UT senior and DJ, describes this event as something he experienced during a semester in Europe. After hearing about Wieser’s untraditional parties, his curiosity sparked. After a caffeinated talk over coffee with Wieser, Pierce got a spot as a DJ at his After Hours tunnel parties. To Pierce, a lot of clubs in Austin do not incorporate the idea of “dance first, talk second.”
“I think it really boils down to whether you are open minded or not,” Pierce said. “Whenever I DJ, I try to play music that is groovy enough for people that have an open mind to groove to and dance to. But I think a lot of people talk first which defeats the purpose of dancing in its truest form, as a physical expression of your body.”
Pierce said the cultural change in Austin’s music scene is inevitable, saying he hopes people will start going out to simply dance and expand their experiences. He sees the tunnels as a gateway for people to test their social construct, like a drag race.
“It’s like zero to 100. You’re thrust in the driver’s seat,” Pierce said. “You are able to let loose and forget about yourself, forget about your ego and forget about self consciousness whenever it’s dark. It’s a very amazing state of mind, because you’re able
to just let go and fully express yourself physically in that space. Whenever the lights are on, people’s eyes act as mirrors.”
Sofia Watne danced in the tunnel that night and described the party as diverse, unique, exciting and fun.
“It is a very freeing environment where there’s no judgmental energy around,” Watne said. “You can express yourself however you want to and it’s accepted. It’s a super fun place to just kind of lose yourself in the music.”
She said she and her friends are drawn to the tunnels because they are able to connect with new people with similar interests.
“It is super upbeat electronic music with few to no words included in the songs and it’s super electrifying music that takes over your whole entire being,” Watne said.
Sewa Olivares, a UT senior, began DJing this year when she met her “angelitxs,” or her fellow non-gender identifying DJ friends, and formed a rave collective known as B.P.M., or Bitches Play Music. She’s helped put on tunnel parties.
When she DJs, she plays a Mexican electronic genre called “trival” or “tribal,” techno, break breaks, drum and bass, to fun pop tunes remixed to be hard core and extra danceable – but she does not restrain herself from anything as long as she loves it. She said tunnel parties are sometimes a lot of work, and it truly takes a village – but once they see that they’ve been successful it’s all worth it.
“This scene is a playground for the creativity of gender and racial minorities, and I’m honored to be one of the women taking up space and being given opportunities in the scene,” Olivares said. “We all really uplift each other but in the end it’s really just because of who we find that’s making or playing the coolest stuff.”
Olivares said the tunnel parties do not compare to someone’s typical night out because these parties are — or at least should be — truly dedicated strictly to a love for dancing. She said it is a sort of music not found in mainstream clubs, and that’s what drew her into the space.
“I think we — women and non-men but specifically trans people in general — are safer in our underground parties than the mainstream clubs,” Olivares said. “I would hope mainstream bars and clubs, outside of making space for people to enjoy diverse music, would prioritize the safety of all people.”
Dark and dank, yet illuminating, passing through the tunnel has an ethereal effect– like a single object, people move through space and reappear on the other side.