Ultra remains all about dance music, but as the festival has expanded, so has its definition of the genre. As always, some of the biggest names on the bill are the best club spinners in the world. But this year's edition will showcase a number of acts that cross genres and play live. Here's a closer look at a few of them. For full Ultra preview coverage, visit our music blog CrossFade, and check out more must-see acts here.
The Sydney, Australia-based duo the Presets has been variously dubbed industrial, psychedelic, techno, and dance-punk, among other styles. There is some truth to all of those, though none is 100 percent accurate. Imagine if Trent Reznor produced New Order's latest album, and you've got the first inklings of it, but even that misses out on the Presets' distinct, frequent sense of joy.
Ultra Music Festival
Ultra Music Festival: Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28. Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $89.95 to $350; ultramusicfestival.com
"On the one hand, the music has darker elements, but these are juxtaposed by some lighter, more 'pop' moments," says keyboard player/drummer Kim Moyes. "As an album, and as a live show, you want to have some bangers as well as some delicate moments. Even when we go 'dark,' we like to have a bit of romance about it. We like putting odd things together and seeing what comes out of it."
Moyes and vocalist/keyboarder Julian Hamilton have come a long way from perhaps the humblest beginning one could envision. The two met when Julian was a busboy in an Italian restaurant and Kim was little more than a street urchin living off scraps of anchovies discarded in the back alley. They formed a somewhat unlikely friendship over a shared love of music and eventually evolved into the Presets, from an initial five-piece post-rock outfit called Prop.
"Time came to do a remix album," Moyes recalls, "and Jules and I remixed a Prop song as 'the Presets.' We loved playing the more electronic stuff — it was heaps of fun, kind of instinctual — and that was the beginning."
What an instinct it was. The unshakeable groove of their debut album, 2005's Beams, set them on a worldwide bonanza. (The 2006 Winter Music Conference saw four or five performances by the group in the span of a couple of days.) Then, last year, came the followup, Apocalypso, which netted the Presets six ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) awards.
"We are both a bit blown away by how far it has taken us," Moyes says, "this crazy life of touring the world. But make no mistake — on the road is where they belong, and fans at this year's Ultra will be pleased with what the duo brings to the lineup.
"I guess for me personally, playing stuff live is when it really comes alive," Moyes says. "Everything is just a bit more extreme — the highs and lows. Everything's just a bit more dramatic." CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ
The Ting Tings
Since their inception two years ago, the Ting Tings have enjoyed unbridled success, laying siege to charts and hearts in both the UK and the States. So much so, that even a reporter could become nervous when speaking for the first time to one-half of the British outfit, drummer/vocalist/producer Jules De Martino. So the interview got off to a rocky start:
New Times: So, Stacey —
Jules: Um, that's not my name.
That's not my name.
Eventually, though, we got back on track. Jules and vocalist/guitarist Katie White first met while playing with different bands in London. They eventually ran into each other again in Manchester, while hanging around Islington Mill, a derelict cotton mill turned artist commune. They formed the Ting Tings, naming the band for a Chinese former co-worker, and set out to play what they dubbed "DIY pop."
Varied influences found their way into the mix, ranging from the Talking Heads to The Velvet Underground, Björk to the Beatles, and even Gorillaz to Joni Mitchell. "It's the crossover of influences and the acceptance of each of us in this band that has given us this scope," Jules says. "I would listen to K's loves and hates, and she would listen to mine. That opened the floodgates."
But despite the band's bona fide commercial success, the two remain committed to their scrappy beginnings. "We've kept ourselves into our band ethic," Jules says, "how big are the small things, remembering who we are, where we came from — our house parties from the beginning with our drunk friends."
It'll be a far cry from a house party when they play Ultra this Friday, though. The drunk kids will still be in attendance en masse, but their house parties didn't boast these numbers. Still, the show promises to be an exciting one — and an honest one.
"Two people, playing pop songs hard, and meaning every word of it," Jules says. "Only being two of us onstage, we have nowhere to hide, so it's pretty full-on. Swapping instruments and making ourselves feel good and fulfilled. And making the audience want to dance, of course!" CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ
Roni Size and Reprazent
It has been more than 11 years since Roni Size and Reprazent released the full-length New Forms. The seminal drum 'n' bass album, which won their native UK's coveted Mercury Prize (awarded to only one album per year), will be re-released stateside next month via Universal. And while the d 'n' b genre has already seen its heyday and been crowded for competition with its dubstepped children, New Forms stands out from the pack now as much as it did then.
But with the dip in the genre's popularity, there were fewer promoters willing to book a large drum 'n' bass band from overseas over a considerably cheaper DJ. So it has been more than seven years since Size and Reprazent have performed in Florida (or anywhere else in America, for that matter). Luckily, Ultra organizers have the resources and knowledge to take a chance on something not so risky.
"Ultra has always been very kind to us, and they invited us to perform this year," Size says over a transcontinental phone line. "We haven't been to America for a while, and we're in the process of putting a new album together, so we feel it's going to be a very exciting live show with elements of hip-hop, reggae, and jazz, and will still be jungle."
Reprazent numbers eight strong onstage, including the original bassist Si John, vocalist Onallee, and the dashing Dynamite MC. And the band never takes shortcuts, Size is quick to point out. "When we're onstage, one of the reasons we refuse to use a click track or backing track is because of the human element," he explains. "We make mistakes, like all humans, but out of those mistakes will come new ideas for the show. And when you watch the show, you can recognize that it's quite organic."
For the most part, he says, Reprazent's live presentation is much like it was a decade ago. But the group has been road-testing snippets of new material along with the enduring classics "Watching Windows" and "Brown Paper Bag." "I'm definitely more now into orchestras and symphonics," he says, hinting at his current musical direction. "It's always been about the drums, and it's always been about the bass, but it's gotten to the point where I don't know if I can hear another bass line." TAMARA PALMER
Santigold isn't pop. She isn't electro. And she sure as hell isn't hip-hop or R&B, despite what some narrow-minded critics have implied. It's a position she continues to defend, though one listen to her music should allow her to rest her case. Rather her music is a blend of underground sounds, leaning heavily on dub and New Wave, with elements of electronica and what she calls a "psychobilly" groove. The smartest thing would be to avoid classifying it altogether.
"I decided to just switch my focus to just making my music," she says, "with no expectations of what I needed to make or what it needed to sound like — not try to say, 'Can this be played on radio?'" Being true to herself, and refusing to compromise her creativity, has paid off in spades. Santigold is ubiquitous — her music is heard in commercials, she recently opened for Coldplay on a national tour — yet has retained her underground cred.
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Her influences are as diverse as one might expect: She cites artists such as Nina Simone, the Smiths, and Devo. And the liner notes of her debut album, Santogold (self-titled using her artistic name at the time, prior to the change to Santigold), feature a diverse showing of producers and collaborators. However, she insists she took measures to maintain some uniformity of vibe in order to avoid putting together a mere compilation of collabos.
"It wasn't the typical 'one producer does this song, which sounds like this; another does that song that sounds like that,'" she says. "I primarily worked with John Hill consistently throughout the entire record. Then I pulled in people like Switch and Diplo to come and work on some songs with John. And I think because we did it like that, it was easier to have it all flow together."
The very clued-in might have caught an early Santigold performance at tiny PS14 before the release of her album. But her performance at Ultra will mark her first large-scale appearance in Miami. "It's like the best DJs and there's so much going on," she says, "and the nice outside vibe, and so that sounds fun!" CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ