Once again, the Ultra Music Festival is upon us, bringing its unmatched brand of musical mayhem to Miami for a 13th year. More than 100,000 party people will gather starting Friday at downtown’s sprawling Bicentennial Park for the world’s biggest dance-music event, which is spread out over three days for the first time.
Forget all the drama surrounding Ultra this year. Yes, DJs and fans alike were upset by its split with the Winter Music Conference, because it forced everyone outside of Miami to choose a side and pick which week to come to Miami. Do you come in early March for WMC “proper,” featuring old-school acts such as Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Junior Sanchez? Or do you hold out for Ultra week later in the month, which offers hundreds of the biggest and brightest stars of electronica?
Few are lucky enough to attend both. But those who choose Ultra will be rewarded by one of the most astounding electronic-music lineups of all time, plus dance-rock acts including Duran Duran, Erasure, Underworld, Cut Copy and Crystal Castles. Name your favorite DJ act, and it’s probably on the Ultra bill: Carl Cox, Tiesto, Deadmau5, David Guetta, the Chemical Brothers, Sasha, Erick Morillo, Moby, Ferry Corsten, MSTRKRFT, Armin van Buuren, Kaskade, Sander Kleinenberg, Benny Benassi, Afrojack – well, you get the idea.
So if you love electronic music, stop complaining and start dancing, because the musical vibe at Ultra is unique.
“The idea is to get across the very best music possible from all over the world,” says British superstar DJ Carl Cox, who has hosted his own tent for the past seven years at Ultra, and handpicks acts to perform alongside him, such as Moby, Laurent Garnier and Loco Dice. “That’s a challenge for me, and I like that challenge, because people wouldn’t necessarily come to see DJs that I’ve booked, but once they get to experience them, they understand why.”
You might think that DJs at Ultra have to serve up big, fist-pumping, crowd-friendly anthems – not so in Cox’s tent. You’ll hear what inspires the artists themselves.
“I love the idea that they can basically play what they want,” he says. “They don’t have to play the big hit records, they don’t have to play old-school or new-school. I booked these DJs because I believe in their musical ideas. I feel that they can represent themselves and go a little bit further, knowing that they’ve got a bit more of an open-minded crowd that are in the tent to listen to what the DJ really has got in his record box.”
Ultra has never limited itself to only DJ acts – plenty of rock bands have headlined over the years, including The Cure, the Killers and Prodigy. This year is no different: One of Friday’s main-stage headliners is British ’80s new-wave icon Duran Duran, which helped usher in the MTV generation with classic videos for tunes such as “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Planet Earth” and “Rio.”
“It’s an interesting gig for us to perform, because it’s an electronica festival, essentially,” says John Taylor, bass player and founding member of the group. “So anything we do is gonna be a surprise – we don’t know exactly what we’re gonna play yet. But I think people go to the Ultra festival to party, and we’re a party band, so I think we’re gonna have a good time.”
Taylor isn’t worried at all about Duran Duran fitting in to such a hard-core, dance-music lineup.
“I feel like there’s always been a techno-electronica aspect to this band,” he says. “We’ve always tried to straddle this line between techno and rock, with the sequencers and drum machines, but also with the raunchy guitars. Getting that balance right has always been a very significant part of what this band’s all about.”
Duran Duran is performing in support of its latest album, “All You Need Is Now,” so you’re sure to hear plenty of new music in addition to the hits.
“It was produced by Mark Ronson [Amy Winehouse, Adele, Nas], and he loved the band’s early albums,” says Taylor. “His dream was that we would make an imaginary alternative, a follow-up, to “Rio,” so it was just the way that we approached making the music, the sounds we used and the kind of parts that we all played, the way the songs were structured.”
Another British group conquering Ultra is Underworld, a duo consisting of producer Rick Smith and manic frontman Karl Hyde [with DJ Darren Price backing them], which headlines the main stage on Saturday, just before Deadmau5 closes out the night. Underworld – perhaps best known for its transcendent anthem “Born Slippy,” famously featured in the film “Trainspotting” – performs in support of its latest album, “Barking,” which gave us the brilliant dance-floor bombs “Always Loved a Film” and “Scribble.”
Although there are so many Underworld tracks that inspire mass frenzy, Hyde has difficulty choosing his favorite to perform.
“My love is to walk out onstage with Rick and Darren, wait for that first groove to drop, and surf on the energy that comes back from the crowd,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you what track is playing when that happens, I’m so lost in the beat.”