How Sunday School catalyzed a house and techno revolution in the US
Long before Winter Music Conference morphed into a sensationalized mecca for electronic music lovers, two New York party promoters started something special: Sunday School. The event began as a whisper of a thing in the early 2000s. American audiences, unfriendly to their own creations, weren’t quite ready to embrace the dance music of European club culture. But Mike Bindra and Laura DePalma wanted to change that.
The event took form as a WMC closing party in downtown Miami, arm’s length from the sleaze of South Beach, in a venue called Pawn Shop after the building’s former incarnation. Complete with rows of airplane seating, a converted 18 wheeler DJ booth, and an old school bus moonlighting as a lounge, the venue often packed hundreds of bodies into their eclectic space. The crowd was largely European and desperately hungry for the trance, house, and techno rotation they just couldn’t get elsewhere.
Before long, the party caught fire in underground circles, growing ever larger with the help of Facebook — a then revolutionary tool which amplified word of mouth. The party itself blossomed organically. The name was almost a colloquial quip from designer Jeff Wright who’d never experienced an event of such magnitude. “Man,” he thought to himself, “this is like Sunday School for degenerates.”
He thought of both the madness of the parties and their brand’s enduring desire to educate the then dance music illiterate American public about what was happening just under the surface. “Man,” he thought to himself, “this is like Sunday School for degenerates.”
“Those nights were truly legendary,” says longtime Marketing Director Michael Julian. Though he spent those first few years at the Pawn Shop dancing along as a fan, Julian jumped at the chance to get involved. Above all else, Sunday School was the first to define what would become underground club canon with back to back sets from legendary artists on the cusp of international fame and a music-first attitude.
“It was the first big party in America for many of the DJs. We had guys like Solomun playing outdoors in the rain and two guys covering his head with a sheet. Sunday School is only associated with really fun memories. It was all one big family.”
Classic posters from Sunday School’s Miami days
The parties grew wilder and longer, ballooning into 36 hours of delicious madness and eventually began making appearances in New York. 2008’s party, for example, involved guests being shuffled between Manhattan boat parties and Brooklyn warehouse ragers in school busses. Bindra and De Palma helmed the inaugural Electric Zoo the following year.
“We were helping this music evolve in America,” says Julian. “It’s what Mike and Laura had been doing for many years. That was their passion and the music they loved. In those moments, they couldn’t be happier.”
In a hacked to death turn of events, dance music experienced a resurgence in American mainstream popularity with the voraciousness of a rabid animal. Electric Zoo took off. South Beach became a caricature of itself. Sunday School’s popularity was growing too fast to sustain and the burgeoning models & bottles scene seemed like a confetti canon shaped warning sign for the beloved underground party.
So, in 2011, the brand pivoted. Though they had hosted a stage at Electric Zoo since its inception, the party’s organizers set about creating a niche for house and techno lovers in the festival’s staple Sunday School Grove.
“It’s really a core group of people that come and spend their weekend at the Sunday School tent… we wanted to make sure that it is part of the DNA of Electric Zoo. This music will always have a place at the festival,” says Wright. Wright looks to last year’s school bus art installation as the perfect metaphor–lurching up from the depths of the underground, its grill pointed up over the grounds to the main stage.
2015’s Sunday School art installation
As the brand has grown, their vision has remained the same: to provide support and promote discovery of underground talents. This year’s Electric Zoo pits mainstream success stories like The Chainsmokers alongside hometown heroes Alex English and Hiyawatha and underground prophets like Anjunadeep’s Lane 8.
Mockups of the Anjunadeep, Ants, and Elrow hosted stages in Sunday School Grove at this year’s Electric Zoo
Sunday School has also partnered with three boutique guests: deep house heads at Anjunadeep, the techno legends at Elrow, and Ushuaia’s homegrown party series Ants. Together, the institutions will bring a little bit of the underground to Randall’s Island.
“If you go to any show with multiple dance music artists, the trend is that you will hear at least a couple of tracks multiple times,” says Julian. “You’ll hear pieces of sets from dozens of artists at the same festival and they play songs over and over and over. If you go to a marathon techno party that goes for 24 hours, I can almost guarantee you that you will never hear the same track twice.”
Electric Zoo will take place Labor Day Weekend on Randall’s Island. Tickets are still available for purchase here.