In a warehouse on the industrial strip of Boyle Heights between the 101 Freeway and the L.A. River, Eduardo Castillo and Kfir Levy rifle through boxes of intricate silver lamps and thick Persian rugs. All around them, pieces of high-end sound systems and bags of canvas tents are stacked 20 feet high. Half a dozen potted trees on wheels added a bit of flora to the piles of DJ equipment, painted with logos from Castillo's fashion district hangout, Pattern Bar.
"So this is our entire office," Castillo said, pointing and laughing at the tiny cluster of a couch and coffee table in the empty middle of the room. All in all, it's almost enough material to build one VIP section in one corner of Coachella.
Yet in a few weeks, all this raw material will turn into a festival of its own. Habitas is the pair's new concert series that combines rustic weekends of underground electronic dance music with resort-grade amenities. They're invitation-only, with a capacity of fewer than 200. The next one, on July 31, will land next to a private lake on 50 acres about an hour north of L.A.
At larger dance music events like Electric Daisy Carnival, 200 people is roughly the length of the bar lines. Over the last decade, mega-festival culture has defined the American EDM boom, with U.S. dance-music festival capacity growing tenfold since 2007. That has spurred a global dance music industry of concerts, record sales and equipment now worth close to $7 billion, according to the music industry trade group IMS.
Habitas, by comparison, may as well be a house party. But with fans spending hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars in tickets, travel costs and VIP amenities in today's music festival market, perhaps there's a stirring for a more personal touch to go with their investment.
"People are so consumed in the technological world," Castillo said. "Even at festivals, you get overwhelmed — 'I'm hungry, where should I eat? I want music, what stage should I see?' And all the while you're bombarded by social media. We really feel that curation is the next step."
Or, as Levy put it: "Surprise is discovery."
Castillo and Levy's series came after a few other attempts to create escapist club-music experiences. Castillo, well known for Pattern Bar along with his Voodoo series of underground parties and Grand Park summer DJ showcases, had hoped to turn his Boyle Heights space into a proper music venue (Levy has a tech background and also runs a design studio, Little Blue Giant).
However, some permits fell through, and after he and Levy burned out on a daytime, wellness-focused dance-music series, they decided to return to their strengths.
Instead of inviting the headaches of large public concerts and formal venues, they realized they'd rather just throw private parties and focus on creating a complete aesthetic experience — even if that meant they had to scale down.
Their tight-knit coterie of artists, who play a particular brand of bohemian house and techno, seemed to want it that way as well.
"It's not just about the numbers, it's about the trust people have in each other," said Berge Sahakian, a favored Habitas producer and DJ who performs as Goldcap. "I very much enjoy playing at larger festivals, but I feel more at home when I'm looking out at a small group of people who have given me the silent permission to play all the strange, beautiful songs which are sadly not appreciated the same way at larger events."
Those larger events like EDC, Coachella and HARD Summer can draw 100,000 fans a night to see the biggest names in contemporary rave music. Even more free-form events like Burning Man require huge logistical outlays — days of travel and packed-in sustenance, not to mention fire-breathing metal dragon cars — to attend.
Castillo and Levy envisioned Habitas with one foot in the lovable chaos of the playa of Burning Man's Black Rock Desert but the other in Castillo's experience in high-end hospitality (before Pattern Bar, he ran the beverage program at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York).
The two cultures have already been coming together at Burning Man in recent years (wealthy tech moguls now frequent it), and Castillo and Levy admit they had to work to counter assumptions that this was "glamping"' for rich New Agers. "This is not a 'Spiritual' event at all," Castillo said, making air quotes with his fingers. "And we actually have a hashtag that says '#notglamping.' With all respect, we definitely don't want this to be seen as a hippie festival."
When they threw the first Habitas concert over Halloween weekend last year, they drew about 175 people for two days and late nights of music from underground acts like Nu, Goldcap and Sabo. It wasn't cheap: Habitas tickets start at $380. And there were rules: Fans had to apply for entry (there was even a brief essay portion), and guests had to arrive within four hours after gates opened.
"Most people wouldn't show up for work or school late," Levy reasoned. "There's a level of commitment to the things you care truly care about. We want to have that same commitment to having fun."
But with all the amenities, like gourmet meals and pre-built Bedouin-style tents, included, they made it easy and comfortable once you got on site. The vibe was distinctly grown-up as well ("The urge to explode just doesn't happen here," Levy said). That's a rarity in today's decadent, Vegas-dominated EDM festival culture.
"Some parties are all about getting drunk and hooking up, and this isn't that at all," said Lisa de Narvaez, a "holistic life coach" and longtime attendee of the pair's events. "It's a sophisticated crowd. A lot of electronic music is meant to numb you out, but here every detail is thought out."
"I have been to Burning Man many times, and you cannot replace that experience. But what people love most are the intimate relationships they build while they are there," said Arthur Dekado, a DJ from Studio City. At the first Habitas, he said, he liked how the scale "lets you really talk on a human level."
Habitas followed up the Halloween weekend with camping and free stage areas in May at the much larger Further Future festival outside Las Vegas. Their gourmet buffets and North African tea lounges were an oasis in that dusty desert (albeit a private one, with tents running into the thousands).
The festival was a hit, but the Habitas organizers learned that they'd rather be in total control of their environment and that fans want options close to home. "We have to take advantage of where we live. Burning Man is Burning Man, but you shouldn't have to suffer to get out there," Levy said.
As Habitas continues, however, organizers will likely have to confront a problem that, for most festivals, isn't a problem at all: whether to grow bigger.
Even as once-tiny homegrown dance music fests, like HARD Summer in August, can hit upward of 65,000 fans a night, Habitas' answer is simple: No.
"If 5,000 want to come, then, hey, we'll just do it again another weekend," Levy said.
With their dedicated crowd of often well-heeled travelers, they can host multiple events throughout the year and refine their concert craft without too much risk. When they knock around ideas about potential Habitas events in locales like Morocco and Spain, it sounds ambitious but not impossible.
As Castillo and Levy zipped through photos from the first Habitas event on their phones, the sylvan images seemed to come from a different planet than the concrete bunker around them. Habitas' world, for now, is a small one, but for them it's finally a home.
"My buddy is 56, he's been going to Ibiza all his life. When he saw this, he said, 'This is the missing link,'" Castillo said. "At the end of this, everyone knows everyone's names and they've had dinner together, they're hugging, they're crying, they're saying, 'We just met, but, hey, let's take that trip to South America together.'"