Voices From The Trenches: Jesse Flemming, Do LaB

We managed to get one of the shepherds of the Southern California underground music scene, Jesse Flemming of Do LaB, Inc., on the horn for an interview. Jesse was kind enough to speak on such subjects as how he and his brothers helped grow their Lightning In A Bottle festival from a birthday party into a destination event. Described as “part Burning Man, part Coachella,” the event features inimitable art installations and structures, and immerses audiences in trapeze artists, fire dancers, performance art and yoga sessions. The festival has been around for a decade but has recently drawn considerable attention, with Do LaB the recipient of the sincerest form of flattery: seeing their concept copied by other festivals.

Daniel Zetterstrom
– Jesse Flemming
Jesse Flemming, President and Music Director of Do LaB, Inc.

So exactly how long have you been promoting professionally? How did things start?

As an official company, Do Lab we’ve been around since 2005. We started small, doing some warehouse parties and shows. At the time we were doing Lightning in a Bottle, our flagship festival. It was pretty small back then. It was maybe 1,000–1,200 people. But we kept going at it, year after year, and it kept growing into a much larger thing.

So this is a family thing? How many brothers are we talking about?

I have two brothers—a twin brother, Josh, and a younger brother, Dede. We’ve been throwing parties and organizing events since we were kids. Our parents were always kind of organizing events for their friends and learned by watching them.

I lived in Pennsylvania, and when I was 19 I moved out here and I met some kid who invited me to a rave up in the mountains. I went and checked it out and it blew my mind; I had never seen anything like it. So I called my brother Josh, who was living in New York City at the time, and said, “We gotta do one of these parties for our birthday.”

So he flew out to California, we found this spot in the mountains, and we just threw this little party and it was called “Lightning in a Bottle.” And that was the beginning of everything. We fell in love with doing events, setting things up, setting up lights, decorations, and things like that.

People started to ask us to set things up at their events, so we started to do that. You know, a couple hundred bucks here and a couple hundred bucks there and it slowly turned into a business and we kept doing it. Eventually we left our jobs and started doing it full-time.

It was all kind of a natural, organic growth. There was never really any plan; there was no, “This is what we’re gonna do” or, “We’re gonna do these big events.” We never thought we’d be doing this stuff.

What day jobs did you quit?

I was working at a recording studio and I was a sound engineer, doing post-production audio for television and radio spots. My brothers were both working in production.

When we moved out here we thought we wanted to get into TV and movies. Like most people, once we got a taste of it we realized it wasn’t for us and focused on event planning and production.

So how does two brothers throwing a birthday party grow into a festival like LIB?

When we were young we were using Christmas lights and China balls, cheap little things that we could find to decorate the parties and create a little vibe, to make it really fun.  We were doing that for a while and then we went out to Burning Man in 2000. It blew our minds to see all these amazing artists building these giant sculptures for fun.

We started to think “Oh wow, let’s start to build stuff.” So we started to make cool little sculptures and art pieces that slowly got  bigger and bigger. Eventually we started to think more about big structures instead of sculptures and art pieces.

My brother Josh, who is incredibly talented, he is like an architect that never went to architecture school. He designs and figures out how to build most of our big structures. He kind of learned it all just by trial and error and paying attention to buildings and bridges and looking at what architects have been doing and then trying to incorporate this, all the styles, into our work.

A lot of it is just us figuring things out along the way and trying to see what we can pull off.

In 2005, I think, we had an opportunity to go into Coachella and we sent them a proposal to set up a dome and build some sculptures. They let us come in there, and they gave us a real small budget and said “Oh, you guys can do your thing.”

So we went into Coachella and built some sculptures – that was 13 years ago. And we had a little renegade stage; we snuck in some speakers and threw a party and it was such a hit they said “OK, you guys can come back and do it again next year.” We’ve been doing that every year ever since.

They are the ones that encouraged us, saying “Hey, instead of doing it in the underground, why don’t you guys think about doing something totally different, something outside the box.” They forced us to think about taking our design to the next level and that’s when we started to actually create structures for people to go into or structures for the DJ booth to be in.

Now we’re kind of an official stage up in the corner with the giant structure that holds a thousand people, it’s become a “thing.” It’s pretty crazy, because it all started out with China balls.

Daniel Zetterstrom
– Do LaB’s Big Fish at Coachella
An image of one of Do LaB’s Structures at Coachella.

How did the underground culture of art and audience-participation LIB is known for emerge?

We opened LIB as a 3-day camping festival in 2006. It was part Burning Man,  part Coachella. We were kind of a part of this underground West Coast music scene. It stretched all the way from Seattle to San Diego.

There were all these underground parties in the Burning Man scene. A lot of really creative artists, performers and musicians were getting together and throwing warehouse parties. So we were a part of this scene.

When we put the festival together, we started to rally all of these different troops and groups of people together from all over the West Coast to come down and participate.

People started to bring all these unique elements and setting up areas that were interactive. Instead of just having a big stage and letting people come watch the show, we started to think in terms of “What if the show sort of engulfed everybody and was surrounding everybody and they were a part of the show?”

So we’ve always taken that approach, to get people to not have narrow lines. It’s boring to just stand and watch the show; we want people to be a part of the show, so that’s what we focus on. We create zones where you might go in and all of sudden you are in an old western village and there’s antique-y shows going on. Or maybe you are in this crazy weird barber shop and people are getting their hair cut. Or a super-interactive bowling alley where things are just falling and breaking all over the place, people are just playing games. We’re always trying to mash up weird ideas and do things that people haven’t seen before.

Do you still feel connected to the underground culture that your company grew out of?

Yeah that culture is our roots, it’s where we come from. We are a professional company now, and we really pride ourselves on putting together the best production possible. For us, production really is an art form and we want it to be flawless and seamless.

But we’ve always been super renegade. We’ve always been troublemakers. We’ve thrown illegal parties in warehouses. You know, we lived in our warehouse for seven years while we were building the company because we were broke and we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. It was our lifestyle. We lived with performers and artists and we were always out building stuff, helping people set up their parties or just doing crazy stuff.

We’re getting older now and we’re professional, for sure. But we’re still renegades at heart. The West Coast underground scene, that’s our home. That’s definitely our family. Along the way, we’ve gotten bigger and we’ve been very fortunate to have this path open up for us to grow and turn into a legitimate company. But we’ve been helping all these other undergrounds scenes and groups along the way, trying to help people find their own path and build their projects and build their little companies. Our heart is underground, for sure.

You also nurture the local scene by promoting small shows?

We don’t do too many of those small shows anymore, but we used to do a lot. We’ve done a lot music shows that are pretty basic, just music in small venues and clubs to help keep the underground music scene alive and create spaces for those musicians to do their thing for people.

We also used to do some one-off events. One was called Lucent L’Amor, which was a Valentine’s Day event where we would take over a place like the

What we do is kinda rare. Now you are starting to see a lot more influence from our underground scenes pop up in more mainstream areas, bigger festivals like Electric Forest. Even Coachella’s got some of it going on. It’s cool to see the mainstream people focus more on the underground culture, especially after all these years of kinda fighting for recognition and trying to help people get it going. 

How would you differentiate underground vs. mainstream?

From a music standpoint, when I think about underground music it’s just music that’s less popular. You know it’s not radio-friendly, it doesn’t appeal to the masses. There’s a lot of great music out there that just doesn’t get attention in mainstream worlds just because it’s different types of sounds, it just doesn’t appeal to the masses.

As far as the experience goes, when I go to a big festival that’s a corporate festival, there’s a lot of branding, there’s a lot of sponsorships, there’s sterile atmospheres. Maybe just regular tents and chain link fence everywhere, not a whole lot of decorations or creative performances happening.

When you go to an underground party everything is art. All the artists come together, all the walls are painted, the fences are covered, everything is decorated really elaborately. There’s tons of performances, people are decked out in crazy costumes, expressing themselves.

You go to a corporate festival, people are just wearing H&M clothing and they’re just normal, regular folks. Whereas in the underground it’s a pretty wild scene where everybody is expressing themselves. Everybody feels free to be themselves.

But its hard to explain that distinction. You have to see it. You can tell. Underground is more of a love experience.

So you put Woogie Weekend on hiatus to work on something else?

Yeah, Woogie Weekend was a great event. Musically, we loved the lineup. It just wasn’t quite getting where we needed it to be. To be honest, it was just losing a lot of money and you can only do that so many times before you’ve got to pull the plug.

We’re constantly brainstorming new ideas. We’re trying to launch a new, big festival that will be similar to LIB, but different. We’ve been developing a concept for a few years, we’re just trying to get to a place where we can launch it. We’re always looking for new avenues to do something totally different.

It’s been hard because we created a festival like LIB which is super unique and inspiring and interesting. There’s been quite a few spinoffs in the last handful of years that are emulating what we are doing, following our model. We feel like we’re constantly having to push forward, and reinventing ourselves so that all these new events don’t feel the same as ours. It’s an interesting challenge to have. We are constantly running forward trying to come up with new ideas.  

Andrew Jorgensen / JORG Photo
– Lightning In A Bottle
The Pagoda and Dragonfly structures at a Lightning In a Bottle festival.

About how many people come to your festivals?

LIB is around 25,000 people total.

How about the small shows you are in involved with in Southern California?

We’ve done tons of shows and we still co-promote a lot with other promoters. They range anywhere from 300 to 2,500 just depending on the show and the venue. They’re kinda all over the place.

How many shows do you co-promote a year?

Last year maybe 12-15. A couple of years ago 75-100. But we really started to refocus our model and focus more on boutique festivals instead of one-night shows. Boutique camping festivals are definitely our strong suit. So we decided to focus on the festivals because that’s what we do best and it’s what we really enjoy. So the Dirty Bird Campout is our latest one, and we partnered with the Dirty Bird record label on it. It happens every October and this will be the third year coming up.

Will the new festival be in 2017?

Definitely not 2017. We’re shooting to do it in 2018, but we’re still trying to lock in the dates so its really hard to say at this point.

Anything else people should know about Do LaB?

We’re just a small, family owned, independent company trying to carve our way through a massive industry full of mega-conglomerates. We’re like the little guy battling through space, which is kinda fun. I like being the underdog.