It’s 10pm on a Friday when I receive the email I’ve been waiting for, somewhat anxiously, all day. It’s the email that should tell me, all things going well, where I’ll be in a little over an hour’s time. It’s the email that also contains a rather ominous warning:
!! DO NOT LOITER IN THE STREET OR ANYWHERE NEAR THE LOCATION ENTRANCE, BE EXECPTIONALLY (sic) QUIET AND SPARE THE GREETINGS FOR THE ACTUAL EVENT. ANY VIOLATION OF THIS REQUEST IS GROUNDS FOR REMOVAL AND FUTURE BARRING FROM BURNR EVENTS !!
After getting off the bus, I walked about 10 minutes into the depths of Botany’s warehouse district, eventually turning right down a stereotypically dark, scary alleyway. Up ahead was a large rectangular pipeline—around three metres tall—and a lone figure sitting atop it. I won’t lie, at this point my steps did slow. I raised an arm in what I hoped was a non-threatening wave, to which I received no response. Lovely.
Remembering my orders to be quick and remain “exceptionally quiet,” I continued forward, bravely climbing the steps leading up to the top of the pipe. The once shadowy figure turned to me. All suspense shattered; it was Remy, a friend of mine, and one of the few people I actually knew would be there that night.
The rest of the evening passed rather uneventfully—if you count “uneventful” as hopping a fence, walking along a pipe for a kilometre, climbing down from it and bushwacking for a bit, eventually happening upon around 100 youths stomping, swaying, and shaking to drum and bass. And then, of course, actually joining in with said youths until you can literally feel the earth’s pulse in your feet and the air on the skin of your eyes.
The rave scene is commonly said to have arrived in Sydney in the late 1980s. Backpackers and expats, mostly from the UK, followed what was known as the Asia Trail, stopping at different party destinations all over the world. Sydney was already known at this time for its party scene, in part due to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the promotional group, Recreational Arts Team (RAT), as well as the already present warehouse party culture.
Eventually, these global party-hungry travellers moved away from the legal RAT parties to smaller-scale, underground raves, held in empty warehouses and abandoned offices. Since this mass influx of expats and other travellers occurred at the same time as a local recession, plenty of empty (and cheap) property was available. The rise of the drug MDMA also made it possible for partygoers to keep their energy up for entire weekends, making these more remote, underground locations perfect.
Those in the know could find out about the raves through flyers, handed out at local record stores. They were asked to call a 0055 number on the night of to find out the location. My automated email suddenly feels like an exceptionally uncool way of doing things. (Ah, digitalisation. What you’ve taken from us.)
“I think there is a fetishisation of this idea which is, it’s fun without accepted authority,” says 16-year-old collective organiser Mo Jacobs*, the man behind my thrilling Friday night. His collective, BURNR, is a new addition to the Sydney rave scene, and is dedicated to “truly engaging with the music,” and creating a strong DJ/audience relationship.
Despite his age, Jacobs has shown a great knack for event organisation and promotion. He admits that “on paper, it’s really silly” for an underage person to be playing such a prominent role in the rave scene. But Jacobs has grown up surrounded by people in the scene—his dad was one of those people you might see hanging around record stores—and has the motivation and skill to get involved.
“If you go into a club, that club has a licence, right?” says Jacobs. “It’s accepted that it can run. Whereas raving is so special because it provides something that isn’t that. It’s like, ‘I am enjoying this music and I’m enjoying the company of other people,’ withdrawn from that pretence that there is someone letting you do this.
“It is out of the control of higher powers. I think that’s really special, and that’s why it attracts people.”
It seems impossible to avoid the illegality of raves, at least when the goal is to preserve this anti-establishment sentiment. An awareness of this risk is present in their organisation—see the loud, somewhat threatening, warning from BURNR above. However, Jacobs doesn’t seem too worried.
“I don’t give a shit. I mean, I think it’s important to think about, but also, I’ve got a lot of leeway being 16. I can really push a lot, legally,” he says. “In the nineties, there was a very aggressive action taken against events and raves. But these days it’s just like, ‘OK, pack up and go home,’ you know, because now I think there’s kind of more just an understanding where, as long as you leave when you are told to, you won’t get in that much trouble.”
Despite this cavalier attitude, there still remains some animosity between law enforcement and rave organisers. Collective organiser Ella Knight* was a prominent member of the rave community in 2022, before eventually getting shut down. Most collectives spread the word about their events through Instagram—the modern record store—and it was believed that all Knight’s accounts had been flagged. This was after police raided an event in late October, GRAVEYARD $HIFT run by Knight’s collecting City Soup. Knight was unavailable for a response.
Jacobs, who was at the rave, found the whole incident “disgusting”.
“They basically splurged public money on busting some people dancing to music under a bridge,” says Jacobs. “The absolute atrocious amount of unnecessary force that went into shutting down that event…They came through with 10 cops, kicked dust up, and it was just silly. They really went overboard.”
Ironically, it was this legal intervention that encouraged Jacobs to bring BURNR to life. Since there was “nothing happening” in the wake of Knight, he felt someone needed to “start it back up again”.
Of course, BURNR isn’t the only collective operating in Sydney—far from it. Jacobs is filling one space in an extremely vibrant, diverse scene. Newcomer Hugo Gibson, founder of the collective SITE 515, specialises in shed raves grounded in a performative, narrative-based setting. The 20-year-old’s past two events—Experiment 01 and Experiment 02—have been part of a long form story, featuring mad scientists, holes in space, and ethically dubious experiments on the ‘prisoners’ (partygoers).
Gibson has always been interested in the rave scene, drawn to its “very liberal, punk elements,” as well as the culture of young people “breaking the law in a way, celebrating their own agency to go out and party the way they want to”. An avid fan of the music, he especially loves the trance element of raving, which is when you “forget about everything apart from the sounds bouncing around that room”.
“I think, there’s a point personally in raving where you flip over this threshold, where suddenly your body has accepted the fact you’re going to be dancing there for hours on end,” says Gibson. “It’s like, ‘OK, you can play with me. I’m going to give you all my stamina tonight’. It’s like when you get attacked by a lion, you would get an adrenaline rush which helps you fight. It’s like an acceptance.”
The aim of all SITE 515 raves is to encourage patrons to reach this state of ecstasy. The collective also doesn’t have to worry about law enforcement in the way BURNR might as they have a space on private property in the Hunter Region. This leaves room for SITE 515 to play with their narrative and make the night as immersive as possible.
After a one and a half hour drive out of Sydney, I arrive at Experiment 02. A far cry from the dark alleyway, I follow signs up a steep driveway before being greeted by a mysterious figure. Instead of being cast in shadows, this man is dressed in a full hazmat suit and has a gas mask on. He beckons—somewhat portentously, but it’s only late afternoon so the effect is slightly compromised—and I drive slowly through the gate. I’m directed to a parking area.
Later that night, the true narrative reveals itself. We all gather outside a large shed, held back from entering by the people who guarded the gates. A booming voice echoes:
“All site personnel, Experiment 02 is about to begin. Inmates, with your help we will learn how to close this tear in reality to save us all from the Void.”
Inside the shed, we are surrounded by smoke and the hazy outlines of safety tape keep us contained to a centre dancefloor. When I need a break from the thrum of drum and base, or the electrifying pulse of techno, I walk outside to the large bonfire they have set up. There, I’m able to chat with other ravers; most are on some sort of substance. My conversation with one feels like Groundhog Day in miniature, as every few moments he compliments my hair (that’s very nice, but three comments in five minutes feels like overkill).
Drugs are an unavoidable feature of rave, connected with the scene from its conception in the popularisation of MDMA. Ravers such as my Groundhog Day man use drugs to attain that state of ecstasy Gibson hopes to inspire. It is easier to lose yourself when part of you has already been lost, swept under a wave of increased serotonin. Gibson thinks drug use is safer in a rave setting due to, ironically, the lack of an authoritarian presence. Without the anxiety of the law, partygoers can enjoy a stress-free experience while also being able to pace themselves over the night—as opposed to taking everything in one go, before entering a club.
“You can’t know the statistics because it’s not a licenced thing, but I’ve never seen anyone leaving a rave in an ambulance,” he says. “But I’ve been to many, many clubs where people leave in ambulances, or even have to get resuscitated at the front door. I’ve never seen that at a rave.”
I talk to a girl, dressed all in black, about her work as a carpenter and her side gig as a DJ. She isn’t playing tonight but hopes to get more involved in later SITE 515 events. One guy tells me he is moving to New York City soon, to write. He describes his writing process in detail: he “is on a raft at sea, collecting driftwood,” until at last the final ship, or story, is complete.
We go back inside together and he gives me the best dancing tip of my life: “White people only dance with the top half of their body. If you want to look good, move your feet.”
After a brief break in April, BURNR recently hosted their fourth rave. I was unable to attend but can tell from the available video and photography of the night, it was another killer event. Afterwards, the BURNR account published this message from Jacobs:
“What a turnout. Amazing energy, gorgeous and talented DJs accompanied by a deep D&B sound. Thank you so much to everyone who attended last night, made it truly f…g special. Being able to start back up again was also sensational—thanks to everyone that complied, we dodged prying eyes.
“This is all only just the start. I love you all, rest easy. ♥ – Mo.”
*Pseudonyms have been used for anonymity.