Over lunch at Culinary Dropout—I’m eating, he’s on a juice fast—Branden Powers asks me a question before I can ask him anything: “So is this interview just about being a weirdo?” The answer is yes, sort of. “I think it should be titled ‘Las Vegas’ Most Interesting Man,’” Powers says. He’s joking, of course, but turns out, he is one of the most interesting people in the city.
Currently serving as creative director at the Hard Rock Hotel, Powers also owns the ’80s-themed I Love Yogurt shop in Summerlin. He’s best known as one of the pioneers of the underground rave scene on the West Coast, a movement that has heavily influenced the Electric Daisy Carnival—back in Las Vegas this month—and the electronic-dance-music-dominated nightlife on the Strip.
So how did a weirdo like you get into raves? I started in the late ’80s throwing parties in high school. I grew up in Bakersfield, California, and we’d throw massive kegger parties out in the fields, the pits, the dump, you name it. Then in ’88 or ’89 I started hearing about acid house music and these parties in the U.K., and it sounded awesome. Drugs and dance music. What more could you want?
What was your company called? Global Underworld. Our most famous party was called Narnia. To put it as humbly as I can, it was legendary, but it was also hated because it was true underground. We weren’t permitted or approved by the city. It was extremely illegal. We would do stuff on Indian reservations or at warehouses. We sold out the San Diego Convention Center, Knott’s Berry Farm, the Snow Valley ski resort. Pasquale [Rotella, creator of EDC] was one of my promoters in LA, that’s how far back I go.
What was it that drew you to the scene? The whole rave culture was essentially birthed in San Francisco from the hippie counterculture movement, the love-ins and sit-ins and all the ins. ... What set us apart was that it wasn’t just about [drugs], it was a conscious gathering of a bunch of people that were susceptible to being positively influenced. ... Our events were more about environment and not about a headlining DJ.
What do you think of how that has morphed into today’s festivals? As an artistic individual thinking about that whole philosophical side of it, that side is very sad. But a bunch of people being turned on to electronic dance music and coming together that had never been turned on before is good. Am I a little bummed that maybe I should have kept the ball rolling and sold half my company for $50 million? Of course. Who wouldn’t be? But I’m happy for the people who did keep it going.
Like EDC. Yes, and you can see that Pasquale is trying to get away from being a slave to the talent by saying it’s all about the experience on his billboards. He’s got great concepts. Nocturnal Wonderland is derivative of Narnia. EDC came from a Wild Kingdom party we did in ’92, the first one to do carnival rides. So we’re proud of our position and where we’re at in the whole scheme of things. And we’re seriously looking to get back in … Once it’s in your blood, it’s always there.
Is your job at the Hard Rock a way to stay in the game? I love the Hard Rock. I’ve been here a year and a half now, and I think I’m just starting to really work with the brand now and create some truly unique, exciting things.
Your creative urges manifest at I Love Yogurt, too. Of course I couldn’t open a regular yogurt shop; it had to be an extension of myself. It’s basically how my house looks, all video games and candy. I wanted somewhere I would want to be if I was a kid again.
You’ve been in Las Vegas since 2000. Did you ever think you’d see the day when DJs would become headliners? No. In the ’90s I paid $10,000 for The Chemical Brothers to play a rave; it got shut down and they played my loft. I had this crazy loft and there was this guru guy who wore Mongolian riding pants like a big diaper and had a big beard and looked like a ginger Santa Claus. It was awesome.
This sounds like a fake club that Stefon from Saturday Night Live would go to. It was very real. But The Chemical Brothers thought we were some kind of crazy cult leaders. I don’t know where I was going with this … Oh yeah, that was $10,000, then C2K paid Paul Oakenfold $20,000 and ruined it for everybody. These DJs stay at a Motel 6 and make a few thousand dollars anywhere else in the country then come to Vegas and get $400,000 a gig? It’s insane.
Do you think the DJ craze and popularity of EDM in Vegas will fizzle out? I think it will grow. More people will come here and secure locations and throw parties. But there’s a ton of talent yet to be discovered, a ton of better music out there.