Baby Leo is Dripping
Leo Miller (artist name: Baby Leo) is a lifelong performer and rising star in New York electronic music and nightlife. A pioneer in the neo-psychedelic art movement, he’s recently set his sights on launching a new music festival aimed to take place in the summer (2023). After a recent set I attended blew my mother-loving mind, I sat down with Baby Leo, in his Brooklyn abode, to discuss his life, music, and the plans for his new festival, Dripping.
On a dangerously hot August night at 5:30 in the morning, I crammed myself into a steaming and packed late-night party in the warehouse district of Bushwick. The party series, entitled Groovy Groovy—headed by Akanbi and DJ Temporary—has a motto all its devotees live by: “if you’re sweating, you’re doing it right.” I had attended a dressier affair prior, and immediately upon entering was forced, by the heat, to remove all layers that weren’t vital to keeping me from being naked.
Baby Leo’s set (back-to-back with Akanbi) was set to start at 6 a.m. and go until 9 a.m. “Freak hours,” as Leo calls them. I pushed through the crowd to the backroom, which was even hotter, and surveyed the scene. A simple black box of a dance floor with a ramped stage and sputtering fans scattered throughout the space. A blue glow came from the ceiling lights and illuminated the fog given off by the perspiration of the revilers. I almost considered leaving, but as the clock neared 6, some of the weaker in the crowd dispersed and I was able to clamber closer to the DJ booth. The temperature in the room dropped and as people disbanded, the space opened-up, making way for the dance party that was to erupt as soon as Baby Leo and Akanbi took over the decks.
What followed was a three-hour single experience. Peaks and valleys and built-in rest periods, combined with a perfectly timed lighting arrangement, fostered an almost narrative emotional response to the set. A slow trance rest period would build into 4×4 ambient then grow further into jungle techno before spilling over into fully cathartic pop music that had the entire crowd singing along at the top of their lungs. Occasionally, Baby Leo would venture from behind the booth, passing out fruit: watermelon, oranges, bananas—a sort of communion to what had clearly become the con- gregation to his secular ceremony.
Leo’s Bed-Stuy apartment is huge and open with minimal furniture. We sat in a large well-lit room, the only furniture to speak of being a freestanding hammock on which Leo reclined. A few plants sat in the big bay windows and a few yoga mats were stacked in one corner. Besides these, and the comfortable fluffy rug I sat on, the room was bare. Before words like “neo-hippy” or “burner” come to your mind, know that Leo is so charismatic and attractive that he can pull this sort of thing off without seeming corny.
This charisma has aided Leo’s music career, which has been a tale of early and sustained acclaim. At 14-years-old he helped start and was lead singer for death metal band, Animosity. The group took off in the metal scene and, as a young teenager, he found himself achiev- ing a level of success that “was notable and thrilling.” They toured around 30 countries, with a devoted fan base. “It was almost comi- cal,” he said. “These children playing packed shows full of grown men losing their minds.” This early leg of his career lasted 9 years. “I didn’t go to college after high school, I didn’t get a job, I was just [playing music] and when that ended…I moved on, mentally and spiritually. I came to New York and began DJing because I still liked performing and putting music out into the world, but it was so much lower impact on my life…. I think back on that time as a touring musician and think, ‘that is how you express yourself musically.’ You go out, and put your body and your mind on the line every night and nothing else really matters.’ Im very grateful for those years, though I’m happy my life has changed”
“It makes sense that your musical origins are in live performance,” I said. “The whole set felt meticulously arranged.”
“I very much want to provoke [a specific] experience,” he said. “I’m in the position of controlling the vibe, and I get to do my best to make the kind of environment I want. Coming from a background of being in a band where you present a show and execute your set as it’s been practiced—I often approach DJing the same way. I spend a lot of time choreographing the energy and wanting to take people on a specific journey.”
“It felt very different than a lot of the music I see drawing crowds right now,” I said. “So much of what’s happening in New York right now feels intentionally apocalyptic. Hard techno, pitch dark rooms, large abandoned industrial spaces; nightlife seems to be cultivating this very specific aesthetic. At first it felt very alive and exciting in its intensity, but it has started feeling kind of boring.”
“I like the intensity of militant nihilism,” he said, still relaxing on his large hammock. “The music and the attitude. But I also find it a bit devoid of sensuality….The space I want to occupy is one where the senses are heightened. I want people to be comfortable, uninhibited, and feel welcome. If you are going all night, you need to let people settle into the space. There’s a lot of DJs who want to slam out the most punishing raw experience—that’s totally valid and I can get down with that—but I’m trying to offer something that is viscerally more life affirming…. I want to be somewhere boundless. We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance of sorts. I’m a part of that wave as a DJ [and culture creator].”
“I lIkE tHe iNtEnSiTy oF mIlItAnT nIhIlIsM. ThE mUsIc aNd tHe aTtItUdE. BuT I aLsO fInD iT a bIt dEvOiD oF sEnSuAlItY…. ThE sPaCe I wAnT tO oCcUpY iS oNe wHeRe tHe sEnSeS aRe hEiGhTeNeD. I wAnT pEoPlE tO bE cOmFoRtAbLe, uNiNhIbItEd, aNd fEeL wElCoMe.”
This mission statement has led Leo—along with former co-director of Sustain Release, Daniel Martin McCormick (artist name: Relax- er)—to begin devising Dripping, a multi-day music and culture festival set to take place next summer. The festival will be marked by camping, swimming, designated relaxed social periods, and experimental music across the electronic spectrum. “[We want to] bridge that gap between the avant-garde practices of musicians and their DJing,” he said. “We are trying to book multidisciplinary artists who are carving their own lane.
“That’s pretty cool that you were able to link with the former co-di- rector of a festival as lauded and successful as Sustain Release,” I said. “How’d you pull that off?”
“He brought it to me,” he said. “We are close friends. Daniel was interested in me as a curatorial partner and he could tell I was going to be an active collaborator. As an artist and event promoter, Daniel has been a visionary force in techno music and I’m beyond grateful for the partnership.”
“Have you guys figured out a space yet?” I asked.
“The place that we are planning it at is very special,” he said, sitting up in the hammock. “It’s a private [live action role play] ren fair ground in New Jersey. The people who run it are just sort of adult sword fighters. They have this 200-acre plot of woods with a huge lake on it. All these kinds of rustic structures. It’s kind of a play- ground for fantastical people. I don’t think they know anything about raving, but they are very much aligned with us in terms of our vision of self-liberation.”
“About how many people are you shooting for this first summer?” I asked.
“We’re hoping for about 700 people. We want it to feel like you can go there and see most of the people that are there and have an experi- ence that feels intimate enough and attentive to the music.”
“And who are they?” I asked. “What kind of crowd are you hoping for?”
“It’s an interesting thing to ponder: ‘how do you get the people that you want somewhere?’ The how is a question, but the WHO is per- haps a harder question. As a first-year festival, there is no archetype of a Dripping attendee. I think first and foremost we want people who are open to engaging with a wide variety of sound and who want to go on a deeper journey than your typical nightclub.”
“I think part of it was the hour,” I said. “But, what I loved about your set was how jumbled the crowd was. You had Groovy Groovy people, cool techno kids who had come from other parties, wooks and nerds, and just like dudes from the neighborhood all going crazy together.”
“Yea it’s the best!” he said. “That’s essentially what I’d like for our festival. I appreciate that you perceived that, because that’s what we said about that Groovy too; an incredible collection of different mis- fits that were all so beautifully connected. Massive respect to Akanbi and Temporary for cultivating this spirit over the years”
“Has it been a stressful planning process so far?” I asked.
“I’ve never done anything like this and it’s feeling exciting but the risk is real,” he said. “In trying to do this really nice thing we have to also play out the worst-case scenarios…. As we are planning this new festival, I’m talking to a lot of people who throw parties and run clubs and they’re all riding a fine [financial] line… People aren’t making a lot of money throwing parties and for better or worse, the motivation has to be born from different aspirations.”
“Are you bringing in outside investors to mitigate the financial burden on you two?”
“When you bring in money from outside the community it’s felt like a dagger in the vibe. It’d be great if someone was like, ‘here’s thou- sands of dollars to do your thing and we love you.’ But there’s never no strings attached, as far as I can tell, and we want this to be an experience that’s about music and people in nature and not ‘the-so-and-so-branded stage presents.’ We don’t want this to be a canvas for marketing of any kind, really. [We’re trying to hold] onto our vision curatorially, while navigating the various challenges.”
“Why are you so drawn to this formula?” I asked. “Why a camping festival over a nonstop rave in the city?”
“What I love about camping is that there’s nothing pulling you away,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about how you’re getting home or what you’re going to do the next day. People can cut loose more fully and it becomes a more intentional musical experience. You don’t have to tell people not to stand around on their phones, people just don’t do that…. We are leaving a lot of space in the pro- gramming for people [to come together and have their own adven- tures]. We’re going to have a dinner hour, which is uncommon at a music festival. People will experience new connections that will become lasting friendships if we allow them space to talk and meet each other.”
“WhAt I lOvE aBoUt cAmPiNg iS tHaT tHeRe’s nOtHiNg pUlLiNg yOu aWaY. YoU dOn’t hAvE tO wOrRy aBoUt hOw yOu’rE gEtTiNg hOmE oR wHaT yOu’rE gOiNg tO dO tHe nExT dAy. PeOpLe cAn cUt lOoSe mOrE fUlLy aNd iT bEcOmEs a mOrE iNtEnTiOnAl mUsIcAl eXpErIeNcE. YoU dOn’t hAvE tO tElL pEoPlE nOt tO sTaNd aRoUnD oN tHeIr pHoNeS, pEoPlE jUsT dOn’t dO tHaT.”
While the counter-cultural-utopia camping festival is in a general renaissance right now—with Sustain Release, Whole Festival, and Honcho Campout already being beloved institutions—what I think could separate Dripping from these fantastic adult playgrounds is Leo himself. His specific desire to, “balance the intensity of the mu- sical experience with the replenishing nourishment of being in nature with other people.” His clarity and commitment to the gift he wants to give others.
Later, I thought back to the original set that made me want to inter- view him. How hard I had danced, and what a mess I had been when I got home. I had walked in my door and gone straight to my shower, turning the water as hot as it would go, before scrubbing and lather- ing off 3-hours of sweat and grime and warehouse dust. I put my loofa to the test, repeating the process multiple times. As this part of the night crossed my mind, I realized: I’d forgotten to ask if there will be showers.