DJ PUMPKIN, THE BIG-HEARTED PARTY STARTER OF THE WEST COAST FESTIVAL SCENE
The beloved DJ passed away in a car accident on March 26.
The world is a crazy fucking place—sometimes transcendent, often terrifying. Dance music is regularly described as providing an escape from the realities of daily life, with all its frustrations and uncertainties. On the dancefloor during a Pumpkin set, though, one didn’t feel so much like they were escaping, but rather that everything was going to be okay.
Such was the force of the producer born Nicholas Alvarado. A pillar of the West Coast festival circuit, Alvarado was killed this past Saturday, March 26 in a car accident in Texas while en route to the Head for the Hills festival two hours west of Austin. He was 33.
Alvarado was a friend to many in the tight-knit festival community that orients itself around earthy, “transformational” events including Burning Man, Symbiosis, Shambhala, Lucidity, Serenity, Lightning in a Bottle, Sea of Dreams, and more. Even those who didn’t know him personally, however, felt a special affection for his unapologetically uplifting house and the blissed-out feelings it inspired on dancefloors from British Columbia down to the deserts of SoCal.
Pumpkin performing at Lightning in a Bottle 2014. (Photo courtesy of Josh ” Curious Josh” Reiss)
Starting out as a clown in LA’s punk burlesque circus, Cirque Berzerk, Alvarado worked his way onto lineups at local events. His breakout moment came at Lightning in a Bottle 2010, when his set at the festival’s house-oriented Woogie Stage was an out-of-nowhere home run. Alvarado drew a massive crowd, and by many accounts upstaged Lee Burridge, who was scheduled to play after him.
“That became the set that everyone talked about for the festival,” say Dede Flemming, a co-founder of The Do Lab, which produces LiB. “For days and weeks after it was, ‘Did you see the Pumpkin set?’”
In the years that followed, seeing Pumpkin play the Woogie became a festival tradition for both attendees and staff. “Pumpkin’s set always became the unofficial place for our team to come together and laugh and cry and celebrate what we just created,” says Flemming. “It was always to his music, because there was this love and magic he brought out.”
Often appearing onstage in kooky sunglasses or a costume, Alvarado was typically smiling his signature lopsided grin and flanked by a crew of friends dancing behind him. His selections often favored remixes, adding a layer of house brightness to tracks that had previously seemed impervious to dance versions. There were few boundaries on what he worked into the mix, and his genre and decade spanning sets were woven together with a playful depth, while always remaining resolutely unpretentious.
“When I first heard him play at LiB 2010, I was still kinda new to electronic music and wasn’t sure if I could ever get into it, being an indie/alt-rock guy at heart,” says Scott Kampmeyer, a friend of Alvarado’s. “But when I heard this dude, from the parking lot, playing a remix of Silversun Pickups, my ears perked up. When he dropped in a Radiohead track, I left my gear and ran over to the stage. By the time he mixed in some Johnny Cash, I was hooked.”
The outpouring of tributes for Alvarado has been tremendous, with hundreds of comments populating his SoundCloud and Facebook pages. By all accounts, the sweetness of Alvarado’s music was an extension of his personality. (His merch stickers even read, “Let’s get this party hearted.”) On Facebook, one fan recalled a time at NorCal’s Bounce festival when Alvarado put on a long song so he could run offstage and go to the bathroom, at which point the fan jumped onstage, got behind the decks, and starting messing with the bass. While many DJs would have had the guy dragged away, when Alvarado returned to the stage, he was laughing.
“There was no ego attached to him and his persona as a DJ, which you see quite the opposite with many people,” says Fleming. “It was just a big open stage where people could be up there dancing with him. It was a celebration.”
While many DJs arrive to festivals by private car and stay only for the duration of their set time, Alvarado was a true member of the community, hanging out for the entirety of events and using his skills to be of service to the scene—even when he wasn’t receiving a paycheck for it. Two weekends ago at the Serenity Festival in Joshua Tree, CA, he intentionally missed his flight to San Francisco so he could stay and play for the festival staff while they picked up garbage off the ground. The impromptu set lasted for eight hours.
Kampmeyer also recalls a time at the Firefly Gathering in Arizona when Alvarado set up his gear for an unscheduled set in the children’s section of the festival. “He was mixing in Muppet songs, teaching the kids how to DJ, letting them push buttons and turn knobs, playing hide and seek under the DJ booth. He was like a kid himself, so kids really adored him.” Alvarado played again that evening on Firefly’s main stage, and then once more at sunrise. “He did three sets within a span of 16 hours,” Kampmeyer says, “each one totally different, each one magical.”
A fan favorite along the West Coast and beyond, Pumpkin could also be relied on to draw a crowd. When the Do Lab was hosting shows at the now-closed Hollywood club King King, staff members often joked that they should just throw Pumpkin on the lineup of nights that weren’t selling well. The few times they did, tickets sold out. While his output focused largely on remixes, Alvarado aspired to do more of his own productions. His first original track, “Shifting Things,” was released four months ago.
There will be a special celebration for Pumpkin this May at Lightning in a Bottle. A memorial event was held last night in San Francisco, and plans for a Los Angeles party are underway. While Pumpkin was scheduled to play the upcoming Lucidity Festival, along with the Do Lab’s stage at Coachella, this season, crowds will simply be dancing in his honor.
“I don’t think it would be hyperbole,” Kampmeyer says, “to say he may have been the single most beloved person in our community.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been started to cover funeral costs. Any remaining money will be donated to a charity selected by Alvarado’s family.