Lithuania Wasn’t On The Other-Europe Rave Radar—Until Smala

Although the party we run, Smala, takes place at an official club in Vilnius called Opium, the energy there is more like a rave in Kiev or Belgrade. We don’t have a curfew, there’s no additional branding and we get 500-600 people to come out early to dance and really let go. It doesn’t look overdone—in fact, it might even seem effortless, but the attention to the detail is exactly what allows one to fully assimilate into the night.

I say “we” because I am not a single parent of Smala, the party I throw in Vilnius’s Opium club. It’s the four-year old lovechild I created with my friends, a marvelous DJ duo called 12 inčų po žeme (the name is a portmanteau of the 12-inch single, their weapon of choice, and the cult drama series 6 Feet Under). Opium Club is located at the very beginning of a busy bar street in the center of the Lithuanian capital, and it’s now well into its eighth season. The real fun started four and a half years ago when the dance floor was transferred from the basement to the second floor, which has black walls, sublime sound, a sauna-like stage, some actual windows and a balcony. The latter is a good spot to observe the queue forming downstairs around 11 PM—which is an earlier than average start-time in Vilnius. Our parties also end earlier than average. I’m not sure if it makes us champions or losers.

Some people think music should be served as it is, with no additives, glitter and other sorts of bullshit, and I think exactly the opposite. I’ve always been inspired and fascinated by acts who aren’t too stubborn to fool around, who have a sense of humor, inspire fake stories and build strong images; acts with strong identities, iconic logos, beautiful costumes. In order to create an experience and push your own boundaries of creativity, one is welcome to use as many channels as possible. Would KLF be one of the biggest legends ever if they hadn’t burned through millions of pounds? Would French house have raised such a tsunami if Daft Punk were not robots but just regular dudes? Would Elvis be the king without his suit? So I can’t deliver a track if I don’t have a perfect name for it, and I won’t start a night if it does not have a proper image. This is why we’ve polished a routine. We have a tailor-made neon sign that has somehow survived every party, and we promote Smala with photoshoots of it appearing in weird places and mysterious situations. We also have red curtains that are washed and ironed by the devoted Opium crew before every night and hung up in the club, as well as moderate lighting. The crew is definitely part of the game—all of them really like the club to begin with; they’re fans of the scene, the sound and the DJs, and they’re eager to join the party as soon as their shifts are done.

The way we build up the energy with the music throughout our nights is also a part of this recipe. If you come in early, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear a single beat in two hours. I get asked quite a lot what the style of music we play is, but there’s really no genre we stick to. One night we might have Vladimir Ivkovic playing the weirdest shit on this planet, then we can have Silent Servant blasting industrial sounds or some live a band with two shamanic vocalists, guitars and four tambourines. It is more about common influences, emotions and being really open to anything that might happen during the night.

Smala is very much about traditions—or discipline, if you please—and a little tour around the city for our guest DJs is part of the game. We take them to dinner at the oldest restaurant in the city, which was once bugged by the KGB. Then we hit a local brew bar for a couple of pints, then a round of shots at Marsas, a pub we own with friends. After a mescal, we’re ready to hit the stairs to Opium. That’s all a warm-up to the eight-hour peak. Seeing the night grow from the beginning and contributing to that process is great, but bringing guests straight to the melting pot creates a much stronger effect. That’s part of why a lot of the guest artists we invite come back to play at Smala.

But it’s not like every guest we book delivers. This is why now, four years into the tradition, more than half of our bookings are people who have already built their connection with the local crowd—and those ones always come back. I guess this is the part where I should thank guys like Red Axes, It’s A Fine Line and C.P.I. for all of the great moments we’ve created together. Some guests have told us it’s their favorite night in the continent—or even the world—without us ever asking. Sometimes it’s after they make it home and sometimes it’s instead of going to the airport.

Early adopters are into weird music from weird locations—it just adds more value to the whole effort. This is why obscure locations are trendy right now. Vilnius isn’t even a part of this “other Europe” map—at least not right now—which makes all of this even more complicated. Booking a flight to the capital of Lithuania might be a little more complex than you’d think. It’s not too warm, too, so we can’t really compete with the southern part of the continent in terms of summer festivals. But our night is the reason that makes me want to go back home, even if I can’t really tell where I’m based right now. London? Florida? Either way, I’ve only missed one Smala night ever. After three years of quite intensive gigging at amazing places, Opium Club is still my favorite spot to play. The energy our crowd brings to every party is something that grows out of partying hard combined with honestly digging music and still not getting enough of it all. It’s not a very young crowd—I’d say it’s the generation of people that have already experimented with their looks and favorites and have travelled around a bit, too. Some have families and businesses—judging by Lithuanian traditions, this suggests they’re over 25. It’s still verdant enough to lose at least five phones a night or cancel Sunday plans without telling anyone about it.