Enter Caprices | How Luxury Swiss Ski Town Crans-Montana Became a Pilgrimage Site for Techno Fans
“Swiss ski culture is far from people going into an underground club on a Sunday morning and finding people who have been down there for the past two days..."
“We really have two different kinds of people coming here now," says François Moser, our seasoned mountain guide for the weekend, and a man who has lived in Crans-Montana for the past 12 years.
“Usually it is only families that come, but now, especially at this time of year, you get the people who listen to this kind of music. Some people like it and others are saying it’s not good for the place because the people are coming from cities all over the world, and they’re a… different kind of people."
We’re at ‘Caprices’, an annual music festival bringing the biggest names in techno to the upmarket, family-friendly Crans-Montana in Switzerland.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be many folk combining their time at the festival with turns on the slopes. We’re one of only a handful of people making use of the 140km of pisted runs, and most of the others are kids and beginners.
This may be because the snow isn’t particularly welcoming this weekend, or because what good snow there is has turned to slush by 2pm. It’s more likely down to the techno at Caprices running from noon until 6am every day though, leaving the daytime for sleep before revellers re-join the party.
It’s a culture clash that piques our intrigue; how a classy Swiss ski town well known for it's summer golfing events became host to a meeting of the superstars of techno, from Seth Troxler to Ricardo Villalobos, Sven Väth, Mathew Jonson, Berghain regulars Marcel Dettman, Ben Klock and more.
“Swiss culture, and especially Swiss ski culture, is far from people going down into an underground club at 8am on a Sunday morning and finding a pack of people who have been down there for the past two days," admits Mathew Jonson, a revered artist in the scene. No arguments there.
“This is a beautiful, relatively posh resort in Switzerland. If you compare that to Berghain club in Berlin, it really is so different.
“A lot of the club scene takes more of an industrial form. The contrast is really nice as an artist to be able to experience both of those things. It’s a real breath of fresh air!" Literally, we add. Jonson laughs.
He’s a man described by music authority Resident Advisor as having “one of the most distinctive voices in electronic dance music."
They write that he has “a keen understanding of the universal laws of house and techno," and has “thrown out the rule book time and time again" since releasing his first record back in 2001.
He’s also an avid snowboarder, and after combining techno with slope-time for three days as tantalising as they are tiring, we sit down with Jonson to talk about the techno takeover of the quaint Swiss ski town.
“It’s not the typical kind of festival," he says. “Caprices have always been known to support less commercial of a sound. Even back when they were back doing rock band and pop music they weren’t doing the super commercial stuff."
He raises a good point. The festival didn’t actually start with a specific focus on the electronic scene.
The first edition of Caprices was in 2004, and until recently, it was centred on rock and pop music. Acts from the past include everyone from Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to Björk, Nas and Nelly Fertado. It was only after what organisers described as an “overwhelming enthusiasm" for the electronic line up that they decided to turn off the lights on their pop past and dedicate themselves to techno in 2014.
“It’s not the most commercial acts in the electronic scene by any means," Jonson continued. “You don’t have Tiesto or David Guetta here. It’s not that world.
“The people who are playing here are a little more underground. It’s not necessarily an older crowd but it’s a crowd who have had their time exposed to the more commercial side of electronic music, maybe got a little bit bored, dug deeper and found all of us."
Mathew is no stranger to the mountains. He grew up skiing in Penticton in British Columbia, Canada until the age of 13, when he switched to strap into a snowboard. 23 years later and he’s never looked back.
His grew up on Apex Alpine mountain, but also frequented Silver Star, Whistler Blackcomb, Mt Seymour and Mt Washington before moving to Berlin to further his music career around 2006.
“Since I’ve been living in Berlin, I haven’t really had as much of a chance to snowboard. There were actual whole seasons where I maybe only rode once or twice.
“I was so spoiled in Canada. In Vancouver I lived on the ocean and could drive 15 minutes and be at the base of a small ski hill. I would sit and have breakfast there, drive up, ride for a couple of hours, drive home and have lunch. There were three mountains within 30 minutes so I could see which had the best conditions. I was riding three or four times a week for three years at that time.
“It’s been really nice working with the guys from Caprices. I’ve been riding a lot more because they’ve been booking me at their events all over Switzerland! I always take more time here to enjoy the mountains and snowboard.
“I actually spent the last five weeks in Japan, in the best powder. Before that I was here a month and a half ago riding, and then a month before that I was in Davos [Switzerland], and all of that was for music. To be able to travel and snowboard and play music, it’s a luxury."
For Jonson then, the pairing of mountain air and industrial techno music is not only quite natural, it’s the ideal combination.
He’s the only artist at the festival playing live as oppose to DJing with turntables. He explains that this involves "programming drum machines" as he goes, “mixing them and dubbing them, adding parts, reverb and delay, sculpting the sound with the mixing board and adding new synth lines or basslines on the fly".
We catch his set from midnight to 1am at Cry d’Er, a mountain chalet 2200m high, and it goes down a treat.
“I’ve never really been that advanced of a snowboarder," he admits. “I really just like being in the mountains. I’ve always been about nature. I was a lifeguard for seven years and I like camping a lot. It’s relaxing. It’s grounding. And coming here is kind of the same.
“I take it slow; I’m like an old man! I ride for a bit, sit down, look at the view, go have a nice lunch, whatever. It’s super chill.
“And my surroundings influence my music too. When I was living in Vancouver my music had a more organic feel to it than the music I make in Berlin."
The artists and festival-goers may revel in bringing that organic touch to their industrial scene, but the feeling isn’t always mutual for the residents of Crans-Montana. The festival was forced to move grounds this year after noise complaints in 2016.
We ask our mountain guide François for his opinion on it, and though he admits that the music itself is not for him, he’s positive about the impact it is having on the town and enthusiastic about the future.
He says: “For me, it’s good because people are discovering the place and at the same time they see how beautiful it is, they see the sun and the views, and maybe they will come back again for skiing."
With the views from Crans-Montana including a 3000m panorama that spans from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc, there’s certainly no denying that the scenery stays long in the memory.
And judging on a turn out of almost 30,000 people, despite the fact that it was on at the same time as the heavyweight of the snow-based music festival scene Snowbombing, it looks like Caprices will be around for a while as well.
Once a quiet family resort, Crans-Montana is now the latest pilgrimage site in the industrial world of underground techno.
The times are changing in the Swiss mountains.