The British festival experience is largely based on, outside of music, getting smashed. It’s almost a rite of passage to go to your first festival, drink in the campsite with your friends, pass out outside your tent, wake up to vomit whatever cheap booze you’ve been glugging down and then do it all again. Festivals are a way to escape from the responsibilities of everyday life and most of us wouldn’t even dream of taking an exercise class to start our day at Glastonbury or The Great Escape. So why, at this year’s SXSW festival, were hundreds of people signing up to take part in SoulCycle classes?
Throughout the week, the Spotify house hosted spin classes run by the US indoor cycling chain, each featuring a live DJ set from the likes of Chromeo, AlunaGeorge and Tokimonsta. When NME headed down on Friday morning, Neon Indian (aka Alan Palomo) was behind the decks to soundtrack riders’ session.
“It was kind of a why not,” Palomo says about his reasons for signing up to take charge of the music at the class. “The idea was so strange initially when I first heard it that it was like ‘yeah alright, I’ll show up for that. Let’s give it a shot’.”
Most of the people in the class don’t seem to find the idea of being at a spin class at 9:30am in the middle of a festival weird at all. One woman says she flew into town the day before and thought she’d come down ahead of a brunch meeting as if it’s the most casual thing in the world. Plenty of the people in the room have SoulCycle march on or with them, with very few taking the sign-up sheets for SoulCycle newbies.
In America, there’s a cult-like following around the company. Palomo likens the fanatical audience to ravers. “Some people get their high from good living and, in some regard, it can almost be as obsessive a culture as rave or drug culture,” he says. “But obviously operating on completely opposite schedules. Those circadian schedules are never going to sync up, but it’s definitely a phenomenon.”
For the class, Palomo delivers a set of upbeat house tunes and peppy instructor Lindsay Buckley uses the strong beats to choreograph dance-like moves while everyone’s cycling on the bikes. The white walls of the room have soft pink and purple lighting projected onto them with the main lights dimmed, and it kind of feels like we’re in a (very clean, very swanky) club.
“Lately I’ve been DJing way more techno and way more aggressive, straight-to-tape techno too. This isn’t a warehouse at three in the morning, it’s a different vibe altogether,” says Palomo about his music choice. “I’ve always been a fan of house and all its different iterations, and that felt like a little bit more of a universal pump-up music as opposed to trying to get heady.”
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Before the session starts, the woman next to me tells me SoulCycle is fun, but hard. She’s not wrong – it’s also sweaty as hell. Some people more obviously enjoy it than others – one guy frequently whoops and cheers when Buckley tells us to turn the resistance on the bikes up or pick up the dumbbells from underneath the bike seats – but, if you can get past the feeling like your thighs are quickly turning to jelly, it is actually pretty fun.
It seems pretty unlikely it’s something that would catch on over in the UK (just imagine jumping on a spin bike at Reading in preparation for moshing to Foals), but it’s easy to see why some people at SXSW see it as a good idea. For one thing, you can burn hundreds of calories in one session, meaning less reason to feel guilty about all that cheap booze and greasy food you’re shovelling down your throat all weekend. That’s definitely something we can get behind.