LA’s Dark Underground Festival Returns: Substance Weekend I Recap

November 3 & 4, 2023

Substance Festival, which brands itself as “LA’s ONLY independent dark festival,” has become a staple of LA’s alternative music scene over the last several years. Substance Festival features a dark, delicious medley of established and up-and-coming post-punk, darkwave, new wave, and all 1980s-influenced and experimental synthesizer music. 

I first attended Substance as a newcomer last year, and the festival was my introduction to LA’s 80s/post-punk/goth-adjacent community. Since falling in love with LA’s synthesizer music community, I’ve attended countless live music events, through which I’ve made personal and industry connections, many of which led me to find my footing in concert photography and music journalism. If it weren’t for the Instagram ad that led me to buy Substance 2022 tickets to see two of my favorite artists, Boy Harsher and Mareux, I wouldn’t have met the people who kickstarted the butterfly effect that led to me writing this article today. 

It’s unbelievable how one event, one moment, can change the course of your life. For myself and many other Substance attendees and performers, this festival has significantly impacted our lives. Not only do we get to see our favorite bands, but we also get to see dozens of the familiar faces of other regular LA goth show-goers under one big roof. And this year, it was for four days over two weekends instead of their typical two-day weekend lineup.

This year, Substance took its “dark underground” reputation to a whole new level at the Globe Theatre in DTLA. There were two stages: the upstairs main stage and a downstairs basement stage. After spending a few hours in the humid, red-lit haze of the fog machines in the basement, my leather jacket was sticking to me like a t-shirt in a pool. I saw Touching Ice on the basement stage and caught PVA on the main stage when I needed a break. I’d never heard of either of the artists, but they both had phenomenal sets.

Photos by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

Before I knew it, it was time to see Secret Attraction, an atmospheric, dark, shoegaze-y band. I first had the pleasure of hearing and photographing Secret Attraction a few months ago at the Lodge Room. Secret Attraction is a Phoenix, Arizona-based duo with vocalist and guitarist Derek Wise and Rachel Hutchins on keys. They released their third full-length album in late September, appropriately titled LP3. I had a chance to catch up with Derek after their basement stage set on day 1.

Photo by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

Teia Ciornei: Congrats on releasing your third album, LP3! I want to say I love the title. So simple, so effective. I’m curious, did you always plan on calling it LP3, or did you get sick of trying to come up with new names and say “screw it” one day?

Derek Wise: “I always wanted to call it LP3 from the start. It’s clean. At one point it was going to be called Melancholy. I even have the early artwork for it until I went back to the original title, LP3. I can be so indecisive with titles it’s unreal at times”.

Funnily enough, my favorite track from LP3 to hear live was “Melancholy.” I’m glad the band ended up using it as a song title instead of the album title.

Ciornei: What does it mean to you, personally and as a band, to play Substance Festival?

Wise: “This is our second year in a row playing Substance and it still doesn’t feel real until we step on stage. That’s when it feels like a lot of this hard work is paying off. You get to hang with friends who are also performing too. It’s the coolest feeling.”

Ciornei: Did you have any favorite sets this weekend?

Wise: “I really enjoyed catching Crack Cloud’s set. That was the first time actually hearing their music. So good. Madeline Goldstein, Mirror of Venus… got to catch Buzz Kull at the end of their set. TR/ST to end Saturday night was amazing.”

Photos by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

On day 2 of weekend 1, I aimed to catch Houses of Heaven, Harsh Symmetry, Buzz Kull, Actors, Tempers, INHALT, and TR/ST. Some of the sets overlapped, so I was running up and down between a few of the performances, but it was worth it. Even with my 50lb camera bag weighing me down, making angry indents in my shoulder, I soldiered up and down those stairs more times than I can remember.

Photo by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

Harsh Symmetry has been one of my favorite LA-based artists to see and photograph since I first discovered him at Substance 2022, playing one of the smaller, floor-level stages at the LA Theater. By the end of his set, the room was overflowing. Watching Harsh Symmetry’s fanbase grow exponentially over the past year has been amazing. Since Substance 2022, Julian Sharwarko, the sole mastermind behind Harsh Symmetry, played his first headlining show in LA, which I had the pleasure of photographing. Julian released his darkwave sophomore LP, Imitation, just a few months ago via Fabrika Records, continuing his steady ascent into dark stardom. Luckily, I was able to catch him for a quick greenroom chat before his set.

Teia Ciornei: In only a year, you went from playing one of Substance’s smaller stages to rocking the Globe’s main stage this weekend! How have you evolved as a performer since your 2022 Substance debut?

Julian Sharwarko: “I think my on-stage demeanor has changed a bit for the better, a lot of it has to do with the music itself. Performing songs from the new album and seeing the audience has been really engaging for me, and the songs take on lives of their own over time. Let’s hope I don’t get sick of them too soon”.

Ciornei: What excites you most about returning to Substance Festival?

Sharwarko: “Returning to Substance was something I was really excited for. There aren’t any alternatives for Substance as a fest, it is the only one of its kind. I was very pleased to be a part of it!”

Ciornei: Who are you most excited to see next weekend?

Sharwarko: “Next weekend, of course, Panther Modern. I’ve met Brady on a few occasions and he is a very kind, dedicated artist. Twin Tribes are my good friends, seeing them for the first time since tour the other month will be a nice reunion!” 

Photos by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

After Harsh Symmetry’s set, I caught a few acts, including Buzz Kull, ACTORS, and Tempers. Before I knew it, my second-most anticipated act, INHALT, was due to play on the basement stage at 12:35 am. With a full live analog setup, INHALT was doubtlessly the most electric set of the weekend. INHALT, German for “content,” is the dual project of Matia Simovich and Philip Winiger, who played their first live set in 7 years at this year’s Substance Festival. Regrettably, I didn’t capture any good footage of their set because I struggled to figure out the settings on my brand-new camera body… Rookie mistake, I know, but anyone who’s dabbled in concert photography can tell you how difficult it can be to capture highly dark environments. Whatever, I thought, more time to dance. And dance I did, thanks to INHALT and all the fantastic acts that came before them. 

Photos by Teia Ciornei (@teiatoast)

A mysterious fire alarm evacuated everybody from the basement towards the end of INHALT’s performance, so I unfortunately missed TR/ST’s set on the main stage. However, I caught maybe 30 seconds of “Dressed for Space,” which was enough to appease my darkwave heart for the night. A few friends sent me videos of TR/ST’s set, and I lived vicariously through them– it’s true, Robert Alfons sounds just as ethereal, gloomy, and euphoric live as he does in recordings. Although weekend 1 exhausted me, during the car ride home, I couldn’t wait for Substance weekend 2 in just a few days.