The “Can Do” Lab
Everything is impossible, until you’ve tried it. The event architects at Do Lab are constantly trying to realize the outer reaches of their imagination.
The Do LaB is a Los Angeles-based production studio responsible for the annual Lightning in a Bottle Festival, the Do LaB stage at Coachella, and innovative structures at festivals around the world.
The studio was founded by twin brothers Jesse and Josh Flemming, along with their brother Dede and childhood friend Jesse “Y2” Shannon. The brothers had their own DJ business as teenagers in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. The Do LaB grew out of the annual birthday party Jesse began hosting after he moved to California in 1999. Its signature music festival, Lightning in a Bottle, was officially inaugurated in 2006 at a site outside Santa Barbara, CA; it now attracts more than 30,000 visitors a year and features elaborate purpose-built temporary structures.
The Do LaB has also built and hosted stages at other major musical festivals, including Pemberton Festival in Canada, Boom Festival in Portugal, Envision Festival in Costa Rica, and the Great Convergence at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. They also host the internationally acclaimed Woogie Weekend and the summer camp–themed Dirtybird Campout.
Behind every unforgettable party is a great host. At Do LaB, the Los Angeles-based production studio responsible for the Lightning in a Bottle Festival and Coachella’s most beloved stage, there are twin pillars of creativity. Jesse Flemming is the curator. His twin brother Josh, the sculptor. But they started small—really small.
Josh Flemming: We were always building forts. We were always getting into our dad’s tools, and whatever lumber he had under the deck, and building stuff. It’s just what we did.
The brothers planned parties, often professionally, throughout their youth, but they never expected to end up with an annual festival of their own.
Jesse Flemming: When it first started, I think in 2000, it was 150 people and we printed up these little card invitations with a nice little story like, “Hey, we’d like to invite you.” We would just give them out to our friends or mail them to people. Then word of mouth started to pick up. But back then, it was just “If you knew, you knew.”
AJC: And the end game for that was what? Just have a good time? Were you hoping to make money? Were you hoping to build business?
Jesse: No, I mean, the first four years, it was completely free. We paid for it out of pocket, because it started as our birthday party. So it was kind of like a gift from us to all of our friends. It cost us about a thousand bucks to put it on. We’d get a generator, and some fuel, and a couple lights, and pay a couple DJs, and a little sound system, and that was it.
AJC: How many people show up to your birthday now?
Jesse Flemming: Somewhere around 30,000.
These days, festival planners all over the world look to the Flemmings for cues on how to establish a culture that will last. The brothers themselves learned, at least in part, through observation. Philadelphia Folk Fest, the oldest continually-run outdoor music festival in North America, was just part of the wallpaper of their childhood.
Jesse: We got to run around in all the little camps backstage where all the crew and the volunteers were camping in, and it really left an impression on us. It really inspired us and, at the time, we had no idea that that’s the direction our lives would go. But it definitely always was imprinted on our brains about the festival culture, and how people come together, and build a community, and live together, camping for weeks at a time to create an event.
AJC: Is that, at the core, what you do? Because it really is that, it’s almost… Many festivals—I would suggest probably all festivals—are kind of, “If you show up there, and you want to be there, you have almost joined a tribe by default. And then you’re creating a temporary community, a temporary encampment, for that tribe to exercise its culture.” Is that what it feels like to you?
Jesse: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of what festivals are about, and it’s certainly a big part of what we do. A lot of events and festivals throw the word “community” around. And some of them are legitimately building communities that come together year after year, like a Burning Man, for instance. That community has spread all over the world, has all kinds of off-shoot festivals, and events, and it’s really become this huge network of people—creative people. We’ve been a part of it for almost 20 years now. Yeah, I think Lightning in a Bottle is a big community of people that love to come together every year to celebrate.
And for all their triumphs, these past 20 years have offered Josh and Jesse plenty of trial and error. Indeed, all the architecture, structural engineering, and set design skills that go into their giant creations was self-taught.
Josh: Once I realized that this is what I’m passionate about, it’s just “structure,” I kind of set out to just study as much as I could. I got every book that I could afford to and I would just study. I would study the details. I would walk through the streets and I would look at how lampposts are built, or how buildings are done, or bridges, or anything, really. You can pretty much find any connection for anything that you want to create. It’s already been done. Nothing is really that new. So I would just pay attention, just study on my own. It’s been fun, actually, ’cause I’m not, you know, not classically-trained in a school, so I think outside of a box.
AJC: When you look back at the earlier work, what do you think of it now? Do you know the guys who made that?
Jesse: I mean, I remember the guys that made that early work. They were young, renegade, crazy attitude. We didn’t care. We were just having fun with our friends. And the fact that we were getting to do what we love to do, for us, was just mind-blowing. Every day it was just, like, we get to live the best lives. When I look at the work, it’s kind of interesting because you can see… I know what we were thinking back then, and I know how we put all these little pieces together. We didn’t really understand how to build things. We would take a couple materials and try and put them together in ways that, now, it’s laughable to us. We’re just like, “Why would… I can’t believe we never even thought of a better way to do that.” But it’s pretty interesting to see the evolution. We’ve come pretty far.
AJC: And that’s experience plus technology. Because the technology is a very big piece of this, right?
Jesse: I mean, it’s been pretty important. In the beginning, it was pencil sketches and cardboard models. We’d be cutting out little pieces and gluing it together, not even to scale. Then we would just try to figure it out on site. But now, everything’s modeled and rendered down to the nuts and the bolts. It used to be, we’d get together to build a project, and everything would go wrong. Nothing would ever fit, and it was constantly trying to fix things and rework it. But now we make all these pieces, we have it all fabricated. We bring it together and it just fits together like IKEA sets. And it blows our minds sometimes, how… I don’t want to say easy, but relatively easy these things just go together, all because of the technology.
AJC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve built?
Josh: Currently, the largest structure that we’ve built is for Boom Festival in Portugal. That’s 2016. I believe that was 280-foot diameter by 45-feet tall.
Josh: And that was a clear-span space, which means that there’s no columns or anything inside of it. So that was, like, an awesome accomplishment.
AJC: How many bodies can go in that?
Josh: You know, it’s…
AJC: Several thousand?
Josh: Yeah, several thousand. Everybody has a different calculation for that, but I’ll say at least five plus.
AJC: And did you get to be in that space with other people?
Josh: Oh, yeah. I mean, we build it. We don’t just design and send them off. We’re a design-build company. We love building more than anything. I can only spend so much time on a computer, you know. Jesse and I love to get out there and just… We spent two months in Portugal, camping in tents, 100-degree weather, building this structure with an international team. And it was epic. And then we spent nine days at the festival, celebrating inside of it. It’s cool. We build these massive projects in a short amount of time, which is not like traditional architecture. And then we celebrate the existence of it for a short amount of time. Then we break it down, and sometimes they never see the light of day again. Like, that one will never get set up again.
AJC: Does that not hurt?
Josh: Yeah, to be honest, I’m a little bit tired of spending six months of a year for three days, and then that’s it. And that’s kind of the model that we’ve set up. It’s very temporary.
And the Flemming Brothers are now looking for ways to make what they do more enduring.
Jesse: I think a dream project for us would be to design a permanent amphitheater space built into some sort of natural hill or cove. And design an amphitheater event experience space that’s unlike anything that exists. That’s what we’d really like to do. We talk about it all the time.