Under the reflection of three giant disco balls, the world-famous DJ Diplo is transitioning from playing European club music to his own EDM-style Top 40 remixes while machines shoot out smoke to the beat. Chris Cates, creator of the Austin-famous Instagram account When Where What Austin, is keeping an eye on the champagne bottles topped with sparklers that the bottle girls are bouncing up and down. We’re at Superstition nightclub in East Riverside, where Cates and five of his colleagues have just piled through the back entrance to get to a reserved table, ready to make good on the “play hard” aspect of their very modern business.
I post Cates on my Instagram story and tag his account, fully knowing that everyone I met in undergrad at UT Austin will be jealous that I’m with the man himself. (“Celebrity sighting,” a friend of mine DMed in response.) His reputation precedes him, though no one quite recognizes the face behind the royal-blue squares and Helvetica text that tell his 306,000 followers where to go and why. Cates is mostly quiet, easygoing, and doesn’t exude any party-boy smarminess. Both times we met, he was wearing the same navy crew neck and dirty sneakers (which his friends gave him a hard time for when he posted them on his personal Instagram).
When Where What is the brainchild of 34-year-old Cates, who created the Instagram account in 2015 primarily for himself, in the hopes of finding free drinks and cool events. Those famous little blue squares provide the when, where, and what of events throughout the city, from group listening parties of just-released albums to the demolition of historic landmarks that have become pillars of the community. Most Instagram posts are the exact same cookie-cutter style unless it’s sponsored, which is where Cates and his four-person team make some of their money. They’ve scored giant Texas clients—Austin–Bergstrom International Airport, ACL Live, the Moody Center, the Spurs—who pay for promotional Instagram stories and posts.
Looking up from my phone to take in the luxurious chaos around me—a move that Cates knows well—I hear Diplo yell, “How the f— are we doing, Austin?” Truthfully, not well. I’m on hour twelve of hanging out with the biggest partiers in the city.
12:45 p.m. I meet Cates and his cofounder, Esteban Rey, at East Austin’s Native Hostel, the cocktail lounge, event venue, and “cultural incubator” where their office is located. They occupy the entire west wing, where a series of rooms provides a studio, a collaborative workspace, and a complete DJ setup. The company has five full-time, salaried employees who have become friends to Cates, often blurring the line between coworker and confidant.
It’s a Sunday, but the all-male team, ranging in age from 23 to 47, is here to drink mimosas and listen to Drake. A mini cardboard cutout of the Russian social media personality Hasbulla supervises the cluster of desks in the office as Cates explains the plan for the day, while reminding me that he’s really not much of a planner. That’s not the case; he walks a balance between spontaneity and having a keen sense of knowing where to find a good time. “I think I’ll just let the world figure it out today,” he jokes, stepping away from the computer screen.
1:56 p.m. Edward Castillo, founder of Figure It Out, the experiential marketing arm of WWW, is our designated driver for the rest of the day and into the night. After a liquid brunch for the rest of us, he drives the group to the Circuit of the Americas MotoGP races. Their days, especially on weekends, are spent around open bars, loud music, and exclusive events. It’s just part of the job description. By the time we get settled at the track, “final lap” flashes across every screen in the venue. We had just barely missed the race. No one seems upset.
3:07 p.m. “Are you doing a drink count on me?” Cates asks. In exchange for a few posts promoting the event, Circuit of the Americas has provided us with access to the Paddock Club lounge, a hospitality space with free drinks and food and the perfect viewing deck. “I’d always wanted to know what I actually do in a day, so this’ll be fun,” says Cates. “It could also make me realize some things.” Sometimes Cates, and whoever else feels the need to dry out, will go on a hundred-day sobriety stint. “It’s kind of like a constant delicate balance, but we’ve figured it out,” he told me earlier in the week.
During most of our time together, Cates was on his phone (yes, his phone wallpaper is blue), checking what followers say in the hundreds of DMs that come in within a few minutes of posting a new event or Story. Even—and maybe especially—while partying, duty calls.
3:35 p.m. In an attempt to bond with the men around me, I ask what their dream car would be. Cates immediately answers with Ferrari, and I suggest the color red. “It’s gonna be blue?” Esteban asks, not hearing my suggestion.
“I guess it should be,” Cates responds. He’s on drink nine. He and Castillo move from the Paddock Lounge to the Red Bull Lounge, which ends up being so exclusive that not all of us can enter. (Lounge count: 2.) Rey and I hit up the ice cream and espresso bar instead as he tells me about his glory days tour managing post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. He’s humble about it all, and I can tell his grown-up presence is a grounding force for the rest of the team.
5:17 p.m. Five hours after we started, the first sign of exhaustion sets in. Rey has his eyes closed and his head back as we drive to “the next move.” We’re headed to Higher Ground, a cocktail bar that WWW partners with on “Four Record Friday” events, where Cates picks four records he’s been loving and they queue them up for the masses. On this Saturday, there are $10 champagne bottles, loud music, and a bowl of fries on the table. Cates gives me a look—morale is low. He’s on drink fourteen.
At some point during the day, I mentioned that I hadn’t yet been to the Moody Center. Cates instantly added it to the itinerary. Rauw Alejandro, a Puerto Rican singer who is known as the “King of Modern Reggaeton,” is performing, and they have spots for us in the Moët & Chandon Impérial Lounge.
6:50 p.m. The guys’ DJ friend Bruce Merhav-Williams is on at SkyHouse Lounge (lounge count: 3, 1 pending), a downtown Austin bar and barbershop owned by yet another friend of Cates. The size of our group, mostly employees and a few friends, has almost doubled and will continue to grow as we stop from place to place.
The group is amiable, but it’s apparent that Cates’s circle includes the occasional snake in the grass who wants to take advantage of the access that took eight years of behind-the-scenes work to cultivate. Cates doesn’t seem outwardly bothered by it, but the constant texts from acquaintances who ask for a favor or an invite must take a toll. Not tonight, though: “I love these guys,” he tells me, unprompted, while sipping on his sixteenth drink.
8:14 p.m. We get into the Moody Center without much planning. On the way over, Cates tries to convince a reluctant friend and coworker to come out. “That’s a fireable offense,” he jokes. We take two pedicabs and a (very small and resembling a clown car situation) karaoke bus to get to and from the venue. Cates sits on Castillo’s lap while we’re swung by the pedicab bicyclist in front of us.
There are four of us in the suite now, drinking $45 glasses of champagne. The walls are lined with slender tables filled with charcuterie boards, naan pizzas, and vegetable trays. Along with a few earlier mini corn dogs, this is all most of us have eaten the whole day. There’s a mix of friends and coworkers spread out between two suites, and Cates, seemingly out of habit, wants to squeeze as much as he can out of the experience. “Are there free drinks in the other lounge?” he asks.
11:23 p.m. We’re back with the Red Bull team at an exclusive event at Cedar Street Courtyard. Someone asks Cates how long we’ll be here, yelling over live music from Martin McDaniel in the background. “One drink,” he responds, using the partiers’ preferred unit of time measurement. Castillo is killing it on the dance floor.
12:23 a.m. There are ten of us now at Superstition nightclub. Diplo, who just announced his second country album, is already playing his set. Cates has connections here too, so we have a table sectioned off by the exit. They hand him the drink menu, and, once opened, all the names of bottles are illuminated.
“What would Texas Monthly do?” he asks me as we peruse the list of liquor worth hundreds of dollars. “No, it’s more like what would Chris Cates do?” I tell him. He orders two bottles of champagne and a bottle of Casamigos while sipping on drink 25. I’m watching Diplo’s head bounce and see Cates take a shot. We leave the nightclub and go to “after hours” at another dark bar downtown. This is where I begin to question their sanity and possible liver damage, but I see why everyone seems to gravitate toward Cates. He’s easy to talk to, but when it comes to business, he’s smart and knows what’ll resonate with WWW’s following. A 5k run in downtown Austin? No. Thrifting while sipping on free fruity cocktails? Definitely.
3:17 a.m. Edwards is the one to break the news: Cates has just pulled an Irish goodbye, and who could blame him? The drink count had hit thirty.