So in thinking about what records to bring when I DJ We Fought the Big One in a few days, I started thinking about my old “post-punk” party Transmission and how I wanted to write about it, before the memories fade. I’m not sure if 5 years is a long enough time ago to get nostalgic about, but as my friend Nick once said “you’re the most nostalgic person I know” and what can I say, the memories are fading.
WARNING: Excessive self-indulgent nostalgia, shameless name-dropping and ridiculous romanticizing ahead…
I didn’t used to go out at all. I moved to NYC in 97 after college, and for a few years the only times I went out involved the occasional Oberlin-related parties, some of which I DJ’d disco and 80s stuff at. It was during that time that I got more and more serious about buying old post-punk records, and there was a bit of a resurgence of interest in it. I specifically remember the release of Marina’s Josef K compilation, which was a pretty big import at the cool stores here, as being a watershed moment. This was also the time I was starting Acute and that release made me think about the possibilities.
The music scene in NY really didn’t excite me that much, and to be honest I didn’t have the nerves or motivation to go out. There was the occasional indie-rock show, some techno DJs, but most of the rock bands were these post-Johnny Thunders poseurs and house and techno mostly stuck to their insular sounds and scenes.
There was plenty of DJing going on in clubs and bars, for dancing or not. Lots of punk and lots of boring electronica kinds of stuff. Then one night I was at a show at Brownies and I saw this guy walk in with a crate of records. In between the bands, he threw on some records. I think he actually played the Fire Engines. I know he played Malaria! It totally blew me away. I figured usually the sound guy just threw on a CD in between bands, and here was this guy playing really cool records. I wanted to do that so bad. I thought it would be so cool, people would come up to me and tell me how awesome the music was and say “hey, what’s that record?” and “hey, can I come home with you?” I got really jealous and mad and knew I had really cool records and wanted to play them in a bar in NYC, that it would be so awesome and would solve all my social problems. That guy, credit where it’s due, was Joshua Zucker (later of The Prosaics, for the ny scene trainspotters.)
Not long after that, I went to Plant Bar for the first time. It was a tiny bar, max occupancy of about 75 I think. It was owned by Dominique Keegan (now of The Glass) and Marcus Lambkin (Shit Robot). At the time, they were in charge of Plant Friday Nights at Centro-Fly, a big house/club night in town. Plant Bar was their little hipster hangout in Alphabet City, with a sound-system installed by their friend James Murphy. It was super hyped for a while, there’d always be stories of these big artists showing up unannounced to play with friends. Fatboy Slim, or Ad Rock and Kathleen Hanna. It was also one of the first lounges of its type, especially in that area. Guernica was around the corner, with it’s basement that used to be Save The Robots, but the idea of a tiny bar with absolutely no dancefloor boasting a loud system and a relatively proper DJ booth made for an interesting combination and got a lot of press.
The nights cycled through several different parties and hosts. Wall of Sound, Vice Magazine, Chez Music all hosted parties. At some point DJ Ulysses held a party called Funk Box. One night he had Morgan and Darshan of Metro Area as guest DJs. As a friend of theirs, hearing them spin were some of the few times I’d actually get out of the house. I went with my friend Ryan. As we’re sitting there listening to some boogie disco or whatever, Ryan pointed to the bar-back and said “remember that band The Rapture I was telling you about, the ones who sound like PiL and Gang of Four? That’s the singer.” He had just seen them and I was intrigued.
I had never heard The Rapture. Actually, I hadn’t bought a record that came out after 1982 or so since college. I knew the chicago “no wave” bands and had seen Computer Couger in concert, but had no idea of any new bands mining the records I was collecting. Despite not knowing anything about them, I walked up to Luke and introduced myself. Not something that came easy to me at that point. I said I liked funky/dancey post-punk records like Josef K, the Fire Engines and Marine and my friend says your band is into that stuff and I was thinking it would be cool for there to be a night in NYC where people played that kind of music, and mixed it with old cool disco. I think it would go over pretty well because it sounds great and may even be getting hip. He took my number and said he’d talk to the owners.
Not long after, Luke called me and said I could come in and DJ a happy hour, wednesday night from 6pm to 10pm. A few weeks later I came in and DJ’d. I didn’t tell anybody about it because I was really nervous. I put all my records in a crate, carried it to the F train, then carried it to the bar. By the time I got behind the turntables, my arms were so fucked from carrying the crate that I litterally had to use one arm to lift the other one to put the needle on the record! But I survived and was invited to come back weekly. I thought about names, I remember thinking Moody was a good one, though everybody kept thinking I was saying “booty”. Then my friend and fellow Joy Division/New Order fan Josh (later of The Affair), suggested Transmission. Here’s the first flyer, printed on laser printers at work, as usual…
Yes, I was ripping off the Dr. Mix 7″ sleeve, but Acute would license that a few years later, so it’s ok. Things started off well. Lots of my friends came, and as the bar was still somewhat hip, there were often people there I didn’t even know!
One of the great things about starting a party, or a band, is that a lot of your friends come every time. For a while. Eventually, most of them stop. Luckily I was meeting people. Online via the Typical Girls mailing list, I met Kevin Pedersen (What’s Your Rupture?) and Aileen Brophy for starters. They would be among the first guest DJs. I met people while handing out flyers…I gave a flyer to Michael Goodstein (soon of WFMU’s Choking on Cufflinks) and he recognized Kevin’s name so he came down. Joshua Gabriel came and guest dj’d a britpop night hosted by DJ Oil and Luke immediately told him to come to my party, knowing he found a likeminded individual.
Eventually, Monday nights opened up, and Dominique offered it to Luke, who’d graduated to bartender. And what a bartender! One night he made me something he called “The Flying Saucer”. I threw up for hours, got in a fight with a girl I was seeing because of it, and ended up out of that particular relationship for the time being. Anyway, Luke decided to put together the evening, calling it the Love at Night Social. Initially, Tim Sweeney was going to be involved but I somehow scammed him out of it by suggesting he switch to Wednesday happy hours. Somehow, monday night shaped up like this. Kevin, who’d spent plenty of time at my party, was also friends with the Rapture guys and some of their buddies, like Max Wowch and they ended up doing happy hour together, soon to be joined by The Rapture’s drummer Vito. Then I would take over sometime around 9 or 10 and play for an hour or 3. I was then followed by Brian Degraw and Leo Fitzpatrick.
Kevin, Max and Vito had a decent amount of friends who could be counted to come by for happy hour most, if not every, times. Most of them went to Wesleyan or were from Australia. Max played lots of AM gold and weird disco, Vito practiced mixing detroit techno and Kevin played Zarjazz or the Exploited. Here’s me and Kevin, photo by Lisa Garrett, I think.
Brian and Leo were very connected, Brian was already having success as an artist and his band the Cranium were fondly remembered by people of the post-hardcore persuasion. He’s now better known as a member of Gang Gang Dance. Leo was still remembered as “Leo from Kids” but I remembered him as Leo from West Orange because I played in a band with his older brother. Their buddies like Ben Cho and Matt from Imitation of Christ were regulars. Luke and I really thought this combo was going to be awesome, we really wanted the “chloe sevigny” crowd to come. It wasn’t all about hipster cred. When throwing events, especially on weeknights, you have to deal with the demographics. Who goes out to a bar on a monday night till 4 in the morning? NYU students, aspiring musicians, artists, trust fund kids, etc. I was lucky enough to have a job where I worked from 1pm to 9pm, so long as I was in bed by 5am I could get 7 or so hours of sleep. Some people did this while keeping regular jobs. I don’t know how. I think it involved cocaine and coffee.
There was some crossover, some of my friends and fellow record dorks were also friends with the happy hour crowd and vice versa, but the transition to night wasn’t as smooth. I remember thinking the late night crowd would show up while I was djing and be so blown away that they’d decide to come earlier. That never happened. No, even on my worst night, djing to some random stragglers, sure enough, 5 minutes after turning the tables over to Brian, 2 dozen beautiful young girls with weird haircuts and Smiths t-shirts on over lacey dresses would show up, stay for 20 minutes then leave. At some point while Brian was in the UK doing artist stuff, Leo suddenly moved their party to one of the new hip bars, either Lit or Pianos, which had just opened (and yes, if you’re newer to NY, those places were HIP, at some point).
Fact is, we had lots and lots of empty nights, nights where I’d just play records for Luke, or we’d take turns practicing mixing. I started playing more and more dance music because it was something to do, beatmatching club records was a more involved act then cueing up a punk 7″. The only reason it lasted was because The Rapture were on the rise and I think Dominique was keen to continue to humor Luke and let him have his fun. I was also getting really good press for the party, even if nobody was there. The Village Voice listed my night as a best, thanks to Douglas Wolk, and the following year Tricia Romano called me “Best DJ’s DJ”. Spin magazine, in a guide to what to do in college towns, for NYC listed Plant Bar mondays “where DJs with impeccable taste play 7″s worth more then your rent” or something. What it resulted in was a situation that I now realize is very rare. Most club/bar owners expect you to bring in the crowds and the money and if you don’t, you’re gone. The fact that Dom let us do it for so long through some really lean times, when he could’ve gotten any number of crap(pier) djs to come play more commercial stuff and please the east village tourists, was amazing and I’m forever grateful to him for that. Also the fact that Luke was the bartendar and considered it his “night” meant everything. Everywhere I’ve DJ’d, the best parties are ones where the bartender is involved, is into the music you play, becomes friends with your friends and remembers your regulars. It can make all the difference.
After the late night party left, I decided I wanted to go later but not too late. Luke and I brainstormed, who could we get to come DJ on a monday night starting at 1am? I quickly thought of Mad Mike NYC, aka CZKO, aka Alfredo Mas, aka Mikey, aka Freddie Mas, aka Michael. I met Mikey a bit before when I first started going out. The very first party I went to by myself was Bang the Party at Frank’s Lounge, and soon as I walked in I saw Dan Balis (now in Escort) who I’d met through Metro Area. Then a week later I decided to go to a monday night party at a club called Fun in Chinatown. This is the bar that had video cameras in the bathrooms so men and women could see each other wash their hands. It was very dot-com era and peaked during the electroclash era, I saw Adult. and I-F there. The party was advertised as “Disco Punk”, so I thought I should check it out. I nervously walk in the door, the second “dance” night I’d ever gone to, and by myself, and there is Dan Balis again. He introduced me to the host of the party, Mikey, who had just played Greater Reward by Severed Heads.
Now a year or 2 later, he’d become a semi-regular at Transmission/mondays at Plant. He lived with his fiance Juanita down the street. A few years later I learned her name was Rene. We asked him to take over at 1, and to bring his friend, Count Porkchopulous, the Disco Vampire, as well as Zebrablood. (These two are now in Excepter.) Mikey was totally unpredictable and totally amazing. Some nights he’d come in with no records only to be followed by Juanita 10 minutes later carrying a stack, on one night he came in with only one record, a copy of Stevie Nick’s Edge of Seventeen, with no sleeve, and proceeded to play it over and over again till the bar closed. Sometimes I stayed till the end, but often I’d leave a bit after my shift, which meant taking my headphones, so Mikey would just mix live. Sometimes it was a mess, but sometimes it was brilliant.
I continued to have guest DJs. I was going out a lot more now and meeting people “on the scene”. Mark Morgan of Sightings and Chris Freeman from Fusetron played a memorable mix of the German Shepherds and 90s hip-hop. The folks from Activaire and Record Camp joined me for a Factory Records tribute. Fitz from the Twisted Ones played a few times…the aforementioned Michael, Kevin, Aileen, Lisa and Joshua all played a few times. Mike Simonetti, who I met through Fitz, Rory from Trash, Tyler from !!!/Outhud, The Prosaics, Oneida, Nick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Doug Mosorock, Robin Edgerton, Tim Sweeney all guested. Morgan Geist, Daniel Wang, Brennan Green and James Duncan played my 27th birthday party. If you include the happy-hour guests of Max and Kevin’s, it’s a pretty mind-boggling mix of just about every musician and record store clerk in their 20s/30s in NYC at the time. I’m blanking out on a lot of people but I’ll edit them into this as I remember! Writer Simon Reynolds started coming, he was researching Rip It Up and Start Again. He guest DJ’d one night.
Some nights were typical bar record nights, but there was some pretty silly themes. I think Ryan joined me for 3 hours of Cabaret Voltaire, that was a big hit. For a while, with the help of Michael Goodstein, we did “NY Single’s Scene” where you were only allowed to play 7″s. That went over very well. I did a tribute to Arthur Russell where I was joined by Kris Chen who brought a mini-disc of some of the recordings that would later turn up on Calling Out of Context. Arthur’s partner, Tom Lee showed up, somebody had forwarded an email about the night, so that was just incredible. Another absurd yet memorable night was when we finally had a release “party” for the first Acute CD, the Theoretical Girls. This was around the same time The Wire magazine did a “no wave primer”, so I invited Alan Licht to come play some records. Let me tell you, nothing rocks a party like rare live DNA recordings!
We also had a few live shows. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone was a good friend of the Rapture guys, so he played to a packed Plant Bar. Swiss Dot, a synth-pop trio of girls who were regulars played, Cause Co-Motion, friends of Kevin’s, played one of their first shows as did Excepter. I think those are the only 4 bands to ever play, pretty funny mix.
But to me, with all the ups and downs, the people coming and going, my social life roller coaster, what mattered first was the music, and second that it was presented in an unpretentious enough environment that the people who came felt welcome. I know a lot of people met at Plant Bar and I know a lot of people remember it fondly and that makes me happy. As for the music, I dug what I played. I learned a lot about DJing and nightlife and bars. I remember having trouble dealing with the party’s eclectic nature. One night I’d bring nothing but techno and some guy would walk in with a leather jacket and a mohawk and leave. The next week I brought all punk singles and some “ravers” would show up. They’d also leave. Sometimes I mixed it up really well but mostly I either kept to a theme, usually something really narrow and stupid, or on better nights, stuck with a basic aesthetic. Like I’d be thinking electronics and drum machines and mix italo-disco with new wave, or another night I’d be thinking live drums and mixing disco and stuff like A Certain Ratio. Now I think I’m better at navigating all sorts of sounds and genres, and doing it to a dancing crowd, and some of that definitely comes from practicing back then.
Near the end of the party, I started playing more dance music and every now and again a little dance party would break out. Sometimes a really crazy dance party would break out. Maybe it would only be 10 or 20 people, but in a place that small, with people crawling all over the furniture, there were some pretty wild times. This was the time of the Cabaret License crack-downs though. Friday nights there’d be serious parties and the cops started coming down on them. Personally, I think the Cabaret License was just a tool the cops would yield when developers were raising a stink. There are TONS of places in NYC without cabaret licenses where people dance and nobody cares. But Plant Bar was on 3rd street, a mostly residential block, and there were condos going up accross the street. If it wasn’t the neighbors down the street complaining, I figured the condo developers thought it’d be a good idea to shut down a nuissance before they tried to sell their apartments. Of course it was bars like that that were attracting people to the neighborhood. Same thing happened to the Knitting Factory in Tribecca except instead of Cabaret Laws they harass people for loitering on the street. Anyway, that’s another discussion for another post. So at some point in 2003 Plant Bar shut down and only reopened after promising to remove the DJ set-up. They sold the James Murphy “designed” sound system on eBay and re-opened with an MP3 jukebox. It eventually closed and was replaced with the Hanger Bar, which is still there, and still has DJs.
I had gotten sick of playing records when nobody was paying attention. By then I had my fill of DJing inbetween bands. It wasn’t all fame and glory like I imagined Joshua experienced at that show at Brownies, it was mostly playing a record on a broken turntable through only the left speaker while some guy soundchecked the drums. I tried to DJ more dance parties and am still trying. I’ve had a few good nights and a few great ones, enough to make all the shitty ones worthwhile. At one point a few years ago I had a regular party in Williamsburg that was pretty good for a while, but I probably played too many crowd pleasing hits (again, another discussion for another time). The hipsters moved onto a newer, cooler place, the dancers went somewhere, and I was left with drunken ex-sorority girls sloppily asking me to play Michael Jackson…while I was playing Michael Jackson. I longed for the chance to play weird dubby post-punk records to a crowd of 5. So we started Dazzle Ships, and sometimes, it even feels a little bit like Transmission. Awww, there’s that nostalgia again…