Thursday, May 27, 2010

Profile: Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter

Credit: Andrew De Francesco

On April 3, police raided Market Hotel, a scrappy D.I.Y. music venue in Bushwick, shutting down the space and displacing dozens of bands who were scheduled to play over the next few months. For some, it was another death knell for truly independent music in a city bloated by gentrification. The loft, which also serves as an artists’ commune, with its grimy walls and notoriously crazy parties, was an icon for what passes for the Internet age’s counterculture.

“The Market Hotel was not a secret to New York law enforcement,” says Alaina Stamatis, one of Market’s residents. “Our Internet presence is phenomenally large, and our music can be heard clearly from the adjacent sidewalks of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway. Many of us have held for a very long time that there are New York authorities who, to some extent, want us to be here. For them we conjure the cultural significance of New York staples - the Ramones, CBGB, Andy Warhol - that have fastened the city into position as best in the world.”

It’s unclear what instigated the raid - some speculated that the venue didn’t have a liquor license, while others characterized it as a routine police inspection. But the residents’ organization, Body Actualized Control, along with promoter Todd Patrick, known as Todd P, plan to transform the space into a legal community center, renovating its facilities and obtaining the proper paperwork. At the same time, they hope to maintain the independent spirit that makes the space unique.

“Music is the main art form that comes from the bottom - from basements and garages and bedrooms,” says Stamatis. “Unfortunately, music can get you in trouble.”

But one of the overlooked casualties of the shutdown was Mister Saturday Night, a party series conceived by resident D.J.s Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter. Harkin, 33, and Carter, 29, are also the event organizers and the bookers, bringing in guest headliners from all over the world.

Although it often feels effortless, Mister Saturday Night and their other series, Sunday Best, are the product of meticulous planning and constant revision. Every detail is considered, from the ticket booth to the bar to the turntables. It's a process that begins months before a party happens, and doesn't end until the last drop of beer is cleaned from the dance floor. Then, they do it all again the next week.

The two make sure each party embodies their taste for the independent and international, and the events have become shorthand for high quality, adventurous and innovative dance parties. They aren't merely a backdrop for alcohol-guzzling or hedonism – drugs are virtually nonexistent, says Carter – but showcase guest D.J.s from locations as far flung as Buenos Aires, Manchester and Oslo to an eager state-side audience.

The hard work seems to have paid off. With a modest budget, Mister Saturday Night and Sunday Best draw hundreds, sometimes thousands of attendees. The Village Voice and Paper Magazine have the parties some of the best in New York, and even the New York Times featured Sunday Best last year in a story on outdoor summer parties.

Despite the accolades, there’s still a strong non-commercial aesthetic to the events. Drinks are cheap - bottle service is an alien concept - and while the music may be obscure, it’s a melodic, inclusive blend of house, techno and disco, and the antithesis to hipster music.

“It’s about an ideal,” says Carter. “It’s about accessibility.”

This is how they try to achieve that ideal.

Harkin and Carter book guests about three months in advance. While getting a headliner to play at a show isn't always quite as easy as inviting a friend over – some guests have never played in the U.S. – they’ve have been doing it long enough that they've developed a reputation for quality.

"We don't have to do much pitching. People know what we do, and people respect what we do. People genuinely enjoy playing at our parties," says Harkin.

Although they had been booking various shows for years, the turning point came, says Carter, when they began thinking of parties not merely as stand-alone events, or vehicles of promoting themselves as D.J.s, but as a more encompassing term.

"In order to sustain something like this, and keep people coming back, and have people understand it, you have to do that thing we call branding," he says.

Take Sunday Best: Its summer home is the BKLYN Yard, a bucolic outdoor venue on the banks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. The series has broad appeal – during an event in August with the D.J. Tim Sweeney, toddlers warmed up dance floor, followed by older kids and eventually all ages of dancers. A local Mexican food stand, a lush canopy of trees and a view of the water created an atmosphere that was more oasis than rave.

Sunday Best was a novel idea – instead of merely drawing crowds on the strength of a headliner, which is the template for indie rock shows and most dance events, Sunday Best provided, at the most basic level, a space to hang out. Benches and lawn chairs were set up, and one could imaginably have a fine time sitting down.

"One thing we want to do is present parties that are more accessible," says Carter. "It was about regular people who just wanted to eat a taco and dance. Or not dance."

As nights grew shorter and the weather colder last year, Harkin and Carter transformed Sunday Best into a more intimate affair at the Bell House during the fall, averaging a couple hundred people per event. But starting at the end of May, Sunday Best will return to the Yard on May 30 its third year.

The first incarnation of Mister Saturday Night was held in January 2009 at Santos Party House, a young Chinatown club owned by Andrew W.K. Although Harkin and Carter remember the venue fondly, it still had the limits of a regular club, with the bar closing at 4 a.m.

So last fall, the two found a new home at the Market Hotel, which didn't have a strict closing time, allowing parties to unfold naturally. On New Year's Eve, they played until eight o'clock the next morning, well past the normal closing time of club.

"One of the things that's so nice about underground party things is that you don't have that deadline. You can let things breathe," says Carter.

Finding a setting for a party in New York is a unique challenge. Dance music doesn't have the same predictability of numbers that comes with your average rock band, because the draw isn't simply based on a particular band's fan base. While a booker of rock shows can match a band's draw with a venue's capacity, there are more factors when it comes to dance music, from the openers to the party's aesthetic.

But Harkin and Carter found a comfortable home in the Market Hotel, and they made it their own. The staff was selected by to make the experience more welcoming for guests, and even a small suggestion to include straws with the drinks was adapted. In order to diversify the visuals, which were previously just a red haze of lighting and a disco ball, they had projectionist Sam Wiehl to bounce various images off the venue's walls.

They also have a purist approach to equipment. The sound system, which is their own, is also lovingly carried from each beach to loft to club. It's cranked to a boisterous volume that fills, but doesn't overpower, the room.

Harkin and Carter always play vinyl records, even if they're inconvenient, as do most of their headliners. One night, the reverberation of hundreds of dancers on the wooden floor caused the turntable needles to jump, forcing the D.J.s to use CDs. So instead of resting the booth on a volatile dance floor, they now suspend the decks from the ceiling with makeshift straps.

Harkin still shops at the few remaining vinyl retailers in New York, including Halcyon Records in DUMBO and Dope Jams in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he also receives regular vinyl shipments from Europe.

He's accumulated about 5,000 records, which spill out into a shelving unit in the hallway of his apartment in South Williamsburg, which he shares with longtime girlfriend, Martina, who works at Vanity Fair. They met five years ago at a dance party at the P.S.1 Contemporary Arts Center. One of the two bedrooms in the apartment is Harkin's studio, with a vintage synthesizer, posters from past events, and art prints of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Harkin and Carter are among an increasingly rare breed in the age of the disposable mp3 and digital programs including Serato Scratch Live or Traktor D.J. Studio. It's a rare guest who uses a computer, although Carl Craig did when he played at Water Taxi Beach, another summer party series.

"I just cringe when I see a laptop in a D.J. booth," says Harkin. "I guess I'll forgive Carl Craig, but I'm not sure I'll forgive everyone else."

When Harkin and Carter played at an event at the MoMa using vinyl records, the audience mistook them for a display. "People came up to us and thought we were in an exhibition – this was MoMa's way of exhibiting music from a bygone age," says Harkin.

As Harkin puts it, having thousands of Facebook friends won't make a bad party a good party. But it can help.

He's in charge of two email lists, one for fans of the events, and another for press. Mister Saturday Night and Sunday Best also have their own Facebook pages and blogs, and the events enjoy regular support in the listings pages of New York's daily and weekly papers.

The two also partner with the electronic music Web site Resident Advisor to sell early bird tickets, with multiple tiers of pricing. Open bar hours are also incentives, but it's always about the music first and foremost.

Even the hazy full moon face that appears on Mister Saturday Night flyers is an example of branding, and part of a greater effort to encapsulate the duo's overall philosophy.

"When we desire our flyers, we have a very clear aesthetic. We don't want it to look like a stereotypical dance party," says Carter. "It's not about this robotic feeling. We're not trying to be futuristic. It's a little more soft and accessible."

They also often take the time to interview their guests, and post a transcript. They also post recordings of live mixes, which are available to download for free. This gives the guest D.J.s personality and provides another layer of access for fans of the events. Finally, they also frequently post full mixes, available for free download.

Harkin grew up in Derry, in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. As a child, he would sit by the cassette player as a Top 40 show played on BBC Radio 1, ready to pounce and record if a choice track played, says his younger sister, Julie Harkin. A television show called the Beat Box would play on RTE, an Irish TV channel, and again, Harkin would be ready to record.

“I think it was pretty obvious, from a very young age, that Eamon was becoming slightly obsessed with music,” says Julie, who is now a casting director in London. She credits him with steering her clear of “cheesy pop” and to the likes of U2, Radiohead and the Clash – when he was 12. Around the same time, they received a CD player for Christmas, and took turns playing songs.

Harkin attended the University College of London in 1999 for biochemical engineering. He says he was fascinated by the creation of pharmaceuticals in a “legal, positive way.”

“I’ve always been a science nerd,” he says.

During college, Harkin started regularly, with a weekly old school hip-hop night in a sweaty basement in north London. He bought turntables and began collecting records.

“I think the transition from science student to D.J. was a slow but steady one,” says Julie. “Music was always a massive part of his life, even throughout his university years. He would always be talking about attending a gig or music festival or checking out a new club.”

After graduating, Harkin spent three months traveling in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, soaking in the region's natural beauty. He moved to New York in 2004, throwing his first parties named Calling All Kids, which incorporated rock, hip-hop and electronic music.

Carter is also a transplant. After growing up in Danville, Va. and Raleigh, N.C., he moved to New York to attend New York University in 1999. After graduating with a degree from N.Y.U.'s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, specializing in "The Culture and Marketing of Music and Visual Art," Carter started buying vinyl and borrowed his roommate's turntables. After about five months of practicing, Carter played his first gig at the East Village dive La Souk, and then got involved with Nublu, another venue in the area.

The two met when Carter was a music director at APT, a club in the meatpacking district. Harkin became a resident D.J. at the venue, alongside D.J.s Afrika Bambaataa and D.J. Lindsey, who specialized in electrofunk, hip-hop and disco.

At the same time, Harkin threw a party series called FUN at the now defunct Greenpoint club, Studio B, alongside D.J. Rok One, bringing in bands and D.J.s to the large converted warehouse, which held upwards of 700 people. It was his first real experience as a promoter, but it didn't last. Local residents complained that Studio B patrons were polluting the neighborhood with noise and garbage. A disputed liquor license followed, and the club closed in 2008, opening the way for the first year of Sunday Best.

"I think it was too big a club for New York in this age. It took too much to have a successful night and that level of success wasn't sustainable," says Harkin.

Sustainability is a buzzword nowadays, particularly in the current green movement, but it resonates well with Harkin and Carter. The events are wholesome, but also relentless, with one or two parties a week, almost every week.

But despite years of successful promoting and, and establishing themselves particularly strongly in the last two years, Harkin doesn't feel that they have "made it." The overnight closure of Market Hotel is testament to the fickle nature of the city’s nightlife, but the two have since moved to other venues, and are poised to have another great summer with the return Sunday Best. Nonetheless, Harkin is far from complacent.

"It's still a pretty tenuous existence," he says. "You're only as good as your last party."


Sunday Best kicks off its third season this weekend with Michael Mayer.

The Voice also did a story this week, but that's just how it goes sometimes.

Thanks to Eamon and Justin for their patience, candidness and passion. I'm disappointed this story wasn't ultimately published, but I hope it was an enjoyable read.

1 comment:

Sara O. said...

fantastic piece, shame this didn't seem to get around more.

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