It only launched this winter, but how are you seeing the Farmhouse Fridays night at Oxbow come together? Seems like it could fill a need for the East End.
It is jelling nicely at this point. Lots of returning faces, many from the local neighborhood. We are not there to force a certain style of music but rather offer a broader scope of alternative dance music and see what works for the crowd. Sometimes that means starting with funk/disco/dub/obscure tracks and moving towards house music and sometimes it is the reverse.
The East End has interesting geography and a diverse neighborhood which makes Oxbow a prime location for a dance music venue. Flask has the same feel in the West End. I have watched Flask evolve, a venue that wasn’t specifically designed as a dance club that built up a very strong culture, brand and music scene. I always enjoy the intimacy of that spot. Great DJs [there] — I think Mr. Dereloid in particular is world class. He has great energy, amazingly talented, super passionate — deserves to go all the way. He came to Oxbow the week before he played there to check it. He didn’t just roll in and look around for a few minutes, but carefully absorbed and observed for several hours. Pro move.
At Oxbow, we play dance-oriented music but are looking to achieve that dance environment in a slightly different way than Flask — a bit more experimental and diverse with our musical direction.
You've been organizing parties for many years now. What scene or tradition are you taking cues from?
Current underground music scene always, but absolutely a more traditional DJ culture of the (way) past. What I mean is that our parties are focused on the dancers first, never the DJ-first mentality you often see portrayed in the press and social media, where people are standing around facing the stage [where a] DJ is simply playing the tracks they want to play with little regard for what is happening in the room.
In our opinion, the DJ is important but [a bit] down the line — after sound quality, venue, lighting (or lack of it), room mood etc. Which suits me fine, because the reason I started DJing is that you could be in the background watching, subtly influencing the mood of people through music. I’ve played every type of venue from literal closets with a peep-hole view of the dance floor in NYC, to center stage with a 10K laser and 700 dancers at Port City for the Zootz reunion. We actually had to plead with Empire to allow us not to be on the stage for our events there — ha! Our primary goal as the DJ is to be watching — not being watched.
The ability these days to mine music and culture trends globally is machine-honed in its precision. As DJs, we are always listening to new music and watching the release schedules — or rather they are watching us, pushing us feeds based on our past purchases and likes etc. The convenience is undeniable with the ability to Shazam a track from the club, load it into Spotify and find 15 similar tracks with a few clicks — fantastic. Soundcloud, amazing. [You can] gain knowledge of classic tracks from any genre and any decade — instant access and encyclopedic knowledge pushed to you with click intelligence.
Then again, there is nothing like a good record dig and I think every DJ owes it to themselves to hunt down a slab of vinyl as part of the journey. Jeremy Chaim, Anytime Eddy (OSOS) and I particularly enjoying drawing on the vinyl-dig tradition. I just came back from NYC where Ed and I went to A-1 which is one of the meccas for digging dance tracks in the Village. In Portland, I love Moody Lords for a nice dig — good turnover and knowledgable staff. Prior to the technology it was about road tripping to Axis in Boston or Business in Montreal, sneaking a peek into the DJ booth to catch sight of the record label, hitting the record shops the next day and asking what track was played at the club last night. It was challenging and exciting and all part of the DJ experience.
Over time, the parties you've DJ'd have focused on so many different styles of dance music, from house, disco, tech-house, low BPM house, bass, etc. Do these come from whatever you're feeling at the time? The mood of a room?
30 years of DJing, so yeah — lots of styles, ha! But absolutely, mood of the room over everything else. My own mood is secondary to the room. Observation is the DJ’s number one tool and a club is a petri dish to study. Nurture the skill of observation as a DJ and in life and you will succeed. After I understand the mood of the room, then I am thinking about the newer music in my bag and how to drive to that point in order to enhance the scene and keep it current — but always based on where the room is at in the moment. Sometimes people are open to being musically challenged and sometimes the mood may not be right to push for growth. You learn to accept that some nights and not force a new tune just because it is in your bag.
Selecting music for an evening has so many variables — we are all affected by everything that happened that day in our world, the weather, who is in the room. As I am pulling records for a night, I am also considering how deep is the relationship with the crowd (one-off event or residency), current trends in music, what records I got that week, what records I played last week. Currently trending music in Funk and African genres really allows for a lot more musical diversity which allows me to dig deeper into my collection and hopefully makes for a more interesting evening for the dancers.
Seems like there's could be fewer venues that can support dance music compared to ten years ago (outside the Top 40 clubs). Do you worry about Portland's ability to sustain that?
No way. Portland is more than ripe for an alternative dance music venue. The city is growing quickly with local population moving in from NY and the EU particularly — plus the people that are visiting all of those new hotels in the summer are super savvy musically.
Having great local promoters in Portland is driving culturally diverse artists playing at places like the State and Thompson Point which drives musically inclined visitors to Portland each and every weekend. Guaranteed great music and great food for the weekend — what’s not to like?
The other thing that makes Portland unique is its strong history of an underground dance music scene, going back to Zootz nightclub and the Tree, through the '90s warehouse madness and then the reversal of that to more intimate dance music venues like Flask. All that history brings an enormous amount of talent and respect to the dance floor. Some of the best dancers I have ever seen are in Portland — each generation is watching the previous so you see the modernized versions of various moves — fantastic. Those stories, culture and knowledge get passed down through the generations and build the foundation that continues to drive the scene. NYC, Austin, Montreal…all the cities with a great dance music scene have that deep history. To quote a Stussy jacket I once saw, “No present without a past.”
The political climate is fully charged at the moment and is causing a lot of anxiety which drives people to look for relief, often through entertainment. Same thing we saw driving the dance music scene in 88-89 — all over the world, people came out and danced to escape their inner turmoil. The global unrest caused a huge surge in dance music culture during that period. It wasn’t the only factor but it certainly was part of the formula.
Aside from the licensed clubs in Portland, there are also some private events that are unreal in their focus and rawness, strong drivers of the current scene. I’ve been DJing and attending events in leading club cities such as Montreal and NYC for a long time and I would say some of my absolute favorite events have been in Portland. The OSOS after-hours parties that I have had the opportunity of collaborating on and DJing at the past couple of years have been exceptional in all ways. Very simple and stripped back with intense focus on venue selection, room decor and diversity in music selections. The guys who run those events are young, but have more dance culture knowledge and drive than I have ever seen. They’ve attended lots of underground events in various cities and intimate knowledge of the legendary NYC Loft parties so draw inspiration from those experiences. Intimate, edgy and daring — it is what I like in a party. Legendary events that will go down in Portland history in my opinion.
Oxbow has a great opportunity to not only sustain an alternative dance music scene but also drive it forward, with great raw atmosphere, a fun bar staff and great sound you just know that it is going to work since those core elements are already in place. One of the most important and overlooked things that makes a great venue is the entry: slightly ominous but not threatening, a walk-in for you to visually reset your head before you open that door. All the legendary venues had it, the element of visual and aural suspense. The first time I went down that alley into Oxbow with that subtle neon sign at the end and the bassbins rumbling quietly in the background, I thought, “Wow, they totally nailed it.”
Pearls of Portland is a series that focuses on artists, activists, and cultural agents in Maine. Wanna nominate a Pearl? Email email@example.com
PEARLS OF PORTLAND
POP001 – Kristen Stake, Co-Founder of the Living Room Collective
POP002 – Jim Rand, Station Manager, WMPG
POP003 – Vivian Ewing, Editor of ENTER RURAL SCENE and founder of Wash and Fold Press
POP004 – Amos Libby, musician, educator, civil rights advocate
POP005 – Blainor McGough, Executive Director of Mayo Street Arts
POP006 – Jon Morse, programmer with Last.Mercy.Emissions and Geno's Rock Club
POP007 – Victoria Rodriguez, Story Collection Coordinator with Maine Equal Justice Partners
POP008 – Nance Parker, puppeteer and Director of Shoestring Theater
POP009 – Russ Sargent, owner of Yes Books