Dance floors, deejay booths, cover charges, and cocktails. After the sun has done its daily dance into the Pacific and the moon has begun its nocturnal climb high above the twinkling lights of the Riviera, downtown Santa Barbara transforms itself from a tourist-riddled shopper haven to a certified Shangri-La of libation lovers and nightlife prowlers. Say what you will about going out in Santa Barbara, the bottom line is that there is always a ton of things to do on any given night and at least half of these will involve music.
Welcome to The Independent’s 2006 tribute to S.B. nightlife and the annual Spring Fashion issue. We figured a marriage of these parties was anything but a stretch, if not long overdue. Inside, Shannon Kelley Gould takes an up-close-and-personal look at the deejays of Santa Barbara; Sarah Hammill searches for love on State Street and a sober first kiss; and Ethan Stewart tries to find an answer to the question, “Do you dance?” The faces and figures pictured throughout will no doubt look familiar as local photography wizard Kenji snapped some of S.B.’s more recognizable deejays, bartenders, and dancers doing their thing for our fashion spread. So relax and enjoy — after all, there is no dress code or velvet rope for this party.
Two Turntables and a Microphone
Getting in the Booth with Santa Barbara Deejays
by Shannon Kelley Gould
The deejay is the life of the party, the driving force behind the club experience. Like an artist with a blank canvas, the deejay paints the picture in the nightclub. While there’s little that’s delicate about the scene on a club’s dance floor, the art of deejaying is a delicate science, as much about reading the crowd and creating a vibe as it is about mixing songs and matching beats.
Gone are the days of the raves — all-night underground parties characterized by their secretive locations, enormous crowds (often sporting enormously dilated pupils and, frequently, enormous pants), and thundering electronic music — when big-name deejays were stars in their own right. But the early- to mid-1990s cultural phenomenon did more than give 18-year-olds reason to suck on pacifiers in public; it exposed people to that form of music at an early age and cemented the concept of the deejay as a draw, laying the groundwork for a late-’90s, deejay-driven electronica heyday in legitimate nightclubs that wasn’t limited to big cities.
When Mike Winner, a self-described “ska punk kid from O.C.,” arrived at UC Santa Barbara’s Anacapa dorm in fall 1996, he heard some music coming from across the hall. “I was like, ‘What is that music?’ So I went across the hallway and we became good friends,” he said of Pat Sullivan (who now goes by the moniker DJ Pat), the guy in the room from which the music blared, who’d lugged his setup all the way from home. “Basically, just immediately, that was my life,” Winner said.
Getting hooked was easy — “It combined my two loves,” said Winner, “music and video games” — but learning was another story. “Deejays don’t like to teach other deejays, typically; it’s kind of like a secret trade,” Winner said. “Pat, who I basically credit as far as learning how to deejay, never really showed me; he gave me like 10 records and said, ‘just learn.’” Winner spent about two years putting in his time, and admitted, “You don’t want to be around someone who’s learning how to deejay — it’s like, you don’t want to be around someone who’s learning to play the drums, you know? It’s torturous, to say the least.” Winner was schooled in the ways of the deejay while doing time at UCSB, and, in the late ’90s, became a player in Santa Barbara’s burgeoning electronic music scene, playing house music at private parties in I.V. and the “For the People” outdoor rave-style parties that took place in the mountains.
By the end of that decade, the ranks of the ravers were legal, and the underground electronic music scene began making its grand debut into the nightclubs of State Street. In 1999, DJ Pat, along with Winner, put together an all-ages night at Zelo, called the Zoo, which took place on Thursdays and focused on bringing large electronic music acts and deejays to town; the Madhouse, featuring electronic music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, succeeded in developing a big following, and almost every club in town suddenly had an electronic music night; the Wildcat expanded, opening a new dance floor; and both the Wildcat and Q’s invested in new deejay booths.
While all this was going on, Gavin Roy, a self-taught deejay from Singapore then living and working in Boston, heard about the scene in sunny Santa Barbara and mailed out some demo tapes. By the end of his first week in town, he’d landed three nights: one at Wildcat, one at Q’s, and one at Fathom. And Josh Stanford, an 18-year-old scratch-artist from Carpinteria who called himself DJ Hecktik, began making a name for himself at Alex’s Cantina in Goleta.
Chris Dixon, then managing a booming Q’s, was loving the music he’d begun hearing around town and was looking for a way to showcase it. In 2000, Dixon started a Saturday night promotion at Velvet Jones, newly opened in the space formerly occupied by Fathom. Called Therapy, the theme night drew massive crowds, and featured deejays who were often accompanied onstage by dancers, percussionists, saxophone players, and female vocalists. About a year later, DJ Pat relocated to San Francisco, and Therapy and the Zoo joined forces.
“[Chris Dixon] kind of merged the underground with the popular, and it actually all of a sudden became the mainstream music in town for a couple of years,” said Winner. It was a good time to be a deejay in Santa Barbara: Gigs were plentiful, and most deejays were working enough to forego day jobs, which is definitely a good thing when one is treated to free drinks all night, doesn’t get off until 2 a.m., and then has to wind down from the high earned by being the life of the party.
Mixing It Up
The potent combination of creative and savvy promotion, young talent, and enthusiastic crowds created a bona fide shift in the landscape of Santa Barbara’s nightlife, and the city developed a sound of its own. The sound reflected the influences of its big-city neighbors to the north and the south — a psychedelic, funky house sound from San Francisco, and a poppy, techno sound from Los Angeles — but Santa Barbara’s sound has always been characterized by being a little more accessible to the masses. A Madonna vocal here, a Beastie Boys track there. Deejays and electronic music promoters rode electronica’s immense wave of popularity for a couple years, and then it sank back underground. Rave culture died out; newly minted 21-year-olds were too young to really have been a part of that rave experience. Several local deejays moved away, and hip-hop was the hot new sound that college students wanted to hear. But club owners, promoters, and deejays had learned some tricks of the trade along the way, and, as DJ Gavin Roy likes to say, nightclubbing culture in Santa Barbara continued growing up.
While electronic “house” music no longer dominates, several clubs continued to feature house music nights, and the idea of a theme night as a promotional tool really took hold. Nearly any night of the week, clubs offer several theme nights to choose from. “There’s not only one place to go,” said Roy, “there’s like five options on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. Those used to be bad nights. More nights have been promoted as different music styles or to different groups of people, like a college night or a gay night, and it’s great.” He should know; he works six nights per week, and is the only deejay in town able to make his living doing it; he does a gay night, a college night, an ’80s night, even a ’90s night. “The ’90s night — you know, because we keep getting older, but they all stay 21,” Roy said, laughing. “ ’90s is silly, silly, silly, because I’m playing the Macarena and Hanson and the Spice Girls, and people are loving it. It takes a lot of guts to play the music I play on Wednesday nights.” A lot of guts and a lot of music. Roy has the most-envied music collection in town, and can recite what’s on the charts not just in the U.S., but in the U.K., Europe, and Australia, as well. He has a garage full of records, and claims that he could play four hours straight of Madonna, without repeating a single song. “And I’m proud of that,” he said with a laugh.
While theme nights are good for drawing a crowd and a crowd is good for club owners and promoters, one has to wonder what sticking to a theme means for the deejay. Do they wish they could just play what they wanted to play? “No. It’s a good thing,” said Roy. “It’s like feeding your dog vitamins. You have the Top 40 or whatever in there, but in there you can also play the stuff that you want them to hear, and they’ll eat that up too, they’ll eat it up like chocolate cake.”
Surprisingly, deejays say they’re able to be as creative as ever. DJ AM, based in Los Angeles, is one of the biggest names of the moment, and his style — an eclectic mix of anything and everything — is a heavy influence on the current mashup sound you’ll hear in most clubs. “It’s The Price is Right theme, into Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance,’ into ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ into Sly and the Family Stone. And it’s not only DJ AM, he’s just representative of what’s out there,” said Dixon, currently the general manager at the Wildcat, which now plays host to Therapy nights. “It means that any deejay in any club, if they’ve got the breadth of knowledge about music, can be a little bit more of a risk-taker and mix things that they previously might not have thought about playing.”
Even Winner, now a resident deejay at Tonic, whose heart still belongs to the house music that inspired him to become a deejay in the first place, agreed that he’s able to be as creative as he ever was. “Now it’s all about doing the rock into hip-hop into house thing, bringing it all together, which is really cool; it’s actually a total new school using the old school, and I think that’s pretty challenging,” he said. “I’ll bring a house remix of ‘Do You Wanna’ by Franz Ferdinand and then match like an AC/DC track into that and then drop ‘In Da Club.’ It’s definitely fun and challenging and creative, and it’s what they want to hear, so it satisfies everybody.”
Reading the Crowd
Mastering the mechanics of spinning isn’t easy, but it is in no way the most difficult part of learning how to deejay. The most difficult — and arguably, the most important — part is learning how to read a crowd. And in a place like Santa Barbara, where a typical night out on the town involves a crawl that starts out at one club and winds down at another, being able to keep the crowd interested is critical, and it’s up to the deejay to do it.
DJ Hecktik learned that the hard way. When the 26-year-old was just 13, he began messing around with his parents’ turntable — and their records. (They were less than thrilled.) He started getting in a bit of trouble at school, and his mom, a custodian at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, mentioned it to Chris Dixon, one of the church’s caretakers, who was also the leader of the church’s youth group. “Chris invited me to the group, but I wasn’t really into it,” said Hecktik. “But then, we got to talking about music, and he said, ‘I’ll make you a deal: You come to youth group, and I’ll let you use my turntables.’” Hecktik was stoked; when he turned 17, he bought Dixon’s turntables, and raced home every day after school to practice scratching. His first club gig at Alex’s, though, was a rude awakening. “I didn’t even know there was ‘reading a crowd,’” he said. He worried when no one was dancing, and another deejay came over, offered to help him out, and dropped a song that got the crowd back on the dance floor. “I never would have thought of playing that song, but it worked,” Hecktik said. Now, though, he has the hang of it, and deejays downtown four nights a week. “I’ve grown to like playing the Top 40 songs, and now I’m excited to see what the crowd will do when I play a certain song,” he said. “That feeling is so hard to describe — it’s like, being able to express my artistic mind to people listening and having some connection; I’m excited, and then when they’re excited, it’s awesome.”
Gavin Roy agreed, saying that it takes years to master the juggling involved in managing both the technical aspects with the social aspects — taking requests and then working them in at precisely the right time, teasing the crowd, evaluating where the energy level is and taking it up or down, or “cleansing” the dance floor. “If there’s too many gang bangers on the dance floor, that’s kind of a negative vibe, so you play something they don’t like and bring in a whole different crowd. Like Kelly Clarkson, and all the girls will come and the gang bangers leave. It’s changing the mood with just music; it’s all about the music. It’s not what you play or how you play it. It’s when you play it — when is the right time to play that song that will make the people go crazy. It’s all about the music. I love music; I love music.”
And that sentiment is echoed over and over by the guys behind the turntables. Clubs shut down and new ones open; what’s hot one day is not the next. Times change, music changes, but it really doesn’t matter what they’re playing — these guys love the view from the booth, and they love music.
Moving to the Music
Getting into the Groove on S.B.’s Dance Floors
by Ethan Stewart
It usually starts with a slight head nod, maybe while waiting at the bar to order a drink or as you survey the state of the dance floor. From there — if the music feels good — it quickly spreads to your waist and perhaps creates a little side-to-side swaying action. Then, if you have your drink already, you might take a sip and up your tempo as you swallow it down, your head and hips working together in bass-driven tempo. On some nights, that may be the furthest your boogey barometer goes, but on others (without consciously thinking about it) you may ascend into bliss. With each new song that hits the speakers, with each twist of the deejay’s turntables, your body lightens and you embrace the energy of the night. The drinks flow into a sweaty sea of undulating bodies, and you are lost into the masses. The running man becomes the robot, becomes a slow-paced monkey grind, becomes the moonwalk, becomes a twirling jump, becomes some weird kung-fu gyration, becomes the worm. You are dancing and for the first time in days, you are free.
It doesn’t matter whether it is a deejay, a band, or some guy with a pocket full of quarters posted next to the juke box — when the music is right, the quality of your night out instantly improves. “When the deejay is doing his job you don’t even realize you are dancing. You are just lost in the moment enjoying yourself,” said 23-year-old Alyson Matton. As a part-time, partially clothed go-go dancer at the Wildcat and a full-time world-class member of the State Street Ballet, the stunningly beautiful Matton knows a thing or two about what makes a good dance floor. “The point is to have fun and the music really decides that. If it isn’t right, it’s like being stuck at a bad movie in an uncomfortable seat for three hours.”
A recent Saturday night survey of States Street’s varied dance emporiums showed a bevy of comfy seats — albeit thoroughly alcohol-soaked seats — but comfy nonetheless. From the salsa and tango of Ruby’s down to the strobe-light hump motions of Q’s, Santa Barbara’s main artery of night life was ablaze with ass-shakin’, arm-wavin’ good times. The line outside the Wildcat on Ortega Street snaked 25 people deep at about 10:30 p.m. with the thump of the dance floor easily heard on the sidewalk. Already a music-driven shuffle of the feet had taken hold of many of those waiting to go in. A casual canvas of a waiting group: “You guys gonna dance tonight?” The response from a serious guy with gel in his hair and freshly bought faded jeans, “We’ll see … depends on the music and the ladies.” A young lady two places behind him shrieked in chorus with her friends that they were going to dance no matter what. “It’s Saturday night!” she shouted.
Two minutes away and across State Street, S.B.’s newest pretty-person gathering place, Tonic, was packed. A decidedly college-aged crowd worked off their collective Red Bull and Vodka buzzes on a dance floor that left little room for breathing. Whirling lights and standard issue Top 40 dance music dominated the scene. Hot-and-sweaty sexually flavored dance moves seemed par for this course with a majority of the near-midnight crowd no doubt considering their boogey exploits as some sort of foreplay. However, Alyson’s words rang true as the deejay segued into a slightly slower current hip-hop hit. The pressure on the dance floor eased as people retreated to the bar or outside for a smoke, their migration no doubt spurred by a more-than-questionable music selection.
Further down State Street at the James Joyce — a place better known for its casual fireplace atmosphere than its high-octane dance moves — the band took a break and the juke box provided the soundtrack. After a short run of U2 and a Bob Marley song, the pace took a turn and the peanut-munching-and-mingling crowd began to come to life. The fast-paced fiddle of “The Devil Went to Georgia” got the crowd moving as a few isolated pockets of dancing broke out. Then, after two-and-a-half minutes of Mötley Crüe, Guns’n’Roses’ “Paradise City” ripped onto the scene. Hands immediately went up in the air as more than a few people started to sing along and dance; the energy of the place essentially doubled in a matter of seconds. The progression was beautiful and organic — no doubt the untraditional work of an amateur, but effective nonetheless.
Alyson opined about the nature of deejaying. “It’s hard to do, but when it comes together and everyone is feeling it, there is nothing like it.” Just then a guy named Travis busted into not one, but two full-force knee slides across the peanut shell-strewn floor. Far from the glitz of our more famous dance spots, this bold maneuver was a testament to the power of music and the unpredictable nature of a Saturday night. As the old African adage goes, “If you can talk you can sing, and if you can walk you can dance.” But without some good music you may never even get up out of your seat. Rubbing his knees and sipping from an ice cold beer, Travis perhaps said it best: “The Saturday night you are looking for is really just one good song away.”
Recovering the Dating Culture
by Sarah Hammill
There seems to be a disturbing pattern in my love life these days and it regularly involves three main ingredients: nighttime, alcohol, and my bed. Oh, and of course, my paramour of the moment. But before you jump to conclusions, allow me to clarify. I’m not talking about one-night stands. That would be easy enough to figure out. No, the circumstances at hand are more complicated than a bed ’n’ run situation.
Let’s take the other night, for example. My friend Sean and I have been dancing around the topic of dating for months. The crush was there, but circumstances were never quite right. And then, suddenly, we were both single. What we had planned to be a friendly dinner turned into a quasi-date and four large Sapporos later, we found ourselves back at my house with Sean too drunk to drive home. I, ever the gracious host, offered to let him stay over as long as he promised to be a gentleman. Surprisingly enough, he was. We drifted off to the tunes of Her Space Holiday and in the morning he gave me a big hug and was off to work.
It’s been a while since that night and what was once a whimsical mistake-turned-romantic-evening has become an obnoxious holding pattern. The last two times I’ve seen Sean, the exact same thing has happened. Four drinks and he can’t drive home. We find ourselves in my bed, cuddle ’til morning — upping the physical ante each time — and then off he goes, only to arrive again a few nights later, bottle in hand.
Last night I hit my limit. There we were in bed; he’s holding my hand and nuzzling the back of my neck. I should be enjoying it all, but this voice in my head wouldn’t quiet down. Over and over it kept playing: This is not dating.
Now I’m no dating expert, and it’s not like I’ve been doing it long enough to know how things “used to be,” but something about this entire scenario seems off to me. And it’s not just me. All of my friends fall into one of two categories: those who are casually bringing people into their beds and those who are now in relationships with people who were once casually visiting their beds.
If we were to play the blame game here, the culprit would obviously seem to be the booze. I asked another friend of mine, a 25-year-old college-educated guy, when was the last time he had a sober first kiss. A long, head-scratching pause ensued, after which he simply muttered, “years.” The drinking is certainly the first foot through the door, but the point of it isn’t the drinking, it’s the aftermath. We all have different definitions of what hooking up is, and how far we go. I tend to be pretty conservative, but even so, it seems strange to me to invite male friends into my bed, dirty deeds done or not. What are we hoping to gain from it?
If we wanted sex, we’d be having it, most likely with someone we met downtown whom we’ll never see again. Musical beds is a game my generation of twenty-somethings is still playing, though I suspect we’ve become more doubtful of the benefits of no-strings-attached sex. We’ve been schooled by Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, but life experience seems to teach differently. Even Cosmopolitan, one of the forerunners in the promotion of sexual freedom, alludes to a recent change in thinking. In her article “The New Chastity,” Carolyn See wrote: “… despite the pill, legalized abortion, and economic freedom, our bodies are trying to tell us something: They don’t necessarily want to be tossed around like lost luggage on a ’round-the-world plane trip. That’s why, maybe, after a long night of good times … with a Nick Nolte look-alike … you go out for coffee in the kitchen, and something, someplace in your body feels like if it could cry, it would cry.”
No, these encounters I’m describing aren’t about sex. We’ve cut that part out after a few of those mornings See described. And yet, they aren’t about dating, either. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s preposterous to assume that if a guy is really interested in me, he can suck it up and try to kiss me for the first time without first having to pound three Newcastles. It’s happened before, and many times afterward an actual relationship developed. But that’s just the thing — sobriety implies intentionality and in these commitment-phobic times, none of us are willing to embrace clear-headedness when it’s pulling the cart of responsibility.
So we have built a world in between, where no one’s made any promises, but since we’re not actually having sex, no one gets hurt. Maybe we’re just killing time while between relationships, getting our skin-fix when we can, with whom we choose, all while preserving our personal freedom.
In any case, it’s getting old. I decided that night, laying there with Sean, that I want more than that. I’m not saying I’m ready to settle down yet. In the next year alone I could be living in Panama or Sacramento, Nebraska or San Francisco. But I don’t feel much like being someone’s temporary hold-over in the meantime, even if I’m using them for the same reasons. I won’t be making Carrie Bradshaw proud. I guess my own self-respect will have to do.