As my circle of friends in the music business grows, I get introduced to bands and people that I probably should have know for years such is the case with Jonathan Toubin . No doubt if I lived in any of the five Burroughs of NYC , I would have been a avid fan for years. Instead , I find myself doing research , blown away from all that he has accomplished and his overall expertise as a fellow music junkie. If you are already a fan , I think you’ll dig this Interview and if you are new to Jonathan Toubin, get ready for some serious schooling.
1. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you begin a profound love of music?
I’ve been a music freak for as long as I have a memory and with a few exceptions, as many times as I’ve tried to walk away from it, I keep finding myself stuck with my obsession. Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” was the first single I remember buying and the first band I loved was KISS and they were the primary focus of my life from kindergarten to the time I was nine years old or so. As a little kid in the 1970s there was so much nostalgia sparked by everything from “The Buddy Holly Story,” Sha Na Na’s TV show to Elvis or John Lennon’s death and all of those things got me into the music. I was also into the “Urban Cowboy” craze and saw all the live country acts at Houston Live Stock Show and Rodeo over the years, from George Jones and Merle Haggard to the cheesy ones. I even saw KC & The Sunshine Band there when I was six or so. My parents played a lot of Bee Gees, Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd eight tracks in the car. And of course for the airwaves, I consumed everything from the morning Zoos and bawdy hard rock jocks to “urban contemporary” stations on the transistor radio under the sheets after bedtime to early MTV after school. Music was, along with sports, one of the two major subjects of most of my early childhood interactions before it became literally everything starting around the time I was 13 when I started finding punk and old music and picking up the guitar…
2. And how did you translate that from being in a band to the New York Night Train.
By 2001 I had turned thirty and had been playing in bands, touring, and making records – plus going out to see music and partying on a nightly basis since the late 1980s. The band I made a living with, Grand Mal, was dropped from Slash Records and I had become a financial sector temp at both World Trade Center towers and the surrounding buildings and was on call to work on September 11. That shock inspired me to get serious and quit drugs and music – which had become synonymous for me and a dead end. I started graduate school and, while my studies were primarily music-related, I tried to get away from all of the people, places, and things that were complicating my life. But while working on my thesis, I left the East Village for Williamsburg and started gigging with a couple of bands. I also decided to do an academic oral history on my friend Kid Congo Powers. While we worked on this project, I also wound up putting out his first two solo records. The label was called New York Night Train and the oral history project went up online as a part of the blog with the same name. Kid’s record release party in 2006 was my first NYNT party and the DJ of the night, Ian Svenonius, thought I did a good enough job that he wanted me to organize and promote a couple of upcoming DJ nights for Calvin Johnson and him. Those were my first NYNT dance parties. When I gave a flier to Hari Kupian at the legendary Motor City Bar, he invited me to do a Wednesday there. I thought he meant every Wednesday and I kept coming back for over three hundred weeks. Within a few months I was getting all kinds of people asking me to play at their bars soon I had five weekly residencies plus a couple of big monthly parties – Soul Clap and Dance-Off and Animal Train Happening. So I quit my day jobs, forgot about graduate school, and focused on becoming the best I could be at throwing parties and playing records. And ten years later, I’m still at it…
3. I’m Listening to Souvenirs of the Soul Clap Vol 5 as I write these questions, how do you find the tracks that go into making these compilations, do you spend hours hunting them down or is that list in your head just waiting for the next record or dance party.
Like my DJ sets, I have no idea what the heck I’m doing when I get started and the thing just evolves through improvisation. I wound up making a huge list of my favorite uncommon party records that hadn’t been on compilations before and then whittled it down. I decided to focus on that sort of Animal House early raw soul party feeling and work from there. I texturized it with a raw funkier song from a few years later than the rest, a soul song by a white garage band, and even a fairly common record that’s way glossier than what i typically work with, the original “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” by James Ray. I essentially added a few raisins to the oatmeal to give it character and make it reflect what I think is distinctive about my parties, DJ personality, and aesthetic. I tried to order what I had left to make it flow, establish a narrative, and diversify the tempo, rhythm, harmony, key, texture, tone, etc to be fresher on the ears. I then left a few on the floor and replaced them with others I wanted less but fit better with the whole. Most importantly I went to Chicago Mastering again to cut the lacquer and make it sound as much like the original 45s as possible.
3. You were involved in a freak accident a few years back in Portland. A lot of your friends rose to the occasion , raising money and supporting your recovery , Is that all in the past or does it linger and knowing you have surrounded yourself with great friends does that make moving past the accident easier.
Yeah I’m happy to see the accident shrink in my rearview mirror. Though it left me a lot to deal with every day, I never forget how lucky I am to have such great friends and how far they went out of their way for me. I’m humbled and certainly not worthy!
4. Do you see any hope for mainstream American kids getting turned on to cool music anytime soon and how can we reach them. You seem to understand that connection is important
Generally speaking I never had hope for mainstream American kids liking cool music, even when I was a kid, and that’s why I got into underground and old music in the first place. The Top 40 now is probably just as bad as it was when I grew up. I don’t believe you can convert people who listen to mainstream music but you can affect the ones who have abandoned it and are searching for something else. And when you add all the different types of searchers, you have a sizeable demographic. I still have hope for the rebel kids. That’s who I started out doing these parties for originally and lately I’ve been accepting a fraction of the money to do my thing at all-ages punk venues so I can reconnect with the underground. But even the unique ones who turn up curious and excited about soul music are often only visiting before they go back to the more generalized musical universe of the post-subculture world and mp3 shuffle void we all now inhabit. However some of the kids are genuinely moved and these experiences change their lives. And those are the ones who keep me going every night.
5. What’s it been like to work with Norton and Burger Records?
Norton has such an admirable commitment to rock’n’roll and have put out so much of the best stuff ever: Hasil Adkins, The Sonics, Link Wray, Pretty Things, Doug Sahm, Mighty Hannibal, King Coleman, Gino Washington, and on and on and on. So I was bowled over when they asked me to do these comps because 1) Norton is my favorite label of the last few decades, 2) the only other DJ comps they had done before mine were by Pittsburgh’s late great god of records and 1960s comps Mad Mike Metrovich, and 3) they know hundreds of collectors with more and better records than I. So they’re crazy to ask me to do these! But I’m so happy they believed in me and I’m finally starting to figure out what the heck I’m doing! Also the comps are currently some of their best sellers and I’m on my way to Chicago Mastering to finish Vol 6 and 7 next week. Billy and Miriam have been friends to me and a pleasure to work with – opinionated and firm while still supportive and inspirational. Their high standards, deep knowledge, and advanced aesthetics have made me work harder to make my material more unique and coherent while at the same time more consistent with their sound. It’s a real honor to be a part of their legendary world.
As for Burger, they are my buds. I’m so impressed with everything they’ve created and they’re so chill. The first tape I did for them was used to promote my appearance at their Burger Boogaloo in Oakland a few years ago. I was on tour in Minneapolis when they sent a message that it was due the next day. So I went to Mall of the Americas and bought a recorder, popped over to my friend’s bar shift at Grumpy’s, hijacked the turntables, and taped my set. I returned the recorder at the mall the next day and got my money back. On the plane I cut the set in half on my laptop and when I landed I emailed them the two sound files a day late, Side A and Side B. When I turned up at the gig a few weeks later Sean had a big smile and a box of tapes for me.
6. You’re a pretty famous DJ , Who were the DJ’s that inspired you throughout your carrier.
If you look at early flyers, almost all of my DJs were musicians like Gibby Haynes, Kid Congo Powers, and Ian Svenonius as I was still playing in bands and putting out rock records and that was the only culture I knew. I was a fan of early hip hop innovators like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambataa – but more as cultural than musical influences. But generally speaking I was always a rock musician, I didn’t have a lot of respect or admiration for the nightclub DJs. In fact it was a bit of an annoyance and I didn’t understand why people would waste so much time playing other peoples performances as if they made it themselves or even worse, messing up records that people spent so much time perfecting. Also I never liked raves and, even when I tried, I didn’t really care for Top 40 or House or Techno or Disco or the Electro sub genres that were associated with nighclub DJs. I also wasn’t attracted to record collector parties. Finally, I didn’t mind bar DJs who play the rock’n’roll music I liked but didn’t much care either way about that job unless it was a friend of mine I wanted to hang out with. I did however always love radio DJs – particularly the big personalities and rhymers and fast talkers – but that’s an entirely different animal.
Anyhow, I think Ian Svenonius was the first nightclub DJ that I thought was cool. He looks great and has so much attitude and energy and such a creative and conceptual approach to records. He makes so many detached musical jokes but at the same time is real and deep within what he does and his enthusiasm makes the dancers really feel it. He definitely made me rethink the job as an admirable endeavor and something intelligent, stylish, and socially acceptable. Then… I met Josh Styles. After a year or so of DJing, I was already making a living obtaining and playing rock and soul 45s for the dance floor when I worked with Josh Styles for the first time and was blown away. I don’t know what kept me from checking him out before. He was doing all of the things I was working towards but way better. He turned all original 45s, many of which I wished I had on my small budget, assembled unique mixes from a very personalized perspective, had impeccable and unusual super-savvy taste, laid it down hard and heavy on the up and up, beat matched, had killer transitions, dressed cool and hardcore dandy mod-ish, had loads of personality and energy coming off of the booth, and in essence, played old 45s like a real DJ – but without cutting them up or messing too much with the structure or integrity. And though he came from a hep subcultural rock’n’roll perspective that spoke knowingly to subcultural rock’n’rollers like me, he also knew how to play for the dancefloor at the same time. He played with such power and authority and his ideas came across with such wit and clarity. He was so much better and more advanced than me or anyone else I’d come across at that point. So Josh didn’t just show me what was possible with records, and remains a huge inspiration, but once we became friends he went out of his way to teach me everything from which freakbeat records to check out to how to balance a needle.
7. What’s next for you, any plans that you would like to share about what awaits us in 2017?
Oh man, I have more crazy opportunities than ever and, if nothing slows me down, 2017 should up the ante in a big way. While I need to hold my tongue about a few things, I can tell you that I’ll be doing New Years at Home Sweet Home, Soul Claps at Brooklyn Bowl, South By Southwest, and most of the major metropolises in the western world – including my 10th Anniversary Soul Clap and Dance-Off spectacular (which is gonna be unreal), organizing my annual Valentines Planned Parenthood Benefit with Panache at Williamsburg Music Hall, and releasing at least two more “Souvenirs of the Soul Clap” LPs – one of which is an elaborate concept album or sorts. I’m considering getting a personal facebook page for the first time in years… And everything else will just have to be a surprise!
New York Night Train