The Bunker Turns Nine
When Bryan Kasenic's techno-plus party the Bunker moved from the Lower East Side club Subtonic to Williamsburg in the spring of 2007, he faced a potential audience mutiny. Or, maybe more accurately—and maybe worse—he faced a bunch of New York hipster whining.
"People said it would never be the same, 'Now we have to go out to Brooklyn,'" Kasenic says over shots of espresso in the spacious living room of his Williamsburg loft, which he shares with photographer and promoter Seze Devres. "But it could have always existed in Williamsburg. It took a bit of time to find a new crowd, but eventually some of the kids who were hanging out in the Lower East Side and couldn't be bothered going to Brooklyn were replaced by all the young people in this neighborhood."
Right now, hordes of kids are tuned into the Skrillex-led new wave of U.S. rave. The Bunker isn't exactly a mass-market kind of event: Kasenic hasn't seen much of that particular crowd come in, at least not yet. But though the Bunker's crowd is ever-shifting, it's also loyal. "The party's makeup is always changing, which I think is good," he says. "In order to keep this thing going, we need to have new people coming and getting into techno."
He has been there himself. Kasenic grew up in Pittsburgh, where he got involved with WRCT, the radio station at Carnegie Mellon University, while still in high school. "This was 1993, so you couldn't just go on YouTube and SoundCloud and go, 'I'm interested in hearing what Aphex Twin sounds like,'" he says. "To have access to all this history of alternative, experimental music was a big deal for me."
Kasenic spent the 1995–96 school year going to Rutgers, then transferred to NYU: "I was in New York every weekend, weekdays. I was like: 'I can't stay here in New Jersey. It's just ridiculous.'"
As DJ Spinoza, Kasenic began spinning out in the city—early gigs included Soundlab, an incubator of the mid-'90s "illbient" wave led by DJ Olive and DJ Spooky. "The Soundlab parties were a big deal to me," Kasenic says. "Eventually, I started to see DJs play after-hours at Save the Robots. They would have a trip-hop room, a drum-and-bass room, and a techno room with Khan and all the Temple guys. Then I started shopping at [New York DJ shop] Temple [and realized]: This is what I really, really like."
At the beginning of 2003, Kasenic and DJ/producer Timeblind (born Chris Sattinger, now living in Berlin) took over the weekly party at Subtonic, the Polar Bear Club, and started focusing on local techno DJs and acts. By 2006, Kasenic was booking international acts. (DJ Zip and Sammy Dee of the storied minimal-techno label Perlon made a particularly memorable appearance that fall.) By July 2007, the party was installed at Galapagos (now known as Public Assembly), and the crowds began to increase. This Friday, Kasenic celebrates the Bunker's ninth anniversary with a show headlined by Chicago house king Derrick Carter, returning Bunker regular (and recent Berlin transplant) Derek Plaslaiko, and Detroit-indebted Dutch veteran Legowelt.
By the time Kasenic moved the party to Williamsburg, the Bunker had acquired a reputation as New York's premier underground dance event. That's less the case now, as more parties, some of which directly compete with the Bunker, have popped up. On December 2, for instance, Blkmarket Membership hosted Berlin's Robag Wruhme and DJ Koze, Good Units threw a party for Crosstown Rebels (the dance label of 2011), and Pacha's headliner was minimal-techno favorite Loco Dice. Five years ago, that many big dance-music headliners appearing on one night in New York would have been unthinkable. Today, it's the norm, and the Bunker has a lot to do with it.
"It's a huge shift, and it seems like we're not even at the peak yet," Kasenic says. "Every month, someone's inviting me to some Facebook event with the kind of artist who would normally play the Bunker. That's something I think about a lot but try not to think about a lot. New York is such a type-A city—there's nothing you can do. The main thing I try to do is differentiate myself through the quality of production and the kind of crowds we're pulling."
Take the December 2 Bunker, subtitled "No Way Back." With DJs in Public Assembly's back room, the front room hosted live performances from non-dance outliers such as Keith Fullerton Whitman, Mountains, and Container—a daring move in a competitive market.
"I was trying to experiment on that night," Kasenic says. "I've been getting into this new wave of synthesizer experimental music where they seem to be going for this meditative yet super-psychedelic sound. It's rooted in the super-DIY noise scene: Somebody playing this beautiful old synthesizer, with a broad spectrum of sound, out of a guitar amp. It's really brightly lit, and there's somebody DJing punk rock songs between bands. I really wanted to see that music presented properly in New York, just to see what happened. There weren't as many people as I'd hoped for, but the people who did show up [said]: 'This is amazing. This is what needs to be happening in New York.'"
Keeping things interesting is a big part of Kasenic's mandate, and the Bunker's anniversary parties are crucial to his strategy. Last year, the eighth anniversary bash featured the legendary Scottish duo Optimo in the front room and Italy's Donato Dozzy in the back for a full eight hours apiece. Plaslaiko, who played the after-hours in the upstairs loft for another eight, helped secure Carter for the nine-year party as well, says Kasenic: "He said: 'Dude, I'm going to [Berlin's] Panoramabar tonight to hang out with him. Why don't I just ask?' He talked him into it."
It couldn't have been difficult. Ultimately, the Bunker's draw is the night's—and its founder's—sensibility. "I worked at a record store," Kasenic says. "I worked in college radio. I grew up going to see bands and going to noise shows. I'm not really coming at this from a clubber's perspective, even though I did go out to Twilo, and I've been to raves, and I've been to parties in Detroit, and I appreciate all that. [For] a lot of the artists, it's why these guys love the party so much. They're that kind of person."
The Bunker's ninth anniversary party takes place at Public Assembly on Friday. More info at http://www.beyondbooking.com
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