Q&A: Jonathan Toubin On His Record Collection, Moving To New York In The ’90s, And Wanting To Make Culture


Some DJs are quiet, let-the-music-do-the-talking types, but not Jonathan Toubin. Interviewed for this week’s Voice profile, the 4Knots Music Festival Afterparty host was enthusiastic and opinionated, generating a novella’s worth of transcript. More highlights from our conversation are below, as Toubin recalls his days freeloading from major labels, how to nicely kick drunks out of Arlene’s Grocery, New York’s Bohemian tradition, and just exactly which rare records he DJs with.

Is there a hard mark between what you listen to for yourself, for pleasure, and what you like to play for others?

Certainly there’s a few things. For instance, I really like a lot of these jazzy songs and slow songs. I like a lot of moody, psychedelic music. Really, that’s for home. Also, I keep telling people, “It’s your job [to separate them].” People I know always want to play absolutely everything. I’m like, “You don’t wear a tuxedo to a tennis match.” People, for some reason—I think because of the iPod—feel compelled to show everyone they’re hip to all these different things. I don’t really need to prove that to anybody. In fact, for me, it’s more exciting the more I limit what I do. Like, “Tonight we’re only playing electric blues from the ’50s and ’60s.” And it becomes a really rich night.

A couple of weeks ago at Home Sweet Home, we decided to do a Rolling Stones night, since it’s their 50th anniversary. Probably one out of every five songs was actually [by] the Rolling Stones: we [played] a lot of songs they cover, covers of their songs—make it interesting. Me and my friend Josh Styles made two piles. We both brought what we would normally bring on Friday, because sometimes you can do a theme without every single song being [part of] a theme, and then just the Rolling Stones-related material, so if anything went badly or got boring, we could move over to this other, more diverse place.

Having that physically there probably helps your mind focus it a bit, too.

It’s a safety net.

You have stacks of 45s everywhere in your kitchen. Can you give me a guided tour? What are the ones in the middle, standing up?

These are mostly up from Detroit and Cleveland. I was just there a couple weeks ago. Some of them will be junk, like this. [Picks up two small stacks of 45s] This is some trash from Rhode Island a couple days ago I’m probably going to give away for free or something, I think 15 [records]. [This stack] means I’m going to keep [them], but there were none that were really amazing. There’s a couple I haven’t heard that I really don’t need to hear. There was a big dollar bin [sale]. I got a moon record [“Apollo Flight, First Man on the Moon, 1969,” narrated by Hugh Downs], which would be funny because I used to use a lot more sound clips. I don’t any more as much.

[Picks up another 45] This band [the Detergents] were geniuses and made a living burlesquing the Shangri-Las. This one’s called “Leader of the Laundromat.” Their other hit was called “I Can Never Eat at Home Anymore.” They were talking about their mom’s cooking: “My mom’s a good mom, but she can’t cook.” I use to have a lot more novelty [records]. Before I got to this level I was more of a thrift-shop kind of DJ. I would just introduce Sesame Street to, like, a punk record.

You were like a WFMU DJ.

[laughs] That’s mean, man.

I didn’t intend it to be. What are those four adjacent stacks in front of the bin?

This one is what I wanted to listen to today. The guy from the record store from Detroit’s here this week to DJ. He’s going to be my guest on Friday. Three of the records are ones he mailed me. One of them in particular is impossibly expensive, and he gave it to me for a couple hundred bones. It’s really cool. It’s one of those great songs that should be a classic. It’s called “He’s the One That Rings My Bell” [by Sherri Taylor, 1961]. There aren’t many copies of it, but people will like it. I’ll also play it at my soul party because it’s kind of a mix. It’s got enough rock and roll type elements to not be out of place. I’ve got a new name for Friday night, by hairdos: Pompadour, Process, Beehive, and Shag. Soul Clap, which I’m most famous for, is totally different. I go into the earlier ’60s R&B, the earlier funky music where it’s really songy and raw, and then a couple boogaloos. Even with that format, it’s so diverse that you never have to do much.

[Looks at more 45s] I have Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance” single; the original version of “Mr. Pharmacist,” that the Fall did, by the Other Half. [An early] Feelies single [“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me & My Monkey” b/w “Original Love,” Stiff, 1980]. This is a recent Italian record that I really like [by Vermillion Sands]. And this is a highly danceable Theremin track that’s incredible that I just got recently. [The First Theremin Era, “The Theme from Dark Shadows”] It is insane. It’s one of those Can, “Vitamin C”-type beats. It has a break.

I played this kind of rare track by a soul artist named Johnny Thunder—it’s a Tommy James cover, of “I’m Alive”—and this guy came up to me in Toronto a few days ago: “It’s on Ghostface Killah’s new album.” And it is. Here’s “The Grizzly Bear” [by the Chanteurs], vocal doo-wop/R&B: a really wild song about a dance called the grizzly bear.

When you moved to New York in 1998, the city was pretty dead then, wasn’t it?

It was a really dead time for mass culture. There weren’t many underground things that were happening on a big level. That being said, there were tons of things happening on a smaller level: That was a particularly good time for Long Island City and Williamsburg, even Central Brooklyn or Deitch Projects stuff. It was a time when the underground was really tight-knit because it was so small, because it wasn’t a cool time in New York. It wasn’t like 2003, when everyone wanted to live [in Williamsburg].

When I first got here in the ’90s there was a lot of rich people, and people trying to be cool, who would go out and hang out and pretend to like music they didn’t like. People like my roommate Mike or me, they’d give us tickets to go to places to get in free and drink free, so a few cool people would be there to make the rich people feel comfortable.

Did you come here to DJ?

No. I hated DJs. I was a musician and I was in a band and we toured. We did a 90-day tour and we ended up in New York and I stayed here for three months. I was supposed to meet them in Chicago, but I thought, “During the summer I’ll just hang out.” I delivered food and I agreed to be in every band that asked me. I was in, like, four bands, mostly playing guitar.

I ended up in Grand Mal. Slash Records signed this band, and Slash merged with London to create the biggest indie label—they had a P&D [publishing and distribution] deal with Polygram. We’d raid the Universal building. I’d go to Island Records and go, “I haven’t heard these Tom Waits CDs,” and they’d give you all of them. Then I’d go to Verve and be like, “Oh, this is really interesting. What’s this Blue Note compilation?” Or I’d go back to Slash and say “Man, Walk Among Us sounds very interesting. And Gun Club!”

I’d get all those CDs every month, and then I would take them to Kim’s where the guy from Windsor for the Derby, who’s [also] from Texas, used to work. I would give him all those CDs and he would give me six bucks apiece. So we had all these different rackets for making money in addition to having the [band] retainer. It was awesome. I didn’t have to work my first two years here pretty much, or year and a half. So I lucked out.

What did you do for a living after that?

I started temping, and I got a web design certificate. I decided to go to graduate school after September 11. I thought I wanted to be a professor, because I couldn’t think of anything else that sounded good. In the meantime I was writing to make money. I’d write little crappy research textbooks for kids about history subjects. I was in the history department. When I started making money [being a DJ], I was mostly making my money writing for Gibson Guitars. I’d write these biographies of Angus Young or whoever. It was just for money, I assure you. Not that I disliked it. It wasn’t like I was doing art. But because I have an English degree, when you’re at graduate school you don’t have all that many marketable talents. The web design thing fell through really quickly around then. When I started, they didn’t have Dreamweaver or any of that. Then suddenly, two or three years later, people had these really elegant code generators that could do mostly what I could do, and kids all knew it. So instead of a $50-an-hour job it became a $15 headache.

Which venues existed in Williamsburg when you first lived there?

There was the Charleston, which was a pizza place. A crazy old guy used to run it. I think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played there, and a few neighborhood bands every now and then. Cokie’s was an illegal coke bar that had a Puerto Rican band.

I had a van, so what I would do also to get spare money during those months is, I would drive. Basically, most people’s practice spaces were in the Lower East Side, East Village. Every venue was Brownie’s, CBGB’s, or the Continental. So—and it would amaze me coming from Texas—for $50 I would drive some friend, which I would have done for free in Texas, in this van a few blocks. Then at the end of the night I’d pick them up or stay around and drink and then drive them a few more blocks.

Chris from the Swans used to have me, when he went on tour, do the door for him, [when] I weighed 40 pounds less than this, at Arlene’s Grocery. I would stand outside. He’s a big guy, Chris Pravdica. I would just check IDs. One day a lady came up and said, “The bartender said this guy needs to go.” I was like, “Oh, you want me to kick him out? Oh…” [laughs] That’s where I learned how to be real persuasive. I told him I liked him and I didn’t want him to go, but she had called the cops and I was going to try and get him out of there before they came. It works every time: “That chick called the cops and I got to get you out of here before they get here.”

Were you always a record collector?

I kind of gave up for awhile. I used to work at a record store called Sound Exchange in Austin. It was a kooky place. I was on college radio for years [at the University of Texas], in its founding years. I wasn’t into having possessions. I have so many records I have left at houses, all the good ones—like, “Where is that Scratch Acid first EP? Where’s my Big Boys record?” You leave something for two years in a house, you’ll get your stuff, but you get what’s left of your stuff.

Do you have anything in your collection that somebody left at your place?

No. I’m really good, even with money. A lot of what I did earlier was putting on these shows or these parties with bands. One of the guys from a party in, I think, 2008, came and collected his money, his $100 or whatever, a year ago. It was still in my sock drawer in an envelope that said “Imaginary Icons,” which is his band. So I’m really careful. I keep people’s things. If someone leaves their record, like Tim [Warren], one of his most valuable records—he passed out in the DJ booth and left it with a footprint on it, but it was in great shape still. I kept it for him for, like, two years until he came up to New York and I gave it to him.

Early on, my records, I didn’t care about them. I’d find them, and I’d get them cheap, and I’d throw them at people. For the first year, I remember Ian Svenonius was always trying to get me to put them in sleeves, because I didn’t even put them in sleeves. I would just have them out.

But when I started, I really just liked the sound of 45s. And if they had a little dirt on them, I liked the idea. It reminded me a lot of cinema or whatever, sort of a variant style. If it has these scratches, it makes people aware that they’re listening to a record.

Does it infer authenticity to it in a way?

Yeah. Now, what I want is I want it to be smooth. I have a whole other job now.

Where does DJing begin for you?

I started noticing in Williamsburg there was this whole other culture coming up, this new counterculture, and I was excited. But I was [also] bummed out. My friend Kid Congo Powers—he was in the Gun Club and the Cramps—had started [a] new solo band, and he had ten people going to see him. And these kids didn’t really [know]. They knew who Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were, whom he played with. I was like, “This is 101. You guys are in counterculture and you’re watching Animal Collective or something, which I actually like, but…”

I was actually making [Powers’] website for him as a favor. I was like, “We need to start telling your history to people, and we also need to start getting people interested in this music again, because there are these new weird kids who don’t know what anything is.” So we made this long oral history, but he didn’t want to put it on his site because he thought it was too egocentric. I’d been wanting to start a blog, so I started New York Night Train.

These records he’d made, no one would put them out. The guy from In the Red, his label, ran out of money. So I put out both of the records. The first party I threw was Kid Congo Powers’s record release party. I mixed up this really odd bill, [including] Ian Svenonius. After that, Ian got back in touch with me. He and Calvin Johnson were coming through to do a couple of DJ gigs, and they asked me to set it up.

When I asked the bar guy in Motor City, Hari Kupiainen (of Deaf Combo, etc.), “You’ve got to come to this, it’s going to be awesome,” he was like, “Why don’t you do things here?” So I ended up showing up on Wednesday. He meant one night. But I’d already made a schedule. I invited my musician friends to DJ: Bob Bert from Sonic Youth, Gibby Haynes, Kid Congo. I started putting on records when those guys weren’t spinning.

Glasslands opened, and my band Cause for Applause played there. We sold it out, so the owner said she wanted me to do more stuff there. I was like, “Well, I’m a DJ.” I put on these things with the Live with Animals crew, who are now [the bands] K-Holes and X-Ray Eyeballs. Golden Triangle was their band before that, then Secret Project Robot. We had a Factory party where we made it all sliver. We did screen tests, like the Warhol screen tests, and [projected them] on the wall. We had Genesis P-Orridge DJ. [They were] crazy multimedia parties that really put me on the map—so crazy that Glasslands [was] closed down on Bastille Day, 2007.

What were the first records you DJed with?

I definitely know I played some early Butthole Surfers. I remember playing a lot of Texas things: the Dicks and the Big Boys and Scratch Acid, and some more obscure things like Ed Hall and Pocket Fisherman. I remember I mixed it probably with some Howlin’ Wolf and some Chuck Berry—but [not] the hits.

By the time I moved to New York in ’98, people were like, “Rock and roll’s dead.” Even my band, which was a rock band, was like, “Everybody’s going to listen to Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers from now on out.” People were definitely looking forward to something different. It was a millennial time, and I think people were thinking that we’re entering this future. But every time people try to enter a future, they always mess it up because they think that they can escape what they are, the past.

I’m looking for a unique voice, a unique rhythm. I don’t want to play oldies that sound like oldies. I’m trying to find stuff that still sounds alive. I’m not at all interested in living in 1965. I love technology. [But] it makes people make more disposable things in a contemporary fashion. With mp3, [there’s] people making a mix on the airplane, or on the way to the gig, or whatever: “Yo, I made this on my way from Miami to Barcelona.” It sounds like it.

For me technology is… I always think of coffee or food. Lately, people are really into food growing out of the farm, or coffee from coffee [beans]. When I was a kid it was instant coffee. It was, “Get with the future.” You couldn’t find real coffee in some places, even. It only takes a little more time and a little more money, but it’s better. With analog sound, they made something better. I don’t understand why we all… just because it’s a new thing doesn’t mean [anything]. I read that thing recently about Steve Jobs, where Neil Young was like, “Yeah, we listened to records. He hated the sound of MP3s and CDs.” The guy who made the fucking iPod!

The big problem with capitalism is, it tries to tell people that the old thing is so last year or two years ago or antiquated. But the good things oddly never out of style, like the Beatles or Shakespeare or Picasso. It’s not like people go, “Shakespeare is so 17th century. Elizabethan stage is out of style.” It’s always going to be there.

I started trying to help develop this sort of longer Bohemian cultural aesthetic that was less of the mall and more of the sort of New York downtown Bohemian traditions that I wanted to come here for. The reason I bring James Chance or David Johansen or all these guys out all the time to do stuff is because I believe in that world. When I pictured New York, I pictured Suicide, I pictured Richard Hell, I picture the Velvet Underground. I love that nightclub aesthetic, too, the stuff from then. You ever looked at the old ads? They have a rockabilly guy, an avant-garde composer, and a punk band. I really loved that about Tonic, or the Cooler before that. That was the aesthetic. I saw Michael Karoli from Can, and Malcolm Mooney came down and sang with him, and Suicide played. I saw James Chance; I saw R.L. Burnside, the old bluesman. People don’t have that kind of quality at places anymore because people are so concerned with genre and place.

I wanted to make culture. It just seemed like with the place that I was given, being able to do these things, and the success of it, that I said, “Man, I want to just tie all this together.” Things were just boring. I’d go to these dance parties, and there were people just standing around, sometimes dancing. Or you’d go to these rock shows, and there’s this silly line, “10 o’clock, 11 o’clock,” and the crowds change: People run from the place to get a drink somewhere else after the band.

With the DJ economy at the local level, you have the guys that have really good records. They’re people that I still going to see and they’re amazing, but they don’t bring anybody. [Or] clubs will get an NYU kid, or a pretty girl who’s in fashion magazines, or a semi-famous artist, and hire that person to DJ. They’re not a DJ, but they bring a lot of people, and a picture gets in Paper magazine or something. After maybe six months, all those people don’t go, because there’s no quality there. And then the locals [quit going]. You can’t do anything—you’ve chased out all of your regular clientele. They know not to come on a Wednesday, because it’s going to be assholes and bad music. And people who don’t know those DJs can hear that it’s bad and unprofessional.

I was a guy that had good music, and I learned pretty quickly. I had already gotten to mix a little bit. So I did stuff that was reputable and I brought people. Almost instantly I had more gigs than I knew what to do with. And I started booking—like Enid’s, I couldn’t [play there], so I just booked the Thursday DJs. And that place clogged up, so I booked the Saturday DJs.

Once you knew you were going to recover from your accident, were you like, “OK, I’m going to start working on this again now”?

Yeah. I also thought about, “What else I’m going to do?” I have this thing that I made that’s incredibly lucrative, that I love to do, people give me all this respect, it makes people happy—it’s a lot of people’s social life. “What we do tonight?” “I don’t know, maybe Jonathan has something going.” And they look up my site. Even when I tour, no matter where I go, on Friday I come back and hit Home Sweet Home so people have this place. I think that’s a role in the community to offer people a thing to do. It’s not just the ego: “I have these awesome records.” No, you want to give people something to do. If I play you one of these songs, and it opens your mind, or maybe get into an entirely new kind of music or into a different kind of culture. I want that.

Having that ego with records is crazy. The DJ ego—it’s either the party guy who plays MP3s and it’s embarrassing to look at his face [when] he hits that Smith song or whatever from his hipster hat. On the other hand, with the record collector guys, it’s the opposite. They didn’t even bother doing anything. They’re trying to look like they’re not into it. They’ll stand there, and that’s their ego, too, just like the hipster guy with the hat. They’re pretending to not have an ego.

Jonathan Toubin hosts the 4Knots Music Festival Afterparty, with Kid Congo Powers and the Black Lips, on Saturday at the Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club.

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