The NYC Downlow introduced Glastonbury to queer clubbing. Stephen Titmus tells its story.
Berger is the cofounder of Block9, the company behind The NYC Downlow. Together with his creative partner, Stephen Gallagher, they conceptualise and build four venues at Glastonbury. They've also worked on Skrillex's tour, building a giant animatronic spaceship, and were part of a major collaboration at Banksy's Dismaland theme park. But the heart of Block9's empire is The NYC Downlow, a mind-bending pop-up nightclub with all the detail of a Hollywood film set. Part music venue, part immersive art project, it transports those who enter back to New York's golden era of gay disco. The venue takes a month of work and nearly 700 staff to create. Midland, a DJ who's played The Downlow, says "it's categorically one of the best clubs in the world."
Inside The Downlow you're confronted with a huge, dark dance floor packed with as many as 2,000 sweating and often half naked bodies. In the gloomier regions is a bathhouse complete with a dark room. By the end of Glastonbury—if you include The Downlow's staff bar, Maceo's—the party has raged nonstop for nearly 100 hours. Some of the world's best house and disco DJs play, but they're usually not the focus. Through the smoke and moustachioed go-go dancers it's hard to even see where the DJ booth is.
The building is made to look like a three-story meatpacking warehouse. The original Downlow, which arrived at Glastonbury in 2007, was an idealised Manhattan gay club from 1979. The redesigned version, launched this year, saw the club moving in the time and space to the Meatpacking District in 1982. Real life gentrification inspired the imaginary shift. The club's architecture, design and fake advertising boards are researched to the nth degree, inspired by thousands of era-appropriate images. Half the building appears fire damaged, giving the place a semi-derelict feel. On the roof is a huge billboard, smashed in half, emblazoned with the phrase "Try it, you might like it."
Bearded drag queens and muscle bears staff the reception of the West Side Bath House out front, selling fake moustaches to the incoming crowd. This 'tashe tax has raised over £60,000 for charities like the Mother Of Mercy HIV/AIDS Hospice and orphanage in Zambia. But aside from fundraising, the moustache represents a sort of social contract. "Putting on the moustache basically is a way of you being able to put your nine-to-five to one side for a few hours and be someone different, or be yourself," says Gallagher.
Berger puts it differently: "So all of these straight boys that flock to The Downlow are like, 'Yeah, maybe, you know, this crew are pretty cool actually. Seeing as I'm here and everybody else is doing it, at a push, maybe I could manage a massive cock in my mouth."
Berger and Gallagher met in the early 2000s while working in set design. Both had been freelancing, creating installations and making props for work in film and advertising, and both had been involved with dance music events. They shared a workshop, and one day Berger played one of his mix CDs. They got talking and found they had a lot in common.
Berger had been involved with festivals and free parties for years. When he was 17 he purchased a huge soundsystem and a coach to transport it. He ended up moving into the coach and travelling around Europe's free party circuit. It was fun for a time, but eventually he found himself looking for something more. "I got so oversaturated with heterosexual hippies and their babies and living on rural traveller sites halfway up mountainsides that I was just like, "OK, fuck this! I'm gonna move to San Francisco to the epicentre of the homo house music underground and see what happens."
What happened was Burning Man. There, queer camps like Comfort & Joy and Jiffy Lube had a life-changing impact on Berger. "The homo crew at Burning Man had their fucking shit going on. Amazing fucking house music soundsystems and big camps just doing some amazing stuff. The yanks have no shame about anything, and that's great and really healthy and good. And that was the thing I wanted to drag kicking and screaming back here."
That opportunity arrived quickly. Soon after Berger met Gallagher they worked together at Japan's Fuji Rock Festival. There, they hooked up with Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company, a new age traveller art collective known for their Mad Max-inspired art installations at raves and festivals. Gallagher and Berger mused about how great it would be to have a gay club at Glastonbury. Despite drawing in around 170,000 people each year, the festival had no obvious gay presence. As Berger says, "It wasn't easy to walk around Glastonbury Festival as a 14-year-old homo going, 'Jesus Christ. Am I the only one?'"
Mutoid Waste had a long standing relationship with Glastonbury, and they were about to launch their own late night area at the festival—Trash City focussed on the most raucous elements of theatre, circus and cabaret, with giant art installations and a fire-breathing sculpture that would later become the Arcadia Stage. Amidst all that, a cartoonishly exaggerated New York gay club fit perfectly.
The initial idea for NYC Downlow was ambitious. The plan was to build a fully functioning club with a bar, fantastic sound and a stage. The exterior would have the look and feel of a bombed-out tenement building with carefully staged details, such as a fake hi-fi repair shop out front. Glastonbury allocated £5,000 for the build, which meant Berger and Gallagher would have to call in serious favours to turn their vision into reality. As Gallagher says, "We hit up everybody we knew. We got free paint and free timber. Everyone worked for free, everyone DJ'd for free. It was all done just for the love of it."
The project had a socialist spirit, what Gallagher describes as a "mini communist dream." That value system remains at the core of the Downlow. "The set builders were working the bar and the bar staff were DJing and me and Steve were driving trucks and the trannies were putting up marquees," Berger remembers. To this day, the egalitarian nature of the project—the fact that a DJ like Prosumer arrives days before his set to help—is testament to the team's efforts. It's not unique on the festival circuit—Burning Man is built on this kind of collective, unpaid graft—but it's extremely rare.
These ideals align with Glastonbury overall. "Glastonbury supports Oxfam and WaterAid and Greenpeace," Berger says. "It supports a lot of good shit and it is not just another commercial brand partnership. Festivals have to be financially feasible and everybody has to make concessions and stuff, but Glastonbury are the only organisation that do that honourably."
The music and performances at Downlow are consistently fantastic. The DJs are briefed on the criteria: gay, mid-'80s American house and disco. Think The Paradise Garage, Music Box and Sound Factory. "The spirit of Ron Hardy lives on in the Downlow," Berger says.
The Black Madonna, who played this year, was a DJ who truly got it, playing a slew of vintage house and Italo and then flipping the script with The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men." But in truth, every DJ I saw at the Downlow this year brought it. Honey Soundsystem, Discodromo, Honey Dijon, Horse Meat Disco—they all represent a global queer club network that perfectly understand the aesthetics and history of what's gone into The Downlow.
The pick of the weekend might have been Roger Sanchez. In a brief statement on the mic before his set, the New York DJ created one of the most poignant moments I have ever witnessed in a club. Barely two weeks after the Orlando massacre at Pulse, and the night after Brexit—which stirred bigotry in the UK—he reminded us that, "We are all human and we all deserve to love and respect each other." The reception was a mixture of screams of agreement and tears. He then mixed unrelentingly massive house tracks with three CDJs, at one point blending Basement Jaxx, Frankie Knuckles and Masters At Work all at the same time. Berger, who DJs under the name Gideön, was also fantastic. He followed Berghain's nd_baumecker with set of pumping, Junior Vasquez-style house that perfectly fit the humid dance floor.
Positioned within a mainstream music festival, The Downlow offers many people their first taste of queer clubbing. This can have a big impact. "There's a lot of heartfelt stories and thank-yous that come back to us from people," says Berger. "I got a few emails from lads that have found the Downlow somehow magnetically at the festival and it's been their sort of locus. It's changed the course of their life—'I found the Downlow and I realised that there was another way.' Not the provincial tacky gay bar way, but the realization that these people are out there. There's this music out there, there's this feeling that exists and it's talking to me, it's what I'm about and I'm gonna base my life around trying to fucking pursue that."
"When I was growing up I didn't have any gay friends whatsoever," says Harry Agius, AKA Midland. "I was very lucky that when I came out all my friends were amazing, but they were all straight. I never really went to gay pubs or clubs, just because it was not really on our radar. For me, The Downlow was the first time house and disco was cohabiting with another side of my life. Even though I've only known The Downlow for a few years, it felt like coming home and becoming part of a family." Agius knows people who've had "awakenings" in The Downlow—an idea that doesn't seem at all strange once you've spent time on the venue's darkened dance floor.
In the years since The Downlow launched, it's become a beacon of queer dance culture within a predominantly straight festival. There's unquestionably a bigger gay presence at Glastonbury than there was a decade ago, and The Downlow has not just changed the demographic of the festival itself but has also had an impact on Glastonbury's surrounding areas. "I'm from Glastonbury, it's my home village. I think it's done so much for acceptance of gay and transgender people," says James Hillard, one of the founders of Horse Meat Disco and someone who's been involved with The Downlow from the start. "From my experience of going back to the country and talking to people they absolutely love it. Whereas ten years ago they might have been more homophobic or transphobic, they're now actually really positive. I really, really do believe, hand-on heart, that NYC Downlow has done so much for acceptance of LGBT people." He went on to say, "It's the best club in the world that's only open four days a year."
"This is the promotion of homosexuality," was one of many choice lines from my interview with Berger. That being said, The Downlow is remarkably inclusive. On Sunday morning, the day of Gay Pride events in the UK, one of the performers took the microphone to welcome all of "the straight people into this wonderful queer world." To borrow Horse Meat Disco's motto, The Downlow is a queer party for everyone.
The atmosphere in The Downlow is stoked by, in their words, "a polysexual trans army not to be reckoned with." Between each DJ set swathes of performers take the stage for a runway show or a choreographed dance routine. Political, satirical and downright nuts, many are amazingly talented dancers and performers. Others are all attitude, with makeup slapped on haphazardly, running on adrenalin and looking worse for wear. Often the boundary between stage and the dance floor is non-existent, creating a uniquely flamboyant atmosphere.
Berger knew many of the core performers long before Downlow started. A big part of the success of the club is just how naturally the UK alt-trans scene fits in. "I've been going out and playing records in and around the gay underground circuit in London since I was like 14, and everyone knows everyone, you know? We were sharing ideas with Jonny Woo, the Horse Meat Disco guys, Nine Bob, John Sizzle, Scottee, Le Gateau Chocolat—all of the players and movers and shakers in that sort of East London queer, punk, fuck you, semi-car-crash sort of art world. They were all there loading boxes and breaking nails on the very first Downlow, so we certainly didn't commission anybody to come and take care of the performance side of things, we are all the same crew. And same as the DJs, you know, our approach to people being involved is there's no fucking red carpet. There's no tech rider with bottles of champagne. It's like, if you wanna be part of it come and get involved and bring your thing."
Although Berger and Gallagher are jointly responsible for everything at Block9, including design, at The Downlow their roles become slightly more defined. Berger looks after the music while Gallagher takes care of the many build and logistical elements. As Berger tells me, the process of booking DJs is almost by word-of-mouth. "The proudest moment is when someone says, 'Yeah, I've heard about that, I'm up for it,'" says Berger. "Ever since Tyree Cooper said, 'I had the fucking best time. Fuck the money, fuck the crew catering, you should go.' He told DJ Pierre, Pierre told Kerri Chandler, Kerri told Gene Hunt. Everyone knows each other. We can't afford to pay £20,000 for a fucking DJ fee for anyone, we can't even afford to pay £2,000 for a DJ fee. People come because they've heard about it." He says the dream is for Masters At Work to play. If Kenny and Louie read this, they would do well to get on board.
When it comes to favourite moments from The Downlow, Gallagher and Berger have many to choose from. David Morales' tribute to Frankie Knuckles, coming barely three months after his passing, is one. Luke Howard's set in 2009 was also something special. During Glastonbury that year news broke of Michael Jackson's sudden death. Howard responded by pulling together an unimaginably varied two-hour selection of Jackson records. "It was really real," Berger says. "He played Jackson tracks I'd actually never heard before. It was fucking amazing music. Luke was really emotional. It was really, really fucking mental in there." Luke's closing set in The Downlow has now become something of a tradition.
Another moment that leaps out for Berger is Kerri Chandler's performance. "I was in The Downlow, Kerri Chandler was playing and it was fucking rammed, it was like a sweat box in there. A lot of people weren't wearing very many clothes and I got this radio call saying, 'Michael Eavis'"—Glastonbury's 80-year-old founder—"'is outside the fucking Downlow.' I squeezed through the crowd and Michael had already made his way in with his two people, and he was walking through. It was really rammed, and through these fucking ginormous, sweaty fucking dudes, he bumped into me and was like, [adopts West Country accent] 'Well it doesn't get much worse than this does it, Gideon?' I was like, 'You're fucking brilliant.'"
The success of Downlow has been obvious. The venue has captured the imagination of festival-goers and clubbers, and turned heads in the art world, making the back cover of Creative Review, the influential arts and design magazine. Tantalisingly, Block9's venues may start to exist away from Glastonbury. Berger and Gallagher's next project, which will be hitting London in the next few years, will mix the NYC Downlow with Block9's other clubs, Genosys and London Underground, into a huge art installation meets music venue. Gideön's DJ career is also on the up, with more and more international gigs.
At a time when the UK's values of tolerance and acceptance seem to be heading in the wrong direction, The NYC Downlow is much more than a crazy party. Sure, it has that side of things nailed. But it's remarkable because it uses its position within a festival of 170,000 to encourage people of different sexualities to come together. The concept of "Peace, Love And Unity" in club culture is an often clichéd one. The Downlow is a club that promotes those values in a way that's sincere and powerful.