The San Francisco label is a prolific source of esoteric dance music from the '80s and the present day. Matt McDermott talks to Josh Cheon, the man making it all happen.
It's the Tuesday after a landmark weekend for the two entities Cheon's associated with—Honey Soundsystem and Dark Entries. Honey just celebrated its tenth anniversary with a blow-out, 1000-plus capacity party at Public Works featuring Danny Daze, Kim Ann Foxman and its four residents—Cheon, Bézier, Jackie House (Jacob Sperber) and Jason Kendig. Following the main event, an afterparty at The Stud, a historic gay bar, stretched into the late afternoon.
It was Cheon's last weekend as a member of Honey Soundsystem. Now it's Tuesday, and a growing pile of work awaits him in his back office at RS94109. He's taping up record boxes to send to Scottish distributor Rubadub. "They keep bugging me because the Patrick Cowley thing took a long time," he says. "The ten-year was this weekend so it was kind of lost to parties, so I'm a couple days behind."
Cheon—fit and bespectacled with a neat beard—is remarkably collected for someone in charge of what is possibly the busiest small-press vinyl label in the world. Since 2009, Dark Entries has pumped out nearly 200 releases, in recent years at a rate averaging three to four a month. Hewing close to Cheon's personal tastes, the label started out with bedroom synth pop and post-punk gems from little-heard groups like Eleven Pond and Nagamatzu. Over the years, it expanded to present faithful new versions of Italo smashes like Big Ben Tribe's "Tarzan Loves The Summer Nights," no wave oddities like ImpLOG's "Holland Tunnel Dive" and new material from Bill Converse, Mystic Bill, Group Rhoda, The Hacker and Beau Wanzer.
Dark Entries' most impactful reissue projects, though, come from a former fixture in the San Francisco's historic gay neighborhoods, the visionary disco and hi-NRG producer Patrick Cowley. The Thursday leading into Honey's tenth anniversary, they hosted a party celebrating Cowley's unearthed gay porn soundtracks, an event highlighting the label's status as an emotional bridge between past and present.
The listening party for the third compilation of Cowley's porn music, Afternooners, went down around the corner from RS94109 on Turk Street, where Cheon rents an apartment. "Jacob [Sperber] had this idea to do a release party for Afternooners," Cheon says. "He wanted to show the porn movies. I was like, 'No one's going to watch the porn, Jacob, they're only interesting because of the music.'" The soundtracks, first heard on the 2013 compilation School Daze, stand firmly on their own, comprising hours of evocative, cosmic ambience that could have been recorded last week.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Cheon attempted to repair the original 16mm films, an ultimately futile attempt. He matched up the WAV files of the remastered audio with DVD transfers of the porn films and invited some of Cowley's associates and admirers to participate. Michael Zodorozny from the Philadelphia minimal synth band Crash Course In Science, whose music Cheon has also reissued, sang his own vocals over one of the instrumental tracks from Afternooners. Cheon also asked Theresa McGinley, Cowley's best friend and first roommate in San Francisco, to take part.
"She agreed but she didn't know what she was going to do," Cheon says. "Then she called me and said, 'I have some journals that Patrick left me, would it be cool if I read from them?' I was like, 'What! Theresa, I've known you since 2009, you're just telling me about this now?' She said, 'Well, I think this is the right time.' The journals are poetry, ruminations on life, writing about guys he would see in the park, mostly around the guise of sex but not just, 'Oh, saw Jim.' They're these descriptive, alliterative passages, it was beautiful."
Unbeknownst to Cheon at the time, the journals also served as the basis for the lyrics on the X-rated B-sides to the 2015 Honey Soundsystem Cowley 12-inch Kickin' In, but the writings document much more than Cowley's libidinous imagination.
"The journals stop at about 1977," Cheon says. "Patrick gets super busy. He writes about meeting Sylvester... going onstage and performing with him and the entries get sparser and sparser. '78, there's not much, '79 and '80 he's gone, he just doesn't have time to write in his journal... he's not in SF as much... he does check-in to talk about getting sick and not knowing what's going on, it's really hard to read that stuff."
These diaries from Cowley, who, in 1982, succumbed to AIDS at the age of 32, are the latest discovery in an exhaustive reassessment of Cowley's work spearheaded by Cheon and Honey Soundsystem. "The whole trajectory of how this came about," Cheon says, "is that we were looking for that unreleased disco 12-inch... that's all we cared about. Honey started as these disco-obsessed kids, we were handed this amazing disco collection and [Honey co-founder] Ken Woodard saw the value of the [porn soundtrack] reel-to-reels. We didn't even know what reel-to-reels were at the time. I think we were looking for another remix of 'I Feel Love' or whatever." Talking with Cowley's old associates, Cheon heard rumours about the porn soundtracks, eventually realizing they were holding onto the originals.
Cheon can chalk up several of his reissues to this brand of right-place, right-time serendipity. Juan Mendez, AKA Silent Servant, was a guest at Honey Soundsystem's famed Sunday weekly in 2013, and played a track by Sumerian Fleet that had Cheon rushing the decks. "I was like, 'What is this? Is this a Bauhaus song?' The next day they emailed me and said, 'Do you want to put out our album?' I didn't know who they were 24 hours earlier, they had no idea Juan had played our party." He's now put out two albums from Sumerian Fleet, 2014's Just Pressure and Pendulum from earlier this year.
But if luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity, Cheon's been laying groundwork for such discoveries his whole life. In the backroom at RS94109, we speak about his undying love for the dark, romantic '80s music that forms the backbone of his label's aesthetic.
"I didn't have the happiest teenage years," he says. "I was overweight, I was made fun of, I was gay and in the closet. I had girlfriends that were into goth music music and The Cure—I think hearing that when I was 15—it's angsty, it's sad, it's emotive, and I was all of these things. If you hear Robert Smith singing about Disintegration or Pornography and how it doesn't matter if we all die, it's like, 'This like a rallying call for what's going on inside my head.'"
He would eventually find other members of the lonely hearts club, first as a DJ and station manager at Rutgers' radio station, then as an intern at DFA. I ask him how he linked with James Murphy and Jonathan Galkin's seminal dance-not-dance imprint. "They had an ad in CMJ. I was going to spend a summer at Pennsylvania and [my father] was like 'You need to get a job,' and I said there's a internship in New York and he's like 'What? That's not paid!' I was majoring in biology and I should have been interning at labs." (He somehow holds down a day job in a laboratory even today—he talks about using a cab's wifi to send data on the way to gigs.)
The DFA stint gave Cheon a musical education and a foothold in a NYC music scene that, in some respects, rivaled the formative downtown days of yore. "I heard Terry Riley for the first time at DFA," Cheon says. "They started playing me all this krautrock, they were like, 'You don't know Ash Ra Tempel!?' I was seeing Mike Simonetti and Dan Selzer and Tim Sweeney, going to the Motherfucker parties with Justine D, seeing ESG play live in 2001... I was there," he laughs. "I had such a appetite, seeing Stereolab and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Siouxsie And The Banshees on their reunion tour." The affection for post-punk and new wave sounds he cultivated in his teenage years was now fully satiated, while compilations like Soul Jazz's New York Noise and DJ sets from the likes of Jeffrey Sfire sent him down infinite record-digging wormholes.
Cheon's stint as a college radio DJ also led to his love affair with San Francisco. "Through my contacts at the radio station at Rutgers, I had a lot of friends in LA who were working at promotional companies that are no longer around," he recalls. "I was really close with this girl and she invited me out to LA, I played on her radio show on KXLU. She had a crush on me and I told her, 'Oh, I'm gay... I haven't really told many people.' She said, 'You're gay? You need to go to San Francisco! You have to go to SF right now... drive up there!'"
He took her advice, booking a rental car, taking the scenic Californian rite-of-passage up Pacific Coast Highway 1. "I think it was August," he remembers. "I didn't know anyone here, I had an artist friend, he was doing a performance art piece at the 24th Street BART station. I jumped in this fabric... we were rolling around... I didn't know what performance art was."
His week vacation in San Francisco also took him to parties like Trannyshack at The Stud, Tubesteak Connection at Aunt Charlie's Lounge, The Rod at Deco, an underground world of musical and sexual promise. "I didn't know disco and I was like, what the heck is all this... I recognized Divine and some things," he says. "Every night, I thought, 'Oh my gosh this is a fun, gay party town!' I went home and put my two weeks in at my job and I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and I moved here with two suitcases into an SRO in the Mission. I had two suitcases against the wall and I would go to community thrift and buy records and sell them on eBay and try to make some money... I didn't have a job, didn't know what to do with myself. I had some savings and I would just hang out in Dolores Park a lot and go to parties."
Cheon would show up for gigs featuring DJs from the DFA axis like Maurice Fulton, Trevor Jackson and Morgan Geist, eventually recognizing faces at the club or in the park the next day. One day in a bodega, Robert Yang came in having recognized him from the dance floors, introduced himself and invited him to drink in the park, a welcoming gesture that shaped Cheon's career. "I started DJing Robert's party on a Wednesday night," he says. "Little-by-little I started meeting his friends... I met Jason and Jacob and those were the beginnings of Honey Soundsystem."
Of the infamous weekly that's now a household name, Cheon says, "It just kind of happened. We'd have loose themes and guest DJs... the first few weeks we just did the five of us (in the beginning it was with Ken Woodard as well), then we'd start hosting people like Discodromo. The weekly was fun, we'd also do one-off parties, we did Todd Terje, to build off the Sunday night."
As Honey grew its reputation for occasional debauchery as well as bookings like DJ Sprinkles and Prosumer, Cheon continued his exploration of marginal '80s post-punk, reading old Bay Area punk zines at a shop called Goteblüd and trawling through the golden age of music blogs. He found what would become the first Dark Entries release, Eleven Pond's Bas • Relief on a blog called A Viable Commercial that happened to be run by SF record digger Phil Maier.
"I was buying so many records from Anna Logue Records and Genetic Records in Germany and Mannequin was already a thing, as was Minimal Wave, and I was talking to all of them," Cheon says. "I built friendships with all the owners of these labels and I thought, 'I want to start a record label... I want to reissue some of these out-of-print records from the '80s... there's only so much that these labels can do.' Phil was like, 'You should do Eleven Pond. The guy commented on the blog post... he has the tapes, he lives in LA now, he's waiting... his email address is here.' I emailed him and he wrote back, 'I'll come up to San Francisco, let's talk.' So he came, we hung out and hit it off. There couldn't have been a better way to start a label. He had all the original artwork, I learned how to silk-screen by his side. He was reliving his art-school days and it was so hands-on and informative to make a record in my apartment on such a small scale." Dark Entries 001 also contains a bona fide anthem, "Watching Trees."
This was a deceptively simple entry point into work that often resembles an amateur detective's. Cheon tells me about emailing Jordi Guber from Liaisons Dangereuses side-project Velodrome for years, to no response, before finally showing up on his doorstep in Barcelona, and about finally making headway with cult British act Solid Space after one-too-many bootlegs.
"If you're doing a label like this you have to be able to deal with all these personalities and psychologies," he says. "I know I've told people I have a degree in psychology and it's helped me, but I think it's more that you need some compassion and you need to be able to deal with the fact that sometimes this is really emotional stuff for these people. They may have lost musicians and lovers and bandmates along the way and being there, sitting down and having a coffee with them to hear their stories is so important and can really enrich your life and their life at the same time."
Many of these artists have moved on to different careers. The email, call or knock-on-the-door from Cheon might as well come from a past life. "Like Solid Space, they put out that cassette, now it's the most coveted cassette of that whole genre of music," Cheon says. "It's hard for them to see that what they did is so special because they didn't get the praise and adoration back then. Now it's like, '30 years later you want to give us the record deal and have us tour?' I'm sure it's really confusing for them a lot of times."
At the heart of Dark Entries is a veneration of bedroom amateurism, an idea that's put him slightly at odds with the budding HNY empire. "I think what we're realizing is that with Honey, we never envisioned it going on the road," he says. "You can't book four DJs, you're going to lose money... so, what happened is that Robert and I still had our full-time jobs and we couldn't get away to go to Europe for two weeks at a time, so it kind of fell on Jacob and Jason, who are the full-time DJs."
Kendig and Sperber's unique Detroit-via-the-Castro mix became internationally recognized as the Honey sound, which sometimes causes a mismatch if Cheon and Yang turn up. "If we do HNY, we get thrown into these disco parties and Robert and I don't play disco anymore... it happened three gigs in a row and it was only when I went off and did the solo [Dark Entries] things, that I was like, 'Oh, I can breathe, I can play whatever I want,' it was so much fun."
There's a paradoxical mix of ambition and punk egalitarianism in Cheon's explanation for leaving the collective. "I'd sometimes clash with the other members on cover charges. I'd want to keep it free... I always kept it as this idyllic, hippie thing, I think because I had a job." He adds, "There are no hard feelings, it's just common sense. It's what the next step has to be if I want to play these other clubs. The Patrick Cowley party, the ten-year anniversary, were beautiful, I just want it to end on a high note."
When RS94109 was running a Kickstarter to remodel their shop a couple years ago, Cheon messaged me one night, nearly irate, worried that the store's owners, Sohrab and Skander Harooni, would fall short of their fundraising goal. They met it, and today the shop's standing as a community space came into focus, with a flow of record nerds and locals stopping in to interact with friendly staff.
"The Tenderloin has always been a place for more marginalized members of society," Cheon says. "It was the queer neighborhood, all the early trans bars were down on Turk and the Compton's Cafeteria riot—two years before Stonewall—happened here. It's called the Tenderloin because that's the piece of meat they would use to bribe the cops with to patrol the neighborhood... even that, the name, has this intense sense of danger to it."
The persistent danger of this struggle for recognition was brought into stark relief by the recent murder of LGBTQ DJ and neighborhood fixture Bubbles late at night outside the shop. The store was immediately repurposed as a site for a vigil as well as a venue for a Q&A session with local authorities.
Cheon tells me he borrowed the equipment to make his FACT mix from Bubbles, a set made exclusively of unreleased material. "I've found all these videos on his Facebook page of him going around the block playing that mix and lip syncing over it," he says, "It's so chilling. A lot of the songs didn't have lyrics but Bubbles was singing his own words over top."
The store clerks and owners at RS94109 make a point of welcoming the denizens of the Tenderloin into the store. "We'll give them a cup of coffee," Cheon says. "We'll talk to them, we'll listen to them, we'll buy their records if they have vinyl they want to sell." Cheon regularly gave Bubbles records and Dark Entries T-shirts. "I was proud that he was an official mascot of the label and out on the street."
The shop and office now hosts noise shows, small parties, political rallies and a monthly "coffee with cops" event. "In the '60s this was a gay store," Cheon tells me. "They had a black room upstairs and they were selling poppers and porn." I ask him whether he thinks of Dark Entries as a queer label. "I do get excited if I find out an artist on my label identifies as queer, it's similar to how I feel about the neighborhood, I do like to represent the underground and that encapsulates all the marginalized communities that don't always get a voice from other labels."
I think about how Michael Zodorozny from Crash Course In Science sang his own lyrics over Cowley's Afternooners instrumental, how Bubbles made up his own words for an unreleased Dark Entries record, while selling snow cones outside the record shop on Larkin. I think about Cheon's memory of falling in love with the "gay" sound of pristine synth pop, singing along to Dead Or Alive in his car. With any luck, some kid out there is finding solace in Dark Entries' weird world, singing along to Severed Heads and Lena Platonos in their bedroom.
Josh Cheon mixes the sound of Dark Entries.
Cyrnai - To Subtle-Drive
Group Rhoda - Agua de Florida
Sumerian Fleet -Wasteland
DsorDNE - È Un Sole
Metropakt - Neue Strassen
Fokewulf 190 - Body Heat
Pink Industry - Empty Beach
Raw - Sand Drip
Bill Converse - Dorje Ngodup
Cardopusher -Sewer Escape
Umo Vogue - Just My Love (Demo)
Tony Moore D.J. - Tonight
Patrick Cowley - Furlough
Glamorcult - Forever Strangers
Rich La Bonté - White Magician
Trisomie 21 - La Fête Triste