In Oakland and San Francisco, cities once defined by radical creativity, electronic artists are finding it ever harder to survive. But as Matt McDermott finds out, they're not giving up just yet.
I meet San Francisco-based music journalist, DJ and label owner Chris Zaldua at the Latin American Club, a watering hole that gestures towards the city's fading bohemia, on 22nd street between Mission and Valencia. "The main reason everyone wants to live here and the reason that it's so fucked up is because it's a bubble," Zaldua says. "There is no other place like it in The States. It has the high-roller financial energy of Manhattan... but it also has this free-spirited creative, living-on-the-edge undercurrent that makes it such a weird place. So many musical, artistic, literary traditions and scenes have thrived here—there's a history that has coexisted with the strivers, the hustlers and the moneymakers. At different points in history they've been symbiotic to greater and lesser degrees. Right now it's a low-point."
A few notes on San Francisco. The peninsula city is just seven by seven square miles—it doesn't crack the top 100 largest US cities measured by area. It's devastatingly beautiful. The ride in on the Bay Bridge is among the most dramatic preambles to an urban environ I've experienced. Sometimes the fog rolls in as you crest the hills over Hayes Valley and the city feels alive with mystery and promise. You can walk or take public transportation damn near everywhere. There's also rampant homelessness. It's the most expensive place to rent in the US.
Zaldua talks about the city like a spurned lover, with a mix of affection and chagrin. "Everything I love about the Bay Area is also what makes it so hard to be here. Rent is the obvious one. Space. The city is so beautiful because it was built in a certain way... That's the trickle-down thing that affects everything else. That makes it hard for artists, for waiters, for teachers... for all these people that cities need to thrive, it becomes an inhospitable environment. So much of the culture that San Francisco is historically known for has been pushed out."
From Allen Ginsberg's first reading of Howl at Six Gallery on Fillmore to Steve Jobs taking LSD at Stanford, radical mind expansion, bursting into wild creative movements, has been the region's trademark. The 1966 Trips Festival, which heralded the Haight-Ashbury-era, was billed as, "the FIRST gathering of its kind anywhere. the TRIP—or electronic performance—is a new medium of communication & entertainment." The show, attended by 10,000, included performances from The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, but also members of the Morton Subotnick-founded San Francisco Tape Music Center and synth pioneer Don Buchla.
A couple blocks from the Latin American, I meet Solar Langevin outside a coffee shop. He's just picked up a collection of recordings from the reclusive San Francisco musician Pauline Anna Strom. Though Solar has become a constant presence on the touring DJ circuit in the past few years, he was one of San Francisco's best kept secrets for about two decades. He's lived in the same apartment for 18 years, and dryly notes that rent control is what keeps him in San Francisco.
Raised in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Langevin started making the pilgrimage to the city's storied punk rock clubs in the late '80s, before a chance encounter with acid house shaped the course of his life.
"In the spring of 1991, a small brave crew of Acid House seekers set sail from south east England in search of adventure. San Francisco was the destination," reads the website for the DJ crew Wicked, comprising Jenö, Garth, Markie and Thomas Bullock. "They made their mark under the Golden Gate Bridge at Baker Beach with the first in a six year run of wild and lawless full moon parties."
"The Wicked party was the first illegal party that I'd been to," Langevin says. "I remember it was outdoors, a van pulling up... they looked like rockers, but they were playing acid house. There was some kind of punk element to it—we're showing up, throwing a soundsystem down, cops come and we'll move somewhere else. There was this rebelliousness to it."
Police crackdowns on outdoor acid house gatherings in the UK, along with the Bay's psychedelic mystique, drew the Wicked crew to San Francisco. "It was perfect timing, people here up for something new, the drugs and everything that was happening, they had their summer of love twice."
A few years later Solar and his friend Galen had absorbed these lessons and started DJing and throwing their own renegade affairs. "There are so many beautiful locations here," Langevin says. "Galen had gone to this spot, the Berkeley Marina, that's where we started Sunset Sound System. It started small with like 50 people... I grew up in the Grateful Dead world, my dad worked for them and we would occasionally tour with them... it's in my blood."
Mike Bee (Mike Battaglia), the shaggy, affable purveyor of Lower Haight record store Vinyl Dreams, was there. "I think that this town was set up to be into it from the jump... even with the '60s [psychedelic rock], people were dancing to that music... they're in the park twisting and doing weird gyrations and throwing shapes which is why the rave was so big here. I went to the third Sunset party at the Berkeley Marina. There were 2000 people there on the side of the hill with the city in the background and the bridges, and you know it was a raging party."
Battaglia moved to San Francisco from Western Pennsylvania in the early '90s and arrived in a dance music promise land. The city housed ten dance music record stores in its heyday, an all-jungle shop, a trance and progressive store, one for house music and a store in the historically gay Castro neighborhood that stocked disco and Hi-NRG.
"I feel like people moved here from the '40s through the '90s to be changed," Battaglia says. "They came here because they heard this place was where you could shed your skin, be yourself and explore who you really are. Now they move here to change it ... there's a huge cash grab, there's a real estate grab, there's a tech sector grab and those people just don't support subculture, they don't support art, they're not philanthropists like the first round of dot com people. I don't see the investment in the infrastructure by these new people. They bring the monoculture back to San Francisco with them which is chain stores and consumerism and everything else you see in every other fucking town in this fucking stupid country. San Francisco used to be an oasis away from that stuff."
The failure of a new generation to throw their support behind a local scene has often driven artists out of the Bay Area to try their luck in friendlier climes—LA, Portland, Berlin. Some of them, like Holly Herndon and Matrixxman, have succeeded. Solar DJ'd in the city and around California for 20 years before Dixon caught his set at Sunset Sound System's annual festival and brought him out to play Innervisions parties in Europe. Zaldua covers the local scene, books San Francisco and Oakland artists at his Surface Tension parties and presses their music onto vinyl with his label, Left Hand Path. He sees in the city something he calls "a crisis of press."
"The press is not paying attention to what's going on in the Bay Area. It's really difficult for artists in the Bay Area to get more attention," he says. "It becomes this weird negative feedback loop where people feel like they have to leave the Bay Area to really make it."
There was one brutal exception to this lack of coverage. On December 2nd, 2016, all eyes were on The Bay—Oakland specifically—following the deaths of 36 people at the Ghost Ship. The deadliest fire in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake broke out at a DIY party where Golden Donna (Joel Shanahan), Nackt (Johnny Igaz), Russell E.L. Butler, Obsidian Blade (Joseph Matlock), Cherushii (Chelsea Faith Dolan), Piano Rain (Aja Archuleta), Radar (Jon Hrabko) and Visual Aids (Micah Danemeyer) were booked to play. Dolan, Matlock and Igaz lost their lives, as did other East Bay artists like Barrett Clark (of the Katabatik collective) and Cash Askew (of the promising post-punk duo Them Are Us Too).
The tragedy had an immeasurable impact on the worldwide electronic music community. Britt Brown, the cofounder of the 100% Silk label, whose logo appeared on the flyer for the show, was among those sued in civil proceedings that stretched well into 2017. In a piece called In The Grey Area published in The Wire in December of 2017, Brown wrote, "there's a danger in reading too deeply into disaster and seeing as symbolic what is ultimately senseless."
I meet Tasho Nicolopulos at Vinyl Dreams and we walk through the Lower Haight's brisk evening to a noisy cafe. Nicolopulos records as Its Own Infinite Flower and collaborates with San Francisco ambient techno legend Spacetime Continuum, AKA Jonah Sharp. He has a record coming out on C.L.A.W.S. and Solar's new label, Squirrels On Film. Like Solar, his roots in San Francisco counterculture run deep—his father attended Altamont at the behest of the Hell's Angels, the motorcycle gang who were hired for security and killed an 18-year-old attendee in what Rolling Stone called "rock and roll's all-time worst day."
Nicolopulos makes easy connections between the city's experimental music past and the underground of the present. He has recently taken in the autobiography of the composer John Adams. "He had these descriptions of experimental events in the '70s and early '80s that could have been either now or then. 'We would go to these abandoned third-story lofts in SoMa...' it was all the same stuff, poorly connected electronics, someone playing an oscillator through a jar of water." He switches back to the previous winter's tragedy. "I've DJ'd, performed, hosted and hung out at places where that could have happened countless times over the years," and then speaks on the night itself.
It's a still Autumn afternoon when I get off the BART at Fruitvale Station, about a half-a-mile from the site of the Ghost Ship. I'm here to meet up with Michael Buchanan, AKA Identity Theft, the founder of a prolific collective called Katabatik, and his partner, Mara Barenbaum, who as Group Rhoda has released several albums of spectral post-punk on labels like Not Not Fun and Dark Entries.
Though Barenbaum has long been a staple of the San Francisco scene (she was a key force behind an influential DIY space called Bay Area 51), she's since relocated to Oakland, saying she can't relate to San Francisco anymore. Buchanan, meanwhile, moved to Oakland from Anchorage, Alaska in the early '00s. At the time, the neighborhood's live/work warehouse spaces attracted a wave of musicians and visual and industrial artists where they could affordably live, work and throw events.
Buchanan and Barenbaum scoop me up in a black pickup truck and we drive a few blocks to the home where Buchanan's been living for over a decade. "The first part of the '00s," he says, "the East Bay was full of that stuff. There were a lot of artists living in warehouses."
"Where you could have events," Barenbaum adds. "Now, there's going to be a neighbor with a little sub-loft who's like, 'Hell no.'"
Katabatik has thrown clandestine parties and outdoor campouts since 2001, yet Buchanan, whose home is a short walk from the Ghost Ship, refused to enter that venue. "I went to that place a couple times," he says. "I was like, we can never do a party here, somebody might trip on those awful stairs and break their legs, you know? That was my worst case scenario."
Katabatik has shifted its focus from throwing underground events to releasing music from the collective's members, including their talented sound person Barrett Clark, who perished at Ghost Ship. The trifecta of capital, people and post-Ghost Ship code enforcement has rendered the word-of-mouth gatherings that once flourished in the neighborhood's disused commercial spaces untenable. "It was difficult even before Ghost Ship," Barenbaum says.
"Which is why shit happened at that fucking place because there are literally no other options as everything is being sold and priced out," says Buchanan. "The artists who lived in the lofts got kicked out because they wanted to build a condo. That whole familiar story."
Honey Soundsystem cofounder Jacob Sperber was 8,000 miles away from Oakland when the Ghost Ship went up in flames. At the time, Honey Soundsystem, the gay San Francisco party, label and DJ collective, was becoming an internationally recognized force and Kendig and Sperber, one-half of HNY, were touring relentlessly.
"We were exhausted and it was starting to sink in that this could be our life... then that happens and we couldn't go home," Sperber says. "It was definitely a turning point, for me, when I realized I've done everything for San Francisco. It changed me and I wanted to change it. We arrived in Berlin and my boyfriend was in the hotel room," Sperber recounts. "And the first thing I'm seeing is BBC News telling the world what Oakland is. That's when I realized that this is not only a tragedy for our community and our friends... People are going to be lost and it's also going to affect parties and dance music. It's going to affect everything."
As Sperber has managed to thrive in San Francisco, I'm curious about his take on the scrappier sister city across the bridge, the scene decimated by Ghost Ship. "Oakland always had stuff going on," Sperber says. "For me it was always related to more old-school people, or Aybee, Afrikan Sciences, that more Afrocentric sound... and then the merging of politics and queerness... all those elements started to explode in that scene."
I meet Russell E.L. Butler at the Oakland Museum of California, a brutalist concrete structure whose jutting wings are softened by peaceful gardens and reflection pools. Butler greets former coworkers with an easy charm. They (Butler's preferred pronoun) have released spiky techno on Opal Tapes and CGI Records, and have been touring around the states. Butler tells me the sprawling museum recently hosted an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the radical Black Panther Party. "The first things that I knew about Oakland were that the Black Panthers came from here and that hyphy came from here and both of those things lit my imagination up."
If San Francisco is a hotbed of radical thought, the majority-black Oakland is a stronghold of radical struggle, marginalized classes facing their most formidable opponent yet. "There was this place in Oakland called Qilombo, a black anarchist space," Butler says. "I saw [minimal wave bands] High Functioning Flesh and RedRedRed there and there were black folks from the neighborhood and West Oakland dancing to EBM. I know that the potential to engage with this immediate community is there because we share this entire experience."
A few days later, I attend a word-of-mouth underground event in Oakland. While I've attended parties protected with passwords, checkpoints and no visible promotion, this one is extraordinarily low-key. For one, it's an all-night ambient show, with no thudding kick drum to echo out into the night. It's set in a former place of worship, which you enter quietly through a side door. Inside, the scene resembles a '60s love-in. A couple of dudes man a projector producing a psychedelic light show. Shoes off. Supine bodies sprawled across the sanctuary floor on pillows brought from home. A boomer-aged guy in a tie-dyed shirt staring up at a projection of a leopard with a dazed smile. Onstage, 100% Silk affiliate Roche performs a drifting, cosmic ambient set with BLEIE.
I'm meeting Jonah Strauss, the founder of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, a volunteer advocacy organization which, on LinkedIn, lists its origin date as December 2nd, 2016, the night of the Ghost Ship fire. I had tried to track Strauss down at a press conference at San Francisco City Hall a few days earlier, but it turned out none was scheduled. Strauss had turned up uninvited with some journalists to excoriate the Mayor's handling of warehouse space code enforcement post-Ghost Ship, and were quickly shown the door. It was over before I arrived. At the sound bath, Strauss, wearing Clark Kent glasses and a 4AD shirt, somehow finds me in the dark. I ask him how it went at City Hall.
"They filmed David [Keenan, of the related Safer DIY Spaces advocacy group] and I talking about the way code enforcement has actually behaved in the last year—not just the shiny PR but the extent to which the community is afraid, and justifiably so, for their housing... and also the extent to which the community has really come together, especially in the first three months after the fire, and made itself safer. The systems in place to 'make Oakland safer,' in the words of [Oakland Mayor] Libby Schaaf, are broken, so it is in fact up to the community to go ahead and see how close they can come to fire code. It's up to the community to use common sense..."
Strauss, who produces bands and moved into a warehouse in Oakland in 2004, knows his shit. He rattles off a detailed list of warehouse safety requirements for smoke alarms, windows, fire extinguishers, electrical safety. "I would posit that Ghost Ship wouldn't have happened if the owners of the building had listened to the concerns of [Derick Ion] Almena, who we now know was advocating for electrical safety in his own space, and hired an electrician." He's referring to the master tenant of the Ghost Ship, Derrick Ion Almena, who rented out the upstairs event space to the ill-fated show's organizers and stayed in a hotel that night. Almena and the Ghost Ship's "creative director" Max Harris are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The building's owners, the Ng family, received a three-million-dollar insurance payout.
The Oakland Warehouse Coalition's beef with the city (both San Francisco and Oakland) is that its shiny PR campaign, purportedly anti-displacement, is the exact opposite in practice. The journalist and musician Sam Lefebvre recently published an investigative report revealing that while Schaaf issued an executive order "explicitly directing city staff to avoid displacing residents, except in instances of life-threatening conditions," the city has in fact completed ten evictions resulting in 45 displacements, including Lefebvre himself, who lived in a warehouse nicknamed the Salt Lick.
"I realized the problems that we are facing in the unpermitted live/work community are very similar to the problems low-income tenants face citywide," Strauss says. "Here's the deal, we don't have enough affordable housing in Oakland, and it's a Bay Area-wide problem... so you can put the whole warehouse topic in the context of affordable housing in general. I don't think it's accurate to say, 'Well, there's not enough affordable housing so people were forced to live at Ghost Ship.' I don't think that's a direct correlation, and it's a media simplification that we've heard a lot in the last year. But there is a chain of connections. Since 2008's subprime mortgage crisis, a lot of affordable housing went underwater and got gobbled up by large corporations or local flippers and developers... and were then turned into market-rate, 800 square-foot 'lofts' that cost between $2,400 and $3,200 a month." Strauss pauses. "But really, the problem is capitalism."
I meet Aja Archuleta, AKA Piano Rain, at La Taza on 21st and Mission, a small diner opened by Nicaraguan immigrants in 1997. She's come in from Oakland, where she's lived since 2001. The music she makes as Piano Rain runs the gamut from healing ambient to pleasingly lopsided rave sides. Archuleta was on the Ghost Ship bill and was working the door when the fire broke out.
"Oakland is a melting pot of people from so many different backgrounds trying to create a new utopia out of crumbling capitalism and the housing crisis," says Archuleta, bright-eyed and beatific. Across the street, a bulldozer operates in one of the street's few vacant lots. "At so many shows in Oakland," she says, "no one is turned away for lack of funds... It's not just, 'I work and make music and perform in clubs.' We live and breathe it and create a family around it."
When the Oakland-based experimental club collective Club Chai did a photo shoot for The Fader, they texted artists, friends and anyone tangentially involved with their crew to come get in the shot. Russell E.L. Butler describes Club Chai's sound. "They've been able to create, within two years in existence, what I think is the best dance party in the Bay Area," they say, "because, it's everything. You'll go there, you'll hear everything, you'll see literally anyone and they will have anyone DJ. They'll have my weird house-crossover-techno-EBM ass play along with a kuduro DJ, or Esra [Canoğullari, AKA Club Chai co-founder 8ULENTINA] plays a lot of Turkish EDM. They're more concerned about your vision as an artist... and how you bring that to your community."
Even within the experimental club world, where collectives like Janus, #KUNQ and Fade To Mind attempt to disrupt the lack of diversity, genre orthodoxy and comparative stuffiness of more traditional dance music scenes, Club Chai seems extraordinarily unconcerned with its members conforming to rigid aesthetic codes. I meet cofounders Canoğullari and Lara Sarkissian (FOOZOOL) backstage in the green room of The Midway, a gleaming, massive new club in The Dogpatch. They're co-promoting a show headlined by Gaika. Neither of them have been to the club before.
Canoğullari speaks on the roots of Club Chai's radical inclusivity. "A lot of the house shows that were happening, someone would be DJing and then a band would play and then there would be a really amazing live techno set... then some weird noise set, it's just in the nature of The Bay to have so many genres... so I think we definitely try to have that approach in what we book but also the people who come to our parties." They add, "If the same type of person who wants to go to a Public Works party wants to come to Club Chai they're totally welcome as long as they're not an asshole."
FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA are dedicated to creating a safe space for trans people of color and people of diasporic backgrounds. Within the context of Oakland (and of Ghost Ship), the concept of "safe space" is freighted with a deeper meaning. There was a party the night after Ghost Ship. "They had a party planned and didn't want to cancel," Canoğullari recalls. "We had a Club Chai that month. We wanted to keep the space open for people to converge. That was such an intense night. I remember sobbing in the corner of the club."
With spaces being shut down in the aftermath of Ghost Ship, Canoğullari says fellow promoters were more transparent and began sharing resources freely. Any sense of "gatekeeping" was eradicated, they note, if it ever existed to begin with.
The year following Ghost Ship was also Club Chai's busiest ever. Sarkissian and Canoğullari toured Europe, hosted an ecstatic Boiler Room takeover in Oakland and kept up a monthly Radar Radio show. "I think there's so much power in DIY community and creating your own economy," Canoğullari says. "I felt so excited to create a situation where I can pay a friend or just financially support someone so that they can work creatively... sometimes there are really amazing moments where you can help each other survive on a day-to-day level."
The Detroit-born DJ Carlos Souffront moved to San Francisco five years ago to sell cheese for a cheesemaker in Petaluma. He's turned down residencies in town even as his reputation for uncompromising, Midwest-style DJing has earned him bookings across the world. Souffront is a beast behind the decks, but comes off more like a teddy bear everywhere else. He's still feeling a little thin from the Honey Soundsystem ten-year anniversary when he picks me up outside RS94109, the dance music record store/coffee shop/Dark Entries label HQ on Larkin St. in the impossible-to-gentrify Tenderloin. A couple months prior, Bubbles, the San Francisco DJ and queer activist, was murdered outside the store after an altercation in a nearby bar—another senseless tragedy.
Souffront, meanwhile, is infectiously positive. He showed up at the Honey party for Jacob Sperber's first record at 6 PM on Saturday and stayed through to the final track at the afterparty, held at historic SoMa gay bar The Stud, around noon the next day. "I'm a fan, I'm a supporter," he says. "I love to get to HNY first thing because I like to see all their ideas before they get trashed." He tells me about a poster Sperber hung in the Public Works bathrooms bearing gravestones of all the now-closed clubs where the party had happened over the years. The tagline? "Honey Soundystem is a killer party."
We drive from the gritty Tenderloin to verdant Hayes Valley, where well-heeled yuppies are out for a weekend stroll among buzzy cafes. We settle into a quaint bakery, and Souffront reveals his preconceptions about his adopted home. "The musical sensibility, to me, seemed flabby," he says. "I attributed that to the fact that it was always nice here. My impression was acid, breakbeats, kind of corny. But after I arrived, Solar and Brian Hock (C.L.A.W.S.) invited me to play a party that turned out to be one of the first underground parties that anyone had been to in a long time. It was awesome. I wasn't softening up my sound at all, I played pretty aggro and wild and people loved it."
Over the past five years, Souffront says, "I found a new home, with heads as deep as in Detroit and Ann Arbor. Friendships that will last a lifetime." He also notes that, due to his work-from-home day job and regular trips out of town to DJ, he "feels insulated from the uglier aspects of the city." Indeed, his rosy assessment of the city's scene stands in sharp contrast to others I've heard. Perhaps hailing from Detroit, a city with the opposite problem—a surplus of space and a deficit of capital—helps him look on the bright side. "I feel there's a renaissance, certainly of gay dance culture, but dance culture overall."
Souffront is a regular at The Stud, where the Honey afterparty stretched to midday. Founded in 1966, the bar's regulars have included RuPaul and Sylvester over the years. Its new ownership structure hearkens back to San Francisco's radical past. When the space was threatened by looming condos and the attendant rent hikes, a group of 18 friends of The Stud purchased the bar, making it the first worker-owned cooperative nightclub in the US. If you wander into The Stud on any given night, the drinks are cheap, the bartender might be wearing one of Dark Entries' ubiquitous Patrick Cowley shirts, and a local DJ will probably be playing techno to a tiny, but in many ways perfect, dance floor.
"The Stud is where it's happening right now," Souffront says. "The Wednesday night, Kosmetik, that's the shit... It's important that people support The Stud right now... so far, so good. People have really come together and made them a priority for both throwing events and showing up. It feels really healthy, it's going to be a nice place for young promoters to experiment."
Sperber's gravestones for San Francisco clubs of yore point to what he found when he arrived in the city as a closeted gay kid: a town that loved to party. Hole-in-the-wall clubs with decent soundsystems and well-situated dance floors still dot the city, leaving fledgling promoters excellent options like F8, The Eagle, Underground SF and Amnesia, if not a guaranteed audience.
Nearly everyone who has regularly gone out in San Francisco over the last ten years knows Primo Pitino. Tall and charismatic, he's been spinning records in The Mission nearly every week for the last 14 years. Whether it's a soul night at the Knockout, his long-running 2 Men Will Move You at Amnesia, goth nights, '80s nights, drag shows—he lives for records, for DJing, for making graffiti-style flyers with his trademark anthropomorphic cats. A few years ago, he co-founded what might be the defining party of his career, Club Lonely.
"I find him fascinating," Souffront says. "The way Primo can sell me a song that if I took it on my own it'd be like, 'This is tacky, it's not my style at all,' and through the sheer exuberance with which he delivers it, it's irresistible, it's so charming... those parties are lit!"
I meet the Club Lonely boys at the Lone Palm on 21st, an unassuming watering hole with a neon palm tree in the window. Primo's joined by Vin Sol, who has been DJing parties in San Francisco since 2001 while releasing excellent jack tracks on labels like Clone, Honey Soundsystem, Unknown To The Unknown, Ultramajic and HNYTRX. The young Padawan of the Club Lonely team is Jeremy Castillo, a lifelong San Francisco resident who grew up in The Mission, just a few blocks away.
"Vin and I had been playing house music for a while, just in his room," Primo says. "Hanging out listening to a tribal house record thinking, 'How great would it be if you could play this on a soundsystem, for the public?' My friends would tell me about Club OMG, these kids liked going there because nobody went." Primo stopped in one night with a couple friends. "We literally doubled the crowd and it was Saturday night... there were some older drag scenes there, but it seemed like the kind of place that would be much more at home in the Castro than on Sixth Street... we went in there and it was all lapis lazuli blue inside, there were projections on the dome." Think of an unabashedly garish gay bar that blasts Madonna remixes to a dwindling dance floor, and you're close. "I walked into the bathroom and I came back and looked at the bartender and I said, 'I want to throw a party here!'"
Primo's idea, hatched late at night in a dead circuit bar while under the influence, was not a clear winner. OMG, located in SoMA on the edge of the Financial District, was in a no man's land where Vin or Primo's friends rarely ventured. "After the drugs wore off and Vin and I were in the clear light of day, I asked Vin, 'Are we really trying to go all the way down to Sixth and Market? Man, we could really be sad.' And we were talking about what to name it and Vin smacked the table and said, 'CLUB LONELY.' I was like, 'Oh my god, because if no one shows up, truth in advertising motherfucker!'"
They showed up. Castillo, whom Sol took under his wing when he was working at a tattoo shop, was tied-in with a younger scene of art school, streetwear and hip-hop heads who turned out in force. Matrixxman, until he left the city, was billed as a "resident," his job being to man the fog machine. The trio played everything, from tribal house records to Patrick Adams productions. All manner of obscure '90s dance 12-inches worked.
"It's so surprising to see all these different types of people," Primo says. "There are hip-hop streetwear kids hugging drag queens. A lot of young drag babies have asked us if they can dance go-go for us... old people show up and dance sometimes, old school drag queens will be there... it definitely came out of the desire to have this music exist in a place that's free and wild, especially on the San Francisco side of things. There's this weird pressure and all the subcultures start to take a hit, and now we all have to hang out with each other."
The club's Lil' Louis-referencing name, originally conceived for the very real possibility that Castillo, Primo and Vin would be DJing only for each other, now takes on a larger significance. "I think that's one of the reasons that people respond to Club Lonely," Primo says, "is because it's a lonely experience being a weird person in San Francisco, to be an artist, to be a young, strange soul." We chop it up for a while longer, talking music, the associated Club Lonely label, about occasional party guests like PLO Man, LNS and Bill Converse. Naturally, we gravitate back to slugging it out as an artist in the most expensive city in America.
"I don't think it's us vs. them anymore," Primo says. "It's just us trying to live. It's such a one-sided battle."
"I think that's why all the artists and freaks get together and hang out," Vin adds.
"I was outside The Stud and some woman was talking about hyperlocal economic climates because [cloud computing company] Salesforce was in town," Primo says. "I'm in here listening to The Creatrix play a bunch of terrorizing ass techno and this girl was on the dance floor and she comes out and she sounds like a fucking computer. It's fucking depressing."
Miroslav Wiesner, founder of Surefire Agency, a San Francisco outfit that handles booking for the likes of Kode9, Call Super and Vatican Shadow, as well as Russell Butler and Club Chai, takes exception to this sort of talk. "Greed does attract a low common denominator of human," he says, "but to suggest that the entire population somehow fits into this vanilla category got really aggravating... let's just take techno as an example. Five or six years ago there were three recognizable techno brands and now there are like seven." He's onto something. Zaldua's Surface Tension has relied, in part, on an influx of curious techies to bring in bleeding-edge acts like Lucy, Powell and Silent Servant.
One 2014 warehouse party in Oakland was a Damascus moment for Wiesner. "We walked in, Objekt was headlining, and they sold 750 tickets to this thing," Wiesner says. "That was when the light bulb went off. Google's not stupid, they're hiring you mid-20s-to-early-30s single, young, affluent, intelligent people from all over the world and they're bored and they have disposable income."
We're speaking in the empty, hulking main room back at The Midway, which is usually dark on weekends as only a few DJs—your Nina Kraviz's and your Dixon's—can fill it. "A friend of mine who manages a team at Google said his team was so bored and had so much money they would, like, fly to Southeast Asia to go skiing for a weekend because they couldn't find something intriguing to do at the civic level."
He hopes MUTEK's mix of art, technology and music, will activate the young, moneyed tech community. Weisner's led a successful bid to launch MUTEK SF, the first US MUTEK, in May of 2018. "The MU in MUTEK stands for mutation... and if you think about a mutating civic landscape from the Port City to the Barbary Coast to the fucking psychedelia, you name it, things transition here so quickly compared to other cities."
The Creatrix, real name Sylvia Viviana, was born in San Francisco, raised in Bolivia and came into her own as an artist in the Oakland scene. "I don't know if I would be making music if I didn't live in Oakland," she says. "There were a lot of people of color who were interested in sharing their skills and sharing their art with each other."
Viviana appeared on Club Chai Vol. 1 and released a cassette through New York's No-Tech imprint. Two years ago, she moved back to San Francisco, leaving behind a community of activists, healers and music makers. "This was what I was avoiding confronting," she says. "That the place I'm from has changed so much and is so unrecognizable and unwelcoming to someone like me."
It's where Viviana discovered her identity. "I think it's a lot easier being an open, queer person here," they say. I seem to see Viviana everywhere over the week I'm in San Francisco—at the sound bath, at Club Chai's gig at the Midway. I get the sense she goes out a lot.
Naturally, she was at Honey's landmark anniversary. "I was having a lot of reflective moments on what it was like going to Honey parties eight or nine years ago," she says. "Everyone seemed to know each other... they're the weird gay people, the ones that listen to the weird gay music. I go to Honey parties now and it's still the same feeling, it hasn't changed that much. I ended up going to Amnesia afterwards. Primo was DJing and I was thinking about Primo... Everything that he's involved with has that same feeling, slow jams night, oldies night, 2menwillmoveyou... you go in there and feel like you're entering this bubble. I really love that. Primo and Topazu were DJing at Amnesia. Everyone was at the HNY night, so it was an empty night. It was two of us on the dance floor going insane because they were playing really hard, scalding techno. I was having a moment, because I feel so lucky to call these people my friends and comrades. We've sacrificed so much to give other people space, whether they come or not."
A few days later, back at his studio, Sperber tells me about a unique Bay Area phenomenon. "One of the most hilarious things that I've seen that is so indicative is BART," Sperber says. "Now, at peak times, people line up where they think the door of the next car will open up. Door for door for door, there are 20 people in a single-file line all the way down... there's not a poster or a PSA or an NPR advertisement that says, 'Hey, can you please wait in line so you can get on the train?'" Even with the queues, riders wait two or three trains for their ride home. "This city is so blown up right now that people are having to create their own systems of change because the city itself isn't and can't maintain it."
Back at the Oakland Museum, Russell is talking about the efforts of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition and DIY Safer Spaces to help tenants take control of their spaces, to get them up to code for their own safety and also to avoid eviction. "Before it didn't really feel like there was anything fighting against this tide," Butler says. "You had to sit down and accept it for a bit. And then after the election, so many people felt exhausted and beaten down and were like, 'Well, if this is the worst thing that can happen what happens if I actually try to do some shit?'"
If Trump was the worst case scenario for the radical progressivism that originally shaped The Bay, creative destruction is the worst threat to its economic diversity. Policies springing up in the wake of Ghost Ship, without opposition, could stamp out the underground and drive out marginal artists, the intellectual lifeblood of the region.
"Look at NYC Dance with the Cabaret Law," Butler says. "A 91-year-old law gets struck down less than a year since the election... if they can do that there, and it feels like people aren't really steering the ship over here, then let's take control of some shit. Let's make the mistakes in order to make a brighter future for everybody, what's the other fucking option?"
On my final day in San Francisco, I interview a few people over tea on Valencia in The Mission. Afterwards, I take a circuitous walk up the hill, past the painted ladies and back down into the Lower Haight, passing a line of kids patiently waiting outside a boba shop. I stop into Vinyl Dreams, which feels more like a living room than a place of business. Tasho Nicolopulos stops through the store and we head for a beer.
I've been asking everyone I speak with why they stay in San Francisco or Oakland, given their unaffordability and creeping cultural decline. But after a week walking its neighborhoods and crisscrossing the Bay on BART, the city's charms are obvious, along with its flaws.
When I ask Tasho that question, he gives a couple of breezy answers ("It's home, I'd have to start a new life"), then pauses. He swallows. "Alright, so, I'm hesitant to throw this as the final thing I say but it just came to my mind. Last conversation I had with Johnny Igaz (Nackt) was right on the corner of Haight and Fillmore. I was coming from Underground SF, he was headed there. I was going home early that night and we stopped and had what was probably a 20-minute conversation. One of things that came up was moving out of the Bay Area and how I want to do that. You know, personal things, breakups, make you think about leaving and he had similar things. I just remember him saying, 'We have to stay, who else is gonna do it?'"
To dig deeper into the sounds of Oakland and San Francisco, check out our playlist of music from Bay Area producers.