It's Saturday night at Numbers, and Shu Latif is frazzled. As one of the three members of the DJ collective Danseparc, she isn't accustomed to getting to the club at 11. Instead, she customarily arrives there hours early, pores over what she'll be playing that evening and makes sure everything is set up to perfection. Of course, she isn't accustomed to having members of the Smiths riding in her car, either, but on this particular night, Danseparc's guest DJs are none other than Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, the rhythm section of the aforementioned British pop band.
After a snafu at the airport, Latif rushed to get the boys fed and situated at the club. And after arriving much later than they would have liked, their presence is announced over the loudspeakers as they walk in. Though flattering, the message prompts a group of fans to surround the exhausted travelers at the bar, before they've even had a chance to get a drink.
Oblivious to the aging rock stars at the bar are hundreds more clubgoers out on the floor, sweating under the lights and pulsating with a gangly, untrained sense of movement. Some of them are transfixed to the big screens at either end of the room, and others are writhing to the sounds of the Jam's "Town Called Malice." The dancing needs no name, no structure -- they're moving to plain rock and roll, and no rationalization is necessary. They only want to know where to buy the records.
Eventually, Joyce and Rourke make their way upstairs and settle into the DJ booth nicely. Things have worked out despite the stress -- such is the unpredictability that comes with handling musicians, even if they are just toting around cases of records and not a trailerful of gear. And as Latif and several other music lovers from the Houston area are finding out, you don't need all that gear to pack a club. Neither do you need to be a superstar DJ. All you need to do is give the people the music they want that they can't get anywhere else.
Danseparc, along with Stereo Bar and the Galveston duo Substance, has been a tremendous force in introducing Houston's listening audience to great sounds, both new and old. This new crop of spinners comes from an angle that's different from those of traditional DJs. By serving up a vigorous amalgamation of new wave, post-punk, UK garage, some of the more innovative synthpop of recent years, and even the exceedingly decadent electroclash, these three groups of folks have worked hard to bust out of the handcuffs of Houston's nightlife.
Just a couple of years ago, they were all novices, but through a love of music, and roots that were firmly planted in new wave and punk rock, they've all pushed on to do something new and different -- at least for Houston. Much like the Killers for Hire crew, or roving madman DJ Tim Murrah, they've built audiences who will follow them. But it didn't start out that way.
Danseparc's Allison Shaw got started at ClubSafeParking in 1997. "There weren't any dance parties then. You either went to Numbers or to rock shows, so [ClubSafeParking's] Gram [Lebron] let me have one. People were really excited about Pulp. All six of them."
Three years later, Shaw got her proper start at the Davenport, where she would guest-spin on Mod Night. "The boys at Mod Night were endlessly generous, but at that point in time the theme seemed to us a little like subcultural dishwashing. So they'd retire early, and the definition of 'mod' would suddenly broaden." (A typical Danseparc playlist -- the Postal Service, Enon, Metric, Broken Social Scene, the Stills, Phoenix, OutKast, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Chrissie Hynde, Franz Ferdinand, Sparks -- makes for an interesting game of "Am I mod or not?")
Shu Latif picks up the tale. "We came up with the idea of Danseparc in 2002. We decided that there needed to be a place to dance to all of this really great music coming out. Metropol was no longer, and other clubs (not including bars) were either playing '80s or house/trance."
Latif and her friends cooked up a plan and headed for Numbers. "We really had our shit together, and gave Numbers a pretty professional presentation of what we wanted to do. We never thought they'd go for it, but we thought, 'If we're going to do this, we ought to start big and work ourselves down.' Lucky for us, they went for it."
In August 2002 they had their initial gig. "The first night was pretty huge. We promoted it pretty well for about a month in advance," Latif says. "I think, though, that since we promoted to such a cross-section of people, many didn't know what to make of it at first."
But since then, people have caught on. Danseparc has become a massive event, going from a once-a-month gig to instances like this past March and April, during which three events were held over a four-week period. Shaw is a little mystified at how well everything has gone. "Hundreds of people showing up early to watch [vintage punk documentary] Urgh! A Music War? People flinging themselves around en masse to angular-sounding records with initial pressings that wouldn't go around the room? Their gorgeous curiosity is matched only by their willingness to drink a lot. Brave soldiers! To all accounts, there's a fair amount of limonata going on as well -- that's Italian for 'lemonade'; it's also slang for 'making out.' "
"I am always amazed when I look out onto the dance floor and see 300 or more people shakin' it to Le Tigre," says Jaime Jennings, who is in both Danseparc and Substance. "That's a great feeling. Right now I think people are ready for a night to go out, get wild and dance to something new. I think the scene is growing, and that's a good sign for us DJs."
It's doing so well, in fact, that Jennings reports Substance -- her other crew -- is having success at its home at the Proletariat. "Substance is still new and growing, but so far the responses have been great," she says. In addition to staples such as the Postal Service, Franz Ferdinand and Metric, Substance spins more Krautrock than Danseparc does, as well as a few more snippets of classic Britpop from the likes of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who. "Despite the challenges" -- the Proletariat is a bar and live venue, not a dance club -- "we've managed to get people dancing every Substance, and that is a good response."
"I try very hard to make everything we do very accessible," explains her Substance cohort Matthew Brown. "For my particular approach to deejaying, I wanted to continue to shift that focus from the DJ to the music. For that reason I don't really have a DJ name, but we name our night just so people know what to expect."
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Of the three crews, Stereo Bar is the most pop- and hip-hop-oriented -- they'll even throw in a little 2 Live Crew and Justin Timberlake among the Franz Ferdinand and Felix Da Housecat cuts. Stereo Bar's Damon Allen came to deejaying as a burned-out musician. "I felt like I had played live music for so long, it just wasn't going anywhere for me at the time," he says. "I needed another outlet, one away from the frustrations I was dealing with -- bandmates and all of the work that goes into a band."
In all three groups, the emphasis is on the music. These are not rock stars. These are not pop stars. Nor are they DJs who are going to light records on fire and break them over their knees during their set. They're folks who genuinely care about what they're playing and what you're hearing. It doesn't matter whether you've heard it before, as long as you're hearing it in a new context.
"I played Bowie's 'Be My Wife' video last night and immediately wanted to play it again," Shaw confessed. "Is that mental?"
Danseparc spins on Saturday, May 8, at Numbers. It will be "Girls Night Off Night." Grils Balloy will be appearing as Allison Shaw, Matthew Brown as Jaime Jennings, and Bucky Thuerwachter as Shu Latif.