SOUL CLAP AND DANCE-OFF: DREAM THAT BIG AND CRAZY
keenan michael keller
This Thursday, L.A. will host another Soul Clap and Dance-Off with New York Night Train promoter Jonathan Toubin. He will also be bringing guest DJ Ian Svenonius, former frontman for Nation of Ulysses and the Make-up and current frontman for Chain and the Gang. If you think you have what it takes, show up and show off! This interview by John Henry.
What exactly goes down at a Soul Clap and Dance-Off?
Jonathan Toubin: It’s pretty simple. The Soul Clap is a dance party and the Dance-Off is the short contest in the middle. I throw killer soul 45s together to get people moving and somewhere in the middle of the party, numbers are pinned on audience members, five judges take the stage and I turn on exclusively deep James Brown jams while the audience—in groups of ten—duke it out for dancing supremacy. There is a dance-off between the winners of each group and a final dance-off between two contestants, which is of course the dramatic climax of the night. After that, everyone’s been waiting and watching for a half hour or so and are itchin’ to bust a move, so the records—which have been gradually escalating in speed and intensity for the entire night leading up to the contest—go up just one more notch and the party really gets going. At its best it can be like church, and at its worst, ‘The Gong Show.’ A lot of it depends on who turns up.
And this time you’re bringing Ian Svenonius along.
Jonathan Toubin: I’m bringing Ian along to host the competition and to DJ with me during the dance party. Ian of course is a great DJ and gonna make a killer MC plus the fact that he’s quite the dancer doesn’t hurt either.
How long have you two known each other?
Jonathan Toubin: We originally met in 1992 or so when Nation of Ulysses played at the Cavity in Austin. I told him that a mutual friend of ours—Larry from Victim’s Family—said to say hi and that he couldn’t make it to the show because he had to work all night at a bakery. So Ian said, ‘Where’s the bakery?’ And Tim Kerr and the entire band jumped in the van just to say hi to this guy stuck working alone until dawn. I initially thought it was such a noble act to go so far out of his way in the middle of the night to see his friend. But years later, as I’ve got to know him better, I’ve decided Ian may have also done it because he loves bakeries. As for as our collaboration, we got to know each other via an ex-girlfriend of mine and were next brought together by Kid Congo Powers for the release party I threw for his first solo record. Since then, we’ve been working on events every few months with varied frequency for well over three years now. We get along and make a nice fit behind the DJ booth both artistically and commercially. But Pop Montreal last month was the first time we went in together on the Soul Clap and Dance-Off.
What’s the prize?
Jonathan Toubin: The best dancer typically gets $100. The only exceptions these days are in more unusual places outside of the fifty states like Monterrey, Mexico, where the prize was a pair of sneakers. Or the District of Columbia, where it was a pair of tickets to see Devo.
What kind of dancers show up? Are they all amateurs or are there some real pros?
Jonathan Toubin: It takes all kinds. Some places it’s all goofballs. Sometimes it’s highly competitive types. But most nights, it’s a healthy mix and primarily a goodtime vibe. You never know who the judges will pick—it all depends on their aesthetics and what they value in a dancer. L.A. was actually the first and only place to select a b-boy, though they always enter …
I saw a lot of b-boy dancers last time I was in Brooklyn. Does it sync up well with the old R&B and soul sides you play?
Jonathan Toubin: The great thing about b-boys is that they are much more into their heritage and history than a lot of trendier subcultural groups. So they don’t only care about early hip-hop, but are very interested in the music that the early hip-hop djs were turning in the 1970s. So they flip out over any James Brown or Jimmy Castor. And when you jam other songs that were sampled up to the present, they lose their shit! The only problem is that they don’t care as much about the early to mid-‘60s wild ones that make up at least half of my set, but the better ones move to that too. And that’s a good thing because I by far prefer guys and girls dancing with one another to a guy dancing with himself in the middle of a circle.
Who are some of the guest judges you’ve had in the past?
Jonathan Toubin: The guest judges are always different. When I originally started creating these panels, the plan was to bring all kinds of kooky characters from our local community together—a magazine editor sitting next to a bartender sitting next to a Bad Seed sitting next to a neighbor of mine or whatever. But as we’ve been on the road, the judges have become more important. On this tour so far we’re having everybody from classic indie rockers like Mike Watt and John Reis to Karla LaVey, leader of the Satanic Church and Anton’s daughter and Matt Gonzales of the Green Party…
Do you select the judges?
Jonathan Toubin: Ha! That’s a good question. In New York I select most of the judges—sometimes the Glasslands or Laura, my hostess here in New York, picks a friend or two. But, on the road, I get a lot of help from my agent Michelle Cable, the bookers of venues, friends in various towns, and, this time, Ian Svenonius as well. It’s not easy to know enough people to pull this off…
What kind of drunken spills have you seen during the contest?
Jonathan Toubin: Eeek! Sometimes people get really sloppy. Particularly last time in L.A.! One time in New York the judges and the audience—most of whom knew each other in some capacity—started exchanging words and throwing stuff back and forth, and before you know it, one of the judges had jumped over the table! There was total mayhem and I was briefly escorted out of my own party by security while defending the honor of a woman who was only guilty of a retaliatory ice toss.
I’ve also witnessed some judge’s drunken antics—like last time you did Soul Clap at Nomad Gallery. What happened there?
Jonathan Toubin: I had a lot of fun last time in L.A. and a lot of my favorite people from all different places and parts of my life turned up. But there were a lot of things about the last L.A. party that I didn’t think were up to the Soul Clap standard. There was too much hanging out outside in the breezy courtyard far from the dancing in the hot room. One judge got a last-minute gig that night and another judge was there but never checked in and I was waiting for him so the contest was delayed forever and he left for that reason. But in all the confusion, Howie Pyro sold me some great records, Indian Jewelry stepped in to judge and DJ Short Shorts and Carlos went way out of their way to make it happen. But I definitely think this one is gonna be tighter all around.
Do you do a lot of record shopping while on the road?
Jonathan Toubin: My hosts sometimes get so annoyed with me. Recently I was in Istanbul for only twenty hours and spent half of the time record shopping. I got some amazing stuff which sadly you have to hear at my other gigs as it’s not soul. I also love to shop in Detroit where you turn on the faucet and amazing soul jams fall out into the sink and little kids are in the street playing frisbee with ’em. I was recently thrilled to find Jimmy Mayes and the Mill Street Depot’s ‘Monkey Shine’ for a buck in Baltimore—a record I haven’t been able to find anywhere at any price for years. I played it at the WFMU Record Fair last weekend and the dealers started running up. One of them told me to name my price. I’ve been looking for that one forever and there’s been none traded anywhere. In the greater Los Angeles area I also have a few secrets and am a fan of the new Territory Store and BBQ restaurant.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a touring dance contest before—do you know of any others or are you forging a new fad?
Jonathan Toubin: I read in some kind of business website called Trend Central saying my party was more ‘rockers than mods’ and that I’m helping start a new hipster fad but it was just a big accident. The Soul Clap was initially just an excuse for me to play less punk and rock stuff and have a night where I just bust out my soul records for my friends. And the Dance-Off was added to the concept after I witnessed these two guys in a crazy dance competition around dawn at a loft party where I was spinning. I thought it would make a fun and interesting short addition to the night but I never dreamed this would become my most popular party or that I would become known as a soul DJ. And I never imagined taking it on the road until this year, when Canadian venues and festivals began requesting the Soul Clap—that was the first time either me or my agent imagined taking it outside of Glasslands. I wish I knew how to dream that big and crazy but I’m a bit of a pragmatist—a Barnum-esque pragmatist, but still a pragmatist…
So what is New York Night Train all about?
Jonathan Toubin: I wish I knew. It started out as a webzine and record label intent on helping spread the word about the music and history of Kid Congo Powers and other folks I knew who were productive veteran artists with great stories but not getting the proper recognition. Then it also became a production company of sorts because of the record release parties I threw for the label. And then, when I became a DJ, it gradually grew with me to be my own promotional organ. What kind of sucks is that, because I never expected to DJ beyond a few nights nights at the local rock bars—Motor City, Daddy’s, Eind’s, etc.—I never came up with a cool pseudonym. And as my career started developing, a lot of people knew New York Night Train better than they knew me. Now its pretty much about 50/50 so I have to be billed with the cumbersome ‘New York Night Train DJ Mr. Jonathan Toubin.’ And, while the original NYNT has by necessity been on a bit of a hiatus because I currently spin and promote over 300 DJ nights a year all around the world, the label has been semi-active and I hope to get the journal back online as soon as I can move beyond this super-intensive nightly schedule … Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, New York Night Train also puts on shows by folks like Thee Oh Sees, Quintron and Ms. Pussycat, King Khan and BBQ/the Shrines, and so forth either alone or incorporating them into my other specialty—the muti-media ‘Happening’ with go go dancers, visuals, performance, and, of course, dancing to my 45s…
THE NEW YORK NIGHT TRAIN SOUL CLAP DANCE-OFF WITH DJs JONATHAN TOUBIN AND IAN SVENONIUS ON THUR., NOV. 12, AT SPACELAND, 1717 SILVERLAKE BLVD., SILVERLAKE. 9 PM / $5 / 21+. CLUBSPACELAND.COM. THE DANCE-OFF WILL BE JUDGED BY JENNA THORNHILL, MIKE WATT, JESSICA ESPELETA, WENDY YAP AND MICHAEL GERNER. VISIT NEW YORK NIGHT TRAIN AT NEWYORKNIGHTTRAIN.COM.