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Interview: New York City Legend Nicky Siano Describes The Downfall of Modern DJs, Clubs & Producers

The New York legend critiques producers lack of creativity, DJs one-track mind and the shitty way clubs treat customers.
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Nick Siano

Words by Tony Ware

Decades before nightclubs were deemed cathedrals worthy of pilgrimage and T-shirts read “God Is a DJ,” Nicky Siano was bequeathing the gospel of proto-disco to crowds unified by the carnal, blissful dichotomy of a meticulously curated dance floor.

When it comes to dance music’s creation myths, Siano is part of New York’s Holy Trinity alongside David Mancuso and Larry Levan (who Siano mentored). Inspired as a teenager by a trip to Mancuso’s Loft parties, the Brooklyn native honed his ear playing funk, soul and R&B records in the outer boroughs before establishing himself at Midtown’s Roundtable. But it was when in 1973 he opened up his trailblazing nightclub The Gallery in Manhattan that Siano established the hallowed ground upon which he perfected the ability to wrap songs within songs and moods around moods, using them to seduce rather than push a crowd into motion.

Pioneering the use of beatmatching, EQing and tech-driven transitions in the DJ booth, Siano would go on to help take disco aboveground as an original DJ at Studio 54 before eventually succumbing to excess in the early ’80s. After a long hiatus as a social worker, Siano returned to the turntables in 1996 and has been proselytizing the restorative power of music around the world ever since.

While busy preparing for his party Native New Yorker, Siano took a moment to discuss the rich veins of music left to uncover, how to read and ride the energy of a room, the importance of musicality over mechanisms and how the right frequencies of sound and light can be a conduit for wordless communication, among other topics.

As dance music culture mines for ideas, what hadn’t been unearthed in proto-disco?

This has actually been a big problem for me that dance music has been mining itself for ideas. Why would you have to reinvent something if you have talent to invent something? Sure, back then people were inspired by other things, but they didn’t actually feel clips should be the basis of their records. It’s screwy.

What in particular in that phase hasn’t been touched on and should be highlighted?

If you really look, there’s tons of stuff. There’s a whole movement in the UK called 'Northern Soul' that plays these great dance soul record from the ’60s that are gems that you will never hear anywhere and if people really wanted to mine something they could mine that material. They would have enough for years. But why mine something? Why not create something of your own? You’re not talented enough! 

Oh is that it! I get it. 

You’re in a room pushing buttons on a computer and you refuse to hire a musician who should be working for you and doing what your idea is instead of you half-ass doing something that you shouldn’t be.

Do you think that there are producers who are doing it right?

Yeah, there are people who’re doing it right, but they’re so few and far between. When I turned on the radio in the ’70s, I heard nine or 10 records I liked in a row and then one or two I didn’t like. Now I hear nine or 10 that I don’t like and one or two that are listenable. That’s a big difference. I’m not pining for the past. That’s not what I’m about. I’m very, very into the technology and into what’s happening today, I just think that people who are untalented have taken upon themselves to make music and with the social media that’s around today they’re able to push their things to the point they become hits and they really shouldn’t!

Nick Siano

I don’t know if I’m opening a can of worms, but look at Lady Gaga, who is a very talented person in her own right, but what happened? How’s her new album doing? Not doing that well. She fucked up! People are constantly doing this. She has a simple, wonderful formula that worked and then she hired too many people to do too many things and she put it in and it sounded like a fuckin’ soup with too many ingredients in it. And there was a big hit, “The Edge of Glory.” I loved that song, but you know she sang a simple piano version of it on Howard Stern that was 100 times better than the record. So it’s all over the place. I don’t know. That’s why I play mostly old records ... at my party in New York, Native New Yorker. I’ll play 90 percent stuff that most people don’t know, but people at this party do know it.

When I read the histories, the MSFB song “Love is the Message” looms large as a theme of yours. Looking at a song like that, what are its elements that convey all the emotions, all the technique, that balance feel and production in the way you feel is now missing?

You’re asking me to give you a single formula and I don’t think there is one to tell you the truth. It keeps coming back to the theme, a record that has a theme and keeps coming back to it and then offers movement. So many of these records today it’s one beat for a very long time, a little bit of movement, and then back to that beat and then over. Or one beat all the way through! ‘Love is the Message’ ... just kept building and building and building until it came to that groove part that everyone has copied from here ’til the end of time. I was lucky enough to have played it first. ‘TSOP’ had been out for a couple months, everyone had the album, and no one was playing ‘Love is the Message.’ I turned the single over and I listened to that record and I knew right away, this was a hit. It takes an ear sometimes.

Do you feel that listening to those songs impacted how you actually approached blends, the actual musicality and mechanism of how you would mix them?

The song influenced how I would present it, but the tools that I used for the presentation were inspired by other DJs and other experiences of mine … one of these ideas came to me in a dream. I tell the story over and over. The third turntable, that was a dream! I had a dream: It was a sound that played while two records were being mixed back and forth. It was a sound effect being played over that. And it was a dream that I had. I grabbed my turntable, went to The Gallery and I did it! Then all of a sudden everyone had a third turntable that sat there and gathered dust. Mine was constantly running with the sound effects album on it.

It's rare that environment can be separated from the end product. Tell me a little about the physical and psychological impact of the drugs of the era on how you’d approach EQing frequency ranges, etc.

In the early ’70s the drug of choice was LSD, and that enhances sight and sound. The lighting was fine-tuned to an art. David Mancuso and I were reading and sharing books on the eye’s responses to different lights and we used the information to enhance the experience for the dancers; for instance, a bright white light would cause the iris to dilate. If you flash a strong white light into someone's eyes, then immediately throw them into darkness, there is a moment of blindness that is scary, but if you’re in a safe place it's extremely exciting, you scream and often reach out for the nearest person. Now add music, changes in volume and EQ at exactly the same time and you have a Broadway show! Now go to the rave era, with the drug of choice ecstasy, and the senses are dulled except for touch, and you get long songs that are easy to move to, sweaty close environments, low steady lighting.

Similarly with the earliest Northern Soul scene, you can’t take crowded, sweaty rooms fueled by speed out of the equation. Northern Soul has more of a connection with punk than most people would give to disco. But in ways early disco was pretty punk.

It was. Absolutely.

You guys were DIY. Before Studio 54, etc., it was playing out in parts of New York that some people didn’t want to go into.

Yeah, right, exactly.

Tell me more about how you see that punk rock disco spirit intertwining and how you feel you carry it on today.

I don’t know. I feel like I’m helping a new generation discover a genre of music that they have no idea is out there. I think my main goal right now is to introduce the more obscure, interesting dance records that were hits back then but are nowhere today. Things they’ve never heard. Like Yvonne Fair, ‘It Should Have Been Me.’ I just did a remix of that and it became a little hit for me and it’s a very unusual record, and yet it was one of Larry Levan’s favorite records. Though nobody knew it until I started playing it everywhere. ‘California Soul’ by Marlene Shaw. My new one is this new little edit of ‘Express Yourself’ by Charles Wright that I did, and also Wright’s ‘Do Your Thing.’ It opens almost every set now. People don’t know what it is, but as soon as people hear it it’s a very familiar song.

I’m hoping to inspire people to make music that means something by doing what I do, because everything I play for me means something. Even if it’s an instrumental, it moves me in a certain way. And the vocals always have some kind of message to them. I really try to stay away from ‘move your body, move your body, move your body,’ that kind of thing. It doesn’t hit my turntable.

How do you balance that role of educating and entertainer? What bridges that gap to let older records feel that they fit in a contemporary setting for newcomers?

That’s the hard part of it. The only thing I can say to that is learn how to meditate, because you gotta step out of your own way. You can’t go in there with a preconceived notion of what you’re gonna play. I could say, ‘Ok, I’m gonna open with the record,’ and I get into the room and that’s not the record I should be opening with. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s not. I have to be open to the energy in the room.

I think that’s what a lot of DJs have totally lost. They’re playing prerecorded sets that don’t mean anything in the moment. Everything is about the moment during a DJ set. And it’s about the crowd. Someone was interviewing for something I did and they said, ‘I love Nicky!’ And he was asked, ‘Why do you love Nicky?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be dancing on the dance floor and I think of a song and all of a sudden he plays it!’ It’s because we’re all hearing the same inspiration. It’s in the ether. It’s in the energy of the crowd. So, how do I weave it together? Personally, I don’t think I do it. I think the crowd does it. The crowd does it.

Having played quite a few very famous rooms, is there a way you gauge the space as well as the crowd? Can you walk into a place and feel the vibrations of the different walls and know what might work, or do you have to wait for the people to fill it?

That’s a real interesting question. The rooms have their own energy, they do. Some rooms have a very dark energy. Some rooms have a very bright, light energy and some rooms are just new and very fresh. Rooms have an energy, but the people really trump that thing. Once the people are in there, it trumps everything else. That energy is just so strong.

When I’m in the room, what I concentrate on is where the speakers are, how it sounds, how the balance sounds, how much space is in the room, how much high-end is in the room. I make sure that I get a feel for the tone of the room and make sure that I can balance it correctly because all these old records are, you know, totally out of whack with the new stuff so I have to rebalance the sound system constantly, too, to make it work.

The Gallery

Do people push treble too much? Too much bass? Is everything V-shaped?

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Everything is very heavy on the low end now.

And so that means the old records need a little boost?

Yeah, compensate on the low end. The low end needs to be pushed.

You touched on this earlier, but do clubs still play emotionally with people through expressive lighting?

No. It’s a lost art. It’s just a shame. It added so much to the game. I mean, there are those parties that still have the light man and it adds to it. I do it at my party and it makes it so much better … It’s so exciting because of the lighting in the room. It just makes it. But there aren’t that many people who are good at it or people who want to do it. Everyone wants to be the person up front. I would gladly be the light man! Gladly!

As soon as lighting became computerized, club owners saw an opportunity to cut the budget and not pay a light man. They considered it unimportant. No one is interested in doing lighting, because the glamour of the art has been circumvented by machines. Though that’s nonsense; the computer has created an expanse of options that seem limitless. Can you imagine it? A great concert uses many of the options.

It’s a combination of automation and there aren’t enough apprenticeships?

There’s not enough people that understand it. One guy said, ‘I don’t know the music.’ I said, ‘I can do it for music I never heard before in my life.’ There are things about songs that just are very common. It’s like when there’s so many songs that build up in this certain way and then break down into a certain beat and you could almost predict that. It’s not that hard of a deal.

Do you feel that there’s a baseline of musicality that would help? Do people need to actually understand how to recognize a C chord? Recognize keys?

I don’t understand people who are making music and don’t have a little bit of musical training. Or a little bit of music theory behind them. Or can’t play an instrument. Or never touched an instrument. I really don’t understand producers who have no idea of what a C chord is and make these tracks that are actually in a different key than the singer is singing in. It drives me nuts! So does it help? It couldn’t hurt!

You’re now 20 years into your second act, if we say that started around the late ’90s. Are there rules that you realize aren’t worth following anymore? Are there things you throw out the window? Are there things that have really changed in the last 20 years?

Yes, there’s a lot of things that have changed. For the worse. In my party, in particular, I’m really trying to bring some of that back, avoid things like the bouncers treating people like shit outside. People are paying to come to that establishment. You don’t treat people like shit, anywhere, anyhow, no way. You make people feel welcome, you treat them with respect. I had this bouncer scream at me, ‘Get behind the fucking barricade!’ Never in my life would I have heard that coming out of the bouncer’s mouth in the ’70s. People didn’t act that way. They acted respectfully.

And even in the club it’s like the service can be very like, ‘I’m talking to this girl right now, you know?’ Hold on! Why are you talking to a girl when you’re working serving drinks! People on their phones, I wanna smack them! While they’re working! And they think they can do both, but they can’t! They give out the wrong change, they ignore people who are waiting to be served, it’s a mess. I had to go in at my party from beginning to end and just talk to people about service, about why we’re here. About the environment I wanna create. I wanna create a feeling in the room. So, in order to do that, everyone’s gotta be on board.

I see your point that technology offers all these distractions in our pockets, but there are also tools. What if someone loves what you’re playing so much they want to Shazam the speaker and get a track ID? What’s that happy balance of spreading the love of the music and just getting lost in the moment?

I can’t tell someone not to do something. I don’t think it would create the right atmosphere. All I can do is inspire them to walk this way, you know? To be in the moment with me. And that’s what I do. Every second of the song is important to me. I’m constantly reacting in the sound, tweaking the sound during a song because I feel like every moment is important. If I stay focused, they stay focused. It’s hard sometimes. There’s so much going on, but I try to my best, you know? That’s all you can do, do the best you can do.

I found a SoundCloud set of yours dated from 1976. It features the use of a drum machine.

In 1976 there wasn’t a drum machine really. That was called the Beat Box back then. I was constantly looking for new technology to access, to incorporate. You know, that’s why I had the first EQ system built for me. The first bass horns were built for me. I was asking how can I make this sound better? Maybe if I had speakers that can just produce bass. He went, ‘Oh, you want bass horns!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I want bass horns! Build them.’ I want a control knob that just controls the tweeters and want one that controls — ‘Oh, you want an EQ!’ ‘Yeah, that’s what I want! Build it for me!’ Then I said, ‘What else do you have?’

I was talking to [Alex] Rosner [who designed David Mancuso’s tweeter arrays, Siano’s immersive sound system at the Gallery, innovative rotary DJ mixers and so much more that brought a visceral clarity to the elemental club sound of early ’70s New York], and he said, ‘We have this little Beat Box now.’ Boy, I got my use out of that. In the middle of the night I just would mix into it … it just was something really unique. Just had fun with it!

Do you ever think about bringing back in aspects like that? Recently I saw a tweet where you said you’re over beat boxes/drum machines.

I’m over the bad programming going on. If you’re gonna program, boom-chsh-boom-chsch-boom-chsch, I’m over it! I’m gone! Bye! There’s gotta be nuances. There’s gotta be fills! There’s gotta be changes in the pattern. So, yeah, I’m over the way they program it. Sometimes the sounds that they use. But there are people that can program. Now Skrillex has gotten all the hype and everything, but all those ideas were taken from a guy called Nick Hook. He really makes it sound unique and exciting! There’s too much mediocrity out there that people are becoming famous on.

With the ability to carry the history of modern electronic devices conveniently in our phones or laptops, do you ever think of working drum machines or soft synths back in, whether to use as a cue for a throwback sound or to add a contemporary element?

I did for a while. I was working with Ableton Live and I was doing, you know, live overlays and I still do some live overlays. Now I’ve been into taking old tracks and re-editing them. You know, making them new again. That’s where I’m at right now. A lot of that had to do with the computer and unfortunately there’s something about the computer — I get it! People get a bad reaction to. People don’t like it when you’re a DJ playing on a computer. They don’t like it. They do not like it. They feel like you’re cheating. And so I stopped. I stopped playing on the computer. I play on CDJs. I’m much more live, and you can tell!

I've noticed what we'll call intentional regression. There are artists who have tried to move backwards from digital. More analog synthesizers. More live bassists. It’s a mini-backlash ...

I think it’s really, it’s got a head of steam. Look at the vinyl industry. You can’t get a vinyl record pressed right now because all the plants are full with pressing records! They’re opening new vinyl record plants! Just opened three of them! Just opened in New York! Oh my god! That’s unheard of! They were closing down like crazy, now three of them just opened in New York. I believe, I’m a firm believer in vinyl sounds better. Firm. I know it. I heard it. I can hear it. So, I’m all for that. I think, you know, there is a head of steam out there. We’ll see where it goes.

In terms of things coming back en vogue, and going all the way back to the question about mining disco for inspiration, I know gospel and the part it played in early dance music has always been a part of your DNA. Talk to me about the balance of sacred and secular, spiritual and heathen influences in the music.

I tell you, gospel has a huge influence in what I play. My biggest song right now is The Celestial Choir’s ’Stand on the Word,’ still! Danny Krivit did a little re-edit of it. Oh my god, it’s my biggest record, biggest hit all over the world!

I’m done a thing in London with a choir. A gospel choir. An 18-piece gospel choir singing some of the gospel hits of the club scene. It’s just, you know, it was such a big thing for us. The Clark Sisters. Dorothy Morrison, who was my favorite. The first song I heard, ‘Rain’ by Dorothy Morrison, that drove me nuts, and it’s a gospel song!

And going back to the psychological effects of music. It has made me laugh, smile, want to dance, want to be a better person. It helped stop the Vietnam War! Music is spiritual, though unfortunately I don't think it happens as much with synthesized rather then live music.

Nicky Siano's Native New Yorker - Summer Madness

Hosted by Rebecca Lynn

Playing 6 hours

Friday 8/25/17 10 p.m. - 4 a.m.

Good Room 78 Meserole Ave. Brooklyn

Tickets $15-$20

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