What is Honey Soundsystem? It’s a San Francisco-based collective of DJs/producers/musicians Ken Vulsion, Pee Play, Robot Hustle, Jason Kendig, Josh Cheon and Derek Bobus who throw a party every Sunday at Paradise Lounge that attracts a mix dance music heads, bears, wild tranny party hoppers and straight boy DJs.
What sets Honey Soundsystem apart from most other gay dance parties is their desire to capture the decadence of San Francisco’s past nightlife and link it with contemporary musical happenings. That appreciation also extends outside the club: this week the Honey boys released a compilation of original dance music and last year, Vulsion and Robot Hustle’s became preservationists when they uncovered and reissued a long-lost album of left-field synth music by disco legend Patrick Cowley.
“It was this amazing inheritance for us and we felt a responsibility that the music got released and got heard,” says Vulsion. “The core of what we do as Honey Soundsystem has to do with a connection to what came before us and in San Francisco especially, there’s a rich history.”
Read the full interview (and peep a little butt crack) after the jump! And if you’re in New York tomorrow night, check out the Honey boys at GALAXIE, a party happening at LPR Gallery Bar (158 Bleecker Street).
“Classique #2” by Hercules & Love Affair at Honey Soundsystem.
Honey Soundsystem’s bio says you guys want to “stake a butch-fem heel in the post-rave’ scene. What does that mean?
[Laughs]. That’s something Jacob wrote. Usually a good reason to start a party is because you think there’s something missing. Something that’s not there and wanting to create something that doesn’t exist yet. I feel like the gay scene had become a bit commercialized, especially in The Castro where’s the Beyonce-Lady Gaga-Madonna industrial complex. Which isn’t to say we wouldn’t throw a Lady Gaga acapella in somewhere, but at some point the gay scene was on the leading edge – whether it was disco or Frankie Knuckles playing in Chicago, which was like, gay black music. We felt like there’s still a place for that in gay culture.
You don’t think that gay musicians are leading anymore?
I think they are, it’s just not as big of a thing. It’s a little bit more of a niche or boutique kind of scene now.
Do you think gays are more conservative now then they were back in the ’80s and ’90s?
No, I don’t know. I think in the ’70s the clones were seen how twinks are ⎯ or circuit boys. I know people who were going to the leather bars in San Francisco and going to the punk scene, which was a mixed scene, so I think there’s always an alternative to whatever the mainstream is. Though I think the gay mainstream now is much more in the public eye, whereas then it was still subculture. Part of assimilating gay culture ⎯ there’s good and bad to it. I grew up when you were still an outsider if you were gay. I think having that relationship to culture can be a good thing as far as finding your own voice and doing something new and finding like-minded people.
Is that how you started DJing?
Yeah I started when I was a kid in upstate New York at a rock club that was an Italian restaurant during the week.
Where was that?
Elmira, which is a rest stop/prison town. It was a place called Moholics and I was paid $40 a week plus all the chicken wings I could eat. I was way too young to be in the bar. I would have my own nights on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and Friday and Saturday I would play in between bands. Sometimes it would be a heavy metal trio called The Rods and people would be asking me to play Iron Maiden and I’d be like ‘oh, that record is scratched.’ I had all the cute girls on my side, so if you can get all the cute girls on the dance floor, the boys will do whatever they have to get the girls. There was one little sad gay bar and that was it.
Why was it sad?
It was like a scene from The Deer Hunter – like, five alcoholics at the bar and a dead animal’s head on the wall. Now I think it’s a little disco, but back then kind of the closest gay life there was in Ithaca because of Cornell. I still had my little scene and we would try and book in new wave bands.
And then you moved to New York?
I moved to New York to go to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology].
And you went clubbing a lot?
FIT is like club kid training. This was 1983 so I was going to everything that I could: Roxy’s, Paradise Garage, Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge.
What kind of fashions were you rocking back then?
I was a proto-goth. I had big hair. A lot of ’80s stuff that all the kids are wearing now. It’s weird walking around New York because everyone looks like they did in 1983.
Why did you move to San Francisco?
I used to work as an art director in ad agencies and I was able to get a job there. I felt called to move there. It seemed like a better place for me to live than New York at the time. I was involved in a group called ACT Up ⎯ the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. It’s an activist group that formed in the middle of the AIDS crisis. It’s a direct action protest group. At the time with Reagan there was little or no response from the federal government. I was getting arrested in street protests and was really involved in that, which was exciting but the downside was being in all that anger all the time was starting to wear on me. It seemed like a good idea to move to California and chill out a little.
When did the idea for Honey Soundsystem arise?
I started it with Jacob Sperber, a.k.a. DJ Pee Play. We met when he was playing records at a place called Café Flora. He was playing things like Adam and The Ants and at the time Jacob was 19. I was like, ‘who are you what are you doing?’ And we started playing together at parties and at some point wanted to do a night that was going to be called Honey. Do you know what bears are? Gay bears?
So Jacob’s into bears and we were going to do a bear night at this bar called Daddy’s on Castro Street and that’s where the name came from ⎯ Honey. Bears like honey. Our musical direction was a little too edgy for them but we still liked the idea and eventually we decided to buy a sound system and be a roving party. So we did hit n’ run parties for a year and a half and started doing a weekly about two years ago.
What were those hit n’ run parties like?
We would do some club events. We did some sex parties, house parties. Probably one of the first parties we did was at this abandoned club called the Rawhide. We’re like a sister event with Horse Meat Disco [in London]. They’re our gay sisters so we did some parties with them in Europe… When we came back we started doing Sunday’s at Paradise Lounge in San Francisco.
What’s the significance of Paradise Lounge?
It’s an interesting place. It had been dormant for years. It was a rock club but before then it was one of the very first leather bars in the Folsom district. I think it opened in 1965. So it was called Phoebe’s for probably about 20 years and the room that we’re in, which is upstairs, when it was the leather bar it was a shop called A Taste of Leather. I’ve also heard they had a thing called the Museum of Human Sexuality, which had historically-significant dildos in a glass cases or something.
What would make a dildo historically significant?
I don’t know, but people tell us all kinds of stories about what used to be in the space. I’ve also heard it’s where they used to publish this S&M magazine called Instigator that I think is still around. The thing it’s really well known for is this artist created a statute of Michelangelo’s David but with the biker hat, leather jacket and 501s. The statue became the logo for Phoebe’s. Do you know what the Folsom Street Fair is?
The club is basically right on one of the main corners so we were going to throw a black leather disco party all day and started trying to track down this statue and copies of it. I guess the guy who used to own Paradise came in with this thing which is actually sitting behind the bar at the club.
Are you into the leather scene?
I like doing all those things but not necessarily with all the costuming. But I think sexiness and sexual liberation is what we do. If you know where the music came from you know that Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were playing music at a gay bathhouse in the ’70s. So I think there’s still that connection.
How has the party been received by gay clubbers in San Francisco? Are they as aware of this history as you are or are they coming up and demanding that you play Beyonce all night long?
We’ve never been asked for Lady Gaga at our party. The people who do come are heads and dancers and not necessarily gay. It’s a mixed crowd. There’s straight boy DJs who love playing disco. We’re a bit more of a house club than a disco club.
Have you ever played the Hercules & Love Affair remix of Lady Gaga?
No comment. [laughs] Andy [Butler] is a friend but actually what I do like to play is the acapella version of “Bad Romance” over Radio Slave. I made a little edit of “I want your love love love” repeated looped so I like to play that. It’s sort of like, give them what they want but not what they’re expecting.
Honey Soundsystem will DJ the GALAXIE party in New York’s LPR Gallery Bar (158 Bleecker St.) on Saturday, April 3 and the release party for their new Brotherhood compilation at Paradise Lounge in San Francisco on Sunday, April 4. Details here.