A bit more Honey… Soundsystem

A DJ collective and events series that today also encompasses no less than three labels and a monthly podcast, Honey Soundsystem has been a significant feature for no less than the ten years they’ve been around. Praised by critics, heads and partygoers alike they find that unique balance between entertainment and enlightenment, bringing a tangible energy to their sets and their events, while also making sure to stay close to their deep roots. Born out of the San Francisco queer scene, the DJ collective made up of Jason Kendig, Jacob Sperber (aka Jackie House), Josh Cheon, and Robert “Robot” Yang (aka Beziér), came together to acknowledge the history of the queer dance floor as individually respected DJs simpatico with the roots of this music and the origins of club culture. With a strong conceptual framework at their core, they set out to produce events that recognised the legacy of the dance floor, without losing sight of its contemporary appeal, achieving an immutable notoriety which today spans the globe.

What started out as small events in makeshift venues, with a very fine attention to detail in establishing something concrete, the Honeys soon became an institution in San Francisco. Inspiring and encouraging queer artists from the region, including Avalon Emerson no less, the Honey Soundsystem grew into bigger venues and events like the annual closing party for the Folsom street fair. Eventually it was something that couldn’t merely be contained in the bay area and the Honeys quickly became a touring DJ collective that brought the Honey Soundsystem name not only to places like Chicago, but to events like Feel my Bicep and clubbing institutions like Panorama bar in Europe. They propagated their sound and their ethos even further through three labels in the form of Discaire, Cheon’s Dark Entries and the flagship label HNYTRX, labels that today stand on their own as invaluable contributors to DJ bags and record shelves the world over.

With 6 to 7 annual Honey Soundsystem events in SF still going strong; their podcast series on its 222nd episode; and a new album by transgender artist Octo Octa about to hit the shelves, the Honeys are stronger than ever in maintaining their ideology, but how have they evolved over their decade long existence, you might ask? “This is the year we’re feeling the evolution the most”, says Jacob Sperber from San Francisco over a clear internet call. “As we start touring more, and the label becomes more sought after it becomes difficult to bring that energy to everything. I think that’s the interesting thing for us, is maybe paring things back a little bit. More than anything else we’re trying more to define the collective.”

With the Honeys spread between SF and Chicago and constantly on the road, defining that collective is more important than ever to the Honeys. Jacob had in fact just gotten back from Europe at the time of speaking, playing Panorama bar and understandably he is a bit bit jetlagged. “I am everything but the girl right now”, he adds with wry chuckle, but shows absolutely no sign of it throughout our conversation, producing very thoughtful and acute answers as we delve into what makes the Honeys tick. Joining us on the call too is Jason Kendig, who is the Chicago connection today  and currently a resident at Smart Bar alongside the Black Madonna. He is more “caffeinated” than his counterpart with two hours on the bay area and what unfolds throughout the 40 odd minutes of our conversation is like their DJ sets, entertaining and enlightening, serious and fun, a world of contrasts making a very complicated although complete picture that only Honey Soundsystem could represent today.  

Jason, with you in Chicago and Honey Soundsystem’s crazy touring schedule, you’ll often yourselves in different locations. How do you keep the Honey Soundsystem ethos alive?

Jason Kendig: I’d say we find ourselves in the same city pretty regularly. I did move away but I go back to San Francisco pretty regularly. We communicate via this handy app called slack and email…

Jacob Sperber: …and memes, what’s app. (laughs). San Francisco is definitely the homebase for our parties and our label. When we work on some projects they center around San Francisco and we are definitely still supporting San Francisco artists.

We have a lot of friends who’ve moved over the last decade while we were all living in SF, and even though they might have taken on the identity of the new place they are living in today, a lot of what they were trying to achieve as musicians or artists in SF was still what they were trying to achieve as they moved. So many times when we are travelling, we are encountering people from SF that are in the same situation we are. It keeps the ethos alive in that way.

That ethos is obviously focussed on the history of the queer dance floor, but what was instrumental in making that the focus of Honey Soundsystem?

Jacob: In many ways it’s just the dance floor. We came together on dance floors and San Francisco itself brought us together. We were all in the right place at the right time. It was a very exciting period in SF’s nightclub culture where there were opportunities to make things happen cheaply and easily and a lot of the creative people that were living in the city, and maybe little bit older, were very supportive of what we were doing. They brought a lot of experience and things like photos, posters or stories to the table so we could understand what the city wanted, needed and the queer history behind it.

Jason: I just read an interview and it’s basically a conversation between Octo Octa with DJ Sprinkles (Terre Thaemlitz). When DJ Sprinkles was living in Oakland, she was describing the scene as all these repressed mid-westerners that had come to the west coast to live out their fantasy of what they thought it was to be queer. I was like “fuck”, I’m a midwesterner who moved from Detroit. I wasn’t closeted at this point, but I was like; “Was this the call to come west, was this the fantasy of what it was to be queer that I wasn’t getting in Detroit?” I don’t think it was the case, but it was definitely food for thought.

I just read that interview too, and I was actually going to ask you about that exactly. What I also wanted to ask you about that interview, is that DJ Sprinkles also mentions that playing in Europe is not much of an enjoyable experience for her, because it’s a very straight white male, dudes fist pumping type of thing. Perhaps Jacob you could weigh in on this since you just came from Berlin.

Jacob: No… I do think that one of the unique parts of being a queer artist from America going to Europe, you get to play these spaces that are really focussed on incredible sound systems and these nightclub spaces that are unique not only in the way that the country allows people to party, but also the rich inner-continental history of partying that happens there. I think that need to be on a dance floor that’s specifically queer or specifically open in certain kinds of ways, sometimes for me gets superseded by the idea of how different and how enriching just the musical element of those dance floors can be in comparison to America. There’s just so many more fun facets to those dance floors that get distracted and I think a lot more people are falling into those details rather than just needing a place to be sexually free.

Jason: I think the way that question was posed to Terre (Thaemlitz) was that she wasn’t getting to play some of the queer / low key type parties, because since they were smaller they didn’t have the budget to fly her all the way from Japan. And I feel that in a way that we have been given this opportunity to show what we’ve been doing in SF, giving our perspective on our own little musical niche on the west coast. I think perhaps because of our age, our first experiences with dance music were not necessarily in queer spaces. For myself as a teenager, when I was finding myself at raves in Detroit, it was about freedom of anonymity, that I didn’t have to worry about being harassed.

Jacob: I think there are opportunities that you find yourself playing parties as a showcase artists and not necessarily an artist as a part of a scene and we get to do a little bit of both. For example, playing the Chapter 10 parties in London feels like a Techno thanksgiving where everything is just right and there might even be some family drama. (Laughs) And then there will be a gig like playing Studio 80 in Amsterdam, where it was just a club night, and there were certainly people excited to be there to hear us, but there was an idea that Amsterdam was just out on the town that night, and it was our job, to not just make people enjoy themselves, but also not be too noticeable. You could be on any dance floor in any part of the world, and that is also your job as a DJ, just to work.

On that point, you put a lot of effort into your parties, in keeping the history of queer club culture alive, so how do communicate ideas like that in a situation like Studio 80?

Jacob: There is only so much you can do without losing people a little bit. There are certain spaces where you can get really conceptual. When you are out in a place like Studio 80, you have to do it through the tracks. You have to throw a lot of energy into a track that you feel that’s gonna explain a little bit of the history of where you are coming from.

At the same time we actually can’t either. There are some rigid formats to fit into as touring DJs. Clubs that are very specific about what they want and how they want it and in many ways we are just honoured to be a part of it. There’s only so much time you have to present yourself and even some of the most conceptual artists we’ve booked, just brought themselves to DJ. For example, Lena Willikens who recently played with us, was telling me about a puppet opera she’s involved with. I was like “you can’t present your opera puppet project at our post sex-party party tonight, I don’t think it would go well”. Sometimes we have the pressure to have the artwork look more representative of Honey or have the crowd look more like the people we want there. We want to draw those people out in the city, but we can’t always – it’s just the nature of the beast.

In terms of music and communicating the ideology of Honey Soundsystem, what was the music policy behind it all when it started out?

Jason: I don’t know if there was a specific music policy. It always sort of ran the gamut. It was more about having a party, showcasing the tracks that you were excited about. We’ve always been jumping around from Disco to Techno to House music.

Jacob: Certain record stores were informing what we wanted to do musically. There were records that you would dig in SF that would generally come up. Hi-NRG stuff, especially when we started and some of the Disco stuff, were still in the stacks and still cheap here. There were some parties that were informing the sounds; like going to hear Solar DJ and kind of explaining the history of Bay area raving, but also his particular take on it. And just the idea that we wanted our friends to be having fun on the dance floor. That required some divas, that required some heads and even some contemporary diva stuff, like Roisin Murphy; she was a very big character in our circle of friends.

Did you feel that there was a particular hole in San Francisco that you needed to fill at the time?

Jacob: I think we’ve answered that one a lot, and since then the hole has been filled again and again. We even created some holes ten years later, that we’ve been watching other people fill. I think it’s just inevitable, you find your opening in a competitive field and you try to fill it. It was pretty natural to us. At the time it was a very large social group of people that wanted to get together every night of the week and we were filling all those spots. Musically we were all really interested in pushing the boundaries even further.

In terms of clubbing, and its very mainstream appeal today, do you feel that history Honey Soundsystem represents gets lost a lot in this contemporary environment?

Jason: People have different ways of associating a night out and what it means to them: Some people just go to get fucked-up, dissociate; some people just go to meet up with friends, let loose; some people go to listen to music that is foreign to them and they might latch onto it, and it takes on a deeper meaning to them; some of them go to find a community. So, it’s not fair to write off the people that aren’t connecting to that deeper aspect. The way people are connecting right now with social media and the world’s history at your fingertips, when something really connects with them, I feel that they’ll choose to peel back the layers and delve further into the past. You have new kids that might not have any context of why a track from 30 years ago was so popular, but it resonates with them now and juxtaposing all of that together and creating fresh experiences on the dance floor. You might have been dragged to a sports bar with an EDM soundtrack, and decide this is shit I need to leave, and then you find yourself in a nightclub, and possibly becoming part of a new community of friends.

In terms of music and what you guys represent as Honey Soundsystem, what are your feelings of the current socio-political landscape in the US after the elections?

Jacob: I think in terms of music, it’s an  important job for us, now more than ever, as touring DJs to ensure people that their instincts about the Americans that they’ve met, that are involved in more conscious levels of art are correct. And that we are as shocked as they are to find out about Brexit and any fascism in the world, and certainly we’re shocked that we have to deal with Trump in a position of power that he’s in today. We just intend to do our part, not only when we are at home, but to come back at everything that awful man does and we’re representing the country when we go places to do it with class, to re-ensure people that he doesn’t represent us.

There’s been a lot of talk about the club being the best environment to oppose those views and come together as a united front, a community.

Jacob: I’m on the fence about that. As Jason mentioned, I think the club is more complicated place. It is traditionally a place of lawlessness within law, and many ways that can be a fire starting place for some political or social issues to leave that place and insight a conversation. But there are bouncers protecting people from going inside and leaving that place for a reason. It’s been a kind of place that has a walled experience. And this is stuff that needs to be dealt with outside in the street.

Jason: I’m finding it a challenge between remaining upbeat and championing the things that are exciting when you feel the sense of dread that this current administration represents. The levels of corruption seem to go deeper and deeper. It’s easy to feel consumed with anxiety. I’m struggling to find the balance, because you don’t want to become that person that’s just constantly yelling about every grievance but you also don’t want to allow this to become normalized. At present I try to retain faith in the system of checks and balances in this country. Hopefully these people will get their comeuppance.

How do you think something as abstract as club music could, if at all, make difference in the end?

Jacob: I think there is a fun example of that. Matias Aguayo and some artists that he’s involved with made a dance track version from one of the speeches from the women’s march on Washington. It came through, and it was one of those experiences as a DJ that was like: “do I play this track because I feel obligated to play this track even though it’s not necessarily a track that will fit into the set I’ve been working on”; On the other hand you feel that sense that I should be playing this track all the time.

We were in Washington DC days after that track was sent to us and I decided to play it at the very beginning of our set at this club called Flash. The club itself has a lot of foot traffic. It definitely draws queer crowds, but it’s pretty straight. Opening the set with that track, which had this really intense narrative against facism and sexism while using Trump’s words against him, might be too harsh, but after the track made its point the room felt so electric and it felt so right. Everyone that was in there that might not have known what we were about, knows that we don’t necessarily support Trump. Maybe some people left and I actually felt this superpower and I felt that everything can go right from that point on, like everybody was with me.

That’s every inspiring and lets hope you can bring a little of that feeling to Oslo when you visit us. Thank you for talking to us.

Jacob: We’re super excited. It’s such an awesome club. I’ve been to Oslo once, Jason hasn’t been before. It’s such a beautiful city, and we have such a connection with the music that has come out of it over the years.