Jonathan Toubin recently returned to hosting his popular NYC area dance parties after a near fatal injury he sustained just over six months ago. He's also back touring with a stop in Toronto as part of North-by-Northeast.
Toubin is the most popular, prolific and highest-earning DJ of his kind in America, known equally for his “maximum rock and soul” 45rpm dance sets around North America and his formative New York Night Train club in Brooklyn. He’d played 1200 sets of his hi-octane 50s-80s classics over the last 5 years, before a freak life-threatening accident in January (a taxi driver had a seizure and ploughed into a sleeping Toubin through a ground-floor hotel room wall). Support came quickly from across the music community – including a Yeah Yeahs Yeahs benefit concert – and he made a miraculous recovery. Now, as befits someone who was reported to have made a “gotta have my records” request in his emergency ward, he’s thankfully back in the vinyl groove again. I had the opportunity to chat with Toubin about his recovery, his life, and his music.
1. Do you recall the first vinyl you bought and/or received, and at what age?
Yes! It was Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing". I think I was 3 years old.
2. When and where was your first DJ gig, and what do you recall most about it?
Technically my first DJ gig was on the college radio on University of Texas' KTSB in Austin (now called KVRX). My first club gig was at a heavy metal club called Back Room in Austin that hired me to play punk records during a few grunge and punk shows. The first one was the Dictators/Lunachicks. The Lunachicks were really taken with my MC5 shirt (you didn't see those so much back then!) and wound up begging me for it and I finally gave it to them in exchange for some of their merchandise. I also remember playing my favorite Dictators bootleg and then, when I met the band, asking them to sign it - wondering if they'd be pissed. Handsome Dick Manitoba didn't mind at all - explaining that it was his hand on his girlfriend's ass on the cover and saying he also liked the record (which was very raw demos). Ross the Boss and Andy Shernoff also inked it! Those Back Room gigs were great because they gave me a whopping $35 (which seemed like a lot of dough at the time!) and I could drink for free underage. Though I had a few random gigs here and there in the years in-between, I consider the first DJ gig of this phase of my life and work at the Lower East Side's legendary Motor City Bar in 2006 playing punk and noise and garage and a few eclectic things. Motor City started my current career and continued every Wednesday for over five years.
3. When did you first realize you were onto something different with the music you were playing?
It really took me a while. I knew I was throwing wild parties with interesting people and turning a broad range of cool music but was a bit all over the place. A few months after my bar gig was successful, I started throwing the Animal Train Happenings and Soul Clap and Dance-Off parties at Glasslands. Both were big unique parties and immediate successes though I really didn't feel like such a great DJ yet - but I was obsessed with becoming one! I think somewhere later in 2007, when I decided to go all 45s, was when I first began to feel like I was getting somewhere aesthetically. But it really wasn't until the last year or two that I began to feel like I was graduating to an entirely different level of unique records and putting them together.
4. How many LP’s and 45’s are in your current collection?
I'm not one to count my records but let’s put it this way - there currently isn't much room for me in my own home because of my record habit.
5. Approximately how many do you add to this number each year?
At this point I'm way more interested in quality than quantity and as the thing I do gets more refined there are fewer and fewer records that I don't have that I really want. And they tend to be both impossible to find and impossibly expensive - so I don't buy anywhere near as many as I did when I was replacing my LP's with 45s and buying $1 and $5 and $10 records. Still I probably manage to buy thousands every year.
6. Any shout-outs to favorite record shops at home or abroad?
Definitely! Yesterday I ran into The Record Grouch and Joel Stones of Tropicalia in Furs Records plus some employees of Academy at a benefit for Josh Styles. Those are great NYC stores where I love to shop! But I get most of my 45s out of town as there isn't as much of what I want in New York. So last week I was at Blue Arrow Records in Cleveland and then literally spent days digging at my favorite shop Peoples' Records in Detroit. I also love Jerry's and particularly The Attic in Pittsburgh, Rooky Ricardo's in San Francisco, and Breakaway and Friend of Sound in Austin - among many great places.
7. What is your most valued piece in your collection?
Like the quantity of my records, I really have no idea and try not to pay too much attention to that stuff. But let’s just say that at this point a good chunk of the records I play out are worth three digits.
8. What are three of your top crowd-pleasing tunes that you can’t go wrong with?
While I aim to please with my sets as a whole, I don't aim to please with my records. I try to give people a unique dancing experience, bring a wild party, and blow minds without ever playing to the lowest common denominator. When you play 100+ songs without playing a single one known to most people there's no way to satisfy the expectations of familiarity with single songs. You instead have to create an atmosphere and a rhythm through a sequence of juxtaposed 2-minute bursts of sound. So while I don't "crowd please," I can however ideally use the power of my records to take people all kinds of places - sometimes even when they don't want to go! This week's new record that comes to mind is Eddie Kirk's "The Hawg, pt. 1" - the "Warm Leatherette" of blues. It has a relentless dance beat, crazy instrumental syncopation, out of control harmonica - and played and recorded a raw power that's impossible to deny.
9. Where have you played in Canada previously?
I've been to Canada a number of times over the years. Not only have I played at NXNE and Wrongbar outside of the festival but am returning to Sled Island for the third time in four years later in the week. I've also of course been to Montreal and Vancouver. Canada has always been good to me... And I've tried to be good to Canada in return!
10. I read that you were also a label-owner, veteran musician, published academic, and professional journalist. Can you elaborate a bit on each of these areas?
I'm not any of those anymore! Those were my former occupations at the time I became a DJ/party promoter. The label owner part came right before as New York Night Train was initially a web magazine and a record label that released nine records by likes of Kid Congo Powers, The Stalkers, etc. As for a musician - that was the focus of my life for nearly 15 years - I was primarily a guitarist but also had forays into bass, organ, and lead vocals. I even managed to eek out a living on a major label retainer for a couple of years with no other job. In general I played on 16 records and toured regularly in bands Grand Mal, The Hamicks, Noodle, etc. These were all before the internet became a big deal, so there isn’t as much about the bands out there (except Grand Mal's 8 stars in Pitchfork!). I quit music to go to graduate school, but returned for a couple of years when I started New York Night Train. As for academia, I applied to graduate school after September 11 as it was a bit of a wake-up call that the musician thing wasn't a very stable living and I should pick something more practical to do. So I decided to try and become a professor. I stuck it out for a couple of years and, not long after having a cumbersome heavily-footnoted piece in an anthology of academic hip hop writing published by the Institute for Studies in American Music, I took some time off from grad school and never returned. As for journalist, I have an English degree so I've done various print and internet writing for money throughout my life and, at the time that I shifted to becoming a professional DJ, I had been making a living writing articles about guitarists for Gibson and random freelance bits.
11. How important was getting back to doing what you love an aspect in your recovery from your injuries?
Very important! It was something to both aspire to and look forward to when I was confined to hospitals and rehabs.
12. Were you aware that you had fans as far and wide as Karen O and Jack White before this incident happened to you?
Ha! I dunno. I've known Karen since before there was a Yeah Yeah Yeahs so we were both already fans of one another as people before either of us were doing what we do today. She's come to my parties to say hey and dance over the years - but I dunno if she's a fan or whatever. Regardless I was so moved that Yeah Yeah Yeahs did that benefit for me at the Brooklyn Bowl as they don't often play in New York. They're a great band and great people! As for Jack White, I never brought it up to him and doubt he remembers - but we initially met when both the White Stripes and the Hamicks opened for the Dirtbombs in Detroit in the 1990s. Years later the legendary rock publicist Jo Murray brought him to catch me at Motor City Bar and he wound up telling her he wanted to take me on tour but I never heard from him. He approached me a few times that night and I was really impressed by both his curiosity about the records and his general musical knowledge. I love musicians that are really into music beyond their own and are always hungry to discover more. That's what growing as a person and as an artist is all about.
13. Any words of advice for aspiring DJ’s, musicians, promoters, and other go-getters?
Yeah, it’s the same for all things - be true to yourself and work hard! Don't worry about becoming a success except on the level of becoming the best at what you do on your own terms, then later figure out a way to make it work. I've really had it with watching people try and succeed by either imitating others or following trends, and when they fall it’s really embarrassing as there's never anything left. Whereas people who do what they love the way they want to do it always succeed on some level because they have integrity... and longevity.
14. Beyond touring, what are your current regular gigs in the NYC area at the moment?
I've now limited my schedule to a Friday early rock and roll party at Home Sweet Home called Shakin' All Over Under Sideways Down, and my monthly soul party New York Night Train Soul Clap and Dance-Off - which is currently in the process of moving from Glasslands to Brooklyn Bowl. Also I've resurrected the multimedia New York Night Train Happening which will be monthly at Brooklyn Bowl starting in September.
15. What’s the future hold for Jonathan Toubin?
I plan to grow at what I do, discover more amazing music, and give people more fun interesting things to do at night. Oh yeah, and I also plan to stay on the second floor of hotels from here on out!
More info on Toubin and his parties can be found here.
Catch him live at Wrongbar in Toronto on June 16th at 2am or on the limited capacity Bruise Cruise earlier that afternoon on Lake Ontario. Check NXNE for all the details.