After-dark inquiry: Gabby Mejia

The manager and DJ booker of subMercer discusses how a hotel lounge became one of New York's underground epicenters.

We're not quite sure when hotel lounges became go-to places for great DJs playing cool tunes—but that seems to be a growing trend, and subMercer is at the head of the pack. Hidden beneath Soho's Mercer Hotel (accessible via an unmarked door, a service elevator and a hallway that doubles as a wine cellar), the low-ceilinged, intimate venue has boasted sets from the likes of Beats in Space man Tim Sweeney, Runaway's Jacques Renault and Marcos Cabral, Metro Area's Darshan Jesrani, the funk-flinging Ge-ology, stone-cold vets like Arthur Baker and Justin Strauss, and the occasional out-of-town super-duper star. The venue's guiding light is Gabby Mejia; TONY recently caught up with the nightlife charmer for a chat.

How long have you been at subMercer?I've been there since September '09, but I took over as general manager just about a year ago.

And what were you doing before that?Just managing places forever, really! I was at the Standard in Miami; I managed Sky Bar in Miami; I managed Buck 15, which was like the Miami version of APT; and I managed at the Raleigh. Up here, I managed Hiro at the Maritime when it was new. And I was at APT, too. I'm probably forgetting something.

SubMercer was definitely making inroads in becoming a go-to place for cool DJs before you took over, but it seems like you've really cemented its position.Well, I kind of think that was the idea that [Mercer Hotel honcho] Andr Balazs had when he opened it ten years ago—to have this kind of secret little lair that had good music. But I'm a DJ as well, so of course I wanted it to be a DJ-oriented place, and I had all these music contacts from my time working at APT. And I never book DJs whom I don't know or trust. But I think the way the place has evolved has been really natural, rather than intentional.

Because you know all the DJs—and all the DJs who play there seem to know each other—subMercer has a family kind of vibe. Which, frankly, is kind of weird for a hotel bar.Yeah, it definitely has that kind of feel; I get that from the DJs and from the guests as well, which I love. I think it starts as soon as you walk in, with the warm reception that you get from Richard [Alvarez] and Moses at the door. And it really is family; I've worked with most of the bartenders and staff at other places, so everybody is very comfortable with each other. Guests often say to me, "Can I work here?"

Other than just being people you know, do you have any musical criteria for how you decide which DJs play there?The one thing that I'm adamant about is that whoever deejays has to basically play good-quality, underground music. I do like for the genres to be varied, but it has to be underground—nothing commercial and definitely no Top 40.

In the past, bars and lounges associated with hotels were the last places you would go for cool music. Now, a few of them—subMercer included—are among the first places you think of. How did that happen?Well, I can't speak for every place, but I think Andr's mentality—he's not somebody who goes in mainstream directions, and he likes each of his properties to be something special and kind of niche. For me, it's just a matter of concentrating on quality—I want the place to be the best that it can be.

Do you ever get hotel guests complaining about the music, like "what is this weird stuff? We want Lady Gaga!"Not at all, actually! We get very discriminating people, and we've actually been getting more hotel guests than ever coming down. They love it down there; it's great music and a diverse crowd, so they feel like they're getting a real New York kind of experience.

It is certainly is a pretty poly-everything crowd for this kind of venue.Yeah, we get a very cool and very mixed crowd. The door guys do a great job of really balancing that room, which I think is something that's been lost a lot in New York nightlife. It's generally very homogenous when you go out, but I think the beauty of nightlife stems from its diversity.

There aren't many female DJ bookers in New York. Has that ever been a hindrance?Being a woman is never a hindrance! But in the past, I definitely found it challenging to be taken seriously and be given due credit in nightlife and music and entertainment—as both a manager and a booker, which are two completely separate jobs typically held by men. Fortunately, I've had good female role models in the industry, such as (Miami's) Jennie Yip, who have encouraged me to persist and see the challenge as an opportunity to strive harder to prove myself, without compromising myself or what I'm passionate about. Even among my male DJ peers, whom I book, I feel I've earned their respect; and it's always touching when they tell me that they love playing at subMercer because I'm a good hostess who takes care of them. So in that respect, I'd say that being a woman is actually an advantage or bonus. Justine D is the only other woman I know who's booking DJs in the city, and I hope that we can both serve as an example to other women who feel as passionately about music and booking as we do.

What are your upcoming plans for subMercer? Keep plugging away in the way you have been?Well, we have an exciting upcoming project involving our DJs, which is something that hasn't really been done before. We have the best underground DJs in the city playing for us, so it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of that. And don't worry—it won't be some cheesy hotel-lounge-music compilation.