After-dark inquiry: Jonathan Toubin
New York Night Train's popular "maximum rock & soul" man, Jonathan Toubin, gears up for the next edition of his Soul Clap and Dance-Off---and a national tour.
Tue Apr 12 2011
Photograph: Eleanor Logan
New York Night Train's popular "maximum rock & soul" man, Jonathan Toubin, gears up for the next edition of his —and a national tour.
Few had heard of you four years ago—now, there are multiple New York Night Train events every single week. How did you come out of nowhere to become such a big player on the rock & soul scene?
It did kind of come out of nowhere. It started about five years ago. I wasn't putting on parties yet, but I was getting out of graduate school, and I wanted to do something in the real world. I had some friends who were seasoned musicians and I had a little money, and I decided to help them out. Like Kid Congo Powers: I did this online oral history with him and put out some records. So I wanted to do a record-release party for him, and then for a few other artists who I was involved with. Those were my first parties.
And now look—you're one of the city's busiest DJs.
I know! But I was never really trying to be a DJ or an event promoter.
The ones that fall into it by accident are often the best ones, it seems.
I think it might be because of our cynicism, don't you think?
What was your first recurring party? Was it Soul Clap and Dance-Off?
No, it was actually New York Night Train Wednesdays at Motor City Bar. That came out of Kid's record-release party. [Nation of Ulysses frontman] Ian Svenonius was the DJ, and he thought I did a really good job putting it together, so the next day he and [Beat Happening's] Calvin Johnson asked me if I would help set up some DJ gigs for him. I had known one of the bartenders at Motor City for years, and when I told him about this, he was like, "Why don't you do something over here?" So I started putting on a weekly party there, featuring pretty eclectic stuff—a lot of punk and noise—and we're still doing it.
And that bloomed into all these other parties you're involved with?
Yeah, that went pretty well, and pretty soon people were asking me to do a lot more things. I didn't think I was a very good DJ—I mean, the music was good, but I didn't know how to play it, and I didn't really have enough of the stuff to do what I wanted—but people were coming to the events. One thing that happed was that I was finding all these old soul 45s, the people at Motor City weren't really interested in hearing them. So I figured I would start doing a party once a month where I could play them.
That was Soul Clap and Dance-Off?
A good, old-fashioned dance-off party!
And now you have a lot more parties.
My favorite ones were the Happenings, which we used to do at the Live with Animals gallery. They were these huge, labor-intensive things—big interdisciplinary, multimedia events with visuals, bands, DJs, performance pieces and all kinds of stuff. They were killer, but they were a lot of work for very little money. I've never charged much money for things I've been involved with; we want kids to be able to come without it costing them an arm and a leg.
You've been doing the Ya-Ya Yacht boat parties as well, right?
Yes, and we're planning on doing more this summer, but the dates aren't set yet. I also have a soul party at the Bell House coming up this summer. But right now, my big focus is on something called Land of a Thousand Dances.
Tell us about that.
I want people to learn all these crazy dance steps from the past. We've actually done two already, and they were really big successes. But I want to do bigger ones in Manhattan, and we're talking to a few clubs. It's basically a regular dance party, but my thought was that people are dancing to all this old stuff, but there's not context to it—it's all random, free-form dancing. Which is great, of course. But if you offer some context to it, it gives some meaning to what they're doing. So I decided the thing to do was to have a screen onstage say what dance you should be doing to this song—something like the Monkey, for instance—and then we have dancers onstage doing the Monkey, so you can kind of learn it from them. Those '60s dances are so simple that you can get a real feeling of achievement in a very short time. And seeing hundreds of people all doing the same dance is a beautiful sight, one that you don't see much in contemporary dance culture.
As busy as you are, is there any fear of burning out?
I have been going nonstop. But now I'm about to do a tour, which goes nonstop. There are dates almost every day for a month, and there are 12-hour drives between some of those dates. But I've been thinking about slowing things down a bit. Like with Soul Clap—after this coming one, I'm going to take a break from doing it monthly at Glasslands and kind of reevaluate where I want to take that party. And I really want to focus on Land of a Thousand Dances, and put a lot of energy into that.
You don't want to do a half-assed version.
We've done a couple of half-assed versions already, and we've kind of lucked out with them. I don't want to take chances on another half-assed version, you know?