Hey, old friend, how’s it going? Are there any ideas about this mix for Cxema you’d like to talk about?
Hey, Roma! All things considered, I’ve been pretty good. Had a few months off work due to COVID-19, ate and drank very well, moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend, worked on music, and got a lot of plants. Now I’m back to work, although clubs aren’t working, and we wear masks everywhere outside — a new normal seems to have taken place. The lockdown was intense, I felt a strange déjà vu to those few days in Kyiv during Maidan when I was instructed to stay inside.
I had a certain image in mind when I was choosing records for this mix. I opened for Cxema in 2017 for the first two hours, and this mix is an update to that: even the first record I played then is the first record here. The feeling of a huge warehouse, empty at first, except for the bar team, light guys, and security, but with 500 people in it within an hour — it’s an insane energy. It’s incredible to witness the energy evolve from the DJ booth, being at the controls. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I could barely hear anything out of my headphones over the booming and thunder of the subs from what I thought was just a mellow house track. My records were skipping, I was shaking, and when Slava came by around the first hour to ask if I was good, I think I forgot how to talk. It was a very special experience! For this mix, I really took my time mixing in and out of tracks, so although it was made with that warehouse in mind, I hope it will be enjoyable out of that context as you listen at home or in your headphones, in your car, or on the marshrutka, haha.
Sean, it has been 2 years since the last time we saw each other. I will never forget that summer, it was so fun! Tell us about your last trip to Ukraine.
Simply put, it was a dream come true. Ever since moving to NYC from Kyiv in 2016, I’d wanted to be able to spend some portion of the year either in Kyiv or Europe. I think it’s the only way I could justify leaving Kyiv to myself. Since moving to Brooklyn, it hadn't been financially viable. You know how expensive NYC is to live in. Around early June 2018, I hit up some old friends saying how I’d like to visit Kyiv for a few weeks, and Bodya aka Coco Brice offered me a job bartending at his new spot for July-August, so the deal was done. Working at 1818 Bar with some of my best friends while spending weekends at NY31 and DJing around the country was wonderful. Absolutely ideal summer. I’d give any amount of money or spare organs to be able to do that right now. I miss my BFFs.
What are the differences between the Kyiv public and the NYC public?
Yeah, there’s a huge difference, lol. Perhaps I should first illustrate my experience in Kyiv.
I moved to Ukraine at 20 after being fed up with college tuition and high rent prices in San Francisco, wanting to travel more than anything. At the time, I was really into free jazz and psychedelic rock, trying to start bands, but nothing seemed to take off. Hadn’t revolved my life around electronic music just yet. So, the plan was to fly to Kyiv, see what was what, and maybe stay for six months to a year… Not four years! I had no idea what to expect, I’d read the Lonely Planet Kyiv and Ukraine guides at least twice and saw the film ‘Everything is Illuminated.’ I hadn’t saved that much money to sustain me very long, but I had a childish faith that all would be okay. I’d spoken to an American friend of a friend who was teaching English at the time, and she’d said getting a job teaching English as a foreign language in Ukraine was easy, and teachers were in high demand.
I flew to Kyiv in August 2011, I think. Found a cheap hostel near Zoloti Vorota. I didn’t know anyone, but woke up and explored the city every day. At those first days of going out to lunch solo, ordering a beer on a patio (keep in mind that in the US the legal drinking age is 21, although I’d had a fake ID for two years anyway) I’d felt so ‘European,’ so free and on my own adventure! I’d seen a few kids riding fixed gears around the city with cool tattoos and style and thought: ‘Damn, those are the people I need to meet! Hipsterism is worldwide!’ Right around day two or three, I’d been eating lunch at a café, ‘Yaroslavna.’ A young man sat across from me and instantly I felt his gaze — I was from San Francisco and wasn’t unaccustomed to male attention. He kept staring, then asked for a cigarette, so I invited him over. His English wasn’t great, but his vocabulary was strong, and in half an hour we’d bonded over Black Sabbath, Slavoj Žižek, and more. The next day I moved into his tiny apartment in Podil, and we lived there together through the winter.
I found a job teaching English after a strenuous application process. I’d printed resumes, English school locations from Google Maps (this wasn’t pre-iPhone, but it was for me), and knocked on their doors. Ultimately, I was hired at American English Center, an ex-Seventh-day Adventist venture that some smart Ukrainians made a business out of; rumors were, mafia took it over, but who knows. In keeping with the traditions of Seventh-day Adventist church, classes were taught Monday through Thursday and Sunday. Having to go to work on Sunday at 11 am did not hinder my appetite for going out on Saturday night to parties, clubs, DIY events, etc. and meeting a lot of amazing and truly inspiring people, many of whom are still some of my best friends.
Being then 21 years old and not having much financial maturity, I struggled to make ends meet. I was broke most of the time, even on a relatively decent salary; the school I worked for sucked, the methods were outdated, it felt corporate, and there didn’t seem to be much prospect for making more money or getting better at teaching. Plus I still hadn’t understood that I needed a real winter jacket in winter. I reached a breaking point and moved back to San Francisco in 2013. I lived there for a little under two years, but missed Kyiv the whole time, so I moved back to Kyiv in 2014, did a Cambridge University teacher training course, and got a better job teaching. My music taste was still primitive at that time. It must’ve been right around the end of 2014 that Slava held the first Cxema party at Otel. We were good friends at the time, and him knowing that I’d wanted to be a photographer, he’d invited me to take some pictures of the first party on film. I think it was around that time that I’d noticed a lack of parties dedicated to hip-hop and American soul music, so I started throwing parties on Thursdays at Fazenda bar, “DJing” from my laptop. Friends showed up, and it was an absolute blast. The idea of playing the music I loved over some speakers for a crowd of friends and strangers resulted in some of the most fun I’d had.
Fast-forward to Cxema taking place at Cinema Club maybe a year or so later, I’d been the ‘resident photographer’ of the parties, and right around that time something deep really clicked. It was either a moment when Woo York was playing one of their legendary live sets or Slava closing the party playing tunes by Ital and Aurora Halal — I’d rush to the booth and demand an answer as to what the fuck this amazing trippy music was. I remember very clearly one moment: Slava was playing Ital’s track Coagulate, I’d been dancing, pretty hypnotized, and those first synth and hi-hat notes came in, that fat-ass bass line swept the room, and with eyes closed, I’d felt the dance floor being thrust into cosmos. The roof peeled off, we were all cosmic dancers, the track carried us on a journey through space.
Pretty sure that’s the moment I can look back on to say that it was the beginning for me. I became enamored with dance music, downloading all the great tunes I could find, often played by the Cxema crew. Borys Stepanenko was already a hero of mine at the time, and becoming close friends with him was monumental to my growth as a student of the craft. He and others fostered a very thorough education and appreciation of the history of dance music in me. Detroit was at the center of that, UK and European dance music also were essential. And they were all diggers! I didn’t hear Energy Flash in a club, I’d heard it at an afterparty. They taught me how to dig, and why to dig. Anybody could play Energy Flash at a party, and it’d work well, of course, but more important was finding those hidden gems in some record store that were just collecting dust and could have an equal effect on the dance floor. It was a very exciting time in my life. Seeing the parallels of Underground Resistance to punk, soul, and jazz music constantly left me in awe of the people and ideas behind the music.
I’ll skip a few chapters forward here because, honestly, I could write a novel about my time in Kyiv. Maybe I will someday, but for now, let me return to your actual question. During that time in Kyiv, I’d been going to parties, making parties, got a pair of ancient Pioneer CDJs, and set myself to be a DJ. I took note every weekend from the locals that played at Nyzhnoiurkivska 31 and other underground events. Closer had started a little before that. Late in the night or early morning at NY31, we’d decide to try and sneak into this exclusive-seeming club with high door prices (they couldn’t have been more than $10 at the time, haha). At the time, the club seemed posh and something to gawk at, and our hangar parties where we played heavy and cold electronic music were what was really cool, I’d thought. But I kept going to Closer, later paying happily their door fee, met the owners, the DJ residents, and absolutely fell in love. It was a paradise, a little oasis. You go in on Saturday around midnight, and if your phone dies and you lose track of time, all of a sudden it’s Monday and you need to fucking rest and go to work the next day. Closer was and still is a perfect club for me. The detail, dedication, and utmost soul they invest in everything exemplifies their absolute love for doing what they do. Closer further fostered in me an education in club music and what the club could be.
Cxema equally played an important role in my education, rougher around the edges than the polished club that was Closer, more experimental, wilder, younger, and perhaps free-er in a way. It was an incredible experience to be part of the team and witness firsthand a party in a small warehouse for less than 100 people quickly grow to an event that couldn’t find a venue big enough to house all the 5000 people that wanted to come. I remember right around the first party, Slava had shared some videos of UK raves from the ’90s with the vision that Cxema would one day be like that. Little did he know, it would turn out to be the best rave in Europe! I loved observing how certain youths would appear since the first time I’d seen them at Cxema, how they’d start to dress and look differently. There was a huge evolution. Oh, and the dancing! Kyiv dances harder and more beautifully than any other city I’ve ever seen. Kids would come to Cxema and Closer, get the techno bug, go home and watch dance videos from the ’90s, presumably, then show up at the next party and practice their moves. It wasn’t simply hip hop or breakdance, they have a certain kind of fluidity, their limbs contorting to the sounds with grace and force...
Let me get back on topic about NYC for a minute here. When I moved, I found myself, as one could, a little depressed. I, again, didn’t have many friends and just arrived in this huge city, known for its cool and being the center of the Western culture. I visited a club I’d thought was known for bringing about a lot of legendary young L.I.E.S. records artists. It was a small club that was grungy and ill-lit, the sound system was shit. Later, the lights and sound system would be improved, and I’d become a short-term resident. After seeing my friends in Kyiv become residents at Closer and Cxema, being a DJ resident was my greatest ambition. To have a night, at least monthly, where you knew you could test out your latest vinyl acquisitions, the weird stuff you loved but weren’t sure about, or just the ones you knew were gonna rock, it was great! That club has served as a beacon for Brooklyn dance music culture and served the community tirelessly. When I’d moved to NYC, there was this one club and a few raves, everything else was too commercial or shit: bros and abusive security. I was perplexed: ‘London, Paris, Berlin, NYC, these are the centers for dance music around the world, are they not?’ I grew to appreciate the DIY raves around Brooklyn and accepted the fact that there was no Closer equivalent in NYC. That is, until Nowadays opened its doors. A club owned and operated by seasoned DJs, with one of the best sound systems I’ve ever heard, the dance floor decorated by plants in every direction — it’s like dancing in a jungle! Couches against each wall to chill out on and take a break while listening, an expansive backyard to hang out and dance in the warmer months. I got my wish of a good club and was obsessed.
Later, I’d meet the owners of Nowadays, and after closing the ambient stage at the legendary Sustain-Release festival upstate NY in 2018, my DJ partner and I, collectively known as Hypnotic Spa, would be invited to be residents of their Thursday night deep listening sessions called Planetarium. We had no idea what we were in for, those nights served as an incredible catalyst of meditative catharsis brought about by absolutely beautiful music and deep listening to it. You’d enter a club that was very nicely dimly lit, grab a blanket and pillow, and be told that the event required no talking, so you’d lay down and just listen. For an hour or six. Some people stayed for the whole thing. You might cuddle or fondle your partner, that’s definitely happened.
As life is in NYC, things seem to happen there at a faster rate than in other cities I’ve lived in. Dancers dance hard and dance well. Kyiv dancers will always have a special place in my heart, seeing a sea of them when you’re at the helms of the spaceship is a very honorable and humbling thing.
You have two different concepts of parties. Tell us about them. Which one brings you more joy?
There are moments, as a DJ and promoter, when everything just clicks, when every detail is tuned just perfectly and you can’t help but think that this perfect moment would be fine if it were your last. Those are the moments when as a DJ, you get a mix right with two records you were super excited to play, or when a party just goes really well. Of course, there’s a lot of hours, days, weeks — time in between those magical moments spent promoting, planning, envisioning, and fantasizing about how to bring them about. But it all pays off in the end when once every few months maybe one of them takes place.
To say that one party brings more joy than others would feel like picking a favorite child; I don’t have children, so can’t pick a favorite. In the last few years, I’ve hosted and DJed Hypnotic Spa at Planetarium at Nowadays and other small bars before. Consistently I’ve done a party called Dance Dungeon, which is centered around the boundary-pushing club music. We’ve done a few drum and bass parties for charity that have also been very special and amazing to be a part of. Suffice it to say, they all bring about a lot of joy.
The US is huge, is there any point in promoting your parties beyond NYC? Or is it a very local story?
Simply put, no. The US is big, and there might be people from different cities at your parties, but it hasn’t occurred to me to try and promote something in Brooklyn to people more than 10 miles away. Ukraine is different, dancers come from all over the country to Cxema, that is something special for sure.
I feel a lack of ambient parties in Kyiv. Do you think they would make it here?
To be honest, it’s a very tricky recipe to master. Nowadays showed us how. You need a decently big space for people to lie down and listen in, you need a door person informing guests of a no-talking policy, a good sound system, DJ gear, equipment, etc. A good club, in short. We’ve tried Hypnotic Spa at bars around Brooklyn, as well as in loft spaces, and it really only works when everybody makes an effort not to talk and really get into listening to the music. I can definitely see a place like Closer doing this right, I remember their jazz nights were great. Chill-out rooms were a great invention of early raves and clubs of the ’90s, but have since fallen out of tradition. I couldn’t recommend bringing them back stronger! Once you’ve got a room at a rave or a party dedicated to just chilling and listening to music, another kind of party economy takes place. Рeople are buying drinks to go and drink them in the chill-out room, they are probably also better rested and possibly more hydrated to be able to sustain themselves at a party longer. More chill-out rooms, please!
You’ve touched upon the changes to the nightlife due to COVID-19. Are live streams your thing? Can you name at least a few positive changes against all the negative events that are happening to us this year?
Yeah, COVID is nuts, right? It’s completely turned the world upside down while fucked up politicians are pitting us against each other. Chaos seems to be present in everything, it’s hard not to feel like we are living in the ‘end times,’ but I’m somehow optimistic and hopeful. I’ve done a few streams, but I honestly didn’t enjoy them as much as putting a mix together or preparing records for a party. Comments and likes are so fleeting, but I did enjoy scrolling back in the chat. Since March, I’ve finally taken the time to start to learn music production, and that has brought me so much happiness! It’s hard to imagine that I would have been able to dedicate as much time to learning machines had I not had a three-month vacation and unemployment money from the state. Being a state-sponsored bedroom producer has been great! But in all seriousness it’s an awful virus that is killing a lot of people. The efforts I’ve seen to strengthen the community around Brooklyn via donations of time and energy, getting people fed, etc., have been huge. Wearing a mask and washing your hands are crucial, this shit should not be underestimated.
Recently, there has been an increase in daytime and evening parties in Kyiv due to the pandemic restrictions. What’s the situation with daytime parties in NYC? Do you attend them and would you recommend attending them?
There have been no decent parties in NYC since March, and for good reason. It’s simply not safe here to gather more than 10–15 people in a room, or maybe 20 outdoors. There’s been a few fun house parties on roofs and things like that; we’ve spent more time with friends going to the dacha, where we bring a sound system and dance to each other’s sets. That’s been great, and if that’s a new normal for now, I’m fine with it. Safety for yourself and those around you right now should be the utmost priority.
Over the last couple of years, a very cool group of young Ukrainians has formed in NYC. How close are you with them?
Haha, the ‘diaspora,’ yes. They’re a group of young guys and gals from Kyiv or Ukraine that have found each other here. They’re all close friends who I adore, they were doing a lot of really fun bar parties. Raw Unkut is here and she’s my BFF. Svavillya is a sick producer, check him out!
There have been a lot of protests in the US this year. No doubt, Black Lives Matter is the most significant of them. Tell us, what were they like? Did you join them and how have they influenced the music scene?
Yeah, super important! Many people are finally waking up to the huge equality disparity and systematic racism, that’s a huge positive change. But then, the right is becoming increasingly more bigoted and racist. The country is in a crazy divide and a civil war taking place seems not outside the realm of possibility; the right is more armed and more eager than ever to destroy their enemy, while the left probably thinks the right is beyond correction. If only everybody could take a pill and go to a rave, then they’d see that we’re all one and need to love each other and treat each other with respect, not fear and hate. I’m quite confident this energy will play a role in music, there’s a lot of good music being released right now in Brooklyn for sure. J. Albert, Significant Other, Bergsonist, DJ Python all come to mind. Check ’em!
We can’t wait to welcome you to Ukraine again! When will we finally see you here?
I’ve visited Kyiv lately in my dreams — and today while recalling my experience in Ukraine above, thanks for that! I’ll visit as soon as it seems safe for everybody. Until then, just know that I love you dearly and am honored to contribute a mix for Cxema, it’s been a long time coming! I hope it’s as fun to listen to as it was to make.