Jonny Sender is a man with an ever inquisitive ear. The man betrays an indelible musical curiosity, and it definitely shines through on his EP for In Flagranti’s Codek Records. Phonica listed this record as one of the top 20 singles of 2016. And 35 years ago, the former Konk bass player, veteran DJ and producer was in the thick of things when the many styles of dance music took shape in New York. We sat down with Jonny Sender at his home in France near Geneva for an extensive chat.
Tell us about the mix you did.
I created the mix using Ableton. It’s first time I’ve done a mix using software, it was a learning experience. I need to get excited about music, new sounds, sonically and in the production too. My memories of hearing music at the [Paradise] Garage have stayed with me through the years. Not just for “newness”, but believing music should keep moving forward and progress. All kinds of music. So I just started with a first song after a few false starts.
There’s that gamelan sound.
Yeah, it was that Indonesian gamelan track I found on Bandcamp that was my way in. It was different from anything I’ve heard. I’d never heard gamelan that would work as a track before. It was inspiring, I just immediately heard a beat under it. I used a fair amount of delay, I like delay! From there I just kept building the mix. It was all sort of slow motion compared to playing records.
Your EP Zhivago Zhivago / Disco Touch on In Flagranti’s Codek label was quite a success.
I was surprised when you told me it made the top 20 single for Phonica’s 2016 list! I’m about halfway into a new EP for Sasa and Alex [from Inflagranti].
You used a different version of your track “Disco Touch” in the podcast.
I used another mix of Disco Touch for the final track. The version on the EP is the last version I did after listening to different sections, looping it in odd places in the track. I’ve put three WAV files up for a free download. The “BLS ’82” version refers to the NY radio station WBLS that everyone was listening to. This version has a little more of a “boogie” feel, though I always thought that was a U.K. term to describe early ‘80s club records that are slower with a bit of a shuffle in the beat.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been producing tracks with Marco [aka Entlet] and Gregor [aka Crowdpleaser] in Geneva for their new project. We have five almost done and they’re sounding really good! A remix for an Australian band called No Zu, it’s out on vinyl in the next month or so. They played last summer at Bad Bonn Kilbi Festival [in Düdingen, Switzerland]. A remix for a DJ in Madrid, Pete M. on a new label and I’ve started a collaboration with Luke Solomon. So I’m busy. I have a few things, edits and old ‘90s tracks that are up for free on Soundcloud now.
How did you start your DJing career?
My first DJ gig was at Club 57 on St. Mark’s Place in ‘81. My friend Mac booked it, he used to M.C. for Konk. Mac would announce us and rap on one of our songs, “Baby Dee”. So, he was going to rap and he asked me to DJ. I used two copies of the same record, but I couldn’t really DJ my way out of a paper bag at that point. But I already knew I wanted to play records.
And after that?
Within a few weeks I got a regular gig at The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge on avenue A in the East Village. The Pyramid was an amazing spot. A post-punk gay performance club that came up after Club 57 and Mudd Club. It was very unique, really important in LGBT and drag history in New York. It had a big impact on my ideas about creative culture. Both the hilarious, surreal drag performances and ever changing decorations, as well as the music. Just a bar with a backroom. One night, I walked into the club and it was completely covered in crinkled tin foil! Go Go boys and girls on the bar in outrageous homemade costumes. Wigs, torsos covered in powder, fake jewels, every night.
What would you spin there?
DJing, I could play Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” into Taania Gardner’s “Heartbeat”. DAF’s “Der Mussolini” or Strafe’s “Set It Off”. My friend Marjan who is a digital visual artist was the official videographer. She recently put together a crazy edit of video she shot. I remember standing out in front of the club the first time I heard Sister Dimension play Jamie Principle’s “Waiting On My Angel”. Thinking it was some proto-goth dance record, I ran to the booth only to find out it was a house record from Chicago! This was before Marshall Jefferson’s “House Music Anthem”. Over time, music at the Pyramid got more and more disco, or proto-house.
Disco was a bad word then, right?
I don’t think anyone thought of it as a bad word or bad music. Well, some of the music was. Some of it still is bad! [laughs].
The way I understood it, disco became the cursed tag for everything that went wrong when the hype bubble burst.
It was more the commercial disco scene that we reacted against. But all those Prelude and Westend records – really, music produced by African Americans – was constantly on the radio, everywhere. And I played them. Disco was always being used in drag performances at Pyramid, everyone loved it! Though, as a DJ at the Pyramid, sometimes I’d be told I was playing too much disco which was ironic because subsequently other DJs started playing it more after I left. I’d say It was fully embraced. I was just getting into more underground black music and I think the club just wasn’t feeling it yet. Like Visual’s “The Music Got Me”.
I could play Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” into Taania Gardner’s “Heartbeat”. DAF’s “Der Mussolini” or Strafe’s “Set It Off”.
How did you start playing with Konk?
I had been playing bass for a few years as well as guitar. There were more gigs for bass players. In 1981, I used to go to a small bar called A7, on Avenue A and 7th street across from Tompkins Square Park. People would jam after hours when bands had finished their sets –– mostly punk and early hardcore bands. I was playing there late one night and a few guys from Konk said we’re looking for a bass player. The band had only been together a few months and their bass player had just quit. We hit it off, and that was that. I think we did a gig the following week, maybe at CBGB.
What were your finest moments with the band?
Gigs at Mudd Club, many at Danceteria and the weekend we played Paradise Garage. We played a daytime BBQ when David [Mancuso] moved The Loft to the East Village from 99 Prince street. Also, one gig at Mudd Club where we opened for Eddie Palmieri. He had his band crammed onto that small stage. They were incredibly powerful, like a tractor trailer of rhythm––I thought the stage was going to blast off! Opening for the Gap Band at Roseland with a very young New Edition, they all came out in little dark satin boxing robes.
And outside of New York?
We didn’t play outside of New York very much, there were seven of us. We opened for Kurtis Blow at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. We loved his records, though he didn’t seem to take much interest in us [laughs]. We went to Bogota, Colombia. We landed, went straight to the club that turned out to be “private” and as we’re pulling up, the owner is by his car in the parking lot with a gun. The motor’s running, he and another dude are talking loudly–– his gun is out, he’s articulating, pointing it up in the air and around, making a point –– just having a conversation. That was our introduction to Colombia. We played three nights in a row.
What came next?
We went to Brussels to make our album.
For Les Disques du Crépuscule?
Yeah. We brought our own engineer. He got sick on the plane and when we got to the studio he immediately threw up on the desk. That’s how we started our week there [laughs]. In a way, this album best represents what the band sounded like live. Although maybe it doesn’t have quite the oomph that the live shows had.
And the gig at the Paradise Garage, how was that?
I’d been going to the Garage for a few months. Performing there was a one of a kind experience. I remember the crowd being very responsive. Larry was playing the a-cappella and bonus beats over the system as we were playing. Most performances were track dates to tape but we played live. Shows always started at 4am. Michael Brody [co-owner of the Paradise Garage] was making an announcement after our set before Larry started playing again.
What did he say?
Michael gets up on the stage and says “I want to make an announcement. We’ve been having certain complaints on Friday nights. People have been getting a little wild outside. We don’t seem to have this problem on Saturday nights.” Implying that the gay crowd of Saturday was more well-behaved and the straight boys on Friday needed to show a little more self-control. It gave me a laugh at the time! But everyone who worked there took so much care in making us feel at home and comfortable. They really valued what they had created.
Did you have a Garage membership?
No, I was in Judy Weinstein’s For The Record, her record pool. I remember the day I joined, Judy and David Depino were having a big fight and David Morales was working, stocking the records. David Depino, a great DJ, was Judy’s assistant. He stormed out, I assume he quit. Then David Morales took over his job. It was high drama! So the membership allowed me to go to the Garage for free. You could just walk in at any hour. I was lucky that I lived about a 15 minute walk from the Mudd, the Garage and The Loft.
The album on Les Disques du Crépuscule represents best what Konk sounded like live.
What about the Loft?
I would go to this after hours club just above Houston Street on Broadway called Berlin. It was the Reggae Lounge before 4:00 AM. And sometimes I’d go a little early to catch some reggae and there’d be a few Caribbean dudes left, stepping it up on the sides of the dance floor. Then suddenly, the music would just change from one song to another, BANG! Joy Division!! –– and then it was Berlin! All the kids from Mudd Club would start streaming in and it would get packed with people. I’d walk home, west down Prince Street in the early morning as the sun was coming up. There was always music coming from inside this building on the first floor. And I’d see these big balloons hanging from the ceiling all the way up to the front doorway.
You had no idea it was the Loft?
No, I didn’t know if this was a private birthday party, or a private club. They had a lot of birthdays! So, month after month I’d walk by––the music always sounded good. I never payed to go to clubs and maybe I was being shy, not wanting to have to argue my case, so I never tried to go in. Then one early morning, it must have been spring, I was by myself walking home and all the doors were open. There was nobody there. I went in, walking into the darkness of the balloons and the music. I remember hearing “Expansions” by Lonnie Liston Smith that first night. It was a revelation! The sound was just so clear, and the dancing was incredible.
Konk played there as well.
We visited The Loft because David [Mancuso] liked the record and was playing it a lot [Konk Party]. We shot the interior part of the video for “Konk Party” at The Loft at 99 Prince street and I would go to the Loft periodically. But I went to the Garage more.
Because the sound was more powerful?
I just found the Garage totally overwhelming.The drama of entering the building, walking up this long ramp with runway lights. The sound getting louder and louder, runway lights flickering beside you. Then you’d walk onto the dance floor. Hearing Larry play was like drinking from the well of life! I remember Larry mixing “Set Fire To It” by Willie Colón into “No More Mind Games” by Liz Torres, back and forth, the instrumental part of one into the other. Or the back end of “Baby I’m Scared Of You” by Womack & Womack. The way he would hammer a record, it was unique. All my favorite Italio records came from hearing Larry play them. I’d go to Vinylmania the next day looking for records he’d played.
Did you hang out at the DJ booth?
I’d go up to the booth, watch the dancers. But I wasn’t that social there. Larry, for whatever reason was never particularly friendly to me. Don’t know why, I’ve heard the same from some other people. He was an inspiring, brilliant talent. I became friends with Gregory Meyers who helped Larry with the sound at the club. I also became friends with Victor Rosado at the Garage, one of the best DJs I know.
You must have met some of the art scene celebrities of the day?
I knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, but we weren’t very friendly. He was close to a few of my close friends. He was friends with my girlfriend, though [laughs]. Keith Haring was a sweet person, I would see him writing down in the subway. I met Keith when he was working at the Mudd Club and he was doing the back VIP door to the upstairs. I was up there one night, I think John Cale was playing solo upstairs, and I notice David Bowie standing there holding the aluminium railing and gently, quietly kissing it [laughs]. My girlfriend at the time Erika, was friends with Madonna and was dancing with her. Madonna was dating Jellybean [Benitez]. We’d all go out together and that’s how I came to know the Fun House.
I walked into the darkness of the balloons and the music. It was a revelation! I didn’t even know this was The Loft.
What was the Fun House like?
We would go there for an hour or two. Madonna performed there a few times. The Fun House was very different from all the other clubs. The club felt almost like it was in Brooklyn or in New Jersey. It was very young, mostly Latino and Italian. Not playing freestyle yet, maybe proto-freestyle [laughs]. Section 25’s “Looking From A Hilltop” or Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican”.
Were you gravitating to hip-hop at that point?
I’ve always liked many kinds of music and the scene that grows up around the music. We’d already been dancing to early hip hop at Mudd Club. The Funky 4 + 1 and [Grandmaster] Flash were big records at Mudd. I’d bought Enjoy records like “Love Rap” by Spoonie Gee. I went down to club Negril, there was almost nobody there for the first few weeks. Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay were DJing. Bambaataa had very broad selections. But Jazzy Jay blew my mind like Larry did. Incredible vibes and skill! Hearing Jazzy Jay cut breaks live was incredible.
What mixes do you remember?
“It’s Just begun” by Jimmy Castor, “Apache” by Incredible Bongo Band, all the old school breaks. I remember hearing Bambaataa playing “Cars” by Gary Numan, breaking the intro over and over again. The same with “I’m Ready” by Kano. “Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller –– I’d also hear David play it at the Loft, in a completely different way. Well, he’d just play the record [laughs].
Let’s fast-forward to the ’90s where you continued your DJ career.
I played at different clubs and parties mostly in Manhattan. Nell’s, Belle Cafe, 205 Club, Limelight, Mothra, Den Of Thieves, Lucky Strike. I had a residency at Nell’s for three years on Sundays. It started off as underground house and disco classics but it was the mid 90s and hip hop was blowing up. I started playing more party music, Biggie, Lost Boys and lots of Dancehall. That’s what people wanted to dance to. I liked playing all those commercial hip-hop party records and I loved running reggae 7”s. Nell’s had a nice small Richard Long system with a Urei mixer.
Mayor Giuliani had already started shutting down the club scene by then.
That definitely affected us, my work and gigs. I was also working in post production audio and doing music for television. Around that time, you would go to little bars, clubs and there would be signs “absolutely no dancing” because they would get a ticket and fined. I still got DJ work but it definitely changed the vibe of parties in the city.
Did you host your own parties?
I did this party called Aqua Booty with two other partners. It was originally one room at the party House Nation for a few months. Then it moved to the Meatpacking District back when they still sold meat. It was the same club where Jackie 60 happened. House music was pretty underground in New York then except for the big clubs, there wasn’t a large audience for it. We had guest DJs every week in addition to ourselves. Tony Humphries when he returned from his residency at Ministry, Danny Tenaglia, Ted Patterson, Francois [Kevorkian]. A lot of great DJs in a small room.
Did you produce your own club music during that time?
I did a few house records for Jungle Sounds, that’s where Joe Clausell released some of his first records. A couple of weeks ago I heard Anthony Naples play one of the tracks on Beats in Space. That was a nice surprise. I put it up as a free download on Soundcloud, you can get it there.
At the Bethesda Fountain, this whole Latino music scene would gather. People playing congas and cowbells and singing, from morning till night.
I read that your father co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
Yeah, my dad [Ramon Sender] did. He was studying music composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He started the San Francisco Tape Music Center with his friends, composers Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros.
He really was at the heart of contemporary electronic music in the early 1960s.
Terry Reilly and Steve Reich were involved with the Tape Center as well. My dad and Mort commissioned Don Buchla to create the Buchla Music Box.
Have you ever fiddled with a Buchla?
I did, a few times. Once at Don Buchla’s factory in Berkeley. I met Don and we tried some of the gear. It’s really nothing like other electronic sound devices, no keyboard. And he didn’t call them synthesizers. My dad later produced the Trips Festival in ’66 with Stewart Brand, Ken Kesey and Bill Graham. Then he moved up the coast to Sonoma County to his friend Lou Gottlieb’s property called Morning Star Ranch. San Francisco was exploding with the new counter culture movement. He told me he wanted to get out of the city.
What was it like, at Morning Star?
It was communal, but people weren’t living together in the same house. They were part of the counterculture vanguard. The press were showing up, taking pictures, put them on the cover of Time magazine. The sheriff would show up and be greeted by a butt naked woman saying “Hi, welcome!“ [laughs]. Ronald Reagan who was the California governor at the time said in a speech, ‘Let there be no more Morning Stars.’ We knew he was an asshole from way back.
You grew up in New York. The counter culture must have been thriving there as well?
I was a little too young to participate in the cultural revolution of the ’60s, but I was very aware of it. I had long hair as a pretty young kid. I grew up feeling like, “Man…”. you know, It’s funny, when you hear people saying, “I wish I was around for the Paradise Garage.“ For me, when I was eleven years old it was like, “Man, Jimi Hendrix. I missed Jimi Hendrix!!” [laughs]. But there was a total post-hippie “afterburn” happening with the kids in New York.
Where was that?
The scene in Central Park and Washington Square Park. Kids, hanging out at the Bandshell around 72nd Street. They were skateboarding, doing drugs, smoking joints, parties, concerts and lots of free shows in the park. Close by, at the Bethesda Fountain, there was this whole Latino music scene and big crowds would gather. People playing congas and cowbells and singing, it would go from morning till night. They were having a Cuban or Puerto Rican Rumba, New York style. That music had a real impact on me. There was a cafe at the fountain with a mixed gay/straight “bougie” crowd profiling, laughing and drinking pitchers of sangria. It was the crowd Chic would be singing about a few years later. [Starts singing] “Clams on the half shell, and roller skates…”.
Photo credits: Jenny Burk-Gillespie, Roberto Ceccarelli.