Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Electronic Bloomington Comes of Age
text by Kenneth Shafer photo by Brody Nevins
On one warm night, July 19, 2017, in Bloomington all the following occurred within only a few hours of each other.
In the basement of a South Walnut house a small but fascinated crowd of mostly twenty-somethings were taking advantage of the free Open Tweak V (fifth in a series), as a live electronic performer was knob-twisting and fine-tuning his dual “Eurorack” modules, his Elektron drum machine and sound sampler, and his Korg keyboard synthesizer, churning out a series of hypnotic beats and blips.
“Welcome to the south side of electronic music,” said the host, Iain Donkin though he didn’t bother to explain how the south side of Bloomington differed from the north side. Still, he continued, “Almost everything we do here is Live Personal Appearance (Live PA), and we cover the spectrum of genres – Electronic Dance Music, Trance, Drone, and spontaneous collaborations. This is a venue for discovery, nearly everyone who participates is self trained.”
A few blocks away and less than an hour later, Indiana University music professor Paul Siwko-Bajon played to a somewhat less than sellout crowd of much older people at the Buskirk-Chumley theater. Twenty bucks got one entry to an overview of Synthesizers in Film, branded as Synthfest. Multiple top of the line racked Kurzweil synths were visible on the stage, along with a tower personal computer.
Before the live synth playing, the audience was treated to a short video where classic synth player Jean Jarre was shown in his studio surrounded by scads of electronic music making hardware, only a few of which had attached keyboards. Indicating a preference for what are known as electronic sequencers (hardware boxes that play pre-programmed sequences of notes), Jarre explained how he created one of his classic pieces, Oxygene.
From here, Siwko-Bajon took the stage and played the classics from Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Jean Jarre, underscoring the importance of synthesizer music as film soundtracks, especially for science fiction movies like Blade Runner and Escape from New York. The crowd was attentive, but did not dance other than with an occasional gratuitous nod of the head, as if they were disguising the fact that they were almost falling asleep as the performance passed their usual bedtime hour of 9:30 pm.
But the night was still young. It was easy, almost too easy, to walk just around the corner, and slip down the steps into the underground of The Root Cellar, where Danger Latte and Kyle Spears were DJing their particular brand of so-called Techno, which is one of the types of electronic music most amenable to dancing. This was Saturday night, after all, and nobody had to be anywhere Sunday morning, and the crowd was not about to let up until the legally-mandated closing hours wee in the morning. The thump thump! thump! thump! thump! of the bass drum on every quarter beat kept everybody jumping.
That such a litany of electronic events could happen so close together in location and time was not always so in Bloomington, and should not be taken for granted. That it did is a clear and pronounced statement that electronic music has firmly arrived in Bloomington.
How did this scene get to this point? Where did it come from? And where might it be going?
This issue initiates a series of articles will address those questions, if not fully answer them. Other follow-up articles will focus on the history of synthesizer and electronic dance music, the explosion into numerous different types, called genres, and even into sub-genres, the evolution of experimental and electronic music in Bloomington, the role of local Disc Jockeys (DJ’s), Live Performers (Live PA), and a bit of a catch-all covering what is called experimental, ambient, and drone electronic music.
The musical culture changes. Electronic and Dance Music is claiming its rightful place in the local music scene as a full-fledged equal with classical, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, folk, and country.
A Short Guide to Dance Music and Electronic Venues in Bloomington
The Bluebird has been at the top of the heap for music venues since the 1970’s, and continues today. Its large capacity, its reputation, and its history all serve to be a draw for big name acts with a healthy smattering of local artists thrown in. When the big names come in, the cover can be expensive, but that does not deter a crowded attendance. When most of the students leave town for the summer, the Bluebird will feature more local acts.
There’s a big dance floor right in front of the performance stage, which also accommodates what is usually the best light show for these events. By midnight it is often standing room only, and that is even shoulder to shoulder.
Music wise, The Bluebird seems to feature more of the Hip Hop derivative genres of dance music.
The Root Cellar
This club is one of the favorites of the DJs. It regularly features EDM and live electronic acts, and as its name implies, it is underground, being in back of The Farm restaurant. As well as a nominal size dance floor, there is some seating, and off to the side several cubby holes with comfortable lounge sofas that serve as “chill rooms” to provide a little sonic distance from the boom boom boom of the music.
It also seems to attract a more diverse crowd than some of the other venues, and a poster at the door cautions entrants to leave their bigotry at home.
The Root Cellar is very supportive of local acts, and seems to often provide entry without any cover charge.
The Video Saloon has its EDM dance floor right at street level, across from the Bluebird, and customers often traffic between the two. EDM acts are presented on a somewhat infrequent and irregular basis and have been known to be without a cover charge.
Serendipity has a light, airy feel, located in the same space as the legendary Second Story. The stage is at one end, the bar at right angles to it, with a dance area the length of the club. You’re more likely to encounter an international type crowd here, as it also regularly hosts Latin dance nights.
As advertised, Serendipity is a martini bar – with a peculiar twist of also featuring PBR on tap.
The Blockhouse is a somewhat hidden gem nestled in the same cluster that includes Serendipity and The Back Door. You get to it by going downstairs – to an underground, a characteristic which it shares with the Root Cellar, and which has all the flavor of “underground” Techno clubs in the Detroit area. Being underground, it’s possible, but not easy, to take a break outside, but just like truly urban Techno underground clubs, there are two or three “chill rooms” where you can get just a little bit away from the volume of the kick drum, and have a chat with the friend you just made.
It does not have the capacity to generally handle big name acts, though regional one and smaller national acts do pass through. It is one of the venues that is especially hospitable to local EDM DJ’s and live performers.
Strictly speaking, Open Tweak is a Bloomington House Show network kind of place rather than a “club.” This is an experimental electronic event as part of the Bloomingtron network. (Read carefully now, there is that “r” in Bloomingtron that makes all the difference.) Another underground venue, it is located in the basement of a house on South Walnut Street.
Players Pub is as little bit off the beaten path, being further south, but still within easy walking distance if you’re going “clubbing” to multiple destinations. Cover charges are modest, and this is the only place where you can get food, really good food, late into the evening. The red beans and rice are highly recommended.
The dance floor is open and inviting, and for those taking a break, there is also easy access to the sidewalk patio which is taken full advantage of in the summer.
Players Pub draws a steady, but not packed, crowd, and its schedule is consistent – dance music every Friday night starting at 11:30 PM, after the headliner music act has left the stage.
DJs usually bring a light show and maybe fog machines, and the dance crowd seems to be easier than average to accommodate making new friends. It also features a wide variety of DJs, and doesn’t seem to play favorites.
The Back Door
The Back Door is easily the most festive of the clubs. As Bloomington’s premier LGBTQ venue, you are likely to see costumes and fashions any day of the week, not just during Halloween or a Friday the 13th. A disco ball provides the shimmering light. The Back Door is more likely to feature what is known as “House” music than most of the other clubs.
During a recent visit on a Friday the 13th, a patron dressed with a giant Earth globe for a head claimed that “global warming” was the scariest thing going on, as the dance music provided the release from the madness of the world.
The Back Door is also one of the more consistent hosts for dance music, featuring it every Friday and Saturday night. There is a cover, but it is modest.
What to say about Recess? Well, it seems to have more in common culturally with its sister watering hole Kilroy’s on Kirkwood than any of the other electronic venues. It’s an experiment of an “18 and over” venue, being launched only a few months ago. A spate of bad publicity over questionable marketing slogans was climaxed by a public rebuke by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton.
Few of the local DJ’s we interviewed had much experience with it. Recess looks to be booking national acts, possibly augmented by a set of local DJs who do not circulate much beyond Recess’s confines.
Its proximity close to campus and the fraternities and sororities on Third Street naturally make it a big favorite of the college crowd.
Electronic / EDM Bloomington Venue Roundtable
The Ryder asked many of club owners and managers about town a number of questions about the growing scene for Electronic and Dance Music in Bloomington. Panelists in this discussion are Nicci B at The Back Door, Dave Kubiak of the Bluebird, David James of The Blockhouse, Joe Estivill of Players Pub, and Danny McKinley of The Root Cellar.
The Ryder: How often do you offer entertainment that can be considered electronic or Electronic Dance Music?
Nicci B: MADDOG and Pixie are our resident Friday and Saturday night DJs and both invaluable to our business and the culture we’ve created at The Back Door.
Joe Estivill: Weekly, Fridays at 11:30 PM.
Danny McKinley: Three to six times a month, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on who is looking for gigs and how recently others have played.
David James: We do a wide variety of music – rock and roll, jazz, Hip Hop – and we do EDM at least once a month.
Dave Kubiak: For the current semester, about three times a month, counting both local and national acts. We often book TR0LL and Shy Guy Says and local acts after national acts for Thursday night shows. Our national and local acts support each other both ways – it’s give and take.
The Ryder: How do you feel this entertainment is received by your customers? Are they enthusiastic, do they dance a lot? How is your attendance? What can you say about your customers interaction with these types of acts?
Nicci B: I can tell you that, regardless of the genre, dance music is and has always been at the center of queer culture and specifically queer night life — we dance to celebrate, we dance to mourn, we dance to protest, we dance to rage, we dance to escape.
Joe Estivill: This is a new audience for us. They do dance a lot.
Danny McKinley: There are a lot of positive reaction from the public and customers for this style of music. Most who come for EDM nights are very enthusiastic and spend as much time dancing as their bodies will let them. Generally our attendance is outstanding, even on nights that would normally be slower or even nights when there is a lot of competition from other clubs doing similar events.
David James: Attendance is performer dependent.
Dave Kubiak: Promotion is critical to attendance. The underlying principle as to what the Bluebird is morphs over time. Some things are the same but the music genres change. I want the Bluebird to be the place that everyone wants to experience. Interaction with the audience is great with our EDM acts. We would still like to take it up another level, but there can be a lot of production involved, since some national acts literally fly in with only a suitcase for their setup, and we have to arrange the rest, like the light show.
The Ryder: Do you feel there are differences between electronic / EDM acts and your other live acts (rock bands, shows, skits, etc.) – how does EDM fit into your overall offerings?
Joe Estivill: It’s a bit different than most of our acts as they are solo artists, most of our acts are bands. It’s a great complement to our other offerings as we like to mix it up.
Danny McKinley: There is a huge difference in the styles of EDM even within the genre. I couldn’t really say, other than some of the crowd types, most people who come to our club and stay are generally in a good mood and are enthusiastic about the entertainment they are seeing/hearing. I couldn’t really respond to the question if you are trying to get at whether or not one type of night is better than the other or if crowds are more positive or negative. As an overall offering, we try to offer a good safe time with quality entertainment/ music and our EDM artists fit right with this category quite well.
David James: Oh, yeah! We welcome good people and good music. And the EDM community is a welcome one.
Dave Kubiak: EDM can be polarizing, kind of like country music. Either you really like it or you don’t at all.
The Ryder: Do EDM DJ’s offer you a cost advantage in what you pay your acts?
Joe Estivill: No, everyone works for the door.
Danny McKinley: We offer all performers more or less the same rates. I guess the only ‘bargain’ that maybe we get is that most of the current EDM DJs like to perform in small groups. When this happens we do see pull of different crowds where some of our performers are solo and not only have to push through with a longer endurance, but also have to try to pull from all crowds by their lonesome. (one hour or five hours, the performances these people do, have to be exhausting)
David James: No, EDM does not offer a cost advantage to us.
Dave Kubiak: The biggest difference is that EDM or live electronic acts are usually only one or two performers. But what has changed is this – it used to be that rock acts, of several performers, traveled a circuit of about three hundred miles radius. And they play four or five nights in a row. For EDM, the national acts travel nationally, and may fly in from two thousand miles or more, and only for one night. So the expenses can be greater.
The Ryder: What do you see as the near and/or long-term future for electronic / EDM for your club?
Joe Estivill: Continue to grow our weekly gig.
Danny McKinley: I see it being a regular in our rotation of entertainment. As the scene grows more and more great DJs keep popping up. I’m really quite impressed at the number of really excellent DJs that have come out of seemingly nowhere. (Eighteen months ago, I was having a trouble filling my calendar and now I have trouble making room for everybody)
David James: EDM and Electronic will be around for years to come! It is relatively new compared to other types of music.
Dave Kubiak: We’re on the music bus, let’s see where it takes us. Certainly through the spring semester.
The Ryder: Any specific Electronic / EDM artists that you have hosted that you would like to specifically mention?
Joe Estivill: I enjoy the different styles of the DJ’s. No favorites quite yet.
Danny McKinley: DJ Angst and E-Trash, MADDOG, TR0LL, Derz, Lemondoza, Longuy, Danger Latte, Kyle Spears, Sweater Disco, Lowe, Plastic Sounds, Deep Sense, FIIT, and I am sure I’m forgetting many more, but these are some of the very excellent and very different styled EDM DJs and producers that we have hosted/ particularly enjoyed.
Dave Kubiak: We’re getting the networking of people in place. Attendance is a consequence of more than contact via social media. The best is when a friend tells another friend.
The Ryder: Any general comments you’d like to make that you would find quotable?
Nicci B: I think anytime you get a critical mass of queers together in one space a dance party becomes less of a possibility and more of an inevitability–it’s just what we do.
Joe Estivill: Come dance!
Danny McKinley: DJ Angst said it best, “When it comes to EDM/electronic music: the vibe, the performance, the audience, the dance, the party will go ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” Though you may quote me, please make sure DJ Angst gets credit for the “ALL. NIGHT. LONG.” tag. It’s his tag for his parties, it’s just a very true statement and positive statement for the genre.
Dave Kubiak: I’m happy The Ryder is writing this piece. And I’m happy that TR0LL (Troy Michael) and Shy Guy Says have been so instrumental to the success of this kind of music. Troy has been working very, very hard to uplift the DJ and EDM scene all over town.
Directory of Venues
424 S Walnut St.
Electronic / EDM events: every Friday, 11:30 pm
The Root Cellar Lounge
108 East Kirkwood Avenue (in back of The Farm)
Electronic / EDM events: Second Saturday’s of each month is Satellite of Love with DJ MADDOG, first Friday is Acid / Base, fourth Friday is Riot Bootque with DJs Angst and E-Trash, fourth Saturday is Rave in the Cave with Troll & Company, also Techno Tequla Tuesdays (irregularly), and Play Techno with Kyle Spears and Danger Latte peppered throughout the schedule
105 West Seventh.
Electronic / EDM events: On occasional basis.
The Back Door
207 South College
Electronic / EDM events: Every Friday and Saturday nights, with house DJ’s.
201 South College.
Electronic / EDM events: Often.
205 South College
Electronic / EDM events: Often.
Open Tweak / Bloomingtron
Electronic / EDM events: roughly every four to six weeks
216 North Walnut
Electronic / EDM events: Often, both local and national.
430 East Kirkwood
Electronic / EDM events: Often, both local and national.