“If dance music is about anything, it’s about creating safe places for the types of people whose existence is under threat right now.”—Eamon Harkin
Justin Carter, from North Carolina, and Eamon Harkin, from Northern Ireland, have deejayed separately in New York since 2004. They’ve thrown parties together since 2009, and founded their own record label, Mister Saturday Night, in 2012. The label’s output is based on a study of dance music history, especially that of New York’s tradition from David Mancuso’s Loft parties: spaces that are radically inclusive, that build communities, and that privilege the best music and self-expression over cheap thrills and fashionability.
Just look at the Boiler Room clips of the Mister Saturday Night gatherings: on the simplest level, you see happy people who love to dance, but the more you look, you see the variety of people involved, and the ease with which they interact. It’s a perfect microcosm of New York at its very best: internationalist, multi-racial, proud of its LGBT+ history and culture, all without blurring difference to a beige homogeneity.
Now, the Mister Saturday Night label provides the perfect soundtrack to this: Rooted in classicist deep house, their releases look back to disco, and forward to new experimental innovations. These experiments have taken a more concrete form with Carter’s first solo album—a beautiful, contemplative acoustic-electronic singer-songwriter record with hints of Nick Drake, Arthur Russell, artists not usually associated with dance music.
When we spoke with Carter and Harkin on a Skype call, it became clearer than ever how multidimensional the Mister Saturday Night project really is. As you’ll see, the pair’s conversation is as extraordinary as their DJ sets: Carter is considered and steady, often pausing to find just the right phrase; Harkin is prone to opening a torrent of ideas in epic sentences. Both speak in perfectly constructed paragraphs, bringing complex threads into clear conclusions—but never preaching any particular gospel. Both seem to interrogate one another, and it’s obvious that part of the success of Mister Saturday Night is that it’s not based on any set idea, but is evolving right before our eyes.
How are you guys at the moment? What are you working on?
Justin Carter: What aren’t we working on?
Eamon Harkin: I’ve just spent a frustrating afternoon trying to make a mechanical engineer speak the same language as an air conditioning contractor. That’s maybe not the answer you were after—but, as you may know, we have an outdoor venue called Nowadays, and we’re now in the process of expanding that indoors, into a 500 or 600-square-meter warehouse space. In essence we’re building a music club, restaurant, and bar, which is a pretty phenomenal project that we’re very excited about, but is also very challenging, particularly when you’re dealing with all the bureaucracy and other crap that New York City tends to throw at these types of projects. So that’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon.
Carter: I spent the morning going out to Nowadays to look at the outdoor space, talking with landscapers about blasting compressed air into the soil to facilitate better growth of the trees for a better shaded dancefloor. So yeah, we do a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with records [laughs]. Or don’t have any direct relationship, anyway: at the end of the day, it’s all just because we’re trying to make a nice place to listen to music or dance. But it ends up manifesting itself in pretty strange projects for us.
Do you have particular inspirations? Places you’ve been or musical experiences you’ve had, that you can look back to and say, ‘This is what we want to do, this is why we do this,’ when this frustration does set in?
Harkin: I think about that relatively often as we work day to day to make Nowadays the thing we envisage: this big outdoor space, a backyard or garden, which is a lovely place to have a big outdoor dance party in the summer, then right next to it this indoor space which we want to be like an apartment where people can feel comfortable, a nice place to just hang out with your friends and meet other people and experience music and have that organically flow into great dance parties. Certainly, there are clubs out there that inspire components of that vision, but there’s no one single place that we’re trying to replicate, because it’s many things. Justin talked about the trees: this summer we’re going to work to really invigorate the trees to mature the outdoors to the next level. I’ve been doing a load of work with a contractor with this shade structure we’re putting over the top of the dancefloor, and we looked through pictures online of Dekmantel or Burning Man, but also museums and outdoor gardens, and then you get into a whole world. My dad’s an architect, so I talk a lot to him about this stuff, and you get into the world of spaces and what makes a space feel good, and there’s many books and philosophies on this, and you can really go into a rabbit hole if you care to.
Carter: Which is not to say that we don’t surround ourselves with a team of good people. But we always want to know what’s going on, even if we’ve got a great group of people. We’ve seen it enough times: hiring a trusted person to take on a project, walking away while they’re doing it, coming back and being like, ‘This is not what we wanted!’ So we know we need to stay engaged through pretty much all of the processes that are happening. I’m pretty sure Eamon does not desire to be an expert in air-con-
Harkin: [interrupting] Well, if this music thing doesn’t work out…
Carter: You’ve got a sideline!
Harkin: The world’s getting warmer, everyone’s gonna need air conditioning, so maybe I’m your man.
The other aspect you’ve touched on there is people meeting people in dance spaces, and you’ve talked about community a lot before: is this something that keeps you motivated?
Carter: Oh, 100 percent. I feel like the way it’s happened over the years is that, as much as we’ve moulded the experience of what Mister Saturday Night is and what we hoped it would be, it’s certainly moulded us. Through doing the project of Nowadays, it’s really caused me personally to define what it is I want to do in my own life. I mean, I’ve known what I want to do for many years, but now I’m asking myself, ‘Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I banging my head against the wall?’
We were trying to throw a good party and bring people together when we were in a club, but we started in a club—and it didn’t work when we were in a club. These were pretty standard club nights—they were good, sure: we had a really good soundsystem, good guests playing with us, resident DJs, live bands, though that would break up the energy in the middle of the night, two floor clubs where if you didn’t have the right amount of people in a room, all the energy would be sucked to one part of one room and the other room would suffer because of it. So through having that experience and many, many other experiences over the years—seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and finally seeing how people did interact when we started to put the party on as we now do—all of that brought me around to that thing that I just said: trying to create the best possible environment for people to connect to each other and themselves through music.
How about the label? How has this evolved along with the bigger project?
Carter: [tentatively] It’s interesting, I feel almost like the label’s been happening in parallel with it all. We run the label in, I suppose, a much more traditional way, where we receive demos from people, and if we like them, then we put them out. [laughs] Or we have relationships with artists—many of the early releases on the label came from people who were just showing up at Mister Saturday Night. And Eamon’s got a record coming out next month, so of course that’s related to the party. My album came out, so that’s related to the party, in very clear ways.
Harkin: I think it’s been very ad hoc in a lot of ways: kind of on purpose. We certainly never said at any point that in five years we want to be WARP, or we want to the Secretly Canadian, or otherwise grow into a major indie record label. We just don’t have the bandwidth for that. Essentially we put out good music, as it comes to us, into the world of dance music. That said, with Justin’s record and a few other things happening, we do want to stretch the boundaries a little bit and do more interesting things, but—I don’t know how you feel Justin—but to me it feels very gut instinct. We’ve never set out a 12, 24, 36-month plan for the label, it’s just what’s good, what’s in front of us.
Carter: Well, we’ve made a plan to not have the label go out of business. We did make that 12-month plan a couple of times in a row. But no, we’ve not been like, ‘OK, in two years’ time we need to be releasing LPs, we need to be developing artists, we need to be signing them to this type of deal’—any of this type of stuff. Personally, I find myself more hungry for listening music right now. Part of that is just where my life is, and part of that is doing Planetarium. The reason I’m really happy about putting my album out beyond simply having put my album out—and that’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time—is that it opens up the label to put out things that are not dance music. Not that we haven’t already—there’s been many things: there’s a noise track on the Hank Jackson EP; the second record on the label, the Archie Pelago one, had something that’s like a spiritual jazz tune that turns into an electronic thing as it develops; Gunnar Haslam did this dark ambient 10″ that we put out, but I feel more like we have an opportunity to release things on the label that are purely for listening—and a lot of that comes from the Planetarium event series, because we’re now deejaying in a very different way than I’ve ever deejayed before.
Going back to your thing about connecting people: I know you offer to help people who are unable to afford the entry price, and you expressed admiration of Optimo’s egalitarian door policies too. Do you think these kinds of gestures can actually affect how people think and interact?
Carter: Trying to realise that you making a political decision that I absolutely do not agree with does not make you the enemy is important. But how can you can manifest that in a party? How you can make it so you can say what you wanna say in opposition to some terrible things that are going on around you while not alienating people you want to be able to have a civil conversation with, even though you disagree with them? You don’t back down from your principles because you don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. I wanna be clear here: we’re not going to not stand up and say we think something is the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, just because we don’t want to alienate some fairly marginal part of our audience. It’s more about broadcasting an attitude that says, ‘Hey, if you don’t think about things this way, but you’re open-minded, we’re open-minded too and we’re willing to have a conversation.’ Having a conversation is really important right now. To what you say about getting people in a space and getting them in a certain frame of mind, there is plenty of knee-jerk liberal response to things that happen which needs to be rooted out because it shakes the foundation of actual progressive political movement.
When you have a group of people that is going to go into a frenzy over something they see on Facebook, even though it isn’t true, just because it supports their Liberal ideology, that is just as bad as a conservative person responding to a piece of fake news that bolsters their point of view. If something is an untruth, I don’t think it matters whether I agree with the person’s politics that is sharing it or not. And I think that having conversations in real live is a lot more constructive than Facebook or Twitter or any of those platforms where you are often consuming information in a vacuum. In a room, people might challenge you, they might say, ‘Actually I saw this other thing,’ and also you are able to consume the information that is being shared in a much more nuanced way. So I hope that our party can be a space for that kind of conversation to happen, and I hope that us opening it up to those who might not be able to afford the $20 ticket can help in bringing that spirit into the room, too.