On Point With: Occupy The Disco

Pop music is cute for the bar, but a serious dance floor requires serious beats. Josh Appelbaum, DJ RuBot and Tad Haes (pictured above, left to right), who when combined are the deft DJ triad Occupy The Disco, provide this service. Their aim is to ween the children off the derivative silliness that is constant Rihanna remixes meant for dancing. Thotyssey gets to know this threesome of sexy spinners on the eve of their return to their homebase, Le Bain.

Thotyssey: Hey guys, thanks so much for talking to us today! So how was everybody’s Thanksgiving?

Tad Haes:  It was pretty good! It’s not a tradition I grew up with being originally from Brazil, but I’ve definitely come to appreciate the time spent with friends who end up staying in the city.

Josh Appelbaum: I just got back from Hong Kong, so I went for dim sum instead of turkey this year.

DJ RuBot: It was lovely. It was the first Thanksgiving I had with my whole family in over a decade, and we had a wonderful time.

So let’s get down to business! How do you discover new music to add to your setlists?

TH:  I often spend time at online record stores like Juno and Phonica for new releases, but every now and then I will make a trip to real record stores in the city and Brooklyn. I also tend to buy a lot of classic disco and house records, so I spend quite some time on discogs.com researching. My favorite, though, is the occasional YouTube rabbit hole. I could go on for hours and hours over there.

JA: Soundcloud and Bandcamp are really great tools for tracking artists and labels, and of course for discovering new stuff. You have to listen to a lot of stuff (or even buy a lot) to cull through what you really, really like, and then on top of that, learn the nuances of the track. All said and done, it’s kinda funny to compartmentalize listening to new records as “work.” I can also testify that the YouTube rabbit hole is REAL, and also great.

RB: I’m grateful for websites like Soundcloud, Traxsource and Juno because you can sample a lot of music and also follow a lot of artists and DJs that not only showcase their own work, but tracks they may have found as well. Occasionally I’ll parse through reviews on Resident Advisor as well. Unfortunately I don’t have a ton of time to sit at a computer though, so I usually will buy what I like and then really get to listening when I’m commuting, or at the gym… which leads to some very awkward public dancing. A lot.

Who or what do you all really like to play now?

TH:  I’ve been very interested in the newest releases by DJ Boring and DJ Seinfeld. They’ve managed to borrow some key elements from classic Chicago house and acid house, and create something new and exciting. As far as labels, Chiwax has been a favorite recently as well.

JA: I’m in a really deep italo disco phase right now, and fantasizing about transporting my life into a  never-ending space odyssey roller disco. Outside of that, I loved Ellen Allien’s 2017 record Nost, KiNK’s Playground, and label releases from The Bunker, Allergy Season, and Crosstown Rebels.

RB: My musical journey from when we started Occupy The Disco to now has really changed a lot, thanks to the boys pushing me out of my comfort zone. While I’ll always love playing soulful house music (”No Love High Enough [AFTC Remix]” is a somewhat recent release that is really fun song to play), I have a newfound love for dramatic techno tracks like Stanny Abram’s “Tesla” and Armando’s “Downfall (Jason Fernandes Remix).” I really like Green Velvet, too.  As for labels, I’m also a big Crosstown Rebels fan and also really enjoy Knee Deep in Sound.

So how did you all meet, and where did you start DJing collectively as Occupy the Disco (OXD)?

TH:  Ru, Josh and I would often bump into each other at concerts and parties in New York City circa 2010 (one year after I moved here), and we quickly bonded over our shared love for music. That friendship lead us to figure out ways to bring even more friends along to concerts and other DJ’s gigs, and eventually we officialized that process under the name Occupy The Disco. We just wanted to share these experiences with as many friends as we could. It wasn’t too long until we started throwing our own events and DJing together. It’s been a very fulfilling journey.

JA: We never had intentions of becoming DJs, we just wanted our peers and friends of friends to start going out because of wanting to hear great music. Trying to get people to follow underground dance music meant that we had to use our platform to curate artists and music as well. Curation lead to our own curiosity, and then we found ourselves behind the decks. We didn’t really know what we were doing. But we kept following something we love, and cultivating this thing that has continued to grow over time.

RB: Before OXD, I was putting out “The Ru-Mix” fairly regularly, which is basically a compilation (and later became a mixed podcast) of new tracks so my friends could keep abreast of what’s new and hot. Those mixes became pretty popular on the Fire Island scene, specifically thanks to Josh’s and my notoriety. When we teamed up with Tad, we had already been known socially as having good taste in music, but definitely were not DJs. Luckily Tad had a better idea of what he was doing and he showed us the basics, but really all of our DJing skills were learned on the job. It’s been an incredible path to where we are now, and we’re really lucky to have such a fun outlet to express our creativity.

You specialize in different types of electronic music, as opposed to just Top 40 pop. Has pop music become too oversaturated on the dancefloor today?

TH:  The main thing with pop music is that it is not music created with a dancefloor experience in mind. It is music designed around personalities and stars, their brand and ability to generate profit on radio and big concerts. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pop music, and there are definitely good artists out there – although to me it requires a lot of digging to find stuff I can get into.

But I guess over the past few years, the LGBT crowds are increasingly realizing again (considering our community was key in spawning this culture) that there’s a big difference when you dance to music created to make your body move and take you on a journey that can last several hours. And that is just not something pop music does as well as underground dance music. You can’t simply add a dance beat to a pop song and call it a day. It takes a lot more than that, and underground producers and DJs know it very well.

JA: Some people don’t want to hear anything outside of what they’re used to hearing on the radio, or what’s popular on gay Twitter. For me, there’s something intensely satisfying about hearing something new at the club that turns me OUT. That hunger and curiosity is something we try to cultivate through everything that we do as “DJs” or party throwers. Pop, or derivatives of it (to Tad’s point, we hear your “tribal” Taylor Swift remix…ok gurl), will always be part of the gay nightlife equation. But it’s really exciting that the electronic underground – acid, techno, house, italo – is growing in popularity by leaps and bounds, and finding its way into more “mainstream” events.

RB: Here’s the thing: people think they want pop music on the dance floor because they want to hear something they know –  they want something they can sing along with. But pop music is kind of like fast food: it’s created for the masses, for people who want to know exactly what they’re going to get. They know it’s going to be palatable, which also allows for it to be turned for a quick profit. The problem is that a nightclub shouldn’t aim to be McDonalds – leave that for the bars in Hell’s Kitchen. if anything, nightclubs should cater to music connoisseurs. They should dazzle the senses and much like gourmet restaurants do the same for foodies .

DJs should curate an experience of sounds that make people think, and move differently – to get outside their comfort zone and find enjoyment they wouldn’t discover otherwise. Sure, you may get an intricate pop remix that may do the same (take street food and make it gourmet!) but that’s kind of rare. The main reason we started Occupy The Disco is because we were so sick and tired of hearing Rihanna remixes at the venues we used to frequent – and frankly, the music was much better at “straight” venues.

This ubiquity of pop music in clubs was especially jarring because so much of the music we love is rooted in queer culture. We literally started occupying those clubs (or rather, discotheques, hence our name) with a strong gay contingent who wanted to reclaim that role as tastemakers on the music scene. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop music, but it has a time and place. If your nightclub experience sounds exactly like your home iPod mix, then you’re basically spending gourmet money on a Taco Bell meal.

And on that note, how “fun” is it when people are requesting Kelly Clarkson while you’re in the middle of a deep non-pop set?

TH:  Fortunately to us, requests are far less often nowadays. I actually can’t recall the last time someone requested me to play anything – at least, not in the past year or two. I guess the folks that come to our parties are now very aware of our music, and they come specifically because of it. But whenever we do get requests, they tend to be from people who are at our party for the first time or don’t even realize what the party is about. I learned to simply ignore,  and not take them personally.

JA: Most of the time, requests are for songs or genres that have nothing to do with what’s currently playing or the current vibe – which is probably the reason why the person requesting is not the one behind the decks!

RB: I love when we spin at Le Bain, because there literally is a sign that says “no requests.” On the rare occasion I get them, I usually do one of two things: tell them “I’ll get to it” or tell them “I don’t have it.” Either way, they usually go away fairly quickly, thank God.

What are the dynamics of a DJ trio? Do you all take set shifts during the night, or do any of you just jump in periodically with tracks at random?

JA: It changes from gig to gig. Sometimes we rotate hourly, sometimes we jump in after a few tracks, and sometimes we play back to back. We always make sure we’re on the same page of how we want the night to go, and what we want it to feel and sound like. It’s really all about the environment you want to create, and feeding off of the dance floor to do that.

Aside from spinning, do you all have individual responsibilities towards OXD… like, does someone make the flyers, while somebody else does the booking, the social media, etc?

TH: I do all of the graphics and design work.

JA: I do all of the accounting stuff, and a good amount of our social media.

RB: I primarily do a lot of the liaison work with bookers and promoters, especially when it comes to negotiating. On the rare occasion we need to do legal work, that’s on me as well.

And are you all just friends and colleagues, or are any of you a couple?

RB: We’re friends first, but it definitely has become much more like a family. And I enjoy that we push each other constantly, out of love.

JA: Sometimes it feels like a loving, dysfunctional throuple.

TH: What Ru and Josh said!

Do you ever compose original music? 

TH: We haven’t gotten to it. Recently, it isn’t unusual that most DJs are also producers, but those are two very different skills. Curating the energy of a party through playing existing records demands different abilities than writing music from scratch. I used to play the keyboard, guitar and other instruments when I was a kid, which led me to fall in love with music. But those are skills I no longer have. I’d be interested in getting into music production in the future, when it feels right.

RB: I was in a band before where we created our own music, and I really enjoyed doing it – but not as much as I enjoy directing a dance floor. I think there’s a lot to be said for combining different sounds and making it your own through the story you choose to tell. I have a friend that’s a producer that’s pushing me to get into that space, and he’s been pretty convincing, so… stay tuned!

I wanted to ask about a gig you did this past summer, ROAR at the Bronx Zoo, which was a benefit for Callen-Lorde. How did you enjoy that… and were the penguins, lions etc. fans of your set?

TH: To be honest, our fiercest fans were the seals and sea lions jumping around in their tank – such show-offs. On a serious note, we are always proud to partner up with organizations we know do great work, and help them out however we can.

JA: The penguins were turning it! We really love being able to contribute to anything that supports causes we feel strongly about, and Callen-Lorde is definitely one of them. The three of us are very passionate about social justice, and we try to use our creative venture to bring attention to issues and organizations that are helping people.

RB: While I loved the animals, the best part of the gig were the kids, really. It was also probably the most diverse crowd we’ve ever played to, and it’s just really inspiring to see people of all ages and races dancing to our music.

OXD has a residence at Le Bain, and your next night there will be December 22nd. Describe for us how OXD Night at Le Bain usually goes down.

TH: We have two distinct parties at Le Bain. When we play Friday or Saturday nights, usually in the late summer and fall, we can get into playing uptempo house and even techno sometimes. We like to explore more late-night sounds those nights in contrast with our other party there, which happens on Sunday afternoons during winter, called Paradisco. Paradisco tends to focus more on uplifting, daytime sounds, including soulful house and classic/new disco. There’s definitely a consistency in the crowd between both parties, although the mood shifts from sweaty dancing on Friday nights to a post-brunch, laid-back fun (plus colorful looks!) vibe on Sunday afternoons for Paradisco.

JA: Everything we put our name on is “music first.” We generally don’t have hosts, and you won’t see actual people in our artwork because the idea is that the music is supposed to be the draw for our parties (plus, how convincing is the shirtless “hot guy” on your circuit party flyer?) We do, however, make a concerted effort to make sure our parties accessible, diverse and welcoming to all.

RB: I think what’s special about our scene is that people are really just there to dance. Sure, there may be some sexual energy going on (how can there not be on the dance floor), but people are really there to hear some really great music and shake a tailfeather. It definitely sets us apart from some of the other scenes out there that seem to be focused more on looks or what drugs people are taking.

What else is coming up for you all, as a collective or individually?

TH:  We are currently gearing up for our December 22nd gig at Le Bain. And Paradisco will start in mid-January, which tends to be our focus during the winter through spring.  Individually, I’m excited to share a new project called Sutherland, alongside another well-known nightlife character, Guy Smith. We are working to launch a proper, dedicated queer space in Brooklyn where we can host dance parties on a weekly basis, with big sound and lights, as our community deserves. More details to come soon, but it is definitely something that will be happening starting early 2018. Stay tuned, as Occupy The Disco will naturally be part of the mix.

JA: we also have our first all-night gig at Good Room on December 29th!

Okay, final question that I’m asking everyone cuz it’s festive and I lack originality: what’s the best Christmas song of all time?

TH:  Wham!’s “Last Christmas!”

JA: Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas songs are kind of a journey!

RB: I may be Hindu, but I sure do love Christmas music. While The Killers’ ”Great Big Sled” has been a long-time favorite of mine – mostly because of the lyrics, I think – the drama in “The Little Drummer Boy” really can’t be beat.

Thanks guys, happy holidays and enjoy your shows!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Occupy The Disco’s scheduled gigs, and follow the group on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Soundcloud and their website.


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