Using music and nightlife as a way to escape a conservative upbringing, this popular DJ has since earned a reputation of being a crowd-pleasing professional. Now in addition to spinning HK hot spots like POSH and the Ritz, John Marto will soon be bringing the party back to his home state of New Jersey… as well as an especially UN-conservative Brooklyn event this spring!
Thotyssey Hi John! So this past Saturday you were spinning an opening set for traveling guest DJ Tony Moran at the Ritz… how did it go?
John Marto: Opening for Tony was great! I have been a fan of his music for a long time.
The Ritz seems to be interested in importing name talent from across the country lately, DJs and otherwise. Is it an exciting time to be part of that family?
Being part of the Ritz family has been quite a ride… it’s never a dull moment. They have recently made some major upgrades to the sound and lighting, and are trying out some new sounds from DJs across the country and around the world.
New York City has changed a lot over the years. It seems large nightclubs are becoming a thing of the past. I think The Ritz provides a great, intimate environment for this generation of party-goers.
That might be the way to go… that’s the way the earliest discotheques with the best sound systems were like!
So, back to you and your own evolution: where’s your hometown, first of all, and was music always a part of your life?
I grew up in Rutherford, NJ, which is a small, conservative suburb just outside NYC. When I was younger, coming out was not really an option. My childhood was a struggle, to say the least. Music was always an escape for me. I feel like music is a more complete way of communicating emotions, rather than just words. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only one struggling.
What first caught your ear, as far as artists or genres?
I listened to a lot of angry music as a child: heavy metal and hard rock. I loved Marilyn Manson and White Zombie, but it was the industrial bands like Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM that introduced me to the world of electronic music.
When I was 17–with a fake ID, of course–I discovered a club called Sound Factory and later Exit. The music was definitely a transcendent experience for me, but looking around at the crowd is what made me realize that this was the environment for people like me… people who are different.
Then how did you start DJing?
Well, the summer after graduating high school I became a flyer runner for Exit. I quickly realized that the DJ was the one steering the ship–he had complete control over the feeling in the room. I started to play around with some equipment and software.
But then when I was 19, I came out to my mother and was quickly thrown out of my home. I found an apartment with some coworkers who were straight, but more than happy to take me to my first gay bars and clubs. I met two very important people at a Feathers in River Edge, NJ: DJ Lady Tita, who taught me not only how to spin, but how to be a professional DJ; and Steve Sidewalk. I used to frequent his Wednesday night party, and for some reason decided to give him a demo CD. The next time I saw him on a Wednesday, he just said, “I gave your CD to my boss at Heaven, you’re DJing there next Saturday.”
I had never DJed to an audience before, and I was terrified. but I knew this opportunity was not one that I was about to waste. My first night went well, and they had me back on a monthly basis. When Heaven closed and reopened as Rush, Sidewalk recommended that they hire me to be the Friday night resident DJ… and that’s how it all got started.
Here’s a broad question: what makes a “good” DJ, and a long-lasting DJ career?
I believe the formula is very simple: a good DJ is all about the audience and not all about themselves. so many young or inexperienced DJs try to make people like their taste in music. If you want a long-lasting career, you have to check your ego at the door and serve the people on your dance floor.
But there’s so much shitty music out there that people like! Does it ever get disheartening if what the kids want is maybe something you’re not super passionate about? Like Taylor Swift remixes?
This has been a big part of my journey. I was far more reluctant to play these songs when I was younger. But like I said, it’s all about the crowd. When I hear the roar from the dance floor and see the excitement in their faces, I couldn’t care less how I feel about the track that caused this reaction. As my taste in music started to diversify, I learned to hear the beauty in all kinds of music… even if it wasn’t my favorite.
Looking back at your whole career, is there any extraordinary moment that really stands out in your memory?
There are so many. Having Lady Gaga at Splash for Campus Thursdays was amazing! But to be honest, the best thing about working in gay nightlife is that it gave me a family. I’ve had some highs and lows over the years. and they have been there through it all. that’s what I found so extraordinary.
One’s nightlife family is everything! And speaking of the legendary Splash, you were one of their resident DJs, and spun during their final week.
I was brought into Splash to be a part of Campus Thursday, and eventually I became a resident and also worked Saturdays. I was there from 2007 until closing in 2013. I DJed the last Thursday night, but the very last set ever spun at Splash was done by 22 year resident DJ Max Rodriguez… and I stayed till the very last beat!
It must have been a blow to you when Splash ended.
That club was a big part of my life. When it closed, I was heartbroken. The last night was very emotional for the entire staff. I still work with some of the old Splash family, and I’d like to think we have a special bond. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Splash, but I’m happy I have that wonderful chapter of my life to look back on. There will never be anything like it again, and maybe that’s what makes those memories so special.
Congratulations on your fifth year being sober. I’ve spoken to a number of sober people in nightlife by now, but I still have so much awe and admiration for those in the biz who can recognize and recover from that.
Thank you! I appreciate the support.
Has this been a very difficult journey for you?
It was not easy at first. At my worst, I was drinking two bottles per night during all my sets. At first, it was a cure for being nervous. Years later, it was a crutch for depression. I quit cold turkey on January 27th, 2013, upon arriving at what they call rock bottom. When I do get the urge to drink, I just have to remember how that moment felt, and the itch goes away. I rarely crave alcohol now. But, full disclosure: I do love marijuana, lol!
I hear that!
Okay, so now lets talk about some gigs of yours: besides being on rotation for the weekend dance parties at the Ritz, you’re there Monday nights DJing Tina Burner’s long-running show Get It Together! That’s a Can’t Miss night in HK.
I have always absolutely loved drag shows! And it’s great working with so many talented people like Tina Burner–she always makes me laugh. I enjoy working my end of the show, the sound and lighting. I like to let the queens know they can be confident in the technical parts of the show so they can focus on their performance.
And on Wednesdays you’re at another popular venue for Hell’s Kitchen drinkers: POSH! How do you like turning it with those folks?
POSH is such a fun environment–no pretenses. The crowd is there to dance and have a great time! I love to get a good vibe going, and take that crowd on a journey of their favorite songs from the past and present. It’s really enjoyable for a DJ to feel that kind of energy coming back to them from the audience.
I hear there may be some drag talent joining me soon on Wednesdays at POSH!
How intriguing! I’m guessing we’re gonna have to wait and see with that.
Now tell us about this new Thursday night at Miss Wong’s in Jersey City! I know you and queen Marti Gould Cummings will be there for the premiere.
I’ve always loved working with Marti! Such a sweet person, and an energetic performer! We’re hoping to make this a monthly party.
What’s this space like?
Well, there hasn’t been a gay dance party in Jersey City for many years. I used to work at The Cage in nearby Hoboken, and I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces. The venue has a great downtown vibe, exposed brick walls… very unique.
Jerseyites, check it out and make this a Thing!
And what can you tell us about this secret sexy event you’re planning in Brooklyn for the spring?
SCUM is the brainchild of my best friend Steve Senobyte and myself. We have partnered with Haus of Bear to create an all-inclusive gay sexy party in a fantastic underground location in Brooklyn.. more details will come soon. We are all very excited to see it all come together.
Sounds intense! Won’t it be, um, distracting to work that room?
“Intense” is definitely the vibe we are going for! Senobyte and I will both be providing the soundtrack for the party, so there will be plenty of time for… distractions.
Anything else coming up?
Well, I’m looking forward to working with the amazing team at the new Boxers UES! We’re still figuring things out, but there should be something coming up soon!
Excellent! Okay, I always ask DJs this for a last question: What is the best advice you can give someone who wants to break into the DJing business today?
Think outside of the box. Appreciate all music, not just your favorites. And remember that the crowd pays your salary… so it’s up to you to give them a good time!
DJ John Marto accompanies Tina Burner for “Get It Together” Monday nights at the Ritz (11pm), and spins “Slinging Beats Wednesdays” at POSH (9pm). Check Thotyssey’s calendar for all his scheduled appearances, and follow John on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud and YouTube.