Mister Saturday Night: Keep it in the Neighbourhood

Brendan Arnott heads to NYC to meet Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter, the men behind Brooklyn’s Mister Saturday Night parties and label to chat about about their curatorial approach, the community spirit that permeates their parties, and the changing face of the city.

As Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” begins to boom over the speakers in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Grove, Eamon Harkin’s face momentarily registers confused panic. Then, upon realizing the saccharine pop song is just what the tech guy is using to test out the sound system, he relaxes and cracks a smile, quizzically asking him “this is your new jam?” Still, there’s something hurried out about the way that Harkin flips through his record bag to find a replacement song, selecting the twitchy samba of “Jump Bugs” by Syclops to replace Swift’s romantic angst. It’s just one of the many signs that show how immersed in details Harkin is, even four hours before the Mister Sunday outdoor summer party begins, long before anyone else has arrived.

It’s that immaculate immersion in the little, people-oriented things that Harkin and partner Justin Carter’s Mister Saturday Night parties and label have become renowned for. Whether it’s accessible touches like making sure the Mister Sunday party has wheelchair accessible washrooms (a rarity at most club spaces in North America) to donating a chunk of party proceeds to a local shelter and support centre for homeless LGBTQ youth, the pair approach parties with such a refreshingly community-oriented mindset that it’s almost tempting to see Mister Saturday Night as a social services organisation. Perhaps they are, in a different sense of the phrase.

Their role overseeing one of most consistently thrilling emerging labels in North America is no less impressive. Showing remarkable focus since their first release, Mister Saturday Night seems to have hit the ground running with an immediate vision. The soulful metallic shuffle of the Mad Disrespect EP from Anthony Naples was a release that ignited an internationally renowned hot streak for both parties that shows no signs of simmering. But not content to stay within the confines of the peak-time club tracks, following releases have explored an intricate and diverse side to the label, such as the reigned-in orchestral beauty of Alex Burkat’s “Shower Scene” earlier this year.

On the afternoon of 2013’s first Mister Sunday party, I sit down at a picnic table with Harkin, later to be joined by label co-conspirator Justin Carter. But as much as the venue and label project a casual, friendly warmth, it took Harkin a while to discover the New York he wanted to find when he arrived years ago. Feeling out of place in the “sterile and corporate environment” of Midtown Manhattan, he admits it took over half a year of searching for “a New York that makes sense to me.'”

Eventually Harkin found his place amidst New York’s constant momentum, meeting his now label mate Justin Carter and going on to form Mister Saturday Night, now the kind of nightlife staple in NYC that makes locals grin when discussed. The meticulous attention given to the hundred-plus parties that the pair has thrown makes me believe that starting a label wasn’t created on a whim. Harkin agrees, admitting it was a natural progression from the years of working, DJing and touring together which emphasized “continuing to express ourselves musically and add to the landscape outside of New York in different ways than just throwing parties.” Harkin tells me: “It’s also nice to sometimes just talk music, because we’re nerds on that level as well. So to be able to do that as well in the form of a label was just a very natural thing.”

While Mister Saturday Night was already a well-known local name, that 12” from Anthony Naples was somewhat responsible for catapulting them into a worldwide spotlight. The transition didn’t come as a huge surprise to Harkin. “The success of Anthony’s record – not totally unexpected.” he explains. “When we first heard it, we knew it was going to be popular. We’ve got pretty high standards with whatever we do, and if we started a label and it wasn’t making an impact, we’d be pretty disappointed in ourselves. So, about the success, we’re somewhat surprised, very grateful, but at the same time, if it’s not making an impact, we’d definitely have a conversation between ourselves about what’s going wrong.”

Despite the growth resulting from the attention that Mad Disrespect brought, Harkin remains passionate about keeping things local. “It’s important to have a strong thread on an individual level that ties back to the part and ties back to New York” he admits. “We want to put records out with people that we know, that are friends, that we have a relationship with. It’s never going to be exclusive to New York, but there’s going to be that strong thread throughout on an ongoing basis, and it’s going to have that narrative that reflects back to the party as well.”

Yet while the Mister Saturday Night operation continues to develop, it’s interesting to see the city pulse, grow, and decay around them. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s legacy in the ’90s involved resurrecting a 1926 cabaret law to ban dancing in bars and clubs, and as a result, nightlife in New York has been facing increasing constraints and financial pressures in the last decade. How does the push towards gentrified spaces affect Mister Saturday Night? While Harkin admits that some small degree of gentrification can have a positive effect on poverty, education and crime, he acknowledges that “at the other end of the spectrum is this en-masse, overnight gentrification where sections of the city are completely re-zoned and the rules around construction are changed and developers are given concessions to come in and completely change the flavour of the neighbourhood overnight.” “I think that can have a really destructive effect on good people who are from there, Harkin continues, “for me, there’s gotta be gentrification that happens at the right pace.”

“It’s important to have a strong thread on an individual level that ties back to the part and ties back to New York”

Balance is important to Harkin. “I’m not an expert on the subject, but what I’ve always said for where we are today, and how we’ve come to exist, we’ve had to operate here in harmony with the community” he tells me. “We’ve worked hard to engage with the community in this space and get overwhelming positive feedback.”

But he also encourages those who notice their communities changing in negative ways to “take it into your own hands and think about what’s next.” “I know that can be hard,” Harkin says, “but what’s the other option? You’re just going to let gentrification steamroll you and kill you? You see this issue playing out in the record store industry. The people who’ve survived and understood what’s happening and reacted to that in a positive way, they’re the people who have built brands and social media around their shops, who’ve built events and became international brands, and it’s helped them survive. The guys that just sat down and complained that their record sales drop and drop and drop are the ones that close.”

It’s around this point in time that the other half of Mister Saturday Night, Justin Carter, shows up and joins the conversation. After introducing himself with an infectious smile, he glances at Harkin and tells me “whatever he said is wrong.” When I mention the cabaret laws later with Carter, he almost predicts my question about gentrification.  “When you started to talk about this, it made me think about all the difficulties of producing events in New York, and it made me think of the Real Scenes video (referencing Resident Advisor’s documentary series about music scenes based in different geographic locations) – did you watch it?” he asks me, curiosity written on his face. Nodding, I ask him what he thought of the portrayal of New York.

“The struggle is very real in NYC, but I, uh…” Carter pauses for a second –  “I just feel like such an emphasis was put on that, that it made it seem like the message was ‘you might as well not even try’. And it’s funny because that is a real sentiment in the dance community in New York. What the Real Scenes folks did is what any documentarian would, they came into a city and they talked to the people who they thought would be representative, and they came up with a story based on the narrative they were given… but I think one of the things that didn’t come through in that is that if you do work hard, you can be successful. And that’s the thing, that’s what makes New York special – it’s very difficult, but when you get it right, the feedback you get in the moment is amazing.”

“Doesn’t it feel like there’s inevitability to gentrification though?” I ask. It doesn’t faze Carter in the slightest. “I mean, that’s been the story of New York, since it was founded in the 1600s” he responds. “My wife was telling me about something she read in the New Yorker where they went back to some old journal from a Dutch guy who was here 30 years after New York was founded, and he’s talking about how New York’s not as cool as it used to be.” Carter laughs heartily. “It’s amazing, it’s just a trope, and it’s a trope anywhere, it’s not just a trope in New York. So, is it inevitable that there will be gentrification? Absolutely. But the city moves and the city evolves.. Will New York always be a place where nightlife can survive? I don’t know. BUT I think definitely for my lifetime, there will be a place for people to go out and dance and have a really good time in New York.”

One thing that comes through clearly in our conversation is that both Harkin and Carter have given a lot of thought to the future of the label. This even seems to reflect their catalogue, which bounces back and forth between live instrumentation with electronic sounds, I suggest. But here, Harkin disagrees, “I think (the label’s progression) is less so about live vs. electronic, or sequence based, but more about a diversity of sounds and statements. So the records that are in flight, will have variety from the centre of the dance floor, to stuff that doesn’t even have drum machines on it and is really, really out there, that tests our audience a little bit, and touches the edge of what we’re about and pushes those boundaries.” The release Harkin might be referencing is the blistering techno of MSN’s sixth release, Hank Jackson’s Deposit EP – three techno cuts so rough around the edges that they have the serious potential to draw blood. The Southern California-born Brooklyn transplant’s newly released debut EP is a jaw unhinging, wiry mesh of analogue drum machines, with squelching feedback and distortion accompanying a vignette of a tense standoff with a police officer. Out of all the label’s offerings so far, it’s stuffed with the most aggression and youthful nihilism yet – a record that fits quite well with the homemade, DIY aesthetic that Harkin and Carter have embraced.

This aesthetic jumps out whenever you pick up a Mister Saturday Night record. From the hand-stamped early-1900s-era man in the moon face smiling wryly on the label to the complimentary colour scheme, MSN’s releases bear all the trademark signs of a small, independent label. Still, having never heard any talk about pressing numbers, or any kind of hype about limited quantities, I wonder about the label’s approach to distribution. Is the current lack of digital distribution and the hand-pressed aesthetic a permanent choice, or just the aesthetic that currently suits the label? Is staying vinyl-only important for Mister Saturday Night?

“No, it’s not important actually,” Harkin replies. “What is important is that the music gets out to as wide of an audience as possible. I mean, the ethos of the party is very open, welcoming, and what’s important about the party is exposing people to music they wouldn’t have otherwise considered, and expanding how people think of dance music and electronic music. Especially in the US, where there are these preconceptions about what it is, so when we take that to the label we’ve got the exact same desire to expose the music as far and wide as possible. We’ll always repress the records. I don’t..” Harkin pauses here to add a polite qualifier, “I don’t personally see how limited edition records benefit the wider dance music community. To me, they only benefit the exclusivity and hype of the artist in question – but they don’t help record stores, they don’t help the vinyl industry, and they don’t help dance music, Harkin sighs. “You’ve got to try to give something back. We’ll go digital before the year is out as well, we just want to go digital the right way, in a way that prioritizes the vinyl releases.”

With both Mister Saturday Night boys finally perched at the same picnic table, I ask them if they’d like to announce any future EPs. Shooting each other a knowing glance, they mention that they’d prefer to keep future projects on the low for the moment. “Even if I said who it was, there’s this thing that happens that I found out about…” Carter says, pausing momentarily – “where as soon as we say who we’re going to release a record by, we find out that other people start going to those people and asking them for records, and asking them for tracks and all of that. It’s such a weird thing. It’s been such an interesting balancing act trying to figure out when the right time to announce a record is, timing it with the manufacturing of the record and giving distributors enough time to get their pre-orders in and everything, it’s such a totally different world than we’ve existed in for a long time, and I feel like every time we put a record out there’s a whole new thing that we learn from doing it – we’re like “ohhhhh, we’ve got to do this next time.”

Harkin adds a thought – “and also, you want to keep the focus on the current record, right? People are always just looking for the new thing, and they’ll get distracted, they’re always buzzing about it, and it’s like we want to just say like – this is the moment right now, this is the record – just buy it, love it, and wonder what the next record is going to be, because we’re not telling.”

The philosophy of “being in the moment” seems integral to Mister Saturday Night, both the parties themselves, and experiencing the releases, be it in a packed club or sitting at home. A common argument for vinyl lovers is that vinyl creates something that MP3s can’t emulate, and Harkin & Carter seem to take that ethos to the next level, suggesting that the perfect moment cannot exist online.

“I mean, this is why parties are so important these days, this is why creating real community is so important these days, because it just drives me crazy how people can’t engage with each other anymore unless they’ve got their…fucking phone in their hands,” Harkin says with a despairing shake of his head. “We’re gonna put new rules up around the dance floor today that forbids the use of cell phones on the dance floor – because there’s nothing worse than DJing and looking out and seeing somebody looking at their cellphone.”

“Or dancing for that matter” Carter adds. “If you’re having this great moment, and next thing you know you lift your head up and the person next to you is like, checking their email, or whatever they’re doing… whatever it is, it can’t be that important”.

Now on a roll, Harkin and Carter need no further prompting to continue their conversation, as they continue to riff with each other. “It’s not the same,” Harkin continues, “it’s like people who go to museums and spend their entire time taking pictures of art, and don’t actually stand and look at the art.” Justin, laughing, exclaims: “It’s exactly the same thing! There’s this piece of art at the MOMA, the Van Gogh painting of the postman that was his friend when he was living out on the countryside. It’s one of my favourite paintings, and every time I go there I just want to stand with it and spend time with it… but if I was just walking through the museum and just taking a picture of every Van Gogh picture I saw – for what end I’m not sure – then I wouldn’t have developed a relationship with that painting.”

Several hours later, and Gowanus Grove is buzzing with motion. While Mister Sunday is the type of party where people dance facing away from the DJ, it’s heartwarming to see Carter’s grin as he dances behind the decks to a packed dance floor. His mother, visiting from out-of-town and fashionably clad in a purple Mister Sunday sweater, stands behind him approvingly. Older gay men with impeccably manicured facial hair and cut-off shorts laugh and dance with each other, perhaps recognizing the tracks Carter and Harkin are spinning from their first time around, decades ago.

A few feet away, a onesie-clad baby moves toward its mother, flailing its limbs in that stompy, inefficient jig that babies do, stumbling along in what was more of an aimless, energy-expending approximation of walking than the real thing. Everyone smiles at the baby’s stupid jig. Effortlessly beautiful women and men sway underneath the trees, all immersed in the music. A pre-teen joins his salsa dancing parents on the dance floor, hesitantly at first, but then begins breakdancing and doing the robot. My two grizzled, dance music-sceptical New Yorker friends are won over almost immediately and join me on the dance floor as the sun slowly starts to set. It’s a community thing.

Interview by Brendan Arnott
All photos courtesy of Natalie Keyssar
Header image by Ilaria Pace adapted from a photo by Natalie Keyssar