On every other Tuesday, a DJ event called Procedure takes place at a small bar in Chinatown called Melody Lounge. Composer Richard Chartier started the night in 2015 and, a few months ago, he invited me to join as a third DJ. The one and two to my three are Ale Cohen of Dublab and Chartier himself, who plays records under the name pinkcourtesyphone. We had something of a schedule worked out but that's fallen apart. We all seem to sub for each other every few weeks now.
The bar is dark and warm and sometimes feels silent even when music is playing. The ceiling is covered with red paper lanterns, and the walls are made of pleasantly uneven wood. Because I have never seen the space in full light, I can't reliably tell you what the wood is doing. In the murk, it looks like California mid-century modern paneling rearranged into late avant hillbilly.
Ale played first. He worked with vinyl, concentrating on English indie bands from the nineties that were either on Sarah Records (The Orchids) or could have been (14 Iced Bears). This is warm weather music, strumming and gently crushed hopes to the front, bass and drums to the back. This is the upside of being one of a team—Ale had brought something completely appropriate that I barely even remembered. Ale is a dependable joy to work with. He often plays a single by the French 80s electro outfit Bipp. Or Bippp. Or BIPPP. Anyway, I love that song and I don't want to look it up. I like thinking of it as "that single Ale plays."
After his set, Ale left and I started playing songs through Traktor, a software system. As usual, there were less than ten people in the bar. Seven can make the place seem full, and that's about where we were. I played the set I had chosen earlier in the day, but the music felt like an article you find yourself accidentally writing for the third time. "Wait. I've done this." The tracks sounded pink and sluggish, some fancy idea of immersion gone flat.
A woman in what looked like a bridal outfit approached the DJ perch. She said, "It's my birthday!" I said "Happy birthday!" which is the only safe territory when two strangers are discussing birth. She smiled widely and walked away. Maybe she wanted me to play familiar, fun music. I realized this was exactly what I wanted to do. While I was transferring OutKast files into Traktor, the guest DJ arrived, an Englishman named Dan. He was very friendly and smelled of cigarettes. He had never DJd before and didn't know what went into what.
While I was trying to finish my set, I looked for the appropriate cables and inputs along with Jess, the bartender and de facto boss. If I had been in the middle of a set I cared about, I might have been annoyed. I didn't mind. When the urge to create fades, the ability to help can feel better, more certifiably useful. This echoes through parenthood; when you're in the middle of a thought you wish would just bloom already and a child poses a question or refers a sibling dispute to the parental board.
As we were trying to get Dan plugged in, it became clear that something was wrong. His laptop only produced a low, muffled bass signal that was also somehow stripped of bass, like his computer was routed into the gallery next door. He played a passage from the "Taxi Driver" soundtrack that I could identify by tempo and some squashed notes, barely. There were attempts to figure out The Problem using iPhone flashlights. An audio signal was being fed into an amp that, in turn, was routed to the bar's speakers. Those, it turned out, were controlled by cheap beige plastic devices that looked like wall switches torn out of a pre-fab house. Somehow, the speakers were kicking on and off and an unknown element was at play, turning what little we could hear into terrible soup.
I was feeling badly for everyone: Jess, who was trying to bartend and troubleshoot; Dan, who had dragged himself to the bar for not much; and the patient birthday crew, who had reasonable expectations for Music In a Bar and probably would have danced to anything in 4/4 time.
Dan eventually gave up and split, Jess got the speakers to work, and I played another brief set. Then Felipe, who uses vinyl, showed up. He also bartends there and knows the system well. He quickly adjusted levels on the main amplifier, hooked up cartridges to the turntables, and plugged in a projector screen. (He also let freestanding electric candles spin on the center of each turntable: good budget optics.) When he started in with his records, the sound quality was robust and detailed. The music was loud. And the speakers were fine. I was very happy to hear all twenty-one minutes of Rare Earth's "Get Ready."
The birthday contingent hopped up to dance — in a sense. There were five iPhones out, their built-in flashes technically no different from our flashlights, just doing different duty. The dancing lasted only long enough for a few photos to be shot, and then everyone was back on the banquette, drinking, seated, and whooping.
I sat there wishing I had studied signal paths and gain stages more closely when I'd been spending my days in recording studios. Being presented a graduate level calculus problem I can't solve doesn't make me feel bad; being confronted with a problem that, plausibly, I should be able to sort out, does. I could tell that the stubborn sound-killer lived in the gap between digital and analog outputs. Beyond that, I couldn't sort out why a sound would be muffled and tortured rather than too loud, or too soft.
But this wasn't about gear. It felt like time was folding in on itself. Years and years of engineering work were piled up ass backwards: garage door openers controlling speakers, phones turned into torches, and the familiar turntable technology doing exactly what it was supposed to do, the one participant not wearing some sort of ill-fitting costume.