Standing amid the rows of CDs and listening stations, the fans come in all shapes and sizes. There are older, housewife-looking ladies as well as sprightly gray-haired men; there are hipper, chiseled guys dressed in faux-fur coats and good-looking girls in cowboy hats and sleek tank tops. Everyone is smiling; most are taking pictures with digital cameras. When someone new floats up on the escalator, only a head emerges before the visitor is recognized and welcomed.
One such person is a man blowing a referee's whistle and wearing a soccer player's uniform and dark blue sunglasses, a pair of hoop earrings dangling from his lobes; he's carrying a trophy and holding a soccer ball. It is explained to me by one of the DJs' associates that this man is the "Ambassador of Qoöl," "Qoöl" being the weekly dance-music happy hour party that Jondi & Spesh have been hosting for close to nine years. The Ambassador of Qoöl (aka Mark Fong) is so named because for the last 2 1/2 of those years he has been organizing themed dress-up nights for a group of the club's devotees; past themes include "cowboy," "safari," and "superhero." Tonight is "FIFA" night, hence the growing number of fans at the Megastore dressed like they're off to the World Cup.
"There's all different types of people [drawn to] 'Qoöl,'" Fong tells me. "People you'd make fun of in any other place, but you walk in [to 111 Minna] and you're part of the club."
Am I part of the club? I feel like part of the club. Before I can think twice about it, though, Jondi & Spesh conclude their in-store and we all head down the street to 111 Minna, where "Qoöl" is already under way.
The Answer is not a particularly mind-blowing dance-music record. Chalk it up to the fact that when putting the thing together, Jondi & Spesh made a conscious effort to move away from the hard-driving trance sound they've become known for.
"We wanted to make a sound that wasn't just a dance-music sound," explains Jondi, aka JD Moyer, who, like his partner Spesh, or Stephen Kay, has bleached blond hair, fair skin, and striking blue eyes; while Moyer is a few inches shorter than Kay, the two otherwise look disturbingly alike. "Even though we love making dance music and probably always will, it's a little bit limiting if every song you do has to be for the dance floor. It feels restrictive after a while, and we've been doing it for 10, 15 years. So we wanted to sit down and get rid of that limitation and just write songs. That was the idea."
It was a bad idea.
While plenty of albums, such as those from acts like Orbital and Underworld, have managed to take mainstream dance music's constituent parts -- four-on-the-floor beats; ascending and descending arpeggios; sweeping, melodic chords -- and reconfigure them into new and interesting combinations, The Answer is not one of them. To use the trance sound palette to make songs that diverge from the formula, which sums up J&S's ambition on their latest, is to run the risk of exposing how truly facile those sounds are, and that is what The Answer does.
The spindly synth accents on "Fly (On Your Own)" sound hollow and cheap, as do many of the rest of the bleeps and bloops on the record, especially the crusty synths of the title track and the tired 808 kick drum on "Can You Remember"; few songs have the sleek sheen of today's better productions. J&S succeed when they stick to familiar territory, as with the driving beats of "Ten Cities, Ten Days" and the throbbing urgency of "Everybody Went to Burning Man," which recalls Underworld's "Push Upstairs." But for the most part, in attempting to make a record that propels their brand of dance music forward, Jondi & Spesh have produced something that comes off like it was discovered in a time capsule from a decade ago. Unless I didn't get the memo, the sounds of 1994 have yet to come back into vogue.
But if The Answer has its shortcomings, they are minor failures when placed next to the huge success of "Qoöl" and the community of shiny, happy people that has sprung up around it.
"It started off really mellow," says Moyer of "Qoöl"'s beginnings. "Minna was just one room back then. It started off with, like, six or seven people, no cover charge, and people would come and do their homework and stuff and listen to records. And it just slowly grew over time."
Today, "We call it church on Wednesday night," says Fong. "I'll go by myself all the time. It's like Cheers, where everybody knows your name."
Like Virgin an hour earlier, 111 Minna during "Qoöl" is aglow with good vibes. At 7:30 p.m. the gallery/club isn't overflowing, but it does take some wiggling to work my way around the odd mix of types who fill out the joint's nooks and crannies. Walking this way and that are well-dressed party veterans, their pressed pants and tight-fitting shirts neatly complementing their "Jondi-&-Spesh-ials" (orange-flavored rum mixed with juice). A guy in a kimono stands alongside a massage chair offering free rubdowns, and some folks seem as if they could use one -- worker-bee types whose loose-hanging ties and rolled up shirt sleeves indicate that they've only recently clocked out. At the bar, an older gentleman in a sharp beige suit happily toasts a younger guy, whose stubble-covered face melts into a smile as the man who could be his boss clinks their Cosmos together. A few feet away stands a fellow who looks like he's in his 70s sporting the fattest single dreadlock I've ever seen in my life.
Shit, even Frank Chu is here.
"Frank, what are you doing here?" I ask our city's most notorious protester/ crazy person, the man known for his cryptic "12 Galaxies" sign.
"They give me free Budweisers and complimentary admission and allow me to protest," Chu tells me.
"And you like this kind of music?"
"Yeah, I like this kind of music, progressive rock and stuff." Then, sure enough, Chu bellies up to the bar, receives a free Bud, and wobbles over to the dance floor.
Maybe Chu is the club's weird idea of a decoration, or perhaps there's some connection between his "12 Galaxies" sign and the fact that Jondi & Spesh donate a portion of the proceeds from "Qoöl" to the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. It's unclear. "I've never actually talked to Frank," says Moyer when I ask him if he knows how Chu wound up there. "I don't pretend to understand him, but we do try to encourage the oddballs to come to our party."
Right now those oddballs are dancing to the sounds of DJ Jonathan Beech, who, when he drops a new 12-inch of bombastic, if boring, beats into the mix, sends the crowd reeling. At the moment, the most interesting thing about this scene is that projected on a large screen above the dancers is 24 Hour Party People, a film that portrays the birth of dance music via the story of Manchester's Hacienda nightclub co-owner Tony Wilson. This is a movie I know by heart, so while the sound is inaudible, I know that Wilson, played by actor Steve Coogan, is delivering the following monologue as he walks through the sweaty, writhing maw on the dance floor of the Hacienda, circa 1982:
"And tonight something equally epoch-making is taking place. See? They're applauding the DJ. Not the music, not the musician, not the creator, but the medium. This is it. The birth of rave culture. The beatification of the beat. The dance age."
After the events depicted in that film -- the ascension of New Order and the Happy Mondays, the proliferation of Ecstasy, etc. -- helped propel dance music into the mainstream, it thrived for a solid decade. But, as Jondi points out, "House music and electronic music haven't been new for a really long time, maybe for 20 years." So even while name DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha still draw crowds in the thousands, the music they spin hit a creative wall somewhere in the mid-'90s, and it has been banging its head against that wall ever since. Jondi & Spesh's latest is yet another example of that banging, and in some ways it's kind of sad, because as subgenres like minimal techno, with its attention to nuance and composition, and dance-punk, with its updated take on hedonism, continue to erode the foundations of house and trance, so, too, will they steal the genres' fans; there is, after all, a reason why no one at "Qoöl" looked younger than 25.
So it's a mix of pride, nostalgia, and melancholy that I feel at "Qoöl" tonight, because to observe the gleeful expressions of its citizens, this long-running club is as cool as it ever was, its patrons blissfully unaware that dance music continued to evolve after the Clinton administration. They're still partying like it's 1999, with no signs of stopping.
"People have met at the party and gotten married later," Moyer tells me. "We hear stories like that. There's just some nights that stand out as special for whatever reason. I think people like having a place to go on Wednesday. It's not rocket science."
But what about the music? Don't these sounds get old after a while? Don't they get stale and uninteresting?
"God, I'd have to say that since I'm so musically ignorant -- I didn't have years of training -- it's always fascinating to me," Moyer says. "I'll never be able to become cynical about music, because I just don't know enough. I'm constantly surprised by what happens with sounds and notes and melodies and harmonies. Maybe it's because I'm not sophisticated."
The Answer, indeed.