Building the Scene: Bryan Kasenic on 12 Years of The Bunker NY and Bringing European Techno to America

Bryan Kasenic

For over 12 years, New York City techno fanatics have been able to count on The Bunker New York to push the boundaries of what a “techno party” could be. As one of the first American party promoters to focus on playing host to underground, avant-garde European electronic musicians and DJs, The Bunker New York eventually became a record label and several years ago, began hosting its own showcases at clubs around the world. On Friday, April 10, As You Like It plays host to The Bunker NY at the Public Works Loft.

We spoke to label head and DJ Bryan Kasenic about how a local techno party transcended its humble origins.   

[jump] When did The Bunker New York start?
It started in January of 2003, so it’s been over 12 years now.

What was your plan when you started working on The Bunker? What was going on in your head?
[Tonic, a bar and venue in Manhattan's Lower East Side] asked me if I wanted to be the resident DJ on Friday. I accepted, and at that point, I already had a radio show and another event on Sundays at the original Halcyon location [a long-running house and techno record shop in New York City] and I was doing various one-off things, booking DJs for one-off warehouse events.

When did the party really start to pick up steam and take shape for you?
It all blurs together, but there one night in 2004 or 2005 where we had Daniel Bell [a Detroit techno originator] and Sammy Dee [one of the two founders of renowned German minimal techno record label Perlon] play for us. That was the first really big techno night there [at Tonic], it was the first time we had headliners, it was the first time we charged a cover. It was exactly the kind of music I was interested in, and up to that point it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be possible to book two DJs from Berlin to play at our party, but because at that point I had known Dan for a couple years through other parties I had been involved in, it was really his idea. He was booking Sammy Dee in Detroit, and asked me if we could make something happen in New York.

It sounds like that’s when it really started to take shape as a proper techno party.
Yeah, that was September 2004. The first time we charged a cover. [laughs] We didn’t want to charge people a lot of money. We thought, if we charge people $5 and the venue lets us keep the money, then we can probably afford Zip of Perlon from Berlin or Theo Parrish from Detroit. And it worked.

What was the New York scene like at this time?
There wasn’t a terrible amount of techno happening. [Most of it] was happening at bars in the Lower East Side and East Village.

This was after the megaclubs had closed, right? Like Twilo?
Yes. There must have been other stuff going on that wasn’t on my radar. This was the era before Facebook and Resident Advisor. Things that were relevant to your interests could stay off your radar, which seems almost impossible now.

How did people find out about things going on?
I had a radio show that started in the late '90s on [NYU college radio station] WNYU. I started making a list every week of all the events going on. I’d read it on the air. [Eventually that list] morphed into The Bunker New York's promo mailing list. It was email-heavy and we used to pay somebody, someone with a clipboard, I’d pay them based on how many email addresses they could collect [at our parties].

Old school!
Nowadays some new crew will book a huge artist, they’ll make the party R.S.V.P. only at a secret location. That’s the biggest scam in techno.

It’s like an email phishing scam.
All of a sudden these people who had nothing now have your email on their list.

What I find compelling about The Bunker is that you really started bringing out more obscure European artists and DJs. You started bringing them out to the States to the point where now, it’s established that there are places in the U.S. where they’ll have an audience.
We just started with the people and opportunities that came along, like the Dan Bell thing. We would literally make tours happen on a shoestring budget. A DJ would fly into Detroit and someone would drive them to New York and Boston and Philly. They’d be in Detroit, and they’d say, How far is the next show? Oh, it’s like a 12 hour drive. We made things happen that way. It’s just grown, and grown, and now it’s grown into a serious industry and business—which is sad in a way, but it is what it is.

You have no qualms about booking experimental music next to dance musicians or DJs.
That’s just my perspective on the whole thing. When I arrive at a party early, and someone is banging out prime-time techno to an empty room, it feels kind of weird. But if I have Alessandro Cortini playing an ambient synth set as everyone's coming in, that’s a cooler thing to present. You don’t see enough people doing that, but the tides are changing a bit in that arena. More and more people who have identified with other kinds of music [are becoming] interested in techno. For the longest time, you were either into “serious music” or into techno, and those two paths rarely crossed. Over the years I’ve tried to specifically cross them and I think it’s worked and been successful.

What are the key elements to a good techno party?
Good sound, first of all. Then, a good crowd is important. And great artists. With those three things, you should be in pretty good shape.

When did The Bunker start becoming recognized globally?
It definitely seems to be happening more this year than ever before. Earlier this year, we had a Berghain night [in Berlin], and this month, we have this upcoming night in San Francisco, one in L.A., and one in Montreal. We have one in Detroit in May.

How do you feel about taking the Bunker on the road?
I'm moving forward with it. For me, I run the parties, I run the booking agency, I run the record label, and I’m DJing at these events. It’s a lot to do. I want to keep doing it as long as I like doing it. My resident DJs are very popular, Derek [Plaslaiko], Eric [Cloutier], and [Mike] Servito. What I’d love to see more is our label nights, with a handful of artists who rarely get booked, who are really talented, but that's a bit of a tougher sell to promoters. As a promoter myself, I get it. You want Voices From The Lake. You want Mike Servito.

You've been building up this stable of relatively unknown artists, who have a very interesting sound that really fits in with your ethos.
That’s basically the idea of the record label. I had all these artists besides Voices From The Lake, and Reagenz, and Atom™ giving me music. After awhile, a lightbulb went off: We had the critical mass and the time was right to start a label. Everything we released last year was stuff that we felt just had to come out.

What’s the future of the label?
We are about to announce some new material. We have some new artists I’m introducing and in addition, everyone who gave us a record last year wants to put out another one this year.

What’s your take on the state of techno in the US today?
It seems really healthy to me. It’s been way easier than it used to be to put together a really great tour for my artists, where every gig is really great. That feels really positive. Despite the many layers of nonsense, the true scene, for “the heads,” is doing better than ever. I don’t think it has anything to do with EDM or all the top Resident Advisor DJs. It’s more that people are more open-minded when they’re getting into music. Anyone who is a serious music nerd is going to be a little bit into electronic music now, given how accessible everything is these days.

There’s a lot of young American electronic musicians doing incredible things to push sounds forward.
I would agree with that. We’re getting back to that American maverick sound. The modular [synthesizer] thing is so huge.

For the longest time, even though techno us American music that originated in Detroit, it was Europeans pushing the sound forward. Maybe within the past five or six years, there has been a new cadre of young American producers, developing new sounds that the Europeans are starting to copy now.
That’s true. It's like, what are these crazy Americans going to do next?

To finish things off, tell me about your upcoming Bunker showcase at Public Works.
It's coming up on Friday, April 10th. We're taking over the Public Works Loft, and Neel, an Italian artist and DJ, is headlining. He's one half of Voices From The Lake, who released an EP on our label last March. I'm DJing as well.

Christina Chatfield is also playing a live set. She's not officially affiliated with the label, but she has played at our party in Brooklyn twice, and also appeared at a couple other events under The Bunker banner in San Francisco.

Jeremy Bispo [of As You Like It] reached out earlier this year and said he wanted to start showcasing more U.S. labels at his events, and The Bunker NY was on his short list. We've worked with him before in San Francisco and it's always a great party, so we're really looking forward to it.

Bryan Kasenic and Neel will DJ The Bunker NY showcase upstairs at Public Works this Friday, Apr. 10, from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m.

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