Disco has been “over” for almost 40 years, but it remains fertile terrain for artists enamored of indulgence and escapism. The need for an escape has arguably never been higher, however, and against the backdrop of a deepening opioid crisis, Nick Monaco’s third album Heroin Disco takes listeners on a sonic odyssey through nightlife’s louchest underbelly. There is even a song called “Disco’s Over” that echoes Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around.”
In the late 1980s, vanity burned in bonfires. In the late 2010s, vanity appears as an interactive infinity mirror with push notifications we all need to “like.” Heroin Disco is Monaco’s attempt to grapple with the underlying cultural phenomena that give us absurdly shallow social-media figures and nihilist streetscapes full of fentanyl overdoses. He’s not afraid of provocation or negative space, and there’s more than a touch of Ariel Pink on the record.
“When I say ‘disco,’ you have to understand the metaphor I played with on the whole record,” he tells SF Weekly at Pentacle Coffee on Sixth Street. “Heroin carries the gravity of death and overdose, but also this feeling of escape and disco — there’s crossovers and there’s also ways they’re at odds. So I’m playing with this juxtaposition, and I wanted to create this work that sort of touches on the opioid epidemic.”
He wanted to give it the veneer of disco, to question what people are doing when they leave the club and go home. Overdosing on harmful pleasures doesn’t mean you have to find a vein; it can also mean falling into an Instagram pit. In that sense, “Disco’s Over” is more of a warning than a glib eye-roll.
“I guess that’s sort of a bleak ending to a record, but that’s kind of how things feel right now,” he says.
A native of Healdsburg, Monaco exudes mystery and danger. He works quickly, unable to move on to the next thing until a song is written and recorded, with its video produced and any promotional material completed. Monaco identifies as pansexual, and his public persona involves a stylized image with a lot of fire-engine red lipstick. (He’s getting darker, he says, maybe moving into black glitter.) Having worked with a Thai perfumer to create fragrances for each song on one of his previous albums, for Heroin Disco, he’s created a site-specific vending machine in Downtown L.A. that’s “decked out in disco-ball mirrors, and it’s stocked with syringes with red glitter.”
Although any artistic reckoning with glitter and heroin could sound like a latter-day gothic romance, the consequences have hit Monaco hard. L.A. rapper Mac Miller’s fatal overdose on Sept. 7 came barely a month after S.F. DJ and producer Navid Izadi died in a plane crash. That was a “slap in the face,” he says.
Unprompted, Monaco adds that he visited a psychotherapist for the first time in a long time, to discuss the existential crisis that most people are going through these days, and how it’s affecting him personally. Namely, how do you justify going to a party and having fun in light of everything that’s happening around us? One answer is to compartmentalize one’s work persona and one’s “real” self, although this has risks along the lines of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. And however stylized his stage presence might be, that might not work for Monaco.
“I’m a romantic. I like beautiful things,” he says. “In that sense, Nick Monaco is like the most amplified version of my vision of what beauty looks like, sonically.
“I’m not putting on a Deadmau5 mask,” he adds, noting that what people see are his real face and his real emotions.
It’s important to him to have a message, especially in his live show, because DJ sets are so disposable. And that message is always changing. Monaco’s protean nature adds to his allure, even if it seems to leave him slightly dissatisfied. Having put out a disco album, he says he may turn his attention to a crossover pop record, if only for the challenge of pulling it off.
“I just got off the phone with my agent and manager and tried to figure out [the evolution of my sound],” he says. “I’ve played with various iterations of a live set, and none have really knocked it out of the park for me.”
Heroin Disco’s nocturnal glamor notwithstanding, Monaco’s next appearance in San Francisco is in late November with Justin Martin of Dirtybird — a fun collective with many talented artists, no doubt, but not one known for drawing widely from the queer or queer-adjacent underground. By his own admission, Monaco exists in the in-between.
“I exist in a very unique space,” he says. “I make music that’s experimental and pop, and I play in underground clubs because I play house. There are very few case studies for people like me, so I guess I’m figuring it out.”
And the 28-year-old’s career has also brought him in contact with one of the least likely people in the entire pop-culture universe: a certain celebrity chef who also hails from Healdsburg.
“I DJ’d Guy Fieri’s birthday when I was like 18,” Monaco says. “It was a trip. It was in a warehouse full of Shelby Cobras, those classic American cars. And the owner of the collection specifically made [Fieri] one with his face on it. His crew, they’re all named Possum and Rattail. They take themselves so seriously. It’s amazing.”