At the heart of one of San Francisco's most beloved promotion companies is SunsetSF co-founder Robbie Kowal, aka DJ Motion Potion, who has spent the past 17 years building and nurturing a musical career that has taken him through 48 states and 12 foreign countries. While early gigs had him DJing hip-hop sets at rock festivals like Bonnaroo, it wasn't until Burning Man 2004, upon hearing a funk and breakbeat set by local DJ M3, that he was inspired to find the "funk" in dance music to start curating and producing his own sounds. Since then, his live sets have comprised of at least 85 percent of his own remixes. We spoke with Kowal about changes in S.F. nightlife, themed sets, and the success of Silent Frisco. He plays tonight, Oct. 17, at Monarch, for a Daft Punk vs. Radiohead set with Matt Haze, and Saturday at Treasure Island Music Festival's Silent Frisco from 7-9 p.m. for an all-Radiohead set.
You've been DJing in San Francisco for 17 years. How has the nightlife industry changed? Has it been for the better?
Profound changes were made through groundbreaking civil actions taken by the Late Night Coalition, which created the Entertainment Commission. Our musical future is determined by a rational, fair, and visible civic process, which led to a club renaissance. Fierce competition between clubs led to a sound system "arms race," and now every space is state of the art. In 1997, Nickies was the town's best small club, yet had no subwoofers and a single dangling red light bulb. Now Monarch is the best small club, and it's bleeding-edge technology everywhere. It's an embarrassment of riches with Mezzanine, Mighty, Public Works, 1015, Independent, and historic venues like Fillmore and Great American. We are so fortunate and owe so much to SFLNC and people like Terrance Alan. They risked so much for us, so I work with CMAC to pay back this sacrifice by defending the other 9 to 5.
What do you think about recent situations like The Battery Club ?
I hope they employ lots of musicians and pay them well. People should give this new business and its ownership a fair shake, maybe one day judging them by how they hire, fire, and empower their staff, treat their neighbors, and contribute to our city. I like to think they will be a positive part of our community. You seldom see the "velvet rope" in San Francisco, and I always feel grateful that someone would buy a ticket to my shows. Maybe Battery Club's model doesn't fit that worldview, but San Francisco is changing due to larger socioeconomic forces like rent hikes, housing, and displacement of artists, elders, and families. If Battery Club wants to be exclusive, that is their prerogative as a new business, but history has shown exclusivity to be a risky stratagem in San Francisco. The demise of all those Vegas-style ultra lounges is an example.
You classify your DJ style as "electric nostalgia." What does that mean?
I strive to make your present moment memorable by using elements conjured from meaningful moments in your past. I might play something you might have once known and hopefully it invokes emotions and memories. I try to put it in a modern musical context with beats and bass that can move a room. You could paraphrase it by calling it "rare groove in remix," but "electric nostalgia" is sexier.
Who are some artists you always enjoy incorporating into your sets?
I'm obsessed with Talking Heads, Radiohead, James Brown, P-Funk, and New Orleans music. I've had love affairs with the Beasties, Beck, and Widespread Panic (yup, I'm a hippie). I adore big beat, breakbeat and early electroclash, so Fatboy Slim, Moby, Krafty Kuts, LCD, and Fort Knox 5 have been big in my sets. Now I'm loving the new wave of nu disco and ghetto funk like JPOD, Badboe, Gramatik, Neighbour, Stickybuds, and Featurecast. Lyrics Born is my favorite MC ever, and one of my favorite people. And I love '90s West Coast underground rap.
As co-founder of Sunset S.F., what type of acts do you guys strive to book?
Anything that's danceable and has serious musical integrity. This November, we have Zoe Keating, LTJ Bukem, Budos Band, DJ Assault, EOTO, Pumpkin, and Nightmares on Wax. All completely different, but all are totally special in their own way. I love going to work every day.
You also started Silent Frisco. How has the popularity of Silent Disco/Frisco risen through the years?
Even two years ago, we still had to explain what Silent Disco was. Now everyone not only knows, but there are a lot of folks out there with headphones. But anyone can own a sound system. The trick is having the experience put together the lineup, location, marketing, production, customer service, and vibe that conjures magic. Every time I think we've done our best work, we eclipse it. Ocean Beach on Sept. 29 was the pinnacle so far.
What are some differences in terms of the crowd in Silent Disco sets versus soundsystems?
The live concert experience is so dependent on context: where you stand, who's in your way, chatting in your ear... so many distractions. Silent Disco creates a direct connection to the artist and 95 percent of the audience actively listens, dances, and participates. People smile, sing, and dance in a way that only compares to weddings. If the music is too loud, they turn it down. If they want to have a conversation, they take off the headphones and speak normally. If there are two DJs, they can change channels. It's an incredibly powerful medium and it is only going to get bigger and better as the technology improves.
You'll also be playing an all-Radiohead set at Treasure Island this Saturday. How do you prepare for themed sets?
I am a serious geek and will immerse myself in an artist for months until I know their whole catalog blindfolded. I dig for live cuts, edits, covers, and remixes to shine new light on the artist. Then Ill order their music by BPM, choose what I like, and construct a studio demo in Ableton. It helps to see what and how to mix the songs and creates a plan for the live set, which is done using Serato. For Talking Heads and James Brown, the music is 4x4, and this challenge is manageable. For Radiohead, who make music in every possible array of rhythm, meter, and tone, it was harder than Chinese Algebra. I spent three months deciphering Radiohead's codes to prepare for my first set. Some of their stuff is 4x4 context and some is 3x2 for drum & bass and reggae. The trick is molding a set that can incorporate sections of both while building and releasing emotional tension. I have two basic plans: A slow build for an empty club and a quick-hitter for a packed room. I've made 10 Radiohead remixes over the years, including my first mash-up, which was "Just" with Jurassic 5's "Break."
What's your favorite Radiohead track?
Definitely "There There." It's the most unlikely and brutally honest love song. It painfully illustrates the unlikeliness and fragility of human connection. Lonely beings lost in the cold stumbling into saviors. "We are all just accidents waiting to happen" is one of the most profound things Thom Yorke has ever written. Selway's beats and O'Brian's hooks set the context for the journey's confusion and loss, gradually building into an explosion of accidental love. Remixing "There There" took me two years before I felt it did the original enough justice. I'm very proud of how it turned out, and it's usually the last thing I play in the set.