Hive Mind: Honey Soundsystem Turns 10

From a weekly party at SoMa's Holy Cow, the queer DJ collective made the San Francisco sound go global.

It’s about 2 a.m., and although the bar has stopped serving, it feels like the party has just begun. The dancefloor is crammed, but all of a sudden, bodies part like the Red Sea, and a shamanic circle forms around a delicate older gentleman, just emerged, who begins singing with body, heart, and soul into a tightly held microphone. He is Jorge Socarrás, an elder San Franciscan and one of the original members of ACT UP, the group of activists who designed the “Silence = Death” protest campaign during the ravages of AIDS’ first wave. Socarrás is singing a song he wrote in the ’70s with disco icon Patrick Cowley, who died of AIDS shortly afterward, at age 32.

The club is packed wall-to-wall, mostly with gay men wearing  — or not wearing, for that matter — all manner of gloriously flamboyant outfits, but also with drag queens, queer club kids, women who love dancing without the specter of harassment, and a diverse spread of weirdos, party personalities, hangers-on, and die-hard music geeks. Suddenly, I become aware, in an existential sense, that certain things could only ever happen in San Francisco, the city I have called home since I was born some 30 years ago just across the Golden Gate Bridge — and I am experiencing one of those things right now. I mark this event in my memory and my life, knowing I will need to return to it many times in the future.

We’re at The Holy Cow, a small club on Folsom Street in SoMa. It’s the site of San Francisco DJ collective Honey Soundsystem’s final edition of its weekly party, which ends its run after five years on this otherwise nondescript Sunday evening in October 2013.

Fast-forward four years to this Friday, Nov. 10. Honey Soundsystem, the collective noun for four self-described DJs, musicians, performers, and designers — known individually as Jacob Sperber (or Jackie House), Jason Kendig, Josh Cheon, and Robert Yang (or Bézier) — turns 10 years old. Ten years, one decade: In the grand scheme of things, that’s barely even a single grain of black sand on the endless beachfront of time. But in the realm of dance music — or, more specifically, contemporary American “underground” dance music — 10 years is practically an eon, an epoch.

Honey began as a particular kind of San Francisco neighborhood concern — that is to say, by and for gay men — where you might also luck into hearing some of the finest DJs in the world strutting their stuff on a Sunday evening. Today, it’s an international touring DJ squadron, performing at festivals and nightclubs all around the world, often receiving marquee billing alongside many of the same artists Honey’s members booked years ago. In short, things have changed for Honey Soundsystem. In many ways, its trajectory mirrors that of San Francisco’s across the past decade, and that of dance music in America writ large.

Robert Yang of Honey Soundsystem. (Photo by Mariah Tiffany)

Honey Soundsystem was actually founded in 2006 by Sperber and veteran San Francisco DJ Ken Woodard, aka Ken Vulsion. But Woodard soon left the endeavor, and it wasn’t until a year later that Sperber joined forces with the three others who would endure as Honey Soundsystem for the decade to follow: Kendig, a career DJ born and raised in Detroit; Cheon, a New Yorker who grew up in goth clubs and cut his teeth in that city’s music industry; and Yang, a nascent electronic musician and Southern California transplant. Per their official biography, the four bonded over a shared love of “timeless sounds, iconic imagery, the complete look, indulgent behavior, and most of all, attractive men.” (Official bios often push pomp and circumstance past all standards of decency, but as far as summing up Honey in a single sentence goes, it’s hard to do better than that.)

America has always had a complicated relationship with dance and electronic music. Disco, house, and techno music are quintessential American inventions. They’re the musical, and in many ways, spiritual, expressions of marginalized communities — queer people and people of color in particular. These kinds of music and their performers gained immediate purchase and widespread popularity in Europe. Here at home, though, they were regarded as trends, fads, or gimmicks — at best — or, at worst, as abominations and embarrassments to be done away with at any cost. (For a particularly egregious but illustrative example, consider 1979’s “Disco Demolition Night,” a baseball promotion in which crates filled with disco vinyl were blown up — as in, with actual explosives — on the field at Comiskey Park in Chicago.)

A brief mid-’90s foray into “electronica” and “big beat” notwithstanding, electronic music’s ghettoization in America persisted. But soon after the turn of the century came DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, and Ed Banger Records and Justice and Mr. Oizo, and Daft Punk at Coachella, and Silicon Valley’s annual pilgrimage to Burning Man, and so on. Within a few short years, electronic music had officially become an American phenomenon, and whole legions of people — punks, indie kids, “hipsters,” Taylor and Kanye devotees, marketing executives, et cetera — were discovering the absolute joy of losing yourself on the dancefloor with complete and utter abandon.

Jacob Sperber at Movement. (Photo by Katie Lakowska)

When Honey began, our dystopian present was but a glimmer.

“In 2007, the dance music scene [in San Francisco] was pumping,” Sperber recalls. “Parties like Gun Club and Gentlemen’s Techno were bringing acts like Morgan Geist and Maurice Fulton out to loft spaces in the city. Myspace was becoming the the place you’d go to listen to music demos and hear DJ mixes. Lovefingers [a spaced-out, cosmic disco-edit DJ based in L.A.] was redefining crate-digging by giving away rare MP3s on his website. There was a record store in almost every neighborhood worth digging at, and the relics of record labels from the Wicked and Future Primitive rave scenes were all over the city.”

Fertile ground, in other words, for a young institution like Honey Soundsystem on which to find its footing. But before Sperber was throwing parties in clubs, he was throwing house parties.

“I began by throwing parties in my railroad-style apartment with my college buddies,” he says. “I rigged speakers in each room of the house, all connected to my bedroom, where I’d play DJ on a single turntable to 200 people rammed throughout each room.”

Simultaneously, Yang, newly arrived from L.A.’s Silver Lake, was trying to start a shindig of his own.

“Around this time, I tried to start a weekly at the Deco Lounge,” he says, referring to the adorably sleazy queer bar on Larkin and Turk streets that closed in 2012. It was later scrubbed of its queer identity and rebirthed as “Emperor Norton’s Boozeland.”

There, he met numerous San Francisco nightlife personalities, like the stalwart DJ Chris Orr, whose Scottish accent is as thick as his vinyl collection; Ryan Poulsen, formerly of Gun Club, and currently purveyor of Booty Bassment; renowned drag mother Juanita More; plus L.A.’s Damon Palermo (aka Magic Touch) and Brooklyn’s Daniel Martin-McCormick (aka Relaxer, formerly Ital), both of whom lived in the city at the time and performed together as Mi Ami, a punk-ish duo whose collisions with noise, dub, and disco seem now like prophetic prefigurations of the sound of the Bay Area underground to come — dancy, punky, and experimentally minded music whose modus operandi seems to be the elision of genre itself.

It was Mi Ami who played the last night of Yang’s weekly party, the night that he met Jacob, Josh, and Ken.

“I remember that night because I was basically, like ‘OK, I’m done,” he says. “Throwing that night was a lot of work, and I couldn’t do it by myself in the end, but I knew I was building something that mattered.”

That night, Yang recalls Sperber asking if he would like to “join a group of friends who would play music together.” Yang said yes without a second thought.

“I had just come from the experience of a lot of awful gay/queer culture living in Silver Lake from 2003 to 2005,” he says. “I thought, ‘Maybe, in San Francisco, it might be easier to execute this vibe and vision, of playing cutting-edge music, from the past and contemporary, for a more open-minded, community-focused city’ — and I was right.”

Back then, “It was so cheap to live in San Francisco, and you could be a weeknight alcoholic and go out every night, spending the rest of your money in record stores,” Sperber says. And so, in 2008, Honey Soundsystem launched the endeavor that cemented it as an institution — its Sunday night party at the Holy Cow on Folsom Street.

Running from 2008 until 2013 with nary a week off — that’s roughly 260 parties, week after week — Honey’s party was as much a social and community exercise as it was a musical one.

“The city had so many people waiting for a Sunday night party to start back up, an evening that was always special in San Francisco’s gay scene — which, back in the ’80s, was known for dancing well into Monday morning,” Sperber says. “Our party was a place for a bit of humor and attitude. The scene at the time was gimmick-driven, with loads of party photographers and drink specials. We just wanted a place for people to dance and maybe hook up.

“We tried our hardest to create an environment distracting enough to keep you off your phone,” he adds. “And we wanted a place to play modern music, cutting-edge music, edits, and our friends’ demos, all things that were coming out of our scene at the time.”

I came to Honey’s parties late in their run, and I was never quite a regular — nor am I a gay man, so I was always a bit of a gawker — but they were legendary in my mind. Equal parts sloppy, sexy, silly, and sassy, those nights gave me beloved memories of dancing myself into a tizzy among hordes of sweaty men, smoking cigarettes in the cool air on the back patio, and casually experiencing some of the finest DJs in the world — like L.A.’s greyscale techno genius Silent Servant, or the fiercely political, intimidatingly intelligent house music original DJ Sprinkles — on a Sunday night at a relatively small club in San Francisco.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that the owner [of Holy Cow] lived upstairs,” Sperber says. “He’d come to the party every Sunday in over-the-top fur coats and matching cowboy hats, and joined in on our crazy ideas and added some of his own.”

After they helped him repaint the club’s cow (the iconic sculpture above the front door) from leopard-print to fluorescent pink, they asked to commission a mural to be placed permanently on the back porch.

“We heard rumors about blacklight murals by [gay San Francisco artist] Chuck Arnett in the original club back in the ’60s, so we wanted to pay tribute to him. We worked with local artist Phillip Fillastre, who came up with a trick: We pitched a mural inspired by ephemera from the GLBT Historical Archives, a bearded Ecstasy of Saint Teresa that would be adorned by a halo of party drugs and dicks. The catch is that those dicks and drugs would be painted with invisible blacklight ink — so on ‘normal’ nights, they wouldn’t even show.”

The men, the music, the madness — the weekly was as much a product of its time, and its timeslot, as anything else.

“There’s a lot of pressure for a party to perform on a weekend night, the kind of pressure that weighs on DJs and promoters to create a money-making environment that can starve locals of the chance to showcase their talent,” Sperber explains. “Off-nights are meant for people who work on weekends and for people who live a little bit outside of the system.”

From left to right: Jacob Sperber, Robert Yang, Jason Kendig, and Josh Cheon. (Photo by Jef McMahan)

But as the party entered its fourth and its fifth years, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s increasing inhospitality to people on the periphery, the Honey foursome becoming increasingly exhausted by the never-ending work of throwing a party week in and week out, the weekly came to an end on Oct. 20, 2013.

It coincided with one of the biggest milestones in Honey Soundsystem’s history: School Daze, a double-LP compilation of previously unreleased work by Patrick Cowley, the luminary disco pioneer who worked closely with Sylvester. Coreleased by Honey’s record label HNYTRX, which launched as a lark in 2010, and Cheon’s record label Dark Entries — which, since 2009, has reissued dozens of highly sought-after records from the late ’70s and ’80s, when post-punk bands began picking up synthesizers — School Daze collected music Cowley had written as soundtracks for gay porn films, which would have otherwise languished in obscurity but for Cheon and Honey’s archivist work.

School Daze was nothing short of monumental. Received to unanimous and widespread positive critical acclaim — lauded by Pitchfork, NPR Music, and dozens of others outside the “electronic music” sphere — School Daze not only vindicated Cowley as a brilliant auteur in his own right, it endeared new listeners to his music and his unabashedly sleazy — and archetypically San Franciscan — ’70s gay aesthetic. (That this release came a year after the Ninth Circuit upheld Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which overturned Prop. 8 and legalized same-sex marriage in California once and for all, cannot be discounted; queer culture was having a moment.) If you’ve ever noticed club-kid types wearing fitted black T-shirts bearing the same impression of a stern-but-sexy mustachioed man, that’s Cowley’s visage — and Honey and Dark Entries’ handiwork.

The raw notoriety of the weekly party, the runaway success of School Daze, the meteoric rise of dance music in the American zeitgeist — by 2014, Honey Soundsystem’s purview stretched around the globe. Bookings at clubs and festivals across America, Europe, and Asia followed.

While today, the barrier to entry for novice DJs is lower than it ever has been, it takes a great deal of skill and finesse to give a crowd what they want while still leading them on an unexpected journey. Passable DJs are playlist programmers, playing one tune after another; great DJs are storytellers, akin to quilters, who weave the seemingly disparate into a cohesive narrative. And for all its ups and downs, touring worked wonders on the Honeys’ technique.

“The thing about touring is that you have to learn things the hard way, over and over and over,” Sperber explains. “You have to learn how to get better even if you aren’t ready, and then you have to unlearn shit that wasn’t meant for you. Different cultural relationships towards dancing can be very subtle” — like the Britons’ penchant for broken beats versus the Germans’ deep and abiding love for monochromatic techno — “but when you only have one night to impress an entire country, you become a very quick study,” he adds. Adapting style, tempo, and pacing are key to success, Sperber says, but, “You also learn how to ignore certain things, so you can still be yourself — the act they booked.”

Touring together strengthened their individual dynamics, too.

“Collectively and through pairings, we started to learn where each person wants to land [as a DJ], and we tried to build bridges for each other to make those appropriate connections,” Yang says. Meanwhile, DJing alongside larger, better-known artists broadened their respective styles and horizons, he says, allowing them to build off the arc of their predecessors’ DJ sets while easing into their own. “That lets us be creative and expressive with our DJ sets without compromising — but it’s always a pain when promoters ask us to play a purely disco set,” he says.

In between, and during, tours, Honey’s parties in San Francisco went on — less frequently, but with higher production values. Often occurring on Sundays of holiday weekends, these parties were exercises in transformation.

“Trying different entrances, tuning the soundsystem, rearranging the location of the booth, tweaking the lighting — our need for good sound, woke staff, and our protective nature over our crowds has left many venues better off than they were to begin with,” Sperber says.   

Collaboration, a crucial piece of Honey’s puzzle since the beginning, became even more common, and more elaborate, in this next phase.

“Parties are gathering spaces, social and sexual — and they’re a space for ideas,” Sperber says. “San Francisco is a very giving place — the kind of place where people are willing to offer their services for free or cheap if it builds up the community and the city,” which gave Honey a leg up early on. The group is now paying that forward, working with friends and regulars to create posters, visuals, lighting designs, and more. (For Honey’s 10-year anniversary rave this Saturday, Nov. 11 at Public Works, “more” includes custom Honey poppers — er, “VHS cleaner” — courtesy of Double Scorpio.)  

Josh Cheon with Chicago’s Mystic Bill at Honey Soundsytem Pride. (Photo by Jef McMahan)

But success always comes at a price. Honey Soundsystem’s nearly constant touring schedule sharpened its members’ skills as DJs and introduced them to new audiences all over the world, but it has also meant a dilution of focus and a diffusion in their priorities, both as individuals and as a collective. Splinters have formed.

When I first contacted the crew to arrange interviews for this article, I received a brief message from Cheon: “Sorry to break the news, but I’m no longer in Honey Soundsystem. I left to focus on Dark Entries full-time.” The decision was the result of many factors, he said, primarily a feeling of being disconnected from Honey’s crowds and an always looming, ever-increasing stack of Dark Entries label management work to be done upon returning to San Francisco.

“I think my current need to leave the collective happened after the weekly party ended, when we took a break and stopped communicating regularly,” he explains. “I pushed my energy full-throttle into Dark Entries, and through the past few years of three-day-weekend-only parties [in San Francisco], I felt more and more isolated from Honey’s parties and crowds.”

This Friday’s party will most likely be Cheon’s last with Honey Soundsystem. Despite his departure, and the generalized weariness they all feel from life on the road, Honey Soundsystem is not going anywhere.

“Prior to the actual formation of Honey Soundsystem as a crew, there was already a musical bond happening between us just from the kinds of parties and shows we’d all turn up to,” Kendig recounts. “And I think it’s the strength of those friendships that has held us together for so long, even when confronted with these temporary creative differences that pop up from time to time,” he says. “We’ve been able to work through them. And the greatest lessons learned from this have been compromise.”

For Yang, success “is a moving target.”

“In 2009, our first milestone was throwing a New Year’s Eve party with other collectives at Paradise Lounge, a test in collaboration,” he says. “In 2014, success was being able to end the weekly and still have the opportunity to continue our mission, inside and outside the city.”

And as for the future?

“In 2018, we’re aiming to better organize with other folks in the world whose vision and ideas align with ours — whether they’re queer DJ collectives or just a group of music nerds dealing with intersectional realities presented to them on a daily basis,” he says. “We will go out of our way to meet them.”

Sperber, in particular, has been energized by recent developments in San Francisco’s music scene. He recounts watching an online stream of the community inquest regarding the recent murder of controversial (but no less legendary) queer personality and party monster Bubbles, held at Tenderloin record shop RS94109, and feeling genuine inspiration.

“I felt this incredible sense that the work the underground music scene is putting in to survive in San Francisco is actually creating a viable political force,” he says, also citing the collaborative purchase and rehabilitation of long-standing SoMa queer bar The Stud. “These things are happening out of necessity, but necessity is forcing a lot of smart people to get cutthroat with their ability to adapt and create new models for change.

“The naive, heartfelt, and spiritual soul of the Bay Area is still intact, and informing these anti-capitalist efforts to save art spaces, people’s homes, and people’s lives,” he adds. “We may have fewer radical people to do the fighting than we used to, but the ones that are left have some big calluses — and aren’t taking no for an answer.”

Honey Soundsystem’s 10 Year Anniversary Rave, Saturday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m. – 4 a.m., at Public Works, $40 at the door,

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