Interview by Chris Zaldua.
Mike Gushansky hails from Los Angeles, CA. Sam Kern (aka Sassmouth) hails from Chicago, IL. Both are accomplished DJs and promoters (Gushansky co-runs his own party in L.A. called Redline; Sassmouth runs her own label, God Particle, and is a veteran promoter with the Naughty Bad Fun Collective). Both are also As You Like It resident DJs — and after a particularly memorable back-to-back session earlier this year at the annual AYLI Picnic in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, they’re something of a burgeoning DJ duo, to boot.
This latest edition in the AYLI Podcast series is a recording of that session, mixed live in the great outdoors (amongst some particular challenges — more on that below). We caught up with both Mike and Sam to learn a little bit about what’s going on when they get behind the decks — and why B2B sets have become such a thing.
Next up, catch Mike and Sam going back-to-back at As You Like It’s 7-year anniversary blowout — Friday, Sept. 29 at The Midway in San Francisco. Rave on.
Chris Zaldua: Tell me about where you’re both from and the current state of dance music in your hometowns.
MG: I was born in Cedar Sinai and raised in the Valley — I consider myself being from LA but depending on who you ask they might or might not agree. I moved back to LA from the Bay Area about 3 years ago, and I’ve been having an amazing time here ever since. The current state of dance music here is really strong — I’ve noticed a lot of cooperation between promoters here. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t really have too many viable conventional venues in the city, with the exception of perhaps Lot 613 and Union, so most of what we do is in alternative spaces, requiring a different level of discretion and collaboration.
SK: I grew up in the Northwest and have lived in a handful of different cities (including the Bay Area in the late 90’s), but my adopted home has been Chicago, on and off, for the last 17 years. It just feels right — like that pair of boots you’ve worn in, the perfect level of comfy. You really couldn’t ask for a better place to learn how to DJ: there were teachers in the booth, and also on the dance floor at all times. And the scene here is a friendly scene. I have been fortunate to meet so many wonderful Chicago natives, and also those that found their way here via other Midwest cities. It’s one of those places where you can literally make new friends on the dance floor, and then find yourself invited to an afterparty by those new friends the same night. Many friends have moved on to other cities and other countries over the years, but we’re always connected by that time we spent on the dance floors in Chicago. It’s a binding force that I haven’t found anywhere else except maybe in Detroit — the way people collectively give themselves to the moment through dancing.
Chicago’s scene is always evolving and changing, but what has me most excited the last couple of years are the young producers and DJs who craft fantastic music and magical spaces via their queer parties: in particular, Jarvi‘s ‘Acid Daddy’s Haus of Diesel’ parties and Ariel Zetina‘s various events are worth keeping an eye out for if you’re visiting Chicago. The music, energy, and visual creativity of these events are on point.
CZ: Tell me about your introduction to DJing — how’d you discover it and why’d you fall in love with it?
MG: It’s a funny story: I was a 17 year old senior in high school at a house party in the Valley and I remember seeing two kids my age, maybe a bit older, DJing for probably 150 or so kids playing hip hop and bloghouse. They had a four-corner Cerwin Vega soundsystem and top of the line Pioneer equipment. Right after that, a good friend and I downloaded a free program called Virtual DJ, plugging songs in that we thought would sound good together. At first it was a lot like a really primitive Girl Talk, mashup style, where nothing was sacred. After some research, we bought our first pair of Technics — brand new, still in the original boxes — and a Pioneer 2-channel mixer. We practiced devoutly for 2-3 years, consulting YouTube at times. Then I met my DJ mentor Bob Five — and ever since, I’ve taken my approach more seriously. I grew up playing classical piano, and to me, DJing is the complete opposite of piano playing, but incorporates facets of all my musical training. I play what I want, and how I want, and a lot of my love for DJing is about performance. I’m not a bedroom DJ. The thrill of getting up in front of a crowd with all the variables you can and can’t control: a skip in the record, a bad needle, a worn stylus, feedback from the turntable, and those are all things beyond the actual mix! The pressure is what keeps it exciting and what keeps me hooked.
SK: I started DJing in 2002, a couple years after moving to Chicago. I had been collecting records since I was 15, but never thought of DJing myself, until some friends in Chicago had a setup in their living room and let me give it a try. I was intrigued by the challenge of mixing, and decided to get my own janky setup. I taught myself over a couple frustrating years. At the time, I didn’t know any other women in Chicago that I could ask questions or tag with, and it felt very much like I was trying to enter a boys’ club, where any mistakes or silly questions would be made fun of. This probably had much to do with my own insecurities and self-doubt, but I think many young women face these issues when trying to break into such a male-dominated scene. Chicago in particular has always been very competitive when it comes to DJing — when most of the people in the crowd DJ or at least have tried, it’s a very tough crowd to play your very first public sets in front of. I opted to throw my own small house parties and bar events in the beginning, and figured if someone saw me play and liked it, it could lead to getting booked at other events — and it did.
CZ: Let’s talk back-to-back sets. They’ve certainly become something of a phenomenon in the past couple of years, for better or worse. Speaking personally — either as clubgoers, DJs, or both — why do you think B2B sets have taken off so much?
MG: That’s a great question, and my first thought is that it depends on the situation. Here in the States, where DJ timeslots are typically shorter and many parties run shorter overall, many B2Bs happen out of necessity: to fit enough people onto a bill. Slotting two DJs back-to-back gives them both time to play without making them feel thrifted by a shorter time slot. Two hours together gives dj’s more time to develop a set than playing 1hr each alone. I think we’re also seeing a lot of novelty B2Bs as of late. I feel like that novelty is rooted directly in the method by which we consume music online. People are developing personal relationships with their favorite artists, and having the opportunity to see two of their favorites together brings an extra level excitement to the circumstance. Recently, I saw The Black Madonna and Tiga play together at the Honey Soundsystem stage at FYF, and was really surprised at much fun the set was. They were really working together, bringing sounds that were compatible for each other but still their own. And speaking personally, there is always a risk involved in playing B2B, and I think the crowd can feel that frenetic energy and in the right circumstances watching that energy play out can be intensely satisfying.
SK: I’m not sure why they have become more popular, but personally, I like to watch and play in back-to-back sets because of the absolute spontaneity that exists. It’s almost like jazz improv, where two people are bouncing different themes or ideas off of each other, seeing if the other can take a theme or mood in the same direction, or perhaps change it up completely in response and still make that work. The best B2Bs for me are those where both people are actively listening to each other — sometimes leading, sometimes following. When DJing, you’re not just thinking about what to play next, but what to play next 5 times over. I think the B2B also has to somehow work in that way, and it’s pretty cool when it just happens naturally, almost telepathically. I also like when both people can play a wide range of music and can find creative ways to transition from different genres and make it work.
CZ: And on that note, the most important part of any good B2B set is simple: chemistry, which can’t be quantified or practiced or prepared. Judging from the videos I’ve seen of you two together, and from listening to this mix, you both have great chemistry together as DJs. Why do you think that is?
MG: I love Sam. I’ve looked up to her for years now, and playing with her feels like a privilege. She’s an incredible DJ and an incredible person. For me, my comfort level playing with her comes from knowing her skill level and range. Her sound is of less import to me, even though it doesn’t hurt that our sounds have a solid space of intersection. I just know that when she’s there, she’s bringing her A game, and that lets me relax in the booth, giving me time to spend on having fun and building the sound instead of worrying about the mixes’ mechanics. It helps that she’s also really funny — she makes me laugh really hard in the booth sometimes, and I’m usually at my best when I’m that comfortable.
SK: I think Mike and I have great chemistry because we both have similar personalities and passion for this culture. We love to dance, we love to smile, we love to laugh with people on the dance floor — so that just happens naturally when we’re in the booth together. Mike is a great partner to DJ with because he’s not afraid to switch it up and take risks when he DJs, all while listening and finding great tracks that just blend well with what I’m doing.
CZ: This recording was taken from the As You Like It Picnic in Golden Gate Park earlier this year. Was this your first time going B2B? Did either of you prepare your set differently?
MG: This was our first time playing together B2B. I had packed a bag full of bright daytime disco and house, anticipating that I would be playing on turntables. When we arrived, we realized that one of the tables was feeding back heavily, and so we were left with one table and two CDJs. Sam had left her thumb drive at home, or somewhere else — she didn’t have a drive and I did. Since she could only play records and needed two tables to mix, we resolved on the fly that she would play one record and I would play a track off my drive, and so we went back and forth like this for the majority of our set — 1 track each.
SK: Mike filled you in on some of the challenges with gear we were having that day! I actually had my own challenge — I flew in that afternoon from a Seattle gig and my flight was quite delayed. A dear friend picked me up from the airport, and I think I had maybe 3 minutes to spare before hopping on the decks with Mike. Not my ideal start at all — I normally like to get to a party early, dancing in the crowd until it’s my time to play. But it was easy to get into a groove because the energy that day in Golden Gate Park was incredible. I’ll never forget the feeling I had, looking out at all the happy dancers in such a beautiful setting. My Mom had just mentioned to me earlier that month that she had taken LSD for the first time in that park 50 years ago, and what a happy memory it was for her. I kept thinking about all the magical experiences people have shared in that park over those 5 decades. I prepared my set with those thoughts in mind, and wanted to provide a really loved up, daytime groove to celebrate what As You Like It has been doing all these years in the Bay Area.
CZ: Tell me about some new music you’re loving (dance music or otherwise).
MG: My friend Jonny Mons introduced me to a label called Regelbau that I’m really loving. I’m also enjoying everything Honey Soundsystem and Acid Camp have been putting out. I’v been listening to Benedek’s record “Bene’s World” a bunch lately too. And although it’s not new music, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to everything Johnny Igaz made as Nackt, and realizing how talented he was while he was still with us.
SK: Well, it’s been trending for a bit now, but I’m still very excited about all the new electro that is popping up. I’m finally bringing 214 for a live PA at my Planet Chicago party at Smart Bar in October. Seeing his PA on the Funktion-One at Berghain two years ago will indefinitely remain in my all time top 5 favorite live sets. I snagged some great electro and breakbeat records in Berlin last week that will soon be in heavy rotation: Tysk Raider on Aura Expansion, a double LP by Binaural on Undersound Recordings, and a Dez Williams record on Mechatronica.
CZ: And finally, since both of you are SF out-of-towners who play here regularly, is there anything particular about our fair city that you love coming back to?
MG: SF makes me feel like I don’t have anything to worry about — I think that’s because of the period of time during which I lived in the Bay and went to college in Santa Cruz. I have many old friends still living there, and I feel like there are a steady stream of folks in the Bay Area who look forward to me playing because I’ve been playing there for about 5 years now. SF is where I got my first real shot at playing out regularly — Raf, Eyo, Mitch and the whole team at F8 1192 Folsom took me under their wing and helped put me in a position to succeed, and they’re like family to me now. Almost every time I get off the plane I go there and I feel like I’m home. And lastly that’s where I met Jeremy and became a part of As You Like It — so SF will always be important to me because it’s where I started to feel like maybe I could do this DJ thing for real.
SK: Both of my parents grew up in California, and I was born in San Jose. So even though I didn’t grow up there, I have been coming to the Bay Area to visit family for my whole life. It’s always felt like home to me. I sometimes think about what would have happened if I had stayed in SF in the late 90’s, instead of moving to New York, Chicago, London, and then back again to Chicago … would I have even found DJing or have fallen so head over heels with house and techno music? Hard to say, but I’m so grateful I get to come back to a place I love so deeply, and share music with old and new friends on a regular basis. I agree with Mike — it feels like home, and like a giant loving hug whenever I come back, and that’s because of the special community that supports the As You Like It parties. I have gotten to play so many different types of sets for As You Like It over the years, from really chill, deep warm-up sets, to dark techno and rollicking acid sets. I’ve been given lot of freedom to share what I love, and I feel very lucky for that. Very excited to celebrate these special parties and events next month with all of you!