For a couple years running, Dan Harris has thrown a small party in San Francisco called Blank. It’s about as non-pretentious and unassuming as you can get. It showcases Bay Area DJs, not out-of-town headliners, and its focus is on the dancefloor — and dancing. (Each iteration of Blank, he respectfully asks attendees to keep their phones off the dancefloor.)
Naturally, Harris is a DJ himself, too. He tends towards vintage disco and funky party jams, the kind of tunes that makes you put your arms up in the air with a smile on your face. More than disco makes him tick, though — which he shows off in the stylistic spread of DJs he books at Blank — and this latest mix for As You Like It’s podcast series sees him exploring that range.
This Saturday, July 6, Harris joins a cast of talented locals (AYLI resident DJ Patrick and Vinyl Dreams’ Infinite Jess) to support Detroit veteran Andrés, whose cut “New For U” might be one of the most successful deep house records of the 21st century. (It is, indeed, that good.) It’s all going down in the basement at Monarch. Snag tickets now and read on to learn more about what makes Harris tick.
CZ: Tell me about where you’re from and how you landed in the Bay Area.
DH: I’m originally from Connecticut — not the NYC metro part of CT, the one stoplight per town part of the state. I grew up on a farm with 100+ cows and 6 siblings. I drove out to the Bay Area after graduating college because I felt like there was an opportunity for me here, personally and professionally. I was attracted to open-minded and inclusive people I’d met over and over again when I lived in Petaluma for the summer in 2010.
CZ: What sparked your love for dance music? What got you hooked? And what keeps you going?
DH: Video games and music were a form of escapism for me as a kid, whether because of family drama or not always fitting in at school, both music and video games took me to another world. I fantasized about performing as the artists I listened to or just engrossed myself in video games so much that I’d forget about all the other things going on around me. My earliest music influences were not electronic, I didn’t have anyone to show me electronic music as a kid for a really, really long time. It was the 90s, so my siblings gave me CDs like Sublime, Green Day, and somehow I found Korn and Rammstein. I have some funny memories: dancing alone to Rammstein’s “Du Hast” in the living room of my dad’s house, I put on a Jason (the horror movie) hockey mask and rolled up some newspaper and lit it in the fireplace and was twirling it around choreographing my own music video. Music just filled me with so much energy, it was an insane high.
I remember dancing in the parking lot outside a Rite-aid near my hometown to Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,” and I knew all the lyrics to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” You could say my taste was all over the place. I asked my dad to buy me Orgy’s Blue Monday cover on CD — before I knew what an orgy was, or who New Order was, for that matter. My first idea of a “rave” came from a local news station documenting the “unsafe” nature of them, I remember it mentioning ecstasy and glow sticks and then I saw the movie Blade and I guess that gave me a closer idea of what a rave might be like — minus the vampires and blood and a few other details — plus the track in the scene still goes off. A rave, in my head at least, seemed like absolute freedom, unrestricted by the typical confines of how we’re expected to behave in normal society (i.e., subdued), with a diverse group of people all in tune with the same energy, doing whatever they please, acting how they please… I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, so that was so outside my realm of reality but I was pretty set on finding one of these types of events one day.
Newt I saw the film CKY2K on VHS and in that movie they had Orbital’s track “Halcyon On and On,” which stuck out to me as pretty awesome. I would play Diablo 2 and listen to di.fm’s drum and bass station and I felt like it gave me super-powers because that music gave me so much energy. Being into drum and bass at that age was probably as “underground” as my taste got back then. The thing was, no one around me listened to electronic music, so I went on a journey from there mostly without it, but I was always sort of into digging for the lesser-known artists from the start. I don’t credit my dad much for my music taste, but what he did do, was just bring me to the closest music store, spending hours in there, and I could listen to whatever I wanted. I’ve just now realized this, but maybe he was the one who actually enabled me to start digging.
I had no idea what I was doing, I’d just look at band names, cover art, and eventually you could scan the CD at a listening station and hear previews of the songs. I would just pick whatever I thought looked interesting and see what it was, one of them that sticks out still is this album, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, it wasn’t what I wanted but the cover always stood out. This is still what I do today, just with more guidance: album art, record label, country, year, all things that help you know if a record could be interesting or good.
Anyway, I’d go to a bunch of shows, Green Day I think was the first one, The Suicide Machines I think was next (although my dad came and picked me up before they actually came on because it was too late and a school night), mostly punk, ska, emo, screamo, “hardcore.” What keeps me going still today is the same feeling I’ve always got from music, my tastes have changed but the high a track gives me the first time I hear it is the same. That energy it gives me. I can recall a lot of the places and feelings I had the first time I heard a track, even reading descriptions people write on YouTube about their experience first hearing a track are is lovely to read.
So, that’s what I’m still after, searching for that little high and relishing the tracks that stick around to still give me that feeling today. DJing is a way to share that high and hopefully other people get the same effect off what I play as I do.
CZ: When did you starting DJing yourself? How has your relationship to music changed since you started your own DJ practice?
DH: In college a few friends convinced me to run a music blog about the electronic music I started listening to but, admittedly, looking back, the music was so bad and I had no real knowledge, experience, or appreciation for electronic music and its history at that point. I started DJing because of the local success of the music blog in 2010.
Fast-forward to San Francisco in 2012, I began DJing a ton at The Ambassador (now totally remodeled as “Redford”), I threw a bunch of house parties, hosted a party at a venue on Broadway called “Fame,” played at Madrone a lot, Swig, all over the place. I discovered so much music and learned so much over the last 7 years. Back then I was definitely playing things that still weren’t too distant from “mainstream,” it’s like I was playing what would become “mainstream” 4 years later. Someone got me into Burning Man-esque music, I was going to d’n’b parties like Shelter and Stamina still, I learned what actual deep house was, then had a sort of rediscovery of disco and Italo and I’ve been digging in that direction for something like 4 or 5 years now. Motor City Drum Ensemble was definitely a big influence back then and still is.
I remember seeing The Black Madonna play in the Loft at Public Works — I think the first time she was in San Francisco, I really enjoyed her set but I heard her play Bill Wither’s “Summer Night in Harlem”. I don’t know if she had an edit or just pitched up the original, but that was the best track of the night for me, it turned the place into an absolute frenzy, it just builds and builds and builds and then builds some more and listening to it now it still just gave me goosebumps. Probably other people there would have picked a different track, but for me, that track was one of those tracks that altered my taste and direction in music from that point forward.
Moments like that are again, what keeps me going, although my taste bleeds outside disco, it’s still where a lot of my heart is and what gets me dancing the hardest so I can’t get through a set without having some of that inspiration in at least some of the tracks I play. To actually answer your question, I don’t think my relationship with music has changed at all.
CZ: Tell me about Blank, the party you launched. I know it’s intentionally a very low-key affair — which is, I imagine, reflected in its name. What are your inspirations for the party? What kind of vibe are you trying to create? And I love how you focus on local selectors — tell me more about that.
DH: Yeah, honestly, probably somewhat pretentious but I just hate going to parties and something about the vibe is wrong. Music is one thing, but the other people there, the experience you have with the person at the door, the decorations, the bartender, the sound, are people talking on the dance floor? Are they actually dancing? All these things need to be right for a night to be really good for me. I’m tired of the “underground” being exposed and infiltrated by the wrong people. A lot of venues are far too reliant on promoters and pressure them to fill spaces with people who will buy drinks and make the venue money and that leads to over-promotion (and makes promoting a party soul-sucking).
The party got started at a venue that didn’t even have a party on Thursdays so there was no pressure for me to fill the space, and even then, the capacity was 80 people so it wasn’t too difficult to fill the room with good energy — not just bodies. I used to get really upset by over-promotion: seeing people put flyers for their “underground” parties literally on Market St. in the Financial District. I mean, people want their parties to be safe spaces, but because they define a “successful” party by the number of people in attendance, their compass is way off and they end up accidentally inviting Johnny Patagonia vest and he gets too drunk and makes some people feel uncomfortable. That’s what over-promotion does, and leads to people entering into a world that really isn’t for them. Anyway, rant over.
I like to book mostly local acts because that’s us, that’s San Francisco, and we are unique, however much we admire NYC or Berlin or other cities, there are plenty of talented local people here that should be celebrated without needing to book a big out of town name. People who throw parties who only book big out of town names, I often wonder if they put themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to out-do themselves again and again and if they stopped booking these big artists, you have to think, would people still go to their party?
If you’re unsure, then people should re-check themselves because they’re probably not actually doing anything to help the scene here and people aren’t coming to their party because it’s special or there is a community behind it — it’s just the artist they book. That’s not really anything special. Someone with a lot of money can just book a big act and all of a sudden they have a party.
So anyway, it takes a bit to find the really good parties these days. They’re definitely out there, it’s just that sometimes people want their thing that they’re doing that’s good and also “big” and that, in turn, makes it not so good anymore, because the good aspects are diluted.
I’ll just say, I’m not a veteran of dance music or SF, I’m not some underground promoter, I throw approachable disco parties and easy-to-find nights at “above-ground” venues, these are just my observations because I value what I feel makes a party special and all the things above are what hurts a party. So, in throwing Blank, I just tried to focus on not falling into these traps, building something organically and slowly. It’s not crazy successful or anything, I just value being genuinely passionate and motivated by the right things — people can tell when that’s the case and when it’s not.
CZ: Let’s talk your AYLI Podcast. What’s it all about? Did you have a concept? Is it reflective of your usual DJ sets?
DH: I wanted to adjust my sound for AYLI but recording a mix from your bedroom and actually “planning” something out is tough. I like walking into a space and taking hints from the crowd, the other artists, the promoter, all these things that lead me in a certain direction with a set. A blank canvas is sort of actually harder to use. In the end, I ended up showing a diverse set of sounds for a little over an hour. There is a little of everything which reflects my collection. It’s a little all over the place but there’s plenty of 100% disco sets on my soundcloud if that’s your thing. For this one, it’s a bit of a journey through my head and the range of music I like.
CZ: How do you go about planning for or preparing for your DJ sets?
DH: If I’m playing vinyl I just sit down and pull records I think will work for the night and that’s a much more easy, finite thing — only so many will fit in my bag and I only have so many records that I think will “work” for a certain set.
If I’m playing digital, then I likely pull way too many songs and plan for all different directions and sometimes end up just overwhelming myself, hah. Sometimes I just don’t plan at all and it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
CZ: What makes a really great party for you?
DH: I was quite verbose in the other questions in this interview and I feel like I’ll just point to my answers above instead of repeating myself here 🙂
CZ: Last but not least, let’s talk about music you’re listening to lately. What’s got you excited? Could be old, could be new, but what’s inspiring you?
DH: I would echo Carlos Souffront’s answer here — too many folks, too easy to leave people out — and I’d add that any answer to this question is a glimpse into a moment and taste that is always evolving so any answer now will be different from a week or month from now.
I listen to a lot of singles so really it’s like one track from this and that person. Anyway, I’ll just look at what I bought recently on vinyl and digital here and list a few below:
Kleeer – Taste The Music: Lovely vocals, groove that could go on and on and not get old, for some reason they also just switch to German half way though the track??
Cosmo Vitelli – Pieces of a Sultan: Serious mood setter to take you off to a far away place in your head.
Italian Disco Star – Pick Me Up: Strong guitar lead-in, nice keys, groover.
Lane Cook – Liberty City Jam: Like nothing you ever heard before.
Billy Preston – And Dance: Super cheese, but I could get down to this in the right setting, hopefully I can find that right setting sometime.
Sex Band – What a difference a day makes (instrumental): Slightly cheating here as I just bought the record without this instrumental version, but I’m saving you from the vocals on this one.