Talking the talk with Mister Saturday Night

John Thorp catches up with Mister Saturday Night impressario Justin Carter prior to the NYC collectives return to Manchester at the Soup Kitchen on Saturday 8th November.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 3rd Nov 2014

If you’re unlucky, the name ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ might conjure up memories of Billy Crystal’s disappointing 1992 film directorial debut, forever destined to repeat endlessly on ITV4 (the trailer below is all you need ever put yourself through).

If you’re from New York and you love to party, it’ll hopefully be synonymous with Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter, the two selectors who for the past few years have been throwing some of the city’s finest underground parties, beginning, naturally, on a Saturday night and then aiming skywards, without ever losing their cool or ideals.

Now, having moved to a new home this summer, their all-ages ‘Mister Sunday’ parties attract thousands, and their record label has released music from acclaimed artists such as Dark Sky, Anthony Naples and General Ludd. If you don’t know those names, already, we’re sure you soon will. 

With the Sunday parties now packing up for the year, Carter and Harkin are off on a European tour, including a return to Manchester’s Soup Kitchen, where they’re the special guest at the next edition of Krystal Klear’s ‘Labour of Love’ party on Saturday 8th November. Expect to hear some truly transcendent records. 

Ahead of the party, we spoke with Justin in New York to learn the intricacies of what makes the parties so well respected.

So now you’ve done Mister Sunday for nearly half the year, whereas Mister Sunday started off as an experimental party, and now it’s more of an establishment.

I felt this past summer in particular cemented it. I mean, we always had a great following with the Mister Sunday outdoors parties, but there was this amazing space we were in, and it was born out of that space. But developers bought it last year, and started building apartment buildings.

But moving it, we expected about half of the people we had in the past, which would still be just fine. And the new space is much obscure, whereas the previous space, everyone knew.It’s on the other side of a big, ugly highway. There’s no residents there, which is good if you want to make some noise, but it’s deeper into Brooklyn, and it’s not a particularly gentrified neighbourhood.

So, to go down there and have the party continue to be successful and have people see that magic can still happen, for me that’s shown it’s really about the party, not the space, it’s about the thing we’ve got going on here.

As well as the record label, we’re hoping to make the Sunday parties, from now on, the main thing that we do, with an indoor space, an outdoor space, and the occasional Saturday night party.

Besides the more dancefloor oriented records you play and release, some of the recent recordings from the party have featured, for example, The Clash or even Pavement’s Stereo seamlessly mixed in, although not in a showy way. People react really well to those records, you can hear screams on the recording? How do you develop that style and take those risks?

When you play every week somewhere, and you really start to see the same faces and you’re also having to dig into your record collection, you start to think about records in a different way. Because you know that people are going to be there over and over again, you know you can’t do something you did last week.

But on the other hand, you can use that opportunity to kind of get people used to a song that might not be an obvious song. To just do a party that happens week after week, it makes you think about things in a different way.

I honestly just like lots of different types of music, from different areas. In the past weeks, I bought the new Childish Gambino LP, the new Thom Yorke LP, this slightly obscure disco record on Sussex Records called Zulema. I’ve got music from New Orleans Brass Bands, in the sixties. And it’s not that I’m trying, I just like all this music.

One of the things that I don’t have that a lot of DJs who are more focused in one style is, a particular in depth knowledge of a label or style. That’s something that I’ve never really done, thought, “I need to find out everything and be an encyclopedia”, which is something can be very valuable.  

Right, eclecticism is just one way. When you see somebody like Robert Hood, who sort of just does one thing very well, that doesn’t make him any better or worse of a DJ.

Yeah, because I think at the end of the day, what it’s really is, is their a passion? Are you trying to say something other than, “Look at everything I know.”

When I see Robert Hood play I think he really believes in the sound he’s exploring. And one of the reasons we can connect with people, even though we’re basically just 120BPM house DJs, is that we go off into these corners, because we believe what we’re playing make sense. Rather than just saying, “Look at this weird thing we can do!” 

And you’re obviously technically proficient DJs, but you’re not fussy. You’re happy to just let tunes play out sometimes.

True, although a lot of the time, that’s just because I don’t know how to mix the next thing in! 

Have you found it easier to mediate and maintain the quality of crowd at the party, given the larger size? 

I’ve been very pleased with how the vibe has managed to remain good, although it does evolve, sure. There’s a guy called Peter who comes to our parties who’s been going out a long time. He’s like a card carrying member of The Paradise Garage.

He thought it was cool that we are actually starting a membership thing, but that we should also remember that it’s a positive that people who aren’t necessarily connected can just come to the party. If every party I attended that got me to where I am now was a membership only party, I would have never gone. A great part of what we started out to do with the party is do something accessible to many people.

But when something becomes a cool thing to do in New York, which I’m sure has happened - we’ve had a lot of press we weren’t even aware of - then you risk people just turning up to posture or whatever. 

In which case, your job on the day being primarily to keep focused on keeping people on the dancefloor, how do you manage the ‘cool’ for lack of a better term?

The big thing that keeps it clean is our cellphone and camera rule, which we heavily enforce now. And it’s a big, big dancefloor. And if Eamonn and I see somebody who's near to the DJ booth and using their phone, or doing something against the rules, we personally tell them they can’t do that.

We have security, but it’s a fine line so that people don’t feel like they’re being watched. If the whole point of not having cell phones on the dancefloor is so that people don’t feel like they’re being watched or out of the moment somehow, the last thing you want is some security guy lording over you.

So our guys we work with know not to stare, but if they see people texting or doing anything, they will walk over and say, “Excuse me, you can’t do that.” If that person gives them any attitude, or does it again, they get kicked out of the party. 

It’s funny that at first that seems odd with our open and honest thing. But we don’t have a door policy or anything like that, and if you come in, you should understand that there are some rules. And if you’re not going to respect those rules, then you shouldn’t be here.

We try our best, and the party is going to change, and we have to adapt to that. And one of the reasons we don’t like having cameras or phones on the dancefloor, is it takes me and Eamon out of it. We’re giving it all we can, and we want it back. That’s me personally, but I assume, people are trying to lose themselves in the moment, and if you just see somebody checking their email, it feels somehow violating. 

And now you’re releasing a CD mix entitled ‘Weekends and Beginnings’, which was, like all of your mixes recorded live on the dancefloor. How did you approach that with the mix in mind whilst simultaneously keeping things spontaneous?

Well, there were songs we had licensed, and of course, certain combinations of records that we knew worked together. I knew I would play the Motor City Drum Ensemble remix of Caribou's 'Leave House' (below) and the Adesse record, they live together in my bag.

And if you didn’t know they were two separate pieces of music mixed together, you would think of it as one long song. So there was some level of spontaneity, but constraints about whether you’re able to license something or not. 

You’re releasing a physical CD, and while the likes of Fabric and Panorama Bar do still produce those on a regular basis, you have been releasing music as mixes from Mister Saturday Night, for free, for a number of years now. Are people going to buy it?

Well, we hope! We don’t know. It’s definitely an experiment, but in terms of why we would do it, it seems like more of a firm statement to me. It’s putting the flag in the ground. As in, which tracks are we going to license?

The work we have put into this mix doesn’t even compare. Not to diminish the work we do at the party. But TJ in our office worked for three months just on licensing.

One of the things we found was that the stuff that was relatively easy to license was new stuff from now labels that was on some level, similar to us; a one or two person company with an email address. You have to pay for it, but fine, whatever.

Older stuff has just been sucked up by three big labels throughout history. If you’re licensing something from the seventies, it’s just impossible for a label like us, unless you’re doing it through a reissue company. 

The mixes you release, including Weekends and Beginnings, at least at points have the recorded crowd noise of the party on them. What does that represent to you?

It just gives it a context. We’re playing this music in a place, in a party that his this energy to it. You can hear a little chatter.

It sounds less clinical, and it reminds you that you’re hearing a moment, that a dance floor can be transient, but it’s ultimately just a space full of people…

Sure, and it also sounds different, and in some ways, better, when you can hear the reverberation of the space we’re in. On the Weekends and Beginnings mix, the crowd noise is just through the first few songs, then again in the last song, as we realised if this was going to be a thing people live with, that was better. But we’ve just recorded from microphones perched in the crowd, and it gives you more perspective as to why a certain song is being played.  

As well as the mix, you this year have released a CD compilation, Brothers and Sisters, consisting a mix of your vinyl-only releases on the label so far, as well as some new stuff. As DJs who predominantly invest in and play vinyl, was this always the plan?

Well, the reason we went with vinyl from the beginning, is because that’s what we know. We understand that market, we’re consumers of it, we buy vinyl. We know what the record should look like, what stores to talk to, all that stuff.

But now, we have TJ who works in the office with us, and he understands how digital music works, because that’s how he consumes most of his music. But we’ve never wanted the label to be this exclusive thing. Our vinyl is always in print, we call up the factory and get new copies made. It’s what we do.

I think it’s helpful on a short-term level for labels to put out these exclusive, 200 copy things. And I’m happy to have some records like that, but that’s not what we’re about. We are there to get music to people who want it, naturally. And our full back catalogue will be out digitally the week before the mix comes out. 

Doing the party every Sunday for twenty-three weeks this year, do you still find time or energy to go out in New York much? From an outsiders perspective, it seems like there’s lots of happening there at the moment.

Despite all the parties, I definitely get the itch. I went to see the Optimo guys the other night, Roman Flugel is playing this weekend, Theo Parrish is playing on Sunday, and I definitely want to go out and hear that music.

There are a few local parties I go to a lot, ones that don’t happen all the time, but when they do, I really try and make sure I’m there. It’s important to go to parties from another perspective. I mean, even if I wasn’t DJing, it’d be impossible to go to my party and enjoy it, given all the responsibilities of making sure it runs correctly. 

Obviously the relationship you have with Eamon is pretty key to the party. There seems to be the idea that you have quite distinct tastes that meet nicely in the middle musically, but what is it that works about the relationship otherwise? What thrives in the dynamic between you?

It’s like any other long-term relationship. With Eamonn, I’ve found a person who is very reliable, and passionate about what I am also passionate about. He is open to me doing my own thing in a way that he feels I am to him, in a creative sense.

I think it works because we have made the decision to be in that relationship, and so part of that is being very open and communicative with each other about our goals and our aims. And because we’ve made the decision to be together and do this party each week, we’re often inspired by similar things.

A relationship is a choice, and it’s work, and not in a negative way, but it’s active, right? I need to do certain things; to talk to them, to give them their freedom. We have great parties as we have very strong respect for each other, to make commitments and to get things done. It’s a choice.

Justin will join Eamon Harkin playing at Krystal Klear's Labour of Love alongside Krystal Klear on Saturday 8th November. Head here for tickets, or follow the box below.

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