A conversation with Mister Saturday Night
Derryman Eamon Harkin tells the story behind one of New York clubland’s most influential new parties
Eamon Harkin is the Derry-born half of Mister Saturday Night, the New York tag-team behind some of the most popular and influential parties and clubs in that city in recent years. Along with Justin Carter, Harkin has overseen the MSN vibe as it has grown from Saturday night clubs and all-day and all-age parties on Sundays to a label and, this summer, a new bar and space called Nowadays. Harkin will be appearing at The Beatyard in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin next weekend and you’ll find my piece on him for the paper here. The conversation with Harkin was a long one – he’s a fantastic talker and I think I only got in one or two questions in all as he told his story – and it provided some fascinating insights about his trip from Derry indie kid to Mister Saturday Night Fever so the full transcript is below, along with a recent four hour mix from Harkin and the “Weekends and Beginnings” compilation from MSN.
I’m a bit of a failed musician, to be honest. I banged around in garage bands and played some small gigs around town as a teenager. The Nerve Centre was the hub for kids growing up in Derry who were interested in music. It was one of the few places you could gravitate towards to find a community of people who were fostering people making music and forming bands. I used to go there and take guitar and bass lessons and I did my school work experience there with the John O’Neill from The Undertones. As a 16 year old, I stood there and I could see the ups and downs of what music was all about.
Andrew Ferris was a friend of mine, we went to school together and did all our exams together. He was a really smart guy, he chose not to go to university and followed the music path. Andrew and I sat in on the same work experience with John O’Neill. Andrew blazed a trail with the indie rock thing (he now runs Smalltown America) and I was on the peripherary of that. I was trying to do what he was doing but he was much more talented and successful than me as a musician and much more dedicated to the world of rock and indie music.
Around that time, I started to get interested in other genres, though I never went clubbing in Ireland at all. I went to university in London in the late 1990s and that was when I really widened my musical awareness by delving into the club scene and going to different types of parties and absorbing and understanding the dance music culture.
I was coming from an indie rock background and I’d an initial fear of the house and techno world. But I was really drawn to the aspects of dance music that were focused on community and people coming together on a regular basis to enjoy music and have this experience on the dancefloor. That had a huge impact on me. The first people to have an impact on me were Optimo. They were an entry point for me because they played a lot of guitar music and they also played a lot of other music. I’d listen to their sets and really get into how they went from guitars to house to disco to jazz to everything.
I’d go to Fabric a lot and dive into house and techno and begin to understand that music. Trash had a huge effect on me, Erol Alkan on a Monday night. Again, it was indie music which I was still interested in, but it was this weekly community of people coming together and the same DJ every week who really understood the relationship he had with that crowd. I began to realise what a regular party could be and how open-minded it could be.
I studied biochemical engineering so my musical journey was a parallel journey to the one where I felt I had to get a proper job. I’m the eldest of four children so I felt I had to go out there and get a responsible job. I had a wild passion for music and always wanted to work in music but without being a musician, I never saw a path. So I though I’d go to university, get a degree, get a job, all that jazz. I spent four years in London studying and clubbing and buying lots of records and started to DJ at small gigs and throw small parties. I began to realise if you know records and you know music and you can line them up in an interesting way then that’s an important thing to some people that you don’t have to be a musician to do.
I fell out of college and I’d fallen foul of the engineering world because I realised as I was finishing my degree that it was not for me. I started doing web programming and design work to get money because I’d the technical skillset from engineering and was still floundering along about what I wanted to do. Then, I got an opportunity to come to New York on a visa to do some work. New York is a very appealing place for Irish people and I’d nothing to lose by coming here and having an adventure. If it didn’t work out, I’d go home but I didn’t have a vision of what working out could mean.
I didn’t know a sinner outside of work so I threw myself into the club culture here as a way of connecitng with and meeting people. It was 2003 and it really struck me that it wasn’t a good time for dance music culture in New York. Where were all the good parties? Where were there legendary nights that New York was supposed to offer?
It was the back-end of the Giuliani clampdown – he really achieved great success in terms of what he set out to do (laughs) – but here were a few things I found that I liked. There were parties like Motherfucker rooted in guitar music which happened eight times a year in huge clubs like the Roxy and Limelight, clubs which were empty because Giuliani put them out of business.
Then, there was APT in the Meatpacking district, this tiny club which did great house, techno and hip-hop nights. You’d have Carl Craig, Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Lovebug Starski and DJ Premier all playing there in this small club. It really showed that this world in New York had shrunk and it had gone underground, so to speak. Those guys would be playing big clubs or festivals in Europe and here they were in New York in this tiny club.
There wasn’t a ton of stuff going on, but I was enjoying my adventure in New York and I was enamoured with the city and I wasn’t done with it yet. I hung around and began to establish a network of friends and decided to throw myself into DJ-ing in a more serious way that I’d done in London. I hustled, I got myself some gigs, met some people and started my own party It was Calling All Kids which was inspired by that downtown Arthur Russell scene and I did that for a year and a half. It gave me a profile and meant I played the bigger parties like Motherfucker.
This was 2005, 2006 and the whole DFA thing was happening at that time and a lot of kids were moving to Brooklyn. The first new club opening since I arrived called Studio B in Greenpoint. Justine D from Motherfucker was hired as the main booker and she brought me in as a resident DJ and I did some booking. It was a classic example of another failure in New York clubland but it had some great high points. It held about 1,000 people and James Murphy would do his nights there and you’d great live shows from LCD Soundsystem and Hercules & Love Affair. We had some great nights with Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and the old-school cats. There was a sense that something was coming back, but the club didn’t work out at all so it eventually folded.
Around this time, I met Justin. He was the musical director at APT, which I didn’t know when I was doing there, and we met up and we clicked. He was starting a Tuesday night party at APT with Afrika Bambaataa and he wanted someone to work with him and to DJ with Bambaataa and he asked me to do it, which was a huge privelege. It started great, but Bambaataa’s schedule became a problem because he had so many other gigs and the weekly Tuesdays was hard for him to stick to. But it was a great experience to work on a weekly basis with Justin and see the nuts and bolts of putting a party together.
That formed the basis for our working relationship and we started our first Sunday party then. Sunday Best was an outdoor party in Gowanus in Brooklyn and we did that for three years. We’d have a different headlining DJ every week and that was a success very quickly. Things were slowly coming back in New York, both the audience and the appetite for beat-driven music.
The end of 2008, we started Mister Saturday Night in a new lower Manhattan club called Santos Party House and we did that for six months there. What we learned was that our vision of what the night could be could not be delivered in Santos because the people who ran the club didn’t share that vision. It was coming through in the experience and the turnout. It wasn’t a success. We had a handful of amazing nights – Moodymann jamming with Egyptian Lover, for example – but we had a lot of duds so we stopped and took a step back
At this stage, we’ve been working together for two years. We’ve been in New York a while, we’ve put a lot of energy into this world, we’ve decided that it’s what we want to do and we have very fixed ideas about how to do. We decided that we were going to do everything from front to back ourselves and we were going to go out there and create the type of party, the type of experience, the type of community we had in our heads.
We bought a big sound system, explored all these loft spaces in Brooklyn and restarted Mister Saturday Night. We’d run everything – we’d hire the bar, stock the bar, hire the security, the lot. We’d sit everyone down at the start of the night and explain what we wanted to do and got them to buy into that. It started to fall into place when people came in and felt a different kind of vibe and atmosphere.
At the end of the day, dance music is about a community sharing an experience. Whether people know it explicitly or not, it’s what they want when they come out. If you understand that and you can create the right conditions for that each and every week, it will happen, it will absolutely happen. We’re obsessive about that to this very day. We talk about what happened the previous week and how we can make things happen. Something like not allowing mobile phones on the dancefloor is part of that because you’re not then connecting with people around you if you’re trying to reach someone who’s not there.
New York has got such a strong tradition when it comes to that culture that it didn’t disappear during the Giuliani years. There was still that connection to those legendary parties and clubs of the past. The people who went to those parties were still around so if you create the right conditions, it starts to come through again. A lot of the older heads come to our parties because they recognise the same sense of community that used to be there at the other parties. The rest of America doesn’t agree but I think New Yorkers are very friendly and they want to express themselves and connect with others. When it comes to dance culture, you take that eagerness and the tradition and put all the conditions for a great party together and it will just fall into place
When you spend all your time putting on parties and digging for records and new music, there’s a part of you which is very focused on the music which is being played. A big part of dance music culture has to do with a community of music makers rubbing off each other and helping each other and putting that music out. DFA was a great example of this. We just developed that as something we naturally had to do and have as another string to our bow. There were kids coming to the parties who were making music and who were giving us demos.
Once the parties got to a stage where they were managing themselves, we began to hone in on the record label. I spent the morning before you rang listening to demos and it’s a very relaxing thing for me to do. It’s not like putting a party on or DJ-ing, it’s just sitting back, listening to new music and thinking about putting it out into the world. We’re only getting started with the label and we’ve ambitions to do bigger things with it, like getting broader distribution, releasing albums and putting out different types of music.
The kind of spaces we’ve sought out and used for the Mister Sunday parties have always been these neglected secret spots in New York which have an unique urban charm. They’re not easy to find but when you find them and do a party there, it’s a magical thing. We realised that these spaces could be enjoyed not just for a party. People could go there and have some drinks and some great food and listen to some great background music and you could do that all summer long because we get such great weather here.
But the spaces we kept getting were very much on an ad-hoc basis and we were only getting them for a year at a time before a property developer moved in. The biggest threat to parties and clubs is the ever-evolving world of real estate – rents going up, buildings getting sold, it’s the story in big cities worldwide. This is the livliehood for both of us now and we want to do this for a few more years so we realised we had to get ahead of the game and get our very own space.
It took us two years but we eventually found this space. It was an abandoned car park. We took a ten year lease on it and put all our savings into developing what is now Nowadays where people can come and hang out with their friends. It’s in keeping with our ethos about community, but we’ve also built it as the future home of Mister Sunday. This year, we’re in Industry City but when our lease runs out, we have a readymade home for the party for the next nine years. There was a masterplan, you see!