In the age of social media, San Francisco's wildest clubs (and shrewdest promoters) are taking over the world
"My body's over Guam somewhere."
DJ Adrian was triangulating his sleep deprivation coordinates, trademark fuchsia dreads grazing a gourmet cheese platter at Starbelly in the Castro. It wasn't easy. He and his partner, Mysterious D, who both spoke with me last week, just spent two months bringing their Bootie party (www.bootiemashup.com ) to three continents, including stops in Helsinki, Singapore, Cork, Vilnius, Rio, Budapest, and Hong Kong. They'd had to deal with volcanoes in Iceland, rabid Britney fans in São Paulo, and breakneck drives across Poland. They were leaving for Brooklyn the next day, then on to Seattle. All this without pausing their original gig, simulcast on Second Life, which for the past seven years has lured capacity crowds three Saturdays a month to DNA Lounge in San Francisco's SoMa district. "I would say I'm jetlagged as fuck," Adrian laughed, "but that would completely exhaust me."
I didn't believe him for a minute. Sure, racking up all those SkyMiles might drain the pink from anyone's locks, but judging from the constant stream of music production, multiple-site updates, and live performances, Adrian and D operate at a superhuman level "manic" only begins to cover. Yet this was no mere gonzo DJ world tour. It was the Bootie Expansion Tour. Adrian and D were supporting and promoting various global franchises of the Bootie party brand, and testing the waters for future ones.
DJs often travel beyond the confines of their regular club nights, of course, sometimes bringing a certain attention to flyer design, opening support, and club décor with them to insure a singular party vibe. But the notion of entire independent parties — alternative in nature, low on capital, and intimately linked to the underground — expanding their brands internationally, establishing regular installments beyond homebase, is a phenomenon only possible in the Internet age. It's also an opportunity that tech-heady San Francisco's intensely creative, DIY nightlife scene is perfectly poised to take advantage of. Four very different local parties — Bootie, Trannyshack, Blow Up, and Bearracuda — have leapt to the forefront of the new "parties without borders" reality. And as they become more known worldwide, the promoters are also slyly exporting some uniquely San Franciscan cultural and sexual values. Trojan nightlife: we like that.
Musically, Bootie specializes in that wildly popular and mostly extralegal 21st-century art form, the bootleg mashup, which digitally Frankensteins two or more hit songs from disparate genres to reach a goofy-beauty sweet spot.
DJ Adrian and Mysterious D. Photo by Jeffery Cross
Billed as "the biggest bootleg mashup party in the world," Bootie parties at the DNA are mashups in their own right, usually incorporating several guest DJs, batty drag and live musical numbers, mass sing-alongs, dress-up themes, slick flyers that meld famous faces together, free CD giveaways, and a fantastically mixed crowd. Oh, and giant inflatable pirates (Adrian and D are cheeky, or crazy, enough to foreground the allegedly piratical aspects of their musical operations.)
"Bootleg mashups are an integral part of the whole 'open source' debate," D told me. "So we wanted to take that one step further and experiment with open source nightlife. We're the party everyone associates with mashups. And there are people making mashups on their laptops in bedrooms around the world. So when they want to start a regular party, they write us and ask us how. These are mostly people who've never dealt with venues, never promoted before. Obviously we can't come there every week and host. So we talk to them more, see if they're the right people, and guide them through it. We only ask that they conform to our quality standards regarding look and feel. It's our baby. And if they can add in the performances and fly us out to play once in a while, that's great, too."
"In fact," Adrian added, not joking, "we're developing a Bootie in a Box extension kit for people to download and start their own." (Said box would include such things as hi-res logos and flyer images for consistent branding, a copy of the Bootie font, music downloads, DVDs of looping visuals, server space and a URL on the Bootie site, and, yes, a six-foot inflatable pirate design.) "It's about making the Internet do the work for us."
The Internet has certainly worked for knockout photog Ava Berlin, who puts on Blow Up (www.blowupsf.com ) with her husband, Jeffrey Paradise, and genius-eared DJ Richie Panic. She told me, "People know Blow Up from the videos they see on YouTube. A lot of promoters in other cities are like 'How do you get the crowd to go crazy like that?' They see what's going on in San Francisco, and it really inspires them to go buck wild."
Ava Berlin and DJ Jeffrey Paradise. Photo by David Espinoza, styling by V Vernard
Until it was recently shut down due to capacity issues, Blow Up was our infamous winning entry in the balls-out electro party sweepstakes, for five years drawing a glamour-forward, sensually uninhibited 18-and-over crowd to the Rickshaw Stop. (The party still survives — Blow Up launches a monthly "summer concert series" on Sat/12 at Kelly's Mission Rock.) It was one of the first club nights to truly harness the power of social media, posting shareable party photos and slickly edited vids practically before last call was over.
"Three or four years ago, people started sending us links to websites in other countries — young people in Germany, Japan, Paris, Bangkok that collected Blow Up flyers, photos, and videos on their blogs and MySpace pages," Berlin continued. "These people hadn't even had a chance to go to one of the parties, but through the Internet they're part of it."
Some of those people wanted to throw their own Blow Ups, and the party quickly spread to Los Angeles, Tokyo, Atlanta, Osaka, Miami, and New York. Before the Blow Up promoters license their name, though, one of them might go out first to check out the scene. And, except in L.A., where a regular franchise has been operating for some time, they consider their presence crucial to the event's success. (A physical compensation for virtual fame?) "We never appear as Blow Up unless we know the promoters personally or they're recommended by trusted friends," Berlin said. "We work closely with them on almost everything, even the type of security guards. People need to feel free to make the right vibe. We're really particular."
Extending your party brand can have its pitfalls, as the colossally coiffed Heklina of celebrated trash-drag party Trannyshack (www.trannyshack.com ) has found. Whereas Bootie has so far only had to "politely remind people that we exist" to keep them from poaching its concept, Heklina's been caught in a litigious nightmare. "Everyone loves Trannyshack — so much that they've tried to steal the Trannyshack name all over the world. I could pass the bar with all I know about copyright law now," she told me.
Before it ceased its weekly operations at the Stud after 12 years (it still holds occasional, gleefully packed "tribute nights" at DNA Lounge), Trannyshack's indelible blend of retro tunes and fluid-filled drag performances had reached London, New York, L.A., Seattle, Portland, Waikiki, Santa Fe, and New Orleans. The raucous annual Trannyshack Reno bus trip, now a decade old, pioneered the exportation of freaky San Francisco fun to an often-stunned outer world. "I love that people love us, but Trannyshack is what I do, and I need to protect the name," said Heklina. "Because who knows what I'll want to do in the future? It's only natural to want to broaden our audience. But I've found in far-off places like London and New York, where I can't check on everything in person, the concept gets watered down. Queens outside of San Francisco just don't get it. I've had to shut them down.
Heklina. Photo by Jeffery Cross
"Trannyshack as a whole is harder to franchise, too," Heklina said, "because it's about the show. If you want a Trannyshack, you have to fly at least five queens out and put us up. We don't just send a DJ. That's why I stick to the West Coast now. I only really make money that way — I can just load everyone in a van and drive out, not have to spend all week, and actually get paid. In fact, I have a great deal in Portland right now. I host a monthly "Miss Thing" contest. I just go up there myself, but mentor the local queens who'll be competing beforehand — how to put a performance concept together, what lighting they'll need. I control them remotely through the Internet," she laughed.
Now let's talk about money. To some, throwing a party elsewhere may sound as easy as connecting with the right people, finding a venue, and posting a Facebook invite. (It's not, of course.) But does expansion make fiduciary sense? Shrewd business gal Heklina has actually shrunk and reconcentrated her brand to better capitalize. The Blow Up kids usually settle for standard DJ and travel fees — 18-plus crowds don't bring in much bar money to split. Adrian and D know from personal experience that it can take years for a Bootie party to establish itself and become profitable, so they're currently engaged in a kind of vast seed-growth investment project. ("The real reward, way beyond money," D told me, echoing the other promoters, "is seeing our vision, something created in a studio apartment in San Francisco from pure passion and our own imagination, exist in another place, in a totally different culture, but it being the same.")
"I love gay people, but I love money more," tall, scruffy Matt Mikesell of Bearracuda (www.bearracuda.com ) deadpanned over the phone. "And yes, world domination is the goal." Four years ago, he began Bearracuda -- now twice monthly at Deco Lounge -- as "a place for big, hot, hairy gay guys to dance somewhere that was attitude-free, but could still get crazy." To his surprise, the simple-sounding concept quickly filled a niche and exploded. Bearracuda parties were soon established in L.A., Portland, Seattle, and New Orleans. ("I try to be at every one I can, and I exert total control over the DJ selection, the flyers, and the look.") In the near future, Sydney, Auckland, Vancouver, Atlanta, and Orlando will see their own Bearracudas, and Mikesell is even taking over the famed Lazy Bear Weekend in Guerneville this summer, temporarily replacing it with his own party, called Bear Market (www.beargetaway.com .)
Having worked with Trannyshack and Bootie, Mikesell knows that expansion beyond the West Coast isn't profitable, especially when he charges less than $10 cover. "Frankly, I was astounded at how much more they're willing to pay in Auckland and Sydney, so I'm trying it out," he says. "Plus, more parties mean I'm still fresh meat."
But what he's exporting may be invaluable. No diss on the resilient, light-hearted Bearracuda, but bear parties are old news here, and have even gone through several evolutions. Yet bears in other cities aren't as spoiled as ours. "Portland has, like, some little shack out in the country for them," Mikesell says. Originally meant to buck the tanned-and-toned body fascism of the gay scene, bear culture was developed in Northern California and honed in SF, so Bearracuda is actually repping a local, sexually subversive commodity to the world.
Matt Mikesell. Photo by Jeffery Cross
It doesn't stop there with the exporting of San Francisco values. "We were booked in straight clubs. We were booked in gay clubs. Outrageous trannies and total bros showed up." Adrian said of the Bootie tour. "People didn't know what to expect from our descriptions, since there are so few mixed parties outside of SF. And then, of course, there's us. They saw D, they saw me, and sometimes they couldn't figure it all out." Adrian and D. were legally married six years ago (at Burning Man, natch), but still maintain an openly queer, and, in Adrian's case, androgynous status. "People got a little bit of an education about San Francisco-style sexualities on that tour."
Heklina sums it up nicely: "We were doing Trannyshack L.A. last year, and this queen from there got up on stage with a bunch of guys in yellow raincoats. I think she did a Whitney Houston number or something. Anyway, at the climax, the guys stood above her and started pissing all over her. I went up to her afterward and said, 'That was amazing, dear! But you know, it's been done before. Years before. In San Francisco.' I probably shouldn't have said that."