Shortly after 9pm on the Thursday night at Glastonbury this year, Jason Kendig and Jackie House of Honey Soundsystem are opening the Genosys stage of Block9 b2b with Prosumer. The slot has previously been taken by David Morales playing a Frankie Knuckles tribute and French disco originator Corrine in recent years. As the sun sets amidst broken cloud behind the eerie urban structure that towers above the DJ booth, the field is packed from front to back with the festival’s brightest characters and beaming smiles.
Honey Soundsystem are spinning for one of the biggest, most immersive experiences on the UK festival circuit, with the London Underground venue’s decaying tower block to their right, and the NYC Downlow to their left; Block9’s homage to a vintage New York gay club, which was the first LGBT space at a British festival when it opened nine years ago. At the end of their set, night has taken hold, and with Genosys bathed in green and blue light, Glastonbury’s alternative mecca is in full swing for the first time. Over the next four days, it will be the epicentre of the festival’s wildest parties, centred around impeccable programming and a no-holds-barred approach to set design.
And there’s a clear lineage between Block9 and what Honey Soundsystem represent. Made up of Kendig, Jacob Sperger, aka Jackie House, Josh Cheon and Robert Yang, the San Francisco collective built their legacy on LGBTQ parties characterised by impeccable house music, continuing a rich history on the US West Coast, elaborate installations and indulgent behaviour. They’ve steadily become one of the most respected parties in the US amongst discerning house heads and, turning 10-years-old this year, Honey Soundsystem have now burst onto the global scene.
After years of running parties at Burning Man and Folsom Street Party, last year they teamed up with TheNeedlExchange collective for events in Washington, ran a residency at Smart Bar in Chicago, and took over Berlin’s Panorama Bar with US promoters Men’s Room and Honcho. This year they’ve gone on to play Circoloco at DC10, Razzmatazz in Barcelona for Heidi’s This Is Hardcore, spin an all-night long set with Midland at London’s Phonox, and play Bestival and Field Maneuvers at the end of the summer.
The first time they travelled to Europe was to play a Horse Meat Disco party in 2008, which they say kick-started much of what the collective represents today. “Through our travels we’ve realised how globally connected everyone is,” Kendig explains. “It’s such a small scene once you interact with people from different countries who are all on a similar wavelength, collaborating, creating and making things grow; it’s like a brotherhood.”
In the same trip Sperger would also visit NYC Downlow at Glastonbury. “We were inspired by what I experienced here,” he continues. “Seeing the psychedelic festival network of people committed an experience like this. It opened up the whole scene, as there’s a lot of idea share between people trying to keep a lawless and free music space in their community, so to come back and add to it means a lot.”
DJ Mag speaks to Kendig and Sperger the day after their Genosys set, on the converted Leyland Roadrunner of Gideon Berger, one of the creative minds behind Block9. It’s parked backstage, and navigated to through a door decorated with pot plants, at the top of some metal stairs lined by an infinite collection of mud-splashed wellies. Inside it’s an Aladdin’s cave of vintage trinkets, rugs and soft furnishings, littered with artists from the underground house, techno and disco scenes. The pair relax on an antique sofa, flanked by the Horse Meat Disco collective.
And the Honey Soundsystem duo really are amongst friends at the festival, with the likes of Prosumer, Honey Dijon, Discodromo and The Black Madonna all having played their party, as well as becoming close friends. And it was the latter who invited them to do their residency at Chicago’s Smart Bar, which merged into a multimedia project including visual artists, performers and musicians, marking their pilgrimage to the birthplace of the music they represent.
“There’s a political thread with our music because of the marginalised community conversation,” Sperger explains. “So going to Chicago felt like a tall order. We didn’t want to just go, do a DJ set and leave. We had to add something.”
Representing the history of house runs through Honey Soundsystem’s work too. Their current Facebook description states “SF HARD NRG”, an homage to San Francisco’s High-NRG sound that spawned the likesof Paul Parker and Patrick Cowley, and a scene killed by the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, with the latter, its originator, dying from the disease in 1982 at just 32 years old.
They also have strong ties with labels like Grayhound Recordings, fundamental in the West Coast’s deep house sound of the ‘90s. “They’ve been very supportive,” Kendig explains. “They’re excited that a baton has been passed to a newer generation that understand what they did. And you can’t overstate how awesome it is when your heroes appreciate your work. That’s huge.”
But despite their encyclopaedic knowledge, Honey Soundsystem aren’t stuck in the past. “It’s about acknowledging the blueprints have existed for some time,” Kendig explains. “And lots of forgotten gems have gone under the radar, or can still resonate on a dance floor today, but also not being caught up in the past, as there’s so much good music being created now. So it’s about finding the threads through all of that.”
And the sound they spin can incorporate everything from High-NRG to Italo, as well as disco-tinged, Detroit, Chicago, deep, jackin’ and downright sleazy house, and beyond, blending long lost classics and rare gems with new artists and material and edits of their own. This is represented in the labels that fall under the Honey umbrella too, which put out new music as well as archiving older material that has long been forgotten.
They say their HNYTRX imprint, “Exposes underground and gay artists with forward-thinking sounds”. Through the label they put out Bézier’s ‘Cosmologist’ EP earlier this year, as well as releases from Amsterdam’s Beesmunt Soundsystem and a four-tracker from Sperger as Jackie House in the summer. Dark Entries, the label run by Cheon, has built a cult following unearthing protohouse rarities, rare Italo-disco and electro gems from the past, and are famed for putting out a series of unreleased gay porn movie soundtracks by Patrick Cowley last year. “He’s made this huge fan base that just buy on site,” Kendig enthuses about Cheon.
Another large part of their story is the podcast they’ve been running since 2008, presenting their own mixes alongside guest appearances from DJs circulating their scene, which have included Hunee, KiNK and Boris. “We’re trying to create opportunities for DJs that deserve to be heard,” Sperger explains. “And that’s even more important now we have a bigger audience.” They’ve recently graduated to a monthly RBMA Radio show, where they’ve already had guests including Doc Sleep and Roi Perez.
And it’s a love of cratedigging that brought Honey Soundsystem together. Sperger started things with an artist called Ken Woodward, who was part of the old-school Bay Area rave scene. Kendig joined shortly after, having first met Sperger through a shared appreciation of a BPitch track he played at a party two years earlier. He joined shortly before Cheon and Yang completed the pack after “nerding out” on the dance floor over Laurie Marshall’s ‘Disco Spaceship’.
“We knew it wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t start something,” Kendig explains. “People weren’t going to just come and find us. By being affiliated with something, it pushes you, and now that just keeps growing.”
And the approach has paid dividends. Two years later, displeased with the gay scene they were experiencing in San Francisco after the heady days of The Castro district had been overrun by mainstream music, Honey started their weekly parties. And running them slowly made them realise what a strong scene there already was. “We learned how much was happening that we just didn’t know about,” Sperger explains. “So it acted like a magnet for other people doing interesting shit.”
It started at the venue formerly known as Paradise Lounge and ran there until it closed in 2010. Shortly after, the Honey weekly restarted at the Holy Cow, historically a space where San Francisco disco heroes like The Cockettes and Sylvester would hang out. The party would remain there, bringing artists like DJ Sprinkles, Todd Terje, Mr. Ties and Mike Servito to the city, until they stopped it in 2013.
“It hit a glass ceiling,” Sperger explains. “And you can’t let a party become stale. We pulled the plug at the perfect time; we knew it was time to go bigger.” Finishing it allowed Honey to focus on their international calendar, which has blossomed in the three years since. And now, 10 years in, they have had their biggest year yet. “I don’t think that’s fair,” Sperger counters. “It’s the one that people have recognised our name, but the years before that are just as glittery and fiery as now,” he laughs.
They’ve also continued to run larger-scale events in San Francisco, including their Folsom Street Fair Deviants after-party, something they say is the pinnacle of their calendar. “Folsom’s a potent part of our scene in SF,” Sperger continues. “As it’s a protest about sexual freedoms, and the general fear of sex. All the money goes back into queer non-profits too, so curating something for it is really important to us.”
Last year DJ Harvey headlined, and in September they had the city’s debut of Gerd Janson and Phillip Lauer as Tuff City Kids. The party attracts a diverse dancefloor too, as many attendees aren’t their regular crowd. “We’re really able to do fulfill our mission statement there,” Kendig explains. “To have our people there, but also expose others that might never listen to our music outside that night.”
And that’s what makes their opening slot at Glastonbury perfect. For every Block9 regular who knows Honey’s kaleidoscopic-house filter, there’ll be many more at the festival that are in it for the ride, discovering something new, and unaware of the history lesson they’re experiencing. And that’s the most apparent thing about Kendig and Sperger. Through everything Honey Soundsystem represent, the focus always comes back to their love for house music, past and present, summed up by their parting shot, both smiling as they venture back out into the madness of Block9, “We’ll see you on the dance floor”.
Honey Soundsytem’s Jackie House interviews Block9’s Gideon Berger...
A lot of time must go into finding the highest quality freaks to perform at Block9. What’s the vetting process?
“The NYC Downlow talent usually comes in via Jonny Woo, Ninebob and Jon Sizzle. They’re at the centre of the international alternative queer performance circuit. The credentials required are that you’re an uncategorisable queer freak with a ‘fuck you’ attitude and undeniable talent.”
Have you created any legends in the process?
“We’ve certainly contributed to the celebrity of some of the brightest stars of the scene. Scottee, Le Gateaux Chocolat, A Man To Pet and Theo Adams all came up at the same time as the Downlow and I think most will cite it as point of reference at the very least.”
Every great club breeds its own musical talent, have any DJs that have become synonymous with Block9?
“Veteran house music powerhouse Tristan Da Cunha house duo with Brawther, Dungeon Meat, are Downlow residents now. Those boys certainly know how to harness the deep sleazy homo-house sound. Greg Belson is another, he’s a world authority on gospel and always murders the dancefloor with his rarities. A Downlow resident for life.”
Who is the guest you least expected to enjoy playing for Block9?
“I was really surprised that Roger Sanchez, Kerri Chandler, Cerrone and Francois K had such a good time. I assumed, that with their history, our little party wouldn’t touch the sides. But I walked into the Downlow with Roger Sanchez this year and he said, ‘Wow. This is amazing. I love this!’. Francois K was the same, so I guess we aren’t doing too badly.”
(Photos: Louise Oates & Jeffrey McMahan)
You can listen to Honey Soundsystem open Glastonbury’s Genosys stage at Block9 b2b Prosumer here.
Rob McCallum is DJ Mag’s deputy digital editor. Follow him on Twitter here.