“It’s not a generic club promotion situation. We’re obviously fans, and these are the parties we’d go to.” (Photo: Tim Thompson, left, and Wyatt Agard.)
Welcome to Residential, where Tone Madison meets the best acts holding down regular gigs on local stages and decks, from sturdy weeknight house bands to excellent and under-appreciated DJs.
Booking masterful house and techno DJs can often come with a steep price tag that few folks based in a transient college city like Madison would be willing to risk their money on. Madison-based DJs Wyatt Agard and Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson’s weekly House Of Love residency, which takes place every Friday at the Cardinal Bar, is one of the nights striving to fill the void. While it’s often financially risky in a smaller market, Agard and Thompson have consistently made House Of Love one of the most diverse and ambitious DJ residencies in the city. We’ve been regularly impressed by the cast of guests since House Of Love started in spring 2014 at Jolly Bob’s, including classic Chicago house legends like Derrick Carter and Paul Johnson, current Smart Bar resident Sassmouth, and forward-thinking Chicagoan curators Studio Casual. Ahead of Johnson’s imminent return to House Of Love on Friday, May 8, we sat down with Agard and Thompson to discuss Nick Nice’s impact on them, the importance of being able to trust folks to come out every week, and transitioning to a new home when Jolly Bob’s closed last year.
Tone Madison: I know you’re both a bit all over the map with music, with Tim also playing in rock band Helliphant. How’d you end up getting seduced by house and techno?
Wyatt Agard: I wasn’t very musical before I got into DJing. I was definitely an enjoyer of music and grew up in a house that always had something playing on the stereo, but I wasn’t trained at all. I went to some rave parties in my early teens and I liked the vibe, but I wasn’t a very social person, so I kind of gravitated toward “What is that guy who gets to stand behind the table doing?” I kind of got into DJing from there. Exposure from live performance was how I got into it. I’ve never had a hobby that I didn’t turn into a job, so this kind of followed suit with that. I probably started in about ’98. I bought turntables and borrowed a mixer for the first year and half, then I finally got my own DJ mixer. I graduated a semester early. My parents had a “if you’re not in school, you have to pay rent” thing, but since I graduated early, they were like “stay, you don’t have to pay rent!” So, then I spent like eight hours a day for the next six months just playing records in my room. I took a gig a little too early and I wasn’t happy with my performance, so I marked it on the calendar and spent another year mixing records for eight hours a day. After that, I came out and started doing stuff live. Nate Manic was moving to Chicago and he had one of the Wednesday residencies at Cardinal Bar, where I had been a guest once or twice before he moved, so he suggested to [Cardinal owner] Ricardo Gonzalez that he give me a residency, and now I’ve had a residency there in some shape or form for the last 15 years. It had been a dream of mine consistently to have a weekend party there. Nick Nice used to throw a party called Butter that was a high point.
I grew up in the rave scene, so I’d never heard like club-oriented house before. Coming out of the ’90s, it was a lot of real fast, kind of warehouse-y, jackin’ Chicago stuff, so to go to a place where it was 124 BPM as opposed to 133 BPM, and there were chords and not just dry vocal samples, and actual hired singers—a bit more of that European sound at that point. A more supported infrastructure producing more musical music. It just blew my mind. I was there. It could’ve been raining razorblades with guys with AK-47s on the roof and I would’ve been there just as consistently. At that point it was Inferno and Cardinal, Nick Nice and Mike Carlson. They had one or the other pretty much every Friday and Saturday. They let me start coming underage, they vouched for me, I didn’t act like a fool and I didn’t drink. I brought a record bag and sat in the booth and probably every second or third time they’d let me get on the decks for twenty minute to a half hour, which turned into the opening hour. I spent until 2005-2006 being Nick or Mike’s opener. I’m thankful for it, getting to see masters at work, picking up great tips, and seeing the lifestyle being lived by two guys that were successful at it. It was an unspoken internship and I can’t thank either of them enough. They turned me into what I am. Ricardo and [Inferno owner Apollo Marquez], too.
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: When I was 16, I worked at a record store, so I started buying house records. I’m from Chicago, so I had heard B96 and Hot Mix 5—I grew up on that stuff, but I never saw it in a live performance venue. So, I started buying records 24 years ago. Then a friend of mine, a guy named Dave Rodgers who’s also known as Delta 9—a pretty large name in the hardcore techno scene now—invited me to the first rave I ever went to in the winter of ’91. It was Hyperactive, Miles Maeda, Mystic Bill, and Derrick Carter in a busted up flat building. I got hooked instantly, I started searching out parties and was going to two or three parties per week, pretty much non-stop, for the next few years. I’d been playing classical piano since I was six or seven, was a piano teacher, played in bands, played in blues bands. I was getting annoyed with playing in a blues band, but then I learned I didn’t need to be the guy with keyboards in the back, but I could actually be a DJ. But back then, the barrier to entry was that you had to buy a lot of records, you had to learn those records, and you’re a year or two or three years off before you’re playing a gig. It’s so instantaneous now, but back then you also had to invest in gear. My first financial aid check went into that.
Wyatt Agard: You had to pay $1,500 for the privilege to pay eight bucks per track to start to slowly build a record collection.
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: The guy who I really started DJ with, Dave J, is going to be at House Of Love on Friday. I moved to Madison with him and we got shitty turntables from a Goodwill and I stole a DJ mixer from a Radio Shack [Laughs]. On a snowy day I went to Radio Shack and put a mixer in my jacket and walked out. That’s probably not a good thing to admit, but it’s how I started. I mean, that was 20 years ago. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: Pretty cool that three out of the four DJs at your first rave have all headlined at House Of Love.
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: I really was fiending over Miles, it just didn’t work out.
Wyatt Agard: I’m going to contact him about his upcoming US tour, but three out of four—it was nice.
Tone Madison: How did House Of Love end up coming together?
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: Wyatt and I had been talking about doing House Of Love for one to two years. It started on a Thursday, but Jolly Bob’s Saturday night was a problem, so Tim Erickson [the owner of Jolly Bob’s] wanted to move House Of Love to Saturdays. The original vision was to have a rotating bunch of DJs and Wyatt and I were on that list. I told Tim that I’d rather have just Wyatt and I do it. Then we were live and owning the night pretty quickly. The first night, Wyatt showed up pretty chill and I showed up pretty manic—fairly normal dynamic for us. We thought “OK, the over-under should be about 20 people” since this was a big change. However, it was packed all night. It was a very good first run featuring just Wyatt and I for the first few weeks, but then we started bringing in guests.
Tone Madison: How rough was the scramble to find a new venue when Jolly Bob’s closed?
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: I didn’t know what was going on. Wyatt and I talked about and, within a day, Wyatt was like “OK, I’ve got a few different options.” I was like, really? Cool, I was thinking I was out of work for a second there! We went to Club Voodoo [aka The Bayou on Butler Street] for a little bit, but once we had the first couple shows at Cardinal and we’re like “Holy shit, it’s happening!” I mean, here we are at one of the longest-running dance clubs in the Midwest.
Wyatt Agard: Longest running in North America, actually. Until they closed to redo their dance-floor, they were the longest-running dance club in North America. That was my first good sales pitch to get good touring acts at a decent rate. I was like, “I can’t pay you, but you can put on your resumé that you played at the longest running dance club in North America.” And they’d be like, “Yeah, I’ll play for cheap.”
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: We were able to keep all of our bookings and not cancel anything. We were already invested in that whole month and didn’t know what was going on. Kudos to Wyatt for finding a new home.
Wyatt Agard: We had less than a week’s notice between thinking that we would continue going with Jolly Bob’s to it’s closing. We almost didn’t get the Paul Johnson show, but we were both like “No, that’s not OK.”
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: I mean, Tim wanted that last party, too. It was just a hard week for him. I think it was a hard week for a lot of people and I don’t think anyone was expecting it. It was abrupt. Within an afternoon, Wyatt was like “got it, it’s done, and here’s the plan.”
Wyatt Agard: It pays to work at the store [MC Audio] that sells all the clubs all their stuff. Plus, at that point we’d had a good run. It was the talk of the town, we had a Beatport pick for the Jesse Saunders show, and we had a German magazine write about that same show. It was hitting really hard, but I almost think we raised the bar too high too fast. I mean, where do we go from there? Madison can’t support Phuture. I tried to book Jimmy Edgar and he costs like $3,600. I book a 200-person nightclub where people shy away from a $10 cover. It was a beat to get $5 and we had to earn that trust and now we’re trying for $10, which seems to be a resistance point for people. We’re booking people that regularly play for thousands of people at festivals or do sold out tours in Europe that come up for 10 to 15 percent of their usual booking fee and people come up like, “Uh, can you do two bucks or like a two-for-one?” We have to pay for really good art, dude. It’s a struggle. Madison is a hard city to do it in because there’s so much free stuff and so many students as performing artists. Students have income subsidized by parents, subsidized by grants, and subsidized by loans. There’s a large ability to undercut, so being a working musician in this city can be real hard.
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: I’ve lived here for 20 years. Cover charges were five dollars when I moved here and they’re five dollars now. Inflation has hit the whole rest of the world, but entertainers and musicians.
Tone Madison: The Cardinal seems to have a pretty broad audience and folks with only a cursory interest in dance music may not understand the significance of some of the DJs and producers you’re bringing in. Do you generally struggle with selling people on the importance of the headliners?
Wyatt Agard: It can be easy with some people, because you can be like “Look, this person has been here for the entire history.” But, if it’s not a Derrick Carter or a Richie Hawtin or a John Acquaviva or Phuture—these genre-defining people—how do you tell somebody that DIZ is one of last remaining voices of house music? Darryl Pandy has passed, Robert Owens has passed, and a lot of the classic male house vocalists have passed. Let’s be honest, we both expected DIZ to do better last week. He’s the vocalist for The Creeps and probably a third of all the classic male house tunes that have been produced in Chicago over the last 15 years. He’s a heady name, but he’s still a name. It gets hard. I think when personal friendships allow us to book such amazing people at such reduced rates, maybe people lose credibility when every artist has such a level of gravitas behind them. It’s a fucking good party. Sure, if people aren’t there every week, it’s a little defeating sometimes, but also—fuck ’em. Fuck you if you think you’ve got something better to do. Fuck you if you think $12 drinks and $90 shoes are a cooler time than seeing history being made and revered all at once. What we do is dope and what a lot of people do is bullshit. I hate to sound like a cock, but it’s true. I’ll put it up against anything else that happens in this town on a regular basis, I’ll challenge anybody that our time is better. People will have a better time at our event than they would at theirs—bar none. I can’t think of anything else that’s even close. I’m sick of not saying it and I’ll fucking say it anywhere. It’s just true.
Tone Madison: Speaking of gravitas, you’ve got a pretty serious guest in Paul Johnson this week, who’s returning for the second time. What can we expect?
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: The first time I saw Paul Johnson was probably in ’94 or ’95, but I remember seeing him in Rockford in ’97 or something like that. I’ve never seen anyone match beats that fast. He’s an impeccable DJ and his track selection is great. At some point, when you keep saying “we have one of the best people in house music coming this week,” people will be like, “didn’t you say that last week?” And it’s like, yeah I did. It was true then and it’s true now. Whenever we’ve said “this is the shit, come out and trust us,” the show has delivered. It can be hard to get 150 people to come back week after week after week, but when it works—which it often does—it is something to behold.
Tone Madison: When you’re inviting the guest DJs, do you expect them to work with your initial vision of the party or do you keep it pretty loose?
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: We want the headliners to have fun, even on the rough nights. When Zebo was here last year, they sat a 20-person table at 9:50 p.m. and we were supposed to go on at 10 p.m. So, we can’t start the opening set, we can’t get rolling, but his first question to us—as an open-format DJ that can spin whatever he wants—was “What are you guys looking for tonight?” We told him that we generally do house music, but we want artists to come and create art. That’s what we’re interested in. We don’t want to try and tell you what’s up. At the end of the night, Zebo walked out of Jolly Bob’s saying, “Man, I had more fun here than I do playing giant clubs in Vegas. Can I come back?” Jesse Saunders is about to come back for his third House Of Love and this is not us tracking him down. It’s him asking, “When can I come back and play?” At the end of the night, what we want to offer to guests that come through, is to make it more like family or friend situation. It’s not a generic club promotion situation. We’re obviously fans, we’re obviously bringing in artists that we want to hear, and these are the parties we’d go to.
Wyatt Agard: I mean, what’s better? The Cardinal has a good sound system, a great vibe, a great staff that pours good drinks. The music is good, the DJs are on the floor so that you can see these guys aren’t just playing pre-recorded mixes and syncing. We spend time programming the lights every week so there are different light shows maintaining a consistent vibe and color scheme. I don’t know.
Tone Madison: How do you see House Of Love evolving over the next year?
Wyatt Agard: I hope it’s exactly the fucking same. [Laughs] I’d like to see a bit more deco on our part. I’d like to see us have enough of a name that we can bring in some artists that are one level bigger. I want to be able to use the gravitas of our name to help lower our costs and, as a result, keep costs low for other people.
Tim “Lovecraft” Thompson: It would be nice to bring someone in for a $15 or $20 cover, because we could bring the names in if we could put enough trust in people to make that investment. I think it would be worth it.