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Happy hour stars and alien boosters in San Francisco, Jondi & Spesh are anxious about the techno stardom Britain wants to give them

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
"We're not famous-famous," says Stephen Kay, aka Spesh, of Bay Area dance music production team Jondi and Spesh. DJs and possibly another 100 non-DJ techno specialists are familiar with them, the duo alleges, and so both remain modest, even amidst the praise they've been receiving from the techno-house hub of Britain. Other than the occasional record review, Spesh laments, "we've never gotten any press that we know of, except for little mentions here and there."

In the tiny production studio they share in Jondi's house off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Jondi, aka JD Moyer, and Spesh sit among their equipment -- mixing desk, computer, keyboards, synthesizers, and even an aquamarine electric guitar, which neither of them can play -- while Jondi twiddles with the computer to play back their latest work-in-progress and the bleached-blond Spesh rummages through their scrapbooks. While Jondi is devoted to producing music, Spesh DJs as well, and four shelves of records arranged chronologically loom over him in testament to the immensity of his collection, which even includes a small stack of seven-inch singles from decades past.

The two have been working together since they first met ("We had a really good musical chemistry," Jondi says) in 1992, both with years of musical experience. Jondi, native to the Bay Area and influenced by Underworld, acid-house pioneers Psychic TV, and hip hop artists, taught himself to produce music and put out his own records in 1991. Spesh, a transplant from St. Helena who began taking his mixing seriously in 1989, when he moved to San Francisco, later started DJing at SOMA club Ten 15 and claims influences as diverse as '80s synth pop and LA-based DJ Doc Martin. The tight partnership is apparent not only from the way the pair finishes each other's sentences but also in the beats they cohesively sew together.

Jondi and Spesh have released tracks in the U.S. and had their videos aired on MTV's Amp, but while their reputation in England is escalating, in their Bay Area home the music they produce on their own Loöq Records is still relatively undiscovered. They joke about having slight chips on their shoulders, but in actuality don't seem to mind the neglect one bit. "I think it's kind of groovy," says Spesh. "We're so bubbling under the surface at this point, and we may actually stay there. That would be fine."

"As long as we keep getting the music out," Jondi adds.

And they have. A month after their initial meeting they produced their first record, which was well-received among techno and house-heads in San Francisco; it was put out by Trip 'n Spin, a dance music collective with which they were involved for about five years. After making six records on that label, the duo decided to start its own Loöq Records in 1997 -- and they've stayed with it ever since. Loöq releases are self-manufactured in their studio -- a music they once described as "housetechnotribaltrance." Spesh gives a brief synopsis: "Basically Loöq is a successor to Trip 'n Spin, only this time the only people involved are Jondi and Spesh. And, of course, Lasse Loöq." Jondi laughs, and there is a brief moment of confusion. Lasse Loöq? "He is the founder of Loöq Records. The person who inspired us," Spesh says. They regard the mythical character as their "virtual leader;" "Lasse" is currently releasing a record in the UK, a hard house track called "Amphibiosis."

And Lasse isn't the only one. Jondi and Spesh have managed to get their own stage names thrown around Britain's dance scene. Internationally known U.K. DJ John Digweed got ahold of their track "We Are Connected" after its first release in 1997 and started mixing it into his sets at clubs around the world. But when he included it on a compilation he played for BBC Radio One's "Essential Mix" (England's most popular dance music show) last May, the track exploded. "[The whole mix] got such a great reaction," says Digweed. "All these people ringing up and saying, 'This Essential mix, can you do us a tape of it?' and then in the end I thought I should try to license this and put it out." The compilation became his widely released "Bedrock" album, which scooted "We Are Connected" even further up the charts. "That's an old track, but everyone was ringing up like mad trying to find it," says Digweed. "Little things like that were kind of nice because you kind of spark an interest in a track that's three years old." On March 2, U.K. label Dorigen Music re-released "We Are Connected," which sold out after three days. Though Spesh and Jondi's records are released on these shores as well, the response to their music is more enthusiastic in Britain, where dance culture has infused the mainstream for years. Even so, both are reluctant to accept an offer from Dorigen to sign them on as artists, thinking the move might compromise their output. "They love 40 percent of our stuff but they wouldn't know what to do with the rest of it," says Jondi.

Spesh nods thoughtfully and adds one of the many anecdotes he seems to have stored: "[In the U.K.] they have fashions in sound that are pretty severe. I spent a year at Oxford, and you don't wear white socks when you're there because that's a plebeian thing to do. But we're over here wearing white socks and sometimes we send tracks over there that have white socks on, too. They look great, and they sound great. But we get a letter back that says, 'Can you take the white socks off, because that's the only part of the track that we don't like.'"

Blinding socks and all, their next album is tentatively set for release on Loöq this summer. Perhaps they are sacrificing a potential shot at fame in a scene abroad that has made superstars out of electronic music teams like Basement Jaxx and Portishead, but Jondi and Spesh seem happy with the pace of their production. The fame they have received thus far has been a little "scary," as Jondi puts it. "Sometimes at a Qoöl party people come up to you and they really, really want to meet you -- and I don't know, it freaks me out a little bit."

Any fainters? "No fainters," Spesh says as the two meet each other's eyes and laugh even before Spesh continues, "but lots of sweaty hugs." Both grin as they cringe.

A few trendy spots are tucked into the pockets of SOMA's Minna Alley, and art gallery-cum-nightclub 111 Minna is one of them. Near the Academy of Art and within walking distance of many of San Francisco's white collar offices, Jondi and Spesh's techno happy hour is the only one of its kind, and its popularity has exploded. Attendees (referred to as "Qoölios" on the site) unwind from their classes or meetings with pint specials and techno, house, and trance beats from DJs Spesh, residents Gil and Hyper D, and a number of rotating guest spinners, such as Spundae's Jerry Bonham and DRC. The vibe is friendly and the club is host to one of the most crowded and enthusiastic dance floors that can be found anywhere at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.

Jondi and Spesh started the night over three years ago -- though it began with the name "E-cool" -- with the idea of creating a space where their skilled friends could play. For its first two years it was a mellow scene, with 60 people max on a big night. Then one day the two, who often hand out freebies like plastic lizards or glowsticks, decided to give their regulars a reward for sticking with the night for so long, and issued plastic membership cards. A "Qoöl card" entitled their bearer to a lifetime of free entry to Qoöl, while non-members were charged a $3 entry fee. "As soon as we started doing that attendance just went up," says Jondi.

This month, they've had to start turning away most non-members at the door. "The walls aren't going to get any bigger, so that's the only solution," says Spesh. "I wouldn't want to go anywhere else; it's a great setting. Eventually we may have to admit that we've outgrown it and move on, but we'll hold onto it as long as possible."

Australian-native Hyper D, aka Dave Richardson, manages the bar at 111 Minna and has also been a resident DJ at Qoöl for the past couple of years. He thinks the crowd is interesting -- it's mostly young creative types, some of whom have been with the party since the beginning. Word of mouth and the recent build-up downtown are contributing factors to the night's popularity, he says, but most important seems to be the conscientious way Jondi and Spesh promote and organize the party. "They're nice guys," says Richardson, pointing out that it's not making money that drives the two. "Their motives are really good, the way the profit at the door goes to SETI."

Even though most of their proceeds go right back into the party, for expenses like flyers, which keeps the money coming back in ("kind of like organic farming," says Spesh) about $200 per month is donated to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which through various projects -- the most well-known being Project Phoenix -- investigates the question of life on other planets using tools of technology and science. They didn't choose SETI because of some galactic-techno correlation, but rather because of Jondi's own interest in the organization's research. (Jondi also became a member over a year ago.)

Their main point of contact at SETI, Manager of Development, Communications, and Programs Diane Richards, has been enthusiastic about the Qoölio contributions from the start. She says that the constituency of their donors is generally older, so to have a group of younger clubbers donating so regularly is unique. "I think it's evidence of a youth market, the next generation of SETI supporters," she says, adding that she and her co-workers are anxious to get to know the group better. They may even attend one of the events in the near future and give a talk about the organization to the happy hour group.

While the Qoöl nights continue to evolve both physically and politically, another monthly event called "Loöq Hard," also at 111 Minna, is already being well received. And the duo have another club event planned as well, which will be unveiled mid-May, though both are coy about details. Still, the pair don't consider party-promoting their primary role in the scene. Most of their time is actually spent huddled in the small suburban studio creating tracks. The walls -- covered with their past records, a Chemical Brothers poster, and other musical décor -- provide a backdrop as Jondi and Spesh play back their most recent dance floor-ready track which was tested out on the previous night's Qoöl crowd.

The suburban hideaway seems an appropriate environment for the two, a place to create music that -- unlike themselves -- they take seriously. "Every album is a work of art," says Spesh, in seeming earnestness, "from what it looks like to what it sounds like to who mastered it. Everything is a complete thought-out statement about where we were at that moment."

Jondi peers at him incredulously -- and bursts out laughing.

About The Author

Susan Derby


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