When it comes to the house- and techno-infused bass sounds that have been ruling forward-thinking clubs these last couple years, San Francisco’s Ghosts On Tape (aka Ryan Merry) is quickly becoming one of the style’s go-to producers. Not only have the recent Red Bull Music Academy alum’s tracks and remixes appeared on Planet Mu, Wireblock (now Numbers.), and others, but the club night he runs with Low Limit (of Lazer Sword), Rollie Fingers, and Shawn Reynaldo, called Icee Hot, is putting the finishing touches on their eponymous label’s first release, which comes from none other than the Ghostly one himself.
Merry and friends have brought the Icee Hot party all over the country, and later this month they’ll present a special afterparty with Terrence Parker and xxxy at Seattle’s Decibel Festival, but before they do, the residents will inaugurate that first release, Ghost On Tape’s “Nature’s Law,” with an event at San Francisco’s 222 Hyde Club on September 21. Here, Merry talks us through the critical elements of ushering in the night’s vibe, along with what never to do, so read on for the tips, and then grab 10 awesome warm-up tracks from Ghosts On Tape’s arsenal right here.
Firstly, tell us about the Icee Hot club night.
Icee Hot is a monthly party in San Francisco whose residents are Shawn Reynaldo, Rollie Fingers, Low Limit, and myself. Our philosophy is simple: feature all the great, underexposed (in San Francisco, anyway) house, techno, and forward-thinking dance music that we love in a “music first,” no-frills environment. We have a few simple rules: no party photographers (just enjoy the music, dance, and hang out with friends; don’t worry about posing and looking cool for some website), no set times (just show up and dance; it’s all gonna be good), no requests (for obvious reasons), no hula hoops (our club is small, and why bring a hula hoop to the club anyway? You’re an adult!). It’s important for us to strip away a lot of the bullshit happening in clubs that was taking too much focus away from just simply dancing and enjoying great music. Some of our recent guests have included Robert Hood, Levon Vincent, John Talabot, Terrence Parker, DJ Stingray, Jam City, Nina Kraviz, Jeff Mills, Hieroglyphic Being, MikeQ, and a lot more.
Do you feel as though the warm-up is an important part of the overall night?
The warm-up is absolutely critical! It takes a skill, which needs to be cultivated and learned just like anything else. A great warm-up set ideally should be a perfect setup for the headliner, and should make his or her job easier. If you can get the crowd loosened up, if they’re vibing to the music all night, it just makes for a better overall club experience for everyone. It’s an under-appreciated job, but super-important.
What would you say that job entails?
The job of opening DJ is to read the crowd, see what they are ready for, ease them into something new, and subtly increase the energy levels. It all depends on the situation. Maybe at midnight the club is packed and rowdy, so you would get to play a higher-energy set. Or maybe at midnight, it’s not quite filled up and people are still kind of milling around, chatting at the bar, grooving just slightly, but not all the way there yet. That’s the situation where being skilled at the art of the warm-up comes into play. It’s figuring out what exactly is gonna make people drop their inhibitions a bit and get to the dancefloor.
When you open for others, how do those sets differ from your headlining sets?
Well, these days I’m generally DJing tracks at 122-125 BPM, no matter what the time. 130 BPM is the highest I will usually ever go (and I rarely even get there), no matter what the time. Tempo doesn’t necessarily correlate to energy level. For opening sets, I’ll play a lot more of a house direction, whereas for a headlining or later time slot, I will usually play darker, trippier, ruder, and more techno vibes. In a headlining slot, I feel that you can kind of take more chances, if the crowd is pretty open. It’s more acceptable to play weirder tracks, throw in more surprises, throw people off a little bit sometimes.
Do your music-buying habits change if you’re about to play a warm-up set? If so, how?
When I buy music, I’m generally looking for all kinds of different stuff. When I hear a track that catches my ear, I think about when and where I can play this. So I have lighter, fun, fruity kinds of house tunes to dark warehouse techno and all sorts of stuff in between. You need to be prepared for any circumstance, because you never know what’s gonna happen. I have all kinds of styles and sounds that I can reach for, but they all have to meet my standard of what I like to play. I think that the sound I have in general has a feeling of being deep and banging at the same time. That’s my favorite, and so it means really that headlining and warm-up slots aren’t massively different from me.
What are the biggest mistakes opening DJs often make?
Just banging it out too hard before people are even dancing. You really do have to loosen the crowd up. They have to shimmy a little and just shuffle around a bit before they start really going for it. That’s why its called warm-up. It takes a while to learn how to do it, and it requires searching for all different kinds of tracks. Playing too dark and scary too early can be a problem, too. Playing a lot of “big” tunes to a half-full room is not usually a good idea. And you should NEVER play tracks that were made by the headliner before they go on! Unless you ask and they say it’s okay, but just don’t do it. If you have Jeff Mills booked, no one wants to hear Mr. or Ms. Warm-Up play Jeff Mills’ tracks before he goes on. It’s just a dick move, and the headliner will probably be mad at you.
Any benefits to warming up vs headlining? How do the pressures differ between the two? Is one more difficult than the other?
Of course, headlining is almost always more satisfying. That’s just part of the deal about warming up. It’s just not really appreciated as much as headlining. The biggest difference would be that if you’re warming up, you gotta figure out what’s gonna make people start dancing. When you’re headlining, you gotta figure out what’s gonna make people keep dancing. One’s not really more difficult than the other if you’re taking your job seriously. I enjoy warming up at my own party because it means that we get to set the tone of the night exactly how we want to, we get to establish our own vibes. I guess that headlining is more pressure, because there’s just a bigger crowd and they are probably there to see you, so there’s a bit more scrutiny. But it’s cool because at least people are paying more attention.
How important is it that the warm up DJ plays the same musical genre (or closely related) as the headliner?
If you want it to be a more cohesive club night, it’s pretty important that it’s not a dramatic shift in vibes. Like, if the warm-up DJ is playing, like, hardcore rap or tear-out dubstep, and the headliner plays deep house or Detroit techno, it’s gonna be a bummer of a transition. People might leave. I always play what I consider to be my own personal style, no matter what, but considering who is playing after me generally points me in a direction in which I want to end up. A few times at Icee Hot we’ve booked electronic music which is not really dance music (Oneohtrix Point Never, Balam Acab, etc.) and we end up finding a way to program the line-up in a way that is not jarring or representing dramatic energy changes. That’s one thing that I wish some promoters would pay more attention to. You can have different sounds and musical styles in one night—just figure out a smooth way to put them together.
Favorite three opening DJs you’ve ever heard, and why?
Well, I may be biased, but I think my partners at Icee Hot are great. We’ve been doing this party long enough to where we’ve all figured out what needs to be done and when. Rollie Fingers is my favorite warm-up DJ. His opening sets are always so unique and interesting and full of surprises, but perfect for whatever time of night it is. The perfect example of warming up without being boring. Shawn always gets it done the right way, too. He just understands the dynamic of how to customize his set around whoever is after him, and still be himself all while getting people excited about new music. Sounds like a shameless plug for my friends and our party, but it just happens to be true.
What are your three favorite warm-up-set opening tracks?
It’s so hard to pick, but the three I wanna say right now would be:
I don’t know that those are my absolute all-time favorites, because I can never really say which ones I love the most out of all my favorite tracks, but I like these quite a bit.
Tell us about your upcoming gigs and releases, and other of that other stuff we should know about.
My next release comes out September 17 as the first record on our new label, Icee Hot. I have a couple remixes coming out on some future Icee Hot releases, and I’m working on lots of new tracks, preparing my next release for our label. We have the first few records already lined up, and we’re working on getting more material from new artists for later releases.