Enjoy yourself no matter what….
This proposition comes up in conversation with Detroit art and music mavens Ash Nowak and Jon Dones, when they look back on their 10 years of hosting Haute To Death, a monthly dance-night intentionally crafted to be welcoming to all. That inclusivity helped shift the perception of what a DJ night could be, one shared characteristic among Detroit’s diverse creative community. Nowak explains that for those in this circle, “everyone is down for everything.” And one’s satisfaction as a satellite of the scene is to merge your way into other orbits. Where better to do that, than a dance floor?
Both Dones and Nowak have been active in the local arts and music community since before they started their own midnight funk society, having regularly attended and curated shows, beginning in high school. Their involvement has deepened as the scene has grown. The duo now looks back on 10 years of facilitating a beloved dance party that encouraged any/all attendees to lower their guards, or hang up their baggage- or just surrender to a dimly lit room of synchronized strangers soundtracked by sleek seques (and fusions) of house, new-wave and more.
People, regardless of the flux in population throughout the last decade, have sought new adventures in recreation— and that’s what Haute To Death has consistently provided- each and every month. But they also observed, in the time leading up to Haute’s inauguration that “techno kids went to hip-hop shows, garage rockers were on dance floors,” and that that open-mindedness suggested that designing their night to be a social smorgasbord would perfectly compliment that natural cross-over. H2D is an oasis-type dance extravaganza; a little more easy-going and even a sanctuary away from the status-quo of club-nights with over-insistent EDM bass and laser lights that pulsate across the cities techno roots and present day affiliations.
Celebrating their one-year anniversary, the married couple attended at the College for Creative Studies (Dones—photography, Nowak—visual art/painting). Their backgrounds serve them well: Dones acts not only as the one half of the party planning committee, he photographs every event himself as H2D’s in-house photographer documenting a decade of personalities, serious looks, and plenty of PDA on the dance floors.
Nowak compliments this visual universe, setting the scene with her aesthetic to transform the spaces they inhabit- an extension of her own sculpture and artwork installations, recently included in a Redbull House of Art group exhibition using party decorations, conveying her wit and dry sense of humor.
Outside of Haute to Death, they have been exploring various other ways to energize the arts community in Detroit. The upcoming Ten Year Anniversary Party happening on this Saturday is a big deal for the duo, but in speaking to them as they prep for the big night, they sound as inspired as ever.
In the past year, they departed ways from their long-time monthly at Temple Bar, allowing them to experiment with their party-prowess in other hip new spots such as El Club and Marble Bar. As glad they are to have those spots to bring their Haute crowds, Nowak and Dones also enjoy bringing people into unique or unconventional spaces, like the SMPLFD Clothing Flagship store, to create new experiences with their party expertise and aesthetic. In August 2017, the pair happened to stumble upon a new (actually quite ‘retro’) venue that was a visual match in heaven. To debut this new location, they created a secret hotline where attendees called in to obtain the location address the night of on a pre-recorded line.
Their party aesthetic transcends any one environment. Over the past two summer seasons, they also created a pool/day-party series, “H2d Swim Club,” to keep the most stylish guests looking ‘haute’ once the weather no longer lent itself to the sweat-infused dance parties at Temple Bar- swimming never looked so chic. Improvising the H2D party into new spaces also underlines their intention to continue to forge other creative partnerships in the next chapter.
A permanent new spot may be secured before the end of Winter 2018. But- let’s talk about all of the years that have led up to this Saturday’s show, to be hosted at The New Perfect BEAT in Southwest Detroit.
A scene can change so much in 10 years’ time. What was it like in terms of the subculture of late-evening dance events, and what inspired you to start up Haute to Death?
Ash Nowak: When we started, it was during a time when a lot of our favorite DJs and dance parties were disbanding or heading to bigger cities. We were both freshly 21 years old and felt there were some voids that could be filled, and were audacious enough to think, “I can do that, too.” We spent a lot of time researching venues, and “vision boarding,” before that was a buzzy thing. Most of our energy went into imagining the perfect night out and what we had to do to make that happen- then we basically combed our record collection, called our friends, and did our best.
What was the first Haute to Death party like?
Nowak: It was at The Painted Lady. I used to work there and Andy hadn’t booked anything for Halloween. I asked if we could have it to try our new party. We rolled in with a computer, a turntable, and *not* a DJ mixer. We absolutely didn’t fit in, but it was a blast that we still remember vividly. We moved to Temple Bar after, it was our top choice when we were first looking for a home- the neon bars on this big black box- you’d look in the window and it was perfect…
That’s as far as we got though, this was a time when you had to get buzzed in, and the bartender who was working wasn’t having it (she probably thought we were underage) so we walked away and assumed it wasn’t going to happen. We always gravitated to the spot though- so we tried again later with a mix CD for George (the owner) and a very confident exaggeration that we could for sure get 60 people in the door. We kicked off at our new home in 2008, with a few more than 60 in attendance.
Did you know what kind of party you wanted to host, so to speak?
Nowak: We knew the end goal but were still finding our footing. We hadn’t started making the album cover posters yet, and we still weren’t really sure how to DJ, but we’ve always worked to cultivate a very positive dance floor, and that’s always been the most important part.
Since year one, H2D has always been about building a robust and diverse scene of hard working and clever creative types, Ash Nowak
Our mantra has always been “earn your party” and that’s exactly what we attract- people who need the catharsis and self-care of being around inspiring people and music. I still don’t go out unless I’ve earned it, but when I do, I’m having more fun than anyone.
As Haute has gone on, year-in and year-out, how has Detroit changed?
Jon Dones: As you can imagine, people perceived the city much differently in 2007. The spirit of the scene we were part of was still very energetic and productive, but people took on their projects here more as a springboard or resume line for when they moved to the next big city. The idea of contributing to or investing in Detroit wasn’t so on the tip of the tongue. No one really thought that you could meaningfully connect your creative output to the larger industry from here.
What was most encouraging in the early days?
Dones: Really fantastic things were happening then; artist run galleries, pop-up art shows, house parties with amazing music, people setting up their studio spaces in big old buildings that they rented dirt cheap. Maybe there would have been a party there the week before and you would see the evidence of that strewn about. (That mix of art and parties has been our backbone.) The scene today, while those spaces still exist here and there, and they always will, there were not as many avenues to support the work – and we still have so far to go – but there is just a bit more infrastructure.
What was getting something like Haute to Death off the ground like?
Dones: Getting started in the sort of DIY environment back then was really not that hard. We had witnessed the templates. All our friends were doing something, so you just piece it together. At that time, Ash and I were both throwing monthly art shows at different alternative spaces around the city (the Bankle Building, Oslo and Smalls were some of the main spots) and going to a lot of the parties our friends and local-heros were throwing at the time; Dorkwave, Untitled, Big American Party and Sass to name drop a few that were important to us.
It does seem when I look back like a new chapter- a new wave, new mindset came around 2007 for Detroit: Staying and propagating, rather than yearning for greener pastures.
Dones: Yeah, between ’04-06 many of the spaces we frequented closed, and possibly in the atmosphere of that pending CAID Raid, and the artists and DJs in our proximity were all moving on to their next chapters; New York, Berlin and San Francisco especially. We could finally go out without a fake ID or a connection at the door and we were greeted with half deflated balloons and beer soaked streamers. That’s when we both decided to work together and shift our curation from the art of our friend’s to our music collections. But for us, it was never that different, it was essentially the same idea: get people you want to be around together in the same room.
Art and music are just the social objects for bringing people together, Jon Dones
Talk about your collaborative efforts, not just as DJs, but as a team creating something that’s grown beyond just being ‘an event.’
Dones: Even before we had thrown our first party together, we spent a lot of time asking ourselves about how we wanted to make people feel, the characteristics of who we wanted to be surrounded by, ways in which that translates into venue spaces, decor, what the room should smell like… we listed out every important artist to us at the time, what our dream gigs would be, what radio programs were important to us… things like that that early on helped us create a common language. We often finish each other’s sentences now because we just never stopped having that universe-building dialogue. That said, it’s not necessarily always smooth, it’s a process, we do disagree along the way, our tactics can be wildly different, but we always know the backstory and we always have a strong connection to who we are creating this universe for.
What’s the biggest difference today versus 10 years’ back?
Nowak: The difference today from where we started is that we are living and working in the universe of talented, spirited, stylish and self-actualized people that we dreamed of a decade ago. Now, our next ten years are very much about co-creation and amplifying this vibrant, shape shifting family of characters into something bigger than any of could be on our own. We’ve always been inspired by what places like Warhol’s Factory, Paradise Garage, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party or Studio 54 did to codify the story of New York in their time, maybe in 30 years our art and our parties will hold a similar context or meaning for creativity and nightlife in Detroit today.
One thing I observed over the last 10- 15 years, is an insistence for inclusivity starting to shine from certain corners, in terms of organizations that curate events.
Nowak: Inclusivity has always been paramount importance for us, that’s how we were brought up in the scene, you know? Detroit is our home and has always been very, very inclusive of us and our ideas, always giving us space- so hopefully we mirror that upbringing, kinda second nature. Music is an equalizer, and when you go to shows and see all sorts of people, and maybe even make some friends and get coffee later- that’s kind of the utopia, isn’t it? Like yeah, you’re going to see the DJ or grab a beer or support the artist, but you’re really going to preserve a culture, and you can’t do that if EVERYONE who wants to be included isn’t included, or invited to contribute.
Talk about the essence of a Haute to Death night.
Dones: The people on our dance floor who we appreciate the most are the ones who are unafraid to take a risk with their personal style. When we see someone who has shown up to the party in an outfit that no one else could pull off, maybe something that elegantly challenges gender conventions, or a handmade piece or comes through with a new vibe they didn’t have a year ago – we know those people have done the work. They have done the self examination that leads to self-actualization.
Our first tagline was “Show Up. Look Good. Dance.” The demand to look good was never about fashion as much as a provocation to bring your best self, Jon Dones
The scene has changed, but even the city, its economy, its development, its government, its national identity, has changed….
Dones: I think we do see ourselves and our party as part of a larger ecosystem. Living and working in the creative industry in Detroit can sort of be a bit of a bubble. The upside is that the scene can be very interconnected socially, very supportive and untethered from certain trends that come and go.
While there are more opportunities today than a decade ago, the downside is that you can quickly hit a ceiling here. We try to force ourselves outside of our comfort zones quite often and feel driven by the importance of representing ourselves and our friends in other cities. The character of Detroit and the people in it produce conditions that cause a certain form of creativity to thrive though.
What are your biggest takeaways when you look back at Haute over the past decade?
Nowak: One thing that has changed is we used to think that what we did was frivolous- fun, but frivolous. Just a luxury- but when we think of luxuries as things we don’t deserve, we’re less likely to partake, even when we really need it. We realized what we’re doing is catharsis, it’s self-care. It’s very necessary- everyone deserves pleasure, to enjoy themselves, and it’s important to treat the hours you spend after 5 pm with equal value to the ones you spend before it.
And finally, I asked Nowak to share one unforgettable experience. And it’s indicative of Haute to Death’s endurance, and it demonstrates the love its attendees have for the party they have so-lovingly created.
One night in 2014, the fuses in the DJ booth at Temple blew out at 1:30 am. Nowak recalled wanting to just hide out of embarrassment or awkwardness. But as the beat cut out, the revelers just started clapping in sync to continue the rhythm, continuing to dance and laugh and sing to each other. That gave Nowak enough time to get some singles to start feeding the jukebox, with open invitation for the dancers to dictate which song they wanted to play next.
“Maybe that’s our philosophy or our ethos?” Nowak ponders. “…Or like, proves what we’ve always known…if you don’t have friends who will be the DJ when you can’t, who will dance in a room with literally no music, then maybe you don’t really have a party.”
Their third annual, “Emergency Nothing” group exhibition opens in December 2017 at Satellite Art Fair during Art Basel in Miami and features artists who frequent their dance floors. Stay tuned for more from Haute to Death.
More info: https://www.h2dsocial.club/
Haute To Death: TEN
Saturday, 9pm- ?
The New Perfect BEAT
1941 S. Fort St
$5 presale / $10 day of show