The easiest part of "interviewing" Greg Baise, Joel Peterson, and Adriel Thornton -- three gifted Detroit promoters of underground and (slightly) above ground cultural events from the early 1990s to the present -- is simply turning on the recorder and keeping your mouth (mostly) shut.
Two hours later, well, they're still talking, swapping stories and laughing. Where do the decades go when you're having too much fun? No, that wasn't so hard. But two hours, as it turns out, is not nearly enough time.
The most difficult part? Getting these busy guys together in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the insanely busy month. But we did it, over coffee at Trinosophes
, the cafe Peterson owns and operates with Rebecca Mazzei on the edge of Eastern Market.
You might feel like you are a troll of sorts just to be in their company. You might, except that you have been there with them all before individually, deep into some oddly beautiful Detroit night or other, often close but usually at a respectful distance while they do the enterprising things they do.
They are at the table. Milky beams of sunlight stream into the room from windows that face Gratiot Avenue. Conversation has begun without any prompts. You push a button.
"You recording this?" asks Greg Baise, noticing, and, judging by his memory skills, likely to remember this exact moment 20 years from now. And we're off.
"A fertile time"
This story begins in 1992, maybe 1993. The group defers to Baise, who takes the lead on recalling dates and places for events he began promoting and producing.
"That was a fertile time, it was when I did my first shows," says Baise, now curator of public programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD
). He's also been talent buyer for the Majestic Theater Center
and Crofoot in Pontiac.
Those shows were in the Michigan Room at Union Street (New Zealand art rockers Peter Jeffries and Alastair Galbraith) and Epic Soundtracks and Outrageous Cherry at the Rhythm Room in Hamtramck (the Caniff Avenue storefront now contains Public Pool
art space). They were, in fact, in 1993.
Peterson and Baise say they might have met earlier at another alternative Hamtramck performance space, the Masque Gallery, on the second floor of a building at the corner of Jos. Campau and Caniff.
"That was 1992," Baise says. "The same year Shadowbox (a cafe/performance space that, among others, hosted Grant McLennan of the Australian group the Go-Betweens) opened around the corner."
"Or it was at Rabbles (a coffee/performance place on Harper Avenue in St. Clair Shores)," Peterson says. "I was 19."
"You guys are tripping me up with your memories, hahaha," Thornton says. "I'm so glad when I hear people were mentally archiving. Just don't ask me how old I was hahaha."
How old were you?
"I'll tell you but it can never be printed, hahaha," Thornton says.
says he began hanging out on the Detroit music scene when he was in high school at Grosse Pointe South. He was haunting east side music stores and playing in bands at 16, was a founding member of the Immigrant Suns, Scavenger Quartet, and the Odu Afrobeat Orchestra, and has collaborated with jazz-rock artists from around the world. Peterson was awarded a Kresge Arts Fellowship
While Baise and Thornton continue tripping through the past, Peterson listens. He's also busy with some cafe business from time to time.
"Back then (1992-93), I was working at Harmony House," says Thornton, who has worked for Allied Media Projects
, was an organizer of the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF
), and continues to promote and program queer-themed but all-inclusive parties as FreshCorp
and other brands. "Then I began working with Clark Warner (former label manager for the Windsor-based Minus label, now executive creative director for Beatport
in Los Angeles) and Robert Stanzler at Made in Detroit. We started doing our first parties around that time."
"Where?" Baise asks. "I know I missed some of those."
"We did 1515 Broadway. We did a place called the Alley on Lincoln (across from the current Recycle Here! facility)," Thornton says. "Just bouncing around. Our first rotation of residents was (now techno legends) Kevin Saunderson, Robert Hood, Claude Young, and Dan Bell."
"Wow," Baise says.
"They were after-parties, raves. We charged $3. That was a lot of money back then, hahaha," Thornton says.
Roots of Zoot's
All three play a role in the story of Zoot's Coffeehouse, itself worthy of greater historical investigation. The building now houses Model D, of course, but back in '92, it was a bit of an unknown hangout for the next generation of Cass Corridor music and art people.
So how did it develop?
"Me and Clark (Warner) and Aaron Anderson (later of Zoots management) began doing ambient rooms at parties," says Thornton, who by then was running a shop called Space 19, featuring his clothing line Visual Laundry, in the basement of the Zoot's house at 4470 Second Ave. "We moved those to Monday nights at Zoot's and it just took off. We had Scott Zacharias, Carlos Souffront, Derek Plaslaiko (some of the best young, up-and-coming DJs in the city) playing every week."
"I remember seeing live sets by Ersatz Audio artists that Adam Miller (of Adult.) brought in," Baise says. "I was playing Trivial Pursuit with some people when (glitchcore innovators from Sheffield, UK) Autechre played there. We didn't know it was them and we seriously heckled them, hahaha."
"That was the nature of the night. People could play whatever," says Adriel, who adds that Autechre stayed in town a couple days after performing at Four Bears Water Park in Utica.
"I was there too, haha, it was March 1996," Baise says. "They were awesome. I just didn't know it was them (at Zoots)."
"It started to become a thing around then," Thornton says. "Not just our friends were coming. We started charging $1 cover. The fury over that has never been matched by anything I've done since. People said I was like the greediest motherfucker on the planet, hahaha."
Around the same time, a party that Thornton was involved in at 1515 Broadway was raided by Detroit Police, who were accompanied by news reporters. The raid has long been considered a low point in the underground party scene. Trust for media eroded, then largely disappeared. More raids, more media attention, now by television crews, had a stifling, corrosive effect on local rave culture.
"It was on the front page of the Free Press. Channel 7 showed up to talk to us at Zoots," Thornton says. "We had a meeting -- I was with Sam (Fotias of Paxahau) and Richie Hawtin -- we said weren't going to talk to the media after that."
Going gay at Motor
Zoot's was branded as home to "Detroit's illegal rave scene," which Peterson, Baise and Thornton say was ridiculous.
"No one even danced there, except when the TV cameras showed up, hahaha," Baise says.
"The media said it was the place to get 'secret passwords' to find out where the raves were," says Peterson.
"There was a definite uptick of activity after that," Thornton says, "by people who didn't give two shits about techno, really."
A transition was already underway. Thornton was asked to do a "gay night" at Motor, the Hamtramck "super club" (three rooms, capacity about 1,000) that had opened in the summer of 1996.
"I said 'no' at first. All I knew about Motor was that it was where 'cool people' with shiny shirts went," Thornton says. "That wasn't my scene. I don't think I'd ever been in Hamtramck before, either. I wasn't into it."
But Motor was changing its programming, dedicating itself to Detroit techno and its sonic cousins around the world. It began booking artists from Germany, England, and elsewhere. By the end of the 1990s, Detroiters Carl Craig and Derrick May were headlining special events, and Hawtin held his pre-millennial 1999 into 2000 New Year's Eve party there.
"I decided to do it. It had to be my kind of 'gay night.' No rainbow flags. Not 'out' out, if you know what I'm saying," Thornton says. "So we brought 'Family' to Motor on Tuesday nights. It meant 'underground family,'' or it meant 'queer family,' but everybody understood. We had lines around the building almost every Tuesday."
The lines continued from the late '90s into the new century, until Motor closed in late summer 2002. But even without a permanent location, the Family brand and Thornton continued to grow. And Baise and Peterson were also rolling forward with their projects.
Two hours are up. We need to stop now. We'll reconvene and take this conversation to the next level later this summer.
Walter Wasacz is former managing editor at Model D. He's been enjoying good music and proper Detroit parties since longer than he's willing to tell us.