Riding the Dorkwave

The kids are all dressed up with somewhere to go. They are up front near the speakers, where the treble and bass in the music combine to contort their dancing bodies into shapes both strange and beautiful. Gender distinction disappears. Assorted boys are wearing feathers and lace; some girls have spiky hair and even spikier bracelets. They push and shove to the dark rhythms in songs by Joy Division, the Cure, Ned's Atomic Dustbin and the Stooges. And when someone in the rotating team of DJs plays a record by Prince — it might be "Kontroversy," it could be the even bawdier "Erotic City" — the kids scream, shout and hop into the air. The floor bounces, the room sweats. The party called Les Infants Terrible, an event organized and performed by the Detroit–based DJ collective Dorkwave, is off and running, destination unknown.

The scene is repeated monthly at the Corktown Tavern, where fashionable freaks and mismatched suburban misfits line up around the building to get into the free party. By midnight, the upper level of the tavern is wall to wall with dancers, poseurs and curious drop-ins who stand off in the corners or sit at the bar, not appearing to know what to make of it all.

But it shouldn't be difficult to understand, says Jon Ozias, one of the collective's founding members.

"Dorkwave is about taking the guilt out of guilty pleasure," he says, sipping a glass of cabernet at Twingo's restaurant in Midtown, where the group assembles for dinner before its events. "It's like the experience of blowing yourself away with your favorite tune, except you're doing it in a room full of people."

Mike Servito, another original Dorkwaver whose DJ experience goes back to the mid-90s, says the style of the party has roots in eclectic Detroit radio programs once hosted by the Electrifying Mojo and Jeff Mills.

"I was listening to The Wizard in high school," says Servito, talking about the nom de musique used by Mills as an on-air personality at Detroit's WJLB. Servito listened to the show when he was a student at Athens High in Troy. "We used to hear all kinds of music played together, regardless of genre. Dorkwave is like that, a crazy mix tape come alive."

Dorks with talent, ambition

Inspired in nearly equal parts by indie rock teen spirit and electronic dance club culture, Dorkwave has been hot since October 2004, when the collective began a regular monthly residency at Corktown Tavern. Special guest DJ that night was Carlos D of the New York band Interpol. Prior to that, the party passed through a few downtown locations, and featured local talent like Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus of Adult.

Dorkwave begat spin off projects that took the concept into different directions. Michael Doyle, another original member, partnered with Bethany Shorb of Toybreaker to start Dethlab. Then Servito and local DJ Nathan Rapport launched Sass, which the pair calls Dorkwave's "queer kid brother."

The current members of the collective are Mark Lazar, Allen Goodman, Jenn Rohde, Rob Theakston, Servito and Ozias, who also promotes the Untitled series with the Ann Arbor-based Ghostly International label. Ozias was once a talent buyer at Hamtramck's Motor, a super club that programmed three rooms of music from 1996 to 2002. He grew up in Royal Oak and attended Kimball High School.

Rohde, the newest member of the group, says she was also inspired by Detroit radio when growing up downriver. But her parents also played a role in her early musical education.

"My mom was a disco queen and my father was a rocker. He went hunting with Ted Nugent," Rohde says. "When I play a Devo record, or Talking Heads, I do it for my dad."

Lazar is from Toledo and makes the trek up I-75 for Dorkwave events. Away from music, he competes internationally with the USA Curling team. Goodman is another Kimball grad and a current student at Wayne State University. He will attend graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. Theakston's appearances are more rare since recently moving to Lexington, Kentucky. He is a writer and a member of the audio/visual laptop collective Thinkbox.

If these are dorks, they are indeed ambitious dorks with talent to burn.

As the food comes around the table at Twingo's, and glasses of wine and beer are re-filled, the questions of just who makes up the fan base and why intelligently conceived mayhem like Dorkwave works in Detroit must be asked.

Ozias says Dorkwave supporters "run the gamut from 18-to-21-year-old college kids to those a bit older who can't let go of their youth." For the record, all members of the Dorkwave DJ crew are "thirtyish," with the exception of Goodman, 22.

Passion embedded in Detroit

And the Detroit factor? 

"It works for people because this city is really raw," Servito says, "and what we do is totally raw. Dorkwave energy and Detroit energy are a perfect match."

Ozias says that the passion behind Dorkwave is embedded in Detroit cultural life.

"We do it as if our lives depended on it. Detroit is exactly like that," Ozias says. "When we have fun we take it really seriously and do it right. When Detroit goes off, when it's really jumping in a party sense, there is nothing else like it."

"It's not like New York, where T-shirts and haircuts are more important than the music or the people," Goodman says.

"We get as excited as the kids who come to the shows," Rohde says. "The crowd pushes us with its energy. They're the ones who make it happen."    

"People who come in from out of town say they can't believe how intense it gets," Ozias says. "What we have is rare. Detroit has those intangibles that are almost impossible to find elsewhere."

"We are part of the Detroit attitude," says Servito, summing it up. "It's DIY at 150 percent. You do it yourself with maximum effort because no else will do it for you."

Dorkwave celebrates its third anniversary this Saturday, March 31 at Corktown Tavern, 1716 Michigan Ave., Detroit. The event is free and begins at 10 p.m. The collective will also spin "living room classics" at Amsterdam Espresso's one-year anniversary party Friday, March 30, 6-9 p.m. The coffeehouse is at 4639 Second Ave., Detroit.

Walter Wasacz is editor-at-large for Model D and metromode. He was at the first Dorkwave event in a grimy basement inside downtown's Broderick Tower in 2004 and has written about the collective for Detroit's Metro Times.


Dorkwave Collective Photo Copyright Dave Krieger

Corktown Tavern and Garden Bowl Photos Copyright Walter Wasacz

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.