Updated: Jun 26, 2021
NYC <> PARIS
Anyone familiar with music and art at the end of the 20th century knows that the importance of NYC’s 1980’s downtown scene cannot be understated. With the city in economic decline, artists descended upon the Big Apple’s blighted spaces and experimented with sound and media in ways that are hard to imagine today. In celebrated venues like the CBGB’s, the cross section of artists was legendary: Kurtis Blow, Richard Hell, Television, The Talking Heads, Debby Harry, The Ramones… and many, many more. The list of iconic artists of this era is endless. Together they created a scene that transcended genre and artistic boundaries.
Konk was a band that represents the spirit of this era. Konk played post punk dance music that drew influence from African and Latin music, punk and disco. Known for their live performances, Konk performed at the legendary CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, Danceteria, the Paradise Garage and The Loft. Their style was highly influential to future artists and many continue to emulate their energy today. Their songs have an uptempo tropical, yet disjointed sound that still holds a groove on modern dance floors today.
Jonny Sender was a young musician when he joined Konk as a bassist in 1981 after meeting some of Konk’s members at an after hours jam session at the bar A7 on the Lower East Side. As a musician and DJ, Jonny was a contributor to this artistic movement, rubbing shoulders with some of the heavyweights of the era including Larry Levan, Madonna and David Mancuso at the Loft. At the same time, Jonny started DJing which he continued long after Konk ended and into the period of Guiliani’s mayorship as the mayor worked to restrict nightlife in an effort to sanitize the city. Jonny started holding down residencies in NYC starting in the early ‘80s at legendary spots like the Pyramid club. His knowledge of records and his formative experiences in 80’s NYC shape the diversity of his sets, which include everything from disco, to Salsa, Afrobeat, breaks and House music as it started to emerge from Chicago.
Since Jonny moved to France over a decade ago, he has continued producing music and DJing. Jonny released Zhivago Zhivago on his friends’ In Flagranti’s Codek Records. The EP was touted as one of the top disco/house records of 2016 by respected folks throughout dance music like Phonica records. He’s played many gigs in Geneva near where he’s living as well as Paris and also played gigs in Tokyo with DJ Nori and at Bonobo bar. Jonny is an esteemed figure in underground dance music and we’re excited to share his hour long mix with you all.
Hi Jonny! Thank you so much for being a part of our series. How is life in France right now? How has life and art changed under Covid?
We’ve been on curfew every day, starting at 6PM for the last few months here in France. I live minutes from the Swiss border right next to Geneva, always going back and forth. Luckily, schools are open unlike last spring so it’s been a lot better for my kids. But mostly, we’ve been in the house since the fall. I haven’t Dj’d since last spring when I did a few live streams in Geneva. But I’ve been making music at home.
You have a storied past as a former member of Konk. Can you tell us one or two of your best memories of playing with the band?
One crazy memory: As we were on stage at the Garage, playing live at 4am, (all shows at the Garage began at 4am). As we were playing, I heard the acapella of our record, Konk Party flying back at us from the opposite side of the room. Larry was mixing our record on top of our live performance! This was way before this was commonplace. Playing at the Mudd Club one nigh,t we were the opening band for Eddie Palmieri, this was his dance band not his Latin jazz ensemble. He had Nicky Marrero playing with him at that point who is a legendary monster timbale player and percussionist. Eddie’s band would lift off like a spaceship.
Hearing them playing live for the first time plus playing with Angel Quinones, the conga player and one of the vocalists in Konk was the beginning of my deep love of for types of Afro-Latin music.
How would you describe the downtown scene to someone who didn’t know anything about it? Does it still inspire your artistic sensibilities?
The way different groups came together and intermixed in the early 1980s in New York was something special. It was a moment! Working at the Pyramid is why I’d always rather be backstage with the drag queens than at a sports bar. I think it all started to change around ‘84 as the scene started to get commodified, moving up out of the underground. I came out of the late 70’s growing up in Manhattan going to see bands like Weather Report, Jaco Patorius and George Duke at live concert venues after seeing some of the major bands a few years earlier, Led Zeppelin, The Who. Not sure why I was being let out of the house at that age LOL!
I started getting deeper into the contemporary African-American improvised music scene, seeing groups like The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Butch Morris’ big band and Sam Rivers performing at the Public Theatre.
At that time I got my first apartment in Soho for $175 a month and started going to the Kitchen and TR3 (Tier3) seeing more experimental downtown music. Soon after I joined Konk I played on a soundtrack for film makers Beth and Scott B’s movie Black Box and did some rehearsals with Lizzie Mercie Descloux and Arto Lindsey that didn’t go anywhere.
Around that time I joined Judy Weinstein’s Dj pool, for the Record which had earlier started at The Loft. As a pool member, your membership card got you into the Garage for free (crazy!?) so I started going to the Garage, sometimes for a couple of hours after the Mudd Club or Danceteria. When Konk got invited to play at the Garage I had already been going there for a while.
How much has underground dance music changed? Do you think there is any chance of a scene like the one you came from as an artist will ever emerge again?
What excites me in music is how it keeps changing. I don’t know that there’s much value in trying to recreate something from the past creatively, though it seems to happen periodically, shit keeps coming around. I don’t have to like everything, but creative innovation in music is important, it’s what gives it life and context regardless of the type of music. We’ve been in a transitional phase because of technology and the internet. Now with a year of Covid behind us, and still, not knowing when we’re going to emerge from these rolling lockdowns—I think it’s hard to predict. I do think there will be a creative explosion. As far as people being able to gather together, it’s a big question mark what it will look like. We don’t seem to be very good at self-regulating as far as taking precautions. This is a very long way of saying I have no fucking idea!
I do hope that somehow there will be a movement back to dancing, to relating to each other as dancers on the dancefloor, of going into yourself through movement to music. Turning dancing into a live concert-like experience with the crowd all facing the DJ waiting for some musical bomb to drop is really not my idea of a night out, but I’m old haha. It’s part and parcel of white appropriation of Black and LGBTQ+ club culture turning dancing into a concert. Sometimes an almost electronic Heavy Metal-like experience. But that’s just my opinion, haha.
Tell us a bit about your mix. How was it recorded? Is there a theme or highlights for you?
I decided to do a mix of some of my favorite records through the years, but focusing more on disco and house. Nothing too surprising or super rare for those who follow club music.Tracks I love and still play. I recorded it on vinyl and then did some edits, which helps to fit in more music. The first Record by Brooklyn Dreams I got on a white label with the stamp “Garage Records”, I bought it at Vinymania in probably 1981. I would hear it at the Garage, but I’d also hear Jazzy Jay, Red Alert and Bambaataa play it at club Negril in the East village. That was the Hip-Hop party that eventually moved to the Roxy. The DJs who came down from the Bronx had as much influence on how I think about music as Larry did. If you put them together with John Cage and John Coltraine you’re well covered. LOL.
Finally, what’s next for Jonny Sender? What should we keep an ear out for? I think the most important thing now is my responsibility—being a cis white male to confront racism in myself, it’s legacy and how it continues to impact all of us. None of the music that I love and have built my musical life around, that I’ve been able to participate in—the music that has given me a point of reference in my life would be possible without the creative contributions, genius and the generations of suffering that people of the African diaspora have endured and that continues to this day .As a creative person it’s important for me to be true to myself musically, but I have to remember that I am a guest in these communities and I need to act like a guest with respect, and some humour. That’s what’s always allowed me to participate in spaces where I was not in the majority.
I’m about to start a bi-weekly mix show called Music-Love-Lights-Dancing on regional FM public radio station in the lake Geneva region. The mixes will also be online separately from the station.
Also, we’re starting a digital label called Melody Maze with my friend Crowdpleaser, he’s a DJ and producer who's been at the center of the underground club scene in Geneva for a long time. We’ll be releasing our own music, though our first release is two songs by a brother and sister duo from Geneva. It’s not really straight up club music. We’ve delayed release because of covid but we’re moving forward now and I’m excited to start releasing some music again.