Thursday, July 01, 2004

down on the corner with thorell

Interview & Photos by Todd Comer ~ Steve Thorell has been a name that has been well known in Kansas City for quite a while. Many people consider him one of the few Rave originals to survive the '90s and emerge reasonably successful and relatively unscathed in the new millennium.

Steve has always captured my attention and imagination, playing various styles and tracks that always seem to be what the crowd wanted to hear at that particular moment. He is definitely one of my most favorite DJs in Kansas City and if there's no other party going on, you can usually find me where-ever he happens to be playing. His followers are like that too. They are loyal and like me, they know that if anyone can make them dance their cares away, he is the man to do it.

It was recently, that I noticed that Steve Thorell was nominated for the Pitch Music Showcase Awards. I had also heard that all of the places he plays at regularly chipped in to help him out this year. I decided that I could throw in too, just a little, thinking that now was just as good a time as any to seek him out and do a bit of an interview. Last Thursday, July 1st, during one of his 5 weeklies, I caught up with him at the corner of 12th & Baltimore in downtown Kansas City and we talked a bit about old times and new times.

So, I've heard a lot of different stories from a lot of different people. Maybe you can clarify things a little. When exactly did you start DJing?

When did I start? God I love these questions. First time I heard house music was in 1988. A friend of mine screwed up in high school, got sent to boarding school, came home with a mix-tape of Hip House stuff out of Chicago. That completely freaked me out. In high school I was into New Order, Depeche Mode that kind of thing. I couldn’t find anything like that in Kansas City it was nonexistent. At the time there Ray Velasquez playing a couple of places, but I was 17 and couldn’t get in. A friend of mine who was from Dallas took me down to Dallas and that was the first time I had been to a nightclub. It was the first time that I had been to anything. A thing called Newvie (sp?) was big back then from Belgium. I came home and a guy named Phillip who used to DJ at the Edge turned me on to buying CDs. The next trip I took I went to DepEllum. It is still in Dallas, and went to the Aqua Lounge. It was pretty ironic that I played a club like Aqua. It was like 1991 when I heard 808 State, a guy called Gerald, old Chicago stuff and I had never heard anything like it.

And so, hehe... it is spiraled downward from there.

(Laughing) Exactly! And my life has been shit ever since. (laughs) I heard that. I bought CD’s. Then I started talking to DJ’s and they said no..no.. you have to buy 1200’s, get a mixer. So I bought the 1200’s, and a realistic mixer.

Ugh... I had one of those. That was one of the most horrible pieces of crap I have ever owned.

I think everybody did. That is like your first rite of passage in the early 90’s. They were a piece of shit. From there I kept going down to Dallas. There was a record store in Dallas called Bill’s Records and Tapes. At that time it was one of the hottest record stores in the country. This guy used to stock pile records from all underground stuff. There would be like Transmak, Planet E, RNS and he would have 10 copies of every big underground record. That was before you could buy on the Internet. I bought a set of decks. First party I ever played at was in 1993, in Lawrence, a guy named Mark Lemke, booked me, but told me that 'Steve Thorell' was not going to cut it. It is not that cool you need a DJ name. I told him No, No Way. It’s ironic, because the first party I played I opened for Theo Parrish.

Nice. That is definitely very cool for you for a first real gig.

Yea... So Mark was like, "Yea... I got this Theo guy, he is here from Chicago," and the next thing you know, he made me DJ Love.

DJ Love? (laughs) That is truly funny.

Yea, and I still get hassled about it to this day. Because there is a Break Beat DJ out of Florida called DJ Love and all my buddies from college knew about it. But, you know for the most part, I played strictly rave parties at first.

We took a minor break here, as a few of Steve's friends (right) stopped to say goodbye. (click for audio)

Anyway, where were we? The first party I ever played. Lawrence, Mark Lemke, Theo Parrish. The dude kept cutting my set. Dude, you can’t play that. I was dropping French Kiss, this is 93 and French Kiss came out in 89. You know... it was fun. I think I had picked up Vader. That guy lived in Kansas City too. He was here from 93 to 95. He used to play at Krypton. Which Ray Velasquez used to play. He was friends with Danny Girl from 7th Heaven. Vibe Tribe, I think it was. They threw parties at a place on Main. What’s the name of that Italian restaurant. They were awful. It was over by the Plaza. It was cool. But, back then it wasn’t about skill. They had cool house records, and they would train wreck, but it didn’t matter. It was tracks that no one else had. It was stuff that people in this town hadn’t heard of.

And that is how it began in those days of yore. So, House! Has it always been house?

For me no. Like I said for me, when I heard that hip house tape and the first thing I got into was breaks. Like DJ Icey, Energy Tracks Volume 1, changed my life. I got the first three white labels. It completely freaked me out. I played breaks from 93 to about 99. All I played was breaks. There were a couple of house records here and there. The guys that got me into house were Kenny Dope, Little Louie Vega, Derrick Carter. Basically, some real underground jack shit. The vocal thing really didn’t do it for me.

So you might say Dallas, and later Chicago was where some of your biggest influences are, but I noticed a definite Miami edge to your stuff when you came back from the WMC this past year.

Definitely, my sound changes according to what room I am in. Typically in the summer I play a lot more wacky, sexy stuff and then when it is cold out, some acid. When it is cold out, people want to have it. December, January, February they want to have it. Like at The Point, it’s nice early and then later it is mean. That’s the way I like all of my nights to go. I start off with cocktail house, it doesn’t really bother anyone. As the night progresses it gets more and more... you know... and I learned that from going to clubs in New York and Dallas. It would be great if Kansas City was a town where you could just play whatever. I wish I could play break beats every once in awhile. At the Point, I will drop breaks for an hour and either the place is going to go off to it or say what the heck is going on. UK breaks like Adam Freeman, Lee Coombs. I love that. Because it is deep and dark, but its still got that funky edge to it. Everything I play now I want to have a funky edge to it. I don’t play anything that is completely nasty. Funky baselines, because women always respond to it. They do, whether they know it or not. Women will respond to vocals, but the baseline is typically what gets them. Like at the Point, if it is a small room, and the base is bangin, the baseline will get them.

You play pretty much every night of the week, but what's your best night?

I do. I play 5 nights a week in Kansas City. My favorite place, though... The Point, besides the fact that it goes until 3 am, I can play records there that I can’t play at some other places. Typically, right now I can play lounge music everywhere.

Five Nights? That's pretty huge considering that there are a lot of other DJs in Kansas City are struggling to get just one hour per week. Rattle 'em off for me. Where do you play and when?

Tuesday is at Hannah's Bistro; Wednesday is the Empire Room, Thursday is here at 12 Baltimore; then Friday, The Point. Oh! And Sunday nights have just started back up at the the Westport Beach Club. It is funny because when I used to live with Brent, he had 3 nights. He would always tell me “Never try to have more than 3 nights in this town.” Which, it’s true, but that is why my style will change. Like at Hannah's Bistro, it’s at 105th and Metcalf and it’s out South, so my midtown people won’t come out there. So, what I am doing out there, certain people would say “He is selling out. He is playing in Overland Park.” Bullshit, I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that I am giving these people an outlet. I am playing deep funky house records out there, and getting them into it. I have a congo player that gives a live element. And you know, I think that is why most people in this town don’t get it, there is no foothold. I'm trying to make one.

Like right now, with what I am doing, it's gotten to the point that, a year ago, I used to play out all the time. I had a monthly in Vegas, I used to play in New York all the time.

Wow! That's Great.

Yea! Actually, it was two years ago, I guess. But since the economy has gone to shit and Kansas City is no different than any other big city, all of these clubs have decided that they need to do what they can to survive, so big rooms play, in my opinion, Shit. It's all, you know... green eggs and ham.

But, I've never been about that. I hate that, like you hear, "Oh, you just play records to get laid." That's Bullshit.

That is something else notable. You really don't go running around promoting yourself like a madman passing out demo CDs everywhere you go. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen one from you, yet you are still a very popular DJ with a loyal following.

I've been meaning to do it. Playing 5 nights a week. I don't have two sets of decks. Like, we used to have Bill's decks set up at our place and I do have a CD burner and it's OK, but now it's like... well... you know... I guess I don't know why I don't have one. I suppose that it's like this. I play out 5 nights a week and if you want to hear me, come hear me. There's no cover at any of these places, so come on out. I'm actually working on a couple of CDs right now though, but my sound varies so much depending upon my mood, the atmosphere of the venue, etc, etc it's been hard to pin it down.

That's something else you had mentioned earlier, that your mood really affects what and how you play, not just the atmosphere or the venue.

Oh Yea... I was in a really bad mood earlier....

But you did say that your mood dictates you and becomes an outlet for your feelings at times. Tonight, I did notice that when you took the decks. Your sound was a little harder.

I think that every good DJ that I have ever met, you know guys that are huge, like Lee Coombs, Derrick Carter and Adam Freeland, they never.... just play out of the box. Like when I walk in to a room, what I play is determined by how I feel, who I see in there. Any good DJ does that. I learned that from Ray Valesquez. He put me under his wing for a while and told me "I like what you're in to, why don't you come play some parties."

Back then, I was playing breaks, stuff like, you know before Drum and Bass, when things were hitting 142. Labels like Moon & Shadow, Reinforced, before guys like Roni Size and Adam F, before that was around. That didn't hit until like 96. I was always the guy that wanted to rock the party. Like when I played Ray's parties. I would play breaks, but I would just drop all the hottest Breaks that were out. I would play a MagicMike record next to a DJ Dan "Loose Caboose", next to... you know... whatever suited my mood. My style then and now is just all fun. My style is all styles. There is no record that is off limits. If it's got the funk and I'm into it, then I'm going to drop it, but I won't play anything that I don't like.

Do you have a Top Choice of All Time?

The biggest influences for me are like... 808 State, for sure. I mean any 808 State really, but just their first album has really influenced me a lot. That record, to this day, is perfect for anything. Mostly, if I'm playin an After-Party, I"ll definitely play it. There's just something about that record. It's the perfect sunrise record and it doesn't sound bad. If it does, you're doing something wrong, but if you drop it right, it will put a smile on people's faces every time. The Sax and the Synth lines in that record are awesome. I think it came it out in 90... something... eh, I don't remember, but as far as breaks, like right now, it's Adam Freeland.

Speaking of that, you've played with a lot of big names in the past and still do on various occasions.

The biggest names have been like Carl Cox and I played at a party that Oakenfold played at. But you know, those guys are so big and so "untouchable" that they have this whole rock-star attitude, but with my DJing, it's not what I want to be. I mean, it's my passion and in a town like Kansas City, you have to turn heads. There is no radio support. The nightclubs are minimal. Where you gonna go? Kabal. It's mostly underground all of the time. Name any other place in town, if you can.

Chakra? They are trying. But that's about it. There isn't anyone else.

Chakra's trying to follow in their footsteps. Charlie's awesome and he's trying to do it, but .... you know... One thing that I like about Kansas City, is that people in this town that are into it, they don't do it for the money, because you can't, or you won't survive.

I mean if you wanted to open a night club and get rich, play Hip Hop. Of course, with that comes more problems... you know... I can't even imagine. The Hurricane recently tried Hip Hop and that killed it off. That place will probably never have a House room again because of that. Not that I hate Hip Hop. I don't. I think the current state of Hip Hop. is crap. I turn on BET and say... What the Fuck? But then, you hear a guy like C West and his shit is cool. The Hip Hop that I grew up with was like De La Soul and such. You really don't hear it anymore though. It's like underground House. It's just not there, but if you look for it, you will find it.

Kansas City is great though. The Deep Fix kids have done awesome events for Kansas City and that's why I like living here, people will tell me... "Why don't you move to NY, SF, Chicago......"

Yea... That was kind of my next question. Several people have told me that you, among others, should really consider breaking out of Kansas City, that it's only holding you back and you could go much farther in a bigger city. What do you say to that?

My opinion on that is that I like Kansas City and I love playing here. Do you think I could move to NY and have a gig five nights a week? No way. There's too much competition. I've been engrossed in dance music since 1990. I'm not going to say that I know everything, but I have seen trends come and go for 14 years now and well, I like what I like and that's it.

Well then, what's next?

My next step? I want to get in to production. I've been lazy about it. I've been talking with Pat Martin about doing stuff. He's actually coming over this week to work with me on Reason. I just need to really get my feet wet, but you know... I really want to stay here in Kansas City. Eventually, I'd like to open up a lounge here.

I don't want to open up a big club here. Anyone that goes for the underground sound, they just don't go to the big room clubs, so I just don't want a big room. I think a room that could hold 70-80 people, that could be full 5 nights a week with 5 different kinds of music. I really want to try and flip the switch and change things around a little.

Any city that you go to, let's say, we're in Miami. They will tell you to go to Crobar, go to Level, go to Nikki Beach, but you know, I really don't like clubs like that. I'd rather go to a club that holds 60-100 people, where the DJ is playing what he wants to play and he has a small, but loyal following who are into what he's playing. Those DJs are my favorite DJs in the world. Once you get to a certain level, you know... people expect different things and bitch a bit when you don't do things their way.

Some of the guys I really respect are like James Sebela, who Sasha took under his wing. If you listen to his DJ sets, they are the shit. He plays some big progressive records that I really don't like, but the other records... He'll play records that are four years old, that are hard to find. I do much the same and I kind of pride myself on that.

But KC... I love it. I would be good to move and try and make it work some place else, but I like it here. I think that I am in a position that I can create something that may not exactly put the town on the map, but create an enviroment for the people that are into it, that is going to make them happy. It's kind of like what Siamack has done with Kabal. I mean look at who he has had in that room, Derrick Carter, Christopher Lawrence... all kinds of huge names for this town.

What it does for the underground guys is build a certain level of respect between them and that club. I mean bringing the Oakenfolds and the Sasha & Digweeds, that's cool and you are going to make some people happy, but the DIY stuff is much better in my opinion. Bring these underground guys in and I think that eventually, this town will get radio support on it and if I'm the guy to do it, great, I would love to be it, I'm just happy to make a living doing what I do.

So you this is your Professional Career then?

I never thought... I'll be honest... I waited tables for seven years while I was DJing, while I was in college. Then I graduated college in 95. I never thought that I could make a living off of DJing. Then I worked at Mix93 as a Sales Rep, wearing a suit every day and I realized that it was not me. That forced me to take what I was doing a little more seriously, like pushing the limit, figuring out new ways to play things, pushing myself and making it work.

Do I think that it will it last forever? No, I know it won't and that's why I want to move into production and small room lounges. I want to produce cool underground records that will get me booked, not just in the US, but in Europe also. I have always wanted to go to Europe and I have come close. There were a few friends that two years ago, they said, yea... come over... we'll pay for your plane ticket, but now... everyone's taking hits and Kansas City is no different.

One thing I like about this town is that there is a core group of people that are into it. At the same time, some of the underground kids, I hear them say, "That Thorell is a sell-out.", but you know, that doesn't bother me because when I was 21, I thought the same thing. When I was in to all breaks, I was like House Music sucks. Trance music sucks. Whatever. What I am into is the shit, but you know... as you get older, just like everything, sure you get into different things and I love in this town that I can have 5 nights and play some wacked out things.

There have been a couple of times I've heard you bring in something at The Point that I haven't heard in a long time, or I was like... What is this? I know I've heard this before. Sometimes, you do play some wacky stuff. Any particular reason really, or do you just like to keep people guessing?

Yea. My favorite thing is like at the Point last friday, I dropped this record from 91 and it had the whole place freaking out. Nobody in there cared that this track was from 1991. (laughs) I was the only one in there with a shit-eating grin on my face, thinking to myself, "This is what makes my job worthwhile." This record was actually like the fourth record I ever bought. I can play it now and get a room of 22-year-olds off on it, but they have no idea what it is. I think that is what makes a good DJ. Being able to mix everything up and bring it to life.

You don't have to trick people, but if you have a good flow and you are passionate about what you do, it oozes in to the crowd. Bill Pile taught me that. I used to get so pissed off behind the turntables. If you do that, if you are not passionate about what you do, especially in this town, how are you going to get people excited about what you are doing.

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