Jonathan Toubin – Brooklyn, NY
Words: Nicholas Gazin | Photos: Eilon Paz
Jonathan Toubin a Jewish Texan who lives in New York and DJs soul music parties. He does a monthly party called Soul Clap, a weekly called Shakin’ All Over Under Sideways Down and a few others. He exclusively spins 45rpm records and has become the most successful soul DJ that I’m aware of. He also tours and he’s the only DJ I know of who plays soul 45s and tours.
Although Jonathan has a massive collection of valuable records he’s not like a lot of the other collectors on this site. Almost all of the record collectors profiled by Dust N’ Grooves have collections that are carefully organized and pristine whereas Jonathan’s collection is a disorganized mess. This is because Jonathan isn’t a true record collector, he’s a record accumulator which led to a different interview than you might be used to from Dust & Grooves.
A psychiatrist friend of my mothers said that people hoard and collect because they’re afraid of death. You could say that a lot of things that humans do are to distract us from our fears of death. Collecting objects and organizing them gives people a sense of control. It’s calming and meditative. I’m not saying that all collectors are mindless consumers. Each collector can have multiple different emotions driving them to amass possession at different times or even all at once. You see a beautiful object and it makes you happy and you want to take it home with you and putting it on your shelf makes you feel more complete for a time.
Jonathan’s record room is a disgusting pit with unlabeled boxes of 45s stacked on top of each other and 12″s filed on a shelf with zero unifying organization idea along with random pieces of clothing. Jonathan goes into the room when he needs to DJ and listens to songs, puts together the records he’s taking with him to gigs and leaves. He’s not dwelling in his record cave fetishizing his collection. His records exist to be played. Jonathan isn’t collecting records, he’s collecting music and it just happens that the music sounds best on 45.
As a note to the reader, Eilon and I conducted this interview in April of 2011, a little over a year ago. In between then and now Jonathan was almost killed but he’s back and DJing again. Jonathan doesn’t want people to focus on his accident but it’s hard to get around mentioning right now. His warmth and energy make it easy to forget that he was pretty fucked up for a while and we’ll just get back to enjoying his personality, warmth and great parties.
We met Jonathan outside his apartment building and he welcomed us into the spare bedroom where he keeps his records.
Nicholas Gazin: How long have you been living here?
Jonathan Toubin: I’ve been here six years, since 2005 and it’s been pretty good. The neighbors like me now. When I first got here they were like,”Oh no, a white dude” but then the new white people that came after me were even more embarrassing so it got a lot better. Now they’re like,”This lame white guy’s not half as lame as these new white guys!”
Let’s talk about records.
Ooh, this is a good one. (holds up record) I got it last weekend and it’s been on my list. It’s called Willy Knows How, it’s a mournful minor key song and it’s got a great intro that makes people feel really emotional. He wants to be your man. I’ve been looking for a copy for a long time, a couple years.
How’d you first discover the song?
I don’t remember but whenever I hear a song I like I write it down and put it on my master list which is on the internet. Most records you can find without having to go on the internet. Sometimes you hear something really good and make it a saved Ebay search and after a couple years it’ll come up and you just hope a buncha German guys don’t beat you to it.
A lot of them like to collect R & B records. The good thing is that they’ve kept them in really good condition for us over the years, unlike Americans who play their records too much.
Let’s talk about your first records.
My first record was a 45, You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate. I got it at the Groove, it was a record store in Houston. I was around three.
You Sexy Thing?
My mother was going to college and my brother and i would just sit in the car all the time and the song would come on the radio and we would just go nuts. I always thought it was mine and he always thought it was his so we ended up fighting over the magic “You Sexy Thing” record.
Do you still have it?
No, I still have a lot of old Kiss records though. Kiss was the first band that I really loved.
I’m baffled by the cult of Kiss but I’m under thirty.
Let’s put it this way, you’re a five year old boy and it’s 1976 and all these other bands look like people and then there’s this band that looks like a cat and a demon and they write really simple, riff heavy pop songs. At the time it seemed very heavy to me. I went back and listened to it and was like,”Whoa this isn’t very heavy at all.” But at the time it seemed very evil. I had their posters all over my wall and you’d turn off the lights and their faces would still glow and you’d get scared. On the playground we’d pretend we were Kiss instead of superheroes.That’s what screwed my life up.
When you were little and into KISS were you aware that Gene Simmons was also a rock n’ roll Jew?
No, it wasn’t like when you thought of Gene Simmons you thought of a guy who sometimes wore makeup. They were never seen without their makeup. It was a big mystery and when they became unmasked it was a really huge thing and I was like “Hoooooly guacamole!” Now I know why they wore the makeup and I remember them once saying that the New York Dolls were really beautiful but they were pretty ugly and they needed to figure out a way to get known.
They revealed themselves in Unmasked with the cartoon cover. I quit liking the band before that though. I kept bugging my parents to take me to see them and they did in seventy-nine or so. They were still in makeup and they were doing the Dynasty tour. It had the disco hit, (singing in high pitched voice) “IIIIIII was maaaade foooor loooovin’ youuu!” but they only played two of those songs from that record. They put on this amazing show but I outgrew it when I was eight.
One time I was playing guitar in a band from Austin and we were playing Houston. This heavy metal guy was holding up this photo the whole time we were playing. It turned out he was one of my friends from when we were kids and he had a picture of us dressed like Kiss. The funny thing is that he was still into it.
For a little while my band in New York, Grand Mal, was on Slash-London. They had this big building with Island and there was this girl who worked in the office and Kiss came to town for a make up reunion show.
“Welcome to the Psycho Circus.” I saw the girl I saw it with the other day. I remember being really annoying to her because everything that happened at the reunion show was in the exact same sequence that I remember it happening twenty years ago. When I was watching it I remembered it all. I kept annoying her by telling her what was going to happen. “This is when the sirens come out, this is the one where Gene flies to the top of the stage, this is the part where Ace’s guitar starts to smoke.” Think about how boring seeing music is now.
Can you find any of your Kiss records now?
It’s gonna be hard to find. I hope they’re here and not in my storage. I’ve been trying not to listen to music for pleasure because I try not to listen to LPs. They’re for lazy people enjoying themselves. These 45 records only last one minute so you have to get up and change them. Everything I listen to has to do with my work. I love to listen to music but I try to make it constructive because I’m not home enough to listen to it.
(Pulls out a record that isn’t by Kiss) This is great actually. This sleeve is empty cause the record was destroyed at a gig but this is one of my favorite records ever and it’s very rare. It’s from Houston Texas. The name of it is Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America. It was a big influence on me. It’s an interesting album because these guys, who were actually in the band- they were into situationalism and leftist politics and hate the radio in the mid-eighties.
These are all songs that they sing over and play over that are from the actual hit records and they have a lyric sheet too. It’s amazing. It says “Plagiarism is necessary for it erases the authors face and erases the false identity in place of the right identity.” My favorite part of this is that they had “Home taping is killing the music industry” cause they weren’t selling enough records so these guys put “Home taping is killing the music industry so keep doing it. Let this record be a master for your cassette edition.” So they just took the songs of the day that were obviously horrible, like Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In the Dark.
This record has got me in altercations three times. It starts out like Dancing In the Dark, goes,”Get up in the evening” and then this noise comes in and this voice comes and says”And write another hit!” It’s all about a millionaire pretending he’s a working class hero. (Singing) “You can’t move a product, you can’t move a product without a hit.” So I was playing at Daddy’s and this guy totally wanted to pummel me. He and his girl got up to dance because they finally heard a song that they knew and were angered to find it was making fun of them.
Three years ago on Valentines Day I was playing the LA Record party and this band has a cover of “Love is a Battlefield” called “Love is a Cattleprod.” I played it and the Black Lips came and Super Islands played. All these people came out and I stepped away to say hi and I see this girl who was also DJing throw something at this guy and I was like “Hey! What’s going on!?” And she was like,”He broke a record!” And I was like, “It’s cool!” It turned out that the guy from the other DJ crew were upset because they were playing the Smiths and New Order and the obvious shit on their computer and then I came on and people were dancing and having a good time to my set. The guy was really pissed. It really upset him and so he broke the record over his knee twice. I chased him down the street but he was a faster runner than me.
The last time this record caused me problems was at Motor City. I’ve got this song that I put on my Christmas mix that I can maybe find. It’s called Santa Claus is Not My Lover which is over Billie Jean. This guy was like “Cut it, cut it!” He was a big guy too, he came over and was like “You need to cut this shit out.” And I was like, “You can’t tell me what to do.” And he said “You’re here…to play for me.” And I said,”No, I’m here to play to the smartest people in the room, not the dumbest and you can go.” He got his friend and left and told the bartender,”I’m leaving cause that guy’s a horrible DJ.” And he came back later and I brought the record out a second time and played it again. It was meant to be confrontational and it was.
(Laughs) Wow, let’s keep looking for your Kiss records.
You know what else is interesting? This is really cool. This is the first ever Austin punk rock single, the Huns. It’s amazing. People are gonna be sad to see how beat up it is. And this is the back of it. I don”t even want to tell you how much this thing is worth. This is a very, very hard to find record and the thing is that I keep the record in my stacks. People are gonna be upset that I don’t take better care of it but I don’t want to be one of those guys who hoards the records and doesn’t play ‘em for people. If you have something awesome you should share it with people.
Were you involved with the early Austin punk scene?
Nah I’m too old for that. I mean I’m too young for that.
Which one is it?
I played in a lotta bands in the nineties and that’s new times for punk. I went to my mom’s house and she had a copy of Maximum Rock And Roll that I was in when I was in a band called Cheesus. I didn’t really remember this but my regular DJ partner Ian Svevonious was on the cover with his band Nation of Ulysses. I always liked punk music and it was all the same. I can’t get all tense Bohemian people liking Lady Gaga and Jay-Z. It’s okay if it’s your guilty pleasure music but it shouldn’t be your main thing. I can’t understand why someone would come to New York so they could hear Lady Gaga at a Lower East Side bar. I think counter culture has made a lot of tradeoffs and people are all aspiring to some sort of stardom. In my day we knew our heroes and where they worked at their day jobs when they weren’t in the bands. No one thought about making money. So now people aspire to stardom so they think “Lady Gaga’s not so bad!” There’s no reason to care about mediocre things when there’s so much good things to find.
Speaking of mediocrity, let’s try to find your Kiss records.
You can look for those. I’m going to look through these forty-fives.
We’re trying to find out about the development of your musical taste through the records.
I didn’t really develop my tastes through the record, a little bit through records, but records are just tools to express aesthetics that you already have, I’m not interested in being a record collector, I’m interested in throwing parties and having people dance. To me the aesthetic of the party has a lot to do with warm analog sounds, primal drums. I’m not interested in stuff that’s middle of the road anymore.
Whoa, you have the Big Boys/Dicks split?
Tim Kerr from the Big Boys is coming to DJ with me in a couple weeks. I’m friends with the Dicks too. I’ve had this since I was in high school, when I was around fifteen.
How’d you get together with Ian Svevonious?
Ian’s one of my most regular DJ partners and a huge influence on my aesthetics. I love what he does. I first met him when his band Nation of Ulysses came to Austin around ’92. A friend of his who played in a band called Victim’s Family worked in a bakery and said “Man, when you go to that show will you tell them I love that band but I’m baking all night at this bakery. Tell them I said hi” So I went and said “Hey your friend Larry says hi. He’s working at a bakery so he can’t make it.” So Ian’s like “What bakery? Oh, we gotta say hi to that guy!” So Tim Kerr from the Big Boys drove them to the bakery where I met up with them and they went to say hi. At the time I thought that Ian was just a really nice guy but later after I got to know him I realized that he really likes baked goods. I had an ex-girlfriend who was friends with him and I threw a Kid Congo record release party that he DJed at and he asked me to set up some gigs for him and Calvin. The first DJ gigs I set up were for Ian Svevonious and Calvin Johnson, I set up two of them. I didn’t DJ myself at all, I just did what I did.
He’s got great style, great energy and he realizes what a party needs as a DJ. I love records but they’re just tools. It’s the DJ that puts them together and gives it his aesthetic, decides what goes in, what doesn’t go in and puts them together with authority. When I was a younger DJ people bothered me a lot more and then I started playing really on the beat and people just did what they were supposed to do.
So the records are just tools to you?
Not just tools. I would never have played these songs if I wanted to make money or do well. No one has made any money DJing this music in the United States that I’m aware of. I don’t play any record that I don’t love to death. I don’t play anything that I think is just okay or that I’m not wild about. If I’m not wild about it I take it out of my set for a year or two.
Do you sell them?
I’ve never sold records. I give away records. I used to have a record release party where all the records that i didn’t use, whether they were valuable or not, I would give them away. I got the idea from Eric Z of Secret Project Robot. My room’s getting too crowded so I would have a set and after I played a record people would come up and say “I want that one.” I’ve had people come up to me and tell me that they use records that they got from me in their DJ sets.
Or sometimes if I have a friend who likes a specific record I’ll give away a record if I think it suits them better.
I think what you do is different than a lot of record collectors. To be a good DJ you have to like people and to want to share stuff with them and a lot of record collectors are people who want to collect, archive and protect their possessions which they keep at home.
I want people to be passionate about the things I’m passionate about and go nuts and lose it and feel what I feel. I want them to go home together and think life is really great for a little while. A lot of crappy stuff happens every day and New York is hard. Life is hard.
I realize now that I must be a record collector. I worked at the Sound Exchange record store in Austin in the early nineties, the place with the Daniel Johnston mural. I got sick of seeing these guys come in, around the time of the Sub Pop Singles, and buy five copies of the same record. Old stuff’s price would inflate because people would be holding onto them and then selling them. I was in bands and touring and so I’ve been trying to get rid of things and not accumulate things. It’s hard that I love these records so much because I have to be a custodian of these belongings. At the end of the night I have to worry about losing records.
The other night some kid threw some food at another kid and some rice got on my records and I wasn’t mad but I was kinda like,”Man that could have ruined that record.” and when that record is worth one or two hundred bucks it’s hard. I don’t wanna fetishize my records. I love record collectors cause they discover this stuff and the Germans keep ‘em clean but I have a pragmatic attachment. I want to make this record be alive. I don’t want it to be dead on a shelf.
Tell us about this record.
This is a boogaloo called Hot Buns. It’s by Willy Baby. I started liking the black music really early because of the Blues Brothers.
I’m serious. I saw that movie and I saw Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. This record is all stop and and start and solos. Hot buns!
I have these two records that are really funny that I found at a store where the guy didn’t know what he had. I felt bad because I showed one to Fine Wine the other day and he said “Someone tried to sell that one to me for seven hundred bucks!” And I got it for a dollar. I knew what it was and I really wanted it ’cause Tim Warren had put it on a compilation. It’s called the Monkey Shine by a guys named Billy Mays and Mill Street Junction and it’s on that soccer compilation. I didn’t know anything about this record except that it was expensive so I tried to call Billy and Miriam from Norton Records for their advice. I really wanted it but I only had a hundred bucks and I was wondering what I was gonna do. I went to the counter and he just charged me a dollar. I felt like a bank robber. I felt bad, like I should give him some more money. He sold me about a thousand dollars worth of records for a dollar each.
You’re a horrible Jewish stereotype.
Every record collector is looking for good deals. The only thing Jewish about my story is the guilt. I hate to rip people off. I have record dealers all over the country and they charge me a fair price. That guy Brad from Human Eye, works at People’s Records in Detroit and it’s my favorite record store in the world. He gives me really nice prices and has awesome records. He knows what every record is. He’ll totally take care of you. I think it’s cool to dig and find a thing but I think it’s cool to give money to record stores. If we don’t pay those guys the other options are Salvation Army and Ebay with nothing in the middle.
Have you ever looked for 45s in New York record stores? There aren’t a lot. I’d like to give a shout out to Record Grouch, and both the Academy Records for having forty-fives. And Tropicalia in Furs. That guy has the best forty-fives but I can never tell if he’s in America or not.
Also, I just got back from Austin and I got some amazing stuff
Can you show them to me?
Even though I just got it last week I don’t know where it is.
This is something weird I found in Austin. It’s a really weird version of I’ve Been Hoo Dooed by Dr. John.
This record is cool because I got this from Toddophonic Todd. He’s a WFMU DJ and he only sells records once a year at the WFMU Record Fair. This one I mostly like cause it’s a test pressing from “Plastic Products.” The record pressing plant had no romance towards making records. Mickey Leigh Lane does real cool teen stuff but this has this evil vibe guitar part like the Birthday Party. (plays the record)
That song is insane.
It’s for kids too. I can’t believe they let teenagers listen to stuff this violent.
Have you ever digitized any of your records?
I have for some mixes to let people know what I’m doing but they don’t sound the same. They have a different timbre. I’ve never heard MP3s that sound like records. You can get the hiss of the vinyl but it lacks what I think is called “pink noise.”
What is pink noise?
There’s no recording of reality. Nothing sounds like the sounds you hear with your ears and nothing ever will. Digital recording sounds different than analogue. There’s a thing they always try to duplicate with filters. Some people argue that digital is more accurate. But that pink noise is the warm thing you hear when you listen to a record that makes you feel all nice. Recording was never meant to be reality.
This is a pretty good record. The Gories covered this song and so did the Royal Pendletons. It’s called Stormy by the Jesters of Newport.
I love that song. Do you have a favorite city to record shop in?
I like Detroit a lot. I like mid fifties to late sixties rock n’ roll. Not only did they like that music in Detroit but there were also producing that music. There are so many odd Detroit records. So many things are gone in Detroit but they have amazing records. It’s like a living record museum,
Show me more records.
This is a funny one. I recently DJed a fashion party for this model Erin Watson. She didn’t tell me why. I thought it was a dinner party so I just brought some records and I didn’t realize she’d made a deal with a French fashion company. Plastic Bertrand did that song “Ca Plane Pour Moi.” And this guy burlesqued it and the title of his version means “I Farted.” And all these French models were coming up and taking their picture with this record sleeve. I had no idea it was a farting anthem.
Ok here’s a good record. This record, “Counting To Ten” by the Count from Sesame Street, every time I play it people ask me if it’s Gogol Bordello. It is a great song and people always dance to it.
Oh here’s a good record. This is Roky Erickson. My step-dad gave me the first few Thirteenth Floor Elevators records when I was a little kid and I started getting into his solo records when i was in high school.
What’s this one?
Oh this is is Etta James and it’s one of the wildest records you ever heard. In Portland Oregon a dealer came up to me and had this. It’s definitely in the Little Richard style and she’s just wailing and clapping. There’s so much clapping and it’s so fast and it’s seems like she definitely knows some things about a tough lover that a teenage girl like that should not know about in the fifties.
Okay what’s this next record you want to show me?
When John Peel died he had this list of 100 forty-fives that he always kept with him and one of them was by this Austin band, the Pocket Fisherman. And a friend of mine asked me if I had an MP3 of it. And I said “No, I don’t know how you’re going to find that record.” It’s called “the Leader is Burnng.” It’s from ’89. I saw them all the time in Austin, my band used to play with them but I never saw this record. I said,”You’re never gonna find this record. They only made a few.” The very next day I walked into Junk to say hi to a friend and for ninety-nine cents at the very front of the record bin was the very same record. It has weird sound bites and some of the weirdest phased guitar that I’ve ever heard any punk band have. It ends with an explosion.
This is funny. This is from Houston. This was the popular local Houston band when I was in high school. My old band Cheesus used to cover this song. This was the most popular band in town but they were playing this sludge. It’s a song about how Texas doesn’t need to be part of the United States.
This is a record by Liquor Store.
All right! Liquor Store!
A lot of people think I don’t play new music by New York bands but I do. This band, they gave away a free pizza at Moustache Restaurant with every one of these singles you bought except it wasn’t true.
Yeah if you take it there they won’t redeem it.
But they told everyone it works!
This is the last record and it’s very important to me. I heard about it my whole life. ZZ Top had a 7″ before their albums. It had a weird rhythm section and it was on a label, Scat Records, that only put out one record. I never saw one in my whole life and then when I got enough money to buy expensive records I went and ordered one. I paid around sixty or seventy. I think it’s worth like a hundred.
One thing about it that’s awesome is that it happens to be killer. You can hear it’s ZZ Top but not exactly there yet. I also have the Moving Sidwalks 7″s. When you go into my parents house there’ s a painting of ZZ Top that I made when I was twelve.
After that the conversation trailed off and Eilon took photos of Jonathan around his record room.
If you’re in New York checking out one of Jonathan’s parties is mandatory. It’s one of the best things you can experience in New York’s nightlife scene. You can check out his DJ schedule at http://www.newyorknighttrain.com/