She's a spinner
Listen up: More and more women are turning the tables on Boston's male-dominated DJ scene
SOMERVILLE -- In a small, dimly lit practice space near Union Square, Julie Hammers is leaning over a scrapheap of stereo equipment: a turntable, a tangle of wires, some headphones, and a speaker set salvaged from an old karaoke machine. With one hand, she carefully sets a vinyl edition of experimental - rock - act TV on the Radio's ``Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes" onto the table. Then she turns her back to the six other DJs in the room and drops the needle.
It's a motion that will be repeated a few dozen times over the evening, as this all-female group spins through a mixture of rock, garage, electro, and pop. The weekly ``listening party," hosted at the practice space of local music collective Compound 440r, is a chance for the attendees, all of whom perform at various bars across the city, to practice and share their skills.
And amid an occasionally listless, male-dominated DJ scene, it's also evidence of the focus and talent a handful of pop- and rock-centric women are bringing to local clubs.
``I don't feel like such an anomaly these days," says Hammers, who started spinning indie rock and pop at bars in St. Louis before coming to Boston to attend college. Since then, she's performed at a variety of clubs, including Great Scott and the Middle East. ``So many local venues have become more open to sets from people with such different styles."
That includes Reel Bar in Allston, the Independent in Union Square, and River Gods and ZuZu in Cambridge, all bars that have developed a reputation for hosting quirky, against-the-grain event nights. The 440r listening parties, meanwhile, were created by Karen Tsiakals of Somerville band U.V. Protection to unite local performers, who often have no idea what's being spun in different parts of town.
``It seemed so ridiculous -- why not get the ladies together?" says Tsiakals, who began sending out invitations to the listening parties this spring. Of course, the very existence of the 440r parties exposes a problem recognized by some -- though not all -- local female performers: It can be hard to get a start spinning in a town where so many DJs are men.
``You'll get some guy coming up to you saying, `Let me adjust [the sound] for you, honey, sweetie,' " says Hammers.
``I think it might come more naturally to guys to just go over and jump on a table," adds Emily Arkin , a DJ and a member of indie outfit Shepherdess . ``So it's great to be able to be in such a supportive atmosphere, with this cross-pollination of styles going on."
JOIN THE LISTENING PARTY View an audio slideshow at www.boston.com/clips.
This is a notion that has occurred to Amy Stearns , who coordinates a popular rock and garage night at River Gods called ``Action Sunday," and hosts a night called ``Rock and Roll Kills Robots" at The Independent. Stearns had not heard of the 440r project. But she says it can be intimidating to get up and spin for a big crowd.
``I've loved garage and punk for a long time, but it took me a while to actually get up and play music for people. Then, once I did . . ." she says, trailing off and smiling.
At the Independent, she usually begins her set with older rockabilly and '60s garage, which is the music that influenced the acts at the heart of her set. Stearns quickly counts down some of her favorite bands -- modern garage punks Black Lips , Boston pioneers The Lyres , and obscure noise outfit Tokyo Electron.
``I think people are most interested in hearing that change of pace -- heavier rock stuff instead of the techno," Stearns says. ``As long as you're kind of following the mood of the crowd, you can get some great reactions."
Careful attention to crowd politics has also helped drive the success of Jukebox, a well-attended event staged every Tuesday night at ZuZu, in Central Square. The night is run by three tattooed DJs, Chrisinda Wain , Alicia Mason-Guild , and Christine Moore , who dial into a strictly rawk vibe: Everything from heavy metal to hair bands is fair game.
The night was initially a series of one-offs that Wain spun at the Middle East. When demand for the music built up, she recruited Mason-Guild and Moore, and moved next door to ZuZu.
``I've lived in Boston long enough to know how hungry this city is for stuff that's different," Mason-Guild says. ``I don't want to toot our own horn, but we've found a niche. We could have done an '80s night. We did this instead."
A typical night at Jukebox runs through Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin and Motley Crue -- ``Always a lot of Motley Crue," Wain grins. Along with Mason-Guild and Moore, Wain has become an expert at playing to high-energy, packed-like-sardines crowds. On most Tuesdays, ZuZu gets filled to capacity.
``We luck out with the crowd at Jukebox," says Mason-Guild, who also DJs at Reel Bar and at Milky Way in Jamaica Plain . ``It's always amazing to see a middle-aged man come in with his khakis and polo, pumping his first to Journey."
As for being women behind the table , Mason-Guild, Moore, and Wain all say it is, for the most part, a nonissue.
``Guys'll come in and they'll get all pumped," says Mason-Guild. ``Being women, we use it to our advantage -- not in an obnoxious way, but in a subtle way. We get respect for it."
Some female DJs would just as soon skip the gender hype and focus on the music. Tara McManus , a member of local staples the Turpentine Brothers , spins a regular garage and rock night at the Independent with her husband, Justin Hubbard . But Mc Manus says that although she has a blast spinning at the Independent, she doesn't consider herself a ``real DJ."
``I mean, I don't have a DJ name," she says, laughing. ``And I'm not a celebrity. I've just kinda been a total record nerd my entire life. You know when you go to New York and there are all these cool bars with turntables and someone's nonchalantly playing really good music? That's all I've ever really wanted to do."