Nicky Siano Interview

March 24, 2010

Like Martin Luther (King Jnr, not the heretic) Nicky Siano had a dream. It didn’t involve a nation rising up and living out the true meaning of its creed(although he helped bring thousands of whites, blacks and Hispanics together on the New York City dance floor).His dream was a simpler one. He had a dream that  he was playing his records. Like he’d done every day of his life since his fifteenth birthday, he was playing his records and he could hear this sound effect playing during the mix. He’d never heard such an effect before. But he knew how to create it. The next morning, when he awoke, he ripped his home turntable out and took it down to his club, The Gallery, and started to mix with three turntables. The first person to do so he changed the face of dance music forever.

An oft forgotten giant of the disco era, Siano’s legacy is tainted by the Technicolor trash more regularly associated with the genre. Easy to dismiss as a frivolous earache on the landscape of music; a shimmering salute to tack in excess. But to do so, or to dismiss it as “a culture of narrcisim” as the historian Christopher Lasch once did,  spits on the flames that stoked it.

Erupting from the womb of Stonewall the gay community converged on the dance floors of the cities of the world, filling them with hedonistic expressions of individuality, anthems of sexual liberation and a rage at an establishment that had brought them to a state of economic ruin and social destitution.

“Stonewall changed the law so that people of the same-sex could dance together” Siano tells me. “The Vietnam War gave songwriters so much material for great meaningful lyrics, and the recession made people want to escape. These are the things that combined to create disco.”

He got his first taste of dance music after chasing some tail downtown to the legendary Firehouse nightclub. Aged just 15 it would have a profound affect on him.

“All I could do is move my feet. I had not had this experience with music up until that point.I’d been listening mostly to rock and show music. Then all of a sudden, here comes this sound that reaches into my soul and makes me want to shake my booty. I just fell in love.”

Within two years of popping his dancing cherry he opened The Gallery , aged just 17,  described “as one of the five most visually breathtaking nightspots of our time” by New York Magazine. “It was providence man. My girlfriend Robin and I approached my brother and he had just settled an insurance claim and BOOM, there we were with the money and a partner who was 10 years our senior and business savvy.” Before he could legally enter it, Siano was the owner and resident DJ of the hottest club in town.

They tried to create an environment that was built around heightening the experience of dancing. “Without much money, we did simple, creative, and impractical things. One day we hung a beautiful tapestry on the dance floor. When the light man, Robert de Silva, saw it that night, he strung white Christmas lights behind it, and put it on a dimmer in the booth. That night, when all the dance floor lights went out, that suddenly came on and people went NUTS.”

No one had ever danced to music of this sort and the excitement was palatable. “The reaction to the music was insane.  The screaming on the dance floor was louder than the music at times…it was wild”

Hailed a genius by Woman’s Wear Daily and “the city’s best DJ” by the NY Daily News, Sianno not only had a knack for dropping future hits (he was the first to play “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra) he also used The Gallery as a platform to launch artists he respected, artists such as Grace Jones.

“Grace was a personality from day ONE. I met her in her manager’s apartment, with Michael Gomes and her managers. She sat on the couch next to me and sang “Sorry” and “That’s The Trouble” and that was that.  I immediately asked her to perform at The Gallery.”

Siano says that David Mancusso,the creator of the famous “by invitation only” parties was a tremendous influence on him. He openly admits to lifting ideas of him and making them his own. “He made me see that being a DJ was great, but creating atmosphere was so much better…and that’s what I strive to do.

“Its not technical, its spiritual. I think you need to let go of what you want and tap into the crowd’s energy, and go along with that. Be open. Get your ego out-of-the-way and the first inspiration you hear to play, play it. Don’t second guess it.”

I ask him if he thinks this is a problem with DJs today.

“I don’t think clubs lend themselves to that kind of participation anymore… and a lot of DJ’s wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did, because no one ever showed them.”

To be considered the best DJ in a city that was leading the world in nightlife had an over whelming effect on the 17 –year old Siano and led to his ruin.

“I look back on it and feel that I would never had started using drugs if I wasnt so young when all this happened. I had no real foundation. I had already moved out of my parents house and really had no senior to guide me. I kept feeling like I had to be a certain way, when I could have just been ME.”

He got side tracked. Drugs became his music. When he finally got clean in 1982 he had wrecked his career, and was afraid to work in clubs for fear he’d relapse.

When his fellow DJ and close friend David Rodriguez died of AIDS he replaced his addiction with an obsession. He began to work with people infected with HIV and returned to school, getting a degree in social work. In 1993 he published a widely praised HIV manual, No Time To Wait.

“I was meditating and was led in that direction. I love people, and always loved working with people. It was hard to adapt to so many people dying. I just knew I had to do it.”

He feels disco lost its edge when it became a business. A few years ago, speaking to a British website, he said the whole scene had become homogenized. “When we began, we did it for the love, for the excitement, for the music. Then people started looking at it only from a business aspect…demographics, dissecting it so that they could re-create it, and sell it. Well you couldn’t. They took the heart and soul out of it. People are afraid to take risks. And now everyone is playing it safe.”

In 1998 after two decades away he returned to the decks to play a tribute birthday bash for his late friend and padawan Larry Levine. He’s been touring ever since. “Recently some of my best memories are playing in the UK. One, for the soul jazz release party of my compilation album, was like a night at the Gallery, people were reacting very excitedly.”

But it seems his mind has returned to retirement. When I ask him if he ever worries that people only come to see him because of the blighted Studio 54 connection than any relevance he may still have he simply says “Some people just don’t get it…that’s why im choosing to stop now.”

With another global recession, a vocaly enraged gay community and another war we didn’t want, does Siano think we can expect a reflection of this anger and this frustration to be released on the dance floor?

“I wish it could happen again, but I don’t think it will. I think the next thing that happens wont be related to dance. When an experience is so new, its much more intense and effective. It wouldn’t have that freshness.”


One Response to “Nicky Siano Interview”

  1. dance floors that have laser lights and disco LED lights would be very cool ~;`

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