Jonathan Toubin, New York’s favourite DJ, will be playing the most exciting records you’ve never heard at Taverne Tour

Interview by Stephan Boissonneault
Genres and styles : Soul

Additional Information

The name Jonathan Toubin is one past Taverne Tour attendees should know well. He’s brought his eccentric collection of soul, rock, funk, and whatever he’s feeling, to Taverne Tour’s after parties since the festival has been running, and played almost every year. His enthusiastic energy as a DJ has earned him titles like “The most-liked man in the soul music scene” and “New York’s favourite and best DJ,” and his New York Night Train dance parties have become stuff of legend. He’s the only DJ who is constantly playing after parties or opening for big names like Jack White.

With all this praise, Toubin remains a guy who has yes partied with the greats, but is also very humble. He loves spanning a few decades with his parties, usually focusing on the soul records you’ve never heard of, deep cuts of guys like Carl Hommes and the Commanders, or the original pressing of The Presidents “Shoe Shine.” He also mainly plays original 45’s, honing in off that vintage sound. We spoke to Jonathan at 11 am (early for him!) ahead of his Taverne Tour appearance and talked about his new bar, links to Montreal, and love of old Soul music, as he walked around, made coffee, and his flipped through old record crates.

PAN M 360: Hey Jonathan, how are you today?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah I’m good, just making coffee. I had a late night, and I’m sober this month, I’m doing late hours.

PAN M 360: Oh you’re doing that sober January thing?

Jonathan Toubin: No not really. I started it a few days ago. I opened a new nightclub a few weeks ago and both of the places I own close really late. And then you know, my job in New York is usually done around four in the morning we get paid after that. So it’s the kind of thing where I need a health kick every once in a while. I like the mornings, but it’s just not it’s not in the cards for me right now.

PAN M 360: What’s the new club? I know you already have the TV EYE bar/ venue?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah the new one is just a bar really. It’s a two story bar. Basically a friend of mine [Howie Pyro] died. And he was really cool. He’s like a original ’77 punk rocker, when you know he was a teenager he played at CBGBs and put out records. He was just a really interesting guy. Like a queer proto-goth who played with D Generation and Danzig, and played older records like me, but he collected all this rock n’ roll crap. And he was buried Hollywood Forever [a cemetery in LA]. I was sitting there with his other good friend and we were working out like ‘What’s gonna happen to all this stuff?’ And you know, his sister didn’t know what to do with it and they didn’t give it to the university. So he always wanted to have a bar or like something like that so we just decided to make a place with all of his stuff.

PAN M 360: That’s cool. Kind of in memoriam of him.

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah and it’s cool stuff. Like the ashtray that Andy Warhol stole The Velvet Underground banana from I mean, note for note. Or the Ramones gave him their first gold record, you know, presented to him. That’s up there. The Dead Boys guitar case that he used for his bass.

PAN M 360: What’s this place called?

Jonathan Toubin: It’s called 96 Tears. It’s in East Village.

PAN M 360: 96 Tears… That’s a song by Question Mark and the Mysterians right?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah he had it tattooed on his neck and he was a huge collector of rock n’ roll memorabilia so the name made sense.

PAN M 360: So on top of being one of the most sought after DJs in the world and owning two establishments, you travel a ton, and your next stop is Montreal’s Taverne Tour.

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah I’ve played everyone until I think they quit when they weren’t allowed to have dancing. I think last year because there was a surge. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve done it since … God, I hate to say it, it might be 2019 or 2020. Probably actually 2020, right before the pandemic. So I feel far away from it. Basically I can’t wait to come back.

PAN M 360: Do you have a pretty big link to Montreal in general?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah sort of. I’ve definitely spent a lot of time there. I guess I started doing DJ parties there in the 2000s. And you know, Bloodshot Bill is my friend and I stay with him sometimes. Or he stays in my house. And I always, you know, put on his shows at my other club and at my dance parties in New York. So that’s, he’s a good link. I’m also longtime fan of the city. I got a ticket a day early before my show, just to go see some stuff. And also I always go record shopping there because I love Quebecois cover versions and like garage music and I hope to find some interesting records.

PAN M 360: Your collection must be massive?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah and it’s really disorganized. But I have around 20,000 of these things and I want less, more quality less quantity.

PAN M 360: And you only play 45s when you perform right?

Jonathan Toubin: Not only that, but the original copies to make it more fun for myself. But that means I’m not really able to play most of the songs I want. It’s just like being an Iron Chef right? Like you only have pork belly and scallion and go! You have to be creative with what you have… I mean even Spotify doesn’t have most of what I want, either. But you know what I mean, if you’re able to have everything ever, you would you wouldn’t have any limitations right?

PAN M 360: So are you always on the hunt for something new to add to your repertoire?

Jonathan Toubin: I definitely used to be. But to be honest, during the pandemic, I ran out of money. So I started looking through my own records. You know, sometimes I forget and I was cataloging things and digitizing things during then. And I found all this great stuff that I completely forgot about. Like sometimes I’ll be in a town like Detroit, and I’ll come home with like, 100 records of something. Then I’ll get really busy when I get home and I won’t listen to all of them. Maybe I’ll take two or three out. So I did all my shopping for a couple of years in my own house. it was really fun.

PAN M 360: Are you ever surprised with what you already have?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah, there are a few time when I’m like ‘Where the hell did this come from? Like certain records, I really have no idea. How long it’s been here. I mean, it gave me a chance to get to know though what I really had. And also, I think the problem was, and I think this is true with anyone, I think the reason people like Top 40 or whatever is it’s new all the time is that they just want something new to listen to. They got bored with their old favourite song. They don’t really want to hear it again. So someone makes them a new favorite song. And so I guess for me, I guess probably a lot of people do my job, you know, we play all this stuff, so we need to go find another thing that we’re not bored with yet. You know, there was times where I was doing over 300 nights of these shows a year and you call get into habits. You start either playing things way too much or doing the opposite. It’s nice to be like I don’t really know what this sounds like, but we’re gonna figure it out.

PAN M 360: And as a DJ you need those little moments right? You don’t really get to enjoy the music as much and your always queuing up the next song?

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah you’re queuing the next record, you’re talking to someone; it’s very rare that you get to really enjoy music on the level of someone that just hears the songs uninterrupted. And sometimes you think certain ones are maybe a little long. When you finally get time with them alone, you start cutting it off a little early. Or you realize ‘This record is so repetitive.’ You don’t want to play it anymore. But it’s great at the club, because it’s got that kind of beat and you’re sitting back, feeling people dancing, enjoying in the magic, but maybe I don’t really like the record. But I think you enjoy the feeling of it more.

I came up with a definition for DJ a few years ago; You’re a mediator between people in music, and I was thinking that covers even radio, or any one that we call a DJ, because it’s someone that connects people in music. And I’ll say that feeding off that energy from people dancing based on my record choices, that’s better than listening alone at home.

PAN M 360: And one of the reasons you’re such a name in the DJ and live music world is you don’t play the hits, but rarities many people don’t even know existed. That must be fun shocking people or turning them onto new music from a different era.

Jonathan Toubin: Yeah I don’t play any hits or sometimes I’ll play an obscure cover of a hit. It’s usually around 100 records for most of these nights and I really like people to be challenged. And I also I guess I like to think about what I would want if I walked in somewhere. I’d like to hear some song I hadn’t heard before even ,man, I’d love to hear a rhythm I hadn’t heard before. I think the why I ended up with playing Soul music the most for dancing was that you can just find a lot of quality stuff that has a lot of passion and that you haven’t heard before. They made so many of those records in the era and they’re very unique. And every region has a different sound or different producers and arrangers, different sizes, certainly musicians and singers with all kinds of different sounds. So it can be, it can be very textured. Now I’m moving more into the mid to late ’60s, maybe little to the early ’70s.

PAN M 360: And you kind of set these rules for yourself. Like ‘OK I’m only going to play from this time period of Soul music to this one?

Jonathan Toubin: So my thing is, I just kind of decided to make a parameter. I’d be like, ‘Well, the set will be roughly from the years that James Brown did his best stuff from the ’50s to the, like, mid 70s. That would be my guideline. But and within that period, there was so much innovation in Black American music, and, you know, there’s so many things going on, so you have a lot of territory you can cover, if you don’t get stuck. I think there’s a lot of continuity, in some ways of like, the sort of expressive quality of the voices or the types of beats chosen. I don’t know, a lot of people just do like a party over just like a two or three year kind of span. To me, thats like if you made a cookie with only flour and you forgot all of the nuts or chocolate chips.

PAN M 360: You’re background was more into the garage and punk scene in Austin and then after you moved to New York, did your style kind of shift into Soul?

Jonathan Toubin: Well, I never really shifted, I mean I always liked this stuff. I really started DJing like, at clubs and stuff when I was in New York, and I kind of quit playing in bands and all that. And in most of the people I played to were in these bands at like rock n’ roll bars. People are drinking and they want to sing along to The Damned so I’d throw that on and I didn’t really think much about it.

But when I when I had to do dance parties, I was just sort of surprised. I didn’t want to do electro or disco or any that kind of thing. I wanted something that felt really organic and passionate and raw, like the stuff that I liked the most. I did learn how to do rock and roll for dancing too, but the soul parties became the most popular. I organically moved into that sort of direction. I think what it was is I was this guy coming from a different kind of music world approaching soul in my way and I was speaking to lots of people through it. I wasn’t at deep cuts kind of guy yet and was just kind of finding my way. And it’s funny, that after all these years I’m still an outsider, playing rock n’ roll venues and venues, and I’m not really part of the soul world at all.

Soul Clap Party 2019

PAN M 360: Did you ever envision yourself getting this big? I mean, you’ve opened for Jack White, sold out multiple venues, and host the most popular soul dance party in the world. Was there a point where you were like ‘ Wow I can do this as a career?’

Jonathan Toubin: No and I still don’t think that. I’m more like ‘Oh no. Today my career is over,’ almost everyday (laughs). I didn’t expect anything from it. When I played music, I really started pursuing that in certain point fairly seriously and making a living doing that for a while. Bit I quit messing around with it. With DJing, I never really cared. I just started. I was in graduate school at the time and I was just trying to get a little extra money and have fun, and I didn’t expect nothing. And I think that might have also been what helped. But Jack White … one of my bands in Texas, we along with The White Stripes opened for The Dirtbombs on a tour in Detroit. And this turned out to be The White Stripes’ second show ever. So it’s all connections and fortunately, a lot of those people I know from my band days have been doing pretty well. And then people like Vice gave me a bunch of money to play music I already liked, so it all really happened by accident.

PAN M 360: Would you say your goal with New York Night Train is to get people who aren’t normally up for dancing to dance? Like the too cool rock n roll people who only head nod to music.

Jonathan Toubin: Oh for sure. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think there has always been the people who play the hits and then the people who play the really rare stuff that’s almost pretentious like ‘Oh if you don’t know what this is, get the fuck out,’ kind of thing. There was never much middle ground. I never understood why people never danced to rock n’ roll like they did in the ’50s. I mean there’s this fuzzy line between rock and soul with the same kind of beats that encourage dancing, but yeah with my stuff you’re getting an eccentric, middle-aged gentleman and an odd suit, very enthusiastically, playing all of the most exciting solo records you’ve ever heard.

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