Clearly, I like duos. Jeff Webb and Mark Beshai are The NightOwls, a group awesomely described on their Resident Advisor page as a “voltronesque collaboration project.” The NightOwls have a unique blend of humour and talent that they coalesce into a pairing that’s both original and entirely unexpected.
Webb and Beshai’s calling card is what the club crawlers call “tech house,” which is just like it sounds: minimal techno blended with deep, soulful house. (They explain it much better in this quirky YouTube tutorial on the genre, which functions as a perfect cheat sheet.)
In his early teens, the Hamilton-bred Webb was “stunned by local pirate radio playing techno” and soon began experimenting with writing electronic music. “My crew back home and I used to play these grungy underground warehouse events—mostly live techno and minimal—with blinking boxes, keyboards, and lots of wires,” he recalls. “It was pretty much science.” But Webb is no amateur. Before becoming an Owl, in the early 2000s, he started throwing Toronto events that “nobody ever heard about until the next day,” constantly switching the names of his crew “to keep people who may not have liked us doing what we were doing from catching up with us.”
Beshai was an axe-wielding prodigy who learned guitar in his preteens before receiving formal training in music production and engineering. “After attending a drum ‘n’ bass party, my hunger and passion for electronic music grew each day,” he says. “I bought turntables and worked on my production every day.” Eventually, he was spinning at places like The Social (RIP), Wrongbar, the short-lived mega-club CiRCA, and Andy Poolhall.
Neither of them envisioned their music careers would turn out quite like this, especially during the years they peddled discount denim for a living. But it was this side-job that brought them together, where music and magic were born. What makes The NightOwls unique is that they don’t hold regular residencies or throw monthly jams at Toronto clubs, but have instead been building an empire both as producers and online. Not only is the pair commissioned to remix tracks for other artists, they’re also intent on releasing original music (and perhaps a bootleg mixtape) this summer. There’s also the Owls’ new-ish, exponentially popular podcast, Big Hooters, which regularly attracts global listeners in the thousands because the tracklists are always ripe for the picking of new beats and grooves. (The podcast is how I first heard about them.) The two have also recently upped their travel game, acting as Toronto’s unofficial house ambassadors for a legion of devoted fans not ready to pack it in.
In advance of their hotly-anticipated gig tonight at Andy Poolhall (one night, four DJs!), I take five with The NightOwls.
So The NightOwls. How did you two come together?
JW: To supplement our struggling music careers, coincidentally Mark and I were making side money by hustling lightly-used jeans, corduroy, well… any pants really. The night we met, it was a full moon: While we waited for this denim guy, we were discussing our mutual musical hobbies.
MB: That was in 2005. Jeff helped me out with some programs and instruments to make beats. Years later, we ran into each other in Toronto. I was playing a gig and Jeff mentioned he recently moved downtown—actually pretty close to me. Since he hooked me up with the first tools to get me going, I helped him get some gigs with the local crews. Next thing you know, we’re at my place three to four days a week working on tracks together. Fuck, we haven’t stopped since then.
JW: And the name?
MB: We were hammered.
Describe one of your jams in 60 seconds. Go.
JW: Sweaty… Loud… Drunken… Messy… Fun. When we go out, we do it dirty. Usually a more mature crowd, but our people really know how to get down. Sometimes we play huge fancy venues, but we really enjoy playing hot little sweatboxes.
Your stated vibe is “Late Night Tech House Music.” Do you think Toronto appreciates its house music scene?
JW: Toronto has seen generation after generation of electronic music scenes come and go. I think people here have a really high standard of what they like—people are a bit picky. None of it is new to them. We appreciate being able to play for a crowd like that. Love from the crowd at a Toronto jam is hard to get sometimes, so we appreciate the love we’ve been getting a lot.
You also host a podcast called Big Hooters, which is “Tech House Radio.” Tell me about that.
MB: The show started in September 2012. You’re guaranteed to hear the newest and freshest tracks in tech house and techno. Usually pre-releases.
JW: We talk a bit, we don’t like to keep the track names a secret. We’re all about promoting up-and-coming artists, and breaking fresh tunes from the bigger names in the genre. It’s syndicated on a slew of net radio stations around the world—I’m told we get about 20,000 listeners per episode. Easiest way to get it is to just follow us on Soundcloud.
You also do original tracks and remixes. Would you consider yourselves a hybrid between a band and producers?
JW: Yeah, we’ve got some releases out on a few labels—some local, some international. We’ve done remixes for a bunch of different artists, we’ve been honoured recently to be able to work with a living legend in house music, Eddie Amador.
MB: We have done a few bootleg remixes that have received some great attention. We actually are planning to release a free bootleg album in the late spring that I’m very excited about. But…I don’t think we are a band?
JW: We’re definitely producers. We rock out in the studio, but we don’t like, hold instruments or anything.
MB: Well I hold them, but we don’t really use them. We DJ at shows.
Name-drop some acts we should we looking out for.
JW: For international stuff, our boy Groovebox from Spain is killing it right now. Josh Fabian a.k.a. TimeKube in California. Local stuff is hot as hell, though. Jerome Robins and Deko-ze are making big moves with their Jungle Funk jams. too.
MB: I have really been enjoying tracks from my friend Carlo Whale in Italy. Also Brais the Nice from Spain, and DJ Dainty Doll.
Who would you urge to come out to hang with The NightOwls?
MB: Our crowd is sexy and ranges from early-20s to mid-40s. It’s really awesome to play for such a wide age range.
JW: People from many walks of life. Anyone who knows how to have a good time, and loves thumping party music.
What do you think is the biggest strength of Toronto’s nightlife?
MB: The diversity of music. Toronto has everything from jazz and blues to hip-hop and a world-class symphony. We’re a leading city on a global scale.
JW: Everyone I talk to from other places has said they really want to come here to check it out. I had no idea a few years ago, but apparently Toronto nightlife is pretty legendary.
When you’re not doing your own thing, where do you like to go in the city?
JW: You can find us on Queen Street. Usually in the west. We hold a drinking residency at Tota, a great little spot we’ve DJed at a ton of times.
What could Toronto be doing better? What do you want to see more of in the city’s nightscape?
MB: I think it would be great to see bars and clubs serve until 3 a.m. No one wants the party to end.
JW: Yeah, Toronto spots have an extraordinarily early end time compared to other places in the world. I’m not a bar owner, nor do I plan to be, but from what I understand, liquor licensing is a bit of a hurdle for (prospective) club owners.
What’s next for The NightOwls?
JW: We’ve got some releases and collabs with some of our favourite musicians coming soon. We’ve been locked up in the studio a lot lately. Expect to see tunes and remixes from The NightOwls on Loko Motion, Mjuzieek, Avenue Recordings, Yaiza Records, Influential House, and Citrusonic Recordings.
The NightOwls play Simulate with and others tonight at Andy Poolhall, 489 College Street. Doors at 10 p.m. More details here.