The guys behind retro dance night Goin’ Steady explain how they’ve kept the party going for seven years in an ever-changing city.
It’s gearing up to be one helluva month for Matt Cully and Louis Calabro, two best buds known professionally as the Goin’ Steady DJs—although, with these dudes, I’m sure it’s cool if you stay on a first-name basis. When no one was looking, the Scarborough natives spearheaded two mega-successful party nights, and some spin-offs, that are about to hit hall-of-fame status within the mythology of Toronto nightlife. And no one was looking because they were all too busy dancing. It’s true: You can’t go to a Goin’ Steady-led jam without coming out the other end a dripping wet, mashed-potato’d mess. (And, trust me, it’s an entirely favourable outcome.)
Both Calabro and Cully are musical crusaders, with ties to all corners of the city’s metamorphosing arts scene. When he’s not sleuthing in record shops from here to Detroit by day or dropping way-back playbacks by night, Calabro works with the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television managing the Genie and Gemini Awards. Before that, he curated “The End of the Internet,” a performance series that attracted best-selling Canadian poet Christian Bök and absurdist composer Dan Deacon. (He’s also a published author, and can be found performing “action poetry” during, say, Nuit Blanche.) On the other end of arts spectrum, Cully cut his teeth as an independent DJ before iPods were even a thing. He went on to start Poor Pilgrim, a music series focussed on presenting the fringes of folk, noise and improvised music that just took over Toronto Island last weekend for its fifth edition. Along with his own night shift-ing on the decks, Cully works as the central nervous system (a.k.a. manager/composer) of the expansive musical collective Bruce Peninsula, and plans to record a debut solo record this fall.
The two champion a retro realness, with the goal of reviving a youthful musical “golden era.” After doing the house-party thing—like so many party people before/after them—the duo’s first splash of success came in 2005 with Goin’ Steady, when they teamed up with pal Wolfgang Nessel (who bid adieu in ’07) for a night of way-old-school jams—“from jump blues to doo-wop, swing to calypso, girl groups to surf and the weird and unseen world of American and international rock music”—that didn’t require big, booming, barely bearable clubs of the time. They’ve since jumped around from The Boat in Kensington to Footwork Bar, The Garrison, and Lee’s Palace. In many ways, I like to think of Goin’ Steady as one of the original nostalgia-tinged jams that began to offer the city’s westward, after-dark exodus something more. For Cully and Calabro, you can tell instantly that it’s always been about the music, and that they’ve never needed (or wanted) to rely on the cliché or kitsch, nor the “brand name” or the theatrics. And it shows. This Saturday (July 14), Goin’ Steady will scratch its seven-year itch with a big bash at The Gladstone Hotel. Later this month, Chronologic, a spin-off party of even older hits and newer generations, will celebrate its fifth anniversary.
In advance of the celebrations, I caught up with Louis Calabro to talk shop and talk about the days when Facebook was just a twinkle in a party promoter’s eyes.
It’s the seven-year anniversary of Goin’ Steady. Describe it in 60 seconds. Go.
We came up with a lot of other DIY parties in the early 2000s. We catered to the growing alternative dance scene that hated clubs but loved to dance. With Goin’ Steady, we wanted to capture the raw energy of the original punk music: ’50s and ’60s rhythm and blues. We dug deep into the past and started collecting a vast repertoire of soul, rock, and everything in between. We like to think that we’re outlining the whole history of pop music in each set.
You’re also known for a few other nights you organize. Tell me about those quickly.
In 2007, Matt and I started another party called Chronologic. We play music from every decade in order, from 1890 to 2012. That means Dvorak to Drake and everything else. Homework is our newest party—it launched this year and can be described as a survey of new American and U.K. dance music with an emphasis on future bass and house. Think xxxy, Danny Daze, Julio Bashmore, etc. Matt’s just celebrated the fifth edition of his Poor Pilgrim Island Show, which has become a magical tradition for the summer.
Aside from Goin’ Steady and your other regular nights, bring me back to the beginning.
Matt and I have always had a knack for throwing great parties. When we lived together during university in a house on McCaul Street, all of our parties were neighbourhood-famous. We would push our furniture against the walls to make a dance floor, set up turntables and invite all of the University of Toronto. I think we had 300-plus people the first time and our white linoleum floors were turned black from all the dancing.
When did you get into DJing? Do you have a “sound”?
In the early 2000s, Matt started a party called POSTMOD, which ran for a couple years at Labyrinth Lounge. Guest DJing that party was my first real gig, and I was really nervous. I was all over the map, playing Jeru the Damaja, Corey Hart, and Paul McCartney—in other words, I really didn’t really know how to work a crowd. Matt and I are both fans of pop music and weirdo stuff, and although we take our sets seriously, we also like including things like “OK Blue Jays,” or ’50s novelty jams about wiener parties.
How has the scene evolved since you started? What’s changed?
The “flavour of the month” attitude is still around in Toronto. For example, not many people who came to The Boat in 2005 still go there. Having lasting power as a party or venue becomes exceedingly difficult as the city grows. People no longer just request songs; they ask you if you will plug their iPhone in and play something on YouTube.
Has it gotten easier to get a crowd out? Harder?
We’ve been lucky that our crowd is loyal and always comes out in droves. We began the parties before Facebook and were used to promoting the old-fashioned way: postering the city and talking to people in the media and at record stores. These days, I fear Facebook is the only outlet that promoters use.
What’s been your most memorable moment/party so far?
Flirting with Rachel McAdams while trying to get her friend into The Boat was fun. Dealing with Ron Wood and Dan Aykroyd and their respective entourages at our second Goin’ Steady party ever. DJing at the abandoned hardware store before it became Parts & Labour was a jam; it was so dark you could hardly see anything. Playing Feist’s birthday party was also a highlight. Her crowd really responded to the left-field ’50s stuff we chose and they like Engelbert Humperdinck as much as we do.
Let’s talk about Toronto. What do you think is a nightlife strength we’ve got here?
It seems independent promoters are interested in giving people an experience along with a good show these days. Lots of unique spaces are being used for parties, like the basement of The Atlantic, the buildings on Sterling Road, pre-construction store-fronts in Parkdale. And the more we see what younger promoters are doing, the more we think the city is in good hands. We’re so happy that people who are just coming-of-drinking-age are open-minded and love to dance.
What could the city be doing better? What do you want to see more of in the 416 nightscape?
In the future, I hope the city eases up on the war they’ve waged against nightlife. The rigid capacity and alcohol laws are outdated and require review. Our city is so conservative it makes planning events more of a challenge, but maybe that’s what makes good parties so special.
When you’re not doing your own thing, what parties and places do you like to hit up?
Turning Point is such a hot time. The Mansion group is kind of on fire right now with their bookings. The Bellwoods Brewery has the most attractive clientele, so I go there often. The Red Light on Dundas West and the newly-opened Get Well is also swell.
I’m starting a music video–award prize, fashioned after the Polaris Prize, but for music videos. A call-for-entries should be issued by August. Matt is about to go to the Dawson City Music Festival next week and Sappyfest in August with his band Bruce Peninsula.
Goin’ Steady: The 7 Year Itch anniversary party happens this Saturday (July 14) at The Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. W., #WQW). Details are here. Chronologic: The 5th Anniversary happens July 28 at The Garrison (1197 Dundas St. W., #DNW).