THE BAG MESSENGER: Where are you from? What was growing up like for you?
BILLY WERNER: I grew up in Queens, pretty close to the NYC/Long Island border. I hada pretty normal childhood… little league, family trips to the Catskills.. etc. The normal shit for a Jewish kid in New York.
THE BAG MESSENGER: When did you first get into music? Influences?
BILLY WERNER: My mom’s side of the family was musical and my dad collected records so there was typically music playing at home. My parents even got me one of those Columbia House Tape Club memberships where you pick 15 cassettes for a penny and then you have to buy like 6 overpriced cassettes within a year or else you get charged a penalty. I bet most people reading this have no idea what I am referring to… I am old. I started getting my own music, rap and pop, when I was quite young .. I saw Beat Street in the movies in 1983 or 84.. I got real caught up inthe whole rap/breakdancing/graffiti thing (I guess you call it hip hop) even though I was 7 and had no actual real life contact with it. I later got into metal, punk, indie, etc…I have always had music and its associated cultures playing a central role in my life and it was an integral part of how I was raised. My influences range from Black Flag to David Mancuso …essentially, if it is visceral and genuine, I learn from it.
THE BAG MESSENGER: How did you first get involved with DJing?
BILLY WERNER: I got into collecting rare soul records when I was around 20 or so. That led to attending rare soul events in New York, like the Empire State Soul Club, and so on. I wasn’t much interested in DJ culture, but my interest in nerdy records and meeting nerds, many of whom were twice my age, got me opportunities to share my collection. That was pretty much it. I got a weekly gig at a dive bar on Avenue A and played northern soul and rare groove every Thursday night. I also did a Saturday monthly at the same bar, where we booked guests… All the dudes that went on to create DFA, Tim Goldsworthy, James Murphy, etc. used to come hang out and DJ with us. It was a fun time in NY, before DJ’ing replaced starting a band as the ‘cool’ thing that everyone could do.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Can you speak on David Mancuso and the Loft? Did you attend those parties? Have they affected the way you approach music?
BILLY WERNER: I have attended 4 or 5 Lofts.. They happen quarterly now.. They are still invite only and ‘private’, but Mancuso does them out of a banquet hall now, rather than his house. I’ve never experienced the kind of atmosphere you get at the Loft. You are dancing next to people who have been going for 40 years, celebrities, toddlers, drag queens..it is the most mixed environment I have ever been in and everyone is just there for the music. There is no posturing. Dudes are doing classic Loft dance moves to jazz records that have no drums, the minute the party starts. It is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. These parties have affected everyone that has attended them. “Famous” DJ’s who don’t go to events will still attend the Loft and bring their children. It is the ground work for anything any of us do, no matter what kind of music we play. Mancuso did it first, did it best and will do it until he checks off the planet. The eclectic nature of the selection and the idea that a party is built up and has peaks and valleys has been instrumental in how Robotique is conceived and the type of events we try to present, both musically and in the atmosphere we try to create.
THE BAG MESSENGER: How did you end up in Philly? How is the Philly DJ scene?
BILLY WERNER: I was in a touring punk band that was based in Philadelphia, so it made more sense for me to move here than to stay in NY and commute to rehearsals and recording sessions. The DJ scene here is incredible. A lot of DJ’s poo-poo the whole thing, talking about how Philly sucks and this and that. We are REALLY lucky in this city. If you have a genuine passion and affection for what you do, Philly sees that. There are enough real heads who have stuck it out through good and bad times in the local music scene that know when someone is coming correct or someone is a faker and the people speak up with their attention and their wallets. Because a party is popular this month or this year really means very little. It takes something real to have any kind of staying power in this city. I love that. I also love that Philly DJ’s support each other, seemingly unconditionally. We do our thing but we respect everyone, no matter what kind of music they play, as long as they are coming from the right place.. And we get the same kind of respect in return from people playing all kinds of genres. It’s a good community here, especially if you approach it in a humble way and LEARN from genuine and passionate people, rather than try to criticize them.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What is Robotique? How did it come about? Who have been some of your favorite guest?
BILLY WERNER: Robotique was started in 2007, by myself and Mike Trombley who really got my interest in disco and underground 70s and 80s dance music moving towards where it is now. Before we crossed paths, I only had a passing interest and respect for a lot of the music I now play as opposed to the maniac I’ve turned into. We wanted to do a party together so we started a monthly at Medusa Lounge and the event was born. The first format of the night was disco early and current house late. At some point, we just made it disco the whole night. Mike moved to Detroit, the party moved to Kung Fu Necktie, and I asked my good friend Ryan Todd to join me and here we are. We’ve been weekly for two years now and the party will hit its 3-year anniversary on September 10.
This will sound like the typical cop out but I have enjoyed every guest we have booked. We are lucky that we work at a venue that is (mostly) unconditionally supportive and is open to our ideas. I mean booking the first Philadelphia gigs for Ron Trent, Trus’me, Runaway and Linkwood come to mind as proud moments. Spinna just played, which is insane to think about. King Britt played an insanely eclectic and funky set.. Rich Medina is a monthly resident. We are humbled by the respect all our guests have shown us and the love we get from basically everyone who is local to Philly. All of the guests, regardless of status, bring their A-game to the party and they don’t rely on their names to make the party fun. They really dig for the right music to play. That is crazy to me and we are really fortunate that the party’s reputation commands that kind of approach from the people we book.
THE BAG MESSENGER: When did you first start collecting music? When did disco grab your ear?
BILLY WERNER: I bought my first record when I was 13 or 14. It was probably a punk7”. My interest in 60’s soul, funk and break beats eventually led me to an interest in disco and modern soul in the late 90’s and early 00’s. As I mentioned earlier, my friendship with Mike Trombley, as well as Apt One (Mike Fichman), Ryan Todd, Shawn Ryan and a handful of otherlocal DJ’s really ignited the fire under my ass to dig way more aggressively than I ever have. DJ’s in Philly know music. You have to be on your game here or you will get chumped by the next person’s digger mitts. It’s not a competition, just an intense appreciation and passion that I haven’t felt from any other locale and it inspires me to dig and listen very carefully and intently.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What kinds of things are you looking for these days? Who are some of your favorite producers?
BILLY WERNER: Without giving too much away, I have been on an LP kick… Lots of private press and European LP’s from the late 70’s up through the mid-80’s have some cuts on them you wouldn’t believe and it cuts across genres. I recently picked up an album from some Russian new-wave/pop group from 1987 that has some material you wouldn’t believe. You listen to it and you’re like “how is this not an Italo or Euro disco holy grail?”. Best rule of thumb is that when you think the well is dry, you are looking in the wrong well. There is no shortage of undiscovered and new music to learn about. As for current producers, I really like The Revenge, Tensnake, Motor City Drum Enesemble… locally, Apt One’s latest single is really killer. You can’t be lazy in this city.. There is music everywhere and lots of it is great.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Any interesting digging stories? Favorite finds?
BILLY WERNER: Nothing too crazy, actually. My digging experience have been relatively boring.. Other than the occasional encounter with Stinky Steve or The Count.. their typical antics and their general appearance and demeanor… Diggers and nerds know these people and everyone has similar stories about them. A sealed copy of ‘Pet Sounds’ for $1 was probably the peak of my discoveries.
THE BAG MESSENGER: How deep in the crates are you?
BILLY WERNER: It’s all relative. Compared to someone like Dam Funk, I am scratching the surface. Compared to what you may hear at Silk City on a Saturday, I am like a trapped miner.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Do you carry a bag? What comes with you every day?
BILLY WERNER: I do! Usually it’s my lunch, my keys and an ipod. I have a streamlined existence.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Whats the key to packing for a gig?
BILLY WERNER: Balancing what you want to hear with where you are playing and who the audience is likely to be. For Robotique, all bets are off and it’s really simple. We pack what we want.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Has Serato changed the way you get down?
BILLY WERNER: I actually had Serato for a period of 6 months and did not enjoy it. I sold it and went back to vinyl. For me, I just did not like using a computer to DJ. I also like the rituals of looking through your records and recognizing them from label art. I respect Serato as a tool and don’t hold against folks that use it, it is just not for me. If you are more asking how has other people using Serato changed my approach to DJing, it really hasn’t.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Every DJ has a horror story or two….what is the worst thing to happen at a gig?
BILLY WERNER: This is a good question after the Serato question. The popularity of digital DJ’ing has made so many clubs and venues ignore the small handful of DJ’s that still use vinyl. You won’t believe how many bigger venues do not trouble shoot their booths and equipment with records because Serato automatically corrects skipping and stability issues. Venues don’t know how to balance their counter weight or calibrate their equipment… For example, it is virtually impossible for us to play at Silk City. As soon as one person starts dancing in front of the booth, the needles are jumping halfway across the record. It’s sorta depressing, but I guess time has moved on without us.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Where do you find inspiration to do what you do?
BILLY WERNER: The friendships I’ve solidified through Robotique and DJ’ing ingeneral keeps me moving. Receiving unsolicited respect from people I look up to is another benefit to doing what I do.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What do you think DJ culture is going to look like in the next ten> years? (Will technology be the end of us all?)
BILLY WERNER: Good question. Honestly it will probably look about the same. The young kids jumping on the bandwagon…I would say about 20% of those people will actually stick with it, which seems to be about normal. The people playing their first gigs now, will be the grumpy person I am today. I will probably doing gigs at retirement homes.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What can we be looking from you in the future?
BILLY WERNER: Although it’s hard to tell, I am cutting back on non-Robotique gigs to focus on production. Hopefully there will be a record with my name onit at some point before 2011.
Check out Billy Werner on Twitter and keep up with Robotique online
The new book Son of the City: A Memoir by Dante Ross, is the first release by the new author. Preorder is in limited supply and available now
When Victrola introduced the Revolution Go turntable to me and asked if we would be interested in trying one out, I was game, but these days I spend more time at my desk than hunting for records in dusty basements.