You can tell that reality has started to set in for Nav Sangha and Chris Harper.
A week before they’re slated to open the doors on Wrongbar this Saturday with an appearance by NYC’s Andy Butler (see sidebar), they’re covered in sawdust and drywall, bickering like an old married couple. They’re on a break at the roti shop across the street from the venue they hope will help fill the hole that music lovers in this city love to complain about.
“What possessed us to try to open a bar? Nav’s greedy,” Harper quips in his standard deadpan serious tone.
“Is that what you think?” Sangha laughs. “No, it was seeing a bit of a void that we felt we could fill. Over the last few years we’ve lost venues that were genuinely interested in musical diversity and not in pandering. We’ve found a place here that’s affordable, and we can make it doing what we want to do and stick to our guns.”
Talk to anyone in the music scene, whether they’re DJs, musicians, bookers or promoters, and they’ll agree there’s a definite lack of viable music venue options in the city, especially for emerging talent and underground parties.
Yes, established live music clubs like the Horseshoe continue to thrive, and the ambitious super club Circa has helped bring some new vision to the dance club world, but that leaves a lot of music that falls in the middle underserved.
Though the lines between DJ culture and live music are fuzzier than they’ve ever been, the bar scene hasn’t changed to reflect that. You can throw your event at a grungy live bar and accept that your DJ will sound like he’s playing through a clock radio or at a shiny dance club that can’t properly accommodate live acts.
Rising property values and the bottle service fad have redirected the attention of many club owners away from the music and toward the business of selling as much booze as possible. Toronto needs a club built for music and run by music-lovers instead of bankers.
We need a bar where it makes complete sense to have a punk band like Fucked Up one night and a party with an Internet-buzz rapper like Kid Sister the next.
“We’ve actually been talking about doing this for years. I just want people to come in and say, ‘This is different,’ as difficult as that is in Toronto,” Harper says between mouthfuls.
There’s a good chance you’ve crossed paths with at least one of the pair if you’re a hardcore music-lover. Both have been in the trenches at record stores around town forever, and Sangha is currently co-owner, with Jason Palma, of the iconic Play De Record, a bona fide local institution that’s been ground zero for DJs for the past 16 years.
“Between the two of us, we have about 30 years of record store experience,” Harper claims. He’s done time at Rotate This and Driftwood (he got Sangha jobs at both of them), along with Rick’s, Kops, Neurotica and probably others he forgets.
Even if you’re not a record nerd, you may have run into one of them at their night gigs. Sangha is well known as a DJ (see sidebar, this page), and Harper has DJed but claims to be done with it for the time being. He’s usually been on the other side of the bar, serving drinks at clubs and bars across town for over 18 years, bringing the experience and contacts needed to make a couple of record store nerds’ dream a reality.
“That’s what I’ve always done, worked in bars and record stores. Apparently this is what I’m good at,” Harper shrugs.
“No, you’re good at finding reasons not to get up early, that’s what you’re good at,” Sangha interrupts. “Chris knows half the city, and I’m trying to know the other half.”
When attempting to describe what they’re hoping to accomplish, they cite various bars around the world – Rainbo in Chicago, Paris in Paris and Southpaw in Brooklyn. (They’ve already managed to snag scenemakers the Rub from Southpaw for a monthly residency at Wrongbar.)
When it comes to local clubs they admire, surprisingly, they name-check mainly live venues – the Horseshoe, Lee’s Palace, the Apocalypse, Siboney, all either long-surviving staples or long-defunct havens for emerging underground talent.
“Beyond having good venues, Toronto’s been blessed with an all-star lineup of promoters and bookers,” Sangha explains.“Those guys have their jobs for a reason. (Lee’s Palace booker) Amy Hersenhoren is one of my best friends, and she works her tits off to do what she does,” Harper interjects.
Though Wrongbar’s being designed from the ground up to accommodate live bands as well as DJ nights, it also aspires to be a casual and relaxed bar where you can hang out and drink with friends while filling the jukebox with quarters.
Yes, you read right. They acquired an old jukebox that plays actual 45s. Initially it will be stacked with gems from both of their enormous collections of rare records.
“I’m going to put $300 ska records in there. I don’t give a shit. What the hell – they’re not doing me any good sitting in my box at home. I’d rather have people hear them,” Harper says.
“We were thinking we could get people who don’t necessarily live in the city, or people here who maybe aren’t DJs but have a musical story to tell and some knowledge, and have them curate the jukebox a month at a time or something,” Sangha adds.
In order to do justice to the music they love, Sangha and Harper put a lot of energy into getting the sound right. Sangha got lucky on eBay and managed to buy a complete Funktion One system from an American bar that went under. That won’t mean much to most people, so you’ll have to trust us when we say this is a very good thing.
In interviews I’ve done with touring DJs, nine times out of 10 when they mention a particularly good-sounding modern dance club, they’re talking about a Funktion One system. In order to be able to deal with the different needs of live sound, Sangha and Harper are augmenting it with additional components, a consideration taken too rarely.
“After so many years of playing and DJing, I’d be horribly embarrassed if it didn’t sound good,” Sangha says.
There’s a chance some people will lump this project in with the ongoing gentrification of West Queen West and Parkdale, and both Sangha and Harper know it.
While we’re waiting for our food, Harper invites a couple of local musicians he knows to the opening, assuring them that there won’t be some bouncer at the velvet rope telling them they don’t meet the dress code.
“We’ve taken a lot of precautions to be sensitive to what’s in Parkdale. We’ve met all our neighbours, we’re soundproofing the front of the building, spending money where it needs to be spent in order to stay friendly,” Sangha says.
“When moving to Parkdale,” Harper adds, “you have to try not to piss Parkdale off.”
It’s tough to think of anyone else in town with fingers deeper inside so many aspects of dance music than DJ Nasty Nav. It puts him in a unique position to bring together all the disconnected underground scenes under one roof.
He started out in the organic jazz funk and rare groove scene, making a serious name for himself as a member of the Movement Collective, a group at the forefront of that sound locally who were the biggest draw during the heyday of Roxy Blu – one of the few local dance clubs that Sangha and Harper cite as an inspiration.
“I was collecting that music for years before I even realized that you could DJ it. Once I heard people actually playing those records out, I had to get into it,” he says about his early days.In more recent years he’s re-embraced his indie and punk roots (he started off his musical career in bands) and reinvented himself in the electro-indie-dance scene. He’s now a fixture DJ in that scene as well.
Looking back over the last year’s party listings, you find him playing at most of the hippest events and frequently blowing away the international talent with his opening sets. The Bacardi B-Live was a classic example – he was way more upbeat and engaged the crowd much more successfully than either James Murphy or Diplo.
Besides being involved in Play De Record, his incredibly busy DJ schedule and Wrongbar, Sangha also recently started a record label called Nasty Mix.
“Our first release featured Bird Peterson, an American performer, but we’re planning to focus on the current groundswell of talented young Toronto producers and artists,” he says, true to form.