Q&A: Jonathan Toubin On His Record Collection, Moving To New York In The '90s, And Wanting To Make Culture

Some DJs are quiet, let-the-music-do-the-talking types, but not Jonathan Toubin. Interviewed for this week's Voice profile, the 4Knots Music Festival Afterparty host was enthusiastic and opinionated, generating a novella's worth of transcript. More highlights from our conversation are below, as Toubin recalls his days freeloading from major labels, how to nicely kick drunks out of Arlene's Grocery, New York's Bohemian tradition, and just exactly which rare records he DJs with.

Is there a hard mark between what you listen to for yourself, for pleasure, and what you like to play for others?

Certainly there's a few things. For instance, I really like a lot of these jazzy songs and slow songs. I like a lot of moody, psychedelic music. Really, that's for home. Also, I keep telling people, "It's your job [to separate them]." People I know always want to play absolutely everything. I'm like, "You don't wear a tuxedo to a tennis match." People, for some reason—I think because of the iPod—feel compelled to show everyone they're hip to all these different things. I don't really need to prove that to anybody. In fact, for me, it's more exciting the more I limit what I do. Like, "Tonight we're only playing electric blues from the '50s and '60s." And it becomes a really rich night.

A couple of weeks ago at Home Sweet Home, we decided to do a Rolling Stones night, since it's their 50th anniversary. Probably one out of every five songs was actually [by] the Rolling Stones: we [played] a lot of songs they cover, covers of their songs—make it interesting. Me and my friend Josh Styles made two piles. We both brought what we would normally bring on Friday, because sometimes you can do a theme without every single song being [part of] a theme, and then just the Rolling Stones-related material, so if anything went badly or got boring, we could move over to this other, more diverse place.

Having that physically there probably helps your mind focus it a bit, too.

It's a safety net.

You have stacks of 45s everywhere in your kitchen. Can you give me a guided tour? What are the ones in the middle, standing up?

These are mostly up from Detroit and Cleveland. I was just there a couple weeks ago. Some of them will be junk, like this. [Picks up two small stacks of 45s] This is some trash from Rhode Island a couple days ago I'm probably going to give away for free or something, I think 15 [records]. [This stack] means I'm going to keep [them], but there were none that were really amazing. There's a couple I haven't heard that I really don't need to hear. There was a big dollar bin [sale]. I got a moon record ["Apollo Flight, First Man on the Moon, 1969," narrated by Hugh Downs], which would be funny because I used to use a lot more sound clips. I don't any more as much.

[Picks up another 45] This band [the Detergents] were geniuses and made a living burlesquing the Shangri-Las. This one's called "Leader of the Laundromat." Their other hit was called "I Can Never Eat at Home Anymore." They were talking about their mom's cooking: "My mom's a good mom, but she can't cook." I use to have a lot more novelty [records]. Before I got to this level I was more of a thrift-shop kind of DJ. I would just introduce Sesame Street to, like, a punk record.

You were like a WFMU DJ.

[laughs] That's mean, man.

I didn't intend it to be. What are those four adjacent stacks in front of the bin?

This one is what I wanted to listen to today. The guy from the record store from Detroit's here this week to DJ. He's going to be my guest on Friday. Three of the records are ones he mailed me. One of them in particular is impossibly expensive, and he gave it to me for a couple hundred bones. It's really cool. It's one of those great songs that should be a classic. It's called "He's the One That Rings My Bell" [by Sherri Taylor, 1961]. There aren't many copies of it, but people will like it. I'll also play it at my soul party because it's kind of a mix. It's got enough rock and roll type elements to not be out of place. I've got a new name for Friday night, by hairdos: Pompadour, Process, Beehive, and Shag. Soul Clap, which I'm most famous for, is totally different. I go into the earlier '60s R&B, the earlier funky music where it's really songy and raw, and then a couple boogaloos. Even with that format, it's so diverse that you never have to do much.

[Looks at more 45s] I have Pere Ubu's "The Modern Dance" single; the original version of "Mr. Pharmacist," that the Fall did, by the Other Half. [An early] Feelies single ["Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me & My Monkey" b/w "Original Love," Stiff, 1980]. This is a recent Italian record that I really like [by Vermillion Sands]. And this is a highly danceable Theremin track that's incredible that I just got recently. [The First Theremin Era, "The Theme from Dark Shadows"] It is insane. It's one of those Can, "Vitamin C"-type beats. It has a break.

I played this kind of rare track by a soul artist named Johnny Thunder—it's a Tommy James cover, of "I'm Alive"—and this guy came up to me in Toronto a few days ago: "It's on Ghostface Killah's new album." And it is. Here's "The Grizzly Bear" [by the Chanteurs], vocal doo-wop/R&B: a really wild song about a dance called the grizzly bear.

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