Oi Polloi

Interview — Tim Soter and the New York Electronic Underground

Published: Fri Mar 14 2014

In 1995 Tim Soter was diving into the depths of New York’s electronic music scene. He was also taking pictures. Luckily for us, he combined the two, and the resulting book, Electronic Music New York City 1995, is an absolute corker. I pestered him via e-mail for a bit of back-story, and here’s what he had to say…

First of all, how’s it going?

All’s good! It’s a day that’s almost Spring-like which NYC has been begging for.

Let’s take a trip back in time. When did you start photographing the New York electronic scene?

I moved to NYC fresh and green, right out of college to what is (now) the hip neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was way more desolate then — less connected. I moved here to be involved with other photographers but I found the art scene to be a little insular. The first city friend I made was Delmaur (DJ Delmar), a Seattle transplant and DJ. He and I had everything in common even though we had grown up thousands of miles away from each other and in different circumstances.

I was always passionate about electronic music – that sounds stiffer than it is – I simply loved The Art of Noise, Yello, etc. and I was amazed that Delmaur had the same love and musical vocabulary. He gave me some flyers for an early breakbeat/Jungle party – I went and was hooked after that.

Were you going to these events anyway, or were you just there to take pictures?

I would have been there anyway but I felt like I needed to contribute. I wanted to truly be a part of it, not just a fan. Documenting it was great because I love nothing more than making pictures and I was having the most fantastic times at night. It was like I was actually shooting someone I was in love with, but that someone was a thing – this scene. I was literally that happy.

When you took the photos did you intend on doing anything with them, or were they simply a document for yourself?

I didn’t have too many lofty ideas practically speaking. In my head at home I was fantasizing that they were amazing and could go somewhere but that was me being a star-eyed kid who just moved to the big city from a small college town in a rural Amish community (For the record, I am not Amish). In reality, I was so happy being in the moment that I had no ambition. Not to say that I was lazy, I was literally so lost in the moment, going back to the notion of being in love with something, that I didn’t even think to spend much energy to distribute the photos at that time. Plus, that time was pre-digital so distributing and promoting one’s photographs was a way more complicated task.

I really like the photos, but I’m going to have to admit I don’t really know what’s going on in a few of them. Why is the man holding a little spaceship? What are those men doing in those leather skirts? And why has that man got a T.V. on his head?

I have to admit that I have no idea. I didn’t think to ask questions because it was just happening and I thought that’s what was supposed to happen… people do things in New York. Looking back now I realize that type of weird DIY performance matched with electronic music was kind of unique. I’m a little pleased that I will never know what the hell was going on with that.

What was an average night like at one of these soirées?

Every single Friday night I went down to Chinatown, to an eight story walk-up where the Soundlab parties were held. Howard and Beth, the organizers would give you a small Xeroxed list of people performing. It had literally been typed up and Xeroxed. The loft was small and maybe held about 75 people at maximum capacity. I would often bring a cassette recorder and stash it on top of a dish rack, recording audio. I’d have to remember forty-five minutes later to flip the tape. There were hammocks to lounge in, and the music was usually pretty ambient. Loud, but ambient. People would be hanging out, enjoying a beer, smoking and having conversations.

Jungle nights were different. DJ’s would spin tracks and they were the curators. If they didn’t have it, you probably wouldn’t hear it. I would hear a track on Saturday and anxiously wait a whole week just to hear it again the following Saturday night. Hopefully, if it was a track that was huge they’d play it twice in one night. People would dance or often just nod their head in time with the track. Jungle beats are frenetic, but there’s a half-time that you can keep, and nod along and enjoy.

Sometimes I’d bring a horn I had picked up in London. There were a few of us with horns, a twelve inch long plastic horn that was loud. If you heard a track that you loved or that was really going off, you’d blow the horn and the MC would latch onto that and get the DJ to rewind the track from the beginning, so you could hear it again. Apologies UK, if this still goes on and this explanation seems obvious, but I haven’t seen it in practice here in years.

What are the people in the photographs doing now? Have you kept in touch with any of them?

I haven’t kept in touch with many from that scene. There are a few like Howard Goldkrand who, with his wife Beth, threw the best NYC parties I’ve ever been to — Soundlab. I get occasional updates from Delmaur as well. Most people I knew simply by the first name or literally no name at all. There were a lot of people that I knew just from seeing them every weekend at these events. I had no idea what their names were but if we saw each other on the street we’d stop and chat. The specific love for that music and culture was enough of a bond. We were in the same subculture together, without saying it out loud.

In the intro to your book you say that 1995 was “the last pre-cellphone, pre-internet era.” How do you think these nights would differ now?

These photos were all taken in a time in 1995 where NYC was a vibrant ‘pre-digital’ city. Subcultures and countercultures existed and thrived late at night in spaces that are now high-end clothing boutiques. At many of these events I was often fortunate enough to be the only person with a recording device of any kind. Compare that to today, where it would be the complete opposite! Imagine everyone truly being in the moment, not looking to ‘tag in’ or broadcast their location for some real-time cred.

These events, early Jungle parties and Soundlab parties were some of the best times of my life. While I do like to discuss the large divide between the pre and post internet/cell phone era of NYC and how the city and underground culture changed radically, I look at these pictures and see just great times.

It’s no doubt that things like the internet and mobile phones can sometimes be useful, but do you think they sometimes get in the way of real life?

I’m not a Luddite; I have a great relationship with my iPhone and I have nothing against ‘now’. It’s just impossible to get lost now. Even if you were to go out and leave your smartphone behind you couldn’t revert back to a time when there wasn’t such things, because you’d still be swimming in it.

You couldn’t leave your cellphone behind because you’d still be standing behind a sea of them being held high to record the show while it happens. Not just a quick snap but whole songs. Even when I went on to shoot shows and concerts I was always respectful of the event itself, getting what I needed and moving on, conscious of the fans, because I was a fan.

I’d love to be able to truly walk around Brooklyn with a camera and actually be lost. And I’d love to share what that feeling was truly like. I think this is a topic that isn’t really being discussed because it’s easy to be quickly dismissive — “Oh you’re a hater…” “Oh, it used to be SO much better.” I’m not saying that, I’m just trying to point out what a radical shift occurred in pre/post digital NYC, and everywhere I suppose.

Seeing as this is a clothes website, I suppose I better ask you a clothing-related question… what was Tim Soter wearing in 1995?

When scanning in these negatives I came across a self-portrait that I had taken. I was really proud of 1995 Tim for being smart enough to document himself in the midst of all of this. I loved that t-shirt, SEE was a short lived, beautifully printed photo magazine out of San Francisco I believe.

And what does he wear now?

Navy blue t-shirt and Saucony sneakers. Creature of habit? I prefer to think of myself as an action figure doll.

Judging by your blog you’ve got your fingers in a lot of photography pies. What else have you got in the pipeline?

I love teaching photography (at the Fashion Institute of Technology.) Looking forward to taking a four day workshop in Palm Springs, CA with my hero; master of photography, Duane Michals. Also I’ve been loosening up and making more personal work.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I thank you for your interest! I love this time period and I’m happy that Craig at Café Royal Books put it out after all of these years. I’ll be lecturing in NYC, speaking about this work and time period soon here in NYC, with a slide show with some surprises. Looking forward to that!

Tim’s book is available right this minute from Cafe Royal Books