Neon fetes 15 years of 514 parties

The production company that grew out of a record store and Tiga’s DJ nights at defunct St-Laurent club Jai Bar have evolved into a full-on party and show promotion machine. Ahead of tonight’s bash at their spiritual home, SAT, Neon top man John Hatz talks about labours of love, the electro wave and fuckin’ Moby.

Neon party people

Looking at the current state of St-Laurent will give you a good idea of how many enterprises fail within their first few years. In the fickle, ever-changing world of music and nightlife, surviving for 15 is something of a miracle. For the local party and concert promoters behind Neon, it’s been a labour of love, albeit one fraught with anxiety, chance and a hell of a lot of partying.

In the late ’90s, large-scale raves had run their course. Increasing pressure from both the city and the police pushed the music and the partygoers towards the infamous afterhours scene, where clubs such as Sona and Stereo enjoyed a degree of success and notoriety.

Neon was founded in 1998 by a group of graphic designers, visual artists and DJs who had grown tired of that scene and yearned for something with a little more colour and panache. Over the years, they’ve gained a reputation for booking cutting edge acts, supporting local talent and putting on parties in unique spaces. They have a carefully curated aesthetic and their shows always seem to bring together the right mixture of colourful people, sound, design and just the right amount of hedonism.

The past few years have seen Neon transition from party promoters producing a handful of shindigs a year to full-fledged concert promoters booking nearly as many bands as DJs in different venues around town, while never straying too far from their spiritual home of the SAT. Simultaneously, original resident DJ Tiga has found fame as a recording artist, record label owner and international touring DJ.

I recently had the chance to speak with Neon head-honcho John Hatz about the early days, and where things are heading for the company.

Michael Sallot: What was happening in 1998, when Neon first started?
John Hatz: It was pretty much the end of the “rave” era. Raves had kinda gone through their peak of being large scale events that had been happening all over town that had now settled into nightclubs, and everything was kinda minimal. It was a lot of Detroit, Swedish and German techno. It had really become techno-based, and for us, although we were always fans of that genre and still are, we wanted to see it return to something glamorous and a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll. Then electro kinda happened — and by electro I mean “electro,” not what people call electronic music; electro is actually a genre within electronic music. So we started to gravitate towards that because the music was a little more pop-oriented, a little bit more friendly. There were vocals, hooks and catchy tunes. It was the kind of music that you could party to. We didn’t want to be afterhours promoters. We wanted people to drink and have fun. And then, simultaneously, that kind of music exploded internationally, so we kind of caught a freebie on that one.

MS: How did you guys come together?
JH: We had a little record store where myself and Tiga were listening to early electro, and were big fans of it. Tiga’s brother, Thomas Von Party, was also a big part of that. Nobody was really playing that sort of music in clubs, and we were getting all these amazing records every week, so we started Neon as a kind of anti-club. It was the opposite of what was going on.  It was where we could go to listen to things that we liked and the fans of the record shop that bought the same music would go as well. It started off at a very, very small nightclub. We got our buddy Justin Dallegret involved, and he came in and did a lot of visual art. He created a curated part of the event. It was just a collective of good friends who liked this one style of music that no one else was doing.

Tiga at work

MS: Where were you putting on your first shows and parties?
JH: We had done a few shows at Sona but not as Neon. Tiga was a resident there, and we often worked at that club but we never launched Neon there. We launched Neon as a weekly at Jai Bar, which was a 200- 300-person nightclub. We did it there for a good year or two, and then, in 2000, we moved it to the SAT. That’s when the simultaneous buzz started to happen and our parties went from 200 to 1,000 people. By 2002, we made the transition from a small to larger venue with bigger names, bigger artists. Then we only did between four and six events a year for quite a while until we started taking it a little more seriously.

MS: I remember the first Neon party I went to was A Touch of Class playing at the SAT in February 2004. It was Valentine’s Day, and people were going mental.
JH: I remember that night! That was the night that they got into a fight with the sound guy and the music stopped for about 15 minutes at one point. That was a fantastic night — and that was exactly when things started changing. Those guys came along — they were a great example, and I really miss them as DJs. That was probably the first and best example of a truly eclectic DJ set. They played all styles and it wasn’t really about the mixing quality of how they beat-matched — it was about what songs they played and when they played them. That was the genius of their set and that was the exact reason that Neon started. It’s not always about perfect DJing and perfect beat-matching and perfect, seamless transitions, y’know?

MS: There was a time a few years ago when you guys weren’t doing a lot of shows. This was around the time that the SAT was also being renovated. Flash forward to now and you’re doing more shows than you ever did before.
JH: I’m a big fan of saying, “If you don’t know what you’re going to do, don’t do anything.” At the time, we didn’t want to do shows just for the sake of doing shows, so we would only do something when we knew exactly what we wanted to do. Since then, the decision has been made to be a real, proper concert promoter that produces a consistent amount of shows annually. That’s where we’re kinda at now. We’re trying to branch out into different styles and genres of music. I don’t think genres are as important as they used to be. As long as it fits a certain criteria of quality, we want to produce it. But keeping to our roots, we’re still going to approach every show like a proper party. It will be a little bit more interesting — we’ll put a larger emphasis on lighting, atmosphere and mood to give it a special touch.

MS: What’s brought on this renewed vitality?
JH: I think it’s two things. One is that music is merging with itself. It’s not really an intentional move. We’re starting to like different kinds of music, and as our tastes expand, we want to do more. Also, there is an opinion that since we’ve been along for so long, it’s time to try something new as well. We could keep on doing the same old thing forever, but it’s time for us to try something else. These things aren’t strategic, they’re sincere. You do these things as a hobby, they start as a labour of love and they become your career, accidentally.

MS: Looking back at the last 15 years, what would you consider your biggest successes and, alternately, your biggest failures?
JH: Biggest success? Not to be too vague, but I think surviving has been our biggest success. When you look back at the amount of people that I knew that were in this business 15 and 20 years ago that aren’t anymore, it’s a miracle that we’re still here. Biggest failure? I wish that we could have done more. Unfortunately, we’re Montrealers, and we suffer from the “I’ll do this tomorrow” kind of typical Montreal attitude. If we were all in New York, we’d be homeless by now. But you have a good quality of life here, you work a little and you can live pretty well. Being a pretty ambitious group, I wish we had worked a little harder and been a little more established by now.

MS: Do you ever still have those moments where you worry no one is going to show up?
JH: Even when shows are sold out, if I’m there, I’ll say, “Are people coming?” and someone will say, “It’s 10:30 p.m. — relax.” You’re always paranoid. You’re always worried. You’re always thinking the show is going to be terrible, you’re going to be humiliated and the artist is going to hate you. That never goes away, but I also think that’s what keeps you from failing. If you get a little too cocky, then you don’t work as hard. That anxiety, that fear — that’s important. It keeps you honest, it keeps you humble and it keeps you working.

The girl with the Jordan tattoo

MS: What has been your personal favourite show or party that you’ve thrown?
JH: For me, it would have to be a tie. It would be LCD Soundsystem at the SAT in 2005. It was just magic. It was one of those legendary nights and performances. There was also our ninth anniversary at Metropolis with Boys Noize and MSTRKRFT, which was probably my favourite party we’ve ever thrown. We sold out Metropolis for the first time ever. The lights were awesome and everyone played amazing. It was exciting and it was one of those nights where you feel like what you did mattered and then the next show you realize it doesn’t matter [laughs]. If I wanted to go old-school, I would say the first one we did at the SAT, which was Vitalic and Tiga. Also, Miss Kittin & the Hacker at the SAT was special to me because I’m a huge, huge fan.

MS: I remember a few years ago you put out a flyer that listed all the hundreds of different artists that have played Neon shows, and one of those names was Moby. Except, it didn’t just say “Moby” — it said “Fuckin’ Moby!”
JH: [Laughs] Yeah! We booked Moby, which we were super excited about, but there was this disaster, nightmare blizzard. It was like 70 centimetres of snow in April and it made his train late from Toronto. He actually showed up at the club at like 3:30 a.m. and played for 15 minutes because we had to close. He was a bit of a difficult person to get along with. It was a sold-out show at the SAT, and it was at the beginning of Facebook, so we just got butchered online. It was a really gruesome experience. There were 1,000 tickets sold and the headliner’s not there — he’s stuck on a train. We had cars next to the train, and they wouldn’t let him off. It was a nightmare! ■

Tiga DJs alongside Jori Hulkkonen and Thomas Von Party for Neon’s 15th anniversary party at la Satosphère (1201 St-Laurent) tonight, Friday, April 19, 10 p.m., $21.74

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