Written by Steve Weinstein
“Why the Freemasons?” asks Jeffrey Sanker, rhetorically. Why a British duo sought after for their melodic and musically rich sound by the biggest names in the music industry to headline the White Party? We’ll let him explain it: “After last year’s 20th anniversary of the party, I wanted to break out of the same mold, take a different angle, get internationally known DJs. Everyone 25 and under kept saying, ‘Freemasons! Freemasons! Freemasons!’”
Thusly does Sanker explain a decision that has rocked the Circuit world. By booking the hottest DJs/producers/remixers in the world right now, he has refashioned what defines a major American dance event. The British duo is at the top of their game—and at the top of the dance-music world. Since they burst on the scene with the definitive mash-up—the disco standard “This Time Baby” and Tina Turner’s “When the Heartache Is Over,” sung by Amanda Wilson—they have become the go-to guys for every first-name dance diva, from Shakira, Beyonce and Whitney to Heather Headley, Kelly Rowland and Kylie Minogue.
They have also played every big house from Brussels to Melbourne, although they parse out their DJ gigs since it keeps them away from the studio, their real home. So what are these two mainstream DJs doing flying halfway across the world to spin at a Circuit party, even one as big as the White Party? It’s simple: We get their music. And they love us for it.
“It is quite bizarre, two straight guys making music really embraced by the gay community,” said James Wiltshire, half of the Freemasons (along with Russell Small) during a recent London interview. “But we’re much more able to play what we’ve created with you guys. You’re much more accepting to vocals.” For other gigs, the crowd wants to hear underground sounds, the thump-thump of tribal. That’s not Wiltshire and Small’s style.
“We love playing gay parties!” James says. It’s not only the diva anthems—although that’s a large part of it. “When we walk into a gay party, we can play the music we made. If we’re playing another party, we’ve got to play a lot of underground; but we do want to play what we make.”
Last summer, the Freemasons played their first East Coast gig for the Saint at Large. The concert, held on Governor’s Island off the coast of Lower Manhattan, was a big success and introduced the Freemasons to their base of gay American fans. It also let us take a look and listen to the group that produces so much of the music we’ve been dancing to lately. According to party veterans Mark Thompson and Robert Doyle, the crowd really “went crazy and stayed that way” once the Freemasons took over the booth.
“With smoke billowing and red lights flashing, Freemasons took over—and right from the start, the boyz were whooping it up and bouncing all over the asphalt, working it out, shaking it down, so that when the Freemasons really hit their stride with remixes of ‘Love on My Mind,’ ‘Sexual Healing,’ ‘Déjà Vu,’ ‘Just Can’t Get Enough,’ ‘Lola’s Theme,’ ‘When Doves Cry,’ ‘Rain Down Love,’ ‘If I Were a Boy,’ and ‘Ring the Alarm,’ the floor was filled with boyz who were dancing, really dancing,” Thompson and Doyle wrote on EdgeNewYork.com.
White Party Posse
Although they have previously played one relatively small (non-gay) party in San Francisco, the White Party really marks their West Coast debut—certainly their West Coast gay debut and their first major U.S. Circuit party. Previously, they headlined Sydney Mardi Gras, Melbourne and Auckland, New Zealand.
Jeffrey Sanker, the impresario of the Palm Springs weekend-long extravaganza, certainly has taken to heart the rumblings that the Circuit needs a shake-up from the usual roster. Having decided on the Freemasons, he spoke to their manager, who had to rearrange their schedule. “That tells me they really wanted to do it,” he said. With their U.S. work visa expiring at the end of April, the timing was perfect.
Although they will headline the White Party, the weekend will also feature a cast of Circuit all-stars. Manny Lehman is the lead-in for the Freemasons at the main event, while another European sensational crossover duo, Spain’s Chus+Ceballos, play the after-party. With the U.K.’s Wayne G and Moto Blanco playing the Sunday Tea Dance, this White Party is a truly international affair.
It’s all part of Sanker’s plan to mix up the playlist between new talent well known to the rest of the world but new to Circuit boys, and favorites like Abel, Lehman, Brett Henrichsen, Tony Moran and Joe Gauthreaux. With wild card Chi Chi LaRue, New York’s up-and-comer Scotty Thomson and Luke Johnstone, this promises to be musically the most interesting White Party yet.
Still, Sanker has been picking up the vibe that the anticipation is riding especially high from the thousands of attendees to hear the Freemasons. Playing earlier in the night fits perfectly with the hands-in-the-air songs that they have made their trademark.
One of the big questions looming over their set is whether they will mix in other artists’ and arrangers’ work or limit themselves to their own handicraft. Considering their voluminous output, a long evening could easily be comprised of nothing but those sounds composed, produced, remixed or at least mashed-up from the Freemasons themselves. Sanker, for one, expects and hopes that they play their own music, if not exclusively, than for the bulk of the set. “Their music fits the evening perfectly,” the L.A.-based promoter said.
The Current State of Dance Music
On their end, they happily fess up to enjoying what they make and wanting to share the upbeat tempos, feisty lyrics and musical ornamentation. “It’s certainly heavy with our stuff,” James says of their infrequent club gigs. “But, yeah, we play other stuff as well.” The duo does always manage to bring all new mash-ups and production numbers to wherever they’re playing. They are anticipating introducing a song from Sophie Ellis-Bextor, a British singer not well known in America—yet.
The most important thing for them is to play off the energy of the crowd. These are not DJs-as-gods, who sit perched on a turntable Olympus, deciding what kind of mood to bestow up on the dance floor. “We’re fairly conscious of what’s going on,” James says. “But every crowd is different.”
The Freemasons are optimistic about the current state of dance music. James remembers the days not so very long ago when progressive House provided hardly any chord progression at all. “Russell and I carry on with what we want to do: melody! Others can do tribal; they do it better than we can, anyway.”
Above all, he sees the function of a DJ is to use his music to bring people together to express their emotions collectively. That’s one of the reasons why Russell and James are so well known for looking at each other in the booth. They’re both responding to and enjoying the feelings emanating from the crowd.
As for Sanker, he is fully cognizant that the big-name talent this year will be in the DJ booth. If there is any entertainment at the main event in Palm Springs, it certainly will be lower key than last year’s appearance by Lady Gaga. “This year, it’s all about the music,” he said. “Friends from Sydney told me how amazing they were there—crowds of tens of thousands of boys, hands in the air the whole time. That’s what I want to bring here.”
So great at White Party Palm Springs! Looking forward to the Pier Dance in NYC!
By Gary Steinberg on 04-24-2010