What’s the secret to longevity? For Haute to Death — Detroit’s long-running monthly dance party, which celebrates its 15th anniversary at Marble Bar on Saturday — consistency is the key. The event has developed a following over the years for its cool yet accessible blend of house, disco, new wave, post-punk, and beyond.
It also helps to form relationships. The masterminds behind the event are Ash Nowak and Jon Dones, who are both romantic and creative partners. Back in 2007, both were students at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, where Nowak was studying painting and sculpture, and Dones photography. At the time, they just wanted to throw a party, and approached it with art-school studiousness, planning everything from the fliers to the playlist to the decorations.
“It’s always been a vehicle for our creative mindset, which is something that we both connected on right away when we first met,” Dones says.
“It’s our art project,” Nowak says.
“It’s always been our art project,” Dones adds.
They also set out with some pretty lofty ambitions, as evidenced by the name they chose for the event. “Well, haute couture is like the highest level of self-styling, the highest level of self-actualization, self-expression,” Dones says. “And death is inescapable. We’ve always tried to create an environment that allows people to get a little bit closer to that self-actualization.”
The flier for Saturday’s party riffs on Andy Warhol’s record sleeve for The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the banana swapped with a yellow high heel shoe. (“Heel slowly and see.”) To promote the event, they even manufactured a limited edition record sleeve.
They initially saw Haute to Death as a sort of early-aughts Detroit version of Warhol’s studio, The Factory, a gathering place for appreciators of what is now called the “indie sleaze” aesthetic. (This is rewriting of history, Nowak says; she recalls referring to it at the time as “art hoe.”)
“We’ve always sort of idolized things like Warhol’s whole playground, you know, all of the people and places and projects and clubs,” Dones says. “And that was kind of what we set out to do … even if it was pastiche at first.”
The first Haute to Death was a Halloween party at Hamtramck’s Painted Lady Lounge, where Nowak had worked as a bartender. Things went well enough that they then decided to try to pitch the event to Detroit’s storied Temple Bar. But when Nowak knocked on their door, she says they wouldn’t even give her the time of day.
So Nowak and Dones did what you would do to try to win someone over in those days: they burned Temple Bar owner George Boukas a mix CD. Eventually, they got him on the phone.
“I feel like we were both trying to hardball each other a little bit,” Nowak says. “It was very, like, ‘Well, why should I let you play here?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, why should I want to play here?’” Nowak made a wager that she could convince at least 60 of her friends to show up. They did, and Haute to Death wound up becoming a fixture at Temple Bar for nearly 10 years, growing to include a poolside summertime edition at the Belcrest before settling in at Detroit’s Marble Bar, where they’ve called home for more than four years.
Since the very first Haute to Death party, Dones brings his camera onto the dance floor, documenting the experience — and the party guests — something like a Detroit version of the hipster documentarian The Cobrasnake. (Dones says he was more inspired by Detroit photographer Bill Rauhauser for his ability to charm and disarm his subjects.) Nowak is combing through the photos and archiving them on Haute to Death’s website, h2dsocial.club.
While both have honed the craft of DJing over the years (early parties utilized a humble iPod), Nowak and Dones don’t like to think of themselves as DJs, or even promoters. DJing and promoting is just one part of the experience, something they learned to do by necessity, and lament how DJ culture has become exclusionary, in opposition to the inclusive queer spaces where it started.
“There’s just so much emphasis on these details that are the fucking wrong details,” Dones says, adding, “It’s like, oh, is your file in the right format? Is your record white label? Are you using the right needles? Are you playing the deepest tracks?”
“It’s extremely missing the forest for the trees,” Nowak says. “It’s so... bro-y.”
But Haute to Death’s artistic approach may have helped carve out a niche for it in Detroit’s fertile dance scene. “I feel like a lot of times, we’re too nightlife-y for the art world, and too artsy for nightlife, in a lot of ways,” Dones says. “And that’s fine, I’ve come to terms with that — you have to do your own thing, and that’s what makes it unique, and special, and last.”
The party has become a way for Nowak and Dones to express themselves creatively without working for an agency or art gallery — as well as their guests. “This, for us, is a way for us to keep creating our art and sell it to all our friends for $5 a pop,” Dones says. “And then our people become part of the project as well.”
They call the 15th anniversary party “a family affair.” Beyond Nowak and Dones, a stacked lineup includes support from DJs Erno and Charles Trees, live performances by synthpop act Moon King and “soul gaze and nu-disco” from Vesper, as well as burlesque from Hannah the Hatchet and dance from Charnell Williams.
The night is headlined by Justin Strauss, a veteran DJ and producer from New York City who Haute to Death struck up a friendship with during their travels.
“He’s always been kind of a North Star in our constellation,” Dones says. “I think there’s a lot of wow factor in saying you’ve been around for 15 years, but he’s a reminder that there’s a lot more ahead of us.”
Haute to Death’s 15th anniversary party starts at 8 p.m. at Marble Bar; 1501 Holden St., Detroit. Tickets are available at Resident Advisor starting at $10.