Revenge of the dorks

Hey, kids: Here they come, walking down the street, coming at you from the wrong side of midnight, heading straight for the heart you didn’t know you had.

At first glance, this gang of four looks like your average late-20th century, black-clad, middle-class, paranoid hipster posse that a few years ago became fashionable in downtowns around the world. You know the scene: Everybody’s cool, parties from midnight till noon, wakes up to black coffee, French cigarettes and Naked Lunch (the Ballantine Books paperback version from 1973); the artier and more disciplined then throw Can’s Ege Bamyasi on the turntable and begin to jot down remembered dialogue from the night before in a notebook marked poésie et prose. But look again at the four guys rounding the corner of Beaubien and Lafayette.

The faces of Jon Ozias, Michael Doyle, Rob Theakston and Mike Servito say ambition and cunning, to be sure; but there is also a whiff of the homespun in the air as they approach. These DJs may call themselves Les Infants Terribles (a nod and wink to French writer and artist Jean Cocteau), and they may play bad boys in an imaginary movie of their own creation, but they’re really just four aging teenagers in love. Awwww, shit. Make that four guys totally in love — with some of the best fucking records Western civilization has ever produced, that is. Call their mission Dorkwave. Why? Why not?

Theakston, 27, a writer and serious electronic musician whose credits includes work with the experimental sound collective Thinkbox, says, “Dorkwave is about the records that got you called a freak in high school. … The fact that we play those same records now is a form of redemption. I don’t want to talk like some stupid-ass statesman, but it feels good to say, ‘I told you so.’ It’s liberating.”

Theakston has a soft drink in his hand. He smokes only one cigarette during a 90-minute conversation at Niki’s in Greektown. He says he has to get up early the next morning — Easter Sunday — to drive to the home of his girlfriend’s parents in Lexington, Ky. This doesn’t sound quite right coming from a legendary problem child who once brought a baseball bat to a Dorkwave party and played “batter-up!” with about 70 CDs.

Theakston, who grew up in Canton, says, “I’m mellowing out. But I still spill my beverages, and I might throw a bottle or two at the end of the night.”

“We’re not angels, by any means,” Doyle says, finishing the thought, cigarette pressed between his fingers. A 33-year-old industrial designer, freelance illustrator-writer-editor and occasional university lecturer by day, the erudite Doyle is quick to accent and punctuate his colleagues’ sentences. “The summer of ’03 was nonstop debauchery, totally bananas. But we have calmed down since then.”

“We have?” Mike Servito says. Servito, 30, is a DJ’s DJ who has played Detroit clubs and parties since the mid-’90s and performed at last year’s Movement festival. Servito, originally from Troy, is often name-checked by heads and credited with steering them to the best records of the moment. His dark eyes gleam with soul. He smokes and drinks. “It could be a crazy summer,” he says.

June 7, 2003, is called the “official birth of Dorkwave” on the group’s comprehensive Web site ( Doyle and Theakston christened this seriously ridiculous new subgenre at the Shelter, where Jon Ozias was programming “Untitled” — a weekly party co-produced with Ghostly International’s Sam Valenti. The group invented a few other subgenres — including microsass and jungleclash, which no one understood then or now — but they came and went in a blink. The enduring popularity of Dorkwave is another story.

“At the time, rock music was going through the same paralysis as the techno scene,” Ozias says. Ozias, 31, cut his club teeth buying and programming talent from 1999 to 2001 at Motor, then one of the top dance venues in North America. He and Doyle attended Kimball High School in Royal Oak. “What Dorkwave brought back was songs, and playing the right ones at the right time. It’s not programmed, but it’s not random or retro. It’s back to the essence of ...”

Doyle jumps in: “... bad ideas executed superbly. ... Our target audience is art school kids, but Dorkwave is not about art, it’s about fun.”

Now the crew is rolling: “We DJ like a real good mixtape,” Theakston says. “We don’t try to mix records.”

“I’ve heard you mix,” Servito says. “You’re too good.”

“You haven’t seen me try to mix Trapez and Traum records,” Theakston says, referring to two of the world’s hottest dance labels. “I can’t do it.”

“DJs are usually so obsessed with mixing tracks that they forget about the songs,” Doyle says. “Dorkwave is about having the party be a series of happy accidents.”

Most of those happy accidents have included spots by an impressive array of guest DJs. The list includes Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus (Adult.), Richard Panic and Nathan Burgundy IV (Pas/Cal), Mike Trombley (the Sights), Omegaman (Boomer Reynolds) and Psilopolisp (Keith Kemp), Liz Copeland (WDET) and Clark Warner (Minus/Plus 8), and Jimmy Edgar (Warp). A memorable Interpol afterparty last October featured that group’s famed bassist-nightcrawler-fashionista Carlos D.

“While he was playing, somebody crashed into the turntables and spilled drinks all over the equipment,” Theakston says. “Carlos said he thought it was brilliant.”

“But we should mention that no DJ really gets a guest spot at a Dorkwave party,” Doyle says. “It’s a tag-team group effort. They get thrown into the rotation like everybody else.” When Les Infants say they tag they really tag: meaning each DJ spins one record and then gets the hell out of the way. Indeed, the October party was billed as “Carlos D. + the Dorkwave Trainwreck Tag-Team.”

That event seemed to catapult Dorkwave events to a higher level — or one lower, depending on how you look at it. The group now has nearly equal cred in Detroit’s famously splintered dance and rock scenes. Their wild, four-hour dance-athon at this year’s Blowout pre-party exposed them to even more people.

“We want the crowd to be made up of rockers, hip-hoppers and techno people,” Theakston says. “We want the kids to give us as much back as we give them. That’s what happened that night.”

And who’s on the DJ hit list for future parties? In no particular order, they shout out names: “Sasha and Digweed, James Murphy, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, John Langdon and Katya Casio of Hong Kong Counterfeit, Marianne Faithfull, Two Lone Swordsman, Jude Law and the Optimo guys from Scotland …”

Optimo is a Glasgow-based party scene-group whose double CD, How to Kill the DJ (Part II), has influenced Dorkwave. It includes a mixed disc with sliced-up cuts by the Rapture, the Cramps and Depeche Mode along with about 40 others.

“We should point out that we have no money to pay anybody,” Doyle says. All Dorkwave events — from the first chaotic nights at the Peacock Club (in the basement of the Flame restaurant on Woodward at Grand Circus Park) to its more recent monthly residency at Corktown Tavern, have been free. “We’re not a product,” Doyle says. “Nothing is for sale.”

Other scenes that have inspired the Dorkwave rock-meets-dance include the ongoing Motherfucker parties in New York — which Doyle, who lived in Brooklyn from 1999 to 2004, describes as “a huge influence; kids line up around the block to get into a Motherfucker event,” — Trash in London and the Fix, which Ozias began programming at Lush in Hamtramck in 2002.

The night is still young — it’s only 1 a.m. — but the Dorkwave gang is getting restless. They all want to go to a party in one of the lofts above Niki’s. Doyle is expected to DJ in a few minutes (“I’m told that they’re playing hard techno and they need me to straighten it out,” he says, putting away his phone). At the top of the stairs, kids are sitting on the floor next to an open door. “These kids are really kids,” Doyle told his Dorkwave brothers in the restaurant. “I’m at least 10 years older than the oldest person here.” Earlier in the night, Doyle already played a set of music, including songs by Ride and Jesus and Mary Chain.

The event is being put on by Focus Media, a new Detroit label that the Dorkwavers stand behind. The label just released a four-song EP called Glee, Ad Nauseam, And How It All Works Out by Noise Tank (lovesyou). One of the titles is “Rabbits Dead, Easter Day.” The press release describes the genre as “Spaz-Pop” and offers the slogan, “music so happy you’ll vomit rainbows.” It’s all a bit cheeky, naughty, smart, engaging; with a talent for self-caricature and group-promotion that echoes the lessons learned (and shared) by their elder champions in Dorkwave.

The folks at the party look comfortably silly in bunny outfits or wearing Dad’s (or Granddad’s?) suits from the JFK era. Some of the girls are hopping (of course) to the music, which is a mish-mash of electro, indie rock, drill ’n’ bass and psychedelic pop. Doyle heads back to the decks. He lights a cigarette and lets it dangle from his lips as he searches for records and CDs. Allow yourself to imagine it’s Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, circa 1995, dragging on that fag. At the moment, the resemblance is that striking. The magnetic Servito is approached by one person after another and greeted warmly. Ozias and Theakston walk into another room where drinks are being served by a fat kid dressed like a pink rabbit. They get the attention of a couple of photographers, who turn their heads when they come in. Everyone seems to know, or sense, that Dorkwave is in the house. They have star quality; or is it anti-star quality? Doesn’t matter. Their presence has changed the mood of the party, which now starts to swing upward. The kids are not vomiting rainbows, not yet, anyway. But you sense they will be before the long night is over.


Les Infants Terribles celebrate their one-year anniversary with a party April 16, at Corktown Tavern (1716 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-5103). Features Dorkwave Soundsystem with special guest Goudron (Ersatz Audio). Age 18 and over, begins at 10 p.m. No cover.


Check out the Dorkwave Playlist Walter Wasacz is the co-author of the Subterraneans column, which charts Detroit dance culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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