Motor Chronicles

Motor Detroit (Motor Lounge) was a nightclub in Hamtramck, MI that ran from 1996-2002. During it's run, Motor was the city's home for electronic dance music, featuring hundreds of the world's top DJs, including Richie Hawtin, John Acquaviva, Stacey Pullen, Derrick May, Paul Oakenfold, Bad Boy Bill, Carl Cox, Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Gene Farris, Doc Martin, Laurent Garnier, Matthew Herbert, Frankie Bones, Carl Craig and DJ Dan.

Over the years, lots of people have suggested that I write down some of the stories from my years as the club's Promotions Director (1999-2002). Here's my modest attempt to do just that.

The Wrath of Mad Mike

Detroit techno can be a precious thing, so much so that folks can take it too seriously. It’s supposed to be a party y’all. I’m guilty of this as much as anyone, but there was one weekend in particular when too much drama ensued.

In 1999, a few months before I started working at Motor, Rolando’s “Knights of the Jaguar” burst onto the scene, becoming an instant anthem. Motor was still being booked by Linda G at the time, and she immediately scheduld a UR night, featuring Rolando and Octave One.

As the Friday night party approached, the buzz around the city was palpable. I had started writing about techno for Real Detroit a few months earlier, and was asked by our editor, Ev, to write a quick calendar blurb about the event. As we approached our print deadline, we quickly discovered that there was no readily available photos of Rolando to feature. With no time left, Ev grabbed a pic of the UR logo off the internet and dropped it into the layout. Problem solved.

Real Detroit came out on Wednesdays back then, and I found myself in the Motor office that day, with Linda very irked by the use of the UR logo without permission. Today, such usage wouldn’t even be noticed, but at the time, people still thought about things like copyright, and apparently someone had complained (extra ironic since so much of UR’s branding was based around the Punisher comic books). I told her the decision wasn’t mine, and she should take it up with the bosses at Real if it was that big of a problem.

Friday finally came and I made my way up towards the DJ booth, excited to see Rolando for the first time. As I waited, Linda found me on the dance floor and suggested that I should leave. “Mad” Mike Banks was at the party, and was apparently still upsets about the logo. Mike was very much an enigma, never giving interviews or showing his face in the press (he still doesn’t do the latter). I told Linda I thought the whole situation was ridiculous, and I would gladly explain it to Mike if she would introduce me since I had no idea what he looked like. Linda thought it was a bad idea, so after some heated back and forth, I pretended to leave the club, only to sneak into a corner where I could watch Rolando in peace.

I’m not a confrontational guy, but I’m also not the type to let things lie. I was more than a little irritated that something Real Detroit had done without my knowledge was suddenly compromising my reputation as a journalist and as a techno fan (I told you, we took this stuff WAY too seriously). That Monday, I made my way to the RD office and sent a fax over to Submerge. It read something like:


I understand there was an issue this weekend regarding Real Detroit’s use of the UR logo to help promote the show. I was not involved in the decision, but I would be happy to discuss the situation with you.

Needless to say, I never heard back.

Several months later, I got a chance to meet Mike Banks for the first time. I was working at Motor by then and was charged with spending the day driving around Nigel Richards. Mike and Nigel were old friends, so we headed to Submerge so they could hang out. While the two chatted, I sat there quietly, wondering if anyone knew I was the guy from Real Detroit. After about an hour, I joined the conversation, and told Mike who I was. I wasn’t sure if he was gonna be pissed, but what the hell. It had been several months, and let’s be honest, the whole situation was laughably petty.

"That was you who sent the fax?" Mike looked me in the eye. "Man, that’s about the most adult thing I’ve seen anyone in Detroit do for years."

With that, Mike handed me a marker and asked me to sign the Submerge wall of fame—permanently joining the list of techno luminaries who had passed through over the years. The situation leading up to the it may have been absurd, but I still take pride in that moment. We were all so young and childish (I think I was 24), and discovering our own way. As I signed my name (writing, “Motor/Real Detroit underneath it) I started to feel like a grown-up. 12 years later, when conflict arises in my personal or professional life, I still think back to that day at Submerge, and try to approach people honestly and respectfully.

One For The Haters

As pretty much the only techno club in Detroit, there was a lot of demand for local DJs to play at Motor. But there was also a lot international DJs queued up to come to Detroit as well. Sometimes the two interests conflicted. More than once, I heard of local DJs complaining that Motor had ‘sold out’ when we booked some of the international stars, who could demand bigger pay days and draw larger crowds. But Jon and I would always say that the one of the major reasons so may big names wanted to play Motor was because we happen to be the club in the city that invented techno, and as such, we owed the city’s techno scene something extra.

One way we ‘kept it real’ was Stacey Pullen’s monthly residency. We loved Stacy as both a DJ and a person, so when his agent, Laura Gavor (RIP) suggested the monthly gig, we were super-excited. Unfortunately, the kick off night of Stacey’s residency was scheduled for the same night as Richie Hawtin’s Decks, EFX and 909 CD release party in Windsor. There was no doubt that wveryone was going to to Rich’s party and even Stacey knew his night at Motor would be a dud.

Rich’s parties were always something special. This was at the point in time when most DJ gigs we’re happening in clubs like Motor. The underground warehouse stuff was pretty much a thing of the past. But people still desired the special one-off party that someone like Rich could pull off every few months. And when he did, people would drive for hours from out-of-state to experience it.

As it happens, even Rich couldn’t pull it off that weekend. The Windsor police show up at the venue (an old concrete factory) 24 hours before the event even started and told Rich and his crew that the party could not happen. In typical never-say-die Detroit fashion, we all assembled at Tim Prices loft after Motor closed on Friday night to determine if there was any way to salvage the Saturday party. Jonnie O and myself left Tim’s place around 4AM. At 10AM we got the call telling us to that the party was being moved to the Burst building. Burst was the top sound company for dance music in Detroit, and they had an empty floor of their warehouse space we could use. Jon and I drove to Burst and, with a few other volunteers, proceeded to carry dozens of speakers up the stairs to the empty room (the elevator was broken, of course).

After an hour of sweat and blood hauling several tons of speakers up those stairs, we go the call… The Detroit police and customs had been notified of the party, and there was no way Rich would even be able to get into the country from his home in Windsor, let alone pull off the event. Exhausted and frustrated, Jon began to drive me home.

On our way back to Hamtramck, we had a sudden realization. With Rich’s party officially cancelled, EVERYONE would be coming to Motor to see Stacey. So we had better make it a night to remember. So rather than sleep, Jon and I went to Motor and spent the rest of the day decorating the club in a way that would make the now familiar venue seem like a whole new space. We did this often, as a sort of nod to the one-off party we use to love, Rich’s events bein a particualr inspiration.

I have no idea if Stacey played well that night. I’m sure he did, I do know that the club was packed and the pent-up energy caused by the disappointment of Rich’s cancellation made it one of those nights where dancing to techno really felt like the most important thing in the world.

That night was also special for me because it was the first time I met a group of kids from Chicago who would go on to become some of my best friends (two of them stood in my wedding a decade later). These guys had all driven in especially for the Hawtin party, and we bonded over how Motor had “saved” their weekend.

Despite these sorts of weekends, there are still a few people a decade later who talk about how we ‘ruined’ Motor by not supporting the local scene. That usually just means we didn’t support their personal careers. I can say without the slightest hesitation that we worked our asses off to help support the Detroit techno community as a whole, as well as  the international techno scene at large. We made some of our best friends during those short few years at Motor, and we had some of the best nights of our lives. Not every night was that good—how can it be when your club is open three nights a week, EVERY SINGLE WEEK. But when it really mattered, when the event was really special, I like to think we never let the community down.

The Accidental DJ

As anyone who has ever promoted club events knows, DJs are not always the best when it comes to time. It’s every promoters burden to sit and wait and worry as to whether or not their DJs are going to make it on time. We usually did a good job keeping things on schedule, going in the car service every weekend to the airport, or making runs to the hotel (sometimes banging on the door to wake the napping superstars) just to make sure the advertised two hour headline DJ set was as close to 120 minutes as possible.

The challenging thing about booking Detroit DJs at a Detroit club is that you have no real control over their schedule. You have to just count on them to drive themselves on time. I’ll always recall one night when Derrick May came screaming around the corner in his jeep, already 15 minutes late for his midnight set. In typical Derrick fashion, he ran in through the emergency exit, straight into the booth, threw on his first record and got into the mix—all before he removed his jacket. And when he did finally take the jacket off, it was in one swift Michael Jackson-esq move that left those of us watching in stitches. When Derrick is in the zone, he’s a seriously great performer.

But it didn’t always run so smoothly. It was often the case that local DJs liked to take over the club for the whole night, sometimes playing the full five hours themselves with no opener. D Wynn was one such DJ, so we were happy to book him for an extended set. As opening time drew near, we got a call from D telling us he’d be about 30 minutes late. Since the club never really filled up until around 11, Jon and I figured we would just handle the 9-9:30 slot on our own. Neither of us were DJs, but Jon ran home and grabbed a bag full of ultra-minimal click and cut records that we could just play ambient style as the first few folks drifted in.

So that’s what we did, but soon 9:30 came about, and still no D Wynn. Then 9:40. Then 9:50. By 10PM, there was probable 100 people in the club, and they were definitely ready to start dancing. Then clip-clop records Jon had brought wouldn’t do the trick. We were starting to sweat it and Jon ran down to our basement office to give D another call. In the meantime, as I stood there helplessly in front of the turntables, a group of clubbers gathered around and began to boo. Then the whole crowd, now about 200 people, joined in.

Angry, frustrated and a little scared, I reached into Jon’s bag hoping to find anything that might have a danceable beat. What I came up with was a copy of Speedy J’s Public Energy #1 album. A fine pieces of edgy IDM to be sure, but certainly not something you could dance to.

It funny what decisions you make when under pressure. Feeling completely trapped in a corner, I lashed out and cued up “As the Bubble Expands,” the most dissonant track on the album. I faded it up and looked on while people covered their ears and began shouting obscenities in my direction.

At this point, Jon had returned to the booth with a look of utter disbelief.

"What the hell are you doing!?" he shouted. "Play something people can dance to!"

"These are your records, asshole!" I snarled back. "There is nothing to dance too."

Mercifully, D arrived about three minutes later. As he heaved his record crate into the booth, he looked at us two failed DJs and shook his head.

"Why does the system sound so awful?" D asked me.

I responded, “Because I have no idea what I’m doing.”

At that point, D reached over to the mixer and shut off the blinking effects unit light. It had been on the whole time!

The Night of the Great Motor Blackout

The night before Thanksgiving is always a HUGE date on the calendar for Detroit bar and club owners. With all of the city’s ex-pats back in town, everyone goes out that night to meet up with old friends and generally get shit-faced before spending the next day trapped with the family and a giant dead bird.

The first event Jon and I ever through at Motor was on Thanksgiving eve 1998. We had recently come back from a trip to New York where we had attended the Concrete Jungle party and became fascinated with the d’n’b scene. Detroit did’t have any parties of it’s own, so we took over the lounge at Motor, and booked two techno DJs—Paris and Punisher—to play jungle all night. We also built a custom DJ booth with the help of Jon’s roommate Chris that was meant to look like a post-apocalyptic scene from an anime movie. We even wrote the words “Take Cover” in Japanese on a piece of fiberboard painted to look like decayed metal, and hung it over the DJs. This was the first event we did together and decorating was something we were into from the very beginning. The party was insane, but nothing compared to what would happen two years later on Thanksgiving Eve 2001.

By that point, Jon and I had been at Motor for two years, and we had thing down pretty cold. So when we booked a special night featuring Detroit techno innovators CKDK (Carl Craig, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Kenny Larkin) for a party we called “Blueprint” we decided to go the extra mile and wallpaper the club in actual blueprints. But that wasn’t the only work to be done. Derrick and Kevin wanted to do a four-turntable tag team performance. The problem was that the DJ booth at Motor only had room for two turntables. So we would have to set them up in the raised VIP seating area next to the DJ booth. Most club owners would have just dragged in some card tables for this one night, but Dan Sordyl had a better idea. We decided to permanently move the DJ booth to the new location, which meant running two 9-inch wide by 20-foot long metal pipes thought the stage floor, through the concrete floor underneath, down into the basement, and into the concrete foundation of the building. For those who have asked over the years why we moved the DJ booth, now you have the answer.

Setting up the new booth took about two days of serious manual labor. Fortunately, Dan had experience in construction and knew what he was doing. When folks used to ask what the three original owners at Motor did—Steven Sowers was the promoter, Dan was the builder and manager, and Carlos Oxholm was the lights and sound expert. Everyone knows those guys had their issues with each other, but at the offset, it was a good team.

In the meantime, Jon and I were busy with other things. In addition to the event at Motor, we had partnered up with local concert giants Ritual to produce a Paul Oakenfold show on the very same night. We woke up that Wednesday morning with not one, but TWO parties to throw.

My schedule was packed, but simple. Wake up early and go pick up the new club fliers from Klever Printing. Then go across the border to Windsor to pick up a bunch of old blueprints from our architect friend Dennis Buj. Finally, drive back to Motor and decorate. Jon in the meantime had to make not one, not two, but THREE trips to the airport that day, since Oakenfold, his opener D:Fuse, and his manager were all flying in at different times.

I made it to Klever with no problems and was even running early enough to stop across the street to grab a coffee at a new cafe/tattoo shop run by Eric Vato, who was also a party photographer for Real Detroit Weekly, and a Detroit police officer. It wasn’t until I left the cafe that disaster struck. I went to my car, only to discover that I had parked illegally and was give the dreaded “boot.” The only way to get it off was to go to the parking office about ten blocks away and pay the fine. It was a little after 11AM, and the office was closed from noon until 1:30 for lunch. I sprinted across downtown Detroit, getting there with minutes to spare.

The fine was $300, pretty much all the money I had in the world. The office only took checks and cash, no credit cards. The woman at the counter told me there was an ATM across the street, so I raced over there, desperate to get this handled before they closed in 5 minutes. I got to the ATM only to discover that it had a $200 maximum on withdrawals (this is Detroit, people). I ran back over as the clerk was locking the doors.

"The ATM only gives out $200," I told the woman.

"I know," she replied.

"Why didn’t you tell me that?" I growled back.

"You didn’t ask," she shrugged and locked the door.

At this point, Jon was on his way back from the first of three airport runs. I called him and begged him to bring me $100 so that I could get my car back. He dropped off the first DJ at the hotel and hustled downtown to deliver me cash. In the meantime, knowing that I was now running several hours late, I began to call a bunch of friends to come to Motor and help hang the blueprints that I still had to go to Windsor and pick up. As always, when things got tight, our friends were there to bail us out and make the party happen.

I finally got my car de-booted and headed across the border to Windsor to pick up the blueprints from Dennis. Mercifully, this went off without any more complications and I was back at Motor by around 6PM, three hours before opening. With our friends help, we got the blueprints hung. The new fliers were placed on the tables and taped up in the bathrooms. In the meantime, Jon had finished with his DJ pick-ups and we agreed to meet at St. Andrews Hall to make sure everything was squared away for Oakenfold.

People were already starting to arrive as we got there, but everything seemed fine. D:Fuse was on the decks and Oakie was settled in backstage. Being the techno fans we were, Jon and I both wanted to be at Motor, so we recruited local DJ and promoter Hugh Cleal to take care of Oakenfold while we went to see our Detroit boys.

By the time we got back to Motor, Kenny was finishing his opening set in the main room while Carl was playing cool weird experimental stuff in the lounge. We cracked open our first beer and laugh at how crazy the day had been. Around 1AM, I found myself down in the basement office shooting the shit with Mike (Foton) Fotias, whose Burst sound company ran the new sound system Motor had installed.

That’s when the lights went out. Then on. Then out again.

Like Speedy Gonzalez, Foton hightailed it to the sound closet (sudden power surges are not generally good for expensive amps and processors). I made my way up to the main room, grappling in the dark when the power went out again. By the time I got upstairs, the sold out crowd was standing there in utter confusion. I pushed my way into the DJ booth. The intelli-beams on the ceiling flickered meekly and the electricity fluxed up and down.

One of the security guards grabbed me and said, “you gotta see this.”

We went to the back door that lead into the alley behind the club. About a block away, a car had smashed into a power line. The transformer hanging above the crippled pole rained sparks down on the street while the lights on the whole block flickered on and off.

I made my way back up to the DJ booth and quieted the 1000+ drunk, confused and angry people standing there. “The transformer up the street blew,” I shouted. “Party is over. Sorry everyone. And oh yeah, stay out of the back alley!”

We emptied the club, staff and all, killed the main power supply in the basement to stop the surges, and lock the doors behind us. Next, we headed back down to St. Andrews where Oakenfold was finishing up his set at 2AM. We found our way backstage and told everyone the story as their jaws dropped to the floor. As always, somebody suggested an after-hours, but it was late and we had family to tend to the next day.

The next day, as I sat at Thanksgiving dinner with my parents and brother, recounting the adventures of the day before, I had only one thing on my mind. “I hope they fixed the power,” I told them. “We have another party to throw tomorrow.”

The Acqua Man Commeth

Soon after our Epok Millennium NYE event with Richie Hawtin, we got a call from John Acquaviva’s agent asking to book John into the club. John was still a favorite in the Detroit underground party scene, and he hadn’t done many lug dates in the D. But he had heard about how cool Epok was and decided to give Motor a try.

Jonnie O and I had been trying to book Acquaviva for a minute, but the club owner Dan was hesitant about the cost. Raves still paired well back then, so we had to come up with real dough to get Jon over to Motor. It took some convincing, bu Dan signed off.

About a week before the gig, we were talking to Tim Price, who was friends with Rich and John, and had helped them run their Plus 8 record label. John had heard about the extensive production and decoration we had put into Rich’s Epok event ($30k on remodeling the club for one night!) and John told Tim that if Rich got a remodeled club, then he wanted the same.

We knew it was a bit of a joke, but John and I went about planning how to make it an “Acquaviva” night. First, we covered the entire wall along the DJ booth in red fabric. On the wall, we posted giant six-foot tall yellow letters that spelled out A-C-Q-U-V-I-V-A. We all made several giant pairs of glasses (a tribute to John’s spectacles) and hung them around the club as well. We even set up a projector over the main bar where a rather wicked portrait of John would be watching over the crowd throughout the night.

It was no small production, and folks Mark Lazar and Kelly Kruse came out all day of the show to help. This wasn’t uncommon for Motor. Whenever we decided to do a special event, we could always count on a group of friends showing up to help us with our elaborate decorating ideas.

When John arrived, we couldn’t wait to walk him into the club and show him our version of the “Acquaviva” decorations he had jokingly requested. I don’t think he expected us to even hear about it, let alone go and do something so brash and over-the-top. In truth, I’m pretty sure he was a little embarrassed by the whole thing. He didn’t really want his name written in giant letters across the wall.

The night was a huge success, and marked the first of many many times John would play Motor. In fact, for the next few years, Motor was pretty much the only venue in Detroit he would play. He did the next two New Years Eve’s with us, as well as other special gigs. I seems to remember a St. Patricks Day party and a couple of DEMF weekend. Three years later, when Motor was shutting down, it was obvious that John would headline the final night.

As for Dan’s skepticism? At the end of the night, he took and Jon and me aside and informed us that it had been the second busiest night in Motor history (the busiest being the club’s grand opening three years earlier). Dude was extremely gracious about it.

Motor Chronicles Pt. 1

This first time I went to Motor was sometime in early 1998. I had just moved to Hamtramck, directly across the street from the club on Klinger. My roommate Abe was working security at the club, so my first night in the apartment, with everything still in boxes, I wandered across the street to check it out.
    I don’t recall exactly what was happening that night. I’m pretty sure it was a weeknight, with only the lounge and back room open. This was when Motor was still open most nights of the week, with rock bands playing as often as DJs. There was still a pool table at the far end of the lounge, so I spent most of the evening there. Abe introduced me to a waitress named Robin. His instructions to her were to get me a beer and keep them coming.
    That night was significant in two ways. The first was obviously my introduction to Motor. The second was I decided to try to hook up with Robin. That went nowhere, but the next night when I went back to Motor, I met Jon Ozias. At first I thought he was cock-blocking me—and he was, but with good reason. Jon and Robin had been dating until very recently.
    Long story short, Robin soon fell by the wayside, but Jon and I became fast friends. First, we decided to produce a play together with the help of Motor co-owner Carlos Oxholm (I’ll write about that more in the coming days). From there, Jon got me a job working with him at KBA, giving out Camel cigarettes at clubs around Detroit. Next, he got me a job at Motor where we handled booking and promotions together for the better part of 2000-2001.
    Nine years later, Jon was the best man at my wedding. So if nothing else, Motor introduced me to one of my best friends.