Nine Years of Poplife
Nine years is a lifetime in clubland. It’s hard to stay relevant in a business in which the trends change as fast as the minds of the people who frequent it. So when perennial indie party Poplife turns 9 this weekend, you better believe all of clubland will be scratching their heads wondering how the hell did they pulled that off.
Barbara Basti and Aramis Lorie, the creators of Poplife, have for the most part stayed true to the formula that made them a success: play the dancefloor staples patrons have come to expect but introduce new music to stay on the cutting edge. New Times sat down with the pair at PS14, one of their many businesses, to discuss the infamous night, I/O, Miami’s nightlife history and what the future holds for them and Poplife.
New Times: Why do think Poplife has lasted 9 years and why do you think it has many more years to come?
Aramis Lorie: It’s a party that definitely moves with the times, we are not stuck in one genre of music. I guess there is a linage you can follow through all the different trends, from Brit-pop to the electroclash phase to the whole indie [rock] phase. It tends to be music that’s on the cutting edge, some of it obviously crosses over and becomes somewhat mainstream, but more than anything our focus seems to be on these emerging movements in music and fashion, which actually goes hand in hand.
Barbara Basti: There is always something for us to push. We never stagnate.
AL: And the focus of our party, I guess you could call it our formula – I’d hate to use that term – is basically even though you play songs people know and love, the whole point is to push new artists we believe in, that we want to expose to the audience we already have.
BB: We also work really hard to incorporate locals. All our DJs are local, we always have local guest DJs, and we do a lot of live local music. We try to let the kids have an outlet with us and that helps keep us going too.
NT: While other parties of the same nature – Revolver, Vice, Plastik Fantastik – now only exists in our memory, why do you think you bucked the trend? A lot of people think the whole indie night trend is non-existent.
AL: I don’t think it’s non-existent, I think the scene changes. I don’t know if it’s the amount experience we have, but we are very flexible in our business model. Unlike a lot of other parties, we do invest a lot time, energy, money into what we do. We have a really long-term view in our commitment to our place in the city. I think that is one of the reasons we are making it after all these years.
BB: We are just extremely persistent. It’s not something the outside would recognize, but it’s truly exhausting to do a weekly party and I can see how it can take a toll on people. We are fortunate enough to work with a structure within our organization that we can all keep going.
AL: It’s very flexible, but there is a definite structure in that we have amazing support too. We have Jake Jefferson, Xavier [Burt], Clara [Infante].
NT: Let’s talk about the ghosts of Poplife past. What year did Poplife start?
NT: Whose idea was Poplife?
BB: It was [Aramis’] idea.
AL: It was an idea I had.
NT: Did you work other parties before this?
AL: I’ve been doing parties since 1985. I started as a DJ. I would do a lot of mobile parties, house parties. Toward the end of the ‘80s, I started doing club gigs as a DJ, and I dabbled in promotions. I did a lot of production work extensively, so learned how to do sound engineering. Later on in the early ‘90s, I went study classical composition at New World. I got more involved into the bands and live performance type of things. I worked for record labels, mainly arranging and producing. I did that until the mid-‘90s, and then I ended up managing a record shop on Lincoln Road that’s no longer around.
BB: He didn’t ask for your resume. [laughs]
NT: Let him talk.
AL: No, no, no. But it’s kind of how it leads to this. I had a big party on Thursday nights, which was a really cutting-edge party in Latin industry, and then after that I kind of got burnt out and took a hiatus of doing parties or doing anything in the music world. I met Barbara; we started dating. I got a simple job and lived a very non-party life, and then I got kind of bored after a few years and I wanted to get back into it. My whole thing is, I had no place to go to listen to the music I liked.
BB: Well what would end up happening is that we would end up congregating at places that would let live bands play because we had a lot of friends that were local musicians. So we would end up congregating at these shit-hole bars because we weren’t doing the club thing because we couldn’t stand the music. It was just [imitates a techno beat], it was just insane dance music; not anything you would listen to outside of being at a club. We would want to congregate and talk, and we would ideally like to hear some music we liked, but the possibility of that happening was very, very slim. So we’d end up congregating in these dive bars that would let local bands play –
AL: And galleries and things like that.
BB: Yeah, different social things. For the most part did we ever know where we were going on a Friday or Saturday night? It was whatever popped up at the moment. It wasn’t like there was a destination to go to all the time. It’s not like you could go somewhere and know you can see your friends. That would never happen back then, ever. So when we started, we had so many friends that were local musicians that it was a key component that we needed to incorporate. We were all into the same sort of music. It wasn’t even a question of what kind of music we were going to play. We just knew.
NT: So are you saying Poplife started out of necessity?
AL: Well, it really just started out of us wanting as a place where we could hangout and listen to what we like. It wasn’t a huge plan that we had, it just started out for fun, but we really paid attention to the quality, the details, and it really just grew quicker than we really ever imagined.
NT: Where was the first Poplife?
AL: Meza Fine Art Gallery.
BB: Yeah, I don’t even think it exists anymore.
AL: It doesn’t.
BB: It was in [Coral Gables].
NT: What was the first Poplife like?
BB: It was fun; it was cute.
NT: Was it well attended?
BB: Well, at that time well attended was 150, 200 people, but the space couldn’t hold any more. That was jam-packed.
NT: Who were your original DJs?
BB: [Aramis] was and Ray [Milian].
NT: Was Poplife only you two?
AL: No, it was Barbara, myself, and Ray and Paula [Milian]. It was basically an idea that I had, and I went to Ray and he was like “Cool, let’s do it.” Barbie thought it was fun.
BB: We worked with them for a long time, but it didn’t work out, so we’ve all gone our separate ways.
AL: But very amicably. We are still friends.
NT: How has the party involved through out the years? Obviously, the DJs you have now aren’t the same you started with.
AL: Except for me.
BB: We had a kid that was with us for a very long time, Alejandro, who was a DJ at WVUM – that’s how we found him. He was with us for five years, but he wasn’t from this country and ended up going back home –
AL: Once he graduated from [University of Miami].
BB: I still miss him; I still wish he was here. Not that I don’t love my Matt Cash or my Induce.
NT: What have been some of your favorite Poplife DJs? Be honest. A mother always has a favorite.
AL: I think they are all great in their own right; honestly, I’m not trying to be diplomatic about it. Some of them are more elitist, musically speaking, than others, but I think Poplife has been good for most of the DJs that have come in. Even Induce, who came more from a hip-hop background, has grown as a DJ – New Times’ “Best Club DJ.” Alejandro started really as a just a guy who played music on the radio.
BB: And he became a really good DJ. For me Alejandro and Matt, they both started with us when they were 17 years old. To me they are kind of like our children. I guess I’m sort of protective of them.
NT: What have been some of your most memorable Poplife moments?
AL: There was the Interpol show at Ice Palace [in 2003], which I thought it was one of the best show, probably ever, in Miami, for many reasons, from production to attendance. We had Junior Boys, Ratatat –
BB: Of Montreal, which we have had perform so many times.
AL: Junior Boys, Ratata, Mouse of Mars. These bands were not really known then. Looking back you realize, “Damn, we had an amazing lineup.” M.I.A. [at I/O] with maybe 50 people in the crowd. A few years later [at Studio A], her show sold out in four days.
BB: For me, I like the shows and stuff, but when I think of things fondly, what I really like the most is when it’s a night that has good energy. For some reason, there is an energy and you can’t escape it. You’re going to have a good time. Just being submersed on the dancefloor and in the music, and everyone around you is having a blast. Then the DJ will play something the kids love and then they scream. I always love that; I just think it’s the cutest thing ever. Just being contained in a room where people in unison getting the same experience at the same moment, to me it’s sort of a magically phenomenal thing, because I think back, never would I have thought so many people would be into the same type of music that I’m into in Miami and be enjoying themselves so much. It just feels good and makes me feel fortunate that we been able to grow and do this.
AL: It’s very cool what we do. You go to other cities like New York or LA, it’s not the same. There are artists we’ve played at Poplife throughout the years that you won’t hear anywhere else, not even New York, not LA, not anywhere. They’re artists we have really developed like Figurines, Lali Puna and artists of that nature.
NT: When did you start to realize that Poplife was becoming a legitimate business?
AL: Piccadilly [Garden]. I’d say a year into it, when I got the whole idea to open our own club.
BB: Back then we didn’t work on any promotional structure. We would collect our $5 at the door; we’d pay all our people off of that and any advertising and promotional costs that we had. We didn’t get a bar percentage. It was bare bones.
AL: Back then promoters were really promoters, which is very different from now. Right now promoters it have pretty easy.
BB: At a certain point [Aramis] started wondering how much money the bar made and started asking questions to the bartenders. They didn’t have to report sales to us; we weren’t making a percentage.
NT: So your first venue was –
AL: I/O. That was a crazy idea.
BB: Insane idea. The first time we drove in [the NE 14th Street area] looking for property, I ducked down and screamed, “Get out of here!” I freaked out completely.
NT: When did I/O open?
BB: We opened in 2003.
AL: But we were there since 2002.
NT: And you were there until?
NT: The area is still rough now but it was even rougher back then. Was security ever an issue?
AL: At first it was. We used to have patrol on bikes.
BB: We always had an off-duty officer.
NT: How did you convince people to come to the area?
BB: When we were doing parties in the Design District at Piccadilly nobody was going there. But I think people want that in some sort of way. Some of us don’t have a problem going into some weird part of town. It’s kind of interesting.
AL: The crowd we cater to is more open minded to exploring different areas.
NT: What does the future hold for Poplife? Poplife the lifestyle brand perhaps?
AL: It’s already a lifestyle brand of sorts. It’s not fully developed as one I guess, but it’s a possibility. Right now we are focusing on creating more events, bring down more artists we enjoy and that we feel definitely could use the exposure in Miami.
NT: Anybody in particular?
AL: We have Jamie Lidell this Friday, Free Blood on Saturday, which I really like a lot and I think are going to make some noise in the coming year. There’s Yelle, the French M.I.A.
NT: You are obviously not getting any younger and doubt you want to be 50 still working in nightlife. Ever think of passing the torch and taking a more behind-the-scenes role?
BB: Oddly enough, we’ve never done anything that is about us. We’ve always stood behind our brand and let it speak for itself. For many, many years nobody knew we were at all. To me that’s the point, it’s never been about us, we’ve never put our names on fliers. It’s never been about that, but yeah sure, one day I’d love to stay home on a Saturday night –
NT: But right now you are having too much fun?
BB: Of course.
AL: I’m having way too much fun.
BB: I don’t think it’s something you can get out of your system. How involved music is in our lives and how much energy we’ve put towards it. After as much as we’ve done, I cannot foresee not booking bands, not creating events.
AL: That I’ll do forever.
Poplife celebrates its 9-year anniversary all weekend long, starting Friday at Heathrow Lounge (681 Washington Ave., Miami Beach) with Jamie Lidell; $15 in advance; 21+; and Saturday at White Room (1306 N Miami Ave., Miami) with Free Blood; $15 in advance; 21+. Tickets are available at epoplife.com.