A Light That Is Now Going Out: Mondo Will Host Its Final Party This Weekend
By Doug Bleggi
Miss Modular DJing photo by Michael Sharkey
On a warm early September day, Dr. Maz sits and watches his son Julian play at the William Sheridan Playground in Williamsburg. Maz’s friend Kevin Wolfe joins Julian on the jungle gym; they run and play together while Millie Sensat, also a friend, sits and looks on from the benches. Even as Maz and Millie converse, her eyes are ever watchful of Julian, making sure he doesn’t do anything too quick and hurt himself. Anyone walking by, seeing the group could sense the closeness and bond they share without knowing anything about their personal lives. Which is why it might be surprising to any of the other parents watching children play on this afternoon, that what binds these particular three adults together isn’t a regular playgroup date, but is rather an off-the-wall, monthly party, where indie pop fans from all over the city—all over, period—have been able regularly to let go of their inhibitions and dance themselves clean.
The party is Mondo, and for over a decade, the event has been an institution for indie pop worship, known all over the world through forums and word of mouth. Much like the DJs themselves, the patrons are from all walks of life. Teachers, students, engineers, office workers, food service, couriers, men, women, queer, straight–they all cram themselves in the back space of Williamsburg’s Cameo Gallery with the promise of untethering from their headphones and letting the music that moves them run free. The club is a sanctuary to them, as was Don Hill’s, 169 Bar, Luke and Leroy’s, and any of the numerous venues the party has touched during their 11-year run, a party that will be drawing to a close this Saturday, September 19.
While Mondo has long served as a place where many friendships, relationships, and flings have been forged, it’s primarily been an event centered around hearing, not seeing—or rather, being seen. Recalling the dance party scene in the early aughts, Millie recalls the much-loved Brit-pop party Tiswas, and the explosion of the Misshapes. “[Misshapes] was the big party that took the scene by storm. As a matter of fact, Mondo was sort of like a response against that. It was a very different scene,” says Millie, who started Mondo at 169 Bar in the spring of 2004, taking on the Stereolab-referencing DJ moniker, Miss Modular (Kevington and Dr. Maz became permanent additions after a year of guest DJs).
“As a result of there being a spotlight on bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and all that, indie parties became uber-celebrity, big scene, models-showing-up [events].” Kevin adds, “ When you think about the Misshapes, there was this sort of celebrity cachet… It was about being seen, it was about being cool, and maybe there’d be some celebrities there. I remember people talking about wanting to go to this Morrissey night [at Sway], and they wanted to go because they heard Chloë Sevigny was there. It wasn’t because they loved the Smiths. It wasn’t really about music so much, it was about who you would see.”
photo by Michael Sharkey
Anyone who comes to Mondo can tell you that you can’t see much other than some laser lights and the dimly lit figures of the three DJs dancing on the stage in which they spin from. That’s always intentionally been the case; though elevated above the crowd on the stage at Cameo, Kevin, Millie, and Maz become one with their audience in a space where there is no VIP section, no guest list—showy whatsoever. The comfort level was palpable.
“Before Mondo, I had never danced in public.,” says writer and Mondo fan Sasha Maese. “I never liked the atmosphere of clubs or the shouting, trashy people who always seemed to frequent those places. And the music was always terrible.” Maese recently interviewed the three Mondo DJs for Atypical Sounds, and first came into contact with the party when they DJed the Brooklyn premiere of the Pulp documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets, which was co-hosted by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker himself. “I couldn’t believe it when I later found out that Mondo hosted a monthly party, filled with so many of the bands I listened to by myself. It always felt like home to walk into Cameo Gallery at midnight and be greeted by Saint Etienne, Suede, or Spearmint. In time I’ve been going to Mondo, I’ve discovered, and fallen in love with, so many bands.”
Mondo as a safe haven for those looking to dance freely to uncommon music has always been a huge factor. “When I first started Mondo, I was very focused on the girl to boy ratio,” Millie says with a laugh, emphasizing the need for female energy. “It’s true. [At first] I would get a lot of boys and I would get really upset. I think maybe because I was a girl DJ that I attracted boys there? But I really needed the girls there.” Kevin elaborates, “We’ve heard from women who come that it feels like a pretty safe space. That it feels comfortable. I think a part of that also has to do with our gay crowd which has some equalizing effect and safe-making space for women.” Kevin, who is queer, tells of a group that frequently shows up referred to as the Mondo Bears. “We have this one guy named Greg and he brings tons of [gay] guys. In fact, there was this one night at Don Hill’s where Greg had a birthday… and [he] brought something like 75 bears, so it was just a hilarious mix. And I think my mom was there that night. I love that we have a mixed crowd. It’s part of what makes Mondo unique. Everybody interacts fine and connect around the music.”
That music curation is something that Millie, Maz, and Kevin take seriously, but also don’t overthink or try to force. “We all had a baseline of what we all agreed upon as to what we loved to play, but there was never a conversation as to what was appropriate and what was not appropriate,” says Millie. There has always been an understanding of what music fits for Mondo, a near instinctual connection between the three that jells in such a way that one could argue that Mondo music could be a genre in of itself. “We’re very self-conscious. We’re not selfish about it. It’s not just like ‘Oh, I just discovered this new song. I like it, so you’re going to like it, damn it.’ It’s not like that. It’s more like, ‘Oh, I’ve discovered this song and I’m really excited about it! And I want to share it, and maybe it will fall short.’ We won’t just shove it down somebody’s throat.” The three have said they have an unwritten rule about excising a song from their setlists if it fails to move people after two parties.
This is rare though. What’s astonishing about the trio is their knack for finding songs with a call-to-action energy, even when they are pulling from a more obscure realm. “There are some songs that we know a majority of the dance floor doesn’t know [but] they’ll still dance to,” says Maz. “For example, the Mary Onett’s “Lost” or the Pastels’ “Nothing to Be Done.” People will always dance because [they have] that kind of energy. Just songs that will always feel right.”
Everyone has their eureka moment with Mondo. Pains of Being Pure at Heart frontman Kip Berman has been a frequenter of the party over the years both on and off the stage. “I remember [first] going with Peggy [Wang] from Pains… They played stuff like early My Bloody Valentine, and sure they’d play the Smiths and New Order, but they played a lot of stuff like Crystal Stilts, who were happening at the time. The kind of people that went there… I don’t want to overstate the nerdiness, but it was people that were genuinely into music in a way that was sincere in a way that wasn’t an extension of fashion.” Venezuelan filmmaker and DJ Kaína Dominguez who is currently filming a documentary about Mondo, talks of her first visit. “For me, Mondo is very important, because for the first time in my life, I’m dancing to what I used to play [when I DJ]. It was my music.” Speaking from my own personal experience with the party, within minutes of walking into my first visit, I heard them play ‘Strange Powers’ by the Magnetic Fields. It wasn’t so much that they were playing it–anyone can host a party and play whatever they want–the astonishing thing about it was that people were dancing to it.”
“At the risk of sounding pompous,” says Kevin, “I think after doing this for so long, whether it’s true or not, I think some people think of us as authorities on pop music, and about a certain taste level and I think there’s some trust there in the crowd that we’re not going to throw something terrible at them. You can come and hear things that even if you don’t know it, they may end up liking. It feels like a gift to have a receptive audience.”
The group occasionally drop in an indie pop crossover hit of yesteryear, but always carefully and at the right moment. General Public’s “Tenderness” and the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” make semi-frequent appearances, but the group has always made it their mantra to vie for slightly lesser-known tracks by key artists, leaving the “Blue Monday”s and “Enjoy the Silence”s for someone else’s party. Millie recalls an incident at one of their spotlight nights, in which their focus was on New Order, where she conceded to throw on a well-known track. “We were playing all kinds of New Order and I can’t remember exactly what song I played. If it wasn’t ‘Blue Monday,’ it might have been ‘Bizarre Love Triangle.’ It was something relatively common. And I remember someone in the audience scream out, ‘No mainstream!’ to me, and I was shocked! Because first off, it was like, excuse me, you’re at Mondo. But secondly, I was like a little bit proud because it was fair. It said a lot about the people that come to Mondo, and I’m not saying everyone felt that way, but I think there is a certain level of expectation that when you go to Mondo.”
From Mondo: The Documentary
So why end it? During our interview, Maz, who is also a dentist, has his three-year-old son sitting on his lap while we talk. His wife Lee is due with their second child any day now, and the four of us talk about potential baby names while his son plays at the playground. Kevin, who is a freelance writer, will be moving to Los Angeles by the end of the month to pursue screenwriting. Mondo has been Millie’s sole music project for all these years, but she also is a graphic designer and currently does work for OK Cupid. They’ve all got busy lives, and 11 years is a long time to do anything.
Still, Mondo is all of their first love, and their final party will be an emotional goodbye. The sting of having them gone is one that will be felt sorely in October, and will likely not go away for some time. There have been many indie pop-oriented parties in New York over the years–Misshapes, Tiswas, Feeling Gloomy, Oscillate Wildly, (the latter two which still exist today), but the magic that Miss Modular, Kevington, and Dr. Maz have is wholly unique and completely unparalleled. When the final track finishes in the wee hours of the morning at Cameo, the party may be over, but for the fans and the DJs themselves, their light will never go out.