What is the secret of a long life? For Haute to Death – Detroit’s long-running monthly dance party, which celebrates its 15th anniversary on Saturday at Marble Bar – consistency is key. The event has developed a following over the years for its cool yet accessible mix of house, disco, new wave, post-punk and more.
It also helps to build relationships. The masterminds behind the event are Ash Nowak and Jon Dones, who are both romantic and creative partners. In 2007, both were students at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, where Nowak studied painting and sculpture, and Dones photography. Back then, they just wanted to throw a party and approached it with studious art school, planting everything from the flyers to the playlist to the decorations.
“It’s always been a vehicle for our creative mindset, something we were both instantly connected to when we first met,” says Dones.
“It’s our art project,” Nowak says.
“It’s always been our art project,” adds Dones.
They also set out with some pretty high 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,” says Dones. “And death is inevitable. We’ve always tried to create an environment where people can get a little closer to that self-actualization.”
The flyer for Saturday’s party riffs on Andy Warhol’s record cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the banana swapped for a yellow high-heeled shoe. (“Very slow and lo.”) To promote the event, they even made a limited edition record cover.
They initially saw Haute to Death as a sort of early Detroit version of Warhol’s studio, The Factory, a meeting place for aficionados of what is now called the “indie sleaze” aesthetic. (This is rewriting history, Nowak says; she remembers calling it “artificial hoe” back then.)
“We’ve always kind of idolized things like Warhol’s whole playground, you know, all the people and places and projects and clubs,” Dones says. “And that was kind of what we wanted to do…even if it was pastiche at the beginning.”
The first Haute to Death was a Halloween party at Hamtramck’s Painted Lady Lounge, where Nowak had worked as a bartender. It went so well that they decided to pitch the event at Detroit’s legendary Temple Bar. But when Nowak knocked on their door, she said they wouldn’t even give her the time of day.
So Nowak and Dones did what you would do to win someone over in those days: they burned Temple Bar owner George Boukas a mix CD. Finally they got him on the phone.
“I feel like we were both trying to make each other a little hard,” Nowak says. “It was really, ‘Well, why would I let you play here?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, why would I want to play here?’” Nowak made a bet that she could convince at least 60 of her friends to show up. They did, and in the end Haute to Death became almost 10 a fixture in Temple Bar for years, growing into a poolside summer edition in the Belcrest before settling in Detroit’s Marble Bar, which has been home to them for over four years.
Since the very first Haute to Death party, Dones has been bringing his camera onto the dance floor and capturing the experience—and the partygoers—something like a Detroit version of hipster documentary filmmaker The Cobrasnake. (Dones says he was more inspired by Detroit photographer Bill Rauhauser for his ability to charm and disarm his subjects.) Nowak is sifting through the photos and archiving them on Haute to Death’s website, h2dsocial.club.
While both have perfected the DJ trade over the years (early parties used a modest iPod), Nowak and Dones don’t like to think of themselves as DJs, or even promoters. DJing and promoting is just part of the experience, something they learned out of necessity, and they lament how the DJ culture has become exclusionary, unlike the inclusive queer spaces where it started.
“There’s so much emphasis on these details that it’s the damn wrong details,” Dones says, adding, “It’s like, oh, is your file in the right format? Is your record white-labeled? Are you using the right needles? Are you playing the deepest songs?”
“The forest is missed extremely because of the trees,” Nowak says. “It’s so… bro-y.”
But Haute to Death’s artistic approach may have helped create a niche for it in Detroit’s prolific dance scene. “I often feel that in many ways we are too nightlife for the art world and too artsy for nightlife,” says Dones. “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 having to work in front of an agency or art gallery – and also without their guests. “This is a way for us to continue making our art and selling it to all our friends for $5 each,” says Dones. “And then our people also become part of the project.”
They call the 15th anniversary celebration “a family affair.” In addition to Nowak and Dones, there’s a stacked lineup with support from DJs Erno and Charles Trees, live performances from synth-pop 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 evening will be spearheaded by Justin Strauss, an accomplished New York City DJ and producer whom Haute to Death befriended during their travels.
“He’s always been a sort of 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 it reminds you that there’s a lot more ahead of us.”
Haute to Death’s 15th anniversary party kicks off at Marble Bar at 8pm; 1501 Holden Street, Detroit. Tickets are available from Resident Advisor from $10.
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