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Ray Milian likes the hour before midnight best. "You don't have to worry about the dance floor, so you can play all the new stuff," he explains. "People are just getting in, getting their drinks, and they're not going to dance no matter what you play."
But then, continues the DJ/promoter, "you notice people on the side of the dance floor getting antsy. They're looking at you. You know it's time to play the dance-y stuff." That's when Milian throws on the tried and true. "Anything by the Smiths, the Cure, or Depeche Mode," he divulges. "Then there's new songs [that get people dancing], too: Le Tigre's “Deceptacon' and Radiohead's “Idioteque.'"
And so it comes to pass at midnight on a recent Saturday during the weekly party PopLife at the Piccadilly Garden Restaurant and Lounge. The tables and booths are full. The crowd stands three deep along the bar. People must turn sideways to squeeze out of the main room into the throng on the outdoor patio. Yet only a lonely light strays back and forth across the empty dance floor. Suddenly a cowbell sounds over the first spooky chords of "Idioteque." As if responding to a secret signal, those sitting in the booths rise and converge on the floor with revelers elbowing their way across the room. "It's funny," Milian observes. "They won't be dancing at all, and then they just come on."
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But after a two-and-a-half-year run, such sudden shifts are no longer surprising. "We've learned by trial and error," says Milian, who, along with his partners -- wife Paola Milian, friend and fellow DJ Aramis Lorie, and Lorie's girlfriend, Barbara Basti -- has turned PopLife into a laboratory of cool. "Sometimes you play a record you really think will work and it bombs," he admits. "Sometimes you'll play the same song at the same time two different weeks, and it might not get the same reaction."
The dance floor is packed now; bodies adjust to the negative space of surrounding bodies. The subdued groove of electro-hop Prefuse 73 abruptly gives way to the growling guitar of the Charlatans UK. A woman in a feather-trimmed sweater slinks off the dance floor, and a young man in a jean jacket and oversize shades takes her place.
"There are a few key people I look for to see how they react to the songs because I like their musical tastes," says Lorie. "I use them as little guides: If I see them dance, that's usually a song that will become popular in the club. The first time we play a song, maybe people walk off. Then the next time you play it, a few less people walk off." A musician as well as a DJ, Lorie has used the same method to test the electro-pop EP he is preparing for an April release. "I feel kind of guilty playing my own stuff," he says. "But it's helped a lot. I don't tell anyone that it's my song. When people come up to me, I just tell them it's some new group that sent me a demo."
For Lorie the crowd at PopLife is not just a test market but an inspiration. "A lot of these kids dress very modern," he enthuses. "It gives me this whole ultramodern feeling that leads me to make really modern music." Meaning what? "Well, like the electro-pop movement, the dress is very minimalist, brilliant,glossy. So I create minimalist, glossy music."
An unceasing current flows from the main room to the patio to the white-walled hip-hop room as everyone searches for the right vibe. In the hip-hop room, the floor is held hostage by b-boys who insist on battling to the old-school beats even though only about one and a half people in the crew can actually break. "We've gotta put an end to this," says Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ LeSpam, who drops in for a spin whenever his busy schedule permits, making good on his promise in short order as the circle falls apart and every kind of dancer fills the room.
Outside, the crowd chats, ignoring the overly accomplished band on the patio that is murdering the spirit of punk by playing with too much skill. Working the door, Barbara Basti and Paola Milian pause to assess the nonchalant reception. "I don't understand the local scene," muses Basti. "Sometimes I'm amazed; I think the scene is very open-minded. Other times I'm like, “Geez, give things a chance.'"
However unfathomable local tastes, Basti learns more about the personal lives of regular PopLife patrons than she would prefer. "One week you'll see someone with somebody and the next week with somebody else," she confides. "You might see someone dancing and even kissing someone else, but you can't say, 'Hey, don't you have a girlfriend?'"
Basti and Milian get to know the regulars' money matters as well. "People always say, “I'm on the guest list,' or “I work at such and such a club,' or even just “Don't you remember me from last week? Can't you give me a discount?'" Milian laughs. "I say, “Yeah, I remember you; you were asking for a discount!' But we try to be nice." Basti agrees: "I'm not there to be a monster. If people feel negativity coming through the door, they're going to bring that negativity into the club."
By 3:00 a.m., when Basti and Milian end their shift at the door, the evening is winding down, though die-hards will hang on until four or five in the morning. "I like to end the night with a couple of mellow Beatles songs," says Ray Milian, "or with something new but mellow like the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" or Coldplay's "Yellow." It's awkward to play a really fast song, get everyone all excited, then turn the music off. I like to slow it down."