Unrivaled Groove

Friday, March 6, 10 p.m., $10

The Fruit, Durham


Friday, March 13, 10 p.m., $10

The Fruit, Durham

Sarah Damsky, who deejays and makes electronic music as Kir, deleted her Facebook page several years ago. She prefers to hear about events by word of mouth. 

“I sniff out people at coffee shops,” she says, laughing. “Anyone who smells like patchouli, I’m like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’”  

This sensibility is reflected in Fauna, an underground dance party that last popped up at The Fruit on February 8. It updates an old-school rave experience—to get in, you have to know the hosts, who’ll text you the location a couple of hours before it starts—with new-school Durham’s distinct art-and-magic vibe.

Today Damsky is gathered with her three Fauna cofounders at Manufactur, a creative agency on Ramseur Street. It’s a very Durham space, with high windows pouring creamy natural light onto exposed rafters, tall brick walls, and raw concrete floors. 

A new decal is affixed next to Manufactur’s on the glass door. It’s the logo of Maison Fauna, the Fauna party founders’ new record label, which they are launching in tandem with DECIDUUS, a new weekly party that will bring national house and techno DJs to The Fruit’s basement every Friday starting on March 13. 

Though all four principals stress their hive-minded collaboration, it’s expedient to meet them in pairs. 

First, there’s Damsky and Simon Briggs, art-school kids and hardware-heads who moved to Durham together after studying electronic music at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and who deejay together as Kir & Swung. They’re a contrasting couple: She—short, short-haired, with expressive gestures—is Maison Fauna’s de facto mouthpiece, timepiece, art director, and UK garage zealot. He—tall, long-haired, all but silent, with a penetrating gaze—is the technical light-and-sound whiz who holds it down for ambient music.

Then there’s Nick DeNitto and Joe Bell, who bring the deep music-industry background. Though not a couple, they, too, make a contrasting pair, with Bell’s manner as muted as DeNitto’s is extroverted. Born a day apart, DeNitto favors European techno, while Bell is a former rock musician who doesn’t shy away from booking big-tent trance music. But they share a certain club-kid polish, which you can glimpse in DeNitto’s fitted black T-shirt and thin gold chain, or the elegant way Bell crosses his legs and drapes his hands when he sits. 

“When we first moved here, there would be weekends where nothing was happening and weekends when everything was happening, and there would be 10 people at every event.”

It almost takes a flowchart to map the relationships of all the enterprises brewing in these bright, unfinished rooms. Manufactur is DeNitto’s thing, an agency he cofounded in Los Angeles, where it’s still headquartered. Ephemeral is Bell’s, a year-old effort to bring music-nerd-famous DJs to The Fruit; he books them through his event-production company, Morning Choir. 

But Fauna, Maison Fauna, and DECIDUUS are the group’s thing. 

OK, fine: DECIDUUS is technically a co-production of Morning Choir and Maison Fauna, but this is about to break our flow chart, and you get the gist: lots of brave little brands with fluid borders. What matters is that maison is French for house, which refers to both the music of choice and the ambition to build an ark for Durham’s gentle dance animals. “DECIDUUS” is a Latinization of deciduous, filling in the flora around the fauna to emphasize warmth, beauty, and invitingness in the organizational persona. 

To strengthen both their internal commitment and their pitch to partygoers, DeNitto and Bell went in on a world-class sound system, on par with—indeed, designed by the same guy as—those at clubs like DC10 in Ibiza and Fabrik in Madrid. 

“I play UK garage, which has super high highs and super low lows, and the mids are like, plink, a stab every 10 seconds,” Damsky says. “It often gets completely lost. You want every range to be well-represented, and this system has that. You can have a conversation right in front of it.”

You might think of the group’s parties similarly. Fauna has the bass covered—super underground, with local DJs and producers—while Ephemeral covers the treble with international names like Darude and Paul van Dyk. (Next up: Dom Dolla on March 27.) 

Soon, DECIDUUS will fill out the mids that get lost in the mix, bringing in DJs who have rising clout but still play smaller rooms, and who usually have little economic incentive to play here, to mix it up with locals every Friday night. 

It’s an all-in attempt to give Durham’s talent-filled yet embryonic club-music scene the only thing it lacks: consistency.

“You’ve got to meet this guy Nick,” Joe Bell remembers the manager of American Underground telling him a few years ago. “He worked with Skrillex.”

After moving here from Salt Lake City, Bell was using his sociology degree to recruit research participants for UNC and doing social media for local venues. But he’d played in a touring rock band in high school and wanted to get back into music, so he struck out on his own. After traveling around the country meeting people in the concert industry—which led to working on electronic music festivals with Insomniac Events—he cofounded a marketing agency, Cult Entertainment, at American Underground.  

DeNitto has a similarly career-shifty story. He’s originally from Charleston, where he started throwing parties. 

“We were trying to do it like we saw it done in bigger cities,” he says. “We were successful in that we brought electronic music to Charleston, for better or worse. Some people were happy, but some were not, because it was traditionally an indie rock area, like this.”

DeNitto moved to LA at the urging of high-school friend Aziz Ansari. In 2010, he cofounded Manufactur, which does brands and websites for celebrities, consumer goods, and hospitality services. Five years ago, he found himself burned out on LA and thought about moving into wine. His partner convinced him to stay with the agency but switch cities. 

“Moogfest had just moved here, which was a big selling point, and your average wine bar in LA is not as good as Bar Brunello,” DeNitto says.   

Like DeNitto, Damsky and Briggs were burned out on a big city and felt the tug of Moogfest. After they graduated from art school in Chicago, they thought about moving to Baltimore but decided on Durham after a visit. Their entrée into the local scene came courtesy of Nick Wallhauser of Raund Haus, the Durham-based collective whose instrumental hip-hop core has been expanding into house and techno. 

“If you think back to mythology, the only weakness of the Hydra is that you had to make it attack itself. As long as we’re not fighting, and as long as we have the trust, I think it can be a love Hydra.”

Briggs went to a Raund Haus event where Wallhauser mentioned to him that Quarter Horse had turntables. So Briggs went by the Durham bar and arcade one evening. The turntables were set up, but no one was playing, and the bartender told him to go get some records. 

“Simon texted me while I was working at Gocciolina, ‘I’m DJing at Quarter Horse right now lol,’” Damsky says. “I was like, ‘What? We don’t do that.” 

They were brainy hardware producers, not vinyl DJs. But they got to learn in public every Monday night at Quarter Horse after that, as Kir & Swung. Now they’ve spun at The Fruit, Bowbarr, Arcana, with Raund Haus at Motorco, and many other places.

“Raund Haus is their own collective, but they’re still so open to everyone else, and we want the same thing,” Damsky says. “We want to work together with everyone to not overbook weekends and to make sure that everyone is successful, that there’s healthy competition but not aggressive competition.” 

The first Fauna was an impromptu Moogfest 2019 after-party at Manufactur, thereafter informally dubbed Maison Fauna. There have been three more since. One had a Wild West theme; another was a masquerade. Exclusivity can hold a certain snobbish appeal, but Fauna parties are $20 for an open bar with craft cocktails, thoughtful environmental and lighting design, and a long night of local heat. So it’s accessible for what it is, and the benefits of exclusivity are safety and community. DECIDUUS will open a similar vibe to a broader audience.  

“When we first moved here, there would be weekends where nothing was happening and weekends when everything was happening, and there would be 10 people at every event,” Damsky says. “We should be throwing events that help foster a community where people show up because they know what to expect.”

Let’s be clear: There’s no shortage of good electronic dance parties in Durham. On any given Friday night, chances are decent that you’ll find something to move with from Raund Haus or The Floor or Party Illegal or The Conjure or many others. If not, maybe NO VISA or Shallow Cuts or Disco Sweat is popping off at Nightlight in Chapel Hill, or a cool underground-techno producer is visiting The Wicked Witch or Ruby Deluxe in Raleigh. 

Maison Fauna’s housekeepers aren’t here to compete with existing efforts. They’re here to bump your Friday-night prospects from decent to definite, and to build momentum for the whole local club culture in the process. 

“Just to get more DJs from out of town coming here—this is, in a lot of ways, like virgin snow,” DeNitto says. “We want to bring the best, and they’re going to enjoy it, too, because playing in LA or New York is a nightmare for a lot of these people.”

A week before DECIDUUS debuts, Maison Fauna and Morning Choir are throwing a one-off party at The Fruit called Unrivaled Groove. It’s a chance for Damsky to flaunt her love of UK garage alongside locals like Murad, Monsieur, and Treee City.  

UK garage, a descendent of house and an ancestor of dubstep, is an English subgenre full of shuffling breakbeats, staggering kick drums, and time-and-pitch shifted vocals; it formed the basis of Kir’s hardware mixtape, which was Maison Fauna’s first online release in January.  

“As a lover of UKG, I get really frustrated with the amount of music released that’s not at my fingertips,” Damsky says. She describes setting her alarm for 3:55 a.m. in the hopes of paying £35 to get a new single shipped overseas before it sells out. 

Maison Fauna’s second release will be out June 20, a date these rather druidic dance heads chose advisedly, as it’s the solstice. It’s an online compilation mixing locals with producers from LA and elsewhere that will also serve as an aesthetic mission statement. DeNitto says the group is finalizing a distribution deal with Redeye, though this wasn’t confirmed at press time. Maison Fauna hopes to keep up a steady stream of monthly releases—singles, EPs, albums, live sets—after that. 

There are more places for locals to play electronic music than to release it. You might do an online record with Raund Haus if you’re hip-hop-based, or a limited-edition vinyl or tape release with Hot Releases or Tone Log if you’re in the noise-adjacent techno realm, but options are scarce. Maison Fauna is trying to calibrate giving locals more bandwidth with hooking them into national circuits. They view DECIDUUS as a pipeline for the label, and they have the set-up to release high-quality audio of visiting DJs’ sets. 

“The things that we’ve received from people locally have been so inspiring,” Damsky says. “It’s really exciting to hear that Treee City had put together this wild dance track with metal claps that you never heard in his hip-hop music. He actually has a pretty large following in Durham and outside of it, but he’s in that tier where so many more people would be into him if they just knew.”

But if a label that, for now, is only doing online releases is low-overhead, a weekly party shipping DJs from New York, LA, and Chicago is not. The first DECIDUUS features Baltra, followed in subsequent weeks by Garrett David and Masha. Even if you’re selling out and have the technical chops to produce everything yourself, at $10 a head in The Fruit’s 250-capacity basement, the math is tricky. 

“Speaking ex cathedra, the economics of the event don’t make sense,” Bell says. “This is the big reason it hasn’t been done. Initially, they won’t be profitable, but we look at it as a marketing expense for building the series. We’re willing to take on the risk and the work to do the thing we want to see. Our thing is, how do we maintain authenticity while not losing all of the money that we’re putting into the events, in a way where it’s well-produced and people like Sarah, who doesn’t have a Facebook, can find out about it?”

“I’ve never been a part of something that had four founders,” DeNitto adds. “If you think back to mythology, the only weakness of the Hydra is that you had to make it attack itself. As long as we’re not fighting, and as long as we have the trust, I think it can be a love Hydra.” 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com. 

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