It is a late summer night with just traces of the coming autumn in the air. If you listen, you can hear the waves crashing against the pier. The moon is unusually bright and glowing above the ocean and the boardwalk is silent at this late hour, but the Mezcal Circle Club is in effect. Beneath the Asbury Park Palladium, musicians have gathered to engage with organizer Thomas Bullock in two of his passions: mezcal and improvised playing. Various mezcals and small glasses have been laid out, as have assorted instruments.
The players and audience alike enjoy the delicately flavored spirit, and then slowly, a performance begins. Sounds and rhythms inspired by the drink saturate the room. The musicians are in a circle, the audience surrounding them. There is an intimate and thoughtful exchange between the players, but also between the performers and audience. There is a collective sense of the event’s uniqueness and mystery, with all presently feeling the effects and euphoria of the mezcal, the evening’s journey begins.
Mezcal is a distilled beverage made from the cooked saps of various maguey plants—or agave, as the succulent is more commonly known. Produced in small batches across eight specific regions of Mexico, the artisanal spirit ranges from light to very full-bodied, with varying degrees of smokiness—a direct result of the harvested plants being cooked at the palenque in underground, stone-lined pits over oak. Unlike tequila, mezcal has some very subtle notes and distinct variations in flavor, not unlike single-malt scotches. The fluctuations in taste also have to do with a highly unique regional production process, and the methods of the individual distilleries are highly guarded. Each palenque takes tremendous pride in the specifics of its brand.
Thomas Bullock is a DJ, musician and producer who was born in England and cut his teeth at the legendary Tonka Sound System parties in the late ‘80s, which featured DJ Harvey. He moved to California in 1991 and joined the Wicked Sound System, alongside Garth, Jeno and Markie. Throughout the early- to mid-‘90s, Wicked helped define rave and house culture on the West Coast, especially in the Bay Area. In the late ‘90s, he moved to NYC and formed A.R.E. Weapons, an electro disco-non-disco band, and started the Rub-n-Tug parties with his cohort Eric Duncan. He started producing music with DJ Harvey under the Map of Africa guise, and he is currently running the STD label (check out the new YOUWHO Score album). Thomas has also produced numerous songs, edits and remixes of note: “The Rose” by Laughing Lights of Plenty (his collaboration with Eddie Ruscha) is a standout, as is his edit of The Doors’ “Texas Radio and the Big Beat,” and his recent jam, “Bad Leather,” is a personal favorite.
“I grew fascinated with the culture surrounding mezcal. It started to remind me of my love of vinyl, and I saw a lot of connections between the two.”
Thomas is a bold and singular stylist as a DJ, and someone who has resolutely walked his own path in ways few could. He is also now a distributor of mezcal (Spirit Bear Mezcal), has his own brand (Papadiablo), and is the driving force behind the aforementioned Mezcal Circle Club, a live performing collective that jams after engaging with the magic potion. I sat down recently to talk to him about his various endeavors, and to learn about his love for the spirit of the maguey.
How did the engagement with mezcal begin?
I think it was in 2003. I was down in Playa Del Carmen, playing a gig, and the people who brought me there were serving some different mezcals. They were small bottles. They had them in the booth, and they seemed homemade. I tried it, and it had a totally different effect than with other alcohols: There was a sense of euphoria, without any of the fatigue or downside I was associating with other liquors. Have you tried it?
Yes, I like the hints of burnt wood and complexity of the flavor. “Euphoria” is an apt description of the feeling it gives you.
So, on subsequent trips, I started visiting the palenques where it is made. I grew fascinated with the culture surrounding it. It started to remind me of my love of vinyl, and I saw a lot of connections between the two.
There is a really strong independent vibe. Each region is different, each palenque has its own approach, and there is kind of a mythic quality to it, even down to the different labels and artwork. I associated that in my mind with the regional nature of 45s and vinyl—the specificity of each one. I liked the idea of seeking out and sharing different rare mezcals the same way I would feel about sharing a rare record.
Right, I remember being put up on a great record—not having it, but having heard about it—the record gaining this status, tracking it down, and finally getting to play it. As a process, it’s very romantic and mysterious.
Yeah, there is something very soulful about that, looking for the rare, and I saw the opportunity to start sharing this evasive spirit in the same way. I mean, mezcal has kind of been kept a secret for so long, and you know it takes the plant like 15 years in the heat to grow! I liked the feeling of joy in mezcal, and I liked the culture of its production, small and independent. There is a sense of community connected to the palenques and the various roles people play in the production of mezcal. These are tiny distilleries for the most part, and they are harvesting from their immediate area. That sense of community and the uniqueness of the various brands are super appealing.
So, you started importing it?
Yes, in Europe, and we started importing small Mexican brands—brands that might not get out there so much. Working with these various small producers seems the right way.
“We go to a different city and invite various musicians with different approaches, sample some mezcal, get into a circle and see what happens.”
And now you have Papa Diablo.
Yes, I have my own mezcal brand, and Papa Diablo is going to be in the States.
Have you seen the impact of the relationship on your music?
Yes, I saw certain decisions get expedited, some feeling of lucidity and connectedness. Again, it is a very lighthearted, jazzy, euphoric feeling.
Can you talk about the Mezcal Circle Club?
We go to a different city and invite various musicians with different approaches, sample some mezcal, get into a circle and see what happens. It is an improvisational process. I have been recording them; it becomes a snapshot of a time and place, and also of our relations with the different mezcals. I have had 2 Many DJs, Tiago, Alexis Le Tan, Miho Hatori, Jonny Nash, TV Baby, etc. It becomes this communal action, and we keep moving it worldwide. Communities and locations, and how we make art in them—that’s what MCC is about.
It brings it back to that mystery of localized and intimate production.
It also brings it to a dance music experience or a special club night—that feeling of being with others, transcending as a group—this secret thing that we have found and are a part of.
There is longevity to the idea of being part of a built community and a participant in its development.
I saw it with Tonka, and I saw it with Wicked; it’s there with Rub-n-Tug, and hopefully this grows and keeps developing as well. It becomes a thing unto itself, but it also becomes a representation in the world. It means something to people you have never, ever met.
I always get a sense of awe when I think of how a record made by a handful of musicians, and printed in a small quantity on an independent regional label, could have so much impact years after its release.
Yes. The route taken, the time it took for it to happen, the way it finds its place—it has that storied vibe about it. I picked up all of those elements when I ventured into this realm of mezcaleros and this amazing spirit they were producing. It is really so much of what the connection is for me, part of a way of existing.
Feature courtesy of insomniac.com