Sweaty bodies, a wall of lights and a sound system that pulls you in and won’t let go. If you have experienced Hot Mass, you understand. Aaron Clark, co-founder of the Pittsburgh party, is in charge of co-curating resident nights Honcho and Humanaut at the after hours spot.
While growing up in Ohio, Clark wasn’t very active in the music scene. Mostly a bedroom DJ he says “I was still coming out of the closet and trying to pull away from my church. Once I turned 18 I started to hit the parties happening at Red Zone in Columbus and Moda in Cleveland.” Shortly thereafter he moved to Pittsburgh for university, unfortunately right when the city’s rave scene was in a lull.
When it comes to Clark’s background as a DJ, he says “I sort of tripped into it.” He would hear electronic tracks in the background of commercials and scour the internet to identify them, which would turn out to be “stupid stuff like Chemical Brothers. This was Napster days, so I’d download that stuff, but then realize that people made remixes of these things, which led me to more underground producers. It was kind of a rabbit hole situation,” he says. “I know a lot of people don’t believe in folks coming in from the commercial side of dance and landing in a good place musically, but it happens.” In high school he was introduced to his friend’s boyfriend, Rob, who had a full DJ setup and PA. This piqued Clark’s interest and pulled him to the performance side of electronic music which he says “really helped me start separating quality from bullshit.”
Before Hot Mass became one of the most prominent parties for today’s scene Clark spent about eight years throwing large scale events. While seeking a place to throw small after parties for their main events they stumbled upon Club Pittsburgh, a private men’s bath house located in the city’s historic Strip District. The space is relatively small, with small dark spaces for private encounters.
He reminisced about the beginning stages of their parties in the bath house. “When we first checked it out, we weren’t even sure how to use it. The space was super weird, not laid out in any sensical way for dancing, lots of hallways and cruisey rooms (as part of the bath house) but we could go late. So we took it, and had Kirk Degiorgio play a second set after his first one. It went off! I think we pulled the plug on a full dance floor that morning around 8 a.m.? Up to that point we would struggle to hold a crowd until 4 a.m. max. We were all really blown away by the crazy energy that room had, so we kept going with it.”
John McMarlin, manager of Club Pittsburgh, proposed that the after party events become a weekly which ultimately brought Hot Mass to fruition. Clark says, “That sounded insane to us, as everyone knows how impossible it is to keep a weekly party going. It’s torture. The idea was that maybe we could pull it off if we had four separate crews as part of the larger collective, and we all took a different week so we didn’t burn out.”
Hot Mass as a whole is comprised by four parts: Honcho, Humanaut, Detour and Cold Cuts. Each Saturday of the month is accounted for. Honcho is held the first Saturday followed by Humanaut on the second. The city’s record label collective Detour showcases the third Saturday and new to the roster is Cold Cuts, an event which curates an affinity for disco and hoagies on week four. I inquired how each of these facets play a significant role not only within their space but also to the scene at large. “This is a tough one to answer. I think all four crews touch different sounds of dance. Humanaut heads straight to techno, Honcho loops in the gays and does all genres, Detour is heavy on live sets as they’re so production-minded due to their label, and Cold Cuts is just a great fucking time. It’s positivity music,” Clark says. “You kinda touch all corners, and funnel everyone into one club together, making it easier for people to figure out what they like and dig deeper. Ideally, we are always giving up-and-comers a shot on the decks as well. It’s something I personally want to push further in 2017.”
The four crews work together to maintain the integrity of the space and progress the continuity of energy and quality talent.
“We’d all vote on the larger rules of the club, keep the door cover consistent, and operate under a unified brand – Hot Mass,” he continues. “We wanted the general public in Pittsburgh to think ‘it’s always a good time there’ and not get hung up on who was promoting the party. Amazingly enough, it worked. And over the past four years we’ve just tried to improve the place one piece at a time as we got the money, knocking out walls, moving the dance floor, new sound.”
But what exactly is it that makes this Pennsylvania party so special? The size of the space is small bringing an inherent intimacy to any party. Sexuality here is open and free and there is an undeniable consistent energy when you make it until 7 a.m. and those lights turn on. “It still feels crazy that we have this beautiful thing. I think being attached to the bath house (Club Pittsburgh) is incredibly important. Right out of the gate, it’s a gay space. That helps with crowd quality immensely and is really an inseparable part of it all. Once you have that base layer, you add the layers of good friends, techno heads, and out-of-towners coming through each week,” he says.
Honcho was established in 2012 while Humanaut was founded in 2005 and run by the collective efforts of Clark, Paul Fleetwood, Paul “Relative Q” Zyla, Benjamin Kessler and Tony Fairchild. Through both Honcho and Humanaut the floor of Hot Mass has seen talent from the likes of Bill Converse, Derek Plaslaiko, Shawn Rudiman, The Black Madonna, Claude Young, Ectomorph, Bicep, DJ Minx, Sassmouth, and so many more. Last summer Clark assisted hosting a Honcho Summer Campout in the West Virginia woods and sometimes you can catch a set by Honcho, which is comprised (give or take) by Clark, George d’Adhemar, and Clark Price.
“[Hot Mass] is one of the only places in town where different peoples bubbles crash into each other. Pittsburgh is not known for being a diverse place, which can feel suffocating at times. Hot Mass is a bit of an antidote to that.” – AARON CLARK
The dance floor at Hot Mass is one of which that allows freedom, tests your limits, breaks borders and pushes boundaries. There is no pretension, and with Club Pittsburgh’s environment these parties bring everyone together by serving to both the gay and straight community. Clark believes that these attributes of a party are “important because these moments don’t happen enough. As we’ve all seen, everyone is content to live in their own personal bubble these days. Gay people need to party with straight people, and vice versa.” He explains that this outcome won’t happen at a typical gay club which serves mostly as a place to get drunk. “I think the important part here is that there’s something for everyone to bond over other than a bar – the music.”
When he’s not bringing in talent or throwing down sets himself, Clark can be found working as a Cultural Engineer at the Ace Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Through this position he wears many hats working with community relationships, marketing, event programming and social media. “I was attracted to it because I had respected the Ace brand for years, and I wanted to force myself outside of my comfort zone of just throwing techno parties.” Through this avenue they are collaborating with The Andy Warhol Museum, hosting independent markets and panel discussions, as well as pop-up dinners. Although a small component of what he does at Ace, Clark incorporates small music events at the hotel, with an occasional Hot Mass day party outside.
No matter what Clark does, both day and night, his love and drive for music will run deep and with passion. “Music is one of the only things that can overtake my emotions completely. I remember one time at a Bunker show in NYC, Magic Mountain High was playing live. My partner and I had just gotten to the club, completely sober. We’re standing on the dance floor and we just started crying. The music was so beautiful, it was involuntary. That’s really cool. There’s a lot of beautiful stuff in the world, but music consistently does crazy things like this, over and over again.”
Catch Aaron Clark make his Western New York debut on Saturday for the two year anniversary party of Rochester’s Signal > Noise.