The Party Moves: GBH’s Tom Dunkley & Alejandro Torio

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Tom Dunkley and Alejandro Torio of GBH have established their brand over a dozen years by consistently producing a party which pushes the envelope of music to a hip, interesting, and interested crowd. They aren’t promoters supporting a night at a club but directors who create a weekly event. Their Saturdays at the Tribeca Grand sink the great lie that there is nothing to do in this town. Nightlife is as vibrant and relevant as ever — it just doesn’t live in one space every night. There may not be a true great club at this time, but there are great parties every single night of the week. For instance, tonight I am visiting Emma Cleary at her “Don’t Feed the Models Party” at Katra, James Coppola’s “Cool Jerk” soiree at Sin Sin, Mey Bun’s birthday bash, “Monarch Mondays” at Above Allen, and then to the Jane for Greg Lucas’ birthday gathering. I may even stop at the still fabulous Butter to say hey to the fast-lane crowd.

GBH has events all over town and forgoes the trouble of owning anything. They don’t need to pay rent, kiss community board ass, or go through a licensing process. They can leave a sinking ship and move to a new venue anytime they feel like it. The owners have done all the heavy lifting but are more than happy to host their events because GBH is the rarest of promotional entities: They bring people. Most promo groups are good for 50 people, sometimes 51, while the GBH crew delivers a thousand. Their crowd is hip, forward, attractive, and not easily impressed. Plus, Tom and Alejandro and company do another thing so rarely found in club types … they work.

Tell me about the GBH name. What does it stand for? Where does it come from? Tom Dunkley: We started 11 years ago. And the first party we did, we called GBH — which stood for “Great British House.” Our first parties were all house music. We don’t really do house music so much anymore, but we still keep the name GBH. But now, it doesn’t really stand for anything. It’s just who we are.

It stands for excellence. Dunkley: Yes, thanks.

It is a brand. It’s a brand that means a few things to me — it means that the music will be good, and that the crowd will be a mixed crowd, and not stodgy. You’re not necessarily found in nightclubs. You’re in places like the Tribeca Grand, which is where we’re sitting now. What other kind of places do you do? Dunkley: Well, right now we do a big night at Webster Hall, with a lot of big name DJs. And we do Sundays at Highbar. And the big thing for us is Tribeca Grand, on Saturday. Sundays at Highbar we do something that’s more world music, which is a new direction for us. Thursdays we’re doing Thom Bar. Wednesday is Kiss & Fly.

Alejandro, I’ve known you forever. Alejandro Torio: Yeah, we worked together in other venues. I think Marquee was the last place.

What was the first place? Torio: Maybe Spa.

Was it Spa? It wasn’t Life? Torio: No, no. I think I first met you at Life, back in the day. That was when GBH was really getting going. When Tom and I met about 12 years ago, Tom had a great idea for a party — he wanted to call it GBH. I’m like, “Well, what the hell does that mean?” “Well, it’s GBH — Great British House.” Then I’m like “Okay? How do we like British house music?” In the beginning, it was more like a novelty, where we were trying to invite a lot of British people, who were more like expatriates. Dunkley: Well, it was more like, when I came here, I was fresh off the boat 12 years ago. Torio: He’s still off the boat (laughs). Dunkley: And Alejandro used to do some promotions back in the day before I met him. And when I came here, I kind of knew him. And I wanted to do something that was house … I wanted to do bring some of that clubbing experience that I had over in London to New York. I came here expecting to find it, and it just wasn’t here.

With notable exceptions, New York has not embraced the purity of music, like London. Take David Morales — he goes to London, and they line up around the block. Dunkley: They go crazy for electronic music over there.

When I used to hire DJs, and I got up to like $700, I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of money for a DJ.” Now DJs get $50k or $60k. There’s been a revolution in that. Of course, the crowd has wanted it. In a place like Webster Hall, you book the big talent, you get the big results. Is that the same case? Is the party standing on its own? Or is it very DJ-oriented? Dunkley: I think sometimes you can do an event that’s DJ-oriented, and it can stand alone just on the talent. But I think in general, if you’re doing a weekly party, it’s gotta be a combination of the different ingredients — the promoters you work with, just the base crowd that comes every week who comes for the kind of music that you’re doing, rather than just the individual DJ. Plus the crowd that comes for the individual DJ or band. Torio: It’s also the kind of artists you try to find out there that no one really knows about, and that you get ‘em here first. Three or four years ago, Tom was like, “There’s this group from …” what was it, France? The name was Justice. And I was like, “Never hear of ‘em.” Tom says, “They’re getting a lot of buzz. I think it would be good.” I said, “Oh really? How much do they cost?” And Tom was like, “Don’t worry. It’s not a lot of money.” Dunkley: We ended up paying them $500.

It’s amazing, right? Dunkley: Yeah, it was crazy. Torio: And it was for a room that fit maybe 100-150 people. And it was mad packed. I couldn’t believe it. Now they’re going out for like enormous amounts of money. They sold out Madison Square Garden their last show. Dunkley: A lot of people come to us to break new talent. We got the Ting Tings for like $500. We were the first ones to do them here. It was literally like a room of 200 people at Le Royale.

Is it easier if an owner knows his shit and gets involved or is clueless and leaves you alone? Torio: It depends on some venues. Obviously the Tribeca Grand here, the creative director is Tommy Saleh. He’s a music guy. He’s a fashionista.

Tommy’s been here forever. Dunkley: Which is great — with someone like Tom, he has connections up the wazoo. I mean, you want to be working with someone like that. In this business, when you’re trying to birth the best talent that you can, and every week you’ve got to be coming up with someone new, you want as many people on the team as possible. So it’s all about working with other people. Like another person we work with a lot, who’s great, is Alex English. And he’s very very knowledgeable. He’s our resident DJ.

I know Alex really well. Alex DJed for me at that NPC event, and he literally blew it out. He was just amazing. Dunkley: Yeah, he’s a great DJ and an experienced booker. And he’s a really big part of the team.

I don’t know anyone in the scene that doesn’t like him. Dunkley: Yeah, he’s out all the time. He knows a good bit of people. He’s friends with everybody.

You guys don’t own a club. Most of the people we talk to are managers or owners of clubs. You move. And therefore, the party can be the same party week after week, over many years, even though the venue changes. Do you think of a club in the future? Torio: I don’t think Tom and I would ever think about ever owning a club. Dunkley: No, I don’t see us as club owners. Torio: We see ourselves as more of just always trying to find great music, the great talent, to be ahead of the game. Dunkley: I think what you’re saying about being able to move around is key. You can only stay at a certain venue for a certain amount of time Torio: We were at Central Fly nightclub for three years. We were at Lotus for like four years. Most of our history, once we started a party, we stayed a pretty long time. Because our clientele, our following is definitely the kind of people who enjoy the party. It doesn’t matter where the party is or what the venue is.

How long have you been going to nightclubs, Alejandro? Torio: I’ve been going out since I was 15, 16.

So that’s 10 years? Torio: I can’t tell you my real age…

Well, if you went to my clubs, then you went to the old school clubs. Torio: I was going to your clubs, but I was underage probably. Dunkley: Alejandro’s age is one of the best-kept secrets in nightlife.

There’s a change in the way clubs are run now. And that’s one of the reasons you move around. Because in order to have that bottom line, you have to sell more bottles, you have to let people in you don’t necessarily want. You’re picking your spots. You’re filling in blanks that you might have. Torio: A great example — when we were at Central Fly, everyone there was in the young 21-, 22-year-old demographic, and when we left there, and we were doing that Friday party, and we went to Lotus, saying maybe that older crowd might enjoy booking the house DJs, but still might buy a bottle or two. And back then, it worked. Dunkley: People grew up with us through Central Fly, and then we moved to Lotus.

Is there a record label involved here? Dunkley: We once had a compilation CD, which actually the release date of that was September 11th, 2001.

That’s brilliant. Dunkley: Yeah, solid mark for that one. Sales were terrible that day. Sales just dipped for everything around that time. We’re talking to a new label called “The Hours” right now about doing some kind of deal, which I think is going to happen. We work with so much new talent, we want to be able to work with talent not only just booking them, but actually being able to give them some kind of record deal as well.

Do you get tired of the party? Dunkley: Sometimes I get tired, and I want to go home,

So it’s work. Dunkley: Obviously it can be. But we don’t both go to all the parties that we do. The parties that I really enjoy, I’ll stay there all night, and I really don’t mind. I have fun. You know, when something’s your “job,” you know when to leave.

Do you travel? Do you go to parties in other cities? Or is the last thing you want to do is go to a party? Dunkley: I go to just my own parties. Alejandro, he’s more the guy that will go to every single party he can possibly go to. Me? I’ll take a night off. Torio: I do go out more than Tom. I’ll go to every genre, every kind of different scene — from the New Jersey nightclubs. to the Long Island nightclubs, to the different promoter clubs.

I’m the same way.