Industry Insiders: Michael Ault, International Spy

Michael Ault, owner of the Pangaea clubs in Austin and elsewhere and the man behind legendary New York clubs like Spy and Chaos, checks in with the scene (New York) where he once reigned.

How did you start in the nightclub business? Growing up in Palm Beach in the 1970s, every night was a party. All the families on the social scene were expected to host large events at their homes, mostly charity balls and large dinners. Both my mother and father’s family took this ethos to extreme lengths. So as a child, most of what I recall were large parties, planning, logistics, caterers, florists, car parkers, bands, guest lists, phone books, and fun. No one ever considered them “businesses,” because they weren’t, but they were extremely complicated productions to produce and promote. To be completely frank with you, I’m not certain that I was ever really a component of the nightclub business. In many ways, the concept of a business and “party” are often mutually exclusive. If you’re concentrating on the business, you’ll often lose sight of the party. And naturally the reverse is invariably true. But to answer your question, my first clubs as an owner were Merc Bar and Surf Club.

What are the places you have owned or been affiliated with? During the 1980s, I promoted virtually every major club in New York City. I did a lot of openings, or closings, mostly one-offs. I can’t recall them all, but certain rooms stand out; The World, Tunnel, Palladium, Area, Visage, Club A, Regine’s, MK, Zulu, Maxime’s, Mars, Au Bar, and Tavern on The Green. By the mid-1990s, however, I really felt that the scene was missing something. The excitement of the 1980s was gone, no one was dressing up, no sense that anything could happen or would happen. The mix had evaporated, and everything was quite flat. I wanted to try something really outrageous, a synthesis of Blade Runner, a haunted house, a New Orleans bordello, and the Soho loft none of us could afford. That was the birth of Spy Bar. Spy changed everything. Spy had such a sublime aspect to it; the energy, the way people moved and mixed. Spy really launched the international lounge craze. Although, so few really got it right.

When we built Chaos, the next year, it was really a product of Spy, plus two fresh concepts, house music and bottle service. We went on to build other Chaoses in Sao Paolo and South Beach. Towards the end of the Chaos run, the concept had drifted somewhat, as had the city. Nightlife was fairly pedestrian. I needed something new, something super-intimate, wacky; something that transported me to another world, that might bring us all together again. So two weeks after 9/11, I opened Pangaea. It was a smash. I don’t think anyone has had that much fun since. I went on to build one at The Hard Rock Casino in Florida, Marbella, Spain, and Austin, Texas.

What do you feel has changed? For better, or worse? The scene has changed so completely, it’s unrecognizable. There are very, very few really creative people in the business. It’s mostly about making money, which they most often don’t. Most operators would not know a great party if it fell on them. The bottle concept was ruined and taken to ridiculous lengths. When you bring bottle service to a city, as we did in New York, Miami, Sao Paulo, and Austin, you must remember: it’s not about the bottle, it’s about service. It’s about creating an intimate party where people can pour their own drink, and more importantly, others. It’s the best way to meet someone — “Hi, would you like to join me at my table, what are you drinking.” Sadly, the concept was squandered. Now it’s a tool to rip people off. Greed and excess can destroy everything, as it has the club business.

What has affected nightlife most? The wrong people are driving the bus. And the regulatory environment is absurd.

Is there another city that you think may have better nightlife now? Definitely. A few cities that come to mind: Berlin Barcelona, Marrakech, Amsterdam, Oslo, Moscow, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Kiev, Cape Town, Milan, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Krakow, Madrid, Shanghai, and many in between. Although I think New York has some very good operators, and a few extremely creative and talented hosts. Generally, the restaurants are much more fun.

What are your current projects? We have two very large clubs at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida: a Pangaea and The Gryphon. In a few weeks, we’ll be starting our fifth year. We’ve been blessed with a fabulous team in Florida, and both clubs continue to rage very hard indeed. Since we opened, we’ve seen a few generations of South Beach clubs come and go. South Florida will always be a great market, but with the economy in such dire condition, one must be very careful. I also have an enormous Pangaea in Austin, Texas. It’s by far my most beautiful space. It really is a complete African safari lodge, within a 9,000-square-foot 1860s brick warehouse. And of course, Austin is a wild party. Great-looking kids that really are determined to have fun. The combination is truly a spectacle.

Projections: I’ve been looking at spaces elsewhere in Texas, California, Arizona, Europe, and flying to Dubai next week. I like East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Traveling to new cities, discovering the complexities of a market, meeting everyone, designing, staffing, building, and ultimately, operating nightclubs is incredibly exciting. I’ll do it anywhere. Secretly, I am plotting to come back to New York and take a fresh swing at it.

Is there any person or place in New York that you feel is doing it right? Nur Khan always does a great job. His opinions and perspective are purely authentic. He knows what he likes, what his friends like, and he keeps his eye on that goal. Wax was so much fun. Studio 54 can never be topped, and the same is true of Area, but the Golden Age was Spy and Wax. However, with that said, there are so many people in the business that I sincerely love. I’ll go out generally just to see them all. It’s a wild, dark world, and as you might imagine, some bizarre people inhabit it. Most of us have been competitors over the decades, sometimes partners. And although most of us have been deeply scarred by the business, usually by each other, there’s still a lot of love between us all.

When you are in New York, where do you go out? I love bouncing through the restaurants. It’s easier to see and speak to people. If you see me at a club, I’m likely to be building a new team for the next adventure.

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