As career trajectories go, it'd seem like Dave—who we can't name in full for legal reasons—has gone in the wrong direction. Once a journeyman DJ on the European circuit, he was an Ibiza regular and even put a few records out. For a cigarette-short moment, he was a darling of the dance press. Then he toured Australia, fell in love with the place and never left. It was a decision that nudged an incremental fall from grace. A slow slide from grace. A gentle descent from grace, maybe. He went from playing clubs to playing bars to playing gallery openings to playing birthday parties. Now he DJs in brothels.
As I watch him trawl through his records one Friday evening, an air of pensive intrigue clings to the pair of us. That's if intrigue can be pensive. He's preparing for his weekly slot at one of Melbourne's legal brothels. While I was slightly versed in the goings on of brothels, there was a niggling sense of trepidation roiling around inside me. I was going to the brothel with Dave and wasn't quite sure if it was going to be a red blooded knees up or an excursion into the recesses of the city's sexual underworld.
The idea that a brothel, of all places, needs a DJ might initially sound farfetched but it's proof of just how far DJing has seeped into all aspects of entertainment. This isn't a new thing, of course, as the ice rink DJ and the supermarket DJ prove that DJing is no longer just an artform: it's a way of filling public space. There's a level of cosmetic appeal, too: it always looks oddly impressive having a DJ somewhere, however incongruent it might seem. Many of the brothels in Melbourne have DJs. They're half clubs, half knocking shops, and housing those together is a way of keeping all that inherent vice together.
After moving to Melbourne, Dave's move through the DJing divisions found him regularly playing to disinterested after work drinkers in bars. "Being a DJ in a bar is double-edged," he told me. "In one sense it's a cushy number because you're paid for providing background music. But in another sense, you're a jukebox. And that lack of engagement starts to grate." He described the bar DJing days as being "artistically crushing," noting that "most of the time you're hindering the vibe by making people talk above the music."
He became disillusioned, feeling that he embodied the idea of the has-been DJ, ensconced in the corner of a bar dispassionately playing lounge music in a graveyard shift that was never going to end. "I'd scaled the heights of DJing and landed with a thump into something I'd considered beneath me," he says, "so I stepped back and thought about the situation." Dave realised that he needed to hit rock bottom before things had to improve. In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the lowest ebb is the turn of the tide. In a moment of inspiration, he offered his DJing services to a variety of local brothels. It was the exact career change he'd been looking for.
As a man with years of experience under his belt, he decided to drop by with a mix CD. "The mix was me conceptualising, interpreting what a brothel disco might be," he says. The aim was to go deeper than the obvious Playboy Mansion schmaltz. Luckily for him, the managers liked the idea and Dave found himself holding down two weekly residences at inner city brothels. He'd done it: he'd swapped the world of bars for the sex industry. It was a mid-life rite of passage.
Unexpectedly, the new gig bloomed into something else, something more. Dave honed his talents, adapting to his new environment with aplomb. "At first it was difficult to impose my new musical direction. Management wanted the cliched stuff, the 70s porn soundtracks and R&B." Over time he was able to mould his sets into something more apt, capturing both the clientele and the mood. "Desire, seduction, regret and loss — these were some of the key words I subscribed to," he tells me. "I've developed a sensibility for this highly niche vibe I've created, and I enjoy my sets." The mood he's trying to capture means he finds him playing a lot of vocal heavy material, and ballads always go down well. You can check out a playlist he's put together here.
But what's a DJ set in a brothel really like? I imagined the brothel experience to be businesslike, with sex as an integral part of a purely transactional relationship. Extra curricular entertainment, I assumed at least, would be way, way down the pecking order. I was surprised then that the patrons were more diverse than expected. It wasn't just drunk lads, middle aged sad infidels and lost divorcees coagulating by the bar. That night there was a contingent of disabled men in town. Dave told me that, "a decent part of traffic is from carers bringing in their patients." While it might not be standard institutional protocol, a lot of staff sympathise with the people they work with, bringing them down for, "an otherwise unobtainable release," as Dave put it, "that most of the working girls are happy to accommodate."
The vibe, as it were, bordered on introspective. As opposed to a strip club, where the dancers are in want of your attention, the brothel is almost a last hurrah, and as a result, is less of a social hang out. Although some of the venues in Melbourne are legal, the stigma lingers and patrons keep themselves to themselves. Even the layout caters for a degree of anonymity, consisting of a series of cubby holes and alcoves, inconspicuous havens when guys simmer before being collected. Dave finds himself tucked away, half-illuminated. Most of the men in attendance were unaware of his presence. To me, looking on, it felt like a tragedy being played out to minimal response in the corner of a brothel. Which meant that it seemed oddly fitting: if Dave had wanted to find rock bottom, this looked like it.
Yet, once you'd acclimatised to the wafts of sterile sex and the baseless lust and seediness, something approaching soulful emanated from the decks. That night Dave wrote a narrative in sound that weaved in the backstories of the clients, of the workers, of the whole business. Whether it sounded like that to anyone else was debatable. Something was happening though, and on a subconscious level it felt like his tale was being registered.
Like all great DJs, he read the atmosphere of the room perfectly. While leaning heavily on material from the sixties and seventies, his eclecticism kept me guessing, weaving together everything from Hall & Oates to Mr Fingers, Eric Clapton to D'Angelo. He even played "How Soon is Now" by The Smiths. He was telling stories the way Larry Levan did, but this was more Last Chance Saloon than Paradise Garage.
I wanted to ask Dave about the benefits of DJing in brothels. After all, different gigs had different perks. The club DJ gets his platter of drugs, the restaurant DJs well fed, and the bar DJ goes home pissed. Was it possible that Dave was offered sex? Probably not. Hearing Dave play, watching him read a room that didn't want to be seen made me regret thinking of him, or this place, like that.
The true art of DJing is about reading, translating and transforming an environment. Dave's arrival at rock bottom was ironically a habitat rich in narrative; an unfolding hotbed of creativity. For him, the tide had turned at the lowest ebb, but had left him there, marooned in a strange place—a place that became kind of like a spiritual home.