From tech, to making music, throwing parties and running an art gallery, Mark Slee has a hand in all things creative. “I view myself as bouncing between different creative projects and interests, of which I have many” he tells us. This House-Heads Co-Founder and San Francisco veteran has been impacting the electronic music scene for over 15 years, making his presence at the 2017 edition of Lightning in a Bottle all the more welcomed! While he regretfully admits it, this will be Slee’s first LIB experience, but we’re already naming him an ‘artist not to be missed!’ It will all be going down at the Woogie Stage on Sunday, May 28, but first, a few words with Mark…
We understand that you used to work at Facebook. What exactly did you do over there? And can you tell us about your transition from the tech world to the music world?
I worked on product and engineering at Facebook, doing a wide variety of things. My first focus was on making the site mobile, back in the days when that meant SMS and WAP pages, before the iPhone even existed. But over the 6+ years I was there I worked on all types of things, from the profile page to backend infrastructure to a lighting installation in the Café. A particularly fun one – at some point I designed the little “pling” chat sound, putting my synth knowledge to use.
I don’t necessarily consider myself as having made a specific transition from the tech world to music world. I view myself as bouncing between different creative projects and interests, of which I have many. Tech work can be super creative, but I don’t seem to be content to just stay in one area of focus. Electronic music has been a passion of mine since my teenage years, which has never gone away. I’m fortunate to be able to devote more time to it now, but I find that I can’t spend my time *only* on music either. So I still do have tech projects. For instance, I actively develop Crates, which is a music shopping tool for DJs – and lately have been putting more time into Envelop– a platform for spatial audio.
In what ways has your knowledge of the social media platform assisted you in your growth as both an artist and a business?
To be honest, I’m not sure if it has made a huge difference. Most of the knowledge I have about Facebook that others wouldn’t is in the technical realm. But as an artist on Facebook, I pretty much do the same things anybody else does – try to manage my artist page well and keep producing fresh content. I think an active Soundcloud presence has been really helpful. I’ve been producing and sharing a DJ mix on a monthly basis for over 5 years now and think that’s really a primary point where a lot of folks hear my music.
For the realm of the dance music world that I find myself in, I think real-world relationships still matter the most. For local scenes and club nights, especially in city the size of San Francisco, I’m not sure if you can really just social-media your way into success. It comes down to getting to know people over time, building trust. I will forever owe a huge credit to Gunita for all her help on this front, she would just see Atish, Roddy, and I out at all the same parties, so we would just start talking about music, and eventually we ended up collaborating on parties and now bookings. It all just happened pretty naturally.
I’m not sure if you can really just social-media your way into success. It comes down to getting to know people over time, building trust.
Tell us a bit about your musical upbringing in San Francisco. What kind of music were you listening to? Which venues did you frequent? Were there any weekly nights/ residencies not to be missed?
My heyday going out in SF probably started in 2006, right around the tail end of the progressive house era as things were transitioning into some more minimal sounds, and eventually into what we all ambiguously call “deep house” now. Satellite Wednesdays at Anù thrown by Scott Carelli. That was definitely the spot. A few years later EO reopened 222 Hyde in the Tenderloin, which was simply the best. In particular, Atish’s monthly residency at Tutu Tuesday was not to be missed. Hugely influential alongside all of this was a spot called the Compound, an experimental space off in Hunter’s Point set up by a guy named Naut Humon. Crazy 16-point surround system, many fantastic nights spent there.
You created House Heads in 2008. Tell us about the project – what urged you to start this? What does the project entail? and how has it grown in nearly a decade?
House-Heads was started with Roddy Lindsay, aka The Ride, and Atish. Roddy and I went to college together, and Atish and I had known each other since high school. We’d all ended up living in San Francisco, and I think Roddy was the lead instigator of us starting to organize our own parties. We started doing weeknight shows at a little spot in the Mission called Pink. Our first series was called “Green-House,” where we would donate our proceeds to environmental charities. Eventually we just branched out into hosting all kinds of wacky parties, like the Bay of Wigs boat party series, or the ROMP at Mr. Rompy’s Romp-House. Always a focus on quality music, but plenty of silliness to go with.
Honestly the project lives on at this point more in spirit. We’re not producing many events these days, though we’re still actively collaborating on music-related projects. Atish’s DJ career is obviously in full swing. Roddy went on to be one the founders of the Envelop project, which I’m also doing a lot of work on at the moment, plus Atish and I are running our Manjumasi label. I view all of these things as having a connection back to House-Heads.
The question of festivals in California is a super fascinating one, which could honestly warrant an entire book.
You also founded the art gallery Heron Arts — where is this located? What sort of pieces do you host?
Heron Arts is in Western SOMA at 7 Heron St, just off 8th/Folsom. We do a wide variety of shows in the space. About a third are from our Exhibition series, which we curate and produce in-house. And about two thirds are the Community series, where we bring in local groups. Once or twice a year we shut down the whole alley for a big art + music extravaganza. Last year we did the Detroiter, with an art roster curated by Inner State Gallery and a Ghostly Showcase with Matthew Dear, Shigeto, Lusine and Christopher Willits. The year prior was The New Orleanian, which featured the Rebirth Brass Band.
Last month’s show was called “Together,” a group show of a bunch of local artists that share studio space on Treat Ave. in the Mission District. A few months ago we had an insane installation piece called “Cakeland” by Scott Hove, which is a life-sized infinity-mirror room of cake that you can walk into (hard to describe, gotta see it to believe it). Last weekend we had local chamber orchestra One Found Sound playing classical music, and next weekend we have the CCA senior furniture design program presenting their thesis work.
So, as you can tell, we are all over the place, intentionally. The goal is really just to make an interesting space for a variety events and creative communities here in SF.
We heard you and Atish Mehta go way back. How did you two become friends, and how did Manjumasi come about?
Way back indeed! Atish and I both grew up in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago. We went to high school together and from the moment we got to know each other we were messing around on creative projects. Most of which was quite stupid in those days! We made some really bad rap music (thank goodness for hard drive loss) as well as some bizarre video projects which involved filling ice dispensers with Cheerios and riding bicycles into lakes. I’m really glad YouTube didn’t exist yet.
We’d always been sharing and listening to electronic music. Eventually we both ended up out here living in San Francisco and got completely immersed in the electronic music scene. That lead to House-Heads, which lead to more DJing, which eventually led Atish and I deciding that we should start a label. It was a project that we’d always had in the back of our minds. I had written my Nocturne Belle EP and was thinking about releasing it, and the moment felt right for us to do it ourselves.
The name of the label is a funny story, “Manju Masi” literally translates to “Aunt Manju” in Hindi, who is Atish’s actual aunt. We took a trip to India together a number of years ago for a good friend’s wedding. Manju Masi, who lives in Delhi, was an absolutely amazing host to us, showing us around and helping organize our itinerary. I guess I loved the playful, alliterative sound of her name as well, because according to Atish I would apparently say it a lot. A few years back, Atish and I started occasionally using that name on fliers when we would play DJ tag sets. When we started brainstorming for the label, we still liked the sound of it, plus the reference that it has for us. So we made it one word, and that’s the label: Manjumasi.
You live in San Francisco and have made a large impact on the music scene there. What do you think is next for the music scene in San Francisco?
This is a good question, and it’s honestly hard for me to predict what’s next. My days of going out 2-3 times a week are over at this point, so I have less of a finger on the pulse. The city has also obviously changed a lot. On the artist side, some of the mainstays of the scene in my day were guys like Alland Byallo, Clint Stewart, Kenneth Scott, Kevin Knapp, Nick Williams, the KONTROL crew. The list could go on and on, far too many to name. But many of those folks have now moved away. Simultaneously, as dance music has surged in popularity, there are now lots of bigger venues and clubs that are doing consistently amazing bookings, like Public Works and Monarch just to name a couple. So I think that changes the landscape a bit – it used to be that if you wanted to hear particular underground DJs, you had to form a crew and find a venue and book the nights, which is how a “scene” forms. But I’m not sure if that’s necessary in the same way anymore, as the music is already so well served. I’m definitely curious to see what the next chapter holds, maybe there is already a new scene growing in some genre that I’m not yet aware of!
What are you looking most forward to at Lightening in a Bottle? What do you think it is about California that breeds so many innovative music festivals?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this will actually my first LIB! So I am excited just to finally find out for myself what it is all about, after having heard so many good things – especially about the Woogie.
Another big topic is Burning Man, which is just such a unique event… It’s gone from being a fringe thing that not so many people knew about to an internationally recognized cultural destination – which of course is a hotly debated double-edged sword.
The question of festivals in California is a super fascinating one, which could honestly warrant an entire book. There are so many factors at play. Part of it I think goes all the way back to California’s counter-cultural roots: San Francisco in the 60’s, psychedelia, flowers in your hair, the Human Be-In, the cultural importation of Buddhism and yoga. Or thinking about folks like Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand and events like the Trips Festival. Looking back on some of that, I think we see the roots of innovation. A lot of what we have now is that tree taking decades to branch out, iterating and developing in different directions.
Another big topic is Burning Man, which is just such a unique event. The growth of that festival and its notoriety has been staggering. It’s gone from being a fringe thing that not so many people knew about to an internationally recognized cultural destination – which of course is a hotly debated double-edged sword. I think social media has had a big hand in that, as eventually it became a futile endeavor trying to control the spread of photos and videos (originally disallowed by policy). That has fuelled a mass appeal and awareness about these type of experiences. People can now see this stuff without having to be part of a fringe community or culture. They see it and realize – oh hey, maybe this is not some weird and scary thing, actually it looks pretty amazing! I think that in turn has created opportunity for new festivals to offer lots of different experiences. Super interesting to see how it will continue to develop!
Tickets may be purchased here for Lightning in a Bottle