Behind the Beat: SR Serge and the Sullivan Room
I don’t usually get to do an interview over brunch, much less a place that my “just a bit too pretentious” foodie sensibilities would agree with. I sat in Jackson’s Eatery in Long Island City, mulling over both the menu and my thoughts of how I would conduct this interview. I was waiting on Sergei Sklyarenko, known more informally as Serge, to talk about his upcoming boat party on September 16, 2017, marking the 16th Anniversary of the opening of the Sullivan Room. Now for the uninitiated or those who are newer to New York City, like myself, the prior sentence may not mean anything more to you than another boat party. But what I uncovered over Eggs Benedict was a story and a reputation that outlasts any one particular club, or location, or party.
Sitting down with Serge is in and of itself a privilege, as he’s been covered in some of the most revered New York City publications, such as the Village Voice, to newer publications like Magnetic Magazine. Serge is the founder of the now defunct Sullivan Room, or “Sully” if you’re in the know, one of the last bastions of underground dance music in Manhattan. With the likes of the oft-referred to “bottle service” clubs popping in and out of existence, combined with sky-rocketing rents and changing neighborhood demographics that don’t quite fit with an underground club experience, finding a venue and space like the Sullivan Room, especially in Manhattan, is impossible.
Serge described his vision as a place where he could curate a non-pretentious vibe, where everybody would be comfortable. It was a place free of the judgmental vibe that permeates a culture so obsessed with how much one spent on bottle service or what clothes one was wearing, or how one was perceived on social media. And it was in the West Village of Manhattan, which by today’s standards, is basically the exact opposite of “judgement-free.”
Serge grew up in the Soviet Union, and in while in school, he developed a bit of an obsession with music, starting with Depeche Mode and David Gahan. The new-wave, synth heavy tracks evocative of the height of the 80’s (but still present in productions across the spectrum; Gesaffelstein’s Modern Walk comes to mind) set off a cataclysmic reaction in Serge’s mind, igniting a passion for music that continues to this day.
In high school, he started playing with reel-to-reel machines, a device which many of us have likely forgotten or might have never even known, that requires the user to physically feed the tape of each track being played into the machine while carefully making sure the tape never broke (Serge assures me that he can fix a broken reel to reel tape with one hand in under a minute).
Then, he was drafted into the Soviet military, where he had to aid in the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan. But these circumstances didn’t deter him from his passion for music. Even though “Western Music” was banned at the time, Serge became the go to guy at his military base for all the cool new music, even attracting the attention of the more senior military officials looking for new music recommendations. Despite the setting (with descriptors like “Soviet,” and “military,” and “Afghanistan”), this is when he got his first taste of DJing, creating a discotheque for an all-girls cooking school that was next door to his military base. “I was kind of a ‘cool guy,'” Serge recalled. “My friends were all doing the really hard work, the tough stuff, while I got to hang out and smoke cigarettes.”
A peek into the world Serge was yet to create.
That’s not to say the Soviet military was a great time (and anybody with even a modicum of history knowledge knows the trials and tribulations of the soldiers in the Soviet military, especially in the turbulent years of their involvement with Afghanistan). “Music got me through some really tough times while I was in the military.” While he might have been a “cool guy” at times, Serge was still expected to fulfill his duties in the military. Music was a support system for Serge, something that he leaned on growing up, while in the military, and when he eventually made it to the United States in 1990, it quickly became his passion and dream.
“I knew as soon as I was in the plane I wasn’t going back to the USSR,” Serge said, which to some degree was true, regardless of his choices, as the USSR disbanded shortly thereafter, leaving Serge stateless for a time. “If I tried to travel, I’d have to hand them a Soviet passport,” Serge said. “People would just look at me like…what am I supposed to do with this?”
Speaking no English (which is his third language, behind Russian and Ukranian), Serge met up with his distant cousin while living in Brighton, who took him out to see these “big city” clubs. In a world where Manhattan still had clubs like Twilo, Serge discovered a new world. He remembers his first club being Mars and Limelight, the iconic church turned club, as sparking his desire to be a part of the culture. “Everything was just so weird and crazy and cool…I knew I had to be a part of it.”
He began working in clubs in various capacities, bouncing around from one place to the next where he could find jobs in the industry. He eventually came to work at Life, on Bleecker Street that had a separate VIP room entrance on Sullivan, informally known as the “Sullivan Room” but still officially part of Life. The club, like most, eventually closed and Serge knew the moment was right to create his own space.
“I instantly knew what it was going to be called. It was natural.” In a time before social media and easily promotable events, concepts like name-recognition and a built-in audience were even more vital to sustaining a newly founded club than they are today. “A lot of people thought that it was that same VIP room,” Serge said about the opening of his now legendary Sullivan Room. But that sentiment was ultimately a good thing, as people would come in with a sense of familiarity, only to be introduced to a completely new concept.
The Sullivan Room in the midst of the world it had created.
“I wanted a hybrid; I wanted to walk that line between the bottle service mega-clubs and the places where people were just trashed out of their minds,” Serge recalls. He had so many friends in the community that he had made over the years, finding an initial audience wasn’t hard, but you have to be innovative and competitive to survive, and Serge was able to find the equilibrium to survive at the Sullivan Room for over 12 years.
In a time of residencies, where some of the biggest DJ’s were spinning weekly sets and mega-clubs and drawing thousands, Serge wanted to shift focus to the music and away from the largely superficial culture around clubs themselves. Sullivan Room had sparse furniture and really directed people to the dance floor. It was decorated in a Gothic, almost Transylvanian feel, with dark red velvet and bricks that looked like they were cut for Vlad’s castle itself (after further research, it seems to be contentious whether or not Vlad in fact had a dedicated castle; this is a music blog, not a history blog).
He didn’t necessarily make those who didn’t want to dance feel out of place, but dancing was certainly aim of the entire atmosphere. “If you were just sitting there, I wanted you to look around and feel like…you were supposed to go to the dance floor.” And it was that culture of inclusivity, non-pretentiousness, and focus on the music that lent itself to creating what the Sullivan Room was and what the Sullivan Room brand still is.
“We were the first to really start bringing in DJs from Europe and from other parts of the world to spin in NYC,” Serge said. “You had people like Danny Tenaglia spinning every week at Mansion but we’d bring a new DJ from another part of the world.” This strategy served him well over the years, allowing him to build what he termed the “Rolls Royce” of DJ booths; a world class sound system that drew in new and exciting talent and a set up that landed him on the DJ Mag’s Top 100 clubs four years in a row.
Such a reputation eventually brought fans from all over the world to experience the legendary Sullivan Room. “The doorman would keep a list and at the end of the night would tell me things like ‘we had three from France, one from Iran, four from Israel.’ Beyond counting visitors from other countries, the doorman, known as A.K., had the important duty of discerning those who would contribute to the culture they were trying to build, and those who were risks. Given the club’s reputation, it appears to me he did his job very well.
But not all good things last, even if the Sullivan Room had a lifespan far greater than any number of other clubs. “We had a handshake deal with the landlord to renew the lease for another 7 years…but when the beginning of our last year came around, he stopped talking to us completely.” A month before the lease was up, Serge got an email, saying they had to move everything out by the end of the month. Despite having survived some of the most politically trying years for nightlife in Manhattan under the iron fist of Giuliani, Sullivan Room eventually bowed to what Serge chalks up to the political pressures of the developers in the neighborhood. The politics behind the scenes of clubs and development in Manhattan is another story for another time, but the politics of the neighborhood certainly played a factor in the club’s closing.
The club was loved by thousands, and the outpouring of support over the months after the closing was immense. “We had a couple hundred people march from the club to Washington Square Park, holding a candle light vigil,” Serge fondly remembers. “It was a way to really memorialize the memories people made at the Sullivan Room.” He’s had countless people recall how they met their spouses on the dance floor, and even one who credits the Sullivan Room as the catalyst to starting a family. There’s a ton of footage shot around the last days of the club, and there is talk of a documentary being made, to really capture the magic that touched the patrons lives night after night. I suppose people like me can only hope that such a film is put together, to experience another level of nightlife in this city that no longer a part of the Manhattan nightlife.
“We’re still going strong after four years,” Serge says despite the closing. And I tend to believe it. Through the Sullivan Room brand, Serge has thousands of devoted fans who know what the brand represents, musically and culturally and most recently performed at Electric Zoo 2017. Serge keeps his eye on the real estate market in New York, and particularly where the club life is moving, but doesn’t have a plan to reopen a Sullivan Room as of yet. Right now, the Sullivan Room will continue to curate parties at clubs around the city that fit its culture and vibe. Each year on the club’s anniversary, Serge throws a boat party celebrating the founding of the Sullivan Room. The party is an intimate time capsule that transports one back to the glory days, when celebrities like Madonna or Britney Spears (true story) would wander in to join a crowd of regular, music-loving New Yorkers, cloistered in their special getaway beneath Sullivan Street, to listen to some funky, weird tunes spun by a DJ they may or may not know, to forget the worries that tomorrow will bring.
Serge and the Sullivan Room’s legendary doorman, the one and only A.K.
Join Serge and friends, including the Scumfrog, Sleepy & Boo, Deap Soma, Tristan Dominguez, Max Sprauer, and more this September 16, 2017, to become a part of the Sullivan Room’s storied legacy and bright future. If you want to hang around after the boat party (or can’t make it), join the Sullivan Room crowd for Part 2 at Brooklyn’s Black Flamingo. Knowing the time, energy, and effort that Serge and the Sullivan Room puts into curating not only the music, but the atmosphere and ambiance of each and every event, expect great tracks, played by amazing DJ’s, to an incredibly receptive and welcoming crowd, looking for new faces to join in the special Sully culture. Grab tickets to the Boat Party here and, if you’re more of a land-based partier, the Black Flamingo Party here!
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