NEW YORK’S NIGHTLIFE IMPRESARIO
AND MUSICIAN PAUL SEVIGNY INCARNATES THE REAL DOWNTOWN SPIRIT.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Paul, you’ve said that New York is your life. You were born here?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I was born in Philadelphia. Then San Francisco, then upstate Connecticut, downstate Connecticut. I moved to Connecticut when I was five and left when I was 16. Then I went to high school in New York State, college in South Carolina, and I’ve lived on 7th Street, between 2nd and 3rd, almost twice as long as anywhere else I’ve ever lived in my life before. [Laughs] Even when I was 13 years old, one of my first jobs was working at SoHo Skateboards downtown, and I was already hanging out… My father had a pass for the train that goes from Connecticut to New York, and he worked in New York every day.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He took the train every day?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Taking the train every day, which was a 50-minute train ride. We were, I think, 32 miles from Manhattan. So, all of the music on the radio, all the news — everything was New York City.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s an extension of the city.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes. Basically, you’re still in the Tri-State area. It’s the first small town on the coast, in Darien, Connecticut. I don’t know much about Connecticut in the other direction. I only know from my town to New York City. [Laughs] My whole life, I was always angry with my parents: “Why did we have to grow up here? Why aren’t we in New York City?” [Laughs] Chloë, I think, had the same problem. The day she graduated high school, she moved to Brooklyn or Manhattan. At 16, I already had my third Manhattan girlfriend. And the punk rock scene was very vibrant then. And the art scene… It was the ’80s. I don’t have to explain to anybody what was happening. It was very fun. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this is the mid-to late-80s?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes. Wonderful times. Hip-hop, graffiti, skateboarding, the New York art scene — everything was really bubbling up, and it was underground, and it was our thing, and we liked to keep it to ourselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And New York was a magnet at the time.
PAUL SEVIGNY — New York was, in my opinion, the freest place in the world. There was no such thing as an age, a time. It was truly a 24-hour city. There were no rules whatsoever because the crime problem was fairly bad. You would park in Little Italy if you drove a car in, or next to the Hells Angels place down on 3rd or wherever it was because that was the only safe place. Nobody would touch your car because they weren’t sure whether it was a mafioso or Hells Angels or whatever else. And if you were 13 years old and went into a bodega to buy a beer, and the guy said, “Well, no, you don’t have ID,” you’d say: “They’re selling crack on the corner. Sell me the fucking beer.” And he would. [Laughs] It was wild and free, and there’s always something exciting about that. And a bit dangerous. It wasn’t so much about money.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The city was not so expensive, and maybe more open?
PAUL SEVIGNY — New York until recently, was absolutely lawless. You could do whatever the fuck you wanted whenever you wanted. And people celebrated that fact. And there was a real mix that made it so exciting. There was a feeling that anything could happen at any time. There’s still a little bit of that. And the rich were mixing with the poor, whether or not it’s because the nightclubs were bigger or smaller. It was also pre-cellphones. I think even the Rolling Stones say that the only place they could walk around the street and not get hassled was New York. It was a place where people didn’t bother other people, and they kept to themselves. And if you want to do what you’re doing, do it. We’re not judging. This is a Dutch settlement. [Laughs] And a bit of that always held over.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were your favorite haunts as a teenager?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I would usually come in and meet up with my friends, either at the Brooklyn Bridge, at the banks down there, or at Washington Square Park.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the banks?
PAUL SEVIGNY — At Skate- boarding Max. That’s where I met my first really close group of friends. And it was a very small group of skateboarders at the time, in all of America. There were 25 or 30 guys in New York City, and maybe only 12 of them were out there every day. We were very tight-knit. And if you cared about it and worked at it, you had a group of guys who you’d skateboard around with and go to different places and have the police chase you every time and do stupid things. The same stuff skateboarders always do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it was a small group.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yeah, very small. And it wasn’t accepted at all as being cool. People really didn’t like us, and we didn’t care. [Laughs] We didn’t join this group because we were los- ers and didn’t have friends. I think everybody had a lot of self-confidence and, like, “Fuck you if you don’t like it, we’re cooler than you,” sort of thing. It was a very diverse group, and a lot of exciting things were happening. I traveled all over the country doing things with skateboarders. And eventually I started going to CBGB and getting involved in that and graffiti and all the rest.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because CBGB was a hotspot?
PAUL SEVIGNY — It was a very good spot on Sundays. It was more of a hardcore era. I caught the end of the punk rock era, and then it switched into what be- came hardcore, which wasn’t as exciting to me. That’s when it started to become a little bit more close-minded. Then a thing happened called “straight edge,” which became very uninteresting and judgmental. You could be somebody who’s not too interesting without too many great ideas, and you’d be accepted just because you didn’t drink or take drugs. Nothing against that — there’s some great music and great bands and great people who were involved. But overall, it became a bit cult like. Different ideas were frowned upon, and to me, that was the opposite of what punk rock was. And that was kind of the end of it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And did any one club inspire you to later create your own club? I guess you knew them all?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Oh, I would try and go everywhere and roam around on the streets and get flyers from kids and go to everything. There’s a funny story. There was a nightclub in a church in Greenwich, Connecticut, called The Café. And I knew every kid who had a skateboard from Darien to Manhattan because you’d travel up and down on the trains and meet them. So, we found out about this club, and Moby was the DJ. I knew Moby before. There was a place called The Beat in Port Chester, Connecticut, which is kind of the armpit of New York. It’s the first town over the border. There was an old punk-rock club there, which was the size of this apartment, with very interesting bands. And Moby was DJing there. Moby grew up in Darien with us. I didn’t know him so well — he was a little bit older and had a band called the Vatican Commandos, which was a very interesting punk rock band. I was arrested with his bass player for skateboarding in a swim- ming pool. He taught me how to DJ at The Beat. We were friends, and he’d play this teen club, and he would basically play half hip-hop Run-DMC, and the other half was The Smiths, but wearing all black with a fat gold chain. That’s why I started The Smiths night, which is one of the longest-running parties in New York, probably in history at this point. It’s still going.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s still going at Casablanca?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes. About 20 years, which is pretty long. It’s every Sunday. New York club life is like dog years, so this is very impressive. But I would go to the Tunnel. I was there when Madonna was voguing. I was at the Limelight the whole time — a very close friend of mine, a graffiti artist, was a busboy in the VIP section. I don’t know if you remember — you’d walk up the stairs, and there was a small room with a little bar, and Joey Ramone was there almost every night. I would give the doorman two cans of spray paint to get in for free. Then I’d go up and sit next to Joey and get two free beers because my friend was the barback. And I’d talk to Joey, and maybe some other people would walk in and out. It was very exciting. And this was probably when I was 17 years old. And whether it was Area… I mean, the list goes on. I’ve been to Red Zone, I would go to all of them. USA. I was always interested in it for fun and for the music. Mars was incredible. I think Rudolph’s places… Everybody talks about Peter Gatien. I think Rudolph [Piper] did a very good job. The World, Latin Quarter, SOB’s — these were very hip-hop, and it was a little more dangerous. The Building was very interesting, and all the rest of the house places that everybody knows about, but there are too many to list. And the after-hours was particularly amazing then, whether it was Save the Robots or Japan or Brownies. Or even late into the aughts, there was still a place called Cokey’s in Brooklyn, believe it or not. It seems unimaginable today. But it was a very free world, and there was no ID, and nobody cared about what you were doing inside. And there were certainly the sex clubs… Whatever it is, you could find it seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
ALEPH MOLINARI — When did you have the idea to open your own club?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I guess after I fell into DJing again. I never really aspired to be a DJ. I liked it as a fun side thing. Then, when the World Trade Center came down, I started really DJing professionally. After a couple of years, I thought, “Well, maybe I should also be hiring the DJs.” I didn’t necessarily love the way nightlife was transitioning in New York, and I thought I could do better. [Laughs] I was not concerned about money. I was working at other clubs, and I was turning away more money than most people could imagine. And I didn’t give a shit because I wanted to do the best thing possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This was the beginning of the Beatrice Inn.
PAUL SEVIGNY — That was the beginning of the Beatrice, which took three years to find and open.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was your first club?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes, the first one where I owned the majority.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you explain that the Beatrice become so cult?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I think we did a very good job. What makes the Beatrice so important is it was the last nightclub before the smartphone and everybody having a camera in their pocket. That’s when things changed forever. It had a relatively short run. I mean, today, three years seems short. Back then or before that, that would’ve been the average life of a club. But it’s better to burn out than to fade away. It never got bad. We went out on a high.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So much happened there during those three years.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes. And the original generation was all still alive and going out then.
ALEPH MOLINARI — It was a place where everyone crossed each other. It became a site for cross-pollinating in the city.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Because if a girl walked up with a ripped t-shirt and a pair of Converses, she’s getting in the door. And so many of the other places were models and bottles, and that was all that they catered to. I don’t know if you could replicate it again because the people have changed so much now. They were still believers then.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The queue to the toilet occupied more space than the whole club.
PAUL SEVIGNY — [Laughs] This is true but not abnormal for a good nightclub. We just had fewer bathrooms. It was also when you first really moved to New York — there were a lot of people coming here. Those were very good times.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, why did you have to stop?
PAUL SEVIGNY — The mayor at the time, Michael Bloom- berg — I DJed at his inaugural party, and I’m not sure if this had something to do with it or not, but they asked me to keep playing. He owed me an hour of overtime.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you complained?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I went to him to try and get the money, and they said, “Oh, no.” This was the campaign office. This billionaire wouldn’t even pay me my hour of overtime. I actually found him in a very chichi private club in Vail and went up to him, even though his security was around, and I said, “Are you going to pay me my overtime?” Maybe that pissed him off, in front of all of his rich, fancy friends. There was also a neighbor somewhere else who was friends with him, and they said: “We’re going to shut you down. Mike wants you shut down.” Many nights, we had a lawyer in front of the place. We paid him a lot of money just to keep it open. But he would send what’s called the March Task Force — that includes the Building Department, the Health Department, the Fire Department, and the Police Department. They all come at the same time, and if you send them all into your nightclub every Friday and Saturday for six months, it’s going to get very hard to pay your bills. [Laughs] Eventually they showed up with a drill. They drilled through the door and through the wall, and they put a chain around it and said, “Paul, if you walk into this building, we are going to arrest you and put you in jail.” And that was the end of the Beatrice. If I were older and wiser, I probably would’ve still had the business now. But I had a chip on my shoulder and said, “Fuck you, we’re going to do it the right way.” I don’t give a shit. Everybody had a good time.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And then came Casablanca?
PAUL SEVIGNY — The Kenmare. We had the hotel in New Jersey, a couple of places in Los Angeles, then Don Hill’s, Baby Grand, Casablanca.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And Baby Grand and Casablanca are still going strong.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Better and stronger than ever. One of the reasons is we never stop working on them and trying to make them great. Most people generally make a little money, and they buy a house in Montauk, and they give up, and their places go to hell. I’m a professional at this — this is what I do. My name’s on the building.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you don’t just approach it as a nightlife entrepreneur. It’s your life, too.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Very much so. And the other problem is the barrier to enter now. Not that it was cheap — when I started the Beatrice, it seemed like a lot of money. But now, as opposed to hundreds of thousands, it’s millions to try and open one up, and you’re beholden then to money and investors. It’s very difficult for somebody to try and start something great.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And something personal and not money-oriented? That’s the Miami model.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes, and this is one of the big problems. And it’s permeating New York. I always thought New York was about boutiques and experiences — or the greatest flagship in the world this year, but not a mediocre chain. Nobody comes to New York to go to 7-Eleven or McDonald’s because you can go to Mamoun’s Falafel and pay less and get an authentic piece of New York history, food, or whatever.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think the nightlife scene will re-emerge in New York with more anonymous places, maybe in Brooklyn?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I think there’s some of that happening there. The most exciting thing that’s happened since Covid is that, before Covid, people who lived in Manhattan started to only go out on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. My whole life, we would never go out on Friday and Saturday. Ever. And it started to turn into there being almost nothing on the week-nights. Now, the weeknights have come back. So, that’s a promising sign — the fact that there are New Yorkers out Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. The pendulum is swinging back, and it gives me hope that it can happen again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you see the change in the city, New York itself, these days? Because a lot of people claim New York is dead.
PAUL SEVIGNY — No, that’s bullshit. [Laughs] New York was taking a little nap. It will be back. I mean, the one thing that scares me a bit about New York is… We see the high-rises everywhere, and unfortunately a lot of them are filled with investors from Russia or China. I don’t know if you’ve looked for apartments lately — “I’m representing the Chinese investor that owns this…” That’s the only thing that concerns me long-term. But I still don’t think that there’s anywhere else. I mean, the hip-hop guys called it “money-making Manhattan.” It’s New York City: money talks, bullshit walks. I still think this is the place you come to make it. And there are a million other places in the United States where you have to be embarrassed if you are aspirational. I still think, in New York City, that is embraced. Everybody who comes here… You could be a young kid: “I want to do this, or I want to do that.” Many other places, you’d have to be like: “Oh, no, I’ve got to play cool. I can’t talk about that.” In New York, you can still say this. And people say: “Yes, I want to do something, too. Let’s make it happen.” That’s what I try and germinate in my nightclubs — for the people who are here to make something happen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s part of the energy of the city. People immediately want to collaborate, to be part of the project.
PAUL SEVIGNY — They’re not scared to ask. Are they, in Paris? In Austria, it’s not good to say you want to do something. “Fake it till you make it,” as they say — that’s celebrated here still.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And also, the nightlife is a place for dialogue. It’s a place where you meet people, where you imagine projects, and where young people show up.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Very much so. And that’s what’s so exciting about it. How many people have told me, “Oh, I met this person here, I started this project here”? When kids come to New York, and they’re new, the nightclubs for them are their church. It was mine, to some extent. It’s a service to the weirdos and people who want to do something different. They need a place to come to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a new person in town who says, “I’m thinking about coming to New York” or “I just moved here.” And I’ve embraced them so much and said: “This is the right decision. If you want to do something, come here.” And later they come to me and often say: “I moved here, Paul. Thank you for saying that it could happen. It worked.” That’s really important because you don’t get this at so many other places. You get a group of friends and people who are supportive and diverse.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the clubs, places to meet… You’re right — it’s a church. In French, we say terreau, you know, compost, where plants can grow.
PAUL SEVIGNY — The good soil. When people come back in and say, “Oh, Paul, this happened there” and “Thank you,” it means so much because I know there aren’t any other places they can go to and be accepted. When I walk into my nightclub, I want to meet the ugliest person who shouldn’t be there. I want to meet the most beautiful. I want to meet the weirdest. I want to buy them all drinks and talk to them. And I can’t tell you how many relationships have been built off of that. Even out front, sometimes there are the people who shouldn’t get in. I call it a miracle, and I bring them in. It’s like it’s a miracle ticket. And they have the best time in the world, but we’re not judgmental. And if they have good energy, this is how people talk to each other and get to know each other. And things happen, particularly here. Nobody moved to New York because the apartments are great [laughs] or because life is easy. Everybody moved here to do something, right? I mean, that’s why you come. It’s not easy, but that’s why we’re here still. We still want to try and do something.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s interesting that the city is expanding in Brooklyn, but also in Greenpoint. We were in Greenpoint yesterday. You can get a big warehouse for $2,000 a month, which is incredible.
PAUL SEVIGNY — But to me, because I grew up so close, the city is the city. If I’m in Brooklyn, I might as well be in Connecticut. No offense, I love Brooklyn and Queens and everything else. But to me, New York City is Manhattan. Bright lights, big city. And I know there’s a lot of stuff going on out there. One of the differences I see: there was a time when you could get more of the real New Yorkers, with the real ac- cents that you love. There are fewer and fewer of them in Manhattan. People move to Brooklyn and say: “Well, I can live in Brooklyn because it’s cheap, and I don’t need to get on a major record label or be successful. I can just hang out.” Most of them, FYI, even though they look the way they look, are on Mommy and Daddy’s trust funds. I come to New York to celebrate New York, not to turn it into my little Texas in Brooklyn. And they say: “It’s so easy to live here. I don’t have to be aspirational.” New York is aspirational. That’s the fuck- ing point. If not, move to Philly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — New York doesn’t replicate America.
PAUL SEVIGNY — No, New York could be anywhere in the world. It just happens to be here. It’s a miracle that it’s in America. I mean, really, how American is it? Not really. Look, I love the flag and the hunting boots and all the bullshit, but I don’t want to see flip-flops on my fucking streets here. Go back to fucking LA, sorry, man.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And what about your band, A.R.E. Weapons? Is it over?
PAUL SEVIGNY — It’s never over. [Laughs] If they’re paying, we’re playing. We have three or four albums. I think you helped me place the first one at Colette. And then, Jarvis Cocker, who I’d known previously, found it there, and that’s a whole other story, and then he recommended it to Rough Trade right after The Strokes were a hit. Then they signed us. Eventually they dropped us. We still exist. Matthew McAuley and Brain F. McPeck are really A.R.E. Weapons. They just tell me what to play and how to play it, and I make some suggestions. But the music industry, like so many other things, is not something I’m so interested in now. There was a time when I would go to CBGB and two or three other venues a week. Sometimes I would go because there was a great band, but I would go because that was my scene. That’s where I hung out. That’s where my friends were making magazines with me. That’s where we were doing skateboarding and graffiti. This was our culture, and it was underground. It didn’t necessarily matter who was playing. You would go regardless because you were a believer in this, and you believed in who you were. And maybe it’s silly to think we’re outsiders or… But I think it’s left these children today with very empty souls. I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the Pope. I like to believe in everything. I love to believe. I took a lot of physics classes, and it left me very empty.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you believe in Bonaparte, too.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Yes, exactly. I love heroes, and I love villains. I need something to believe in. I can’t say that it’s zero and one, the binary life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, the new generation doesn’t believe in anything. This is really something you feel?
PAUL SEVIGNY — I’m sad for them. They don’t. I think it’s a culmination of so many things. Everything’s handed to them. We’re similar in age, but remember waiting for the album to come out for months, and it finally shows up, and listening to the whole thing and the excitement and believing in the lyrics? Maybe they’re smarter or dumber, I don’t care what it is. I don’t think that they’re happier because of that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe for the new generation there are no alternatives to the system?
PAUL SEVIGNY — They’re totally aspiring to fame without doing anything. I think we were almost keeping it quiet. Think about the first Purple magazines and their format. You made magazines that would not fit on a fucking stand. [Laughs] I mean, when we would show up at a store, I’d imagine them saying, “Well, what do I do with this?” And we knew this, but we did it on purpose: “I don’t want your fucking world.” I could have done a different nightclub and a different DJ set and made much more money, but this was “Fuck you, we’re doing it our way.” And this is the point: to do something different. This is the fun we had, and we didn’t care because we know maybe we are a little cooler. So, this is part of it. But not to not believe in the youth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, we are still very idealistic. We believe in the new generation.
PAUL SEVIGNY — Very much.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And now in New York, there’s the new trans generation, a celebration of a different kind of sexuality.
PAUL SEVIGNY — I very much believe in them. I’m one of the only guys, I think, who has a weekly trans party. It’s called Paul’s Dolls, and it started on Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t happening. But it’s very confusing to me… When I was growing up, I really think we were beyond race and religion. I mean, in the mid-to late- 80s, up through the ’90s, this really meant nothing. And we wouldn’t talk about it. And if we did, we could joke about it. I feel like conservative people are empowering sexism and racism now more than before. I thought it was behind us. Also, the whole woke thing is a bit strange to me. The biggest problem is that it’s all about judging. And the thing that you need to embrace most is to never judge. I’m not God, and I’m not judging anybody.
OLIVIER ZAHM — New York is still the most free-speech place in America. It’s the place where people continue to have a point of view.
PAUL SEVIGNY — The interesting thing about New York is that people don’t really care about religion, they don’t care about color, they don’t care about all this bullshit. They only care about money, which is the common denominator. But because of that, everybody can joke about “Oh, you fucking WASP, you this, you that, whatever.” Nobody gives a fuck because everybody knows that New York is about money.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Money or success?
PAUL SEVIGNY — Money. [Laughs] That’s the last word.
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