This Saturday, Motor will celebrate five years of learning how to be Motor, not with the vision the club started with, or even with the DJ. Instead, with Derrick May at the helm, Motor’s staff, and the multiplicity of scenes that it caters to, will celebrate what years from now will be known as: the most important club since the Music Institute.
Location, location, location
In 1996, Dan Sordyl, Motor’s current owner and day-to-day manager, joined up with former private-party promoter Steven Sowers and light-sound specialist Carlos Oxholm to form a new club. The eventual product, Motor, would utilize the threesome’s combined knowledge of clubs and promotions, from rock to raves, mainstream clubs to underground after-hours hangouts.
Though the original idea according to Oxholm was "less is more" — perhaps a modest $30,000 renovation — the final result was a $250,000 investment turning the former Falcon Club space into the first major "it" club of the 1990s. The hip decor and swank club hype, continuing where Sowers’ Martini Bar in Royal Oak had left off, lured the people in on that first night.
But so did Hamtramck. Two miles from Oakland County, in Detroit without being Detroit, and with an exit from I-75, Hamtramck made the urban-suburban blend possible. As Sordyl explains, "At the time we couldn’t have found a better place to be."
The initial honeymoon period of good cigars and brandy did not last, and what had started as the club’s musical signatures — cheesy dance music, swing bands and Sinatra CDs — began to die off. It had become obvious that to survive past infancy, Motor would have to focus on some consistent substance that would coax people out of their homes.
As a fix, Oxholm, the former light-sound manager at the Music Institute, persuaded Derrick May and, later, the rest of techno’s major players from Saunderson to Atkins, to begin changing Motor’s flavor. Soon after, early residents, including Mike Clark and Minx, and an essential two-year stint by DJ Bone, killed off Motor’s reputation as a swank velvety lounge.
Instead, Motor became a Detroit-heavy dance-hungry place. Adriel Thorton’s "Family" Tuesdays and "Maximum Overload" 89X Fridays would now be Motor’s bread-and-butter, reaching further out into Detroit’s suburban reaches and steady underground.
Walter Wasacz, from the Citizen, Hamtramck’s weekly paper, has followed Motor's morphing rise to the top of urban hip and is sensitive to the club’s cultural power and serendipitous presence.
"Motor is an elite, historically significant club, that opened portals into the global dance universe for people who would not have otherwise got it. Detroit needed to be represented on the world stage with a venue that booked the best talent around, from Detroit and Europe, and Motor stepped up and delivered."
The failure of other venues, promoters and former employees to seriously cut into Motor's dance centrality is obviously a testament to its owners’ savvy pliability. But it has been two young self-starters, Josh Glazer (26) and John Ozias (27), the current design and booking team for Motor, who have pushed and expanded those priorities.
Ozias and Glazer began at Motor in the summer of 1998 with a two-weekend electronic musical theatre experiment entitled "Hamletmachine." Ozias was brought on, and Glazer soon after, to use some of the leftover ideas from the play to change and challenge people’s expectations of the club.
Taking their cues from art installations, theater and rave culture, Ozias and Glazer attempted to give Motor a twist, from postmodern voyeurism to spandex over the bar.
"Going that extra mile for a production isn’t going to necessarily put people in the door directly that night. But the residual memory of that event is going to leave people with a more positive feeling than if you just put another DJ in a room with a sound system and say, ‘give me your $20'" Ozias says.
From left-field "Research and Development" nights, "Element" art shows in Motor’s former humidor, and "Departure" nights featuring Clark Warner and Liz Copeland, Ozias and Glazer have sought to balance Motor’s cash-cow weekend DJs with art-fuck and style, building anticipation and excitement and keeping the audience — and themselves — interested.
Club to concerts
But the scene that Motor has created threatens to be its downfall. Dwindling numbers and a now-spoiled clientele who are now used to thinking of Motor as, in Ozias’ words, "A St. Andrew’s, a concert venue for DJs," have brought things to a head.
Sordyl argues, "People complain about a $15 cover charge. But when Boy George costs $10,000 — not including flights and hotels or promotions — and out of 850 only 500 pay, then you figure out the math." What Sordyl is touching on is the brave new world that nationally known clubs such as Motor have found themselves in, where mid-’90s $1000-$5000 DJs are now 21st century $20,000 DJs.
Just as Sordyl and his staff can’t break down the walls and make Motor bigger, neither can they talk down DJs from high fees when clubs in bigger markets can afford to raise door prices.
Currently, Sordyl’s response is a move downtown. Leases are being negotiated; plumbing is being fixed. The new club will feature three rooms, a restaurant and, according to Sordyl, a renewed commitment to pushing new acts. The passion with which Sordyl describes the new club is testament to his belief that a new honeymoon period is exactly what the dance doctor has ordered.
But the reality is that there is and has never been any other competition. No one has ever seriously contested Motor's monopoly on the national DJ circuit or as local place to play. More importantly, no club in recent memory has put together so many visions, from Hawtin to Transmat to Booty, or kept cutting-edge bookings, like the upcoming Aug. 30 appearance of jazz-house genius Matthew Herbert, such a priority. Motor has become what co-owner Oxholm describes as, "a forum for the scene, a place where people from all the different camps can realize their thoughts together."
Five years later, what other place has even tried?
"Five Years, 500 Nights, 1000 DJs, One Club"
Motor’s Fifth Anniversary Celebration featuring "Transmat Part 2" with Derrick May, Ariol Brikha and others
Saturday, Aug. 11
10 p.m.-2 a.m.
Motor, 3515 Caniff, Hamtramck