When it comes to electronic music in Indianapolis, John Larner has been around the block a time or two.
“Here we are today, and EDM is fucking as big as it is on the radio and is pretty much culturally accepted around the world,” says the longtime DJ and producer. “But back then [in the ‘90s], you never knew when you were going to go to jail just for throwing a party.”
In addition to touring the world in support of their craft, Larner and longtime collaborator Slater Hogan have played a crucial role in Indy’s electronic music scene over the years, founding their own music venue, concert promotion company and more. With the recent success of their latest single “Moonlight,” the pair of longtime collaborators caught up with our Seth Johnson for an extended conversation, reflecting on the evolution of electronic music in Indy over the years.
SETH JOHNSON: Can you both give me some background on where you grew up and when you first started making music?
SLATER HOGAN: I was born in Indy and moved out to California when I was 7 or 8 with my mom and stepdad. I lived out there until I was 16 and then came back to Indy. I played tennis for Cathedral High School my junior and senior year and then got a scholarship to Butler. So I went to Butler, and that was kind of where I got into electronic music. I met this guy in our fraternity house, and he got me turned onto The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode and New Order. And then, I got into Ministry, Skinny Puppy and the industrial side of things.
I started going to some industrial parties here in town. Next thing you know, I’m listening to house music and techno. I didn’t start DJing until I was 28, so I was going to those parties before I started DJing. I was motivated to start DJing, and that’s when I met John, who showed me the light. He taught me about house music, showed me how to DJ and got me going.
JOHN LARNER: The way that I started was…my dad was really into music, and he worked part-time doing radio gigs down in Bloomington on WQAX, which was the college station back then. So he already had some turntables, mixing equipment and stuff like that laying around. But for me, it really first started when I saw the movie Beat Street. The brother to the main character in that is a DJ, and that was the first time I had seen someone scratch in real life. I was probably in fifth grade at the time.
So I asked to borrow my dad’s stuff. He already had some Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream records — some of the guys who are kind of the founders of electronic music. Around that time, I was also breakdancing, so the first record I bought with the intention of learning how to DJ was “Egypt Egypt” by Egyptian Lover in ’83. There was the combination of breakdancing and learning how to DJ, and I did that for quite a while. And then, breaking started to wane a little bit, here in Indiana anyway.
At that point, people weren’t calling it “house music” like they do now — the names were still kind of being figured out. Around the time N.W.A. started getting big, I’ll never forget that I heard this record called “French Kiss” by Lil’ Louis, and I was just like, “Man, this is where my head is at.” I loved hip-hop, but I still loved being a part of the dancier side of underground music. So I got into doing the early raves back in the day, when that started here.
I did the rave thing for quite a while. I moved down to New Orleans and was part of doing the big parties down there with Disco Donnie. I came up with him down there. But then around the year 2000, I decided I kind of wanted to shift goals. I still wanted to be a part of dance music, but I was more interested in being a part of the club scene and producing stuff rather than focusing on the rave scene. That also coincided around the same time that Slater and I started hanging out, so we started working together.
He was learning to DJ, and I was starting to learn production but we kind of learned the production side of things together. I think I still was living in New Orleans when we did our first record. He came down to visit for Mardi Gras. We had some time to kill, and Slater had some samples and an a cappella. He was like, “You wanna try to throw this thing together?” And it worked out.
I was already the manager and buyer of a record store down in New Orleans, and I had contacts with the distribution companies. We got a couple tracks done, and I played it to one of the guys at the distribution company. He was like, “I’ll press the record out for you, and we’ll distribute it.” So that was our first record, and it just kind of went from there.
JOHNSON: What was the house music scene like in Indy when you two first met up and started working together?
HOGAN: The thing that motivated me to start DJing was … I was going to a Wednesday night party at the Patio in Broad Ripple. It was called Dance Club, and it started as a goth/industrial night. The night slowly started growing into a techno and house night, and everybody that played sort of left town. It also went from doing 300 people a night to like three people.
I went up to the manager, and I had never DJed before at this point in my life. I was like, “I DJ. I can play the same stuff those guys were playing, and I can get more people in here than that. Just give me a shot.” And they were like, “Cool, you’re on next Wednesday.” So I went to LUNA Music and ordered 10 or 15 records. I also had some vinyl at home of Prince, Michael Jackson and stuff like that.
I remember walking into the DJ booth, and I didn’t even know how to turn stuff on. But I had invited some people out, and I think maybe 20 or 30 people showed up so it was better than the previous week. From there, they were like, “Cool, you can go again next week.” So I went and bought 10 more records and started building my catalog. They also started to let me take the turntables home because they didn’t use them on the other nights. So I’d take them home and practice, and that’s when I met John. But, to me, there wasn’t really much of a house scene that I was aware of, other than what was going on at the Patio and maybe some other small warehouse in town.
LARNER: Yeah. The only place to hear house was really at the underground raves. There were a handful of house DJs that came up when the rave scene started, but I think it’s pretty safe to say we were more of a techno town. But then, over time it started shifting, and more and more people were into house. Since then, it’s kind of gone back and forth.
The thing that’s always been good about living in Indiana is you really are kind of in the middle of Detroit and Chicago, so you’ve got the influence of both. You have the techno side of things, and then you’ve got the house from Chicago. Growing up doing the undergrounds at that time, it was incredible because the lineups would be nuts.
I’d be up at Ball State, and Richie Hawtin is playing in a basement. And then, Paul Johnson or Derrick Carter would be there the next weekend. These are guys who are legends now, but they were playing parties with 300 people at a rave somewhere in Muncie, Bloomington or Indianapolis.
HOGAN: The Livery downtown used to be where some of the first raves in Indy were held. Richie Hawtin performed in that building, and Deeee-Lite performed in that building as well. So that building has always had some really great dance history to it.
LARNER: Mass Ave was pretty sketchy back then. When they [the bars] would shut down for the night, the DJs and crowd who knew about the raves would all filter in, so you could get a second pop at like 3:30 in the morning. I saw the sunrise many, many times at that place.
JOHNSON: When was all of this happening?
LARNER: It would’ve been the early ‘90s. If you figure out when Groove Is In the Heart came out, it was right around then. They played up at the Egyptian Room, and then the DJ from Deee-Lite played down there.
Everybody knows Topspeed today. The first time I remember seeing him was in that building. He looked exactly the same then as he does today. [laughs]
HOGAN: Around that same time, there was a legendary rave in Indianapolis for the wrong reasons. Gino Shelton is a big-time hip-hop promoter here in Indianapolis, who also does all the Black comedy tours. He’s always had a thing in his hard for house music. And when Union Station was a full-blown mall, he threw a rave in there that had Moby as one of the headliners, and today Moby will still talk about it if someone asks him his least favorite party he’s ever played.
LARNER: That lineup was Moby, Aphex Twin, Orbital…
JOHNSON: When did you two decide to start Keepin’ It Deep?
HOGAN: We made those bootleg records. That gave us some notoriety, and we kind of got some confidence. So we made eight to 10 tracks that were all sampled from 1920s swing jazz stuff, and we gave Mark Farina, a DJ here in the States, a CD of them. We never heard back from him so we thought he didn’t like it. But then, we went to LUNA one day, and we had five songs in Pete Tong’s essential mix in Muzik magazine.
Two weeks after that, we were getting phone calls from record labels overseas and ended up releasing 10 12-inches. So we hit the scene fast. Being on the BBC really got us going overseas. My first gig was over there in Liverpool with Fatboy Slim.
LARNER: And for my first gigs over there, I did three cities in Scotland. After that, I started going to Belgium quite a bit. Belgium, Australia and New Zealand were probably our best markets.
HOGAN: That all coincided with us stopping our raves in Indianapolis. It’s kind of funny when you look at Biden running for president now. Back in the day, he signed the RAVE [Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy] Act, which basically eliminated the ability to throw electronic music parties in the United States. But that’s right when we started producing, and it forced us to take that next step in our careers.
While we were traveling, we would come back home for a few weeks before the next tour, and there was nothing to do. So we started throwing our own parties. We brought Kaskade, DJ Sneak and Green Velvet here, and we did those shows for free with no cover just to try and keep house music alive in the city. We were doing “deep house music” at the time, so Keepin’ It Deep was our moniker.
It started out as random events, and then our first weekly was on Wednesdays at the Jazz Kitchen. We served free waffles, so you could come in and get free waffles, cheap drinks and listen to house music. That’s where we met Reggie Bishop, Clifford Ratliff and Rob Dixon, and they all ended up playing on our records over the next 10 years and are now part of the Felonious Punk project that we do together.
JOHNSON: How did Keepin’ It Deep events branch out from there?
HOGAN: We had a Thursday become available at a bigger venue that had a bigger sound system. It was at a bar up near Castleton Square Mall called the Vapor Lounge. Their gimmick was the bar was made of ice — it was fancy shit. I DJed for Michael Jordan all the time up there. We were DJing Top 40 shit on the weekend, but they gave us Thursday nights to do what we wanted so we started doing house music. We brought Kaskade up there. We brought some Chicago legends up there like Stacy Kidd. Those parties did pretty well.
LARNER: There were a lot of clubs who would be like, “We know we’re not going to make a lot of money off you guys, but we want to do something cool.” So we’d be like, “Cool! Can you pony up some cash to bring in our favorite DJs?”
HOGAN: We bounced around from club to club for a while. It really wasn’t until Blu Lounge downtown that we found a permanent home. They gave us Thursday nights, and we rocked Thursdays for seven or eight years. The list of people that have played there is pretty incredible: Phife Dawg, A-Trak, Treasure Fingers, Penguin Prison. Eventually, it got to where we were doing 350 people on a Thursday night. That’s where we met Brandy, who’s our partner now at Patron Saint. It was our experience at Blu that gave us the confidence to open something on our own and have it be successful.
JOHNSON: How did all of your previous experiences in the world of electronic music play a part in what Patron Saint wound up becoming?
LARNER: One of the reasons the Saint worked is we come from a background where…we would go into these clubs that had no EDM or house music background. And in order to make these things happen at these new venues, we had to figure out ways to interject an entirely new marketing campaign, an entirely new music and an entirely new clientele into a venue. With he Patron Saint, we were able to take the years of doing that but now work from our spot. I think our collective experience, from the rave scene to the club scene to traveling as international DJs, let us know what we needed to do to be successful. Fortunately, we were able to implement that, and people have seemed to gravitate towards it.
HOGAN: One thing that’s always been important to us is that house music is inclusive, whether it’s the raves or the house music events. To host parties with no dress code was really big to us, especially being on South Meridian. I don’t know for a fact, but I believe that we’re the only club that does not have a dress code on South Meridian. There’s no dress code — just don’t be a dick. Come hang out, enjoy the night and learn something about music.
JOHNSON: Considering you’ve both DJed all over the globe, I’d imagine you both have a pretty expansive network of people you know in the world of dance music. How crucial has that been to your success with Patron Saint?
HOGAN: It’s been crucial throughout our entire career in Indianapolis. A lot of these DJs remember us from either playing on a big festival with us or playing our records at some point. So when we ask them to come to Indianapolis, they don’t hesitate. It’s definitely helped us get some acts that we probably have no business getting. [laughs]
JOHNSON: I’ve noticed that the Patron Saint did several virtual events throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. What successes and struggles have come with doing those streams?
LARNER: For me, it’s been a challenge. I’m the type of DJ who wants everything to be about the music. I’m not really a big fan of people looking at me or being over my shoulder when I play. I’m a very technical DJ, so a lot of people might like to watch what I’m doing. I like to play on three or four CDJs, but I do that because that’s how I like to perform. And it throws me off when I feel like people are watching that more than listening.
So I’ve taken an approach where my wife and I do it, where I play music but we joke around and talk to people online. It’s a much different animal, and it’s ended up being fun, but maybe just because we get wasted every time. [laughs] Even though it’s taking me out of my comfort zone, the important thing about it is it keeps those relationships we’ve built with the people who go to the club and our staff. It’s a way of saying, “Hey. We can’t be open, but we want to keep that family going.”
HOGAN: For me, it started as a business decision for the Saint. The coronavirus hit, and we were just like, “Well how are we going to pay rent? How are we going to take care of our employees?” So we put the Saint’s Venmo up there and were like, “Let’s just see what happens.” In the first two months, we raised $30,000 doing that and were able to give our staff a nice stimulus package, while paying rent for a couple months and getting our insurance paid. It got us through a couple really scary times where we weren’t sure what was going to happen.
I kind of feel like this is a big renaissance for creativity. All these people are stuck at home, and they’re learning new trades. My roommate Jeremiah and I are cooking. We ordered a smoker, and we’re trying to learn barbecue. We’re making our cocktails and reading about them. The music I do on my Wednesdays has been fun and exciting for me because I never get to play that music out. When we get out of this and back to the clubs, I’m hoping that other DJs are having a similar creative renaissance, so to speak, and that they don’t go back to playing the same old stuff. I hope the club can handle some different music now.
JOHNSON: I know you guys recently found some international success with your “Moonlight” track. That being said, what else do you two have on the horizon?
LARNER: Slater has always had an exceptional ear for hooks and samples. We’ve got a few things that aren’t quite ready to shop at this exact moment, but they’re coming together. We were contacted by a label in Ibiza and another in Maui. Labels are starting to come back to us and ask us for music, and we’ve also got a little more free time on our hands. [laughs]
So Slater has found some really cool stuff that we’re trying to go back and forth with and create some more new music.