The NeedlExchange is in. Since Baronhawk Williams, Bil Todd, and Tommy Cornelis joined forces in the spring of 2013 to form The NeedlExchange (TNX), the DC-based DJ troupe has made waves around town and beyond. TNX pioneered DC’s queer underground, and their music has galvanized and helped unify DC’s dance music community.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. We’ve noticed the well-deserved hype surrounding your shows, so we are excited for this opportunity to talk with you. Let’s start off with an ice-breaker: please list three to five nouns that you most identify as. For instance, three for me would be American, student, and DJ/Producer.
Tommy: [Slowly] I would say faggot. Being unapologetically a faggot is a huge part of what we do. Being unashamed to be gay and open and … expanding on what it means to be a faggot, doing our version of what’s gay … and finding the truth in what we do. Being gay is not the stereotype of tank tops and top 40 — finding the true [elements] and being unashamed to be so. That’s a huge part of what we’re all about.
Tommy: “Being unapologetically a faggot is a huge part of what we do.”
Bil: For me, [there are] three words. Potato chip, circle, and space.
[Baronhawk moves Raven’s (Patrick’s cat) toy and the cat interrupts the conversation, bounding after the toy]
[Addressing Bil] Can you please explain circle and space?
Bil: Circle because it’s never-ending. In my head, [a circle] contracts to preserve itself, and expands to encompass and bring in more. And space because it’s infinite — I like to approach the world and process myself with that understanding of limitless possibilities and infinite creativity. I think that TNX is especially aware of that. Individually we have a power and ability within ourselves — it’s just about pushing ourselves to that limit. But together we are even stronger. And so it’s embracing that. I feel that we are limitless in what we can do, and I think it’s important that we embrace that confidence.
And like Tommy said [about] identifying as a faggot and seeking out the truth in our culture, refusing this idea that there is a template to what a gay, queer, non-binary, etc. person is.
Tommy said it and you touched on your “version of gay.” Would you say that your version of gay is the antithesis of the stereotypical gay culture you described?
Tommy: I don’t think it’s necessarily denying what’s mainstream gay — mainstream gay exists and that’s fine. We’re not here to condemn or change that. We’re here to say, “This is who we are, this is what we do. And if you’re into that, we have a space for you.”
Bil: I think we also do a really good job of constantly encouraging each other to reach further, to go harder, to raise that ceiling a bit higher. There’s a certain strength that I pull from [Tommy and Baronhawk] when we’re in that moment, when we’re on the path together. We’re all constantly trying to learn more and fill this need within us to create and share. To touch on what Tommy said, our family is incredibly diverse, partially by design, but also by happenstance. I think the spaces we create allows for a variance of humans to pass through.
That being said, we embrace the mainstream gays as well. We don’t care who the fuck you are or whether you suck dick or not — if you’re down with our music, respect other people, embrace the fringe and lose yourself, then TNX is the place for you. It’s that simple, really.
Bil: “We don’t care who the fuck you are or whether you suck dick or not — if you’re down with our music, respect other people, embrace the fringe and lose yourself, then TNX is the place for you.”
Please tell me the story behind TNX – was it always Baronhawk, Tommy, and Bil, or were there ever more members? How did the three of you meet?
Bil: TNX first started in the spring of 2013. May was our first party — it was at The Velvet Lounge. We used to do a party every Sunday. [Laughs] We had no idea what we were getting into … At first it was from 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon until close. And after a couple weeks of throwing a 10–12 hour party on Sunday we scaled it back a bit and started the party at 7 or 8 in the evening.
In the beginning, there were four people — Philip Goyette was a member of TNX, and around that time, he had just started his residency at ESL and was kind of working towards a residency at Flash as well. We had ideas of how we wanted to build TNX, and part of building that was doing more and creating more opportunities in our community for us. And Philip was doing that, and kind of for himself — which is both rad and totally understandable — but we came together and decided to narrow it down to just three. We parted ways very amicably and everything was cool. So to be honest with you, when I think of TNX, I think of these two guys: TNX is the power of three to me.
Bil: “In the beginning, there were four people — Philip Goyette was a member of TNX … “
Tommy: I met Baronhawk at a DC-local showcase at U Street Music Hall (U Hall) in 2012, and we were both on that bill. Our sets were a little bit apart, but we were both like, “I notice what she’s doing!”
Bil: [Referring to Tommy] We met in 2009. And funny enough, it was the month after Tommy and Baron met at U Hall.
And then the following month, U Hall had another showcase, and that’s where Baron and I met. We were on the same bill. Baron went on first — and I remember I was the only one there dancing on the floor during his entire set. Every song he played, I was like, “That’s a track I listen to at home” or “I don’t know what that [track] is, but I want to know what it is!” His music was inspiring, rejuvenating, and electrified me. In that moment, I decided that I’d like to work with him. And I had very similar feeling with Tommy. Tommy and I would DJ off and on at various gigs throughout the city that we were brought on as headliners or guests at. And I’ll admit it, I got into the [DJ] game late … I grew up not listening to dance music. So when I first started playing, it was all Designer Drugs and crazy electro shit. And Tommy was one of the first gay DJs in the city who was branching out and exposing me to the authentic forms of techno and house. Or even the first time I heard an acid squeal or bassline was probably a song that Tommy played. So these two definitely touched my taint in a way that no one else had touched it [everyone giggles]. And I knew deep down inside that I was going to work with these guys.
Bil: “… the first time I heard an acid squeal or bassline was probably a song that Tommy played. So these two definitely touched my taint in a way that no one else had touched it [everyone giggles]. And I knew deep down inside that I was going to work with these guys.”
Baronhawk: Yea, Bil was the only one there while I was DJing — I definitely took note of that. Normally DJs just come for their set. So when I saw Bil [dancing during my opening set], I thought he was some music-head and it surprised me when I learned he was one of the DJs. He came to hear my set … that meant a lot to me — [looks at Bil] don’t know if I ever told you that. That showed me what kind of person he was … I didn’t even know him.
Baronhawk: “[Bil] came to hear my [opening] set … that meant a lot to me … That showed me what kind of person he was … I didn’t even know him.”
How would describe your sound to listeners who haven’t heard you?
Tommy: We’ve evolved a lot since we had our Sunday party at Velvet Lounge. It ranged from fifty people — which at Velvet is banging — to ten people … we never knew what we were going to get. So it was totally a laboratory for us where we learned how to play for ourselves and as a group, and [our] sound evolved through that time … our sound is still evolving. Disco is definitely at our roots … it’s important to us … it gets the girls twirling, it makes you happy, it makes your heart smile. I think disco will always be at the heart of who we are. But where does disco take you? It takes you to the origins of house, Paradise Garage, and then into techno too. So [disco’s] the root that takes you to all these places.
Tommy: “Disco is definitely at our roots … it gets the girls twirling, it makes you happy, it makes your heart smile. But where does disco take you? It takes you to the origins of house, Paradise Garage, and then into techno too. So [disco’s] the root that takes you to all these places.”
Bil: One of the things about playing with these two is that when I snuck into the TNX house, they opened up all the windows. Referring to Velvet as a laboratory in those first couple years for us is such a beautiful and succinct way to put it. [Velvet] was weekly practice, for however long we decided to go, where we learned a lot about ourselves and how we had an innate ability to weave songs together, to craft stories as a collective. And I had never felt that strong of a connection with other people in the DJ booth. We’re always pushing and sharing new music with each other … we’re all really fuckin’ excited about music all the time. It’s nice to have sisters who you can geek out with.
In 2013, I was kind of tired of trying with the gay community in this city. Every bar or club had bad circuit music or EDM, and there were parties popping up and calling themselves alternative, but they were playing very safe pop music. The crowd was all one shade of people. I was over DC — at the time I was doing [music] with people in places like New York and San Francisco. Laying the groundwork for TNX was a collective desire to rejuvenate the soul of the dance floor. We felt [at the time] that there wasn’t a pulse to the queer dance floors in DC … people weren’t even dancing anymore. It was just packed clubs with people on their phones. We understood that there was a responsibility for the DJ and the promoter to create a space for people to feel alive and safe. I think the dance floor is a place of refuge and release, and TNX brought that back to the gay community [in DC] … it was void and we brought it back. And I’m really proud of that.
Bil: “… there wasn’t a pulse to the queer dance floors in DC … people weren’t even dancing anymore. It was just packed clubs with people on their phones … it was void and we brought it back. And I’m really proud of that.”
You should be [proud of that]. I know Tommy is from Iowa — where are you from, Baron and Bil?
Bil: I’m from the West end of Loudon County, near the Shenandoah Mountains.
Who, what, or where do each of you consider your greatest artistic influence?
Tommy: We were seeing our friends in other cities doing what we wanted, which was having these parties where people were losing themselves on the dance floor, exploring new sounds, wearing wigs and dressing up —
Bil: They were parties with an evolving cast of characters, and attendees, and sounds, and looks and personality. Spaces that were once bare and cold were now warm, and bright, and ripe with love and positive energy … for other people, for the exploration of music, and dance … and for each other.
Tommy: Yea, and people were doing poppers, pissing in beer cans and handing it out to their friends, and sniffing pits … So we were like, “Why not DC?” … We’ve had to be very patient. We’ve been trying to create that space in DC, the queer underground as it’s called. There are articles on NPR and Resident Advisor about it.
Tommy: “Yea, and people were doing poppers, pissing in beer cans and handing it out to their friends, and sniffing pits … So we were like, ‘Why not DC?’ … We’ve been trying to create that space in DC, the queer underground as it’s called.”
So Tommy, you’d say your influence is the vibe you get from the dance floor?
Tommy: Our sisters in the queer underground are my biggest influences. Like Honey Soundsystem and Honcho. There are so many.
It is common knowledge that dance music today owes much of its success to strides that the gay community made in the latter half of the 20th century. I’m convinced that the queer community still holds the reins to dance music — the last two notable underground parties I attended were at a bathhouse and leather bar in Northeast, DC. How is DC’s queer dance music community structured? Are there distinct aboveground vs. underground scenes? As pioneers in DC’s queer underground, what do you feel that you’ve done, are doing, and will do to encourage growth in the entire dance music scene?
Tommy: I once had a gay DJ in the city tell me, “What you do isn’t gay.” And I was so offended by that because actually, me playing Frankie Knuckles is more gay that you playing gen pop indie dance hits. Everything we do drips with gay history, and we’re here to educate people a bit. Like I said before, the aboveground gay scene exists, and that’s fine.
[Baronhawk and Bil both echo Tommy in saying “That’s fine”]
We’re going to do something different, and we’re going to stick around.
Tommy: “I once had a gay DJ in the city tell me, ‘What you do isn’t gay.’ And I was so offended … Everything we do drips with gay history … the aboveground gay scene exists, and that’s fine.
Baronhawk: Other queer people are into underground music, and we needed a space to do that. A couple years ago, before we started the group, I hadn’t seen anything like that.
Tommy: It was fractured. It was there, but a lot of the good gay DJs were mostly playing at straight bars, and that’s still sort of true today. Or they would have regular gigs at gay bars, but they’d have to play differently there, and that’s still the case —
Baronhawk: Myself included …
Bil: Tommy talked about how there were moments of authenticity or of the underground peaking through the cracks, but there was no consistent, reliable place where you could go as a faggot to be around other faggots and vibe to music that you weren’t hearing around 17th Street or coming out of Town or Cobalt. We created a place where people can rely on there being other like-minded people [around].
You touched on the fact that the last two [notable underground] parties you went to were at a bathhouse and a gay leather bar. After about a year or two of doing TNX, we started to understand what the District’s underground was to us. We started to notice an upswing in the interest of people who didn’t identify as gay, queer, or anything at all … who were likewise interested in the music and energy we were swirling in the lab. They saw people lose their shit on the dance floor — laughing, smiling, and hugging — and they were like, “Oh my God, this is so nice. This is exciting … this is where I want to be.” It was around that time that we understood that what we were doing had a broader reach than the community we were coming out of. It wasn’t a “gay” thing. It was just a thing. A happening.
You’ve definitely helped create the queer underground in this city.
Tommy: It’s definitely growing. I DJed at Trade last night … I didn’t know we needed that space until it opened. I can completely be myself as a DJ there. And it wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t get a gig at a gay bar at all in this city. At the same time, we’re doing a lot of cool [gigs] at U Hall and Flash, and we’ve always received a lot of support from the straight dance community, but I now think things are changing in the right direction. Now there’s Trade, and more gay bars want to tap into what we’re doing. We have such a great community … they light up every dance floor. People are always asking about —
Bil: Yeah, we often wonder, “Are you more excited about us DJing, or our gaggle who follows us?” [laughs] At the end of the day, we don’t hang out with shitty people, and our dance floor reflects that. We don’t put up with attitude, misogyny, any forms of racism or homophobia — even if it’s internalized. We don’t have time for that — we make that very clear. But yeah, our extended family fuckin’ rocks. They’re incredible.
Bil: “We don’t put up with attitude, misogyny, any forms of racism or homophobia — even if it’s internalized. We don’t have time for that — we make that very clear.”
Baronhawk: And they go straight for the dance floor.
Bil: The TNX family takes care of one another.
You asked what we’re doing to preserve and build upon what we’ve done [as TNX]: we’re always taking chances. I see a lack of [people taking chances] with parties, even those that have been going on for 5–7 years. They’re not bringing in any exciting guests or talent, they’re not investing any time or creativity into their art, brand, or the language that they use. The art is very important to us. I look at every flyer as an album cover … it bugs the shit out of me when people don’t invest time in the graphics or art that represents them.
[Pauses for a few seconds]
We are unapologetically driven. We know what we want, and we kind of know how to get there. We’re going to put our necks on the line, empty our bank accounts, and we’re gonna take fuckin’ chances. Because if you aren’t doing that, what’re you doing? You’re just complacent — at the end of the day, you’re giving people a repurposed product.
Tommy: It’s also an investment in our community. It’s important to expose [our community] to good sounds and good people.
Bil: It’s not just consuming. I see a lot of people who just take: they take your money at the door, a percentage of your money from the bar, your attention and time from the night, and they don’t put anything back into it. You should be taking chances with the artists you bring in. If it’s a lot of money, fuck it — you’re making money from the people who come to your party. You should be giving back. And it’s not about creating something for them to buy. Bring in that ridiculous DJ from lord knows where and has a ridiculous rider and will cost you an arm and a leg — just fuckin’ do it! Take a chance.
Bil: “You should be giving back. Bring in that ridiculous DJ from lord knows where and has a ridiculous rider and will cost you an arm and a leg — just fuckin’ do it! Take a chance.”
Anything else you want to add?
Bil: I’m pretty high.
But yea, I want to take a moment to to shine a light on Tommy. He’s a stalwart in our community. He’s always at the front of the charge, and I think that as much as TNX inspires people, Tommy inspires me … his belief in our community, perseverance, and energy in the way he supports every facet of this dance community is so important to Baron and I, and us, as a collective. Tommy’s one of the most important people to the DC dance community, and I think that should be well understood. We’re really happy to stand next to him and feel his energy —
I’m so impressed with what people are doing. So many crews are going big and being bold. I love it. I was ready to leave this city. I’ve been here 12 years. I was pretty lackluster with what I was seeing around me. But now I feel super energized, very driven, and I’m very thankful that we have places we can go after hours and during the day. People are building sound systems and bringing people in —
Tommy: “I was ready to leave this city. I’ve been here 12 years. I was pretty lackluster with what I was seeing around me. But now I feel super energized, very driven, and I’m very thankful that we have places we can go after hours and during the day.”
Bil: And building spaces that we can be visibly queer. The work that people are putting into our dance community is so welcoming, and there are lot of people who are of the same mindset. We want to give a shout to all those that are working to make this city — and this country — a better place for dance culture and LGBTQIA-safe spaces … in DC we got ROAM, 1432 R, Where The Girls Go, Gay Bash and the queens who go hard in this city, Over Easy and the kings who push back, TRADE on 14th … also Flash and U St Music Hall for curating strong queer, poc and/or female driven line-ups.
Around the country we’re enamored and inspired by San Francisco’s Honey Soundsystem, New York’s WRECKED, Occupy The Disco, Banjee Report, Carry Nation, all The Bunker parties, plus PAT, and the Mr. Saturday (Sunday) Night functions … without a doubt, our extended family from Pittsburgh, HONCHO (who we work with as often as possible) … also out of San Francisco, Polyglamorous and thePound Puppy parties, and outta Chicago there’s the Men’s Room events, and Gramaphone Records for, well, yeah. Then we’ve got the Deep South/Flock of Eagles parties outta Atlanta — Vicki Powell on fog! — plus NOLA with the Force Majeure events, and, lest we forget, P-Town charging hard with Fag Bash soirees … on their 8th year I think. There’s Seattle and the Nark/Disckslap moments … I mean, wow, there’s so much good happening! Also, special nod to Morgan Tepper, aka DJ Lisa Frank, who we’ve collaborated with for about 3 years now on the Pride and Mid Atlantic Leather Weekend events, as well as more recent after hours and select one-offs around the city. Morgan’s passion for the floor is inspiring, and our energies make sense together, so, yeah! We love her. She’s one of the best.
Tommy: I love going out in DC.
And you’re a proud Washingtonian sporting that Nats hat.
Tommy: DC is home. DC is where I grew up and became myself. This city is home more than anything. I’m thankful that people are doing cool stuff. It’s a really exciting time to be here.