So much more goes into DJing the most important party of someone's life than just showing up and playing fun songs.
By his own admission, James Mulry fell into being a wedding DJ backwards. While studying architecture at Pratt, he started hanging out with the raucous crowd that formed around DIY venues in Williamsburg and Bushwick like the Chicken Hut and Rubulad in the early and mid-2000s; he also joined the Black Label Bike Club, known for crafting "mutant" bikes from recycled parts. Mulry swiftly became a go-to DJ for dorm and house parties in New York City; his first proper paid gig was the indie dance band Matt & Kim's inaugural show in 2004. He has since parlayed these skills into being a full-time wedding DJ—a profession that has historically gotten a bad rap for being cheesy—but how many selectors do you know of who can play Too Short or The Misfits in front of a formally dressed crowd, including a smattering of grandmas and uncles, and pull it off with style?
A DJ's DJ with a vast record collection, Mulry's personal music tastes began to form as a teenager in New York City, when he would take the train downtown from his home in Queens to hang out in record stores, trade mixtapes, and attend all-ages punk shows at spots like the now-defunct Coney Island High. Exposed to 80s rock by his mother and to bluegrass and country by his father, Mulry eventually also got into hip-hop followed by house, disco, and soul. "I've always had this obsessive nature, this desire to learn about everything," he explained recently over the phone.
After many years spent hustling on the New York City club circuit at venues like The Woods, House of Yes, The Heath at McKittrick Hotel, Tandem, and Hotel Delmano, and at recurring nights including CHERYL, Mulry still holds down a monthly residency at The Ides rooftop at Wythe Hotel. He now has much less time for regular gigs, though, and will have performed at 81 weddings in 2016 alone ("I don't have any Saturdays free this year," he admits). Mulry aims to bring a house party vibe to every wedding, eschewing the trope of the annoying DJ in a shiny suit chatting shit on the mic all night long. Check out his unlikely story below.—Ali Gitlow
James Mulry: Statistically, it wasn't likely that I was going to headline festivals or sell out mega-clubs. I've never had my own productions that I wanted to share. I just really enjoy experiencing music with people, whether they're strangers at a club or clients that have hired me. I consider myself more of a journeyman, or a yeoman DJ in that I can do a lot of different styles of things.
I fell into being a wedding DJ sort of backwards. Friends started asking me to work their weddings and one of the first ones was the Excepter wedding; they're outsider electronic musicians who have a protest band. Two friends who are in the group got married near the bride's family's property at this converted barn called the Art Barn in Valparaiso, Indiana. This was pre-Serato, so we each traveled with a crate of records. Myself, Porkchop (AKA SSPS, who was a mentor figure to me), and another friend Nathan (AKA Zebrablood; he's now Blazer Sound System) DJed that wedding together and it was so crazy, just the energy of it. We had the opportunity to play anything because it was a weird wedding. It was a really exuberant and joyous occasion, but it also reflected the philosophy that my friends and I had about music.
One of the things that Porkchop taught me—his approach to DJing, whether it was bars, clubs, or warehouse parties—was that you can play anything, you just have to give it the right context. At one point Nathan decided to put on some DJ Funk ghettotech track and it was really jacking and raunchy, with lyrics like, "Pop that pussy, shake that ass." The first two people to come running to the dancefloor were the bride's mother and grandmother. Seeing that unexpected moment and being a little bit responsible for it was so exciting. That can happen at a wedding and would never have happened at a warehouse party.
I book events on my own and also with a DJ agency called 74 Events. I know other DJs who are like, "Oh I could never play at weddings, it's gotta be the worst." It's not. I respect everyone can have a different approach to it. So much of it is not about the music. It's about the planning and the preparation, making sure you know how to pronounce people's names right, making sure that you're committed and putting the clients' fears at ease and just being attentive. It's a lot more work than just showing up on a Saturday and playing fun songs in a smart and creative way. There's a whole degree of labor that goes into it, as well as schlepping the equipment, having an ironed shirt and a clean suit.
Some people just don't want to DJ at weddings because the workload is different. But, unless you're top billing or throwing huge parties where you're factoring in lights, sound, bringing in big talent and charging at the door, in New York you're making 10 percent of the bar. You can hustle and make money doing that, but you're working every night. I'd much rather do this; it's a lot happier. DJing a residency at any kind of spot around the city can be really satisfying—you can take people on an aural journey, build a vibe, or build a regular following. But at the end of the night it's just another Friday or Saturday—just another day at the office, kind of. And 3:30 or 4 AM in New York is not always the prettiest place. So, while some of my clients' tastes can be a little predictable, I'd much rather be thorough and thoughtful, get hugged and thanked profusely, and be packed up and headed home by midnight than walking through puke or having to throw someone out of the club because they want to fight me because I'm not playing Bieber. Also, the pay rate is higher because I'm doing more.
The best part is that I get to use my instincts and experience to be a part of a really memorable day—the party of someone's lifetime, perhaps.
What makes me a good wedding DJ? I think it's just that I care. I see it as a big responsibility. I know that I'm not perfect, but I can be perfect for someone else. The best part is that I get to use my instincts and experience to be a part of a really memorable day—the party of someone's lifetime, perhaps. Anyone who's planned a wedding knows how crazy things can get. It can be a really nerve-wracking, expensive, anxiety-building experience. So it's really fun to be professional throughout the process, have them sit back and be like, "James—not worried about that guy. He understands our tastes, he's going to protect them on the day-of, like if our drunken uncle wants to do a karaoke set in the middle he's going to shut it all down." I've mediated fights between mothers right before a ceremony, coaxed a crying maid of honor who was afraid to give a speech in front of her ex and his new girlfriend out of the bridal suite, notified waitstaff of broken glass on the dancefloor, and thrown out wedding crashers.
This is New York City, so the weddings are always slightly different. I can't just rely upon a set playlist. It's my judgment to notice what people are wearing, how hard they're hitting the bar. I'm like, "Where are the guests coming from? What is the clients' background, is there any sort of ethnic component or cultural component at play?" It's about learning that in advance of the wedding and seeing how it actually plays out on the dancefloor.
One time at a friend's wedding in upstate New York, people were going so nuts. It got to be a lot of classic punk rock material because that's what the bride and groom were into. I was playing a Misfits song and the groom and all his friends were taking unopened bottles of champagne, popping them, spraying each other with them and then doing a slip n' slide across the tile floor, in champagne in all their wedding garb. The bride's dress got ruined but she was up for it.
I also DJed a wedding at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the upscale farm-to-table restaurant. The couple wanted to hear a whole bunch of classic 90s rap so I was playing M.O.P. "Ante Up." Some of the groom's friends actually climbed the walls of the stone barns, like the rubble stone, and made it 10 or 15 feet off the ground before staff saw them. I thought they were gonna get thrown out or fall and hurt themselves, but they made it up pretty high. I'm sure there was some uncle on the dancefloor. Having random uncles dancing to Too Short is really funny and you won't get that experience on a Saturday at a club. You can play that song and maybe people enjoy it, but the multi-generational aspect is something that's really rewarding.
To be a good wedding DJ you have to know music well, and you have to be willing to read and adjust to the crowd. If you can do that at a club it will translate, the technical side is relevant. If you can be clever in your selections as well as your technique—and it doesn't mean you need to be super aggressive with scratching or juggling—but if you can blend stuff and, with each transition, get the people excited, if you can keep things on the up, mixing in measure, it really does help. But that's a pretty straightforward club-style technique: blending songs together and making the crowd cheer when the next song comes in.
I love working weddings because I get to share in so much joy. It's really nice to hear people that respect one another and that choose to have this public display of commitment and love. I do cry at strangers' weddings sometimes, because they are so beautiful or romantic or people are saying wonderful things about one another. I think anyone who does well in this business could get emotional over that. You have to have this empathic thing and be able to connect with people, and appreciate why they hired you in the first place. If I ever feel jaded or the process becomes routine, that's when I'll stop.
As told to Ali Gitlow