Flyer advertising a party at Hot Mass, a members-only club in Pittsburgh
Hot Mass sounds like the kind of party that Americans usually have to fly to Berlin to experience. Every Sunday between 2 and 8AM, a members-only gay sex club called Club Pittsburgh welcomes 150-300 women and straight men to its dancefloor, where they’re joined by bathhouse customers from upstairs who slip in with towels wrapped around their waists. It's not uncommon for those towels to slip off dancers' hips.
During Honcho, a monthly gay party at Hot Mass, “sex is allowed on the dancefloor,” says Aaron Clark, who runs two of the party's monthly residencies including Honcho and Humanaut. Four different crews are involved in throwing Hot Mass, and each week they alternate the responsibilities of setting up, booking, and running the night. “It's the one party a month where anything goes,” he adds. “Honcho has its own brand; it’s a special ode-to-the-bathhouse night.”
It sure sounds like Hot Mass is epic enough to warrant an ode, especially because it occurs in a city with only faint whispers of Bacchanalian club culture: Pittsburgh. As local promoter Quinn Leonowicz says, it’s a “rock, rock, rock, rock, rock town,” both in its musical history and in its economic roots—which lie in the literal bedrock of Pennsylvania that's made the city a hub of steel and iron production.
When domestic manufacturing industry declined in the 70s and 80s, Pittsburgh’s economy shifted towards technological and scientific engineering, allowing it to remain relatively healthy throughout the 90s and 00s. These days, cheap rent, a low cost of living, a renewing population of college students and a promising job market have created ideal conditions for a local DIY house and techno scene to flourish—and Hot Mass is its sweaty, promiscuous lovechild.
"I played there this past Saturday, man, and people were just losing their fuckin' minds," said Tom Cox, one of the producers involved in the city's most well-known house act, Pittsburgh Track Authority.
"It's like no other," agreed Preslav Lefterov, one of Cox's cohorts in PTA. "We've DJed in the States a lot over the last couple of years, and Hot Mass is one of the closest parties to what happens in [Berlin's] Panorama Bar or Berghain. It's very much in that vibe."
Clark, an Ohio native, was also very taken with the promiscuous behavior, liberal attitudes, and raucous energy that distinguish Hot Mass from the other parties going on in Pittsburgh and around the US. He's been involved in many projects around Pittsburgh, but "but once Hot Mass opened, the vibe was really unbeatable," so he focused on cultivating the perfect party at a bathhouse.
The city’s contemporary electronic music milieu rose from the ashes of Pittsburgh’s short-lived rave scene in the 1990s. Back then, Pittsburgh was part of the Midwestern rave circuit that connected cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis via Internet forums and secretive phone lines that spread the word about parties throughout the region. According to Cox, a Pittsburgh native, one-off massives drew 3,000-5,000 people, many of whom commuted in from surrounding cities. “There were some other nights, like drum n bass nights, but for the most part it was the older rave crowd that went to them,” Cox said. These un-permitted raves carried on until about 2002, at which point Pittsburgh’s rave heyday abruptly ended.
By the time Clark arrived in Pittsburgh the local rave scene had croaked. “Before I moved here, people told me that the scene was pretty good, but the minute I got here everything vaporized,” he said. “So, I came at the wrong time, and I hated it.”
Already a house fan when he moved to Pittsburgh for college, Clark spent his first few years DJing in his bedroom, bitterly bemoaning Pennsylvania’s nonexistent dance scene. “It was miserable, honestly,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone that played music that I liked.”
Aaron Clark. Photo by Pat Francart.
It turned out that club music was still alive in small corners of the city and nourished by a few diehard promoters. According to Clark, one of the key players was Steve Simpson, a local promoter who started hosting nights at Pittsburgh clubs in 2000. “He started doing club parties around the time when the rave scene collapsed and no one really knew where to go with it,” Clark said. “He was one of the first to swoop in on moving [the rave scene] into a club."
Clark started to help out with Simpson’s club nights, focusing on bringing progressive house headliners like Lee Burridge and Chris Fortier to Pittsburgh’s premiere clubs. Although the parties kept club culture alive for aging ravers, Clark wasn’t entirely satisfied with the bookings or the crowd, which "didn’t give a shit what was being played.”
Outside of Western Pennsylvania, an increased interest in dance music was sweeping the US. David Guetta was topping the charts, dubstep was taking hold, and festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival were adding days to their events. In Pittsburgh, the general population’s interest dance music created a trickle-down effect for the local underground scene. More people got involved in throwing club nights, launching record labels, and making tracks.
“Eventually, we got sick of chasing that crowd, and our tastes changed,” Clark says. “We wanted to get into grimier spots, so we moved out of the clubs. When we took it into a grittier atmosphere, the crowd that we have today got started,” Clark said. “It was kind of jarring to go from 500 clubbers to 250 hipsters, but the quality of the crowd has gone up dramatically. People got rowdier, they do their homework on the music—they’re actually dedicated to the music instead of whatever club is new that month.”
This is all going according to Clark's plan. Honcho, he says, is a device to "engage the gay community and get them back into dance music," which, in turn, will encourage the regulars who were initially enticed by the sexually-charged vibes (and actual sex) to check out other house and techno parties around the city. "There are no real lines drawn," Cox says. "The gay scene and the straight scene intersect very well here. There's crossover in every which way."
According to Quinn Leonowicz, who, along with Lauren Goshinski runs Pittsburgh’s only major music and arts festival, VIA, the budding renaissance extended outside of the dance music community. The multi-day fair, which launched in 2010 and has since become one of the only US members of the ICAS network, takes place across different venues in Pittsburgh during the first week of October and combines musical performances with live avant-garde visual art exhibits. According to Leonowicz, until five years ago, many midrange indie artists in various genres skipped over Pittsburgh in favor of Cleveland and Philadelphia. “Now we’re in the loop, and that’s great,” he says. “The camaraderie between promoters creates a ships-all-rise scenario,” Goshinski adds. “Once you get some momentum going, everyone individually benefits.”
Although the collaborative mindset among the people involved has helped to create a flourishing scene, there are other factors. “One thing that allowed Pittsburgh to flourish the way that is has is the economic situation here,” says Paul Zyla, Clark's partner at Humanaut. “It’s still pretty cheap to live here, and you don’t have to bust your ass to keep yourself going. You can make time to make art.”
This has allowed a host of new labels and producers to crop up, including the labels Bleepsequence, Stem & Leaf, Broken Planet (the successor to Technoir Audio, the label run by Zyla and Pittsburgh techno demigod Shawn Rudiman), and Detour, as well as artists like Chase Smith and Pittsburgh Track Authority.
“There’s really good talent here,” Clark affirms. “It’s like, OK, you can check off all the boxes now: Pittsburgh has killer parties. There are people putting out amazing music. You don’t really have a fully-realized scene until you’re making a mark on the overall, global music offerings that are out there, and I think that’s why everyone’s really gotten behind PTA. They threw gas on that fire.”
The open attitudes towards sexuality, sociality, and musical experimentation fostered by Hot Mass reflect a wider political shift occurring in Pittsburgh too. According to Clark, the city has become increasingly more progressive over the past decade. "Pittsburgh has been a blue-collar Democrat, union steel town, and that has now changed," he says. In January, Democrat Bill Peduto took office as the city's newest mayor, a politician Clark describes as "this crazy liberal mayor who is all gung-ho." During his campaign, Peduto promised to create the "next" Pittsburgh, built by "the first progressive administration for a Rust Belt city in America."
"We are the next great American city," Peduto declared in early January. "We are at a transformative time in this city."
“I’m not really worried about people ruining our shit,” Zyla adds with a laugh. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with other people over the past couple of years about that sort of thing, and I think there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same way that I do: basically, if you’re not having fun with it, then there’s no point. I’m not going to pretend like I’m making museum pieces here.”
Pittsburgh locals have welcomed the transplants because they bring new ideas to the city. "It feels less stagnant and old, the attitudes feel less old," Clark says. "The transplants have really freshened it without overwhelming it, and they've really embraced the traditional charms of the city."
Cox agrees. “Growing up as Pittsburgher in the 80s, the music people listened to here was just bullshit,” he says. “It’s taken some people from outside of there to do a lot of the best underground shit that’s happened anywhere, so I don’t see why that would be a problem moving forward.”