Aces: DJ ellafine

The Madison-based DJ and promoter talks about keeping goth culture alive and shares a few favorite tracks.

DJ ellafine playing at Tavernakaya. Photo by Nathan Vergin.

DJ ellafine playing at Tavernakaya. Photo by Nathan Vergin.

While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces, is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.

For this installment, we talked with Madison-based selector, promoter, and all-around synth-pop maven DJ ellafine. Originally hailing from Oakland Elly Fine cut  her teeth in Madison as a party promoter in the late aughts for now-defunct Madison goth fixture Club Inferno. Since the counterculture institution's unfortunate closing in 2015, Elly Fine has helped pushed forth the Inferno's legacy of dark dance nights by hosting and DJing her own events at eastside bar and nightclub Connections, which was once the site of townie-bar staple Murphy's Tavern.

While Madison thankfully has a decent amount to offer in the realms of house, hip-hop, and (less thankfully) EDM DJs, Fine fills a crucial niche here with her party EDGES, which refreshingly focuses on modern darkwave and synth-pop, and takes place at Connections on the second Saturday of every month. In contrast, Fine also works on '80s dance night Music For The Masses, as well as the more sporadic, UK-themed Going Underground night with Caustic frontman and fellow Inferno alumni Matt Fanale. Fine spoke with us about her roots in the Oakland and Seattle goth scenes, the challenges of transitioning tracks at the loosely focused Going Underground parties, and how to keep a retro night fresh.

Tone Madison: How did you get started with DJing?

Elly Fine: I actually took some lessons from a local DJ and a friend and I'd wanted to DJ since I was 15, but somehow I didn't really start doing it until I was almost 40.

Tone Madison: What is your history with the Inferno?

Elly Fine: Well, I started going there shortly after I moved to Madison in 2009. In 2013, through a series of happy accidents, I started planning and promoting events. First, I threw a benefit for someone, and then that fall I started an '80s night—Music For The Masses. I had to go back to Oakland for a little over a year in 2014, but Music For The Masses carried on in my absence, and I even came back to town and ended up throwing what would be the last New Year's Eve at the Inferno.

Tone Madison: And you moved here from Oakland?

Elly Fine: Actually, I moved here from Seattle, where I lived for 11 years. I was born and raised in Oakland.

Tone Madison: Were you involved with any Inferno-esque spots in Seattle?

Elly Fine: My friend and I had ambitions to start our own club, but nothing really took off in that regard while I was there. For me, there wasn't anything quite like the Inferno. Over the years, itt was more like bouncing around from night to night. For a while, we'd find a night we loved and then it would close. In 1998 and 19999, some friends were running a Sunday goth night at a sports bar in the U-District. They would bring in a bunch of gargoyle statues and drape it in black. [Laughs] One of the things I did while I was back in Oakland was get re-immersed in the goth and darkwave scenes. The Cat Club in San Francisco was kind of my replacement Inferno.

Tone Madison: How  did your life as a DJ progress during your time in Oakland?

Elly Fine: I got lucky with some connections, met some DJs, and ended up learning Traktor [a DJ software program] and getting some opportunities to spin, including doing my own radio show—Music For The Masses—on a local internet station, BFF.fm. That was really fun. I produced the show for a year—I did it remotely for a few months after I moved back to Madison.

Tone Madison: Is that when you started throwing your own parties?

Elly Fine: Right. When I moved back, I was keen to restart Music For The Masses in a new venue—post-Inferno, but I also had some other ideas. Going Underground was something Matt Fanale and I had talked about for a couple of years, so it was very satisfying to finally make that happen. And I was like, "My one condition is that you have to be okay with DJing with me. Is that cool?" And of course he was like, "Duh that's fine." [Laughs] I still felt very green and untested as a DJ at that point. Going Underground was my first Madison appearance as a live DJ. I won't say my sets were amazing, but we did have a hell of a lot of fun. The handy thing about being a promoter already and wanting to DJ was, you know, I could create my own opportunities. Although, in particular with Music For The Masses, I usually just host and hire the excellent DJs I have on rotation—most of whom always welcome a chance to get nostalgic on the decks. After Going Underground, I got more confident about playing out. I had a gig at Nattspil for a while, then did a couple of things at Tavernakaya, and was in the Inferno's 20th anniversary party, which was such an honor.

Tone Madison: What is the pacing for your recurring events?

Elly Fine: Well, Music For The Masses is a dark '80s night that happens quarterly, since you don't want to overkill the throwback thing. We more or less play all the stuff that was on 120 Minutes—new wave, synth-pop, modern rock, college radio, post punk, ska, goth, whatever.  It's currently booked at Connections for whenever there's a fifth Saturday in a month. There's also another thing I've been doing at Connections, EDGES, which is a monthly I just started up. It happens every second Saturday of the month and focuses on newer darkwave, industrial, and coldwave, as well as music that kind of walks the line between in between. I've been calling it "darkpop," but I'm not sure if that's an actual term. It's the new music that totally reminds you of the great '80s synthpop—Chvrches, Phantogram, Purity Ring, Grimes, and Mr. Kitty.  Also, MGMT's new single "Little Dark Age" is all gothed out. I watched the video and I honestly can't tell if they're making fun of it or embracing it as their new thing.

When I was back in California, I learned that goth is really not dead. It just keeps shapeshifting. As for Going Underground, we've done it three times at the Cardinal [now the Nomad World Pub]. We're a little bit in limbo as Matt is a very busy guy. Going Underground focuses on UK dance music, electronica, britpop, and new wave. It's similar to Music For The Masses in that it's a retro thing and you only want to do that once in a while, or else it's overkill.

Tone Madison: Yeah, it's pretty crazy how the goth aesthetic has found its way into so many nooks of contemporary pop culture.

Elly Fine: I kind of love and, well, not hate it exactly, but feel slightly obligated to say, "Oh, these kids." [Laughs] But no, I really love it. I can't even keep up with all the good new music I'm finding. That's one reason I wanted to start a new music night instead of staying with my head stuck in the '80s all the time. I've been relying on Bandcamp a lot, and watching what friends and fellow DJs/musicians are looking at and purchasing.

Tone Madison: I'm a big fan of Bandcamp too. There's something really rewarding about going straight to the source, as much as I do love digging around in a record store.

Elly Fine: I can't remember the last time I got to dig around in a record shop. I love vinyl, but it's never going to be a DJ tool for me. I just can't carry all that heavy shit. I would need a roadie. Hey, I can dream.

Tone Madison: How do you approach mixing for something like Going Underground, which incorporates so many styles and tempos?

Elly Fine: A lot of planning, because I'm a control freak. [Laughs] That's one of the  challenges of doing retro nights and working with music that hasn't necessarily been produced for mixing. If I can make it work, I'll beatmatch it. And if not, I'll just look for a smooth transition. Some of the stuff we play at Going Underground, like The KLF, Underworld, and The Shamen works fine.

Tone Madison: I bet mixing Stone Roses is tricky business.

Elly Fine: At the last Going Underground, I mixed Psychedelic Furs' "Until She Comes" into Stone Roses' "Fool's Gold. I can't really brag that I beatmatched it, as the Furs song was fading out. But, it was a nice transition. I try to look for beats that go together well. Sometimes you can fudge the first few bars before it goes all wonky. Live drumming tracks will make your beatgrid all over the place. With the retro nights I really think people are more focused on enjoying the throwback/nostalgia and less worried about whether or not you beatmatched everything—as long as it makes for a smooth flow. Keeping the mood is important.

Tone Madison: Do you remember seeing a specific DJ and just having it click for you? Is there a party where you left feeling totally inspired?

Elly Fine: Steve Masters, of SF's Live 105, was a huge influence on me. I went to a few of the Live 105 listener appreciation parties as a teenager. I saw him DJ with Erasure's Andy Bell—or maybe it was Andy and Vince [Clarke, also of Erasure] up there, my memory is fuzzy. It was a large expo hall kind of place—I remember that. The room they were spinning in was kind of small, though. They would have multiple things going on at once—live stage, dance party, et cetera.

Tone Madison: What year do you think this was? Do you remember what kind of tunes they were playing?

Elly Fine: The Live 105 party would have been in '91 or '92. It was between the releases of Erasure's Wild! and Abba-Esque. [Laughs] All I really remember of the music was dancing wildly to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." When I look back, I'm like, "Damn, that was super lucky." My dad took my friend and me. I still have the program somewhere. I got Steve Masters' autograph, but I think I was too shy to try and get Andy's. There are some definite advantages to growing up in the Bay.

For other inspiration, it's an amalgam of all the goth night DJs of my formative years. I do remember DJ Nako, who I think was either at House of Usher or Roderick's Chamber, made an impact on me because she was the first female DJ that I saw.

Tone Madison: The legacy of dance music culture in the Bay is just mind blowing.

Elly Fine: I'm sure I didn't even experience half of it. Most of the time, I was focused narrowly on the goth scene.I went to a few raves, but it wasn't really my thing.

Tone Madison: Eh, that's fair. As much as I love and admittedly fetishize my own perceptions of '90s rave nostalgia, there are also many aspects of the culture that were pretty busted. I could see someone stepping in to a rave in 1995, looking at the fashion, the drug culture, and the cornier side of the music and yelling, "Fuck this!" And this comes from someone who loves a lot of music from that era and people from that scene.

Elly Fine: I wasn't into drugs, so that was probably part of it. Also, I think I just like a slower beat. l do really enjoy when I go to electronic music nights here in Madison. I just don't know what most of the music is. I've danced to some great sets and really enjoyed it. I can appreciate the skill that goes into that style of DJing, it's just different than mine.

Tone Madison: Yeah, being a techno artist or DJ who doesn't do drugs is a strange position.  

Elly Fine: Well, that's a whole other interesting topic—being clean and/or sober in any dance scene, especially as a DJ or promoter.

Tone Madison: I mean, how do you usually deal with it?

Elly Fine: For me, I just end up needing lots of water and lots of caffeine. Starting a set at 3 a.m. is hard for me. I mean, I'm very used to it. I never developed a drug or drinking habit. I like to stay sober when DJing and usually when dancing. I dance better sober. I don't mean to sound judgmental or puritan or something. It's just that I was lucky enough to come of age in a sober environment, so I can do it. I totally get how lots of people want to relax first.

Tone Madison: I feel what you're saying. I also feel really lucky in that I love the music and dancing and that I don't really have any relationship to drinking or club drugs.

Elly Fine: Yes. Most folks I know who are trying to quit or cut down—and there are more of them every year—have a hard time because the drinking and or drugs have been connected to the culture for them. They're at a loss for how to do it, and —this is important—they don't know where to go for support. And that's where I feel the Wisconsin drinking culture comes in. It was different on the West Coast. From what I can see, there's a lot more peer pressure here and drinking is just kind of a given. I've had people tell me stories of how they told their friends, "No, I'm not drinking tonight" or whatever. And then they would actually get pushback—like, "Oh, come on. Drink with us."  I think that must just make it harder. I know a few people now who have quit or cut way back but they don't have a lot of options for having a good time otherwise. I think it can be isolating.

Tone Madison: True. I feel that in other regions, someone might offer something to you once and then back off if you say no. But here, people really want to get you fucked up and sometimes will try to wear you down.

Elly Fine: Queer Pressure threw an event at the Majestic where they set up the upper bar area as a sober area. It was a nice thought and it was also just nice to have a quiet resting place to go sit and get away from the crowd. The only other thing I've seen like that here is that Macha recently had a DJ in the evening for a first-Friday walk and they emphasized that it was alcohol-free. Naturally, Macha isn't big enough to dance in, but I know that the gesture was appreciated by some folks—the idea of creating a music-oriented event where alcohol wasn't the focus.

Tone Madison: No shade to the bars we play, but it would be kind of cool to find a place where you could have a dry DJ night if you really wanted to.

Elly Fine: Every time I've thought about doing something like that, I get hung up on how I'd convince a venue to do it. I think another issue here is, where's the revenue? This seems like it could be a good topic for another discussion or article.

Tone Madison: Absolutely. Let's get into the music you've picked out. First, we've got "Motion" from Boy Harsher. I love this tune and really feel like they are taking moody EBM and synth-pop to a whole other level. How did you find this one and what draws you to it?

Elly Fine: I found this on Bandcamp. It's their newest release and I was already following them and anticipating it. Before that, I heard their name frequently amongst a slew of new bands, but I think it was Ben Archive who was constantly posting about them and drew me to finally check them out. I played it at EDGES and I think this kind of minimal coldwave is a big thing right now. Myself and a couple other DJs have played it a few times now and it's definitely getting people on the dance floor. It's dark and moody, but unlike some classic coldwave, it's a little more accessible to a wider audience. It's a little catchier and more melodic, but definitely still cold. That kind of spaced-out vocal, like she's half asleep or something, It's actually very ethereal-sounding to me. But then it's paired with these harsh, sharp beats. And I'm digging that smooth bassline. Lots of things to love here.

Tone Madison: There's something really hypnotic and gradual with how they pace their songs, too. It's enveloping.

Elly Fine: In case it wasn't super obvious, I really like the dark moody stuff, especially in regards to dancing. I love that feeling of being enveloped in a song. I'm pretty sure DJ Sage in San Francisco predicted that they'd be big like a year ago. I try to learn from his playlists.

Tone Madison: Is DJ Sage a radio or club DJ?

Elly Fine: Club, Death Guild mostly—every Monday. Imagine a goth club every Monday with two different floors—always packed. Goth has a special place in California, since some of the roots of goth and deathrock are in SoCal.

Tone Madison: Next up, you've selected this Trust tune, "Dressed For Space." What's your relationship with this one and how would you use this one in a set?

Elly Fine: This is basically my favorite Trust song. I love the flow of this song and I've used it many times. It mixes so well with lots of different music. I was a little late in finding bands like Trust and Cold Cave. This is partly because I had my head stuck in the '80s while I was doing my radio show and Music For The Masses and all that, and also because during those last few years of Club Inferno, there weren't really any nights I can remember that focused on the newer darkwave and synth-pop. There was more of the EBM and what I refer to as "stompy"—that's, uh, a technical term. I wasn't a DJ yet, so I wasn't particularly trying to keep my ear to the ground for new music. Then when I went back to Oakland and there were all these nights full of new darkwave and darkpop played alongside the classics. I loved it. I've always been all about the more melodic, synth-based stuff. Although, my time at Club Inferno brought me an appreciation of the harder, stomp-ier stuff. Sometimes that is so great for working out anger. I used to love jumping around and punching the air to "Exterminate, Annihilate, Destroy" by Rotersand. It was kind of my way of working out the ugly stuff that was going on in my life at the time.

I played "Dressed For Space" when I DJ'd the Wave Of The Future night at the Hanging Garden last year. I flew back for that. I'd like to think I'm this great jet-setting traveling DJ, but I actually can't afford to do that anymore. It would be so fun, though. When will they invent teleportation already? By the way, I did choose an EBM song to talk about too. What did you think of the Covenant's "Lightbringer"?

Tone Madison: I thought it was pretty catchy. There's definitely a very '90s feel, sonically. It sort of sits between a more aggressive '90s industrial band and Ultra-era Depeche Mode. I'd like to hear it within the context of an album. More importantly, what do you think of think of "Lightbringer"?

Elly Fine: Yes. Covenant definitely crossover between EBM and synth-pop. I don't play a lot of EBM because I'm trying to focus on all this other stuff, but Covenant has a special place in my heart. It's probably my favorite song by them, but not nearly as well known or commonly played as "Bullet" or "Stalker, which I think you're likely to hear at most Leather & Lace nights. I saw them live and was really impressed with Eskil Simonsson's artistry and humility. I know that sounds cheesy, but I don't even care. [Laughs] Lightbringer to me illustrates how well they balance that kind of harsher, stompy aesthetic with a beautiful, haunting one. This is slower, so I would probably put it on earlier in the night.

Tone Madison: OK, this brings us to Blondie's disco-punk classic, "Atomic." I have a hard time separating this tune from Trainspotting. How do you usually use this one?

Elly Fine: "Atomic" is kind of my own personal jam. I'll play it at any night where it fits. This song is so solid—right on the cusp of disco and new wave. They took the fear around the Cold War and everything else going on in 1980 and turned it into a kind of "seize the moment" love song. It's totally brilliant. The melody just carries you up into this total "Yes, I have to do all the things now—embrace life and throw my arms around the world or the nearest person" headspace. I've always felt like it was a good New Year's Eve track. "The year is ending, the world is ending, let's make out." [Laughs]

Tone Madison: The way this song kind of twists and turns makes it feel like the room is spinning. That bassline just kind of keeps unraveling. Finally, the last track you picked was the Freemasons remix of Eurythmics' "Here Comes The Rain Again." This is kind of a beefed-up, tech-house banger version. How do you use this one?

Elly Fine: The challenge of Music For The Masses or other retro nights is keeping things fresh while still pushing the crowd's nostalgia buttons. DJ Siberia, who's my resident for all Music For The Masses nights, is really good at this and she has found a lot of great covers and remixes of classic tracks. To me, remixes are good if they're true enough to the original that people get the same warm fuzzies from hearing them, but it's still a little different and sometimes a little more danceable. Also, you can beatmatch the damned things. This one definitely passes my remix test. I love going straight to that 45-second mark and just teasing in that familiar violin pluck riff into whatever is currently playing. That riff is unmistakable and this is an '80s tune that stands the test of time. It always fills the floor.

Tone Madison: I think the biggest adjustment they made to this track is that slamming kick drum.

Elly Fine: It hits the right moody, hopeful, wistful, and dramatic buttons. I love the original more, but this is a really good choice for mixing things up.