Last of The Manhattan Mod Girls: An Interview with DJ Bailey Leiter

Last of The Manhattan Mod Girls: An Interview with DJ Bailey Leiter

When, in a 2012 interview with Télérama, Françoise Hardy reflected, "It was the heyday of Salut les copains, and the press played an extremely important role, it could promote beginners. In fact, in the 1960s, we saw the advent of the mass media”, she might as well have been looking on at the fast-encroaching and virulent dawn of social media. For better and worse, there's no denying that it has shaped an era and, with it, the very nature of music culture but in in light of some self-evident shortcomings, the unlikely intersection of Instagram and lower Manhattan lends itself to a nouveau yé-yé of buzzy garage groups and Brooklynite Jane Birkins with feet irrefutably planted in the streaming age and souls clinging to old school sensibility on the cusp of a new decade. Among them is Bailey Leiter and when we heard that the Williamsburg-based DJ would be co-headlining New Year's Eve at The Roxy alongside David Johansen and a milieu of guests hosts including Morrison Hotel Gallery and other personalities like Mick Rock and Jimmy Webb, our very own Daniel Walters made a point of sitting down with her after a recent gig at SoHo Grand to get Bailey's spin on a half-century of music history, new year's resolutions, the current state of NYC nightlife and a handful of the songs she'll be playing this New Year's Eve.

(Photo by Lindi Gordon c/o Bailey Leiter)

After a brief Instagram exchange, Bailey Leiter invited me to Boogaloo, a monthly party she hosts in the Club Room at SoHo Grand; "It starts at 10:30 but really gets going around midnight or so. " A sign of the times, I was instantly able to pick her blunt bangs and mod accoutrements out of the crowd despite this being our first official encounter. Indeed, Manhattan is an island in more ways than one made even smaller with the advent of new media but I was nonetheless surprised by just how many familiars I ran into as I made my way across the crowded lounge to the adjacent DJ booth but I digress.

After quick introductions, a couple gin & tonics and lots of dancing to a buoyant set comprised of prog rock's usual suspects juxtaposed by the likes of France Gall and Jacques Dutronc, it became immediately clear that I'd be remiss to relegate Bailey Leiter's retro savoir faire to clichés of being "born into the wrong era" as there is something assuredly contemporary about the vinyl-spinning ace face's 21st century sublimation...

For starters, thanks for speaking with me—and for inviting me to Boogaloo! Would you tell me a little bit about the party and how it came to pass?
Thanks so much for coming! I think it’s a special party! I used to host and attend parties at Soho Grand in the Club Room for years - favorite nights have been Jonathan Toubin’s and the Rebel Rouser boys’. I’ve been one of their resident brunch djs for a while and finally have a monthly party of my own! I tried to create something cool and different, but not elite. A place where everyone feels welcome but also feel that they’ve somehow discovered a special secret even though it’s not. Newcomers always tell me that when they arrived, they felt as if they’ve stepped into a time warp or some kind of costume party because a lot of my closest friends are children of the past (like me) and it’s a good excuse to get dressed up! The icing on the cake to my all vinyl 45s 60’s & 70’s repertoire!

I definitely want to circle back to that community element you touched on but first, who are your key musical influences?
Definitely first and foremost lots of 60s French Yé-yé... (Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc, etc) You will never not hear a handful of up tempo French pop at my sets. Also forever influenced by the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Love, Tommy James and the Shondells (Crimson & Clover record), Lee Hazlewood, Ultimate Spinach, Irma Thomas and July. I’m also really into post punk.... Bush Tetras, Pylon, etc. I play bass in a post punk band called Dark Tunnels.

A great roster which also reads like an index of your own aesthetic, I suspect not by happenstance. In keeping with the NYE theme of all things "grit and glam", care to add anything about the manifestation of your personal style? Fantastic, by the way.
So sweet! Thank you! I am one of NYC’s very few “mod" girls, however, I don’t like to be pigeonholed to that. In the past, Mods were mostly purists. I’m not into that. You miss out on things that way. However, I’ve always been incredibly influenced by the 1960’s. My mom was a Beatle maniac and my dad loved the Stones. My mom used to have her best friend straighten her hair with an actual iron when she was in high school. All of my life she’s loved to talk to me about the 60’s. I knew about Mary Quant clothing before I was even in high school. The 60’s was a very rebellious time for fashion. I’m drawn to that. My fashion motto is “prim- but sexy.” Knee high boots. High necklines. Short hemlines. The more colorful, the better. Bonus if it’s a bit kitsch. I like wearing things that make people (and me) smile. 99% of what I wear is true vintage. I live for the hunt.

Totally. Naturally, living in New York City lends itself to a rich music culture and that "time warp" factor you mention—especially for those willing to seek it out—but there's something special about how our backstories stay with us no matter how long or far we venture from home. Where is home for you?
No doubt! I’m actually very excited for this question because I have so much love for my hometown and the music scene of St Petersburg, Florida. In Florida, we had an insane hardcore and indie scene. I feel lucky for that. I was very involved in both. I started going to shows when I was 12 with older friends from church. I had to tell my mom they were “Christian” bands for her to allow me to go. Throughout elementary and middle school, I went to private school. I was an outcast and bullied pretty badly just because I was awful at sports and my parents weren’t multi millionaires. When I was introduced and immersed into this underground music scene  - it changed my life. We were all outcasts of sorts. It was the first time I had ever felt accepted. I had a tribe. I think a lot of us in NYC have a story similar to this.

Absolutely. And if I'm not mistaken, you're coming up on your ten year anniversary of living in New York, yes? As a bona fide New Yorker, event host and multidisciplinary musician, what is your take on the current temperature of music culture in the city? Specifically, I'd like to think that there is a downtown community of young creatives that is really flourishing. As a "child of the past", do you recognize any distinctions between the present scene and previous incarnations?
It’s changed a lot in just ten years! I’m definitely seeing way more female musicians and djs now than ever before and I’m excited about that! It’s so important for women to support women. I for one, will always be super grateful to Alix Brown for the incredible amount of support she’s shown me on my DJ journey.

It’s not news that most young musicians, djs and artists are living in Brooklyn. More and more venues are opening deeper and deeper out. It’s bittersweet. I lived in the East Village for most of my time in New York.  I noticed the neighborhood suffering a drought for anything new and exciting rock n roll-wise which is an obvious shame because that neighborhood has so much rock n roll history. In an effort to remedy the situation, my good friend Hayley Griffin and I started throwing a monthly party called Je T’aime Oh No at Berlin on Avenue A.... always falling on a Monday night. We curated the entire night. We booked the bands. Hayley hosted and sometimes go go danced. I DJ’d the dance party following the show. We texted everyone we knew and coordinated our outfits. It started pretty small, but eventually word got out and people were making the trek from Brooklyn. We packed the house more times than not... again, always on a Monday. We sold out when Daddy Long Legs played. It was wild. Someone lost a tooth at that party. Our friends in the Advertisers played one of their first shows there. It was a ripper. Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group/Nuggets curator - long time East Village resident) took notice and approached me one night at Black & White to thank me for “everything we were doing for the East Village music scene.” He guest DJ’d with me for our one year anniversary party. You can imagine how monumental that was for me.
Hayley and I decided to put a pause on that party for a while, but plan on doing a reunion very soon! Stay tuned for that!

I still curate summertime dance parties with bands on called NY Drip. I threw a super fun one over at The Sultan Room with the Gnarcissists, Cumgirl8 and Mala Vista.

There are a handful of people who are out there crusading to keep the music scene alive and fresh and doing a bang up job. Jonathan Toubin being the first one that comes to mind. A mentor and dear friend. He’s the pied piper of the East Brooklyn rock n roll scene. I used to joke with him and say, “you’re the only one I’ll go to Bushwick for.” Now he’s about to open a club in Ridgewood... Queens! Insane!

Any favorite spots?
I love catching shows at Union Pool. It’s been around forever. The back room is cool and you almost always run into a bunch of friends even if you weren’t planning on it.

Joyface! It’s on Avenue C in the East Village It’s where I dj every Wednesday. They just celebrated their one year anniversary. If you haven’t checked it out, you definitely need to! It looks like a glamorous 1970’s basement complete with water bed. The owners Jen and Brian are beyond wonderful and have made sure to keep this place real. It’s an extremely instagram-able spot, but no bullshit “influencer” attitudes allowed. The music is always vintage focused. On Wednesdays I play everything from disco to soul to post punk to obscure Afro rock. Whatever I’m feeling inspired by at that moment.

Love Union Pool. A total institution. Speaking of Brooklyn, I also saw that you'll also be doing a late-night set over at TV Eye on NYE.
Yes! TV Eye is Jonathan’s new spot in Ridgewood. He’s opening it with my bud and fellow DJ Todd-O-Phonic, Jasper McGandy, Caleb Braaten (of Sacred Bones) and some people from Bowery Ballroom. It’s been a long time coming and NYE is the grand opening. I’m so excited for them! I’ll be DJing at 2:30. Prime time! Can’t wait to work with them more in the future! That’s gonna be the new place - I promise you!

We’ll hold you to that promise! So, back to you: how long have you been djing and what turned you on to it?
Believe it or not, I’ve actually only been djing a little over a year and a half. I had just been fired from my door girl position at Berlin because I called out sick on Saturday night. A month later I was at a show there and I made the manager feel bad about firing me and he asked me if I knew how to DJ. I lied and told him I did, and he offered me a Monday... the worst night of the week.  Hayley was the bartender on Mondays and she goes, “Dude, let’s just blow this shit up.” And thus, our party Je T’aime Oh No was born. I started on a laptop like most people, but I was playing mostly rare 60s tunes that I ripped from YouTube (sorry everyone!). The party gained momentum really quickly, but then 6 months into my dj journey, someone stole my laptop one night at a gig. I was devastated. Jonathan called me up to console me and told me to see it as “a sign from the good Lord above that it’s time to start DJing records.” He also said, “I know it can feel like you’re facing a mountain, but don’t be afraid of the mountain.” I listened.
I ended up getting my laptop back after viewing the surveillance footage. I confronted the individual and she denied taking it,  but somehow it surfaced from her boyfriend via text message less than 5 minutes after I told her I was calling the cops. In retrospect, I’m actually super grateful for her stealing it because it ended up making me a better, more committed DJ.

As you've said, Boogaloo is all-vinyl. Do you spin vinyl exclusively?
I am all vinyl 45’s now except at Joyface. I’m still building my collection which doesn’t happen overnight. (Records are expensive!)  Plus, I like my creative/eclectic nights at Joyface. It also shows people that there’s more to me than just being “that 60’s girl.”

That said, I definitely prefer DJing vinyl. Again, I love the hunt. I love record digging for hours on my days off. I love being able to *feel* what I’m doing. I practice mixing all the time and it excites me when I do something cool with it. I really care about being good at what I do and I think (and hope) it shows!  I’ve definitely gotten better gigs since DJing vinyl, but I also hustle and work really hard. Some weeks I don’t take a whole day off if I’m offered an interesting gig. Most of my gigs now have been better paid too. It’s easier to ask for more money as a vinyl DJ simply because it’s an expensive thing to do! I invest all of my money back into my work. I’ve cut out unnecessary things like getting my nails done because that’s money I could spend on records. I want to keep things fresh for everyone coming to my parties and gigs and that costs pretty major money.

So what does drafting a set look like for you? What is your curatorial process?
For digital curation, I go through my box of records I’ve been into spinning lately and see if it’s on Spotify. A lot of it isn’t. But I do like to take advantage of being digital and add some rare gems I might never find on vinyl or have the money for. 

I have a feeling we could both go on for days about the legends we've grown up on but are there any contemporaries or up-and-comers you're really into?
I just discovered Charlie Megira this year! Love at first listen. I have no idea how he slipped under my radar for so long! Unfortunately, he died a few years ago.
I also really love the Limiñanas, The Soft Moon,Jacco Gardner, Moon Duo, and Jessica Pratt.
Does Broadcast still count as contemporary? Unfortunately, their singer Trish Keenan, also died. Man, I really love that band.

Biggest takeaways from the 2010s?
To not worry about things that are out of my control. (A daily struggle.)
To not sweat it if everyone doesn’t like me. (Maybe this falls under the control thing.)
Invest in your friendships. Say hi when you’re thinking about them. Be a rock when they need you to be. Don’t be too proud to lean on them if you need to. Support their art/work however possible.

All very important lessons. Any resolutions for 2020?
Start a new psych band - where I sing!
Set aside time for daily meditation.
European DJ tour!

Any other upcoming gigs you want to plug?
Next Boogaloo party is January 23rd at SoHo Grand!
I also just started a new Friday night residency at the newly opened Canal Street Oysters which made it onto Condé Nast Traveler’s “Most Beautiful Restaurants In the World” list for 2019! Come check it out! I’m there every Friday from 8 pm - 12 am!

Care to play us out with us a sample of what you're thinking for your NYE set?