PENNYWILD | ‘NIGHT PEOPLE’ and the Return of the Rave

One of the biggest solaces for many people coming out of the pandemic is the return to gigs, raves and the chaotic, messy, and fun nights out. Whether it is drinking with your friends before ordering a taxi, piling into the back of the car and asking that the driver turns up the volume of your favourite song, to sitting on the curb outside a greasy fast-food place with your head on your best friends’ shoulder; the return of a nightlife has brought a sense of renewed closeness to our chosen family and friends. 

The story of a night out with your nearest and ‘beeriest’ is the subject of PENNYWILD’s new EP. A Queer, NY-bred and LA-based choreographer, producer, DJ, and dancer, PENNYWILD is a creative polymath. She has done everything from directing music videos for Zedd, performing on Broadway and DJed at festivals like Coachella, SXSW and Splash House.

Her new EP, NIGHT PEOPLE, is her love letter to underground that celebrates drag, rave, ball, and club culture. She has also released an interactive Zine that showcases stills and interactive/mixed media captured throughout one week of galivanting across Los Angeles nightspots, returning to the scene once left behind pre-Covid. 

We sat down with PENNYWILD to discuss the glory days of LA nightlife that inspired the new EP, being a multi-medium artist, her range of musical inspirations, her love of drag and queer culture and, most importantly, her favourite after-hours fast-food. 

First of all, we have to talk about your new EP ‘NIGHT PEOPLE’. I’ve been listening to it over and over for the last couple of days and its really made me want to go out and dance. What was the inspiration behind the EP?

Well as you can imagine we were in the thick of the pandemic and I knew that I wanted to use my time wisely and create new music. I feel like I always get caught up with touring and live performances to the extent I don’t prioritise studio time.

When I was brainstorming in the studio, I really wanted to create a cohesive anthology piece that didn’t have super specific characters or environments, but that would create musical vignettes. One of the most accessible ways to do this was on experience, so I centered it on my real friends. We never called ourselves the NIGHT PEOPLE, that was something I came up with later, but we were a real squad that would travel from event to event. 

Here in Los Angeles, we are so fortunate to have so much music around us. We always look back on the glory days of 2016-17 when we were going out every night of the week. So, I wanted to build an homage to that time in my life and those people. What was cool about this was that I got to sample conversations from the people I was drawing my inspiration from. I got onto zoom and did a bunch of role-playing conversations with my friends to really simulate the chaos and ecstasy of a night on the town. 

This was always something I’ve wanted to touch on, but the pandemic highlighted how much I wanted to simulate that experience. I was so desperate to have something remind me of those times as well as that I have a pulse and am a social being.

In addition to the EP you’ve also created an accompanying zine. How did that come about and what was the impetus in creating it? 

We are releasing the NIGHT PEOPLE zine in print, and it will be a 35-page mini magazine filled with multi-media images, prompts, quotations and stills. So it’s not a video component but more of a visual piece. We wanted a kind of rag-tag object that you could hold in your hands that symbolised the essence of the night people universe. It’s such an exciting project and the zine will be released in the next coming weeks. 

As an artist you have a whole host of skills besides producing your own music and DJing. You have directed music videos for Zedd as well as working on Broadway tours. How do all these artistic talents transfer into your artistry and into the creation of your music? 

You know I feel like all these things that you have listed are kind of the amalgamation of what I am doing now. I always knew that I wanted to have my own identity as an artist. That is a product of growing up as a dancer and a swing where I had to learn all the singing and dancing tracks and understudying everyone else’s role. It’s a very specific sensation and I knew that I had so much more to say with my art. That can become complex as you’re almost trying to prove people wrong. But now I’m in a place where I can dip my feet into these different facets of my artistry and not have to prove anything anymore. I’ve done enough of each facet where I can decide where the inspiration is leading me and have the skills to back it up. I would call my Music Producer and DJ projects the centre pieces of my artistry and then it has extensions out to music video direction, music theatre performance, music theatre direction, visual artistry and whatever it might be. I like it this way, and I wouldn’t be satisfied if I only did one thing. I’m a Libra so it just doesn’t work that way! 

In line with your multifaceted skills in the music and theatre industry, were your music inspirations equally as varied? 

It’s funny, growing up musical theatre had such a huge imprint and impact on my musical ear. At this time Wicked, Rent, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot and Next to Normal were very popular. You probably don’t hear this from other artists but one of my biggest musical inspirations is Stephen Sondheim. 

As far as popular music, I was really inspired by Kanye West as a child. I remember that my sister had a lot of early Kanye in her iTunes library and I used to burn a bunch of her stuff onto a CD and put it on mine. I loved Kanye from an early age, and I really connected to his production. I remember hearing an early Kanye track called ‘Addiction’ on Late Registration. That was so influential to me. I remember listening to the intro and outro so that I could hear it without lyrics so I could focus on the production. 

Once I started to develop my own musical palette, I immediately became infatuated with Grimes. All I would listen to was Sky Ferrera, Grimes, Little Dragon, Pheonix and The Strokes. And then I moved onto some deeper cut electronic artists like Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones as well as becoming really obsessed with SOPHIE and Lito. 

With this EP there is a real sense of home concerning both your time in LA and New York. How do you think the LA and New York nightlife scenes are personified in your music? 

As I split my time between LA and New York, a lot of my nightlife memories are also split between the two cities. With the EP, I tried to create a crossbreed of both environments. For example, there is a track called ‘FAST FOOD INTERLUDE which is where we are snacking before the afterparty. This is based on three different fast-food places that we go to. One of them is Taco Bell, which is an LA staple. One is McDonalds, which is also, among other cities, an LA thing. But the last one is Artichoke; a very popular pizza stand which is only in New York.

In terms of the personification of home in my music, it’s all over the EP. The fifth track ‘SWEATBOX is completely inspired by one singular LA after-hours spot called Agatha. It didn’t have a name, but the address was 800 Agatha downtown in the arts district. It was a big warehouse space that only opened after 1:00am. Everybody has seen everyone there, with incredible artists such as Pomo, Kaytranada, Ghastly, Anderson .Paak, Rezz, Alison Wonderland all performing in this one place. What makes it special is the combination of musical talent whilst simultaneously being a big stuffy warehouse. They don’t have an alcohol licence, its all under the table and it’s gotten busted so many times. The uniqueness and freedom of this venue is so special to our community that some of my friends have its name tattooed on their body. It’s what I imagine The Haçienda was to people in that era. 

What are your favourite spots to DJ around LA and New York? 

There’s two in LA that come to mind first. I have a residency at Winston House where I had my EP release. I DJ there once a week (usually Saturday) and whenever I’m there I look around and take in how lucky I am to DJ there. It’s my dream venue. It has the capacity for 500 with an A1 sound system whilst serving fabulous food and cocktails. The last time I was DJing there I played a Nile Rogers and SG Lewis song and I saw SG Lewis run up to me saying “this is my song mate”. It’s a real industry staple, kind of like a Soho House vibe where every time I’m there I meet legendary people in the green room. From Diplo to Fifth Harmony; everyone is always hanging around there. In the same vein, there’s a venue in my neighbourhood in LA called The Friend. Similar vibe but a lot smaller. It’s decorated in this 1920s/30s flapper style with video games and cocktails.

In the song ‘DOLLARS, DOLLS, DRUGS’, it starts with a monologue about the rigour of being a working Drag performer as well as the power of transformation. What influences do you take from drag artistry in terms of both your music and personal power? 

I think that having a community of people around me that are immersed in that scene has opened my eyes to the power of transformation and putting on a show. So I’ve really had no choice but to become a fan and to integrate myself into this community as it’s that contagious and empowering. Being a member of the queer community, whilst recognising that I am not a working drag artist myself, I do feel a connection to that culture as I love dressing up and being the most heightened version of myself. If I put on a glam look, wearing my nicest heels and getting my makeup just right; I feel like the most empowered version of myself.

Last question. As previously mentioned, your song ‘FAST FOOD INTERLUDE’ includes various fast-food orders that you and your friend’s order after a night out. What is your go-to fast food order? 

This is the easiest question ever. It’s Taco Bell. I go for two spicy potato tacos but (and this is important) I sub-out whatever sauce they typically give for their creamy jalapeno. Then I’m getting a Crunchwrap Supreme, Baja Blast to drink and finish it off with some cinnamon twists. So good! 

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Stream ‘Night People’ on Spotify

Words: Will Paxton