owners Dave Baxley and Tom Sisk
run a tight yet fabulous ship.
Mason & Elisabeth
(left) and Sisk.
We sidled into Centro-Fly’s super-fab
Tapioca Room just as the mayor’s task force was making its
exit, after a routinely stringent inspection for violations
of New York City’s many codes. The club passed and then some,
dynamic owner Tom Sisk told us as he reached for a Marlboro
Red. It always does. Even when you get past Centro-Fly’s style
– interior designer Sally Bennett’s vintage yet modern decor,
the detachment and exclusivity of the VIP areas, the oddly
fashionable orange jumpsuits worn by the security and maintenance
staffs – its substance is its real heart. Sisk and partner
David Baxley aren’t your typical New York club owners: shady
guys who won’t take your calls, have managers who do all their
work, and end up exiled somewhere in Canada. They’re logically
obsessed with being upright, and maintain relationships with
their community boards, fire departments, and police precincts.
And apparently even the mayor’s office approves of the way
they run their business.
On top of that, the two have a real love for each element
of club culture – the music, the fashion, and yes, the indulgence.
For years Centro-Fly hosted Erick Morillo’s Subliminal Sessions,
a Thursday night jungle of a party that was as sexy as it
was music-based. (The party recently changed locations and
is now on hiatus.) The flow and art of Bennett’s design made
the club a backdrop for countless commercials, music videos,
and over 1,400 pages worth of fashion shoots. “You couldn’t
open up a professional magazine for two years without seeing
Centro-Fly,” Sisk says proudly. Sisk and Baxley were also
responsible for what will go down as one of New York’s most
overwhelming nightclub events ever – a benefit for the NYPD
and FDNY at Centro-Fly on September 23, 2001, when the city
was still in the throes of shock and mourning. Every major
New York DJ made an appearance – from Danny Tenaglia to “Little”
Louie Vega to David Morales – and the night raised over $75,000.
We sat down with Sisk and Baxley and didn’t even hit half
of our questions. But that’s because their answers to what
we did ask were just so good.
How did you come up with the name Centro-Fly? And where
did you come up with that name?
David: Centro-Fly was this department
store from the ’60s in Milan, Italy that had all this art
stuff, and it actually looked very similar to some of the
patterns in the club. And I just thought it was funny, because
it seemed like a name the Italians were trying to take what
was kind of a goofy Americanism and name a department store
after it. I mean think about it, “Centro-Fly” – it seemed
so funny to me. We basically just put all these names together
and voted on them.
When you started out, did you ever feel like Centro Fly
was expected to fill the Twilo gap? David: Twilo closed
pretty soon after we opened, and we weren’t really trying
to step into their shoes. We were just trying to get some
of their DJs to play here. Tom: We couldn’t really fill that
role and weren’t trying to, and frankly we can’t have a sound
system like that because of our neighbors. It’s just impossible.
Even if we made ourselves a concrete igloo of a building,
we still couldn’t do it ‘cause it shakes the whole street.
So what was the goal?
Tom: I think we were trying to
make compromises, straddle two worlds, and bring everybody
That was our goal, so the frustrating
part was when our efforts were derided by the early issues
with the sound system on the one hand, and then there’s the
messageboard community. We actually pay attention to messageboards,
because we want to pay attention to the underground, as unsuccessful
financially as that might be as far as a business plan goes.
But we understand that you want to give birth to a sound and
a lifestyle as well.
Do you think the club became known for what Subliminal
was, rather than what it was on its own? David: You have
to realize that at the time we started and we opened this
club Twilo was still doing their progressive sound, so we
couldn’t compete with them on that. We’ve had techno nights
here that I know people have enjoyed, but the techno crowd
doesn’t feel as comfortable or as good about this place as
they do about a place like Limelight. And so what genres of
music are left? I mean house sort of involves a lot of different
types of dance music, but if techno wasn’t going to be our
identity and progressive wasn’t, then by default…even though
that’s not a very positive spin on it. Tom: Also, at the time
clubs were being shut down or being threatened, and it also
seemed like certain types of music went hand in hand with
if not drug use, but creating the atmosphere that would draw
the authorities to you. David: Is house of the safer variety
of dance music? It seems like it is. And all these things
did sort of go into our consideration. Not into our consideration
to let Erick [Morillo] do Thursdays. He showed up. I asked
a few of people about him, and they all said he was great,
so we just said why not? But in general, when we were talking
about the music program here, about what direction it should
go in, I think we wanted more variety in the beginning. However,
like I said, there are other things that are beyond our control.
Tom: Erick was like our ambassador overseas, and that was
great. We give him a lot of credit for that. But it seems
that if our identity was so bound up with Erick we would have
seen some problems or changes after he left, and we haven’t
Were you affected by the dot-com crash? David: It affected
us because we did so many parties and there was so much money
really thrown at us. It was a fantasy world. We were averaging
three launches a month. Tom: And a lot of times they would
come to us and say, “OK, we have an almost unlimited talent
budget for DJs, so who do you want?” They were ahead of the
learning curve in regards to exactly what we were doing, because
these people had nothing to do besides pay attention to the
music culture and everyone wanted to be in entertainment because
it’s so sexy. There were so many dot-coms, but not one of
them ever thought about involving Wall Street or investment
bankers or anything to make sure they were going to stay around.
They weren’t looking at Crain’s for publicity or anything;
it was all like, “I’m going to have a big sick blowout for
all my friends.”
What happened to the clubs in New York after 9/11?
Tom: We had a great line-up that week. We had Richie Hawtin,
Derrick Carter, Armand Van Helden… David: The club was precarious
enough before 9/11. None of us felt great; we felt like things
were doing OK. Twilo had closed; I think Limelight was still
open. We thought the dot-com crash was leveling out. We thought
things financially were a little bit more stable. And then
that hit. Everything from 23rd Street had been closed, the
Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the bridges, everything
was just… Tom: And socially what we were watching was that
everyone was going uptown. If you went out uptown, every single
bar, every single café was rammed, crazy busy. Kids that had
no chance of ever having a sexual encounter were all getting
laid uptown. David: September 11th hit us close because we
lost an officer from the 13th Precinct who was someone that
we’d had a working relationship with, and we knew this woman
that also died who left behind a daughter. And then we rallied
up: We knew we weren’t going to be open, so we had the kitchen
staff in here cooking hot meals that we were delivering to
Ground Zero. We sent over hundreds of cases of our water;
we were bagging up ice, doing whatever we could. Tom: Every
afternoon we would prepare all the stuff and get it off, while
we were thinking about all of our friends who we worked with
who were directly affected by this. But we had a lot of customers
that we’ll never see again, we had ex-employees that are no
longer with us. We had a lot of memorials. I think it still
affects us, when we hit a clicker at the door, 911 people
on a given night, it’s still weird. David: But it’s not just
that. It just seems like the whole economic problem that affected
us and 9/11 go hand in hand. But it seems to have stretched
out so there is this general malaise, and its hard to say
where it began or what’s underpinning it. If you don’t feel
like you’re job’s secure, or you lost your job or are going
to lose your job, those are other reasons not to want to party.
And it’s at this point when people ask me what’s wrong with
New York, it’s hard for me to say. There are so many factors.
Tom: E. All of the above.
How did the fundraiser for 9/11 come together? David:
First we spoke to Louie Vega about doing a little fundraiser
directly for the police and fireman, something to set up and
go directly to the widows and orphans fund for the fire department
and the police department. We were blessed enough that every
single New York-based DJ that was not trapped over in Spain
volunteered their services. Tom: It was great fun. And everyone
just kind of forgot, and at the same time was unified. It
was wonderful. David: The real problem that came out of that
was at what point are you going to stop feeling guilty, if
you do feel guilty, about having a good time? That was the
whole conflicting, unconscious problem. And what should be
our position in terms of encouraging people to have fun, what
should be the mood? It was uncharted territory.
What works consistently here? What’s the reliable thing:
music style, DJ, type of night? David: Whatever makes
women happy. Tom: David’s got two baby daughters. David: I
don’t know. That’s the exhausting part of this business, you
can’t ever put your finger on it. Even musically it seems
very difficult to establish a kind of consistency. You have
to hand it to Danny Tenaglia for doing it so long. Tom: When
we first started this, even though we wanted to have world
class DJs, we really didn’t want to further that myth of the
DJ. There is a destructive element to elevating the DJ to
that level. We both wish that things could go back to the
way they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s what we always
hoped that would happen, to be honest. We want to be in the
business to provide a place for people to have fun dancing.
photo credits: Ralhav Segev