Fly Life



Centro-Fly owners Dave Baxley and Tom Sisk
run a tight yet fabulous ship.

By Kerri Mason & Elisabeth Gibbons

Baxley (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.

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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?

crazy room

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?

tapioca room

Tom: I think we were trying to make compromises, straddle two worlds, and bring everybody together.

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 really.

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. That’s it.

photo credits: Ralhav Segev

Copyright 2002 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2002 TESTA Communications