Jesse Sandvik, DJ and booker at the California ClipperMicco Caporaleon December 8, 2022 at 7:42 pm

Among the local venues to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic in its first terrible year was beloved Bucktown dance spot Danny’s Tavern. The bar had been home to several popular DJ nights, including Night Moves, a cosmic disco monthly that ended its 12-year run (after a few lineup changes) hosted by Ross Kelly and Jesse Sandvik, aka Jesse Sandwich. Sandvik, a 42-year-old DJ and producer, also runs boutique dance label Areaman, and since the demise of Danny’s he’s begun booking DJs at the California Clipper, a jewel in Humboldt Park’s crown that’s also known for its eclectic, Americana-inflected live music and variety shows. The Clipper was almost lost to the pandemic too, but it reopened in February 2022 under new management and has quickly become one of the city’s most reliable nightlife spots. Sandvik is responsible for the club’s diverse and exciting lineups of innovative DJs—and the return of Night Moves in January 2023.

As told to Micco Caporale

I’m originally from Ithaca, New York. I moved to Chicago about 18 years ago. I had visited several times driving cross-country, and the music, art, and culture here just sunk its claws into me. I had spent a lot of time in New York, in and around Brooklyn, but the energy here felt a lot more my speed. 

The records I grew up listening to had a really lasting impact on me. Dizzy on the French Riviera, the Jazz Messengers, John Coltrane . . . I can remember my father playing Booker T.’s “Green Onions” really early on a weekend when all I wanted to do was sleep, and now that’s some of my favorite music. I grew up in the MTV era, and hearing those records—maybe doing some work downstairs or cleaning—that was my first experience of vinyl as a doorway into unknown worlds. 

In my teens, I was into punk and hip-hop, so those records got me interested in how that instrumental music gets made. I had a notebook for tracking samples of things I wanted. You know, side A, first track: drums. Side B, track three: bass. Stuff like that. I went through all my dad’s records and did this. Even though I didn’t have a sampler, I’d assembled a pretty large binder of all this sample material. When I was 19, I dropped out of college and moved in with some friends, one of whom was a producer, and I finally got to record all those samples and start making my own music. And then I got to travel and see what was out there, because of that music.

When I moved here at 24, I’d only been to Chicago three times, and every time left me wanting to see and hear more. I’d just get blown away every time I visited, whether it was seeing Jeff Parker or hitting Danny’s. There’s always so much happening here, and it felt like a warm, inviting environment full of opportunity.

New York struck me as expensive. In Chicago, it seemed like there was more intention behind things, because it’s more affordable. People have more space and time to cultivate what they’re doing, instead of being stuck in the rush and hustle of New York.

I was doing a lot of construction work when I moved here. I was actually interested in object and furniture design and party installations, so I started throwing parties. We were doing loft parties, creating these now-called “immersive” environments: a zombie disco on Pluto or the wreckage of a sunken cruise ship. One time we built a DJ booth in a mouth. Those parties let me incorporate art and music together, and I got to work with a lot of talented artists in Chicago.

I got interested in DJing mainly through Kevin Stacy at Danny’s. He asked me to come in and open up DJing on a Saturday night. I had never DJed before. I was like, “No way, I don’t know how to do that. I just listen to records.” We’d talked a lot about music before, so he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll show you what to do.” Once I experienced filling up a quiet room on a Saturday night with people and music, I was hooked, and Danny’s let me cut my DJ teeth.

That first night, I remember being really nervous and super focused on bringing the right records. I’d already spent a few years just going to Danny’s and enjoying the music, but I never expected to DJ there. Still, in my head, I already kind of knew what I’d play if I did: 60s and 70s instrumentals and loungy jazz music, Burt Bacharach, surf rock. Things along the lines of Booker T. & the M.G.’s! But more campy, maybe. There are these records called Persuasive Percussion—like, really produced studio albums that were built for people to listen to on their hi-fis at home. I played some of that stuff because it has a big rush of sound to it, and I felt like it fit in the space really well, especially in the more relaxed earlier hours of Saturday or Sunday at Danny’s. 

The March 2021 debut release from Jesse Sandvik’s Areaman label, by Jeremiah Meece of The-Drum and Clique Talk

For a few years, I kept playing this atmospheric stuff at Danny’s. I don’t think I had the confidence to, say, captain the ship of a really busy dance floor. So I was able to kind of find my sound and build my confidence and practice mixing songs. 

I heard a lot of DJs there. Some of my favorites were the Night Moves crew, which was Brandon [Walsh], Yolanda [Carmina Alvarez], and Ross [Kelly]. A year or two after hearing them, they asked me to do a guest night. I was thrilled. Eventually, that lineup changed to just Brandon and Ross, and then Brandon moved. In 2015, Ross invited me to be an official Night Moves DJ, and we did that together for about five years until Danny’s closed.

Night Moves really focused on Italo disco, cosmic disco, Balearic disco. . . . Balearic disco is a late-80s genre of music from Ibiza—kind of a chill house style, sort of postdisco bossa nova, more downtempo. Music you listen to watching sunrises on the beach. It’s really pretty and ethereal. We’d play some of that stuff earlier in the night, then build towards that Italo sound or things like Sylvester’s “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight.” By the late evening, we’d progress to all things disco, but really focusing on Italo boogie, boogie funk, house, acid house, even some of the old WBMX classics you’d hear on Chicago radio, like Mr. Master.

As a DJ, I think having access to a lot of inspiration and mentors in Chicago gave me an example of finding my own voice or style. That’s very important to me. Being eclectic and dynamic is enjoyable to me. People like Mark Grusane, Nosha Luv, Darren Jones, Jeff White, and Brandon and Ross from Night Moves . . . there are so many DJs, it’s hard to mention, but those in particular really gave me a sense of listening differently and playing differently, even when it comes to approaching another DJ. 

Like, maybe someone is playing something that I’m really into, and I ask them about it. Instead of telling me the exact track, they might tell me what label it’s on or who the artist is. That creates a path where I can find all this other music by these other artists until I arrive at my own song that speaks to me within the realm of that track.

That’s a big point of contention these days, especially with vinyl collectors and vinyl DJs. I’m not sure people understand that. There are some people making a career for themselves by finding records that nobody else has taken the time, patience, or dedication to find. It gives them an element of mystique. There’s so much recorded music that exists on tape—even unreleased music or vinyl that’s not on the Internet. Chicago has a lot of DJs that specialize in that. If someone doesn’t want to give you a track, it doesn’t always mean they’re trying to be rude. They’re trying to encourage the magic and beauty of a DJ who can take you to an audio world you don’t know how to find. They want you to wonder and explore.

“Like, be serious about your craft, but the overall attitude or promotion of an image can get way too serious for me,” says Jesse Sandvik. “So I like to be more lighthearted.” Credit: Liina Raud

Playfulness is really important in my sets, so I like having a kind of comical name. I think people in the DJ world often take themselves too seriously. Like, be serious about your craft, but the overall attitude or promotion of an image can get way too serious for me, personally. So I like to be more lighthearted.

My first DJ name was DJ Smooth & Delicious, but in a way, I’ve always been Jesse Sandwich. I mean, Sandvik, Sandwich . . . yeah. I don’t know when that name officially occurred, but food and flavor have always been part of my musical journey. I love to cook, and I love music. And there’s a body experience to both. You’ve really got to absorb them.

I’ve always been obsessed with finding new flavors and trying recipes, the same way I’ve always been into finding new sounds. I like the tactile search for ingredients, which I think is similar to my fascination with record hunting. Both food and music engage multiple senses. Like, music goes beyond listening. It really triggers emotions for people, and you can physically feel it. Deaf people can still sense music, even if they’re not “hearing” it. I think of what I do as, like, layering and sandwiching different songs or genres together to create a certain flavor or experience. DJ Jesse Sandwich.

I worked in hospitality for a long time, from being a line cook to a server. Then I got more into the bar side of things. I worked my way up from being a busboy and food runner to being a manager and a bartender at Big Star, and that kind of overlapped with more of a dive into DJing and music. The Boogie Munsters were a big influence, and Tim at Star Creature Universal Vibrations, as well as Shazam Bangles and Constance K, got me into this more deep boogie, funk, disco, and house kind of vibe, which led me to meet DJs from both the north and south sides. 

Then Tim asked if I would be interested in doing some work for Star Creature—mainly shipping and inventory stuff—so I did that on the side after I became disenchanted with hospitality. I also did a lot of work with Numero Group, so I’ve been fortunate to learn and grow from two influential Chicago labels, especially during the pandemic.

The 1980 B side “Up” by Infinity, one of Jesse Sandvik’s favorite tracks

When the Clipper was preparing to reopen, Kristina Magro [from new owner the Orbit Group] asked if I would be interested in booking DJs there on Fridays and Saturdays. I was curious if they had more programming available, so now I work on putting together playlists for all their businesses and consulting for their sound systems. 

As a booker, I’m really interested in highlighting not just Chicago music history but Humboldt Park’s history. There’s music all around you there, constantly. If you just walk through the park on any weekend, you’re going to hear people playing music out of their cars or hanging out and barbecuing to music or just enjoying a live show in the park. So bringing some of that sensibility into the California Clipper is really important to me—having bands playing Puerto Rican-style music as well as having DJs who are able to honor that tradition. But I also want the California Clipper to be a place for dynamic dance music. It’s about being able to connect to that kind of unifying sense of joy that happens on the dance floor, regardless of the genre or where in the city the DJ is from.

At the Clipper, we’ve put together something really special and intentional. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, and I’m just so happy that Kristina and the rest of Orbit Group ownership supported that vision. People need an intimate space to dance and get together, and they deserve to do that with a sound system that is nice and enjoyable. We have a DJ booth that’s permanent and beautiful and part of the architecture of the space, and the room sounds incredible. We’re really lucky how it all came together.


The lingering spirits of the California Clipper

The neighborhood tavern may be closing, but it’s forever a part of Chicago’s boozy, haunted history.

Star Creature Universal Vibrations transfigures boogie for the 21st century

Tim Zawada and Ben Van Dyke’s label helps turn the far-flung fans of this resurgent postdisco dance music into an evolving community.

A eulogy for Danny’s Tavern

For decades, this cozy candlelit bar in Bucktown nurtured a devoted and welcoming community of music lovers—but it couldn’t survive the pandemic.

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