The New Dallas Cool
With A Reclusive Oil Tycoon's Backing, Three Nightlife Entrepreneurs Take Aim On Downtown.
By Pete on Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 5:30 PM
It's 4 a.m. on a Friday, we've just passed the giant bronze giraffe statue marking the Dallas Zoo's location off I-35E, and the music in Parker's Land Rover is cranked to the stereo's maximum allowable volume. It's a stock system, but, make no mistake, it's getting the job done. In other words: It's loud. Which is pretty much the way Parker prefers most things in life.
Dave, for one, doesn't seem to mind. Rather, he appears to be genuinely enjoying himself as he rides shotgun and furiously dances in his seat to the music along with Parker, who is simultaneously dancing, driving and pointing out the LED facade of the city-owned Omni Hotel as it approaches on our passenger side. The brief motion scores; Dave notes the flashy spot coming up on his right, and shows his appreciation of it with a toothy smile and a gentle upwards nod in its general direction.
Yes, this much is clear: Downtown Dallas looks rather impressive at this pre-dawn November moment.
For the crew along on this ride - a collection that also includes in the backseat recent Dallas transplant Nate Donmoyer, the drummer for indie buzz band Passion Pit who moonlights as a DJ named Shuttle - it's more late than it is early. But it's not particularly late, either: This nocturnally inclined outfit just left a small, smoke-filled after-party in Oak Cliff; the current destination is Rio Room, which Parker helps run with a close-knit group of collaborators. The majority of the night's earlier, regulation-hour undertakings took place at Rio, but this next stop doesn't appear to be our last - not just yet. Instead, there's talk of another after-party; a friend of Parker's who works at the club is still up at the spot, wrapping his duties from a Thursday night of work, and he says heard whispers of another get-together. In exchange for this prized information, all he asks is for a ride.
Such is the premise of this drive - although 70-mile-per-hour seat-dancing aside, it perhaps isn't as spontaneous as it appears.
Everything, turns out, is going down just as Parker had planned. All of it - even the playlist of the burned CD spinning in the stereo. That was carefully curated no more than 10 hours prior to this jaunt, and in anticipation of this very car ride; it's littered with just-downloaded offerings from fresher-than-fresh electronic buzz acts SBTRKT, Toddla T and Flux Pavilion, among others. This is his job, and he's good at it. That's mostly because Parker - Lawson, 36, who has been DJing at various nightclubs in town since he turned 17 - knows his audience and how to please it. As the entertainment director for Rio Room, the Joule Hotel and PM Nightlife Lounge, he is the face and the ears of a billion dollar entity: He chooses the music that blares through the speakers of each of these spots, books the performers that play their stages, and, as is tonight's task, handles their performers when they come to town.
Dave - Taylor, a 30-something Brit who DJs and produces a variety of music styles under the name of Switch, and who prominently collaborated with fellow internationally acclaimed producer (and regular Rio Room performer) Diplo to form Major Lazer - certainly appreciates the attention Parker's providing him. He travels the world to perform at spots like Rio Room with regularity, but tonight's one-off in Dallas is hardly another appearance in another nameless club on an unending list of anonymous venues.
Taylor made that much quite clear earlier on in the night.
* * * * *
Just a few hours after arriving in Dallas on a direct flight from Los Angeles, and during the night's kick-off dinner at the Henderson Avenue restaurant Victor Tangos - where Lawson glad-hands no less than five other patrons upon his entrance - Taylor is already praising the way he's being treated in Dallas. He describes his hotel room at the Joule as "impressive," and he raves of the care provided even the smallest details.
He smiles with particular exuberance when pointing out one particular detail: "The drawers in the room don't make any noise when you shut them," the well-put-together foreigner offers, chuckling at the fact that he even noticed them. "I mean, not one single peep!"
Lawson, sporting more of a bohemian, denim-heavy look, bounces with excitement as his voluminous hair curls follow suit.
"Oh yeah," he responds. "That's all on purpose."
Then he launches into an explanation. He mentions the man who signs his paychecks, Tim Headington, and he bullet-points his boss' impressive resume. Billionaire oil man, the head of drilling company Headington Oil. Burgeoning hotel magnate, starting with the Joule. Real estate tycoon, thanks to his recent downtown purchases.
That out of the way, Lawson lets loose more facts - the most important being that the Joule cost Headington more than $110 million to build, with each of its 106 rooms demanding around $1 million of specific care.
Taylor's eyebrows rise. He stares back at Lawson, wide-eyed.
Unfazed, and perhaps used to this kind of reaction, Lawson continues: He notes that the Joule is about to expand; that Headington has bought up most of the Main Street district block it resides upon; that there are some buildings on the parallel Commerce Street that Headington has bought up as well. He nonchalantly mentions that the Joule might be responsible for changing the overall perspective of downtown Dallas, that there are some plans underway to ensure it. Far as Lawson's concerned, Dallas is looking pretty good these days.
Taylor nods approvingly.
On cue, the food - all ordered by Parker, who was all too happy to have such duties fall his way - arrives and the conversation shifts. Taylor proudly boasts that he and a friend back in the U.K. just wrapped a script, the fictional tale of a group of Youtube vigilantes who simultaneously come to grips with moral integrity and Internet celebrity.
Again, Lawson mentions his boss, this time offering to pass along to him Taylor's script. Turns out, downtown Dallas and the oil business where he made his fortune are just some of Headington's interests; Headington owns a stake in GK Films, one of the film industry's largest independent production companies. Among the titles the company can claim in recent memory: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, The Town, Rango, The Tourist, Hugo and the upcoming, Brad Pitt-starring, sure-to-be-huge 2012 release World War Z. Headington's fast become a major player in the Hollywood market; at this year's Golden Globes, as Martin Scorsese accepted his Best Director award for Hugo, he specifically mentioned Headington and thanked him for financially backing his efforts on the film.
It's a lot to swallow between bites of lamb shank, but Lawson offers to keep selling nonetheless - himself, downtown, Dallas as a whole.
Taylor waves him off, sufficiently convinced.
At the end of the meal, Parker's other guest happily hops on board the pro-Lawson, pro-Headington, pro-Dallas bandwagon. As the waitress arrives with the check, she does so with an eye on the sheepish, glasses-donning Donmoyer: "Aren't you the drummer in Passion Pit?" she asks rather brazenly.
Donmoyer coolly confirms her suspicion. But on the brisk walk out of the restaurant and to the car bound for Rio - Taylor's DJ set is scheduled to start any minute - he is dumbstruck.
"That's never happened to me before."
Not in New York, not in New Orleans, not in Boston.
Lawson smiles. Not a bad start to the night.
* * * * *
Rio Room, as Lawson promised somewhere in his earlier pitch, further impresses. The group is warmly greeted outside of the club, set aback from the street at 4515 Travis Street, not far off from that road's intersection with the commercial Knox Street district. There are handshakes and hugs and other sincere salutations from the door staff. An attractive set of 20-something women look on from their place within the red velvet rope's confines, dressed in their going-out best and sharing a cigarette.
Inside is where the space truly boasts its pedigree. It premiered last February with a rash of Super Bowl parties - right in the wake of a seven-figure upgrade to the already high-end space formerly known as Suite. That space was relatively notorious in its own right, placating both the high-end and the hipster sets - and segregating them in the process. Upstairs in the main room, the Uptowners reigned supreme; downstairs in the basement, endeared underground club DJs like Big J and Tony Schwa played to the Downtown set. It was almost - almost - a perfect marriage of these two distinct, and distinctly Dallas-nurtured, audiences.
It just missed by a floor, that's all.
With Taylor following him close behind, Lawson again leads the way while running down the specs of the spot: mirrors that line the walls, making the 300-person capacity room look four times its size; speakers encased in sand-filled, polished stone facades that are built into the architecture of the room and designed for optimal audio projection; the extravagant, state-of-the-art lighting system.
Even the attendees at this affair are somewhat curated, or at least targeted, especially since it's a Thursday night - Lawson's personal plaything.
"Our Friday and Saturday nights pay for our Thursday nights," he says, explaining that, while the club plays crowd-pleasing Top 40 fare on those bigger-market nights, it aims to be a little more cutting edge in its early start to the weekend. Specifically, Thursdays afford Lawson the opportunity to bring in acts like Taylor's Switch persona, to draw a slightly more knowledgeable crowd that keeps an eye on the bigger names of the more underground scenes. It's an important factor in his overall goal. By playing to this set, his clubs are distinguished from the often-derivative well of Dallas nightlife.
In short: The otherwise sometimes snobby hipster set gives him a pass.
The Thursday night crowd confirms this truth: Fashion designer Chris Adams of Nudie Jeans, in town for buying meetings, pals around with some of the club's managers; modern rock radio darlings Young the Giant, in town for a two-night run of promotional performances for a new Microsoft cell phone, dance to Switch's reggae-meets-house music offerings in a roped off section near the dance-floor; Highland Entertainment, the Park Cities-based team behind the two-night, Dallas Convention Center-hosted, electronic musical-heavy, New Year's Eve festival Lights All Night, drink from bottles at another table across the way.
But that's just the club's niche-oriented crowd. Far bigger names have popped up in within these walls. Rapper-turned-crooner Cee Lo Green sang "Fuck You" in a crowded, capacity room and was cheered. International pop sensation Robyn has DJed here. Switch's better half, Diplo, a sought-after producer for the likes of Beyonce, M.I.A and Chris Brown, has performed at the venue twice. Electronic '80s revivalists Chromeo make a point to visit when they're in town. Dallas neo-soul hero Erykah Badu is a recurring guest DJ. Grammy-winning Dallas hip-hop production duo Play-N-Skillz host parties at the club and maintain a Sunday night DJ residency. The Boston Celtics show up for bottle service after road games at the American Airlines Center. A number of current and former Dallas Cowboys are regulars. Dirk Nowitzki celebrated his birthday here.
Some are paid to arrive. Others drop thousands to see cocktail waitresses carry firework-spraying champagne bottles to their tables.
Either way, it's gravy.
"It's like Barney's - or even Neiman Marcus," Lawson says, sure to namecheck his downtown neighbor at the Joule. "Eventually, you don't even need to know the brand of the clothes they're selling. You just know that if it's there, it's cool."
* * * * *
Indeed, Lawson and his partners - Andrea Pambechy, 28, the flirty stunner that operates the nightlife portfolio Lawson books, and Matthew Giese, 35, a Kojak-meets-Lex Luthor type in charge of all marketing and visuals - very much view their nightlife interests as merchandise. Their far bigger objective, as they see it, is in their hopeful re-branding of Downtown Dallas as an entertainment district and destination.
To their credit, they've got some experience in this field. Lawson, a Rockwall native, opened a club called Passport (now Sunset Lounge) in the early '00s. Giese joined on with him to help manage the space. Later, the two hosted a weekly event with Giese promoting and Lawson spinning at O-Bar - a downtown spot at an address that no longer exists, perhaps ironically, due to the demolition and construction surrounding expansion of the Joule. Pambechy, who had previously officed next to O-Bar in Nieman Marcus' ladies shoe buying department and was at the time working as a hedge fund financial analyst, came on at O-Bar, helping to host Lawson and Giese's event. Next came Suite, which the three turned around and sold for a profit in 2008 (interestingly and unknowningly to a man who had been embarrassed on national television for showing up on the recurring Dateline NBC spinoff To Catch a Predator).
Boasts Lawson: "We've been doing this nonstop since 2004, and we've always had the hottest nights."
Maybe. If no one else, they had one important fan in particular: Headington had visited Suite and liked what he'd seen.
When the club's founders and core staff became available, the team began assisting with the Joule and started to office within Headington Company's suite at City Place. Pambechy became the operating partner at PM Nightlife Lounge. Lawson was asked to curate the Joule's lobby music and its venues' performers. Giese was tasked with the design and marketing of it all. And, when Suite finally closed for good in 2009, Headington chose to invest in his new nightlife arm's plans to re-appropriate, re-brand and re-up their old spot as Rio Room.
Interesting thing about this guy Headington, though: Much as his life's work revolves around things that sit directly in the public eye, he maintains a lifestyle that sees him removed from it. The 139th richest person in America with a net worth of $2.7 billion according to the 2011 Forbes 400 List (by comparison, Mark Cuban, another entertainment-inclined Dallasite, checks in at a paltry No. 177 with a mere $2.3 billion) doesn't really do interviews. All that exists on this front is a lone softball back-and-forth from a 2010 luncheon thrown by the DowntownDallas organization - one that had to be taped because Headington, the recipient of an award at the event, had to skip the lunch because he was slated to be on the set of a film he was producing overseas. That interview now wallows away in two parts on Youtube, with less than 1,000 combined views. But it provides as much insight into Headington as exists: He was born in Dallas in the old Florence Nightingale wing of Baylor Hospital; he was raised in Oklahoma where he developed an interest in oil and gas thanks to his father's and uncle's work as geologists; he moved back to Dallas in 1984 and brought his oil company with him; he made lots of money; he spent some of that money on downtown real estate; now he'd like to see the downtown neighborhood surrounding his new properties do well.
"Main Street is the heart of Downtown Dallas," he says in the clip, wistfully referencing an old Time magazine picture he'd once seen of the strip. Then, ever so slightly, he confirms that he hopes to reshape that neighborhood as best he can: "It's the heart of what Dallas was and is becoming again," he says. "You cannot have a great city without having a great downtown."
Public record very clearly finds Headington fully invested in the concept of turning the historically financial district into an entertainment-focused one. In November, a Headington Companies-issued press release only further confirmed his campaign while revealing some of the upcoming perks included in the Joule expansion - a new Charlie Palmer restaurant, a 1,350-square foot recording studio, the conversion of the embedded PM Nightlife Lounge into "an underground adult playground."
Headington has a vision for downtown. What that is and how soon we'll see it, well, that's the question.
* * * * *
Fortunately, at least some of Headington's entities - Giese, Lawson and Pambechy, to be specific - have clearer intentions. For the past year, they've been in an enviable position: Headington's backing of their efforts at Rio and the currently-under-construction PM Lounge has given them a sizable share of the Dallas nightlife market - one large enough, perhaps, where they can dictate the scene.
If nothing else, it's a position from which they can attempt to cement their brand. Like their boss - a person that these three don't discuss in great detail - their focus is on Downtown Dallas. That's where they'll debut the remodeled PM Lounge later this year, complete with its list of updated, borderline over-the-top features.
"It's just going to be a really, really dope space," Pambechy says.
To plan for its opening, the group is currently in research mode. They salivate when discussing other national hotspots, such as the LIV NightClub at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel, where the Mavericks celebrated their Game Six victory over the Heat to clinch the 2011 NBA Championship. Rio helped sponsor that celebration with LIV, continuing the relationship established earlier in the year at the Super Bowl, when LIV came to town and co-sponsored Rio's Super Bowl events.
They also say they hope to follow some of the patterns laid out by filmmaker David Lynch with his cozy, August-debuted private nightclub in Paris, Silencio. They believe concepts like these could thrive in Dallas, despite their worry that, even as local government-types attempt to brand it as "world-class," the city has something of a bad rap on the international market.
Fact is, they see greater things for the city, and they are committed to the idea of selling that vision.
"This really is a cool city if you're seeing the right things," Pambechy says with confidence.
Giese, a little more reserved, agrees and argues that, through the nightlife scene, he, Lawson and Pambechy can encourage such a change in perspective.
"Dallas has plenty of experiences that aren't 'just as good,' but that stand out as exceptional," he says. "And that's what you want. You want all these people to go home and say, 'Wow, Dallas was unbelievable.'"
That's what Headington wants them to do at the Joule - that much is clear. Together, all four of these minds share a vision of a bustling downtown coming in the near future. But that's about as far as Giese, Lawson or Pambechy will go to sharing any insight on Headington's plans.
Headington doesn't like being in the public eye, and his employees don't plan on subversively changing that. To their credit, they are quick to argue that their vision for Dallas is their own, not Headington's. All three are steadfast on this point. It just so happens, they say, that there's some crossover with Headington's interests. It just so happens, they say, that they too want to draw people - out-of-towners and suburbanites alike - into the downtown district. It just so happens, they say, that they too think the culture of a city starts with a strong downtown pulse.
One problem: Downtown, clearly, isn't there yet.
"If you look at the population in the area," Giese says. "NorthPark is more central to everything than downtown is. Geographically, Dallas is a collection of suburbs. You're really communicating with a dozen communities stitched together. There really is a definite aversion for our audience to even consider going downtown."
The Joule expansion could be one factor in changing that perception. The fact that Headington owns and plans to develop a handful of other buildings neighboring the Joule in the near future stands as a second factor working for this crew. Giese, Lawson and Pambechy's hope that their nightlife efforts will act as a third.
Their work at Rio Room - where Parker makes sure the talent is cared for, where Pambechy makes sure the guests are happy, where Giese makes sure it all looks enticing from the outside looking in, and where this threesome's plan of merging the hipster and bottle service sets into one has seemingly worked thus far - likely indicates that they're capable of pulling off their end of the deal. After all, much like Downtown Dallas, Rio, despite its bold-faced reputation, exists as an island; in many ways, it's the lone nightlife spot of note in its part of Uptown.
* * * * *
If nothing else, their out-of-town guests appear impressed.
On another night November, Lawson is giddy after having hosted Paul Sevigny for a DJ set at PM Lounge. Lawson says he looked at this particular event as something of a litmus test: Sevigny, actress Chloe Sevigny's brother, is a DJ that owns clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Lawson readily confesses to idolizing his work.
"He works both sides of it," he gushes. "I mean, he's a DJ that owns his own clubs. That's the dream for me."
And yet it's Sevigny who can't believe his eyes on this night. After wrapping his set at PM, Lawson drags the out-of-towner across the city to Rio Room, where tabs are finally being closed and the remaining hangers-on are being shown the door.
The lights come on just as Lawson again starts highlighting the more intricate details of the operation: "Look at these cushions," he says, ripping apart a couch in a VIP area. "They're Velcro. Someone spills a drink, we just toss these things and grab a replacement from the back room."
Sevigny's head is literally spinning as he whips around to take it all in - the scene, the room, the girls Lawson's briefly introducing Sevigny to as the tour scuttles along.
Then, quite suddenly, Lawson excuses himself; members from the cast of TNT's Dallas reboot are standing by the exit and Lawson wants to make sure to say hello before they leave.
Sevigny, who in his younger years once performed at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton with a touring punk band he was once in, stands in the middle of the now-empty dancefloor, surveying the scene once more. Impressed, he wonders aloud if he's seeing a new Dallas emerge.
"Is it really like this every night in Dallas?" he asks of no one in particular.
He shakes his head in disbelief.
* * * * *
At the end of his night in town, Taylor is similarly awed.
When Lawson's Land Rover finally arrives back at Rio Room, his friend has only bad news: That second after-party turned out to be a bust.
The friend could still use a ride, though.
Happy to oblige, and with his car now full, Lawson pulls out of the Rio Room parking lot, with his stereo on blast once more. Back at the Joule, the end of the line, Taylor opens his door and spills out onto the sidewalk. Donmoyer exits as well -- he lives in a high-rise right across the street. Lawson and his pal, meanwhile, live right around the corner. Both rent apartments in a building set to overlook the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park once it opens in Fall 2012. They exit the car too, just to say goodbye.
Lawson greets Taylor a final time, extending his hand for a shake. Taylor refuses, pulling his new friend in for a hug instead, and the two joke about remembering to pass along Taylor's script to Headington. They laugh.
As their charming bro-embrace ends, Taylor flashes his toothy smile once more.
"This whole night," he says, "was great. Just really, really great."
Parker smiles back and responds with another sales pitch. He can't help himself.
"It's like this every night in Dallas," he promises. "Swear to God."