The Night a Museum Became Very Cool

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A full size cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Getty Images/Spencer Platt hide caption

toggle caption Getty Images/Spencer Platt

BPP producer Ian Chillag went to a show Friday night in an unlikely venue — the dance music duo Simian Mobile Disco was playing the American Museum of Natural History.


All right, disco with dinosaurs' bones? It can be done. In fact, it was done. Our producer Ian Chillag went to a show Friday night in an unlikely venue. The dance music duo Simian Mobile Disco was playing at the American Museum of Natural History. Did science ensue, Ian?

IAN CHILLAG: Not really, no.

STEWART: All right, let's break this down.


STEWART: Unpack this, as they say at NPR.

CHILLAG: All right.

STEWART: I never heard that before I came here. Simian Mobile Disco, tell me about that.

CHILLAG: Yeah, well, Simian was this band formed back in the '90s, and two members of the band, James Ford and Jas Shaw, felt a little constrained. They had this kind of deejay electronic side, and so while they were on tour they would go off on their own and throw deejay parties, and they called this their Simian Mobile Disco, right? They're not your typical like puffy jacket, yellow-tinted sunglass kind of deejays. Like, these guys, and I mean in this in the best possible way, they're nerds with computers.

STEWART: Got you.

CHILLAG: One of them is like very skinny, blonde guy, with big glasses, and there's a less skinny guy with a big curly mane of hair, and they just stand on either side of this table dancing, pushing buttons, turning knobs. That's pretty much SMD, and so, anyway, back in 2006 you may remember they had a big dance floor hit with "Hustler." We can hear a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song "Hustler")

SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO: (Singing) If I had the money to go to a record store, I would, I would. If I had the money to go to a record store, I would, I would.

CHILLAG: Yeah, I'd love if I had the money to go to a record store, I would.


CHILLAG: It's so small pimping.

STEWART: Easy. So, all right, now we know what the musical element is. There was a giant party in the Museum of Natural History. How - what does that scene look like?

CHILLAG: Well, it, you know, we got there - I went with my girlfriend Nora, and we got there and people are lined up outside the museum, very stylish crowd, and they knew I was coming. I had this little sheet of paper that said please report to the press desk when you arrive, which is pretty typical. It also said the press desk is to the right of the giant dinosaur.


That's awesome.

CHILLAG: So, we go in and we're escorted through the sanctum of the museum to the planetarium, the Rose Center, where the party is.

STEWART: Ah yeah!

CHILLAG: As we get closer, it stops sounding like an echoing museum and starts sounding kind of like a club. If you've never seen it, it's this amazing structure. It's a giant glass cube with a white sphere, which is the actual planetarium, suspended in the middle, sort of hanging in the middle, and there's this white spiraling staircase - or kind of walkway, going up to it. Nora said it looked like the Guggenheim mashed in to the Death Star.


CHILLAG: Nora says things like that.

STEWART: That's why she's your girlfriend.

CHILLAG: Yeah, all right. So, there's all these - and there's the exhibits around. There's kind of glass and metal platforms with video shining up showing you, you know, teaching you about black holes, supernovas, there's a big asteroid in the middle of the room.

STEWART: All right, but I'm listening to all this, right, OK, sounds like a party.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's thumping!


STEWART: Did it look like a party?

CHILLAG: It actually surprised me. What I expected from this was it was going to be a really awkward scene, kind of nerdy science museum types hanging out at a dance party. Really the dance party folks were definitely in the majority. It was pretty much all Simian Mobile Disco people.

A lot of the people I talked to had never been to a museum before. Most people I would go up and say something like, so, you know, crazy scene! Have you learned anything? And people would scream into the mike Simian Mobile Disco is awesome! That was the bulk of my interviews.

STEWART: That was eight years of life at MTV, just letting you know.

CHILLAG: But let's select out Taneesha Burg(ph). She thought the venue was cool, but maybe not dark enough.

Ms. TANEESHA BURG (Partygoer): It's a nice juxtaposition of this, like, really wholesome place where they have even kid shows and whatever, and then, after hours, you can come down here. At the same time, I don't know if they really know how to make a good nightclub scene happen in terms of ambiance.

CHILLAG: Yeah, so...

MARTIN: It is a museum.

CHILLAG: Yeah, it didn't live up to their expectations. To me it was like, whoa, this is a crazy rager! So anyways, I started walking up this spiraling walkway that I talked about, the Guggenheim thing into the Death Star planetarium thing, and along the rail of this there is little plaques that teach you more about, you know, different spacey, science-y stuff, and I happened upon these guys James and Brian. They were actually looking and reading some of the information about quasars.

Unidentified Man: Saying here that this quasar is 11.3 billion light-years away. I don't even know how they'd measure something like that. Does that mean that that star could have exploded like in physical terms right now, like - it could have exploded millions of years ago but we're just getting the light of it right now?

CHILLAG: So, there was some, you know, learning...

MARTIN: (Mocking Unidentified Man) Right now...

CHILLAG: Learning going on. Those guys were kind of the aberration, though.

STEWART: Yeah, so Ian - I shouldn't make fun of him! So, who sponsored this thing? Was it the museum itself? Was it some sort of party promoter who talked the museum into this, and they didn't know what was going to happen?

CHILLAG: Yeah, well, Flavorpill puts it on, but the museums really have an interest in doing this because, like I said, it gets people that really never go to the museum into the museum, and the museums really desperately want that kind of younger demographic. And then for Flavorpill, they get a really neat unique venue.

And I don't know, when you think about it, the kind of planetarium esthetic and the rave esthetic really aren't that far from each other. You want lights on the ceiling. You want it to be kind of dark, you know. That aside, there was something kind of weird about the juxtaposition of really stylish sweaty people dancing in this room.

STEWART: Now, did SMG take the stage finally? Or were they just sort of doing background?

CHILLAG: No, no, no! The first deejay left the stage, and usually at a concert there's this lag between the opening act and the headlining act, but I guess - it's kind of a delicate balance to maintain a dance party in an American museum of natural history, so like right after the first deejay is off Simian Mobile Disco goes on, and the crowd just goes berserk for them.

They start their set, I look around, and the place has just transformed. Those little glass and metal platforms that I talked about, teaching you about black holes and supernovas, they're covered in beer cans. They - like, people have not just ignored the science stuff. They've covered it up so they can't see it. The floor is sticky - we were dancing, Nora and I, and I noticed that there was like this thing to show you how much you weigh on Neptune - scales.

STEWART: Oh, I used to love that when you go to - yeah, the different scales!

CHILLAG: Yeah, and she didn't realize she was standing on it while she was dancing, so like with every step it was - her weight was bouncing up on this LED screen!

MARTIN: Her Neptunian weight.

CHILLAG: Yeah. It was very "Billie Jean."

MARTIN: That's cool.

CHILLAG: And then Nora is like, looks up at the stage and she's like, what are these guys doing? It's not like they're actually playing instruments. Why are they even up there? At which point I started thinking like, I was I was already - I'd already left this party and I was doing the radio piece, because in a radio piece what I could is fade down the ambiance and bring in James Ford to explain it to her.

Mr. JAMES FORD (Artist, Simian Mobile Disco): There's maybe a kick-drum running, and then we can just improvise over the top with, you know, there's like an analog sequencer which is just a bunch of, you know, dials and switches and stuff that basically change, you know, sort of make different melodic patterns over time.

CHILLAG: So, like while the science of the room isn't reaching the crowd, there is definitely a lot of science and tech that's going into the production of the music, and talking with James and Jas, I asked them if, you know, they liked going to science museums in the past themselves. Here's Jas.

Mr. JAS SHAW (Artist, Simian Mobile Disco): I found it really boring when I was a kid going to museums, but more recently, me and my girl Jess took her little cousin to the Natural History Museum, and like, you know, the main part was good. But the really good part was the kid's area. It's amazing. Like, you can - they just give you loads of fossils and loads stuff to play with.

CHILLAG: And I was that way, too. I just liked that toy part of the museum, and it struck me that these guys figured out a way to be adults, but still have that play part of the museum. Like, they're actually - they're doing something really cool in a really nerdy setting, and by doing something really grown up in a space basically made for kids, they are sort of being kids again. It's pretty cool.

STEWART: Apparently, there were security guards. How did they feel about it?

CHILLAG: Oh, yeah. So, I asked them like, you guys, there's people jumping all over your exhibits, people drinking beer, the floor is sticky. How can you handle this? They're like, look, we do elementary school kids on field trips. We can handle anything.

STEWART: Ian Chillag attended the Flavorpill One Step Beyond Party with Simian Mobile Disco at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. Thanks for bringing back the report, Ian.


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