Seva Granik on PS1, Klaus Biesenbach and Booking New York’s Hottest Summer Event
“The DFA line-up of August 7th is crazy,” says Seva Granik as small dishes of mac ‘n cheese, sliders, and guacamole are placed on our table courtesy of Coco 66. We’re sitting window-side at a private event for the Australian group Tame Impala, and Granik is talking about one of the events for Warm Up—MoMA PS1’s highly acclaimed summer concert series. Granik is part of the illustrious team of New York music industry insiders brought together by MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach to produce this year’s series. “Jump in,” Granik says, pushing the mac ‘n cheese lightly in my direction as he continues his run-down of some of the acts he’s looking forward to. “The Crystal Ark is a new band by Gavin Russom that no one has heard. It’s their first show ever. And, just from looking at their stage plot and input lists, I can already tell that they will blow people away. It’s the most complicated, technically well-put together plot I’ve seen in all of my short career.” Warm Up started years ago, but more recently it’s evolved into a premiere summer concert series, and this year’s line-up is “the biggest ever” according to Granik. “This has never gone down at MoMA PS1.” When offered beer, Granik puts his hand up in polite demurral. “I’ve got a long night ahead of me.”
Granik’s role as Bookings and Stage Manager entails managing bookings, contracting, finances, tech liaison and day-of stage-managing. The team of curators he supports are Dean Bein (head of True Panther Records under Matador), Kris Chen, (head of A&R at XL Recordings), Robin Carolan (head of Tri Angle Records), Jonathan Galkin (co-founder of DFA Records), Ronen Givony (founder of Wordless Music), and Brandon Stosuy (senior writer for Stereogum). The curatorial committee also included the support of Eliza Ryan, MoMA PS1’s new Curatorial Assistant for Performance and Contemporary Practice, as external adviser.
“They’re playing,” Granik nods to the black concert space next door, where Tame Impala has just taken the stage. At 35, Granik is tall and lanky in dark skinny jeans, Keds, and a sleeveless angular jacket that tapers at the waist. His hair is shaved at the sides. Back at the table I ask if he likes the band. He’s not sold yet. He has to listen to their music for a while to understand it before he can come to a decision. Tom, a friend of Granik’s, joins us, as do the members of The Luyas, a Montreal-based band. They order burgers. Tom says there’s a rumor that MGMT will be going on. He leaves and comes back. “Yeah, it’s just one of them. He’s jamming with [Tame Impala] on bass.”
Qualitatively, Granik’s position at MoMA PS1 is not very different from work he’s been doing over the past ten years. Beginning in 2007 with a show for Yo Majesty at Studio B, his mainstay has been producing DIY shows at completely raw locations. “A lot of curating, a lot of booking, a lot of stage managing, dealing with tech stuff, like stage plots and input lists, guest lists.” But by that point Granik had already had years of experience dealing with booking and carrying most of the workload, while touring with bands he was in (he played guitar, wrote songs, and sang back-up), one of which toured stadiums. “It was all very fun,” he says. “But it always ended up collapsing for me. Bands are fickle creatures. They are born, live, and die so very fast. Soon I figured out that I was on the wrong side of the musical fence. Bands come and go…. But the curator perseveres.” Granik is also part-owner of myopenbar.com, a site that informs boozehounds about parties with open bars in cities around the U.S.
Sarah Hooper, a good friend of Granik’s, walks in with two friends, one with an arm covered in tattoos. She owns JellyNYC, a marketing outfit that produced the well-known waterfront Pool Parties in Brooklyn. Sarah sits down and asks Granik how it’s going. They fall into easy shoptalk. Granik says he’s had a lot of work to do for Warm Up and looks down at the table. “Why don’t you get an intern, a kid,” Sarah says. “I know a kid. Carlos. He’s great.” Granik lifts his head in a swift but gentle snap. “Because a kid can’t send emails to clients,” he says. “A kid can’t talk to agents.” Granik orders a crepe with dulce de leche. Cutting it up, he tells me to try some and that it’s delicious. He looks around the table. “Looks like we’re deficient in forks,” he says, and hands me his. A woman walks through the door and stretches her hand out to Granik. “We met at SXSW,” she says and smiles. “We slept on the same floor.”
We get into Granik’s blue minivan. He had planned on us going to a goth party, but instead he drives us to the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint, where he lives. He drives calmly and looks up over the steering wheel with a steady gaze. I ask about the curatorial meetings. “It’s a very, very scary room to open your mouth in,” he says. “I literally took notes as Jon Galkin and Kris Chen were speaking. Those guys are legends. Those two, and Ronen Givony, of LPR; those guys know pretty much everything that anyone in this town knows about the music business.” I ask if Klaus Biesenbach attends the curatorial meetings. “He showed up at the first two, just to make sure everything was running smoothly. He doesn’t come anymore. He doesn’t need to.” Biesenbach left for Europe almost immediately after the initial round of meetings and his assistant Jocelyn Miller served as liaison between Biesenbach and the group, handling permissions and out-of-the ordinary contracting. Granik says Biesenbach was mostly involved in creating the team. He “curated the curators,” and made some very serious decisions regarding the direction of the series and its scope. From that point, the committee acted with relative independence.
“I think that the driving reasoning, the logic behind the curating was diversity,” says Granik. “It’s important to the institution, this year anyway, to be as wide-ranging and far-reaching in its decisions on music.” I’ve seen pictures of Klaus Biesenbach and he looks austere. I ask Granik if he finds Biesenbach intimidating. “No!” he says. “He’s very friendly. And funny. And he’s good at putting people at ease. I’ve met him before and it was always very light-hearted conversation, mostly about my clothes. What’s great about Klaus is that he knows how to socialize on every level. I’ve realized that the most successful people are those who are able to socialize with anyone. That’s a skill I’d like to be able to perfect.” After we park, Granik pauses by the car. “I only wish,” he says, “that I had started this sooner.” Four pale salt-rimmed margaritas are placed on our table at Manhattan Inn. No one has ordered margaritas. Granik clinks glasses with Sarah and her friends. “There’s a lot of music industry people here,” Granik says. “That’s Dean [Bein], the founder of True Panther Sounds.” He points to a young man in a red t-shirt with wavy brown hair. “He’s one of the curators for Warm Up; one of the most talented young music executives around. He was behind Girls, Delorean, Tanlines. His label was bought out by Matador. He blew up overnight.” He smiles and takes a sip of his margarita. He crosses the room to sit down next to a woman with long hair and dark-rimmed glasses. “He’s going to hit on that girl,” Sarah says.
Each of the ten days of Warm Up is curated by one individual or is a collaborative process among two curators, though all curators weighed in on contacts. Granik worked very closely with all of the curators. In terms of strategy and approaching managers and booking agents, Granik learned a lot from Jon Galkin and Kris Chen. “It’s sort of incredible. I have had so much responsibility thrust upon me. To act as a conduit for the world’s most important modern arts institution’s musical series, it gives you a lot of power in dealing with people. But it’s also frightful. What if you miss? The pressure can be overwhelming.” The transition to MoMA PS1 had its glitches and Granik is cognizant of mistakes and bad moves he made initially. “I moved on some contracts when I should not have, took liberties when I should not have. The institution is a very tightly controlled collective, and it was unusual for me at first to work in such a controlled environment. But I caught up very quickly and learned a lot.” He also owes a lot to his adviser, Eliza. “With Eliza advising Klaus on who’s who in this town’s Music business, there could have been no misfires.”
A few days later I meet Granik at Home Sweet Home, “the best bar in the city” according to Granik, where he bartends on Sundays. In a black cut-up t-shirt that shows more skin than it covers, he welcomes me and tenders a frozen margarita, from a machine. “The secret,” he says, “is top shelf tequila—Sauza.” Sitting on a stool next to me, near a taxidermy bird hanging from the ceiling, Granik talks in his composed and pensive tone about what his work entails now that the booking is done. “It’s just getting more hands-on. We’re getting into the payment process, and it’s difficult since MoMA PS1 is a non-profit.” I ask how it is to work for MoMA PS1. He sits up straight, pauses, and says as if the idea just startled him, “Overnight every agent in the States knows who I am. You have no idea what it’s like to have MoMA behind you.” He sits back and smiles almost imperceptibly and regains his calm demeanor. “But it’s about the music. I’m able to do what I love. Yes, it’s priceless for someone like me. I feel very pompous right now, very self-important. I hardly deserve the honor. But hell—I’ll take it.”
Photography by Shoko Takayasu.