Interview with co-founders Allison Peck and Erica Schwanke | By Brittany Moseley
If you’ve been to a wedding in the last 40 years, you’ve experienced the wedding DJ. Everyone knows the guy – and it’s almost always a guy: a middle aged dude with some atrociously outdated facial hair – we’re looking at you, soul patch – whose playlist consists of the “Chicken Dance” and “Celebration.” Allison Peck and Erica Schwanke are changing that.
They run Heart Of Gold DJs, a San Francisco company known for its refreshing take on wedding music—their playlists included everything from Salt-N-Pepa and Against Me! to Sam Cooke and Lou Reed—and the fact that it’s run by women.
While they often hear the phrase, “I’ve never seen a woman DJ!” the real anomaly is their refusal to rely on the usual cheesy schtick associated with wedding DJs. “We’re not going to rely on ‘The Electric Slide’ or 15 Whitney Houston songs,” Schwanke says. “50 year old dudes aren’t going to understand that every now and then, a really intoxicated couple really needs to hear *NSYNC.”
How did each of you start DJing?
ES: I started in Minneapolis, just throwing parties here and there. When I moved to Chicago, I started in community radio and from there, doing it in bars, and was approached about DJing weddings there.
AP: I went to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and I had some friends freshman year who were getting into the radio station and got me to do it. I did college radio all four years, and that was pretty much my group of people. When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t really DJ a whole lot there. I met Erica through some bike stuff, and she started working at this DJ company in Chicago. She thought I would be a good fit for a wedding DJ, and approached me and asked me if I wanted to come try out. I went and talked to the company, and it went from there. We started doing weddings and working together, and just really liked it.
How did that turn into starting your own business?
ES: I was ready to leave Chicago and had been eyeing San Francisco. Allison is originally from California, so we took a trip out to San Francisco, not with the intention of moving there, but at the end of that trip I was like, “Hey Allison, let’s move here in a year.” At the time, it wasn’t “Let’s move here and start a company,” but we both realized we really liked DJing weddings and events and just being DJs. So, it seemed like a natural thing to move out there and start this company so that we could keep doing what we liked doing, but just do it somewhere else.
When I think of the weddings I’ve been to, none had a female DJ. It’s always middle aged men playing “The Electric Slide.”
ES: It’s really funny, because when I first was asked about being a wedding DJ, I had a strong negative response [laughs]. I kind of had to be talked into it. They were like, “You don’t have to be like that.” We like to help create this experience that’s really positive and reflects the couple. It’s a great thing, and it’s also a great thing to bring other women into. People are just like, “You’re a girl DJ, and you play noticeably good music. How weird.” And you’re like, “No, this should really just be how people do it.”
Was it a conscious decision to hire other women? [Both Sami Fink, who works at Fat Wreck Chords, and Meghan Pennie, former vocalist for Punch and current vocalist for Super Unison, DJ for Heart Of Gold.]
ES: It is a really male-dominated industry, and—I think you can run into this in the punk community and other things, too—[we] want to create a place where women can do something in a male-dominated scene and feel empowered, and able to do this and to do it well. I think that turned into us bringing on women.
AP: If someone really wanted to work with us, they were a great DJ, they happened to be male, and we thought they’d be great, it’s not like we’d be like, “Hell no.” But there is something about creating that space, having women come on and do it, and be like, “This isn’t something I thought I could do before, but I can really do it, and it’s awesome.”
What is your favorite song to play at weddings?
AP: One of my favorite slow dance songs I tend to play a lot is Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” because it’s classic; it’s really lovely. I also really like The Pretenders song “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” because it’s really fun and bouncy, but it also has a line that goes, “Don’t get me wrong/ If I’m acting so distracted/ I’m thinking about the fireworks/ That go off when you smile.” How good of a line is that?
ES: “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” will always be one of my favorite songs, but I really think that “This Is How We Do It” is my favorite song to play at weddings, because people get so excited.
AP: Especially if it’s a Friday wedding. People are like, “It is Friday night!”
What songs should be retired from weddings for all eternity?
ES: “The Cha-Cha Slide.”
AP: Any line dance. Like, I don’t want to lead anyone in a line dance. There are just better ways to get out there.
ES: “We Are Family,” also.
AP: That’s what I was going to say. I get why people like it as far as, “Yeah we’re family,” but come on. We know you’re all family. It’s OK. But no matter what kind of corny song it is, if it’s special to you and your family, I’ll play it. I’m not gonna be a total music asshole. It’s your wedding.
What’s been the best wedding you’ve played?
ES: I once had all the guests chant my name in the middle of a dance set. I think that was something that made me want to retire. “It’s never gonna be this good again.”
AP: I had one wedding last year—it was a friend’s wedding—and they wanted their last song to be Against Me!’s “T.S.R. (This Shit Rules).” It was amazing. The groom went up in the air. I think three or four dudes took their shirts off. It was just like, “I don’t know if this is a wedding or a pop punk show,” [laughs]. That was definitely one I did where I was like, “This is great. My job rules.”