Talking Events with Quartyard Director, Justin Navelle
Very few people are as intrinsically connected to San Diego's nightlife culture as Justin Navelle. As the director of East Village's cultural hub Quartyard and the founder of numerous event companies (The Deep End, Amplified Access, Westcoast Weekender), Navelle has played an integral role in molding San Diego's music and art scene, shifting the sound and standard of the city throughout the years. From the days of Downtown's electronic music explosion in the early 2010's to curating parties like the Do-Over now in the present day, Justin has been a large and looming consistent figure behind the scenes. As we wait for Quartyard to re-open it's doors in February, we talked to the mastermind himself and explored his history, his grind and the future of his events in SD. Tune in for some real gems.
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RYO MIYAUCHI: Just to get started, you went to [San Diego] State, is that correct?
JUSTIN NAVELLE: Yup, yup, Aztec for life.
R: Cool. I read that you were already studying event production there, is that something you wanted to do originally?
J: Uhm, no. I was actually a social science major for three years and I was about to graduate, but me and my homie started DJing parties around State and as I was going into my senior year, I was like, "What the fuck am I doing?" So I opened up the school's book, looked through and saw that there was an events major, so my third and a half year in college I switched majors and started going 100%. I got an internship at House of Blues after, then started throwing parties and graduated within five years.
R: Around when did you start thinking that going to parties is what excited you?
J: I went to this rave called Popsicle back in high school, driving from Central Valley to San Francisco. We'd drive to the Bay Area to go to these different raves, so I kind of got a glimpse of that culture. Then when I moved down to San Diego, we started going to LA because we weren't in frats and all the house parties were wack here. That's when I started wanting to do it in San Diego because no one was really doing it, especially for younger kids, 18-19 year olds.
R: What year are we talking about here?
J: I went to college in 2004, so I probably started going to raves in 2002. Back then the only raves here in San Diego were the ones at the Sports Arena.
ANDY INTERNETS: Can you speak on how big Voyeur (the pre-cursor of LED) was to the EDM and dance music scene in San Diego?
J: As far as Voyeur, they took a lot of chances with some really cool acts. They helped build some really great relationships with artists, like Jack Beats and Skrillex. It was a good mix of taste and money -- and they definitely had people willing to spend the money on these acts. Whether it was Dirty Bird Records or Boysnoize Records, they were investing in these cool, new groups and they were really good at it. As far as electronic music in San Diego, that was the first non-trance club. Even the residents, Anthony Ross and Leisure (who later changed his name to Ookay), they invested a lot into those types of artists when nobody in San Diego would and they benefited from it, for sure.
R: How was it like when you first started doing your own events?
J: Well, when I turned 21, it was kind of a transition. A friend of mine started this collective and noticed that I was DJing so he invited me to come out. These guys were DJing Hard Rock's Intervention, Stingaree, and we were actually playing the same kind of music -- Kaskade, Dada Life, the electro emergence of the time. So, we started doing our own night at U31 and eventually all of our friends started getting jobs in these various bars and clubs (Beauty Bar, Bar Pink, U31, etc), so we eventually just transferred our house parties into the club. That's when I met Tim Ortiz from Eventvibe and his partner Matty, who was a DJ as well. I was in college still, so I put on a cheap suit, went to their office and just pitched our crew. That's how I kept developing gigs and six months later, we were playing with [artists like] Benny Benassi. After we started to target the 18+ crowd, Tim, Matt and I partnered up to start Amplified Access. From there, we began doing electronic shows at House of Blues, long before LED was a thing, eventually moving to the Sports Arena. Everything just kind of snowballed.
R: What were some of the obstacles when you were tried to target the 18+ crowd?
J: Kids are fickle. I'm 31 now, but you start to learn that kids in college are easily influenced, as you can see with someone like Lil Pump. I don't get that music at all, but he's selling out thousands of tickets a stop. It made me angry when I was young because I was emotionally attached to the music I was DJing and it was hard to differentiate the business side from what I liked. I had to learn really quick that there has to be a middle in order to be sustainable and have a viable business.
Another obstacle was the competition after 2011-2012 with EDC popping up in Vegas, Coachella's Sahara tent, the explosion that happened. It was getting really competitive, a lot of new business' were coming up and they were spending money on growth and I just wasn't down to get into that competition.
R: So how did that explosion change your projects?
J: It was a double edged sword. It made promoters and event producers either step up or they folded. In any business, you have to look at your competitors set and if you're not anywhere near their realm or don't even know what lane you're trying to be in, you're gonna be fucked. Someone's always coming in with higher aspirations and bigger goals. If you don't think two steps ahead, you're going to get smashed, and I learned that.
R: When you were trying out new ideas, was there ever a time when you thought, "Okay, so this lane isn't the thing I should go on"?
J: All the time. Parties with acid house, I tried to do a Miracle on 34th, I tried to do a couple festivals at Indian casinos, a lot of things.
A: What do you think kept you afloat?
J: Just trying not to be a dick. Also being choosey with your words and the comments and feedback you give to people because, in this industry, everyone is really emotional. So, the ability to keep your mouth shut most of the time and just listen instead of jumping off with what you wanted to say. It's saved me a lot of relationships and kept me from having the reputation of being a hater. It's a character thing.
R: How'd you get involved with Quartyard?
J: Through those relationships. I had an intern at Amplified Access who got a job at Quartyard as the event coordinator, and their director at the time was not completing their vision and the guys who founded the space just didn't have the experience to run the venue (day-to-day operations, maintaining relationships with promoters, doing the right shows, etc). Around that time was when I had just stopped working with Eventvibe and I had just stopped doing Amplified Access, so I met with them and they gave me the opportunity to take over the venue and the rest is history.
R: How has that been different from your other projects?
J: Oh man, it's been so different. In terms of music genre, for sure. Our clientele is different, I'm handling the over 30 crowd now. The direction I want to go is live jam bands, bluegrass, art activations, murals and markets. Make it a real community space. I'm grateful everyday that we were able to connect the dots.
R: Was there anything on the job that you had to pick up on as you were going?
J: Yeah, I still am. Permitting, working with the city, sitting in on government meetings. I had a sponsorship pitch yesterday with a bank firm, which I would've never considered for my side projects (the Deep End). They're all kind of things that I still need to learn to do better, but it's made me a better business person I think. Even the building process and the work with the city, with the Deep End we try to avoid the city at all costs, but after the Ghost Ship fires and the warehouse crackdowns, I really just wanted to focus on sustainability and trying to do right by the community. Doing things right as well as we could and still have an art community that could thrive. It's a challenge.
R: You mentioned the Deep End a couple times. Can you describe more about the mission of the project and what you do there?
J: As far as the Deep End, well I had Amplified Access -- and again, it just goes back to me thinking at one point that music like Afrojack was the end all of electronic, before we started getting into deep house. Then we suddenly started getting into acts like Dirty Bird and I wanted to start doing more of that kind of music. So we started a free party on Sunday's at Quality Social, no one went and we made no money, but we still thought it was sick. Eventually we started switching off weekends with another crew that was playing the same kind of music and that's kind of how the partnership between Eric and I started. Since then, our intentions have been just to embrace underground art and culture.
R: Did you start the Deep End around the same time you got in with Quartyard?
J: Before. I worked with Eventvibe for five years and we were doing rave raves at Bassmnt, Fluxx and Intervention, and at the same time we started doing the Deep End just for fun to play more progressive house. Once I stopped working with Eventvibe, it just made sense to focus on the Deep End. It wasn't even until last year that we started getting really serious about it and started investing in developing bigger events and putting more money behind the shows.
R: The Deep End sounds more like a passion project in comparison to your other projects. How do you keep from not losing the fun as it gets more serious?
J: If you were to ask any of my staff members, they would probably tell you I never have any fucking fun at my events [Laughs]. Now I'm just trying to create opportunity for people that were like me 5-10 years ago, and if I can help with my experience and help someones vision, that's where the fun is. And if it becomes successful and financially viable, that makes it even more fun. My idea of fun now is growth. The way I look at it, the more I grow my business the more people I can activate, whether that's DJs, artists, venues. That, in a nutshell, is what's fun to me now.