Photo: Trent Johnson
Photo: Trent Johnson

Inside FYM Productions’ Cryfest

You don’t just stumble upon a Cure/Smiths dance party, Stephen Petix tells me on a call that I’ve been dying to have with him since high school. The crowds he draws for his longstanding Cryfest dance night at the Black Cat are already diehard fans of the music, and he basically gets to geek out with them over the course of an evening.

“These are my people,” he says. “These are my nerds, you know? ‘Cause I’m one of them. I know all the words to all these songs as well.”

Our city’s fascination with Cryfest and Petix’s other 80s dance nights – Depeche Mode and Eighties Mayhem – has spanned nearly two decades. Petix (DJ Steve EP) founded FYM Productions in 2001, and now runs the parties with his wife Katie (DJ Killa K) and friend Michelle (DJ Missguided). The trio also collaborates with DJ Krasty McNasty, Petix’s oldest friend in the world, who he credits with getting him into Depeche Mode in the first place.

February 24 marks Cryfest’s 16th anniversary, and I’m quick to tell Petix that I remember going to the dance night in 2004 as a senior in high school and feeling right at home. I too felt that I was among my people, and have been going back nearly every year. I also tell him that I’ve been surprised he and his fellow DJs haven’t received more press about their nights, because they’re wildly popular and have become even more so in recent years. Turns out that’s part of the plan.

“We haven’t really gotten a lot of press because we never really sought it out,” he says. “It’s really grown and maintained organically, and we really like that. And in the past two years, it’s just forged forward even more. It’s been great.”

Petix says it blows his mind that the dance night has remained popular, and it’s exactly what he and the other DJs want.

“It’s not just about success. It’s about having a fun party that we enjoy as much as everybody else does because if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

His roots in the DC music scene run deep. After moving to DC to play in ska band Eastern Standard Time, he started hanging out at a BYOR (bring your own records) night at an after-hours club on U Street where he learned how to DJ. He was also touring a lot with his band, and after sticking around in Germany at the tail end of a Europe tour, he was amazed by how many Depeche Mode dance parties were being thrown there.

“I was like you know, no one’s doing that here. I could totally do this.”

Back in the District, he was hanging out at Metro Café on 14th Street, which he says is where a lot of area DJs debuted their dance nights (DJ Mark Zimin’s Mousetrap nights, DJ Dredd’s Prince parties, U Street Music Hall Owner Will Eastman’s indie nights, among others). He asked one of Metro’s co-owners, Nick Nichols, if he could try out a Depeche Mode night; Nichols gave him the go ahead and the party was packed.

After Metro closed a year or so later, Petix approached Black Cat’s owner, Dante Ferrando, about hosting another DM party. Ferrando was apprehensive about playing only one band for the whole night, but he gave Petix a shot and nearly 700 people showed up. Petix started throwing the DM parties several times a year, and on April 14, he’ll celebrate the DM dance party’s 17th anniversary.

As those parties picked up, Petix started flirting with the idea of Cryfest. He’d head to dance parties where he’d hear a few mediocre songs, and then a song by The Cure would come on and everyone would flip out; then there’d be another few “eh” songs, and then a tune by The Smiths would come on and everyone would freak out.

“I was like, why don’t we cut out the middle men and just do a night of all Cure/Smiths? And that’s when we came up with Cryfest. We just thought it was really funny.”

Petix says some people take the “rivalry” a little too seriously.

“I’m like dude, I love both of these bands. There’s no beef or anything. I’ve really enjoyed both of these bands since I was in high school.”

Cryfest has since become the largest Cure/Smiths dance party in the country. The third and final mainstay of FYM’s dance nights is Eighties Mayhem, and May 4 marks their first-ever Star Wars-themed Eighties Mayhem party – a play on “May the Fourth be with you.” Petix says they go all out with their themes, putting an impressive amount of effort into the visuals.

Last Halloween, they decked out Black Cat with a Ghostbusters theme upstairs – complete with a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – and Beetlejuice downstairs, including a giant Beetlejuice snake head that breathed fog. It’s clear from speaking with Petix that he and the other DJs have so much fun putting these nights together, from detailed 80s pop culture visuals to carefully curated playlists; I tell him I’m sure it helps that he’s hosting them with his wife and best buds.

“It’s a very tight, tight family of people that we have,” he says. “We just keep it tight like that because it’s better.”

The theme of family extends beyond FYM though, to the venue they’ve chosen to work with exclusively for all of these years.

“Why would I go anywhere else? [Black Cat] is like family. They trust that we’re not going to do something subpar. They know if it’s one of our events, we’re going to come prepared, we’re going to do it right [and] it’s going to be a fun night. We’ve earned that trust and that relationship with them, and we value that. I love the space, and I love the people. It will [remain] our home.”

I’m curious about how he keeps the playlists fresh when he’s working with older music, and he says it has its challenges. For example, The Smiths only have five records and not all of the songs are prime dance floor material. He must be careful not to run out of music early, which happened at one of the first DM nights when he was too excited to get started.

“There has to be a strategy going into it to make sure the night flows well.”

But Petix says he can definitely get more creative with Eighties Mayhem nights.

“I remember there was one night where I didn’t even realize that the whole first set of mine was all female-fronted new wave bands. That was just what I was into at the time. It definitely fluctuates. I just go in [with] what I’m feeling and feel the crowd and go from there.”

Petix’s musical endeavors extend beyond FYM; he plays in metal band Dagger Moon, and has his own band with Katie called Technophobia.

“It’s like our baby,” he says of their dark electronic duo. “We’re like old, dark Depeche Mode [or] old, dark Ministry. Sonically, that’s our reference point.”

They put out an album in 2015, embarked on a five-week tour last summer and are now writing a new album, which they hope leads to a Europe tour. In the meantime, they play local shows regularly at Black Cat and other venues. The couple also owns nonprofit record label Working Order Records, a project they’re both quite passionate about.

“We are very ideological people,” he says. “We’re vegan, we believe in animal rights. We’re all about making a positive impact. We came up with the idea of: why not donate all the money from our records to charity?”

After 45 minutes on the phone with Petix, I can tell that he is the type of person who puts great care into everything he does. He’s genuine, and that gives his dance nights, his band and his record label an authenticity often absent in today’s music industry. And at the end of the day, I finally know the story – and the tightknit family – behind my favorite dance night in the city.

Don’t miss FYM Productions’ 16th annual Cryfest on February 24, 17th annual Depeche Mode Dance Party on April 14 and Eighties Mayhem Strikes Back on May 4, all at the Black Cat. Follow FYM on Facebook at @FYMproductions.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com