Walking into the Badlander on a Thursday night at 11 p.m. is like walking onto a movie set. At first, it feels contrived. Young people face the stage, dancing madly to hip-hop and re-mixed '80s and '90s classics, all—it seems—dressed in the most vogue fashions possible. The bar is a blur of cheese-cutter hats, tattoos, bright bangles, strapless sundresses, glam sunglasses and angular hairstyles. Onstage, Dead Hipster DJs Michael Gill and Christopher Baumann take turns masterminding the barrage of dance hits spilling from the speakers. Nelly's "Hot in Herre" is followed by a remix of Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight," and so on. Perched above the scene near the DJs, photographer Abi Halland snaps one photo after the other of the crowd like the paparazzi. It's like a mini Studio 54 without the celebrities.
But, then again, maybe it's not. That movie-set feeling comes from the fact that such an event seems so un-Missoula, so urban in its fashion sense and self-aware sensuality. Looking closer at the scene you can see that it's not really all skinny jeans and white sunglasses. You've got sweatshirts and baseball caps and hiking boots, too. And it's also obvious that people are actually having a good time, not just posing for one. And, in that sense, it does seem like Missoula.
"It's gone pretty consistently well for a while because we have a diverse crowd," says Gill. "It's one of those simple bar tricks, too, where if there are people in a bar more people go there."
It's been two years since the Badlander first started hosting the popular weekly dance parties (which also draws a crowd on Thursdays, admittedly, for its $1 well drinks). Gill started the event originally with Jon Markley after they created Dead Hipster productions and hosted bands at places like the now-defunct Raven Café.
They began with DJing at house parties for their friends and then moved their operation to the Palace before moving it upstairs to the Badlander. Six months in, Baumann took over Markley's spot as a DJ and it was about that time that everything really blew up. The parties went from being Baumann and Gill's circle of friends—with enough room on the floor for break dancing—to sold-out, sardine-packed blowouts. Slow nights hit 250 people, and the duo says that a normal dance party sees 400 paid attendees per night.
"We get bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, going-away parties and whenever people have [visitors] in town they bring them," says Baumann. "I never really expected this. I used to get super nervous and I wouldn't even show my face until I had to go on. I just figured no one would show up. I still think that no one's going to show up, but I'm always proven wrong."
Over the past two years the DJs say they've figured out how to read a crowd. They both unabashedly love mainstream hip-hop and pop music and, generally, when they play stuff they're into and they're having a good time, all goes well.
"Presentation plays into it a lot," says Gill. "You'll have something you're excited about and then the crowd may not recognize the song but they think maybe you might be onto something. So they'll listen."
Sometimes, because they also like more underground music, they experiment with the crowd. It doesn't always go over.
Gill, for instance, plays his music early on in the night, which means the crowd hasn't yet loosened up.
"A lot of the heavy electronic remixes I get really excited about, but...people aren't quite warmed up yet," Gill says. "You can play a song that people don't like and there is a backlash. You learn to switch the song pretty quickly."
And, to get better ideas of what kinds of music will make the crowd go wild, they found just sitting in the Golden Rose next door to the Badlander gives them insight.
"We actually noticed one night when we were in the Rose that everybody would sing along to these certain songs on the jukebox," says Gill, "and I'm like, 'That's the stuff that we need to play. There we go, that's our market research right there.'"
Music, in many ways, is just one aspect of the Dead Hipster Dance Party popularity. Baumann and Gill are sure that having a photographer taking pictures of the crowd heightens the hype. Halland posts her photos on Flickr for people to look at the next day, similar to other national websites like Cobra Snake and Last Night's Party, which host photos from urban clubs.
"We realized so many people were going to the Flickr website every week to look at the photos," says Baumann, "searching for crowd shots of themselves."
And for that reason, fashion is also key. Carly Jenkins, who recently opened Boom Swagger hair salon, often hosts a "pre-steeze" (stylish and easy) party at her house—just her friends and acquaintances, cocktails and two hours of getting styled up for Dead Hipster night.
"It's a dance party and a fashion show and a social club," she says. "It's like dressing to the nines but not to go out and see who you can take home. It feels more like a group of people playing dress up for one another, seeing how experimental your hair or ensemble can be."
The Dead Hipster Dance Party is a phenomenon for Missoula. And while Baumann and Gill like the fashion, photography and party music elements of it, they say they appreciate that it's about having a good time, not about hipster one-uppsmanship. In that same way, they don't take themselves too seriously.
"We're not doing anything original by any means," says Gill. "It's pretty much whatever we can do to make it what it is—a dance party."
Baumann adds, "We're definitely not satisfying artistic creativity by doing it. But it's really, really, really fun."
The Dead Hipster Dance Party starts every Thursday at the Badlander at 9 PM. $2.