In January, Mikey Francis was scrounging for pretty much any gig he could get, playing less-mainstream dance spots like Insert Coin(s) and local LGBT clubs. Fast-forward to now, and the producer/DJ/vocalist/half of local electronic music duo Black Boots not only plays regularly at Omnia and Hakkasan as a resident DJ, but just completed the 40-date Warped Tour with Black Boots bandmate Pedi Amiri.
It’s a stunning turn of events for Francis, for whom transition has been commonplace since the 2011 disbanding of the electro-punk act he co-founded, Afghan Raiders. But successfully moving from the local music scene Downtown as a musician/performer to Strip nightlife as a DJ is anything but common, just like suddenly landing gigs at two of the most popular nightclubs in the country after nearly four years of intermittently playing smaller venues.
For Francis, those four years—2015 in particular—have been defined by timing, especially in regard to the ebbs and flows of electronic music and his new Omnia/Hakkasan residencies (he’s also a resident DJ at Haven Nightclub in Atlantic City), the latter rooted in his budding friendship with Irish expat/Hakkasan regular Fergie DJ, who got him an opening gig at the MGM Grand megaclub earlier this year—a relatively unheard of feat for local DJs. “They’re very against bringing new people in and very protective of their brand, and understandably so,” Francis says. “It’s one of the biggest nightclub brands in the world.”
That early-night gig begat a few more, and after Omnia’s doors opened, Hakkasan Group offered Francis a job supporting headliners in the main room and playing the outdoor terrace on top of any duties at the big sister club down the street—opportunities that likely came because of his willingness to play open-format, commercial-friendly and multi-genre sets along with four-on-the-floor and trap bangers. “That was a personal choice of mine,” Francis says. “I wanted to learn to do that really well.” As a result, he’s not only become more versatile and sharpened his DJ skills, he’s evolved as a producer.
Contrast all of that with just a year earlier, when the house-oriented Francis played under-the-radar DJ gigs while Black Boots crafted trap remixes and retooled its sound, the act having previously struggled to find an audience for its indie/electronic live hybrid. Even with the help of its label, Ultra—one of dance music’s biggest imprints—the duo’s sound didn’t fall in line with the commercial EDM soundtrack of the national nightlife scene. “We were trying to do these indie/rock ’n’ roll-vibe original tracks when everyone was starting to listen to big room/Dutch house-style music,” Francis says. “It just went over everyone’s head … ultimately, the stars weren’t quite aligned.”
But the universe smiled on the act again in November, when its agent at the powerful LA-based Creative Artists Agency asked Francis and Amiri—also known as Lightknife—if they wanted to join the Warped Tour as part of its dance-oriented Beatport Stage. Despite stringent rules forbidding them to play almost anywhere ahead of and amid the summer trek, they jumped at the chance. During the 52-day experience playing 30-minute sets in 100-plus-degree weather and sharing a bus with several acts—including Vegas’ Splitbreed—Black Boots found an untapped, largely teenage market receptive to their industrial-tinged, trap-style bangers and remixes. Francis sung atop the music Amiri pounded out, and the more he interacted with the audience, the more energetic it got—and familiar the experience felt.
“[The attendees] weren’t interested in hearing a DJ set,” Francis says. “You had to go out there and work the crowd, hype them, throw water on them, crowdsurf—like a rock show, which is my roots.”
The experience was so positive, Black Boots is planning to spend time in the studio and map out a college tour for the fall, eager to cultivate a pre-clubbing age fanbase—one demographic already responding to the lifestyle the act projects via social media (especially Instagram). In fact, both Francis and Amiri are signed to Ford Models, which is linking musicians and sports figures to more narrative-based advertising campaigns.
Add that to the brand-building and gig-performing Francis is doing for his solo DJ career—which still favors a more house- and EDM-centric sound—and 2015 looks to remain a whirlwind year, albeit one allowing him to grow more ambitious.
“I just need to release some music,” Francis says. “Now that I don’t have the stress of hustling to get little gigs, I can focus on the bigger picture. I’m excited about everything.”