A venue as heralded as The Dead Rabbit requires a DJ to match the top shelf service and ambiance, so step forward Kenny Mathieson.
The Dead Rabbit is known to Irish New Yorkers as the 19th century saloon (bar seems too plebeian a word for it) located at 30 Water Street in Lower Manhattan. You may already have heard that it won the “World’s Best Bar” and “World’s Best Cocktail Menu” at the Spirited Awards and the World’s 50 Best Bars respectively, representing the industry's highest accolades.
Mathieson first learned his trade in Belfast in the early 2000s, in one of the most obsessively exacting musical cities on earth.
It turned out to be ideal training for his emerging talent, because if you can take the locals minds off the their political map and focus them instead on the music, you'll be ready for New York and anywhere really.
“I got my degree in print making and at university I stated getting involved in bands,” he tells the Voice. “I was a concert cellist when I was younger and I've been involved in music all my life.” Classically trained, he has played with many orchestras and in 1999 he was invited to Belfast to join the band Olympic Lifts, a legendary local act.
“I thought the band would last for about a year but I ended up living in Belfast and playing with Olympic Lifts for years. We signed to an independent label in Germany and recorded three albums, touring around the world very extensively, including to Europe, Japan and the USA.”
But in 2006 Mathieson got even more involved in DJ'ing in Belfast. This led his German label to send him on the club circuit around Europe and Russia. For there he got involved in another band in 2008 and they recorded another album.
Around 2013 he came to America on holiday and, as luck would have it, it was just a few weeks after The Dead Rabbit opened. He happened to know the managers Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry from their previous lives at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast. Jack had by this time won the World's Best Bartender award and both men had just opened their exciting new venture in New York.
“It was sheer luck that they had both been talking about getting a resident DJ and they had even mentioned my name as an example! The day after I walked into the bar and they asked would I be remotely interested? They volunteered to sponsor me to take on the mantle of musical director taking care of all the musical aspects of the running of the venue.”
Remember, The Dead Rabbit has won just about every major industry award, so becoming musical director there is no small undertaking, because the playlist has to be the venues personal stamp, and their hard won reputation is on the line nightly.
Muldoon and McGarry clearly trusted Mathieson to put his distinct musical stamp on their multimillion dollar business, and that in itself tells a story. “I started in 2014 and I have been here ever since,” he says. “My life is pretty much solidified here within New York now,” he adds, with other burgeoning Muldoon and McGarry premises requesting his musical skills.
It's a story in itself how these three men, who first met in Belfast, have taken on the world and made a name for themselves in the Big Apple (because the saying is true, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere).
“In any Irish bar music plays such a huge role, but in Belfast it's obsessive. It has a history stretching back centuries as a center for musical excellence and it's a thing that we all take very seriously. With my experience I have managed and maintain playlists for a number of bars in Belfast over thirteen years and through that experience I have learned the art of reading the room in New York.”
The real skill of being a DJ is to see who's there, who's listening and provide what they want on the night, to pique their interest and at the same time compliment the environment of the building itself. Don't expect autotune anthems that are floor fillers elsewhere, instead expect music that will elevate your mood and often surprise you.
“That kind of attention to detail is something I have been doing for nigh on twenty years, and there's real power in it,” Mathieson explains. “As a curator and compiler of playlists you have to know the the unique venue and the audience and you have to have experience and a wide knowledge of so many genres of music to respond to it.”
The reason that The Dead Rabbit wins so many accolades is that it goes the extra mile to create an authentic Irish and Northern Irish experience. They need a DJ who understands and can provide that ambiance and luckily with Mathieson they have found one. “The Dead Rabbit would be a hit in Belfast as much as New York because we have worked to make sure it would fit right in. What's unique and award winning about it is our individual attention to details. Only we can provide this very particular experience.”
Check it out! Here's a Forbes report on "The Dead Rabbit: What It Takes To Be The World's Best Bar":