The sordid tales of Dan Sordyl: News cameras long gone, owner of former Motor nightclub talks openly about his experiences

Motor ad_small A young woman, having taken too much Ecstasy, overheated. The nightclub’s head of security frantically dragged her into a snowbank outside the Hamtramck bar to cool her off. She died a few days later.

A young man was shot and killed outside the club. This drew out a local TV news crew, cameras blazing. Doesn’t the reporter care about hurting the business? No.

There wasn’t even much profit when these events occurred in 2001. Customers got in free, thanks to a generous guest list. The DJs were pushing their fees well beyond $10,000 just for a few hours of mixing records — at a club that could only hold only 1,000 people.

Yet the club proprietor describes himself as one of the luckiest people ever to have run a business.

The Motor Lounge in Hamtramck, or Motor as the name was changed to shortly after its opening in 1996, was the spiritual home of the local electronic music scene during the early and formative years of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, now known as Movement. Though it officially had nothing to do with the festival, apart from sponsoring one of the stages, the most active supporters of the scene at the time spent more than a few nights listening, talking and planning within the club’s dark, no-frills walls.

On April 16 this year, almost nine years after the club closed its doors, a reunion party was held. While some hoped Motor was testing the waters for a possible reopening, it was quite the opposite: The building’s new owner plans to open a grocery store there. Dan Sordyl, one of the owners of the former Motor, simply saw an opportunity for one last hurrah. While tickets sold out in two weeks, he believes the people who went did so for nostalgia, not because they were looking to party at Motor again every weekend. (However, Sordyl said the trademark, logo and Motor name are still held by Sordyl and co-owner Carlos Oxholm.)

Of Motor’s two to three owners during its six-year run, Sordyl was the man on the floor. When the club closed in 2002, he said he had had only six weekends off since it opened. The hard work of Sordyl — and the promoters he put in place to bring in the world’s best DJs — earned the club international acclaim. In 2000, electronic music magazine Urb named Motor the best nightclub in the country.

That was the highpoint. While the club often managed to fill its 1,000-person capacity on Saturday nights, it was becoming harder to do as entrance fees rose to meet increasing DJ costs, and the guests, diehard though they may have been, started getting burned out on the same venue, same people, same routine every weekend.

And then there were the deaths. New Year’s Eve 2001 was the night a young woman overheated and subsequently died. May 2001 was when a man was shot and killed outside, a victim of what Sordyl heard was bad blood over a past drug deal.

The club hobbled along for more than another year, but its struggle was apparent to all. It was no surprise when Motor announced its final night in late summer 2002.

Nine years after shutting off the Motor and a few weeks ahead of a festival that has since continued to hold down Detroit’s status as a techno city, Sordyl, in an interview with Gary Anglebrandt, talked freely about his experience as owner of what was once called “Detroit’s most dangerous nightclub.”

So what are you doing these days? Your voicemail says Bloomfield Construction.

Yeah, I’m completely retired from the entertainment business. I get up every day at 6:30 and I love the sunrises now. For 20 years I didn’t see the sunrise except if I was up too late. … I’ve always been in construction. I was the designer, the architect of Motor’s interior even though I came from managing St. Andrew’s and managing The Shelter and managing Industry in Pontiac. … I’m an estimator and project manager. It’s good, I like it. It’s never the same thing twice, and it pays me well.

It must be a lot quieter than the Motor life.

The thing I realized in the end was after 20 years of being in the nightlife business, people tend to get a little too drunk at times and I found myself not wanting to be at work because I would have to interact with all these drunks. There were days when I’d be standing there and everybody would be having a great time, but I’d be having the same simple conversation over and over and over again with all these drunk people. Not to get negative, but I just got tired of the nightlife.

So many people probably imagine Dan Sordyl saw all this crazy stuff, what a wild life, but actually it was kind of boring?

Oh no, there was a lot of craziness. Some of the craziest things that could ever happen to you happened to me in the nightclub business.

Care to share?

Well, things like the Smashing Pumpkins showing up at Motor at exactly 2 a.m. when we’re closing. Their purple tour bus pulls up out front at Motor in Hamtramck, right? How often does a big purple tour bus show up in Hamtramck?

Probably more than we think.

Yeah, maybe. So they pull up at two and they come in, their road manager comes in, says, “Hey, we were told to come here, that this is the best place to party in Detroit, and we want to hang out with you guys.” And so we kept 50 of our closest friends and we had the DJ playing the back room and we had a party for the Smashing Pumpkins in the back room with about 50-60 people. We had Clark Warner stay and DJ, and about four in the morning there’s a knock at the back door and somebody that was hanging out opened the door and it was 10 Hamtramck police officers with a video camera, and they came in and they videotaped us, about four, four-thirty in the morning. They videotaped everyone drinking and partying at the Motor and what not, so they wrote us up for a ticket, and the very next day I went to the chief of police’s office at eight in the morning and sat there and waited for him, and when he showed up I went into his office and I said, “Listen, I know this looks bad on the surface, but I need to explain something to you.” I said, “If you owned a nightclub and the Rolling Stones showed up at your nightclub and said, ‘We heard you had the coolest nightclub in the city and we want to have a couple drinks with you guys,’ would you tell Mick Jagger he can’t come in and had to go home?’ ” And he said to me, “I’d let Mick Jagger in, and we’d probably have a couple drinks.” And I go, “Well, the Smashing Pumpkins — at that time — are kind of the Rolling Stones of our generation.” … It was like a scene out of a movie, though. There’s a huge stack of files on his desk, right, and the Motor thing is on the top. He grabs it, lifts up the pile and goes like this, “You see this?” He goes, “This is going to live at the bottom of this pile. As long as I don’t hear any more complaints about Motor, or you guys don’t get any more violations, this will go away.”

Did you get a lot of violations?


How was your relationship with the Hamtramck officials?

They were great till probably about three years into it and then the chief of police … all the police were hanging out at Motor … mostly off-duty, so the chief of police sent out a note to everybody on the force that said no one’s allowed to be in Motor, on-duty or off-duty, unless there’s a call there.


Because there were too many cops hanging out there.


Well, he just felt like there was a lot going on there, a lot of partying going on there late night. It was not a good image for the Hamtramck police … five Hamtramck police officers hanging out every weekend, drinking till six in the morning at a local establishment is not a good idea, except if you’re the owner of the establishment.

How much drug activity was going on there?

At one point at the height of the Ecstasy boom, Motor may have been the epicenter of Ecstasy in Detroit at one point. But I didn’t realize it because I wasn’t doing it. I knew that people were taking it, but I didn’t know to what extremes and until I saw it on Channel 4 news (WDIV). And people, my mother called me and she said, “You gotta turn on the news right now. They’ve got something coming up about Motor.” So I’m watching the Channel 4 news and I see “undercover video,” “local club,” “drug transactions,” sex, drugs and whatever from the local news. So the news story comes up and they actually had button camera video of drug transactions, of people smoking pot, of people rolling joints at tables, of people having sex in the corners, and when I saw all this on television, I was flabbergasted because I was there every night, but I was oblivious. No one, thank God, no one at the club, they tried to buy drugs from every employee at the club, but no one participated, no one directed them in any way shape or form. And that’s what ultimately saved our license was the fact that no employees were involved. … When I saw it on the television, it was daytime, I was sober, and it really looked bad. It really really looked bad and my mom was really upset.

So if there’s any statute of limitations or anything, all that’s in the past, so my readers are going to say, “Oh come on, Dan, all that’s in the past. You weren’t oblivious, you can admit it now.” Are you really saying you were oblivious?

I really am.

Enough time has passed, you’d admit it now, right?

I would, I would. If I was doing Ecstasy there every night, it’d be a great slant to this story that, you know, “Motor’s creator admits he created the place on Ecstasy.” That would be great, but it’s not the case. It was maybe inspired by a little marijuana here and there or whatever, but we facilitated a place for people to come and have a good time. We had an open-door policy, there never was a dress code, come as you are, everyone’s welcome. The policy at the club was if we caught you smoking pot, you got a warning the first time. The second time, you were asked to leave. That was always the policy. The fact that there were a lot of big Ecstasy transactions going on there, we know that the raids that happened because of the Channel 4 button camera raids led to arrests all the way in Germany. … Everybody kept rolling over on each other, and the chain went all the way to Germany. People were arrested in Germany based on the original testimonies of people from Motor that got busted.

Did the TV stations ever follow that up?

No. … So we got hauled into court, and I immediately hired the best liquor liability attorney that I could find and it turned out it was one of my best investments because Hamtramck police were pushing very hard to have our liquor license revoked, and then they negotiated it down to having it suspended for two weeks, which would have killed us at the time because we had commitments. To book international DJs, you have to make commitments two or three months out, and you have to deposit, you have to pay 50 percent of their fees. Sometimes their fees are 10 or 12 thousand dollars. If they shut us down for two weeks, we could lose not only the revenue that would have come in, but we had deposits out on shows that could have been tens of thousands, 20, 30 thousand dollars that were already deposited on these shows. I couldn’t agree to it.

In the end, what ended up happening was my attorney was actually friends with people at the court. I probably shouldn’t be saying this …

Well, like it said, it’s been a while.


It’s been eight or nine years.

So, it pays to pay for good attorneys because they have good friends. It turns out — this is a true story — it turns out, we get into court and we get in front of the liquor control commission judge, whatever they’re called, OK, and my attorney leans over and she goes, “Don’t worry, this one’s handled.” It turns out that the guy on the bench was her roommate in law school and he was filling in for the magistrate.

So you got totally lucky?

Totally lucky. So it was like good karma. You know, my whole life has just been filled with extremely lucky situations like that where it’s just like, I’m the luckiest guy that’s ever walked. I really believe that. I don’t know anyone that’s more lucky than me.

When you’re thinking back on the old days of Motor, what — besides Smashing Pumpkins — what’s another thing that really pops in your mind?

Something that comes to mind frequently, it was a really strange event. It was Thanksgiving eve. It was Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. They were doing a four-turntable tag team set, and here we have the originators of electronic music playing in Detroit. The energy in the room was so amazing, it was just like everyone was smiling and dancing and you could just feel this joyful energy in the crowd. It was intense. Right around 1, at the height of the party, all of a sudden the sound and the lights went (he makes electrical dimming sound) and it was a brownout. It dimmed to practically nothing … and we couldn’t figure out what happened. But come to find out about half an hour later we blew a transformer down the alley playing electronic music with the originators of electronic music. It was almost like we sucked so much power, the electronic music was drawing so much energy through the lines, that we blew a transformer.

You said you got tired of the drunks and everything. What are a couple of the thumbnail things you remember?

You know my discontent towards the intoxicated came much later, after Motor. … It was also fueled by a lack of inspiration. I felt like the places that I was promoting, the events that I was promoting, really didn’t inspire me, but I knew that they were going to make money, that this is what the club wanted.

Let’s go back to Motor. What’s one thing that stands out with the crowd?

The crowd at Motor always came to have a good time. Out of all the venues I worked at, we had the smallest security team at Motor because it was such a nonviolent crowd. … I used to get really high on the energy that was created at Motor. I really did. I did Ecstasy at the club one night and I got so high I had to leave. I couldn’t enjoy it because where I was personally, people coming up to me.

That’s the one time you did Ecstasy there? The only time?

The only time.

I have to ask you about this. … I remember (Motor ad designer and promoter Joshua Glazer) had that ad that called Motor “Detroit’s most dangerous nightclub.” I think that ad came out the day of, day before, day after the club-goer woman died of overheating.

That was a low point, a very low point for Motor. The lowest point. … I remember the feeling of uuuhhh coming over me when I realized.

And she didn’t die at the club, she died later at the hospital.

She died later in the hospital, but she was brain dead when she left the club. (Those who warn against the dangers of Ecstasy use say one of the primary risks is overheating due to dehydration.)She had overheated, her boyfriend was an Ecstasy dealer, and he was in the ladies room locked in a stall with her. She was passed out, and he was flushing his drugs down the toilet instead of getting her help. By the time we got to her, she had already overheated.

When did you hear about it? What was the situation?

I told you earlier that I was the luckiest man that I’ve ever known to exist, and that night was another stroke of luck for me personally because it was a long night, because we got to go till four in the morning, and I was in the office just chilling in the office, just killing some time, and I actually missed the time that she was discovered until the time that the ambulance had pulled away from Motor.

Didn’t your employees come tell you?

Well, everyone was responding to the emergency, and I never carried a radio because I didn’t want to be bothered with, you know, you listen to a radio all day, you gotta listen to everything that comes across a radio that doesn’t pertain to you, and 80 percent of it didn’t pertain to me.

That’s why you have employees.

Yeah. So I didn’t have a radio, so I didn’t know what was going on when I came up from the office that was in the basement, and the ambulance was driving away. So I missed most of that, which was very lucky on my part because Bear, our door guy, I mean he was on the front line there. He was giving her CPR in the alley and had her packed in snow trying to cool her down and trying to save her life until the ambulance got there. He felt like he had failed because she died and because he was, like, on the front line. So I missed that, and I would have been there.

So when you heard that, did you break into a cold sweat?

Yeah, I totally deflated from a New Year’s Eve high to the lowest of lows. I think I left the building 20 minutes after the ambulance left because I could not stay. Physically I couldn’t stay and talk to people. … After this we made a rule that if there was anybody ever passed out, that you immediately ran to the bar and got two bottles of water. You pour one bottle of water over their head, and if they don’t come to, you pour one bottle of water over their chest, and if they still don’t come to, you call 911. And that was the new rule.

Was that based on advice from a lawyer or a doctor?

No, that was my theory on how to save somebody. … About six months later, there’s a girl passed out and I’m the first one there, so I run to the bar and I grab two bottles of water and I run over to her and I pour the first bottle over her head and she comes to, and she looks at me and she’s mad at me. She’s like, “Why did you do this?” She said, “The flowers were so beautiful, and the air was so perfect.” And she’s going into this like dream scene of how she was drifting through this paradise. And that I was the f**ker that brought her back from this paradise. So I think to this day that I saved her life.

Oh, you think she was …

I think she was drifting, I think she was drifting off. I think her brain was on the verge of overheating. It was a hot summer day, this was, like, six months after New Year’s Eve. … That’s when you realize the line between life and death is really thin.

Let’s go back to some of the easier stuff, some of the business stuff now. Are they knocking down the (Motor) structure to put something else up?


They’re using the same structure but putting in a grocery store.

Yeah. That’s a rumor that got started.

Technically, you still have it and you could resurrect it if you wanted to.

Oh yeah. We own the trademark on the logo and the name.

And you still have Motor LLC registered?


How often do people come up and ask if you are gonna open up a new club?

All the time. Actually, people come up and ask me to open, please reopen, please do something, somebody has to do something. I hear it all the time from people, that they’re just bored with what’s going on in Detroit and that they really are looking for something exciting again.

How quickly did the reunion show sell out?

About two weeks.

And that’s what, 1,000?

We sold 850 tickets in two weeks.

That’s sold out there, right?

Yeah, well that’s their legal capacity now. The fire marshal lowered the capacity. It used to be 1,000. … I think we could have sold 2,000 given the hype was going around.

What was your peak year revenue-wise?

You know, I never, I gotta say I was probably one of the best and worst club owners that ever lived because I never really focused on the financial aspect of the business. As long as we were able to continue doing what we were doing and we made a little bit of money, you know, I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you what my best financial year was.

More than $1 million?

No, no. We gave away the house at Motor. When we did 1,000 people, there were 400 people on the guest list and 200 of them were drinking for free. … We could never really be profitable because we gave it all away.

You were profitable though, right?

Yeah, we made money but not as much as you would think.

So do you have an idea of what your peak revenue was? $800,000? $500,000?

You know what? I really don’t even know. It’s pretty funny though that I don’t. You would think that I would know. I mean, it’s only six years. You would think that I would know that we did $800,000, $900,000, $1.1 million, went down to $900,000.

Are those the kinds of numbers you had, though, like about $500,000, below $1 million?

Yeah, we probably were between $500,000 and $1 million most years.

So the chances of a new Motor are totally not happening, right?

You know what, never say never. Under the right circumstances, there could be another Motor.

Is that totally just hypothetical at this point?


You have no serious plans or anything?


Why won’t you open a new club, or why shouldn’t someone else open a new club?

I’m not interested in it right now because I look around and I see all the other venues in Detroit struggling to make money. And although I know that I could be successful, the question is how long can it be successful? In the nightclub business, your shelf life is three to five years? Motor got six. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy on the planet again.

The idea of a techno club like Motor, do you think there’s not enough of an audience for it?

The music is evolving, it’s always evolving, there’s a big dubstep movement right now. These dubstep parties are selling out all over town. Paxahau continues to throw successful electronic music events. Do I think that an all-electronic music club could be successful right now? Maybe. But not for sure. It’s expensive. To get international talent, you’re going to spend $3,000 to $15,000, $20,000, a show depending on who they are.

What killed it?

Motor died for a lot of reasons. … Electronic music was really booming across the country. … We were under increasing pressure to pay more for talent, and our crowd was diminishing because Detroit saw a lull … 2002 through maybe 2004 was a really quiet time for electronic music in Detroit. … We literally wore the crowd out I think, and I think they wore themselves out to a certain degree. I talk to people now that I see in the scene and they tell me how much Ecstasy they did during those times. Some people would say that they were on three, four, five pills in a night at Motor. I’ve never taken more than one. … After the dust settled and I realized how much drug use was going on, it all kind of coincides with the end of Motor. People were burned out.

How’d you get your startup money?

The startup money was actually, it was $45,000 on my personal credit card, $10,000 from what I had personally saved, a loan from my mother, personal loans from friends and family, and there were a handful of investors that all put in $20,000 each.

What was the total investment?

I think we spent about $300,000.

After this exchange, the talk winds down until Sordyl returns to a story he wanted to share earlier regarding the media fallout following the sidewalk shooting outside the club.

It was the day after one of our patrons got shot in the head on the sidewalk outside the club. The very next day, WXYZ Channel 7 is outside the nightclub getting ready to go live at 6 from Motor outside, right under our sign. And so I go outside and I talk to the reporter or whatever, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” And they’re like, “Well, this is news, people want to know about this stuff. And I’m like, “Do you realize what you’re doing to my business? You’re right out here outside my sign? Reporting that somebody was shot in the head?” I said, “What if this was a random act of violence? We don’t know what happened here. This could have been in front of the Get ‘N’ Go, or in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts. Would you be outside the Dunkin’ Donuts live at 6? Saying that somebody was murdered right here on the sidewalk in front of Dunkin’ Donuts?” And she was like, “Well, no.” And I was like, “Well I want to talk to your producer.”

So they got the producer on the phone, Channel 4, and I’m talking to this producer on a cellphone on the sidewalk at Motor, and I’m like, “Listen, this is detrimental to my business. Why are you doing this to me?” And he gave me some fluff-fluff and told me … that it was news and they were running the story.

So what I did was I went back inside the club and I organized all the staff and I said, “Here’s what I want you guys to do.” It was early in the day when all the parking spaces were open. I said, “I want you guys to one at a time go outside and move your cars as close as you can to the Motor sign and the Channel 4 van. … As soon as the light goes on to go live at 6 … we’re going to set off our car alarms, our horns, we’re going to, you know, interrupt this broadcast.” And it worked. It totally worked.

Your employees were very passionate about the place.

Oh, they were. So we were able to get four or five cars surrounding the Channel 4 van from different sides. Each employee came back in the building and we all went out one by one and got in our cars. I made the mistake of driving my car onto the sidewalk near the Channel 4 reporter. As I was laying on my horn and flashing my headlights … she felt threatened like I was going to run her over. So they actually impounded my car as evidence. But we interrupted the broadcast. They didn’t get their story off. They went live from the sidewalk and “Right back to you Huel Perkins” or whoever the f*** it was. It was perfect. It was great.

May 19, 2011 |