Zen Arcade

A new-wave rocker turns into a medical-software developer. A Web site turns into a nightclub. Adventures in branding and reinvention at downtown's Sursumcorda.


At first blush, David Wesley doesn't cut the figure of a hipster impresario. Wearing a neatly trimmed goatee, glasses, and his usual work ensemble of jeans and a dark T-shirt, he looks more like a prosperous techie than a Warholian artiste--and more Steve Jobs than P.T. Barnum. He is pleasant and low-key and, in fact, tends to fade into the background when more than two people are in the room. He seems somewhat ambivalent about his role as an überscenester. During a recent Sursumcorda Radio Hour broadcast, Bernadette asked him how it feels to be a local hipster. "It's changed my life," Wesley deadpanned, making pretty clear that it hasn't.

Like his club, Wesley seems to have something of a dual personality. On one hand, he is an artist and dreamer--a "big-picture guy," according to one acquaintance--who rhapsodizes about Brian Eno and raver psychedelia. In the next breath, though, he sounds more like a midlevel marketing executive, discussing plans to leverage the Sursumcorda "brand," forge strategic alliances with local booking agents and music venues, and actuate his business model. When he talks about "defragmenting" Sursumcorda's various enterprises, one gets the sense that he's also talking about putting together the disparate pieces of himself.

"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley
Craig Lassig
"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley

Wesley, who is 37 years old, grew up in Hastings in an isolated country house filled with antiques collected by his parents. His father, he explains, was also a jack-of-all-trades: a dentist, a photographer, and a banjo player in a modestly successful Dixieland band. Though his father encouraged him to enter "anything but show business," Wesley says, he also bought his eight-year-old son a dime-store ukelele. "I've been playing guitar ever since," Wesley explains. "I knew I wanted to do something with music. It didn't come naturally, necessarily; but I was just driven. So I kind of taught myself to sing. Or rather 'vocalize,'" he adds with a self-deprecating laugh.

Throughout high school, Wesley played in various short-lived bands, most of which were influenced by Seventies postpunk and the new wave (which, not surprisingly, hadn't quite caught on in Hastings yet). During one of these stints, he met Fluegel, who had the virtue of owning the coolest synthesizer in town.

Wesley was also captivated by technology. "I've always been fascinated by buttons," he says. "I need to be around tons of buttons. And airplanes. I always liked planes." As a boy, he says, he used to stand in a field near his home and keep a log of planes that passed over. When he went to college in North Dakota, he imagined that he'd become a pilot. Instead, he got an economics degree and went to work for a consulting company. He also continued to chase rock 'n' roll fame with middling success. (In one episode worthy of Spin¨al Tap, a drummer in one of Wesley's bands quit because he thought Wesley's lyrics were "anti-Christian.") "We were just kind of idiots," Wesley recalls. "The fact of it is that when you're in a band and you're not getting laid or making money, you break up."

Though Wesley's musical career seemed stuck on the launch pad, his business career--which, paradoxically, he'd gotten into mostly to finance his music--was taking off. Wesley, who developed tracking software for healthcare management, formed a spin-off company and, for the next five years, played the New Economy roulette, taking meetings with investors and dreaming of an IPO that never materialized. He only wanted to make enough money, he says, to build himself a state-of-the-art recording studio, which he admits in retrospect was a "kind of stupid" reason to work so hard.

By the mid-Nineties, after an initial flourish of success, Wesley's company was foundering. When he finally sold it in late 1996, Wesley recalls, he was severely depressed. (He'd also been recently divorced from his first wife.) Then, on the cusp of a midlife crisis, he began to go through a personal renaissance. "It was a really cathartic time," he recalls. "I just made a commitment to being prolific and going with the flow. I taught myself to stay up all night, and quit drinking for a year."

Wesley says he initially conceived of Sursumcorda.com as an outlet for his own music. "At first I just put on stuff that I liked. I wasn't filtering content or anything like that. Then people started asking me, 'Can I come on your Web site?'" Sursumcorda.com grew--as Wesley hopes Sursumcorda will grow--through word of mouth.

Wesley, who has dabbled in various new-age philosophies, was drawn to the Net because of its utopian possibilities: Like rock music, the Web is a community organized around abstractions. "There's something about the instant gratification you get on the Net," he explains. "It's the manifestation of the global mind."

It never mattered that Sursumcorda.com's regular audience has probably numbered in the hundreds. The Web was a free and risk-free space for Wesley and his friends to indulge their catholic interests. Along with musician and artist Mark Bowen, Wesley began cohosting The UFO Show, a genuinely odd Web-radio broadcast centered on extraterrestrial occurrences. "I don't consider myself a paranoid conspiracy theorist," Wesley explains. "But growing up in the country, I've always had this irrational fear of being abducted. If I ever went under hypnosis, they'd find some pretty weird shit."

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