The idea of big-city clubbing in our own Champaign might seem a little strange to some people, but John “Kosmo” Kosmopoulos, manager at Soma Ultralounge, seems to know what he’s doing. Kosmopoulos has been involved in Champaign nightlife for over twenty years now, starting in Kams’ kitchen in 1985.
Soma, opening this week, is the result of a year and a half of work, and an attempt to provide a memorable night unlike any other venue in town. It is a sight to see. On entering, the eyes are drawn to the bar, which despite a granite-like appearance, glows translucently. This first room features cocktail tables and half-booths designed to allow many more people to share the area. Though it appears narrow, the deep building continues into the dance room, a large room where lounge furniture and a glistening black epoxy floor set the mood while DJs spin. A V.I.P. area is also is in view from this space. Working without even an interior designer, Kosmopoulos has given this town another beautiful space.
“[Other places] aren’t in the same league as Soma in terms of ambiance and atmosphere. Unless you drive several hours out of town, it is not possible to have a nightlife experience like you will be able to at Soma,” says Brian Mertz, who, as DJ Mertz, shares a Thursday residency with friend J-Phlip.
Sounds chic, of course, but one might reasonably ask where the need arises. Kosmo, with his extensive experience, seems to think he’s made the right choice. Having quickly made his way from back-of-house into management, he’s been involved in nightlife at near countless bars and clubs in the area, including his role as one of the original minds behind Gypsy (now Mike’n Mollys).
“It was one of the initial places that drew mainstream bar clientele to downtown Champaign,” Kosmopolous says. “It was a zoo, literally, seven nights a week.”
After Gypsy closed, Kosmopoulos quickly moved on, managing multiple bars on campus and town, including Orchid, Tonic, Clybournes and C.O. Daniels. However, he desired his own project and missed the different, more mature vibe of downtown while working on campus. This led to the introduction of Barfly.
“I fit in better in downtown Champaign,” he says. After doing the vast amount of legwork in Barfly, a buyout left him looking for a new project. Kosmopoulos has really poured his expertise into Soma. This “student of the bar business” predicts an increasing need, as a rising number of young professionals stay in town after graduation or are brought to town by local technology firms. Yuppie appeal doesn’t mean Soma is exclusive-the diverse drink menu runs a gigantic range of prices (from a $2 PBR to a $700 bottle of Cristal champagne), and dance music played there is meant to be universal.
“What is exciting about Soma is it won’t just be hip-hop, but it will be broken beat, house, rock and completely unclassifiable music,” says Mertz.
For the performers, however, it’s all about their craft and business. Kosmopoulos has been very careful about his choices for DJs. Having previously spun house and hip-hop during the late ’80s in addition to his extensive hospitality resume, he’s conscious of what makes a good DJ.
“Many people ask what makes a DJ good-I mean, I can play the same record as they do, but it’s not that. It’s when they play it, it’s how they play it, when they bring it in, feeling the crowd, the way they blend it. Mertz, Jessica and Bozak, are, I believe, the best at that, at least in this town.”
The duo of Mertz and his friend Jessica Phillippe, a rising star as J-Phlip, will be playing deep house on Thursdays. Mertz is looking forward to getting to play weekly with J-Phlip, who recently won a prestigious national competition for female DJs (“Beauty and the Beats”) hosted by BPM Magazine in L.A.
“Playing with Jessica always seems to bring out the best in me. Time flies by playing with her, and while we never practice our sets together, they always make the crowds jump.”
DJ Bozak, who’s playing to the more-mainstream crowd of Fridays and Saturdays at Soma, has numerous accolades to his name. Mertz praises Bozak’s (aka Adam Boskey) maturity and diversity.
“Adam likes leading listeners along to new areas they should know, but don’t. He may play A Tribe Called Quest and something by The Roots, both things that people know but sandwiched in between or right after, he’ll play a track by someone like The Platinum Pied Pipers that is even more dope.”
Kosmo is also enthused about giving Bozak a place to turn ears and heads.
“Bozak has the versatility of going one way or the other without getting cheesy,” Kosmo remarks. Soma gives him many more opportunities, as the management is supportive, and the newness of the space means that he gets to mold his own clientele.
“Kosmo wants me to cross many genres and time periods, playing the best that those areas have to offer,” Boskey says. “He also wants it to be enjoyable by people of all ages. I want to play music that is soulful and funky. I also want to play a lot of my own remixes, re-edits and original productions.”
Soma, as a new venue, also sports high quality equipment. The rig will also include two CD turntables in addition to the standard vinyl decks, which will give the DJs more options while performing. Mertz expects the equipment to remain in shape.
“Because only three or four DJs will be using the equipment regularly, it will stay new.”
Though bars and clubs often imitate life with their complex politics, there is hope that Soma will deliver.
“Without having played a note there, I already feel a great sense of trust from Kosmo, the staff and the owners,” declares Mertz. “Moreover, I completely trust Jessica, and she trusts me. All this trust gives me great confidence in my craft and growing as a DJ.”
Soma is located at 321 Main St. It opens May 25 with DJs J-Phlip, Mertz, and Bozak spinning. Kosmopoulos plans to bring in national DJ talent monthly. First up is DJ Dayhota, one fourth of all-female DJ quartet Superjane, arriving June 16. The nightclub is 21+. Kosmopoulos says the name is neither a reference to the Smashing Pumpkins, Aldous Huxley, nor the location (the club is, in fact, north of Main St.). “The name sounds like what Soma is,” he says.