The Swarm

February 18, 2013

Firsts: Richie Hawtin...

Andrew Reilly

It would be easy for Richie Hawtin to remain on cruise control. If the techno titan’s first outing with 1993’s Sheet One (under Hawtin’s alter ego, Plastikman) were his only contribution to electronic music, he’d still be remembered fondly. As is the case with many producers, one landmark album is never enough, but even in that regard Hawtin has continued to explore new territories as an innovator of live performance, entrepreneurship (as founder and head of the important M-nus, and beyond), and now, education in regards to spreading and preserving the culture of electronic music.

While at the forefront of the digital revolution in DJing, Hawtin’s invested interest in the future of electronic music has arguably ruffled a few feathers. A denizen of Detroit’s second wave of techno, now currently based in Berlin, Hawtin has become both a global ambassador of the genre and one of its keen mavericks. He’s largely become associated with the minimal techno of the early 2000s, a moment that was unquestionably important, yet, for whatever reason, remains somewhat divisive. Likewise, Hawtin’s insatiable hunger for new methods and mediums has positioned him as a supposed polar opposite to the reactionary vinyl purist attitude of DJs such as Theo Parrish and the like. However, rather than getting too caught up in a debate that would label him as some sort of “defender of digital,” Hawtin has continued to explore the possibilities that have followed his notoriety. His recent college tour, “CNTRL: Beyond EDM,” found Hawtin and some of his cohorts setting off across North America on a surprisingly traditional journey. Their goal was simple: expose the next generation of electronic music fans to the diversity of the scene.

Comprised of panel discussions, technology workshops, and performances, “CNTRL” served as a sort of primer for newer fans. The tour explored the themes, history, and issues that might be seldom encountered by the current EDM scene that values “the drop” above all else. While this new brand of arena-ready electronic music has record label executives clamoring to quickly establish an EDM branch, Hawtin remains steadfast in his commitment to the original intent of the music. Regardless of its recent popularity, electronic music has survived through various iterations and obstacles. This is a scene that values integrity, artistry, and adaptation, from the revolutionary proto-electro synths and drum machines of Kraftwerk to the bedroom experimentation of Chicago acid house. Though he does not claim to be completely representative, Hawtin does have enough of a stake to defend the music from being pigeonholed and eventually brushed to the side as just another cultural trend. To that end, he’s continuing his educational evangelism: at the upcoming SXSW conference, he’s set to have a frank conversation with Deadmau5 entitled Talk. Techno. Technology that will surely raise both hackles and awareness – watch your Twitter! He’s well qualified for that role, considering he continues to simultaneously exist as both a historical eminence and one of the most forward thinkers in electronic music, period. That’s why The Daily Swarm caught up with Hawtin while on the last leg of his “CNTRL” tour to discuss the initial moments and music that profoundly affected him as an artist.

The Daily Swarm: What gave you the idea to do your first lecture tour?

Richie Hawtin: I feel that electronic music is at another whole stage of its development right now, especially in North America. I think the continued success and expansion of electronic music is achieved by talking about it. People need to understand that this scene is rich and diverse.

The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you heard the term, “EDM,” and how has the definition changed since then?

Richie Hawtin: I heard “EDM” only two years ago, maybe a little bit longer. The idea of electronic dance music already kind of pigeonholes the whole idea of what we’re trying to do. This music is made for clubs. If you’re dancing, that’s a beautiful and incredible thing, but after 25 years or longer, this music has a much more diverse sound: this music is for everyday life. It’s for all different types of emotions and situations – that’s why we titled this tour “Beyond EDM.” We want to make people aware that this music goes beyond any one genre, specifically in North America where EDM has become very much associated only with the likes of Guetta and Skrillex and Deadmau5. There’s much more than that typical, or more commercial, sound.

The Daily Swarm: What was going through your mind when you were first formulating a distinction between what is “underground” and what is “mainstream?” You’ve experienced this earlier in your career, but how is the debate being rehashed currently in North America?

Richie Hawtin: I think underground music comes from the heart. It’s very pure: there’s no real reason to make that music except for a belief that this is what you want to do. It just kind of pours out of you. I think commercial music is made for commercial reasons, beyond just that feeling, beyond that you just want to make it for yourself. I think a producer or musician makes underground music for his or her own satisfaction; then you release it and it takes on a life of its own. Sometimes it becomes quite large and big, but commercial music is much more connected to manufacture. It’s music made for a specific reason – reaching the masses – and perhaps for more financial than creative or emotional reasons.

The Daily Swarm: How do you want your “Beyond EDM” tour to benefit people who are maybe experiencing electronic dance music for the first time?

Richie Hawtin: We don’t necessarily want to preach a history; we just want to open the doorway so people can discover the diversity of electronic music on their own. I actually think we’re in an incredible time in the history of music, where the younger generation is much more open to diversity than we were when we were coming up. For us, it would’ve been incredible to wear a badge of being the kid who knew everything about one genre. I think kids nowadays want to wear a badge and be knowledgeable about multiple genres. I think this generation wants to know more. The majority of the kids want to go beyond EDM, and we’re here to help them with that journey.

The Daily Swarm: What was your first experience with electronic music?

Richie Hawtin: In 1979, when I was nine years old, I had a disco birthday party. My birthday cake was a record player, and my aunt gave me a record called Disco Direction. On that record, there was a lot of very typical pop disco tracks, but one of those tracks was called, “Crunch,” by the Rah Band. You listened to this track, and it was so out there, so spacey, so synthesized. A lot of disco records at that time were still more soulful, but this was completely instrumental – it sounded like music from a science fiction movie like Star Wars. Later on, of course, I met Derrick May. I had all these pivotal moments with Detroit techno and Chicago acid house, but I think that record… I just used to play “Crunch” over and over and over again. I used to dance to it in my bedroom by myself. Pure analog fucking rhythm and bass!

The Daily Swarm: What was your first time visiting Detroit like?

Richie Hawtin: Luckily, when I was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, it was 5 – 10 minutes away from Detroit, just with the river separating the two cities. It was like, most people in Windsor – kids and parents – didn’t go to Detroit. At that time in 1979 – 1980, it was the murder capital of America, and people were just honestly scared. Fortunately, my parents were open to going to Detroit, going to the suburbs, going to different malls, and going with my dad to hobby shops. Basically, my parents went to Detroit because it had more to offer than what we could find in Windsor. So, that’s what Detroit became to me later as I started to get my own car and driving out there with my friends. We wanted to go resale shopping. We wanted cool vintage clothes. We wanted different records than the ones that we could find in Windsor, so we went to Detroit. Detroit always offered me more than what I could find in Windsor. It was a new horizon.

The Daily Swarm: What was your first drum machine?

Richie Hawtin: I had a couple of different drum machines – R8’s, and Boss Drum Machines that I was playing with. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a TR-909, though, that I really felt pulled into the whole music-making process. After that, I really started to develop my own sound. I remember the day I had my hands on a 909 for the first time was in London, Ontario: I was with my ex-partner John Acquaviva at his studio and he was like, “Check that one out.” I turned it on, and as soon as I started programming beats, I started to hear the rhythms and syncopation of many of my favorite Detroit records, like those from Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May. It was like, “Wow, that’s the sound I’ve been searching for, that’s the sound of the future.” I think I just sat in front of that machine for months, programming and making beats and learning it inside out. It became kind of like an extension of my body.

The Daily Swarm: Can you remember the first DJ set you witnessed that inspired you to become a DJ/producer?

Richie Hawtin: I used to go out a lot, just dancing and going to all the parties – to places like the Majestic Theatre and St. Andrew’s Hall, watching people like Blake Baxter, one of the early Detroit techno guys. I used to dance to him a lot, and he always had a very eclectic sense of music: he’d play industrial, as well as some hip-hop and techno. He was always inspiring; I’d get on the dance floor and dance for hours. So, I think he’s one of the most important guys that I saw, but the most important person I ever heard was while listening to Detroit Radio WJLB, listening to a mix show called “The Wizard.” I used to tune into that five days a week. It was on around 9, 9:30 at night, for 15 or 20 minutes. I would just sit there with my mouth open, probably not breathing, just listening to how many records he went through, and how he smashed things together. Luckily, I was able to witness him after I started DJing. I had this moment where I was doing a club in Windsor, Ontario, and I talked the owners into bringing Jeff Mills over to do a performance. We didn’t really get that many people: it was kind of a bomb, they lost money, but I sat in the DJ booth next to Jeff, watching him play, looking at the records he was playing, how he was playing them, and what the records were. This was another hugely important moment for my career.

The Daily Swarm: What was it like performing as Plastikman for the first time? It must’ve been nerve-racking, pioneering that kind of performance.

Richie Hawtin: It was definitely nerve-racking because it was something new. I had been used to DJing and playing other people’s records, but getting up in front of people and creating your own music right in front of them was quite nerve-racking. One of the things I loved about making electronic music is that I could do it by myself in the basement of my parents’ house, away from people – nobody watching, nobody telling me what to do, or criticizing me, just my machines and I. Then, to go and take that feeling in front of a crowd was exhilarating in the end, because I was able to really play with the people. I could re-program drum lines and synthesize live and tweak my 303s and really see when I turn one knob, what kind of impact that would have on the crowd and the feeling of the night. I would say those early Plastikman shows really inspired me to take control of my DJ-ing and integrate effects and drum machines. That kind of evolved into Decks, EFX & 909 and how I DJ today with four turntables and drum machines. It’s very closely related, my DJ shows and my live shows. It’s a sweet spot in between.

The Daily Swarm: What drove you to initially create different aliases for your music?

Richie Hawtin: I think many people in electronic music have many aliases in the beginning because you’re testing out things. I had States of Mind, I had F.U.S.E., and I had Circuit Breaker. This was kind of my searching, experimental phase where I was like, “What is the Richie Hawtin sound?” As I honed in on that, I started to get rid of different pseudonyms. Then, when I was in the studio in ’93 working on a new F.U.S.E. album, which was my main moniker at that moment, I started to create this kind of acidic long-form album, which became Sheet One. As I finished it, I knew it was a departure for me. I had found what I had been looking for – this certain sound, this groove, this atmosphere. That’s why it needed another pseudonym. I wanted people, as soon as they saw the album cover, to know it was a Richie Hawtin project, but that it was a departure from what I’d done before.

The Daily Swarm: This past summer, you established your first residency on Ibiza with your Enter night, which included a sake bar concept. What do you find so intriguing about sake culture?

Richie Hawtin: What I love most about Japanese culture, dining, and drinking sake was the ritual behind it; how it brought people together, the ritual of pouring for each other to bring people into deeper conversations and for the community. I think Japanese culture has always resonated with me, the kind of yin and yang of high-tech society, with heritage and tradition. Sake embodies all of that, especially when you start to learn about the heritage of these 19th-generation families brewing their own particular brand, using technology to grow that kind of industry. It’s very much like a small cottage industry of electronic music.

The Daily Swarm: I’m really interested in your synthesis of visual and auditory stimuli. Can you recall the first piece of visual art that really spoke to that connection for you?

Richie Hawtin: That would easily be my first experience with an Anish Kapoor sculpture. I felt very much in line with what Anish was trying to accomplish, playing with depth, space, and time. The ability to walk around his sculptures and participate and engage with them compared to, say a Mark Rothko, allowed me to walk around physical space that resembled the musical ideas in my head. Much of my ideas – stripping down things to the bare minimum sonically – represents architectural points in space and time. Just engaging in an Anish Kapoor is, for me, like a physical engagement with some of my work.

The Daily Swarm: Electronic music lost a pioneer recently in Peter Namlook. What was it like collaborating with him for the first time?

RH: The first collaboration with Peter was a beautiful experience, really laid back and relaxed. I was in Frankfurt for New Year’s Eve with Sven (Väth) and the whole gang, and on the 2nd of January 1994, we went over to Pete’s house. We had never met before; previously, we’d just talked on the phone and communicated. I was playing his records, and he was a big fan of my work, so we went over to his house and stayed three or four days. He cooked great, crazy food like chocolate chicken, made coffee in the morning, and we just made music. It was so relaxed and easy, and so much fun. Especially with the first record, everything flowed so effortlessly. We were just hanging out with the machines, living and breathing in the studio together.

The Daily Swarm: What was your reaction when you first heard about GEMA and its potential to put a major damper on Berlin nightlife?

Richie Hawtin: GEMA and the whole situation with publishing and the legalities of public performance in Germany has always been a hotbed of discussion. You can’t even watch half of the stuff you want to watch on YouTube in Germany just because of the laws and regulations. I think right now there’s a huge outpouring of support to try and go beyond what the legislation is trying to do. Will it change the landscape in the end if it passes? It will, but I don’t see it destroying the landscape. Clubbing, in Berlin specifically, has so much financial support and grows from the music industry. Something will come together to make sure that it survives. Berlin didn’t all of a sudden become a cool city. Since the early 1900s, Berlin, in between the wars, was always a gateway to the East. It was always a melting pot of vaudeville and theater, of culture. Berlin looks within to that culture and that society of acceptance for growth and financial stability. I think there will be a way forward in the current situation.

The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you thought about leaving North America for greener musical pastures?

Richie Hawtin: I was looking at apartments in London in ’94 – ’95 and spending so much time there, but I was so connected to the Detroit scene with my inspirations and parties. I didn’t see that being a possibility, especially because it was a really vibrant scene in North America for electronic music at that point, but in the late ’90s and early 2000s the scene really took a hit. We saw it was harder to find like-minded people who were enjoying electronic music as a lifestyle. It was also harder to find gigs to travel to within North America; there was a constant momentum of flying back and forth over the Atlantic nearly weekly. There were months, if not years, where Thursdays or Wednesday nights I would fly to Europe; on Sundays, I’d come back and would try to be in the studio for a couple days, try and catch up with my friends. It just became really exhausting to connect, and stay connected, to like-minded people. Around that time, Berlin had become a melting pot of new artists, and rent was cheap. There was a lot of momentum with the electronic-music scene in Germany, a whole surge of new producers like Ricardo Villalobos and this whole new minimalistic sound, which I was very in tune with. It just seemed like that was the moment to go. I think it helped regenerate and kind of gave a second wind to many North Americans who left to go there; it’s kind of sustained and allowed their careers and pathways to grow. Now, we have to come back and help re-sow the seeds for the next generation.

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