“A Night Out In…” is a series of articles written with the intent of providing a true day-to-day record of my own experience of the contemporary techno scene. It will mostly take place in Detroit, where I am currently living, but will occasionally diverge to include other cities that I visit. The only agenda is to document my subjective experience – not to market or to advertise. These aren’t event reviews, interviews, or gossip columns.
“Detroit,” sighs my new friend Giovanni, “that’s where the real shit goes down.” He says this as we’re dancing to a set by O/V/R (Regis and James Ruskin) at Berghain, Berlin. We’re in the bowels of the club that has become inescapable focal point of the contemporary techno scene. But my being from Detroit took me up a notch in Giovanni’s judgement, even if (outside of Movement festival weekend) I had never experienced techno on the same scale as Berghain ever in Detroit.
I ran into similar reactions at Tresor and Suicide Circus that week. But it wasn’t my place to ruin the magic – to tell them that 51 weeks out of the year, Detroit promoters work relentlessly to fill a handful of comparatively modest venues in the heart of the city.
The truth is that when it comes to techno (and maybe to electronic music as a whole), we’re obsessed with cities. Detroit techno. Birmingham techno. Chicago House. New York Garage. And while the originators and mainstays of these genres deserve all the respect we can muster, the lingering effect is that relatively new producers like me gain instant credibility by having a city like Detroit next to our name when it appears on flyers.
It’s mostly hype, but maybe some portion of that “city aura” is legitimate. As an artist in Detroit, you are competing with generations of talented artists for a slice of a fandom pie that, while enormous in the 90’s and early 2000’s, is a faint echo of its former self. You also face the possibility of having your car stolen or being mugged when you decide it’s time to venture to a show that’s outside the bounds of Detroit’s pockets of relative affluence (Midtown, Downtown, and some of Corktown). But in return, you gain the rare experience of being constantly exposed to incredible techno played by artists that would be accept to face these very legitimate risks for the music.
While the Detroit scene forms the lens through which I experience other cities, this weekend isn’t really about Detroit. It’s about New York. After an extended battle with public transportation (airport train is down, cab driver doesn’t know how to get to Howard Beach Station, subway train goes out of service halfway to my stop, etc), I arrive exhausted at my vaguely “progressive house” themed hotel, the @Loft in downtown Brooklyn. But despite the cheesy club lighting in its elevators and Kaskade-esque sound track, the place isn’t half bad for the price.
I shower off the January chill and am faced with the decision of whether or not to venture out for a show featuring Silent Servant and Veronica Vasicka that night. I lamely opt out – it’s brutally cold and I have no idea how to navigate Brooklyn. Everyone I meet the next day tells me how incredible it was, so maybe that was the wrong call. I get a text from Jordan, a friend of the promoter who booked me this weekend, asking if I would be up for playing on the WNYU radio station the next day. While washing down half a Klonopin, I fire back a confirmation.
The WNYU studio is located in the basement of a university residence hall. Following a stern interrogation from a comically assertive dorm security guard, Jordan and I make it down into the facilities made famous within our scene by the Beats in Space radio program. Neither Sweeney nor any of the other well-known WNYU figures are present, but the collage of polaroids they’ve taken of program participants covers a wall. Jordan kicks things off on some vinyl records (think: Russian Torrent Versions label material), and we spend a few minutes diagnosing technical quirks and pulling out a binder of required public service announcements that we need to intersperse into the broadcast (“Don’t get assaulted on your walk home” sort of stuff).
For the next hour, I fire overly aggressive techno into the New York air waves, being careful not to play any tracks that say the word “fuck.” This is the first time I’ve ever played live on the radio, and I have to admit it was fun to fantasize about the baristas across the city that were likely being asked to change the channel so that college students could focus on reading Jane Eyre for their literature class. I hope at least one of them said no.
Throughout the radio program, Jordan’s friends gradually arrived at the studio and did a tag-team sort of set. Most of them would play later that night at the same party as me. After a short intermission for lunch, we meet up at the venue – and it’s incredible. The space is typically used as a storage room for a middle-eastern dive restaurant that serves a strict catalog of falafel, pizza, and fried chicken. To keep things as underground as possible (i.e., to keep the police from finding the party – which eventually they did anyways), attendants will have to enter in through the falafel shop and walk back through the kitchen to enter a 300-person capacity room submerged in fog and quaking with bass.
The sound rig has been set up by a small local company called Tsunami Bass. My impression was that it was mostly a husband-and-wife team that worked primarily with dubstep promoters to rent out and install speaker systems for temporary venues. Their work was excellent – two stacks of intimidating subs capped with carefully angled speaker cabinets for mid and high frequencies. But beyond the equipment, the attention to detail and forethought expressed by Tsunami Bass was impeccable. Nina, the promoter for the night, was working on finding an outlet to plug in a heavy-duty fog machine. Tsunami Bass had the forethought to look up the electricity usage of the fog machine, how much the circuits of the venue could handle before the breaker flipped, and did the math to add together the energy draw of the sound equipment + fog machine. Without that intervention, you can bet the breaker would have flipped halfway through the night, leaving us in a dark, awkward silence.
Donor, the other headliner for the night, stopped by to check out the space and to take the two of us out for a beer at one of his old haunts, Mug’s Ale House in Williamsburg. Over the sounds of red-faced men screaming at televisions with the hopes of influencing a football game, we talk shop about labels and gear. He has an album coming up on Prosthetic pressings, and another Donor/Truss EP scheduled to be released on the same day. After that, he’s considering switching up his sound a bit. After a couple beers, he drives me back to the venue and then runs home to grab his gear. In the car we listen to shoegazey songs by a group called “Frank (Just Frank)” that I had never heard of, but it reminded me Tropic of Cancer.
It’s only 10:30 when I arrive back at the venue, but there is already a dancing contingent aggregating in front of the DJ. I find myself glad that I didn’t hang out at Mug’s for too long – the opening DJ is playing some fantastic tracks, and the sound system is faithfully reproducing them at just the right sound pressure level for this point in the night. The vibe is warm but maintains an air of sophistication (which will later descend, or ascend, into reckless abandon). The other artists play in succession, each choosing crafty techno with a mildly housey groove to it (but don’t call it tech-house; that’s the gravest sin in this day and age). The opening sets end with an unexpected twist when Excalibur mixes in an incredible jungle track that deliberately shows off the capabilities of the Tsunami Bass sound system. The crowd doesn’t miss a step, and responds with audible enthusiasm.
Next up is Jordan, who plays under the alias Princevali. Knowing that he was performing before me, I had previously looked up his sets on Soundcloud – they were mostly a sort of ambient experimental progression. In his performance tonight, he maintains the feeling of experimentation but builds it out of a solidly techno foundation. I couldn’t list off his gear if I tried – it is a jungle of cables, guitar pedals, a tape delay, a mixer, and a full 88-key keyboard. But he starts playing (while wearing a straw hat, I might add), and it becomes clear that no part of his gear empire was without purpose. Out of curiosity, I pick up the last DJ’s headphones and set the cue to listen to the channel that Jordan’s set is playing through on the mixer. Even through the relatively unbiased lens of closed-cup headphones, it sounds great.
It’s really at this point that I come to fully understand the level of talent present among NYC’s new generation of artists. There was not one moment in the entire weekend where I thought “he isn’t playing the right track.” The selections (and live performances) were crisp and fresh. It’s possible that I just lucked out by hanging around the right group of artists, but my immediate (and maybe crude) thought was that part of the reason for it felt so refreshing is that these Brooklyn artists weren’t mired in the obsession with genre history that Detroit artists are sometimes boxed into. They would play the tracks because they were good tracks – not because they were produced by an obscure artist back in 1997 and can only be found in the dusty bins of forgotten records that grace southeast Michigan. There’s a place for crate digging (and it’s something I still love to do), but unlike wine, the truth is that most techno doesn’t get better with age.
Understanding the history of the music you play is incredibly important, but in my opinion, only the most carefully curated cuts of early techno history really need to be played out to the general public. There are many first and second wave Detroit techno artists that are still making incredible, forward-thinking music (think: Fanon Flowers, aka Mechanism Industries), so there’s no reason to rely solely on decades-old history as a source of authenticity. This is especially true if you really dig deep into the biographies of Detroit artists; you find the quiet, reserved producers like Mutate, who has recently risen back to the surface with the recognition and encouragement of the people at the Blank Code record label, and is now releasing the best tracks of his career. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out his roots.
It’s 1:30 AM, and I’ve been granted the next hour and a half to subject 300 strangers to whatever Ableton will allow me to construct (or destruct). The first part of my set is what could be considered genuinely live: it’s all my original material, 80% of which is unreleased as of yet. The second part is basically me doing drones and percussion over other producers’ work. There’s a noticeable stylistic contrast between the other performers and myself – years of attending hard techno parties have influenced me towards the deafening compressed 909 kicks that to my ears seem totally normal at this point. Mostly neglecting headphones, I play to the EQ’ing of the sound system. Not all of it sounds perfect, but definitely succeeds in keeping the crowd going into the little hours of the night.
I fade out of my set and hand the reigns over to Donor. He plays almost entirely his own original material using a tight integration of Ableton, an iPad app, and three channels on the DJM mixer. Towards the end of his set I can hear him mixing in Spastik by Plastikman. I ask him about it later and he explains that sometimes he’ll mix in a well known classic in order to gauge audience reaction – in order to figure out if the people dancing are seasoned techno heads or just getting into it. His set builds from the deeper and more minimalistic tracks that are included in his upcoming album, into the heavy hitting “Donor / Truss” material that seems to climax the night. After his last track gets cut short by the closing DJ, Donor decides it’s time to get home to his sleeping family and packs up his gear. I find Nina and express my thanks. It really was an incredible event; maybe the best first event I’ve ever seen from a new promoter.
We walk out of the falafel storefront together right as two police officers walk in. After we’ve made it out the door and down the street, we laugh about how perfect the timing of departure was.
Donor offers to drive me to the Nassau subway station, located on his way home, where I can catch the G train back to downtown Brooklyn. On the way, we talk about the different places he’s lived, like Spain during the late nineties, just when the Sonar festival was kicking off and Oscar Mulero was bringing in artists like James Ruskin. He says that the nineties era Spanish techno scene was what made him fall in love with the genre, and that you could go out at any time of day or night and find some incredible party. In a way, it was like Berlin is now.
After almost getting on the wrong G train (to Queens rather than Brooklyn), I stumble back to my hotel. I’m not drunk, just exhausted. I ask the woman working at the reception desk whether it’s possible to get a late checkout time. Based on the fact that it’s 6 AM and I have luggage, she interprets the situation as implying that I have just arrived in the city and need still need to check in. It gets awkward when I have to explain that I’ve been checked in for two days and that I’m just getting back to bed after a night out.
I sleep all way until 1:15PM before my brain starts pacing through the events of the night before and won’t let me fall back into dreams. I play the recent Flying Lotus album on my iPhone’s speaker while taking a lukewarm shower, pack up my belongings, and check out. My flight isn’t until 8, so I resolve to take the F train up to the Dumbo area of Brooklyn to check out Halcyon, the record shop. I’ve ordered from their discogs account a handful of times but have never seen the real deal.
I’m actually surprised at how small it is. The wide selection that appears in their discogs profile always led me imagine a large storefront bustling with hipsters. But with the exception of a group of Asian tourists that walked in (and then out, about 30 seconds later), it was just me and the shop keeper. The floor of the space is a heterogeneous mix of astroturf and pebbles. It makes no sense, and I love it.
I pick up a few records (Skirt, Kondens, and a Stroboscopic Artefacts compilation) and make small talk with the shop keeper, a red-haired and warmly bundled up man named Jay. I learn that Halcyon also does distribution for some American labels, like Lobster Theremin, and even some European labels like Rodhad’s Dystopian. He mentions that they are looking to get more into distribution, so I ask if I can send him an upcoming release on my label to see if they’d be interested. He agrees and we exchange contact information.
I get to La Guardia airport around 5 PM, and continue writing this article while drinking an $8 Brooklyn Lager at one of the “iPad bars” that are scattered throughout the terminal. The airport, like the rest of New York’s commercial spaces, is desecrated by the sounds of progressive house. I try figure out a way to end the first article in this series but for the first time I draw a blank; the rest of this has flowed from my head like a drunken rant. So maybe there isn’t a well-packaged takeaway message, yet. And realistically, I don’t know where this series is headed, so there’s the possibility that there never will be a tangible meaning. But as I board Delta flight #2331 back to Detroit, I leave the weekend behind with a vague feeling of hope.
- Altstadt Echo