Interview: Dustin Zahn

Dustin Zahn

When people speak of techno from the Midwest region of the US, it’s almost assumed they are talking about Chicago or Detroit. But thanks to years of hard work from artists like Dustin Zahn and DVS1, a third Midwestern city is gradually entering the consciousness of those who listen to techno: Minneapolis. And so, it was only appropriate that for this interview (published on the day of Dustin Zahn’s first album release), we put the proverbial microphone in the hands of one of Zahn’s long-term Minneapolis-based friends Mike Derer. 

Mike: Growing up in rural Wisconsin, what prompted your move to Minneapolis?

Dustin: I needed to be in a bigger city that had reputable colleges to make Mother and Father proud. I also needed a big airport for gigs, and a techno scene to stay inspired. Minneapolis was the best choice for sticking close to home, and probably the best life choice I’ve made to this day.

You made Minneapolis your home for several years before making Berlin your more permanent home. What are the pros and cons of living abroad for you?

  • Pro: There is always something going on every night of the week.
  • Con: There is always something going on every night of the week.
  • Pro: I’m in Europe, and I can get almost anywhere in less than 90 minutes on a plane.
  • Con: I’m in Germany. (I’m only joking, mostly)
  • Pro: Berlin is the de facto Techno capital of the world. I live 5 minutes from some of the greatest venues on the planet that house resident DJs that happen to be the best there is. Simply put, every night out is an education if you pay attention. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do from the States, and I wouldn’t have developed myself this far as an artist and a music collector if I didn’t live here.
  • Con: Life moves on without me. I haven’t seen my parents much. I missed out on watching my siblings grow up, and my friends move on to different paths without me.
  • Pro: I’m seeing the world!

New Day Rising was your most recent EP on your own imprint, Enemy Records. It was your first solo release in over 4 years. You did quite a few remixes during that time span, why did you take such a long break?

It happened that way for a few reasons actually. The biggest reason is because I moved to Europe, and that took a lot of time and energy. I didn’t have a proper studio until last summer. I wrote half the album in my living room in Berlin. I still have an actual studio in Minneapolis, but I’m never there.

The other reasons were because I didn’t have much to say musically, and quite honestly, I didn’t really need to make any music. I’m not one of those guys that will make music just to get booked. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to play every weekend and when I did write something, it wasn’t good so there was no point in putting anything out. So in the mean time, I did a few collaborations, compilation appearances, and the odd remix. Since then, I’ve actually stopped doing remixes for the most part.

Your long awaited ‘Monoliths’ album on Drumcode comes out March 24th. Techno is always an evolving genre, what should people expect in your album?

It’s a club album more than it is a home-listening album. My concept was to pull off the big-room techno vibe without subjecting myself to the clichés that plague these kinds of tracks. Since I wrote it, it inevitably gets fairly deep by the second half. It’s pretty standard for techno producers to make an album chock full of stuff that isn’t techno. I can’t argue that because it’s probably the most interesting route to take in the LP format. However, let’s be honest…most techno producers are not very good at making other styles of music. I’m not that great at it either, but I’ve actively started pursuing other genres again for fun, practice, and to become a more of a well-rounded musician.

I think an album is something that should highlight where you stand in your career, and highlighting your weaknesses seems a bit odd to me. This is why I don’t understand why producers take their first efforts at something different and make an album out of it. I decided to do what I do best and sum up my career so far, rather than hint at where it may be going. I’ve already started work on a new album. I have a handful of tracks and it’s not techno at all. It’ll probably be a different project and I wouldn’t release it until I’m confident that it matches or transcends the production quality that people expect from my techno works.

You will be on tour in the spring and summer promoting your new album, you’re known for marathon sets and unique sets. Where are some of your favorite places to play besides of course, Berghain?

I guess Berlin and Minneapolis are obvious choices because they are both home to me. Aside from the obvious choices, I think New York and Paris have really been on fire in the last couple years.

I’ve played in New York a handful of times in the past 18 months and it gets better each time. The crowds are really enthusiastic and also fairly open-minded. There are some really nice promoters and venues there as well. Output is an amazing club. It’s easily the best in the country and probably in my top 5 for the world right now. Those guys get it. They’ve done their homework and paid attention to every detail. Paris is a city I only play twice a year maybe, but it’s always so cool! I’ve played everything from my hardest sets to my “house-iest” sets, and the people there are open to it. When I first started going, I didn’t care for either of these cities to be honest. But now I totally love both of them for a variety of reasons.

The majority of my gigs take place in Germany and Italy. They’ve both been a bit hit-or-miss more than usual in the past year or two, but that’s also what makes it amazing. You never know what the weekend is about to bring. I’ve had some of the best nights of my life in both countries. And of course in Italy, you’ll never go hungry!

Being on the road a lot, you visit a lot of cities, countries and spend a great amount of time in airports. Outside of the music world, how do you enjoy spending your time, also do you have any hobbies?

Honestly, I have no life right now. This is all I do. Music is it for me. I don’t have free time anymore. If I have free time, I’m in the studio, record shopping, or scouring the net for new music. I used to have a life though, and I’m looking forward to getting that back. My last hobby…I was pretty heavy into bowling for a while. I fell in love with scuba diving last summer. I want to do more of that when possible, and I also want to build a drone to fuck with people.

A lot of producers are generally pretty quiet when asked what gear they’re using in the studio. What 3 pieces of gear are your favorites to use in your productions?

I’m no different. I’m more interested in ideas rather than tools. Mystique is also more intriguing.

In 2003 you started your first imprint, Abiotic Recordings. Abiotic had several great releases from heavy hitter producers such as Oscar Mulero, Inigo Kennedy, Bryan Zentz and Heiko Laux to name a few. Why did you decide to retire the label?

The label folded along with its distributor. It wasn’t losing money, but the problem is the label came along a little too late. It was hinging on a model of techno that was quickly being replaced by the minimal boom. I spoke to some other distributors about keeping it alive, but it was an upward battle that wasn’t worth the time or effort quite frankly. Looking back at it without being up my own ass…I think Abiotic started with more of a focused vision than most newborn labels do. We wanted to fit in with what was happening and inspiring us, but we also understood that it was important to be different.

On your Enemy label, you have found many producers whose previous work wasn’t in the limelight. How did you come across artists on your label such as Flug, Emmanuel, and UZB?

Every producer has a different story. I generally don’t accept demos in the classic sense at the moment. It’s nothing personal… I’ve just decided I want to focus on a small handful of talented people and help them build something they can be proud of. If I involve too many people, the focus gets lost and you simply become a number.

For the sake of story, I met Flug in Barcelona when he booked me for a club night. I heard some of his music before so there was some familiarity. We got along well and he sent me some amazing tracks shortly after that which I signed. He’s also a great guy. That’s the thing with each person on my label. I only want to work with friends. If I can’t connect with these people on a personal level, then it seems too much like business.

Emmanuel is someone I chased down. I keep my ear to the streets and he was regularly putting out great tracks but I knew he could get better recognition, so we connected and it worked out well. UZB as well as Regal, are also two very interesting finds to me. Like I said, I don’t check my email. But for some reason, the way these guys wrote to me jumped out at me in my inbox. I had this gut feeling that I need to read these emails. I don’t remember what they said, but I knew they wrote to me personally. They knew exactly what they were doing.

I’ve heard from a lot of artists the biggest struggle they have is keeping a balance between their personal life and music life, how do you keep a balance that doesn’t leave you burnt out?

That’s true. I’m terrible with this, too. I hit a wall about every 6 months on average. If you pour your heart and soul into it like I do, there is nothing you can do to keep from getting exhausted. One of the many things I’ve learned is you can’t make everyone happy. You have to learn to say “no” to a lot of things or you’ll lose your sanity.