Photograph © Christopher Soltis - csoltis.com
Mike Parker is an American deep techno producer and DJ known for his releases on Prologue and his own label, Geophone. He recently played two sets here in Detroit during Movement Festival weekend, to a very positive response from the local crowd. In this extended interview, Altstadt Echo converses with Mike Parker on his recent touring, his new album Lustrations, and his career as a teacher.
AE: So I hear you’re headed out to Japan tomorrow, what’s going on in Japan?
MP: Some gigs! I have one in Okinawa, and then a new place I’ve never played before, it’s in a neighborhood of Tokyo called Kanagawa. It’s some sort of resort beach thing. I’m playing not too late, like in the early evening. It’s one of those places where they don’t stay open too late. Which is kind of cool, I haven’t done that in a while.
AE: From what I can tell, especially based on some of the headlining acts for the Labyrinth festival, it seems like Japan is one of the places that really appreciate the deeper sides of techno. I know they are big fans of Donato Dozzy, so it’s interesting to see. I wonder what it is about deep techno that’s really caught the attention of the listeners over there.
MP: That’s a good question. A good person to ask this question would be Russ from the Labyrinth, he’s sort of the curator of that festival. He’s been living in Japan for a while and he would have his finger on the pulse of this phenomenon I think. If you could get an interview with him that would be really great.
AE: I should try to track him down.
MP: Really great guy. Great to talk to, but of course he’s going to be very busy around this time of year.
AE: In that same vein, you’re one of the few active techno producers in the US. When I think about who is really putting out that sort of hypnotic, sometimes dark but always deep techno from the US, it’s a pretty short list. I think of you, maybe Donor, maybe a couple of others. But there are not many from the US. Most of that sound is coming out of Italy and Munich. You know, with Prologue. They may be the best known label that’s releasing that sound nowadays. So being from the US, from New York, how did you first get in contact with Prologue? Did they listen to your stuff at Geophone and reach out to you, or did you reach out to them, or how did that come to be?
MP: I think Donato was involved to some extent in introducing them to me. They heard some of the Geophone stuff and also Donato had released some of my tracks on two of his labels previously. An EP from me on Orange Groove back in 2007 I believe, and then he released a track and also a track we did together on his label Dozzy records the following year. It wasn’t long after that that I was introduced to the Prologue crew.
AE: So you’ve just released your recent album, Lustrations, on Prologue. Why did you decide to release on Prologue rather than your own label? Larger distribution, or a greater promotional reach? Or were there other reasons behind it, whether artistic, financial, etc. Why go with Prologue rather than do it yourself?
MP: I really liked what Prologue had done for me previously, with the two EPs they released in 2011. And they made the offer. And because I really like them, and respect them, and trust them, I agreed to do the album. It was the right label at the right time. And I was happy to do it for them, for sure. Prologue is very supportive. I didn’t have to think long, it was pretty easy for me to say yes. They’re really good people.
AE: The tracks in Lustrations are somewhat loop-based. They work really well if you’re a DJ. I’ve heard a rumor that if they are overlapped in a certain way there was an intentional design behind them such that they are meant to play really well together. Was that a thought going into it?
MP: Yes, it’s something that each individual DJ has to approach in his own way. The first time I played those tracks was at Berghain, and I think played about eight of the twelve tracks. And certain ones will interact together quite well. But what was interesting to me, and I didn’t consider this before, is that you should try mixing some of those tracks with some of my older tracks. I was really surprised when I played at Berghain, I was playing these new Lustrations tracks with tracks I did seven or eight years ago, and I was really pleasantly surprised with how they interacted. It was very gratifying.
AE: There’s one question I have to ask somewhat selfishly. So I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is about a half-hour outside of Detroit. And it’s where Ghostly International is based, and of course its sister label Spectral Sound. I know that back in the day you released a track for them, which being in Ann Arbor, I just discovered in a record store here called Encore. How did you come in contact with the Ghostly people, and do you have any plans to release on Ghostly again?
MP: There’s kind of an interesting story behind the track that ended up on the Spectral Sound EP. It was actually Ryan Elliot that contacted me from the label. What happened is that the track, which is called Proto-Language, I had given as a demo to Donato several years ago. I want to say it was 2008. He played that at the Labrynth at 2008, just as an unmastered demo. It went very well, and people were asking about it. And I think from that point onward, somehow it reached the ears of Ryan Elliot, and it just came together. Another case of it being the right label at the right time. I was really pleased with the release, it was really awesome to be sharing a record with Matthew Dear as Audion. I really like that record, I’m really proud of it. Maybe in the future I’ll do something for them again, if they want to do something, I’d be happy to do that because it’s a great label. I’m really impressed with their whole operation.
There’s definitely a certain importance to giving certain DJs demos. And it’s so easy to do now because I can just chat with them on Skype and say “hey here’s a new track.” You know that happened with Donato with Proto-language, and a similar thing happened with Cio D’or. I gave her several tracks and she premiered one of them in Detroit.
AE: At Movement, wasn’t it?
MP: Yeah, it was one of those things where it just had the right feeling. And at that point I was convinced. And ended up releasing it on Geophone.
AE: Is that one of the ways you know a track is finished, when you hear it played out live by one of the DJs you sent it to as a demo?
MP: Yeah, but it doesn’t always happen that often. A lot of it has to do with just going on your experience. But the experience of hearing it and the way another DJ mixes it with something else or interprets it is really important. That DJ is hearing it from a fresh perspective. For example with Proto-language, I had recorded that track for a while ago and it was sitting on my hard drive for about a year. For some reason I wasn’t really sure about it, I can’t remember why, but I had certain concerns. But Donato played it and that convinced me that it was the right time to release it.
Sometimes you are too close to a track as an artist. You rehearsed it many times, you recorded it, agonized over it enough. And then you just want to leave it alone. This is not the only track where this has happened, where it will sit for a while and subconsciously I’m trying to forget it so that I can come back to it much later and hear it again from a fresh perspective. Time is important. It’s usually a pretty good way to determine the value of it. If you listen to something for the first time in a year, and you think it’s not good enough, then you’re happy to let it go. But then again, you might listen to it and be like “wow, why didn’t I consider that before, it’s actually very effective.”
AE: When it’s so easy to release things digitally, and lots of artists are even self-releasing on things like Bandcamp, maybe that’s affecting the over quality of tracks because you can put it out so quickly. Even nowadays on vinyl labels, after you sign a track, you might have to wait nine months or a year for that track to even be released.
MP: I’m old-school, so I’m used to that process. I’m very cautious about releasing digital-only tracks on Bandcamp. And I love Bandcamp, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve released only a handful of tracks that have not been scheduled for a full vinyl and digital release. If I released all the tracks that are sitting my hard drive right now, I could do another album, but I’m not going to do that. There are some that I know are not ready. And I want the quality to be better, so you have to edit. And that’s very hard to do, but it comes with experience, and I’ve been doing this now for a while. So I like to feel like I’m pretty good with editing. But then with every release, you go back and think “oh, well I could of done this or that,” and that’s normal for an artist I think. But you can’t be too hard on yourself because then you won’t get anything done. And that goes way back to when I first started doing this. I was getting a lot of mixed reactions from distributors. For instance when I released Geophone 4 there was an ambient track on there, and the distributor was like “what is this? we can’t sell this” and I did it anyways. It was really important that it was released how I envisioned it.
You really have to balance the feedback that you get with your own intuition. And sometimes people are right, and sometimes maybe I was right with my original idea. As an artist you have to accept your successes and your failures, and hope in the end things balance out. Because otherwise you wouldn’t get anything done, you’d be too afraid to release stuff.
I think based upon the feedback I’ve gotten in the last few years, I’m pretty happy with the decisions I’ve made. I was putting stuff out for a long time without getting too much feedback. The records would sell, of course I was only pressing 300-400 copies, but I wouldn’t really hear much. I would release the record, and maybe somebody would contact me once in a while, but I wasn’t getting a lot of feedback for a long time. Until the big turning point, which was probably my first online mix for mmml ssgs. After that mix came out, things really started to change for me. People were looking back at my catalog and seeing what I had been doing. And ever since then I think that things have picked up. A lot of it has to do perseverance and really liking what you do. I like making this kind of music.
AE: You mentioned that you’re very much a hardware guy, and that you rarely release something that won’t end up on vinyl. To my knowledge, you only DJ vinyl. Why have you decided to stick with playing vinyl as opposed to adopting other technologies?
I really like the feel of it, personally. It’s really not much more than that. To use a nerdy term, I like the “interface” [laughs]. A lot of times I’ll grab a record and think I’m going to play a certain track and then I’ll flip it over and decide to play the b-side. I do that a lot actually. That’s a little different than scrolling through a screen. I think all the platforms are fine, I really do. There’s nothing wrong with DJing in any way you like, whether its CDs or using Traktor. It’s all valid. Personally, I do like vinyl, but then again I could see the advantage of going digital because you can play tracks you recorded the night before. So I can’t criticize that.
AE: One thing I always think about is if you’re in a tough situation for vinyl. You know at the Works or at Movement and you’re on a stage that’s shaking from the bass and it’s extremely loud. When I’ve considered playing vinyl in those types of situations I always worry “is it going to be so loud that I won’t be able to beatmatch accurately?” or will the sound be impacted, will the record skip, and stuff like that. Do you have any advice for dealing with the challenges of vinyl under those extreme circumstances?
My first advice to people would be just to keep your cool. It’s going to happen from time to time. You’re going to have issues. And there were issues on the tour I was just on in Europe, I had some technical issues. I think the main thing is that every club and every venue needs to be respectful to all platforms including vinyl. And if they are going to advertise a vinyl DJ then they have to do all the prep work to ensure that the DJ has a completely functioning setup. It’s really on the clubs, and the people that are organizing these events. I would say with Detroit, it was generally OK. The only thing I had to really do, and I finally made some adjustments about 10 or 12 minutes into my (Movement) set, I had to turn the bass down on my track. It was a bit too much and I was getting some feedback. Once that was fixed, I was more relaxed, and the set went OK.
I think the audience gets it. If they know you are playing vinyl, and there’s a little glitch here and there, I think they they understand that. And that’s OK. That’s the way I play, and it’s alright.
AE: Very relaxed attitude, I like it.
MP: Like I said, it’s going to happen. Expect it. You’re going to have those issues. So if it does happen, take it in stride, and you can make light of it even if you want. Getting angry won’t help, because you’re going to spoil it for yourself and then maybe create the wrong vibe for the audience. Nobody wants to see you in a bad mood. Just turn down the bass for a bit, call the tech guy to help you out, and then just move forward.
AE: I heard DVS1 say once that one reason he finds vinyl sets exciting and still plays a lot of them is because it’s actually exciting that things could go wrong. When you are watching a Traktor set everything is so smooth and seamless that it looses the human element that comes out of the slight double-beat here and there.
MP: I agree with him entirely.
AE: So you teach at a university in New York. And to my knowledge, a lot of what you teach is visual art, rather than sound-art. That’s got to be another big part of your life that we don’t hear about as techno fans. How long have you been involved in teaching, and how big a part of your life is visual art?
MP: Well I’ve also been teaching sound classes recently, for example at SUNY Buffalo. I taught a class recently called time-based media. In that class the students work with computers to make sound collages and videos and we also do some pin-hole photography, which is a very old process. Basically anything that has to do with time. So I’ve been doing that, and previous to that I was mostly teaching drawing. My roots have been in that for many years, which like techno, is still something I like to do. I was drawing since I can remember, since I was a little child. I don’t want to get too intellectual about it, because I don’t think it is that intellectual. Drawing is a way of focusing, like DJing is a way of focusing.
You know some people will focus by meditating, or by doing tai-chi, or by bicycling. I totally get why the Kraftwerk guys went crazy for bicycling. It’s actually something I do when I need a break from working in the studio. I’ll go for a bike ride and think about the problem. Somehow it kind of clears the mind. Drawing is like that too, so it’s something I continue to do. People can see the visualization of that now on the record jackets for Prologue and Geophone, because I’m reproducing the images I make there. It’s good to have more than one outlet I think.
AE: It seems like focusing is something that you think about a lot. Would you say that focus, as a theme, has a big impact on your music? When I think about the “Mike Parker sound”, it’s stripped down and minimal in the sense that there’s nothing extra. Would you say that focus could be a theme of your music?
MP: Yes, that’s one of the themes. There’s probably other stuff that I’m not even aware of. Some of the track titles will hint at certain things. There was a while where I was teaching art history, and I would take certain titles from art historical references. Because that’s just what I was thinking about at the time, and a certain work would inspire something. But that’s nothing new, artists do that all the time. Focusing and concentrating on a certain sound for a long period of time, and then the way it suddenly changes, that’s certainly a theme of my tracks. And a theme for many other producers as well.
My first attraction to techno wasn’t really the beat itself but the weird science-fiction sounds, you know the bleeps and the other weird sounds. And the spaces in between them. That initially attracted me more than anything. When I produce I’m always making some weird sound, and then the beat comes after that. I don’t necessarily start with a kick-drum.
AE: So you designed the cover for Lustrations, right?
MP: I made the drawing for it. I didn’t design the final version though, the final version was designed by Prologue. You can actually see on Facebook I posted the original drawing, it’s a little bit larger than what’s shown on the record. The designer at Prologue cropped it a little bit. Again, I totally trust them and let them make certain decisions about the final product. I gave them several drawings actually, some are on the labels too. I really like the way those looks. They do a good job, and they’ve been supportive. They were the right label at the right time, you know? They are really nice people, I’ve hung out with them a couple of times in Berlin.
AE: We’re in an age where probably, and I’m just throwing out a number, 75% of electronic music listeners only buy or download digital copies of music. And of course vinyl sales are increasing once again, but it’s still definitely the minority when it comes to the medium through which this music exists. Do you think that album art really has a significant effect on the sales or appreciation of albums like it used to? And do you think that maybe now that vinyl is starting to increase again that people will start paying attention to the visual aspects of the media and start appreciating it more?
MP: I don’t think it will ever be the same, I don’t think that people will have the same connection that they used to have to a certain design on a record jacket. But for some people, they still appreciate it. For me, it comes naturally to visualize it that way. In the old days, you went to a shop and you immediately identified with the jacket of something, especially if it was an album. Think of any album cover by The Ohio Players, or the Rolling Stones or something. And you’ll have an image burned into your memory about it.
Nowadays, I don’t think it’s as important as it was, because some people just don’t interact that way. And that’s OK, things are changing, and we have to accept the good with the bad and focus on the good stuff. There are people who have contacted me about the artwork in some cases, so somebody’s been paying attention I guess.
AE: Drumcell just came out with this music video for a track on his new album Sleep Complex. Compared with other genres, it seems like video is an under-utilized medium to accompany techno music. And I wonder why that is. Budgets, or the abstractness of the music? Do you have any thought on why video, despite its ease of accessibility through YouTube and Vimeo, hasn’t caught on in techno music?
MP: I would like to experiment with something like this in the future, but I think the main reason is that with techo the listener is more aware of the self as they’re listening. Because there is no lead singer, like in a band setting. There’s no latent story being told through a lyrical methodology. The person who is listening to techno is more aware of themselves. For a lot of reasons, there probably doesn’t need to be a visual. Now, I will make the exception for live performance. Electronic music in a live setting benefits greatly from a visual. But in terms of the presentation of a track, coupled with a music video, I dont think you can have a music video like a rock band would have. They’re so different.
There’ve been some techno artists who have done some great videos. Dasha Rush, for instance, made some really good ones for her music. Does it have the same impact as it does for rock music? I’m not really convinced. I think a lot of it has to do with the setting. I’m thinking of a person on YouTube. A visual is great for live performance, and is really good when it is done creatively. But in the end, I think techno is more about being aware of yourself as you hear the music, and you’re not transported as much into another person’s lyrical story.
AE: I think that makes a lot of sense. So I’ll end the interview with the same question we always ask: which upcoming artists and labels are you excited about right now?
MP: I’m really a big fan of Stanislav Tolkachev. I believe I released one of his tracks on Geophone recently. He contacted me years ago when he was not that well known, and I knew there was something special about him right from the beginning. He sent me some demos and I told him “keep sending me stuff. I know the track that I want to hear and want to release.” The one we did was called Heartbeat, and it came at just the right ime. I really like what he’s doing and want to encourage him.