“The name is familiar,” reads Richie Hawtin’s bio … and yet, no one I’ve queried has ever heard of him or any of his more ubiquitous aliases: Plastikman and FUSE. Odd for an artist who has DJed to crowds larger than many rock bands ever play to (his appearance at the 1995 Glastonbury festival drew 20,000 people into the cramped confines of a DJ tent) and who has been commissioned by the French Government to compose two pieces of music for their Millennium 2000 celebrations. Hawtin’s anonymity in North America epitomizes the techno ethos of personality subversion to the end of bringing the music itself into sharper focus. As a musician, then, Hawtin is one of electronic dance music’s foremost innovators whose roots extend to the foundation of techno itself. A resident of Detroit-neighboring Windsor, Canada, Hawtin absorbed the influences of a Detroit radio DJ named The Wizard (Jeff Mills), who spun early records by techno forefathers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. Inspired to begin his own DJ career in Windsor pubs, Hawtin quickly graduated to jaunts across the border to DJ in Detroit clubs. In the mid-’80, he and occasional collaborator John Acquaviva formed Plus 8 records and initiated an escalation of BPM (Beats Per Minute) that resulted in a worldwide stylistic revolution (gabba, hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass can all trace some branch of their lineage to Plus 8’s releases and live events). His later minimalist work as Plastikman utilizes slower beats, gentler textures and gradual (often microscopic) shifts in pitch and dynamics, pushing techno to a new frontier now populated by acts such as LFO, Aphex Twin, and Autechre.
Setting aside Plastikman’s minimalism for the time being, Hawtin’s latest release, Decks, EFX and 909 (Minus Records / NovaMute), showcases his often-imitated but never-paralleled DJ style (driving beats that seem a mile deep textured with radically reconfigured, stripped-down modulations of other artists’ recordings). The album occasioned his appearance at the groundbreaking Coachella Festival in October 1999, where, as a nod to his rock-solid reputation, he performed on the same DJ tent lineup as his adolescent influences Saunderson, Atkins and May. His Coachella performance also caught the ears of peers The Chemical Brothers, who asked Hawtin to perform with them at the Brixton Academy show on December 4, 1999. I caught up with Hawtin shortly after Coachella, while he enjoyed a short respite at home amidst a hectic touring schedule.
Sean Flinn: My first set of questions have to do with Coachella: What did you actually think of the festival? Do you have any general opinions about the event?
Richie Hawtin: I think in the overall picture, Coachella was definitely a really, really well-organized and attended event, and was really, I think, a good shot in the arm for that type of festival in North America. Because it’s generally something you see overseas, especially the combination of some of the bigger electronic — well, more mainstream and popular electronic acts — with some of the alternative stuff, which is still slightly interesting, and DJ culture.
Outside of the DJ tents, were there any artists performing on the bigger stages that you wanted to see perform?
You know, I don’t even really know the final lineup for Coachella. I flew in from Frankfurt to Coachella, and shortly after flew directly to San Francisco. There were about nine gigs in a row all over Europe before Frankfurt, so it was a bit of a crazy trip.
Sounds like it.
I heard Morrissey, because it was so loud that it was coming into the tent while I was checking out Juan Atkins. And then, I heard the Chemical Brothers because they were so loud that it was coming over my sound when I was playing in my tent. So that was a bit disappointing because I was getting drowned out a bit. That could have been set up a little bit better. I did hear that The Art of Noise was playing, which sounded remotely interesting, but then again it probably would have been 10 years ago.
I completely forgot that they were on the bill after about the first hour or so of the festival because I was running all over the place. I remember being in the tent while you were spinning and hearing the Chemical Brothers … the same thing happened with the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Rage Against the Machine. So, yeah, that’s something they probably could’ve done better.
Yeah, they could have turned some of the things around or positioned things better. That’s unfortunate, but hopefully they’ll plan a little bit better next year. But you know, there were a lot of things that were done well at the festival too, so it kind of balances out. Especially when you’re talking about sound structure and things, it’s the most important [thing]; people are coming to hear music. They need to be able to hear one or another, not both at the same time. I think with, especially some of the electronic musicians, I know, even like the scratch guys and myself and some other people, the dynamics of what we’re doing are important in the way sometimes it’s about what we’re playing, but also, about what we’re not playing. And those pauses, those breaks, those lower volume sections, those EQ changes sometimes were getting drowned out by something else that was happening a mile away.
I know, just from listening to your recordings, that dynamics are extremely important with what you’re doing, so that definitely could have a negative impact. Aside from that, you mentioned that you felt the festival may have given that type of music — and I’m taking that to mean electronic music and underground hip-hop — a shot in the arm. Do you think the festival could have given electronic music a chance to sway over some new fans, or do you think they were just preaching to the converted?
As an optimist, I always hope that. That’s one of the reasons for doing an event like that. I’m not particularly fond of big events, but I also don’t want to preach to the converted all the time. So that was a good opportunity to have some people who were sort of wandering through tents in between Rage Against the Machine and Morrissey or whoever it was, and stumble upon someone who they’d never heard of or they’d only read about, and suddenly say, “You know? This isn’t too bad.” And whether that brings them to go and buy the CD, that could be a good benefit. But I look at it as really giving people an appetizer for myself. You’re not getting exactly what I do, but I’m giving enough of myself to the people with the equipment that’s provided to me to give them enough taste to know if it’s something for them. And then, hopefully, we’ll invite them to see me at another event, maybe, which is more surrounded around my self, where I can play four or five hours on a better system and really show them what I’m all about. You have to use these events for what they are. America has taken a long time for electronic music to grab hold of people. Part of it is the size of the country and the communication infrastructure for getting new ideas to people — which isn’t very good in this country. So you have to take these opportunities to try and open some ears. I’m not going to sit here and say “North America sucks” because no one is into what I do without trying and going through and giving people the opportunity to maybe get turned on by it. People can’t appreciate what they don’t know or what they’ve never heard.
That’s true. And you mentioned the lines of communication — do you think then that the rapid development of MP3 technology and streaming media and all of that is going to help open some of those lines of communication?
I think one of the only reasons that the whole DJ and rave culture — party culture has taken off so well in America and has started to come together is because of communication and the Internet. The Internet is at its most progressive in North America in the way that most of the areas are now wired. It’s getting to the point where everyone has e-mail or some type of opportunity to get online, and it’s a great flow of information, of music, of resources and of bringing people information about new ideas. That’s the thing that’s really kept this movement underground or at a smaller level than everywhere else in the world — it’s basically because of geography. The Internet is basically the first thing in our existence that bypasses physical geography.
That’s very true. Do you have any plans for yourself? I know you have http://www.plastikman.com …
We have plastikman.com, and my record labels [have] +8.com and minus.com [for =8 Records and Minus Records, respectively, –ed.]. +8 has been online for about five years. We’ve been broadcasting RealAudio and doing our events for over four years, and MP3 has been up there for about two years. We’re not new to this technology.
That’s good to hear, especially since our organization deals with streaming media …
What’s that? What does your organization do?
Well, RadioSpy is actually a music portal that is … built around a piece of software that we developed to help people find SHOUTcast servers.
Oh really? So are you doing all SHOUTcast streams?
Actually, we picked up RealAudio and Windows Media.
OK, cool. We’re doing the same thing.
We have a new portal opening – going online — in a few weeks called Clonk… .com, .net, .org. and that’s gonna be similar, but precisely for electronic music.
Oh wow! I’ll definitely inform our station manager about that.
You should, because when we go online we’ll have a couple of weekly shows and things. There will be some Windows Media layers, there’ll be a helluva a lot of Real Media, and there will also be some SHOUTcasts.
Well it’s good to know that the technology is proliferating out there and that artists are getting involved with it directly.That’s something we’ve been trying to get going, so it’s nice to see that other people are doing it — especially people with your clout.
We’re involved in the creative use of technology. That’s what my company does. We’re not a record company, we’re not really musicians or anything. We’re creative. We use technology to get our ideas out, and streaming media or using the Internet is just another form of technology to communicate with people or to communicate our ideas. So it’s all the same thing to us.
I’m going to change track a little bit here and talk about Decks, EFX & 909. Why did you decide, after working in the vein of Plastikman for a while, to release a mix album? It seems, at least at first blush, to be sort of a change of pace from your recordings — I know it’s not from your live performances. But what motivated you to do Decks, EFX & 909?
Well, I think, a couple of things. After so many years — like, since ’93 — of spending a lot of time on the whole Plastikman idea, philosophy and sound, it was time to move on to some new things — permanently, or for a little while at least. So I kind of ride the top of the fence — I run an electronic label, so I see the business side; I also see the creative side as a performer. I make some very strange abstract minimalism, but also as a DJ performer, I play some of that, but also keep it quite upbeat. I’m interested in forward-thinking electronic music. So I wanted to do something that would, I guess, show people the other side of my DJ performances, but at the same time cross the lines a little bit. I didn’t want to do yet another mix CD. I’d done one in the past. I’m sick and tired of mix CDs. It’s an open and shut case. It hasn’t done anything new for ages. So I went in with the idea of capturing what I do during my DJ live performances, and making it different enough and bringing ideas — both the DJ side but also my production side; using the decks and effects that I use as a performer, but also maybe adding some extra production and editing to create something which, to me, for lack of a better word, is definitely more than a mix CD.
Yeah, it definitely works well … I know a lot of mix CDs are geared for dancing and stuff like that …
Yeah, but the thing is, you’ve got to remember that mix CDs are, a lot of the time, just DJs going into the studio and recording exactly what they do in a club, or just a straight recording of a club. And I think that’s lazy, and quite shallow. If you think about recording that that type of set, especially from a club or a performance, you’re taking everything out of context. The majority of the people who are buying and listening to it weren’t at that performance. They don’t understand the reason you played those records. They don’t understand the atmosphere of the night, the size of the room, the temperature, the sound system that things were played on — and all these things wrap up together to create what I would call “a moment in time.” I don’t want to take that moment away from the people who were there by releasing it to everyone else. So I had to come up with something that related to that, but also, at the same time, was relevant if they were playing it back into a club, but if they were playing it in a car, listening to it while they were washing the dishes, all these different circumstances. So there’s all these extra things you have to think about when you’re creating something like this. That’s why I kind of wanted to cross my sides together and put a twist on the whole thing and do something which was different, with a little bit more of an edge than the rest of these quickly-recorded and packaged and marketed DJ mix CDs.
That leads me right into my next question: How did you approach recording the album? How meticulously did you lay it out, and how did you choose the records you were going to pull?
The records were … with mix CDs, you have to clear all of the records that you want to put on the CD, and not always can you clear everything that you’re actually playing in your set. Luckily, we cleared all the music right through my own production company — through Minus — and were able to get nearly everything I wanted, from a lot of my friends and a lot of really new upstarts and really small labels. So it’s a really eclectic mix of music. I also didn’t want to have a mix CD of all the tracks everyone knew. I wanted to use it to introduce some people to new artists. And so after I picked the tracks, it was really laying out a live mix at the studio, and then going through along with the live mix and adding live effects and some 909 drum machine programming, and then going back over and re-adding some extra things, touching some things up, and then taking what was about a two-hour mix, cutting and editing it up, looping some things to change the structure of the records that people knew. I didn’t want people to feel that comfortable with. I wanted the mix to be comfortable in the way that it really went together well and flowed, but I didn’t want everyone to know exactly what was coming next, even if they knew the record that was being played. That was important for me. I don’t like the idea of people getting complacent and nearly getting to the state of being bored with dance music. I like to pull the rug out from under people’s feet and have them expect the unexpected.
And when you were choosing the records, I know you mentioned wanting to give some exposure to some of your friends and some music that people hadn’t heard before. How did you decided what records you wanted to feature out of those, because I’m sure you have a rather large collection of them. Did you have to make any tough choices?
It was done in two steps, really. I do a lot of five or six-hour sets, and I’m carting 200-plus records around with me all the time. So I had to pare that down to the ones that, first, I knew I could get in contact with the people easily, and also, which I probably thought I had a chance to acquire the rights to. So that pared it down to about 70 records. And then, I probably got clearance on about 60 records. After that it was just kind of putting things together in a way that had a flow to it, that felt right. That pared it down to the 38 tracks that were used in the end.
OK. As just kind of an ignorant question on my part, what all is involved in getting a record cleared for you to use it on an album?
Basically, a lot of the records I play are white labeled [virtually anonymous releases of tracks made available exclusively to DJ’s], so you don’t even where they’re from, except from the postage stamp that came with it. So you have to track down, via catalog numbers or via information on the label — by fax or e-mail or phone — and get their permission, which involves a contract of how much you’re going to pay to the people, what territories you’re going to be releasing it in… it’s quite an involved process. It’s not just a typical “Hey I’m gonna do a mix CD, can I use your music?” And then some people want an advance, or money up front. Some people want bigger percentages than others. It’s a bit of a haggling game in a way. But luckily, because a lot of the people are my friends, and because I’ve been in the industry and I run an independent label, I know what most independent labels like myself would want from a mix CD like this, so we didn’t have that much trouble at all. It takes a little bit of time, just with talking in different time zones in different countries in different languages. There’s things [on Decks, EFX and 909] from German, from England, from Iceland, from Canada, from the U.S. — all different places.
So it’s a real geographical excursion.
Well it’s electronic music, it’s the really one of the first musics that’s grabbed hold of the world. Being a DJ who travels the world and is always picking up new records, that had to be mirrored in the production.
I noticed in the Media Guide from Coachella, they list you as using “out-of-date synth dinosaurs like the Roland TB-303 and the TR-808.” I’m wondering, why the fondness for equipment that other people consider outdated? And do you think equipment like this ever really gets outdated?
If I did a track with just a 303 and 808, it may sound outdated. But really, with electronic music, it’s about taking electronic signals from old things and from new things, passing them through something else, filtering them, modifying them, and coming up with something which is uniquely yours. And so my sound is made out of a mish-mash of old and new technology, from archaic to cutting edge. That mish-mash, which somehow I control in a way, that gives me my take on this whole electronic sound.
In that vein, and to lead back to an answer you gave me earlier about using technology, what features does a new piece of technology — or even an old piece of technology that you’re not familiar with — have to possess to really catch your interest and motivate you to use it?
It has to possess something which is unique to itself, it has to offer possibilities not offered on something else, and it has to have some type of programmability, which is inviting to the user — something which can be easily programmed and has a tactile edge to it. Personally, I’m not into — there’s a lot of interesting new computer technology which I would really like to use, but at the moment the problem isn’t in the programmability or the actual sound of these programs or machines, it’s the actual control surfaces that are lacking. It’s getting very tiring and boring coming up with lots of different sounds and using lots of different programs, but on the same PC. It’s always the keyboard and the mouse. Part of the whole interest to electronic music and the different pieces of equipment is the different control surfaces, the different interfaces that they all have.
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