tue 07/12/2021

theartsdesk Q&A: Producer/DJ Richie Hawtin | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Producer/DJ Richie Hawtin

theartsdesk Q&A: Producer/DJ Richie Hawtin

How big is it possible for minimal to get?

It's only after hanging up the Skype connection to Richie Hawtin that I realise how effective a branding exercise he has made the interview. In conversation the English-born, Canadian-raised Berlin resident is charming and smart, but listening back I realise that he has subtly repeated the names of his projects and products over and over, with the slickness of a high-flying salesman. But then you don't sustain a 20-year career making relentlessly odd music - yet still be regularly ranked in the very top flight of global club DJs alongside perma-tanned monstrosities more likely to be seen schmoozing Madonna or the Black Eyed Peas than in an underground rave bunker - without knowing a few tricks of the trade.

Maybe the fact that his way of speaking should be borderline hypnotic, reinforcing his core message constantly, shouldn't be surprising given the nature of his art over the years. Hawtin (b 1970) grew up in Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit river from a very different city in the USA where the predominantly black techno scene exploded during his teens.

Throwing himself into the Detroit scene, he quickly became known as a producer/DJ, and was one of the key figures in the “second wave” of Detroit techno in the early 1990s, tending – although his works were always varied – towards the more aggressive, punky side of the genre epitomised by his 1991 track “Technarchy” as Cybersonic, which also perfectly fitted into the lunacy of the UK and European rave scene at the time.

Watch a segment of the Plastikman live show

His first major burst of international fame came when he launched his Plastikman guise in 1993, which saw his music stripped to nothing but punishingly repetitive drum patterns and the gurgling Roland 303 synthesisers of acid house – yet which constantly subverted the dynamics of tension and release in club music, its shifting geometries creating a very deliberately inhuman type of abstraction.

Plastikman_canadian_design1The sinister Plastikman logo (pictured right), the sleeve art (endless repetitions and mutations of this motif, as in the debut Plastikman album Sheet One which played on the tesselations of paper LSD tabs) and Hawtin's own image (shaven-headed, deadpan) all reinforced the totality of the aesthetic, and he talked often of Minimalism as a way of life. This was branding as Gesamtkunstwerk.

Towards the end of the 1990s as the world techno scene decayed into allowing a more macho drugmonkey harder-faster pounding without wit or subtlety to dominate, Hawtin made a smart shift to Berlin, where a more bohemian, more spaced-out variety of techno was beginning to take hold. This sound took hold globally throughout the 2000s as the hipster party soundtrack of choice, with the poised reductionism of Hawtin's M-nus label at the heart of it.

Adopting a more fashion-forward personal image, with asymmetrical hair and skinny jeans before these became global signifiers of arch hipness, he became - if he wasn't already - a superstar in a supposedly impersonal genre. This minimal sound has been the target of snobbery both inverted and direct from old-school techno fans and from other dance scenes, but Hawtin has refused to dissociate himself from it – and has become the most successful he's ever been into the bargain.

Now 40, he has recently resurrected the Plastikman guise for hugely popular live shows and an exhaustingly complete career retrospective release schedule (the Arkives project with over 160 tracks on some formats), creating furious audiovisual shows that resemble totalitarian mind-control experiments turned inside out - and from the number of new fans this continues to attract to uncompromising electronic music, this canny operator appears to be showing a clean pair of heels to the snobs. Or maybe that's what he wants me to think.

JOE MUGGS: Hi Richie, what would you be doing right now if not talking to me?

RICHIE HAWTIN: We have the last Plastikman live show of the year taking place in Tokyo on Saturday, so I just arrived in Tokyo two days ago. So I'm just preparing for that, and preparing to wrap up what has been quite a year of shows really.

You've been best known as a DJ in the last decade or so, though; was this a conscious shift to live performance?

Oh, in between Plastikman, I've been doing dozens - hundreds, even - of DJ shows this year, so Plastikman and Hawtin as a DJ are moving along in parallel right now – and that will continue next year, but we're probably going to take specific times next year to do just one thing or the other, because we want to continue Plastikman live next year, but the idea currently is to take a couple of months off at some point and then come back next fall with a sustained tour. So instead of going all over the world in the course of a year, we take two or three months instead where we go over some of the territories more thoroughly.

You say “we” constantly – you're the act, Plastikman is billed as being your alter ego, but you have a lot of other people involved?

Yah, I wouldn't feel right saying “I”. Sure, I'm on stage, but without the team – there's about 10 of us making sure everything is plugged in and the networks are working and the wireless is working and the fibre-optic cables are laid down - not much is going to happen, you know!

Wow, that's quite a long way from the old-school techno image of one guy and his records or his drum machine completely controlling the club.

Well that's funny, because that's still the idea behind what I do: what can one person do creatively with technology, whether that's in the studio or on stage. The very basic idea of Plastikman live is for one person to control the entire experience, for one person – which is me – to have complete control over the lights, over the visuals, over the sound, and to work on all those elements together in one moment to give an experience that is heightened because of all that is going on.

But to give the one person on stage all that power requires a lot of systems to be interconnected, and each of those systems has things that need to be done before they're working properly for each show. So there's a lot of soundchecking and going over things for each of the events, just to get to that point where one person can control it all.

And you're comfortable with being the one public face of that – and I mean you are idolised to the point of hysteria in some quarters – or do you feel like presenting it as more of a team thing sometimes?

Hawtin_main_2029I think at the end of the day, what people are coming to see is a combination of a lot of elements, but I have a certain take on electronic music, I have a certain way how I need or how I think things should be presented. I have an idea of how the overall experience should be. So yes I do think that people are coming for that overall Hawtin or Plastikman “thing” – but to me it doesn't seem any different to how it's been for really the last 20 years or so.

If I look back at the parties in Detroit that I was doing in 1993, 1994, which gave birth to Plastikman – with those parties, I was the one sitting there coming up with the idea for the parties, but without my gang or crew of friends, getting into that dirty warehouse, stacking up the sound, hanging black plastic up and everything, just nothing was going to happen. So I do think that every good artist and every good idea needs a team of people to back it up.

You've brought out this mammoth collection of the totality of Plastikman recordings, has there been some element of taking stock personally in doing that?

Yes, sure, definitely. It's time to see how far I've come, to see how things have developed and changed – and also for Plastikman to see that it's still on track, that although it's a bigger show or there's more people or more technology, that it's still connected to the idea that it's about giving people an incredible experience that's more than the sum of its parts, that's physical and audio and visceral and all these things and more. So yes, it seems like a good moment for that kind of “pinch and double check”.

My job with Plastikman live is to bring the weirdest possible show to the most people

And also I feel that it's a time where there's a lot of people looking my way, and looking at what I do – and I feel that when I have a spotlight on me like that, I have to use that awareness to deliver something interesting and good and different to what everyone else is doing. So there's a lot of checking where I've come from, checking where I'm at, showing the people where I am right now and how I got here, then hopefully moving on with everybody and being able to do larger, weirder, crazier things.

To say you have the spotlight could be an understatement: you seem to be in the position where you are globally famous on a par with the Paul Oakenfolds and Tiestos and David Guettas... which to someone who grew up on your more extreme music is quite a brain-scrambler.

Yeah, that's exactly why I'm releasing Reference and Arkives now, and why I'm touring Plastikman, because I am for some reason, in some weird way, on the same playing field as those people you just mentioned. And I feel that if I'm playing on that playing field and I'm larger or more popular than I've ever been, it's because I do offer something different to all those people.

So my job with Plastikman live is to bring the weirdest possible show to the most people, and I feel that with Arkives and everything I'm doing now I have to set the stage and get even more support than I have right now, so that I can have the show go weirder, longer and have an even more immersive experience than I've been able to do now – and just push the difference between me and some of those other people to an even greater distance. Not a distance vertically, but horizontally, so it's just like they're there and I'm waaay over there.

So are you a believer that music that is avant-garde or far removed from what's popular has the ability to become popular if only people are exposed to it?

Yeah I think it does, but I don't think it's being done that regularly. I think that's part of my mission, to allow this music to grow as large as possible, but still keeping it where it came from, whether that's underground or being adversarial or just being really strange. I feel that this whole scene can get larger, but I don't feel that my part of it can be pop music or anything like that; my side of electronic music isn't for everybody, but I want to reach all those people who are looking for something that is to the left of centre of Paul Oakenfold or Deadmau5, or all these other people that perhaps aren't doing it for them. And I think my side of electronic music needs to get weird, sometimes, or get dark to keep going – that's part of it, you know?

Watch montage of Plastikman live performance

The sound that became associated with the Berlin scene you're at the heart of – “minimal techno” or just “minimal” as a genre - has also become very popular, but in the process most of it has become anything but weird: it's become a very mundane formula for producing music that has no function beyond being background music for never-ending druggy “after parties”. Do you ever feel like dissociating yourself from “minimal”?

Tda_IMG_7395It's something that I would still use to describe my music, just because my music has been around, and M-nus, and everything I'm doing, has been around for such a long time that it has a bit more historical relevance, and people take it a bit more seriously. And it's also important for me to stay tied to that word because I believe that what I do and what we do at M-nus is really damn good minimal music! And it gives weight to that art form, because Minimalism, whether it's in art or music, is an art form.

Yes, there's a lot of schlock, and with electronic music right now being so open to new producers it can be easy to stamp those very easy or basic tracks as “minimal”. But if we don't continue to use that word connected to what we do musically, and for these shows as Plastikman and so on, then people won't get the opportunity to realise the difference between good and bad – they'll see us as being that push to the quality side of stuff.

There have always been grumblings that you were a white artist popularising a black musical form, but of course they were influenced by European electro-pop of the late Seventies, early Eighties, and then techno became bigger in Europe than it ever was in the US – so were you connecting to that by moving to Berlin?

Yeah, well you could say that. I was never from Detroit, I was always an outsider, I was a British kid growing up in Canada going into Detroit on the weekends. But I do a lot of thinking about this, especially as I've been spending a lot of time in Detroit recently, going through the archives and so on – and no, I don't think that by moving to Berlin I've aligned myself any more than I already was to European music. I was as inspired by Derrick [May] and Kevin [Saunderson] and those guys as I was by the [Euro rave] music that they inspired, that was coming back to us in Detroit from Europe, or by the stuff that came before. So I do feel part of that whole continuum: it's Detroit-inspired, but it's also full circle back to their original inspiration back from Europe.

What I do feel connected to very strongly, though, still, is the city of Detroit itself: it inspires me, the people there are amazing, and whether I'm there or in Berlin now, I do feel a part of that Detroit heritage that's happened over the last 20 or more years, and I do hope that somehow, some way, that will continue. We'll have to see in the next five or 10 years, where I go in my music, but I don't think I have to be living across the border to still be connected to that ideology. To me, Detroit techno for sure was black, it was funk, but it also had such a sense of the future coming from this decayed city, and I still feel that; when I'm there I still feel that connection to the ethos of the music I'm making – so yes, I hope I can still remain a part of that.

So do you feel Detroit still has that sense of creativity and futurism? Kyle Hall and Omar S have been making great waves lately.

TroxlerOh yes, I think lately that people like Kyle, and especially Omar, absolutely have that spirit. I think Omar has seriously kicked the life into Detroit in the last couple of years, with this brilliant fusion of funk, techno, house and very strange rhythms indeed that could only have come from Detroit. But you're also missing another great newcomer: [24-year-old producer now also relocated to Berlin] Seth Troxler (pictured left) is a Detroiter who grew up in the Plastikman parties and it's just amazing to see what he's doing now. It's funky, it's Prince... They used to say that techno was Derrick May stuck in an elevator with George Clinton [this is actually a misquote of Derrick May's late-1980s definition of techno as “Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with George Clinton”] – maybe now it's Seth Troxler stuck in an elevator with Prince! [Laughs.]

What about globally? Do you think there's anyone else that is taking an underground mentality to mass audiences in the way you say you hope to? Daft Punk spring to mind, and now potentially some of the dubstep acts coming up, who don't seem to have any snobbery or fear about the mainstream.

Well sure, I was going to be hard pressed to come up with some names, but I think you're right with Daft Punk. I like how they play with the fact they're still hiding behind masks; as they take a step closer to everybody they take two steps back. And now they're into this whole Tron thing [Daft Punk's soundtrack to the Disney blockbuster], but they've also invested a lot of money back into doing crazy shows – I like this: they seem to in their own way want to see a development of electronic music both on a commercial level but also still as something that is in their own unique style. And they do seem to me to stay closer to the ideology and aesthetics of where they come from.

And does dubstep mean much to you? It's a sound that emerged from a very specific time and place, in this case the south-London suburbs in the 2000s, and has grown to be a worldwide phenomenon of purely electronic music in a similar way to how techno did before it.

Well, I've been watching it on and off for the last couple of years, particularly as there's a good scene and collection of people in Berlin now. I think dubstep is at the end of the day really great techno. The new Shed album has dubstep bass but it is really a great techno album, it's incredible.

Great electronic music for me is where it gives you space to find your own place within the mechanics

Sure the stuff that has taken off in Berlin is closer to techno, but what about the UK artists who've emerged around the sound – people like Skream, Joker, Kode 9 – who rhythmically are far removed from the regularity of techno?

StefanSolf_plastikman-118No, I guess I haven't had much contact with these kinds of guys. In Berlin, the Hardwax [record store and epicentre of the scene] guys have a monthly or bi-monthly night, and there's a night at Berghain [probably the most famous techno club venue in the world currently], so if I'm around I'll check all these guys out. I mean, I think that if you go back 10 or 15 years, some of the most interesting techno music was made out of the whole drum'n'bass scene, which itself in a sense became the dubstep scene. So what I like about dubstep is that it's techno, it's futuristic and they have a great sense of time and space in their music – it reminds me that it's very closely connected to those original Detroit records, especially Derrick's stuff.

When you say “time and space”, how do you mean? Literally exploration of the timescale and space of the club situation in which they're played, or something more figurative?

Well, I think what's great about the sound of dubstep is that it encapsulates you. Whether you're in a club or just sitting listening to it, great electronic music for me is where it gives you space to find your own place within the mechanics, between the sounds and within this environment. It's music that's strongly defined, but it's also free-floating – and if you can find music like that with this freedom, it always for me gives a sense of a possible future, of an unreality that's yet to be written: that's what I get from those types of tracks.

The philosopher Slavoj Zižek has a phrase, “radical contingency”; I don't know if I'm reading this exactly right, but I think it refers to situations like you describe where things are as yet undefined, which makes all decisions contingent and forces the imagination into action.

I like that. Yeah, that's what the idea of what you do as a great DJ or great live show is all about, that's why we put so much energy into Plastikman, because when it works you're at the edge of creating a moment which everybody is waiting for yet nobody knows exactly what they are waiting for; it's a moment that everybody is wishing to become clear and become defined, but as soon as it is you're looking beyond it again. And I think that's what techno and electronic music should be about and it's what I strive to be about from the moment I wake up in the morning.

So what are your most immediate ambitions practically in applying that?

Well, like I was saying, with the box set and the shows this year, we're just trying to build up momentum, because next fall I'd like to have Plastikman Live back out on the road with [version] one point five of the show, and with that building momentum, get to version two point zero of the show by 2012, which is already kind of planned out in my head and technically possible. So between that, there are some ideas for next year of returning to the DE9 – Dex FX & 909 project [a mixture of live performance and DJing with drum machines and other technological twists], and probably a couple of other things in between that too.

So you're talking about completely rebuilding the Plastikman technical set-up and live experience?

Well, there'll be an incremental improvement in between Plastikman one point five and where it is now, but two point zero will be something really quite different.

OK, what you've described throughout this is a life where you are thinking about techno music, as you say, from the moment you wake up in the morning until you do the show in the evening – you are relentlessly touring, always between time zones, and always in clubs full of lightshows and loud sound. Less busy DJs than you crack up or burn out all the time – how do you retain your sanity in the midst of all this?

I don't know, some of my friends would say I don't retain it... All I can do is find the right moment to switch off. Ummm... Oh, I know: swimming. If I had to pick one reason I'm not insane it's swimming as much as possible – it's the one time everything gets shut off, I can collect my thoughts and get into a monotonous momentum and work things out in my head.

And it's the one kind of exercise where you can't listen to techno.

Exactly. Silence is beautiful, right?


It is always worthwhile to hear from musicians who have a true connection with the history of their genre of music (sonically & geographically), but always trying to take it further and forge something new.

Bring back Substance Abuse... machine core... love it

Great interview. Some really great quotes in there. Hawtin is still committed to the underground and pushing sound further. The Plastikman live show was one of the best live experiences I have witnessed - excited for v 2.0!! My favorite quote which defines my experience with music: "That's what the idea of what you do as a great DJ or great live show is all about, because when it works you're at the edge of creating a moment which everybody is waiting for yet nobody knows exactly what they are waiting for; it's a moment that everybody is wishing to become clear and become defined, but as soon as it is you're looking beyond it again. And I think that's what techno and electronic music should be about..."

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