Shazam Meets…Richie Hawtin
Richie Hawtin is perhaps the most influential act in modern electronic music. As a DJ he’s probably the biggest name in techno: a man who turned a whole generation of dance music fans on to his unique emptied, out no frills sound. However, unlike many of his peers, he’s constantly pushed the boundaries of what electronic music can and should be. Whether that’s changing the way DJ’s play records by inventing digital DJ systems or evolving the mix CD with his ‘Closer To The Edit’ project. His label, Minus, set the tone for underground club music throughout the noughties: while his Contakt world tour has gone down as an era defining moment.Yet as important as all his recent work has been, it’s perhaps Richie Hawtin’s music as Plastikman during the ‘90’s that still remains his most mysterious and alluring. Psychedelic, visceral and meticulously stripped down, the music Hawtin made as Plastikman drove the more cerebral end of dance music forward relentlessly. This summer saw Richie Hawtin resurrect his Plastikman alias for a series of highly celebrated live shows. Bridging technology, music and visuals into a startlingly unique experience, Plastikman live set a new standard for live electronic performance.
We talked to Richie about his recent Plastikman shows, his favourite new bands, and how he hopes to one day hope to facilitate two week long virtual reality shows.
What are the differences between what you do as Richie Hawtin and what you do as Plastikman?
I think Richie Hawtin is, of course, the DJ extrovert side of my personality. It’s where you see me with the people, partying with the people. I’m the centre of attention in a way. Honestly, it’s something I’ve learned to be more comfortable at over the last 20 years.
Plastikman is the introverted alter-ego of Richie Hawtin. It’s where I feel more comfortable with technology and machines than I do with people. It’s where I go lock myself in the studio and try to get what’s inside of me out through the machines. In a weird way I sometimes feel that Plastikman is truer to Richie Hawtin than “Richie Hawtin” is to himself.
So why did you think it was the right time to bring back the Plastikman alias?
I feel that there’s a certain momentum right now with Minus and Hawtin and all that stuff that’s out there. There are so many new fans. So many new people who have joined us on this ride and perhaps don’t know how this ride got to this speed – got to this place. Why is Minus successful as a label? Why is Hawtin successful as a DJ?
I think much of this lies in theses foundations that were created in the early ’90′s with the Plastikman project. It’s what inspired my whole career. It’s what inspired the development of albums like ‘Consumed’. It inspired Minus, which then inspired people like Matthew Dear, Marc Houle and Troy Pierce. It makes sense right now to bring all this stuff back together, to understand and learn about that foundation.
And how has Plastikman been received by these younger fans that perhaps might now even have been born when you were making your first tracks?
You’re definitely right; there are certainly fans that weren’t born at that point. With Plastikman I tried to offer an experience, something immersive. Whether that was an album like ‘Sheet 1′ or a physical experience like coming to the Packard building in Detroit in 1994/1995. That’s what I’m trying to do with Plastikman live. It’s supposed to be an electronic live show that is physical and visceral. I don’t know; something… undeniable. Something that’s going to make kids stop in their tracks and think, “What is this? Is this what electronic music is supposed to be like?”
So how are you achieving that? I know your using a huge array of equipment – can you talk us through some of that.
Again, the idea of Plastikman delivering these immersive fully rounded experiences ties into what Plastikman live is this year. It’s me on stage controlling pretty much the whole show. Controlling the lights, the visuals, and the sound. All that happens by control signals that I’m sending out from an Ableton computer. I have touch screens and fader packs allowing me to make decisions, modify patterns, add new drum sounds, new lines, modulate 303 patterns. There’s a 28 channel analogue mixer where I break everything out to give the best possible sound and warmth and bass. There are analogue processing, effects, delays, feedback. All that runs to multiple computers both on stage and to the front of house. We’re using different protocols: DMX protocol for lighting, OSC and MIDI for visuals. We’re using Ethernet cables, heavy duty cables to run all the lighting.
So yeah, it’s pretty sophisticated.
With all those various parameters I assume there are a lot of things that could potentially go wrong. Have you had any major technical malfunctions so far?
We’ve had some little drop outs between audio and visual here and there. The biggest problem we’ve had is when one Firewire cable popped out because of the vibrations from the bass cabinets on stage. If that cable comes out you have a major audio drop out. I won’t say nobody noticed, because everybody noticed! But we were able to get back on track pretty fast.
Going back to what you were saying about Plastikman being more introspective than Richie Hawtin, has it been a challenge to play headline slots at places like Coachella and Bestival and deliver music that doesn’t immediately cause hands-in-the-euphoria?
I think the Plastikman live show is pretty tough; it’s definitely geared towards festival shows. I’m aware that people are there for perhaps dancing, or for an experience. But I also feel because of the history of Plastikman: the stories, the myths, and the hype… people are there waiting for something. I’m there to deliver: I don’t know if anybody’s prepared for what they’re going to get or even sure of what they’re going to get.
You know you go to a club. You hear a great track and you freak out. But if you tie lighting and visuals – the sight and sound together – you can really create more depth and more power than ever before. That’s what the whole show is about. It’s supposed to feel like a steam roller coming at your ears and eyes at the same time.
Was it a challenge to recreate the old Plastikman tracks for the live shows?
It was a bit of a challenge to find the right way to do it in Ableton. To find the right plug ins. You have many different options for a 909/303 emulation. You have the option of sampling and you do have the option of synching up some old machines too. But because the show isn’t just about audio, because we have to have Ableton firing information to tell the computer when to make a bass drum or when to turn the lights red: we had to put as much ‘in the box’ as possible.So there was a lot of testing. Which plug in? Do we use the Audio realism 303 or a D16 303? (These are manufacturers) After all that how do we make it sound even better? Do we take it through this kind of audio interface? Do we use RME? Do we use Apogee? Do we use some analogue ‘super boxes’? Do we use compression? It took a long time to find that right balance.
One of the big things was most live shows these days, electronic live shows, are sending a stereo signal from their computer pre mixed to the front of house. What we do is take 28 channels of audio out of the box on to a full counsel next to me so I can a mix of all those channels. And then we send all 28 channels to the front of house. They’re listening to my stereo mix but they have every channel separated and they can find the best way to make it sound like the way I’m hearing it to the people out front. We’re doing a lot of things to make this show have a lot more power and a lot more depth than the typical live act.
Perhaps going back to the start, what kind of mindset were you in when you were originally started making the Plastikman stuff?
I think the big thing about Plastikman is I was at a moment in my life when I was experimenting heavily with anything that would alter my mind. I was playing long dark sets in dirty warehouses in Detroit. I liked being sucked into another world and suddenly being thrown out two hours later, only to realise it was eight hours later. I tried to build that down into the sound and the experience you have on those first Plastikman albums; ‘Sheet 1′ and ‘Music’ were supposed to be like trips to an alternate reality where once you were in, you really didn’t want to leave and suddenly you’d have to actually be kicked out of it at the end.
Would you like to recreate that vibe, perhaps create new Plastikman material?
I’m going back into the studio in January or February to continue recording new Plastikman material. It’s my plan to continue Plastikman live, on and off, over the next couple of years. To update the visuals to, update the audio. On a live sense I want to continue giving people these immersive experiences. I want to take people on longer, deeper, darker, weirder trips.
So imagining technology wasn’t a constraint: how could you envision that Plastikman would eventually evolve?
A Plastikman holo-deck.
What would that involve then?
The idea of as holo-deck on Star Trek is to create a complete replica of reality. You know, to be able to go back into the past and relive classic moments. But I would like a holo-deck that wouldn’t let you go into the past, it would only let you go into the future or it would take you to places that could never, or should never exist. And then to inhabit that, to experience that place. To be sucked into that place for six hours: or say two weeks.
Amazing… They always seem to go wrong in Star Trek though. They always seem to come to life and cause issues on the Bridge, but hopefully that would never happen…
Well no, of course it would happen. Of course it would go wrong if you used technology to recreate alternate realities. Even if you tried to recreate reality there would be some hiccup, the computer would throw some weird algorithm in and then the sky would become green or would be upside down. And you’d be like O.K., “This isn’t supposed to be like this but let’s deal with it. Let’s figure out why we’re walking upside down and be part of the universe we’re looking at.”
And in a way that would be perfectly Plastikman if that kind of thing started to happen.
Exactly! I think those kind of moments where you’re questioning, “Is this real or is this unreal? Am I glad to be here? Is this good? Or is this bad?”
It’s like a welcoming uneasiness and I think a lot of the Plastikman experiences and albums have that kind of sense around them.
I love that idea of a ‘welcoming uneasiness’. I think it’s something a lot of Plastikman fans can probably relate to… So I read before that you’re striving to find the balance between music, technology and art. Do you think you’ve found that balance yet?
Well I think I will always be striving to find a better incarnation of those ideas, but I do feel that when we started with Minus, when we started with Plastikman and the ‘Consumed’ album; we were on the pathway to that idea but we kind of got derailed. The popularity of Minus took us into general ‘club music’ but we were able to bring that back with the Contak’ show. Now with Plastikman live I think were totally on track with the original idea of Minus. Plastikman live is art, technology and music. It’s interactive, it’s entertainment – it’s everything that’s beyond ‘just music’.
It’s interesting you mention the Contakt show – do you think that was a direct reaction to the hype that was going on around Minus at the time?
There was so much hype that we wanted to use that and come back with something warranted. I think Contakt created and maintained the hype, but also delivered on what the hype was about. There was no one out there doing what Contakt did a few years ago.
It was really the testing bed for Plastikman. After Contakt one of my ideas was where does this go? How do we develop this? One of the possible avenues was if we brought audio and visuals even closer together. One of the only ways to do that was to have full control over the music your are playing i.e. creating your own music: using your own tracks and on not playing other people’s records. That was one of the main points to bringing Plastikman live back.
So it’s actually been a very logical progression… Finally, just because Shazam’s all about music discovery: what have been your favourite recent musical finds?
Salem. I like them just from this dark, electro, hip-hop, techno – I don’t what the f*** it is! But they’ve definitely spent too much time taking acid in the woods north of Michigan. That’s interesting for me. I’m really into them.
What’s really inspiring lately is the extreme leftfield electronic music coming out from the circuit bending scene in New York. There’s a guy, Tristan Perich, who re-programming micro chips to make music and his girlfriend, Lesley Flannigan, is building her own speakers and then sending her trained soprano voice through these speakers and feeding them back. It’s really out there but it’s beautiful.
Plastikman ‘Arkives’ is now available for pre-order