Mark Farina on Chicago house, Mushroom Jazz and what's new for him in 2011
Photo by Sandlin Gaither
Chicago house heavyweight and acid-jazz/downtempo darling Mark Farina has already made two trips to Denver this year -- but for his third, a set at the Gothic Theatre this Friday night, he's promoting the release of the seventh Mushroom Jazz album, just as laid-back and groovy as the previous six, but with brand-spanking-new tunes. We caught up with Farina to ask him about his career trajectory, his now-legendary radio show with Derrick Carter, how changing technology has changed his life and much more:
Westword: Tell us about how you first became interested in electronic music.
Mark Farina: I was living in Chicago, that's where I grew up. In high school -- which was a while back -- I'd go to teen clubs when I was like a sophomore, '86, '85. They were under-18-only clubs, teen dance party things, and they'd have like one room where the music was like industrial/New Wave, and the other room would be house.
So industrial/New wave was my stuff of choice early, like Front 242, Ministry, Severed Heads, Yello, Kraftwerk. So there was a club in Chicago back then called Medusas that was a pretty innovative nightclub for the time -- even still now, it was really just a great club. They'd do a teen dance and a late-night thing, and they didn't serve alcohol, and it would be open till 7 or 8 in the morning, and they played industrial/New Wave, and the label Wax Trax! from Chicago, a lot of their acts would perform there, just come on unannounced at like four in the morning.
Then, like I mentioned, too, the clubs had a house mix, as well, and there were always house mixes on the radio. And from the industrial sound, I got into Detroit techno, Mayday and Model 500, stuff like that, and a lot of Chicago Acid Trax, played in some of the industrial clubs and crossover. And I got more into mixing in the late-'80s period; I figured out where to get house mixes and recorded mixes onto cassette from the radio.
There'd be like a lunch mix and the mix at 6, and Friday and Saturday would have nighttime mixes all night. So I'd sit there with my tape recorder and get a lot of stuff. I always had vinyl, but I got like a really cheap Radio Shack mixer and used that and my turntable at the time to mix. [Technics] 1200s, they were kind of the Holy Grail at the time. I was like, "Someday, I'm gonna get 1200s." Then I sort of bridged into house music, from Detroit techno to house.
What were you doing with the cassette tapes of mixes?
You could find stuff out. I would listen to stuff and record. I didn't like a lot of disco-y stuff in that early time; if it was too vocal I'd hit pause. You could take it to the record store, and they would decipher. Later, I worked at Gramaphone in Chicago, and you almost didn't want to answer the phone, because you knew somebody would be playing you a song over the phone via their headphones.
I'd ask a couple of people, record them, and try to find the tracks that I liked, which was kind of a quest at the time to even find the record stores that held that stuff; Gramaphone was one I eventually worked at. Hot Jams on the south side and Imports, Etc. was downtown in the loop, so that's where all that early Chicago house was available. A lot of the producers would just bring trunks full of music to the record stores.
How did you start playing for audiences?
My first big main club gig in Chicago was a club called Shelter; the main room was really good size, and I had a Richard Long sound system, this infamous East Coast speaker designer, a certain style of sound system, certain cabinets and stuff, a really excellent sound system. DJs would do all night back then.
Thursday in the main room was your night, and usually we'd have one DJ work for that one night. So you had tryouts, and it turned out to be a good night at Shelter, I played Thursdays in the main room, as it was called, that was kind of my first big regular club gig where every Thursday I'd play house music, a staple in Chicago.
Is that how you met Derrick Carter?
Right before I got the Shelter gig, we met at Imports, Etc. He was working there, which was right near where I went to university at Columbia College in Chicago. He was one of the people I went into the record store and got the courage to ask about tunes, as opposed to just being anonymous in the store, that was '89-ish or thereabouts, I was a freshman in college.
And how did your radio show come together?
It was Derrick's connect, I believe, he had a shoo-in, Dirk V, who ran the Street Beat show on WNUR, the Northwestern radio station in Evanston. Derrick had a slot for a guest mix on Friday or Saturday, and we recorded a mix together, switching it off, and it turned into a regular gig for a couple of years. We'd mix it at my house and drive it over -- this was still cassette days, pre-CD recordings. We'd usually end up bringing it in kind of right on time when we started it off. Friday had the longest-running show.
So we'd bring it in right at 10:30 and bring it to Dirk, and that was entertaining. Then we'd park by the lake and listen to the mix off the radio, which is always exciting to hear your own mix through the radio waves. Pre-traveling, we were just all geeks playing in Chicago. Then people like Keoki, Jon Williams and Doc Martin started coming to play in Chicago. Chicago never really had guest DJs because there were so many good DJs there, and we'd kind of never heard of it, and we were like, that sounds interesting. We should try to play some other cities.
So that's how you started traveling?
The traveling started around 1990, thereabouts, '91. I started just more local Midwest, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, go to Iowa, things like that, and it expanded out from there. Just giving out mix tapes, selling mix tapes. It was just kind of the start of guest DJs touring around, still a relatively new concept, pre-rave days, when things really got bigger.
How did things change when the rave scene hit?
Coming from where we would do all-nights, it was strange. We were like, "You guys only want me to play two hours when I flew to another city?" The West Coast at that time, there was the start of the rave scene, there really wasn't much of a rave scene in Chicago, just clubs and a loft part was the only thing rave-y in any way. We played a couple of raves on the West Coast, in L.A., and the concept of having multiple headliners in one room was a different concept to the whole club night thing that we were used to.
We had to change into shortening your set. When you have eight hours it's a different dynamic than fitting everything in two hours. The first one was like an hour and a half, you had to prove yourself a little bit before you could be worthy of two hours at one of the bigger parties. Transitioning from the long set standpoint as opposed to doing a two-hour set is a little different than opening at 9 p.m. closing at 4 a.m. than fitting it in two hours. I was like, "How am I going to do that?"
And how did you do that?
I've always been spontaneous, so it was just realizing you can't play everything in two hours. Over mixing can be just as bad as screwing up your blends; you don't want to make everything too busy, as well. So it was just sort of pacing yourself, and in the vinyl days, you'd have to bring four or five crates -- at least three, and you can't really travel with three crates -- just into a shoulderbag, which was still hard, but it's still more than enough music. But that's always a problem you get at the end of the night -- "I forgot to play that!"
So when did you move to San Francisco?
That occurred, I just started traveling here in the early '90s; the first gig was around '93ish, and I was just playing some gigs and Derrick. And I had played a certain party that seemed like all the promoters in town happened to be at at one time. So we got a lot of connects for different party groups. At Chicago at that time, the DJs were the promoters. If you were doing a night, you were making the flier yourself a lot of times and putting it in stores all on your own.
But in San Francisco, there were promoters, people who would just throw the party. In Chicago, they would work for a club, like independent contractors; you just have to spin and they do the party, a nice relief of responsibility, because I just like to do music. There was a pretty healthy club scene going on in the early '90s in San Francisco. Every night there was something going on. Saturday day, Sunday night, Monday night and on into the week. There was a good party every night.
The Chicago style of house -- Midwest house music -- had a smaller portion of club music. There were more genres than Chicago. A lot of breakbeats with the Wicked crew and Hardkiss guys, and more dark techno-y stuff, and the house scene was a little more vocal, New York-style house, so Chicago stuff was different. So we just started playing a lot of parties here, coming back, and I liked it. It was the first place I'd spent a lot of time in outside of Chicago. I'd never really lived anywhere else for too long on my own. And at one point, a good friend had a room available in their apartment, so I maintained a place in both cities for $500, $220 in Chicago and $280 in San Francisco.
I set up a room here and found some cheap turntables from a friend and started bringing out crates from Chicago. I started just to have like a little separate West Coast stash of stuff, so I wouldn't have to limit my choosings. That went on for two years. And then when I was at Basement here, I could play more West Coast places that maybe couldn't afford me from Chicago, like Portland, San Diego, so I'd play some away gigs and go back to Chicago.
I really enjoyed it. But at the same point, anybody who's lived in the same city for most of their life, you get the urge to check something else out. It just happened to be San Francisco, so after about three years or so, when finally my lease ran out in Chicago, I just sort of shifted out here at that time, '95.
And how did the Mushroom jazz club night start?
It started around '94, I would say, and it was Monday night that became quite popular at a place called Cat's Grill. Like I said, Chicago was a house town, there wasn't much of a downtempo scene, but in San Francisco, there was a big acid-jazz scene as well as house and all the other genres, five or six different production crews doing all acid-jazz parties, reggae, hip-hop combos. So then there was a live acid-jazz scene as well. I still miss those San Francisco acid-jazz days. Pretty booming. And people didn't mind dancing to slow tempos, where in Chicago, if it wasn't 125 or 120 beats per minute, they weren't really into it.
And that lasted for several years -- why did you decide to stop?
Five years, I'd say. We just felt it had run its course, that venue had some kind of issue and had to change ownership. The sound system started to get a little beat up, and we decided it was time to change it up and do something else. And working on Monday for a while can be a lot of work, especially when you're working on weekends, too. It just seemed time to end it on a high note.
Is that when you started releasing the Mushroom Jazz albums?
That was going on, prior even to the club night. I had the mix tape and a series I was making and selling at Gramaphone at the time in Chicago, I had about five or six cassettes, Mushroom Jazz cassettes, made before Mushroom Jazz Vol. 1 came out on CD. OM was a new starting label at that time as well, and they wanted to do an interactive CD that had a lot of extra stuff. So we kind of ended up hooking up and it all worked out good. The mix CD was still pretty new, I had one out before that but it was still just the very beginning of mix CD.
What's it like being involved in a series like Mushroom Jazz - been going strong since 1992 - with such longevity?
I'm very excited and honored that people are still into it after it being around for so long. There aren't too many downtempo series or house series that have been along for so long, especially with the changing climate of how people get their music and what type of music they buy. The fact that it's still relevant is a good thing. It has a niche in downtempo that's unique and still draws listeners.
How do you keep your enthusiasm for this style of music after so many years?
It's all depending on people's reactions. I'm still into that sound, I've always liked that style, around 100 beats per minute, jazzy hip-hop style, so I think it's always good stuff, and it's always a style I like to listen to. We'll see how long it goes. I've thought of a concept of maybe doing a couple of guest DJs in the future, having them do their own tape on Mushroom Jazz as a concept. And I'm starting a Mushroom Jazz label next year, which will feature all downtempo stuff. So we'll see how it goes. Whatever shape or form hip-hop is in, it's always kind of around, and now I find dubstep getting popular and stuff, and I think that Mushroom Jazz is still a little bridge from that to other stuff as well.
Where do you find all of those old vocal samples you lay in your albums and your sets?
It takes a little searching; it's one of my secret weapons. I like to search different old movies, documentaries, and I've collected spoken-word records for many years. It's a big collection of mine, just collecting things like film-strip records back in the film-strip days -- when I was growing up in school, they had film strips; they probably don't have them anymore. I've always just scoured the spoken-word section of record stores, going to the oddities bin for twenty-something years and found a few gems.
And with Mushroom Jazz 7, I wanted to go with a strictly mushroom theme with the samples, to create kind of an old documentary, like an old fact-finding mission on mushrooms. I've used different samples -- and even in house, I'll use weird spoken-word stuff to set a tone that's done not directly with singing. I like a lot of instrumental stuff, and I find you can add nice accents with different spoken-word stuff. The older recordings have a tone to them, the way they're recorded in mono, a lot of the older stuff sounds old, and I kind of like that feel.
What were some other inspirations and aspirations for Mushroom Jazz 7?
This time -- I mean even more than the last one -- I wanted to get a lot of new music together, a lot of stuff that isn't out yet. So I searched from artists directly, trying to find their newest stuff. As opposed to the early volumes -- I was more of a record-digger, still, where I was buying a lot of stuff and licensing it, whereas this time, I've been contacting artists really early, thinking, "Who do I want to hit up for fresh stuff, and not just stuff that's out already?"
And so I tried to include a lot of newer stuff and maybe some artists who aren't known for downtempo as well, house people who everyone thinks just make house beats. But I tried to keep in line with the previous volumes, stripped down with a jazzy overtone, congruent with the old volumes, just bring something new.
Who are some of the artists you listen to on your own time?
In terms of new stuff, there's a lot of good new artists, I'm lucky to get a lot of tunes on my email -- Corduroy Mavericks from Kentucky, that I really like, and there are people I've worked with in the past a bunch like JT Donaldson, James Curd from Greenskeepers and Atnarko from Florida. So I'm always kind of looking for new stuff, and like I said, there are lots of old people who still make new stuff. Traveling, I get handed a lot of promos, and you never know which ones are going to be good. You might get crap, but you might get good stuff from an unknown. I'm always searching for good music.
Your sets are always so high-energy; you clearly enjoy spinning live for a group. How do you maintain that energy?
It's always a challenge, I think, for any artist, whether you're a guitar player or DJ or singer. I get a lot of enjoyment from playing new music, even though vibes and artists have changed over the past twenty years. One of my initial things starting out was playing new, good tracks, even in 1990. So it's just trying to find good, new music, and I feel I'm a good conduit, you could say, for bringing new music to a crowd I think needs to hear new artists. So I think that helps keep me fresh and involved and excited.
I'm grateful to play shows, is one thing. I know lots of friends of mine who maybe don't always get as many gigs, so I'm happy to play in any city. In Denver, I've been playing for years, and I still love going there, and the crowd is still enjoying it. One of my pet peeves is, I never play the same set. I never have any order planned. I just kind of feel the vibe, and I brought some good music with and take it from there -- as opposed to a band that, as you're playing the same set over time, it's hard to stay fresh.
But I'm always kind of changing and evolving stuff. New music is definitely a key, and I'm getting new goodies every week. And hopefully -- it's worked in the past -- if that music gets me excited, hopefully the crowd will get into it. I just play stuff that I like. I've seen DJs and performers in the past that are too emotionless, and you don't know: Are they enjoying themselves? Are they concentrating? I always like seeing an artist that's enjoying themselves, and I always have fun spinning.
Things have changed so much over time, starting off in the vinyl area where you're doing all vinyl. At one point, I used to carry records and a little turntable with me to hotel rooms to listen to stuff; it wasn't the easiest thing to do. But now, I can, with the digital age, get stuff sent to me at 10 p.m. the night of a show, and I can download it, burn it and play it that night.
Whereas still in the vinyl promo days, if you had something brand-new to play, there was no way to play some of the new stuff. Nowadays, I have all my promos on my iPhone, so I can listen to stuff all day, do homework. Whereas with the vinyl, you were limited with what you could really do homework-wise, those are some of the benefits I find helpful.
You don't have to worry about turntables skipping. You know a CD isn't going to skip at the party, which used to be a big pet peeve of mine. Wood floors bouncy with the bass, someone bumping the turntable, knowing things aren't going to break or needles aren't going to slide across the record. On the other hand, you'd get a white label that there were only 500 of or 250 -- you had one, and you knew, "That doesn't exist anywhere else."
Of course, I know from some artists that I get stuff direct from, they sent this out to twenty people this week, and that's it. but you never really know, "How many copies of this track that I'm buying do people have?" It could be 500 or 2,000. Whereas if you had a limited-edition double promo pack of vinyl, that's all there was. Those days you miss.
And it's also weird, it's not abnormal now, but at first the concept of actually being able to experience a club and not go there -- whereas now people can be on the farm and listen to a club set, you can almost go to more clubs listening than humanly possible. If you want to check out DJ Joe Schmo live in Tokyo and whoever live from Ibiza that same night, which is kind of interesting being able to hear, from the school where you had to be at the party to be able to experience it. Nobody ever really recorded sets, so it's different that you can come out with cameras and things.
But digital is good for similar reasons: People can get tunes not restricted to their geographic situation. Before you had to live in a city with a good record store to get a copy of those ten imports; whereas now, people in Brazil have all the new releases of house they couldn't get on vinyl because it was impossible for shipping, or Australia, where the music gets shared, which I think is good for music.
But I still like having a physical copy of things. At least you know when you have a record in your living room: I know it's there; I put it there; it's a crate or two to the left of where I thought it was, but I know it's there. But the digital file can get lost, the info can get changed in the track, for some reason the name doesn't transfer. You can have music and lose it, which is kind of strange.
What would you be doing today if you weren't involved in music?
My plan was to be retiring from professional soccer now, a year or two ago. That was one of my first goals, playing soccer of some sort. Or owning a record store, but I don't know if I'd be doing that now, because so many have closed. Things have changed a bit, so I don't know if that would still be working out. Some sort of professional soccer player or record-store owner.
What can we expect to see at your set at the Gothic this month?
I'm always kind of unpredictable with what I'm feeling. I'm going to mix it up between new funky house and funky downtempo, and maybe some stringing in between with new disco and stuff, but it's always kind of freestyle. And at the Gothic I can change tempos a bit, there's a fairly big dubstep following in Denver, so I know people don't need to hear straight house. Where if I'm playing in the Midwest, like Chicago or Detroit, it's all house -- especially in Chicago.
But I'll be playing a couple of selections and Mushroom Jazz classics with hip-hoppy stuff. I just started getting promos for heading toward Miami in March, so I have a lot of new underground house stuff, and from my house label, Great Lakes Audio. We'll see. It's just going to be new underground goodies, with some classicy flavors thrown in as well. Old gems and new goodies.
What do you have planned music-wise for 2011?
For Great Lakes Audio, which is a house label I do, we're continuing to plan. We've got releases lined up till March with Lil Rob, a Bay Area artist, and Mark Medina. So just trying to keep the quality, keep underground house coming. And Mushroom Jazz Recordings is starting in January/February, which is kind of going to be paying homage to some of the old acid-jazz labels like Talkin' Loud and Giant Step and things like that. It'll be more of a purely downtempo label, just focused on different new downtempo goodies that I feel don't always get put out. And I'm working on some remixes for next year, right now I'm working on a Green Velvet remix, so I should be working on that for January or February release.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I love coming to the 303, to Denver, and I'm very excited to come back.