The third annual edition of the Great American Techno Festival is going down this weekend, and it features a slew of top-notch talent, including Lusine, Jeff Mills, Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and Brendon Moeller (check out the full lineup if you haven't already). We recently spoke with all four of those acts. Keep reading for the full interviews -- one of which, with Brendon Moeller, you may have already read (they're longer reads, but if you're a techno fans, it's totally worth it).
By Matt Miner
Calling himself the Wizard, Jeff Mills began his storied DJ career as a regular guest on the Electrifying Mojo's forward-thinking Detroit FM radio show in the early 1980s. Later that decade, he founded the subversive musical collective, Underground Resistance with "Mad" Mike Banks, a partnership that whetted the edge of Detroit techno. Mills briefly relocated to New York during the 1990s -- where he took residency at the legendary Limelight nightclub and recorded for the venerable Berlin techno imprint, Tresor Records -- before permanently settling in Chicago.
Over the course of two decades plus, the prolific producer has released no fewer than nineteen full-length albums. Mills' varicolored interests -- among them, film, design, visual art, science fiction--permeate his musical output, including his latest release, Jungle Planet, but, at its core, his sound remains unadulterated techno. The underground electronic-music icon will deejay for five-hours this Saturday night on Beta's cathartic-like-a-punch-in-the-gut Funktion-One soundsystem as the top headliner of the third-annual Great American Techno Festival.
Westword: You've created a series of concept albums with a science fiction motif called Sleeper Wakes, the fifth and latest of which is titled Jungle Planet. Will you tell us about your new release?
Jeff Mills: It starts off with the end of humans on Earth. The last surviving human somehow tries to find the residue of human dreams in order to kick-start the evolution of humans again. So he travels to this planet where he finds out that the concept--the theory of human life was first conceived. And he travels to this planet in search of these aliens that have this formula. So the album documents his journey to the planet, across its landscape, and then he finally meets these aliens called Dream Collectors.
I tried as best as I could to create more of a soundtrack than dance/techno music. So I tried to keep the sound more subdued to tactfully emulate the idea of being in [an uninhabited] landscape, using some sounds to imitate what animals might sound like, in the near or distance, treating the music in certain ways to give it more of an open, airy type of feel, a very exotic feel at times.
Things happen in very unpredictable ways. There are very few clear, straight lines in the composition. And that was done in reference to the idea that it's a jungle planet. There are no manmade structures, or lines, or things like that. It's done symmetrically. So the album is positioned in a very crisscross type of way, or kind of a very clustered, layered type of manner.
The French artist, Julian Pacaud designed the cover art--which is quite surreal and rather elaborate--for the vinyl version [coming mid-October]. What particularly appeals to you about his work?
While I was producing the first two tracks of the album, I came across his work in a book that I bought in Paris. And his work, well, the two examples that the book was showing, really connected to what I was imagining and trying to do with the music. In various, small, subtle ways, he could create a very deep, remarkable type of response. And so I just took a chance to contact him to see if he might be interested in creating the cover for this album, and I forwarded him the two samples that we made. We had a little bit of a discussion and I told him more about the story, and that was the result. We're really, really happy with how it came out.
In contrast, the other version of the album is an austere black USB cube. Why that format?
I wanted to take something from the story and make it an object, to make something that the listener could set in front of them, could touch, could hold in their hand. Something reminiscent of the story that I had wrote. We looked on the front cover of Julian's artwork, and at first we were thinking maybe we should do the ostrich with no neck, no head, so we were looking into a creepy kind of toy thing to manufacture, and then we thought maybe we should consider the cube that's on the front cover.
There's also a part in the story about a black box. That's how [Picaud] came to put this cube on the front cover. We thought that maybe this might be the most logical object to take something from the story and to make it reality. So after months of trying to figure out how to design it, we finally came up with that design, and a USB was the most convenient for that particular shape. So that's how it came about. It wasn't that we wanted to make a USB; it was more so that we wanted to take something from the story and make it an extension of it. Something from the story that becomes a reality. And so that's how it came about.
You have another album out this year, Where Light Ends, which is a collaboration with Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mori and several other electronic musicians. Will you shed some light on that project, so to speak, and can you tell us if will it receive a domestic release?
It came about at a production meeting in Tokyo with our label partner there. We were informing them as to what the new project was going to be, and I was telling them that one of the albums that I wanted to make was an album about the experience of leaving Earth and going into space, and what that experience would be like in a very descriptive type of way. I kind of jokingly said it would be great if we could find someone who could tell this--who had had this experience--in a first-hand account: What it's like to be thrust into the atmosphere and free-floating in space.
One person said that they knew someone who knew someone who knew Mamoru Mori--he's the director Miraikan museum in Tokyo--and that maybe he might be interested, because he's a very interesting person and he's very open to things. So we made contact with him at his office. I went back and officially asked him if he would be interested in collaborating on this project about his experience of going into space. We didn't know this, but he had written a story about that in a very poetic way, which we used for guidelines for how I put the music together, and also a film that we did for it. And so we had a few interesting conversations about it, very personal conversation about his journey into space, and from these conversations is how I actually made the album.
The title, Where Light Ends, comes from a comment that he made about how dangerous the sun is to the earth. It's probably the most dangerous thing that we could ever imagine. Our existence is just so fragile, and the sun is actually what's deteriorating everything. So the title comes from my response to that: Well, then maybe we would be safer in a place where light ends, or just beyond that point, where we would be out of danger.
So we made the album released it in Japan and did some special events. The project has moved on from other international releases. We actually scored it for classical orchestra, and we're gonna perform it for the first time this November. So it may not be a domestic release of the original album, but it may be a classical performance.
A third project you've completed recently is the score for a short film, The Alignment, which is directed by Dutch filmmaker Heleen Blanken. How does your soundtrack interact with her picture?
We commissioned her to make a series of film for Axis [Records; Mills's label]. In January we started a film division of our company called Alpha Centauri. I knew Heleen because she did the graphics at parties and festivals, so we started talking about what type of short films would we be able to make where I wrote the music and she directed. We wanted to make something that was timeless, that in a very short period of time just took the viewer away from reality for a few minutes.
And so she explained an idea about making something that was very abstract, and I made a small sample of music and then forwarded that to her, and then she continued to create the whole piece, and then I forwarded her the rest of the music, and we pieced it together and released the first film in January, and then a second film came three months later, and we have another one to do before the end of the year, and then that project's over. And now we're speaking about making a short science fiction film with actors and costumes and locations and production. We're in discussions about that now.
As a performer, you've had a rough go of it lately, with the incident in Rome in April (Mills was struck in the head by a pair of sunglasses thrown from the audience) and the poorly received Wizard set at Movement in May (Mills had been performing as the Wizard since the early 1980s; the alias is now on hiatus). To what do you attribute the hostility?
It's not the first time that someone has thrown something at a DJ to either get their attention or satisfaction.
And it's not the first time it's happened to me. I've been in much worse situations. Life-threating situations. So that was something that I thought that it's unfortunate, but, the scenario of when DJs are playing in a club--you just can't do those things, because it's dark, the DJ is often behind a lot of lights and can't see, and if we allow that to continue to happen, it could be very, very dangerous. So we have to respond to that, and so my response was just to stop, and let the people know that there's a limit to what people can do in that type of scenario. So it wasn't a rough time, and I haven't had a rough year--actually, it's been one of the best years.
I had been thinking about stopping the Wizard long before this year. It just came to the point that there's just no interest in a DJ playing this format. At least not for me and those kind of sets. So taking that off the table frees up more opportunities for other things, like classical performances, art shows, film projects, and things like that. It hasn't been difficult; it's been great.
What have been some of your more positive experiences this year as a DJ or as a live act?
I've probably done some of the most interesting parties in my whole career this year. I think that people are wanting to go out and to party more than ever. And I have a lot of years to compare to, but I really started to notice the middle of last year the enthusiasm of people going out to parties. It's just really unbelievable. Every DJ that I know is never home, or always on the road, always playing somewhere. So it's a really great time I think as far as performance-wise.
Music industry-wise, there's a surge in vinyl. The waiting time to press a record, even for us--and we've been around for twenty years--is three to four months. There are so many people pressing records, so much product out, so it's really a very interesting time, and we're just trying to stay busy.
You recently told another journalist "People just don't ask for better anymore" with respect to music, a problem that you associate with commercialization. What can listeners do to demand more?
From my perspective, from behind the scenes, from looking at other DJs, and then comparing them to years past...DJs today don't play at their capacity. They probably feel that they don't need to. It's gotten to the point now that it's not about skill. You don't have to be skillful to be a DJ; you just have to know what buttons to press. The technology has made it that way.
Which is great on one side, because it opens up opportunities for people that aren't so skillful to play in front of people, but the negative side of that is that the quality of music has gone down, and the quality of DJs has gone down drastically. It's not just the DJs that are a part of the problem; it's also the audience, too. The audience doesn't seem to care whether the DJ is mixing live or letting the computer do the mixing for them.
If I were to think of any other scenario--a jazz band: If they were on stage and they were letting the computers play the music for them in front of the audience, I think that the audience would not accept that. If it were a rock band that was letting the computers play the guitar and play the drums for them, I don't think the audience would accept that. For some mysterious reason, the audiences in electronic music just accept it or don't care.
Are there any musicians who you feel are doing it better?
I know a lot of DJs. A lot of musicians. And I'm telling you, 99.5% of them...it's so bad. I've known DJs since they were in their teen years. I've played with these DJs, I've seen them evolve, I've seen them become incredible DJs. But then at some point, they felt that being incredible or demonstrating such skill would be a disadvantage.
Maybe they felt people would not react to it the same way because they're reacting to a DJ that isn't that skillful better. So they tend to dumb down or just don't even show the best that they can do. And I've seen this from so many DJs. It's mindboggling how it can become like that. So nobody asks for more, so no one tries as a consequence.
What can techno fans expect from your five-hour set this Saturday night at Beta?
Well, five hours is a long time, so I have a lot of space to travel, so I'm bringing extra music for that. It's been quite a while since I've played in Denver. It's been years [Mills played Vinyl in 2007]. I've made a lot of music that probably has never been heard in that market, so I'm bringing all that. In five hours, I should be able to cover different areas, different parts of that, to create different types of atmospheres. Not just the same beat for five hours, but, if it's possible, to create different landscapes at certain times. So, I'm hoping that it's possible to do that.
Continue on for our interviews with Lusine, Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and Brendon Moeller
By Tom Murphy
Lusine is Jeff McIlwain who moved from Texas to California to attend California Institute of the Arts, where he studied 20th century electronic music and sound design. His compositions in the ambient and IDM vein have garnered him considerable acclaim for their inventiveness and subltle but vibrant sonic detail. McIlwain has also scored the soundtracks to the films Snow Angel, The Sitter and Joe -- his soundtracks being one of the best parts of those films.
A now longtime resident of Seattle, Washington, McIlwain released his latest album, The Waiting Room on Ghostly International earlier this year. We spoke with McIlwain about having Morton Subotnick, the inventor of the synthesizer, as a professor at Cal Arts, how he got into scoring for film and why he has maintained a balance between the accessible and the experimental in his music.
Westword: Did you start out making electronic music, or did you get your start making some other kind of music?
Jeff McIlwain: I've been doing it for quite a while now. I started making music straight out of high school back in the '90s and just been doing it ever since. I was interested in what I was hearing at the time which back then was a lot of DJ music and just trying to figure out how these people did what they did. At that time it wasn't quite as common to do stuff straight out of computers so I was looking at work stations and drum machines.
Who were some people that inspired you early on?
Back then, I think I was really into Orbital, a lot of stuff on Warp. It just kind of ran the gamut. Speedy J, Atom Heart, stuff like that.
You went to the California Institute of the Arts in the late '90s. What sparked your interest in twentieth century electronic music. Presumably that includes Karlheinz Stockhause and Morton Subotnick.
Yeah, sure. Actually Morton Subotnick taught me there because he taught at Cal Arts at the time. I went to Cal Arts not really for that interest. The program was called New Media Composition which focused on that type of music. I was kind of more into the sound design stuff. I didn't go in there with the idea of being into that kind of music. So I was going back and forth between the music and the film schools there working on other people's film projects.
Did you learn anything from Subotnick that you've applied to what you've done since?
I feel like Morton Subotnick is one of these guys who is kind of an idea man and not a getting down into the nitty gritty technical details of things. He's interested in how different art forms come together. Cal Arts is very focused on that. He taught a class in the dance school and was Music For Dance or something like that.
His big thing was called parametric counterpoint. You have one kind of visualization and you can see what somebody is doing and you try to do something that is kind of the opposite and it produces an interesting effect. A lot of what I was doing in that class is looking at what people are doing and seeing how it could be stronger by doing something that counteracted that. So it was an interesting class.
Are there particular films you thought used sound and music really well before you went into the school?
I'm sure at the time in 1998 I was into films like Sid & Nancy that had an interesting score behind that. At Cal Arts I was working with a lot of student filmmakers and not only just doing music. Really what I was doing in the film score there is not what I ended up doing at all and doing a lot of sound effects work. A lot of it was sort of sound jobs for films.
When you were learning to do sound design and soundtracking, did you ever re-soundtrack a film.
I think probably in a couple of my classes we had to add in new dialogue but I don't think I had to re-score a film as a class assignment but in the past few years I've been involved in some film scores.
You did music for Snow Angels, The Sitter and Joe. Is your process different from writing for an album? How do you approach that sort of thing?
It's definitely a different process. The director has his say on what kind of music he wants in there. It's kind of a finding a fine line between the kind of music that they want and maybe the music they have in their temporarily and try to do something similar to that but sort of add your style to it. It's definitely a lot more of the collaborative process and do what works for the film and not necessarily bring out the music but rather add what emotion they want in the scene. Which a lot of times means the music shouldn't actually be heard all that much.
How did you get connected with scoring soundtracks?
I worked on a few films back in L.A. for a composer named Ed Shearmur. Those scores I got involved in working on through the label I was working with at the time, which was Eyes of Flux. I have a good friend David Lingo and he scored for another mutual friend named David Greene and Greene brough me in on his fourth movie Snow Angels because he was familiar with my music and wanted to bring an electronic element to that score. So that's kind of how I started working with him. From there I've worked on a few of his films and a couple of other projects as well.
Your last several albums have been out on Ghostly International. How did you get hooked up with those guys?
Back when I was living in L.A. Sam [Valenti IV] had come through touring and he heard a DJ playing one of my tracks so he just contacted me then and sending me a bunch of their early stuff back when Ghostly was just first starting out. I didn't have any material at the time but a couple of years later I put out the Push.
You live in Seattle these days. Why did you move to Seattle, and what keeps you there?
I was kind of treading water in L.A. and kind of looking to leave after a while. I had some friends back in Austin and considered going back there. A few of my friends had moved up to Seattle and I had visited here as well to play a festival. It's a beautiful city and it has a good art and music scene. So I decided I'd try it out so I've been here since the end of 2002.
Do you still use mostly hardware these days?
It's a combination of things for sure. I software in the computer and I have a few analogs that I've collected over the past many years. I like having hardware because it's nice to have some hands-on stuff. I'm not a purist in any sense and I have some acoustic instruments that I like to sample in.
When you do a live show do you still use hardware?
Tetra is my main piece of hardware for live. The Tetra is a polyphonic analogue but I like to keep things compact so that they can fit in a backpack and I don't have to check anything.
Your music strikes a true balance between something very accessible and the more experimental spectrum of experimental music. Maybe it's not something you even think about for you to straddle those two world in making the music that you do?
I don't try to think about it too much. But at the same time I got sick of working in one area. I've always appreciated albums that ran the gamut and kind of jumped into different territories and try to make things make sense as a whole but also not sticking to one formula or one genre. I'll be doing a certain type of track for a while and if I wanted to keep doing that kind of track I would but it's not inspiring to me. I think I, for the most part, do it to keep inspired.
On your new album, The Waiting Room, you do a cover of that hit song by Electronic, "Get the Message." Why that particular song?
Actually it started out when Sam at Ghostly asked me because they were thinking of doing a compilation of favorite tracks from the early 90s or the early 80s. That got me thinking about that kind of thing. I think that album is very underrated today. It was a big hit back then but it's kind of got lost in the shuffle. There were a few tracks I was considering but that one made the most sense. My wife sang on it and she loves that song as well. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. I don't know that I would do a cover again but I wanted to do it at least once.
Continue on for our interviews with Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and Brendon Moeller
By Tom Murphy
Ctrl_Alt_Dlt is the musical alias of Chris Aldrich. Aldrich, who moved to Seattle around the turn of the century from his home in Detroit. He needed a change of scenery, he says, and knew the Emerald City as place where music was happening. Aldrich brought with him his experience with the rich legacy of Detroit techno, and when he become more involved in the welcoming electronic music scene in Seattle, he established his now long-running residency at Electric Tea Garden, SpaceRock Saturdays, where the deep and emotional form of electronic music is often showcased. We recently spoke with Aldrich about his passion for techno, the influence of Kraftwerk on his own tracks and the importance of knowing the history of one's chosen creative endeavors.
Westword: You're from one of the originating cities of techno in general in Detroit. How did you become exposed to that music at an early age?
Chris Aldrich: I went to my first party when I was seventeen, a month before I turned eighteen. I had a lot of friends who were going in high school, and I kept on hearing about these parties going on in Detroit. Eventually, it was Devil's Night in 1999, and me and bunch of my friends got together, and one our friends, who had been a couple of times before, took us down to this place off of Woodward called Better Days, and showed us the ropes. We went to this amazing all night party. I didn't really know what was going on like how the music was coming out of the speakers or the whole process of deejaying. Just the experience and the vibe of the party? My life has never been the same.
Devil's Night is October 30th, right? The night before Halloween?
Yeah and typically people go out and cause trouble and Detroit has a reputation for lighting a bunch of stuff on fire so it was an interesting night.
You went to other parties or clubs after that first experience? What was that like? Where were you able to go see music?
I was so young so the mainstream clubs didn't really hold a lot of appeal for me because it just didn't seem like my kind of scene. So I kind of jumped head first into the illegal spaces, the warehouses and the various other spots that would pop up around Detroit. Once the rave scene died down I got more into going to the clubs in Detroit because that's where it all moved. There were good clubs like The Works.
They'd always been doing stuff, but once the rave scene died down, that place really took off. I used to go there a lot. I remember one summer Kevin Saunderson ran this Friday night that was a weekly. That was a great experience because he brought in so many of his friends, old school DJs who kind of schooled you on an older, more traditional sense of techno. I used to go to Oslo too. That was a really cool space off of Woodward right downtown.
What was it about techno specifically, other than other kinds of electronic music you heard, that drew you in?
I think I just liked the authenticity and realness of techno. It's so stripped down, it's so bullshit free, it just seems to get into the essence of a kind of injection of energy. I tried out, especially when I first started DJ-ing, I tried out a lot of different genres like drum & bass, progressive stuff--just kind of feeling out the world of electronic music period.
Right from the beginning, techno was what was speaking to me just because it didn't have these layers of cheese or obvious, kind of big build-ups. It's not an obvious genre. You've got to want it. You've got to be patient and once you get on to that level of what techno is all about I think it's one of the most amazing branches of dance music period.
When you mention the obvious builds that seems to be the sort of thing many people expect out of electronic music these days and electronic music is much more than just that method of working up a crowd.
Exactly. I mean there's so much emotion in it to. Those genres aren't nearly as deep give you, I don't know, instant gratification and kind of an emotion of excitement or whatever. But techno works a range of emotions. You're feeling stuff through this music that you can't even really describe through words. It seems like a lot of people go to see techno and it takes you to places you wouldn't even think you could go to in a club or something like that.
What was the allure of Seattle to you and what prompted you to move there?
From a young age I kind of knew that Michigan wasn't really the place that I wanted to stay. And I didn't have any idea of where I wanted to do. But you play that game with yourself of, "Where would I move?" Seattle would just pop into my head. When I was really young, like in fifth grade I was listening to like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden and all of these sounds coming out of Seattle and it always held this allure to me. I had no idea what it was about. It's tucked away in this corner of the country and you don't hear too much about it. So once I got older and I met my now ex-girl, she was from Germany and we got together so we were both like, "Yeah, let's get out of our respective hometowns and try something new." We'd never been to Seattle and just rolled into town and fell in love with it. I love Seattle. It's really great.
Where did you roll into it first?
We came off of 90 into downtown, and we moved over to Inner Bay west of Queen Anne, kind of by Ballard. We only lived there for six months until we got our bearings then we moved up to Capitol Hill and I've been living there ever since.
How did you find Seattle to be in terms of music and your ability to be involved in music there?
When I first moved here there was a fair amount of stuff going on. I really didn't what to expect. Detroit is so techno heavy. I think if you spend all your time in Detroit and aren't familiar with these other scenes you get this idea in your head that every place plays decent house and techno. Then I moved into town and got exposed to all these different genres I'd never heard, for better or for worse.
I saw a kind of void for a Detroit style techno party. I wasn't feeling that vibe so heavy out here in terms of just being able to party long and late and hear techno. In terms of getting involved with it, it was great. People were super supportive of it. It all happened really organically. I just wanted to play some records and I met some people, some of my best friends now, and I was starting to play their house parties and got introduced to more people.
Then I started playing raves and clubs. Everybody was really receptive to the sound. I feel like there wasn't so much tradition in the quality of Detroit style techno and so a lot of people, when they were more exposed to the sound totally embraced it. So that's when it evolved to where we were like, "We've got to push this time. We've got to throw parties."
Seattle's a really good canvas to work with. If you have an idea and you're a friendly person you can build this network of people who are down to support you because there's a lot of passionate people out here and they're down to support you if they feel like what you're doing is righteous.
You interned at one of the great American alternative weekly papers, The Stranger, in Seattle. How did that come about and what did you do with The Stranger?
I got hooked up with that crew through Dave Segal who does the electronic music column, Data Breaker. I had mentioned to him that I wanted to intern there. I had just graduated from Seattle U, and I wanted to take what I had done a step further, and do some kind of internship. I loved that paper, and thought it was one of the greatest weeklies in the country. I didn't hear anything back from them, so I contacted Dave about that, and asked if he could grease the wheels. Sure enough, I was interning there, and I did a lot of intern stuff like opening mail, processing the event calendar -- menial stuff like that.
After a while, they started letting me write for the blog and cover whatever I wanted to, like electronic music shows and parties my friends had coming up. I still have a good relationship with all of those people and I can still write for the blog. Dave, every time I see him out, he's the coolest guy, and we have really good discussions. That paper is awesome, and they're really good to us, too, in terms of supporting us and supporting our events.
In what ways would you say that Kraftwerk impacted your own creative work?
Ooh, that's a good question. I love Kraftwerk. I had an opportunity to see Kraftwerk in Detroit years ago but I was broke and I slept on it and that's one of the things I don't want to think about because it just makes me sad. Early Kraftwerk stuff is really influential. I love the simplicity of it. I love the dryness of it. Yet it's so dry that it's funky. I like the fact that they use a lot of major chords. You don't hear that so much nowadays because when you do it can start to sound kind of cheesy. But for some reason those guys were able to string together these really beautiful melodies.
In terms of my own work I would say the simplicity of what they do inspires me most. The staying to the roots mentality--keeping it simple. That's what they're really able to do. Then they released this live album after they did that tour a few years ago and they kind of modernized all their tracks and made them a little bit more contemporary.
That was really inspirational too seeing how they could kind of spice up these old jams. It's a tough question but at the same time I hold Kraftwerk in my heart dearly. I'm going to have to fly somewhere next time they're on tour because I need to see them. I'm going to be so pissed if one of them dies or something and I can't go see them. They're at the top of my list for sure. I wish Movement would book them because I go to that thing every year in Detroit. I think I could die after that, it would be so amazing.
Do you still hustle fliers in Seattle for your gigs and why do you think that's still a helpful thing to do?
Yeah, we do. The thing with SpaceRock Saturdays we've built this kind of punk rock aesthetic to it. A lot of the flyers look just like you're almost promoting a rock band or something. We'll stay true to that mentality and put out a black and white flyer, sometimes color, on paper. We always do one because, I don't know, I go out a lot so you can tell people all day, "I've got this great party coming up," and if you don't have something tangible to give them that they can stick in their pocket and be reminded of it, so what's the point. For one it preserves the whole branding and art and it makes stuff easier to promote. We could probably just do it with Facebook but as a promoter, no stone unturned. We don't hustle them as hard as we used to but we still hustle any time we go out.
A lot of people don't know your party or your project exists so they don't necessarily know to look for it online and many people don't use Facebook.
In that recent interview with The Stranger you said a number of interesting things but to start, why do you think it's important to get as weird and as intense as possible?
What I love about techno is how weird a style of music it is, you know? And intensity is just the other key aspect to me in techno in that it can build tension. You can start from a neutral spot but build up the energy so intensely and that coupled with the weirdest noises you've ever heard and yet it still all works. It's not weird for weird's sake. Weird because it's the most powerful way to take your brain and reach it on this cerebral level so you become entranced by the music and it moves you in a different way than some other genres. I think that's precisely because of its intensity and weirdness that you can be taken there by the music.
Why do you feel it's important to learn the history of a genre you're exploring?
I mean it's like how can you push things further if you don't know where you're coming from. I also feel like you're paying homage, paying respect, to the genre. If you really take something seriously you've got to get educated in the people that have laid the groundwork for you to get where you're at today.
It's like any craft, you've got to learn the basics before you can start pushing the envelope further. It can be so inspiring. For a while there I was just blindly going through techno and just whatever I liked I played. The older I got and the more mature I got as a DJ I started digging deeper into tracks from the 90s.
You see this trend of people thinking that all these unreleased promos I have that is music that you've never heard before so it's going to be a better experience for you. I feel like the most comprehensive DJs are the ones that are celebrating as big a catalog as they can from different eras and decades in time. That's like building an arsenal from that entire history. If you don't know that you're missing on so much great music for one and you're not really celebrating the genre in the way that you could.
In your sets you have music that isn't purely your own that people may not know but even in terms of your own tracks, why do you feel it's essential to take risks with your selections?
I look at it more from a personal level in terms of pushing yourself as a DJ. If you play it safe all the time, that's going to come across and you're not going to really know the boundaries that you have and where you can take a crowd if you're playing it safe. You've got to throw out those tracks like, "Wow, this one is weird. I've tried it out in the bedroom; we'll see how it works on the dance floor."
Then you realize you'll get a response to that and it can push you in different directions. If you start taking risks people will know you as a DJ who is a risk taker and not know what to expect that night. The more you do it the better you get at taking those risks. I think it opens up a lot of freedom for you as a DJ to take people on whatever kind of journey you want.
And it keeps things fresh.
Yeah, for sure. There's just so fun in trying out crazy tracks or shit from a different genre that you don't normally play or play classic R&B tracks and breaking it down in really weird ways and then building it back up. It works best, I think, to get weird if you have a super long set. We had Derek Plaslaiko out here for our five year anniversary party and we let him play the whole night. He was just taking it to the weirdest places like playing Bach, then Boyz II Men and then firing it back up with some crazy techno banger and he was making it work. That's taking risks. He is a risk taker so he knows how to make that work.
Continue on for our interview with Brendon Moeller
Brendon Moeller was born in South Africa but moved to New York after reading about all the great early wave of electronic music artists that emerged out of the late '80s industrial, experimental electronic and house music worlds. Moeller's natural curiosity and drive has lead him to exploring a plethora of electronic music styles.
By Tom Murphy
While he has most often been associated with dub techno, Moeller's career and palette is much broader; there isn't much that the prolific musician hasn't tried in his chosen field of making music. We recently had a chance to speak with the affable and articulate Moeller about his own path to creating a diverse body of work, why he now uses all hardware live and why he has tried so many styles of music.
Westword: You were in a band when you were a teenager. What kind of band was it?
Brendon Moeller: It was when I was in college that I got around to playing the instrument I wanted to, which was the drums. The first band I was in, we were very much influenced by, I guess, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth -- the noisier end of rock. We did some noisy cover versions of Neil Young and Byrds songs. It was fun, and it was with a good group of friends, but it was also at a time when we were all young and more interested in chasing ladies than going to band practice and being disciplined.
After three years, it kind of fell apart. The band was called Honeyslide. We got the name from a Neil Young interview, and he was asked how he recorded the album On the Beach, and he said, at the time, he was spending a lot time in the desert doing "honeyslide," and honeyslide is basically a diet consisting of marijuana and honey fried in a pan over a fire.
Why did you want to play drums initially?
I guess, from the very get-go, with music, I was attracted to rhythm, groove and beat, more than anything. My parents had three kids, and lived in a small house, and a set of drums just wasn't going to work for anybody. So they sent me to piano lessons and trumpet lessons, which I did for a number of years, but I finally kind of gave up because it wasn't really where my head was at.
Also the lessons I was getting were far away from the music that was really inspiring me. The piano lessons were more about a woman trying to teach me was classical music, and all I wanted to play was Billy Joel, or Elton John, or whatever shit was on the radio. So it sort of killed my initial passion. In retrospect, I wish I was disciplined enough to stick with it because it would be great to have those skills now. But when you're a kid you get restless and bored very quickly.
Kahn Morbee from a South African band called The Parlotones said it was kind of challenging being in a band because if you wanted to be in anything beyond a small, local level every major city was relatively far apart, and you kind of had to bring your own sound system and so forth to wherever you are playing. Did you find that to be the case?
Absolutely. It was why I left South Africa. Once I got a taste of being in a band and playing music and felt compelled to take it all the way, it was difficult to get people on board because the scene there was so small and fragmented, and there was very little money to make a career from it.
So it was definitely problematic, unless you decide you're going to go for pop or traditional roots. It's something we do for fun over there because there's not enough. And it's a very small country that's sort of closed off and isolated. The distance wouldn't have been a problem. I would have happily got in a van and traveling around, but when you get only nine or ten people at the gig, it's a losing proposition.
I can't really speak for what it's like now. I know things have opened up a lot more. But I think it also depends on the kind of music. I'm hoping to get there next year and do some shows, and see if there's any potential. It's a great fucking country, and the beaches and the weather are just [amazing].
My roots are there, and it's something I've never really thought about, but I realize now at age 45 that my roots do have some pull, and they pull me back there. I definitely feel at home here, mainly because I now have a wife and kids. Roots are roots. You probably have a similar thing where you grew up.
You got into Acid House or trance or ambient in the late '80s or the early '90s?
How did you become aware of that sort of thing and become involved with it before moving to the States?
The good thing about Johannesburg is that, at the time, in the late '80s and early '90s, there were some great record stores, and you were able to get newspapers and magazines, like NME, Melody Maker, Q et cetera, and my lack of interest in college and high school was basically where I threw myself into reading those religiously every week. So I was able to read up on all these scenes like Acid House and what was going in Manchester with the baggy scene.
Then The Orb and Aphex Twin started arriving on the scene, and those are what really inspired me. I was a huge fan of hip-hop as well. I had access to all of that music, thankfully, and stuff I didn't have access to, I would end up writing to bands in the U.S., and they were all so grateful and happy to send me packages of vinyl and t-shirts. That's one way in which I didn't feel isolated in the fact that the music was there and you could get a hold of it.
Oddly enough, the Orb is playing in Denver on Saturday.
Oh yes, I am going to miss them. I'll be missing them in Denver, as well, because I'm playing Friday and heading off to Vancouver for Saturday. I'm kind of bummed because I was hoping to spend some more time in Denver because I've heard great things about it. I'm only going to be there one day, but I hope I can make it back to spend some more time. I'm having the time of my life in upstate New York and enjoy the wide-open spaces and no longer does it matter to me that I have to see this or that.
When you first started getting into making electronic music, what gear did you use? Presumably you researched it a bit and talked to people about what might suit what you wanted to do.
I did a little research, and talked to people here and there, and I knew that I needed a drum machine, a sampler, a synthesizer and a four-track. I think the first purchase I made was a Roland R-8 drum machine; I got a Roland JV-90 keyboard. I got a Tascam pretty standard four-track. My first sampler was an Ensoniq Mirage. And I got some effects like Lexicon reverbs and stuff.
But I realized going into it it was going to be sort of a trial and error thing because I had no idea where I wanted to go or wanted to do. I kind of went into it knowing I would be trading things back and forth. It made it easy to do that in New York because there are so many music stores.
Even now, you can do that with eBay and try things out for a couple of weeks and if they're not something you want you can sell them without losing too much, just the postage really. It's great because you can ask and do research but there's nothing like having the gear and trying it yourself.
As you were exploring what you wanted to do and the direction that interested you, you mentioned The Orb and Aphex Twin, was there anyone else you were getting to see at the time, especially in New York, that impacted what you would end up doing?
Yeah, when I got to New York, I immediately began going to a ton of shows because obviously in Johannesburg, as you know, most bands pretty much refused to play there, and rightly so. So I took full advantage, and I caught The Orb and Aphex Twin, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays and Ministry and Slayer and Helmet, Dinosaur Jr and John Spencer.
The first demos I actually recorded were kind of pop songs with singing, and I was doing guitar samples and stuff, and I really thought I was going to go the Primal Scream route. Then one day, somebody called me, a friend, and said, "Let's go down to Sound Factory Bar, Junior Vasquez is playing there. I went down and went in and someone slipped me a hit of ecstasy and next thing I know I'm back home trying to make house beats.
It's kind of a strange thing that the impact of hearing that stuff on those systems relentlessly had such a huge impact on me that I immediately got sidetracked and sort of gave up on the vocals and focused on the beats and tried to make club records.
Where were you able to try out your music live then?
I had some friends that I was fortunate enough to be able to bounce ideas off of. At that time, I didn't really make any effort to go out and DJ myself. I had been deejaying when I was in South Africa, and I'd been collecting vinyl there, and played in industrial clubs, but when I got here, I didn't really pursue the DJ thing. I just had some sort of close friends all over the place to bounce ideas off of, and finally, once I had a little confidence, I started reaching to some labels and seeing what kind of feedback I could get. That process still seems to be ongoing.
That aspect of making music and getting out there probably hasn't changed too much in a fundamental way.
Yeah, no, it really hasn't. That's part of the process, shopping stuff to labels. I'm kind of fortunate now, having labels wanting stuff from me, and there are labels I feel are a challenge because what they're releasing really strikes a chord with me, and I feel like I would like to reach out and get something on that label.
Who, for example?
I guess a recent label that falls into that category would be this release I'm doing with Prologue Records. They're based in Germany, and they released Voices From The Lake and George Delia and some of the deeper, hypnotic techno stuff. When I heard about them, I reached out to the owner, and we developed this thing, and now I have this Echologist album coming out in November on that label, and that was a case of sort of wanting to reach out. I guess it's sort of creating a network.
Part of what this whole scene is about is trying to connect with like-minded people and sometimes I notice younger guys reach out to me because they feel there's a musical connection, but essentially, some people are doing it just for the politics, and they send demos, and it has nothing to do with what I'm doing. But I guess that comes from experience, and you figure out who you can connect with and who you can't. That's also part of the process.
Your music incorporates so many sounds and styles. Do you feel your music fits into any electronic subgenre? It seems like you're probably not even going for that sort of thing.
Yes and no. Occasionally I feel like there's things that can fit in. But the funny thing is that by the time someone thinks it does fit in, I've moved beyond with that and I'm sort of bored with that because I've done that, and I want to try something else.
A lot of people have connected me with the dub techno thing, and I've had labels coming to me do a remix expecting something in line with a dub techno thing I might have done like five years ago, and I come back at them with whatever I have, and I can tell there's some disappointment and anxiety over it not being at all what they had in mind.
I guess in pursuit of me finding my voice and finding myself musically, I'm just moving forward, and I think maybe once I get to a point where I feel like this is me, this is my signature, and I'll hang around and really milk that for what it's worth. But I honestly, don't feel like I've hit that mark and I'm able to say, "This is my signature sound." I can't say that in all good conscience as a musician.
As you know, right now, any musician will probably corroborate, it's incredibly difficult to come up with a unique signature now because there's so many people and so much information about how to do things. So there's a lot of copycats and a lot of homogeny. A lot of people want to fit in and the way to fit in is by being like that, when ultimately, the goal should be to create your own scene and your own sound.
I've always felt like creating my own scene is the key. I don't think I've gotten there yet, and I think part of the process is trying as many different things. Like Hendrix went into hiding and learned to play rhythm and blues and jazz licks so well and get all those people that inspired him down, and then only was he able to move beyond that.
I think now with music, especially electronic music, there's so much that I'm still hearing new stuff to me from the '70s that'll be something that I'll think, "Wow, how was this made? What process was behind that?" Hopefully' at some point' I'll have that breakthrough where I come up with something that will be remembered as me' but there's a chance it won't happen. But I'll keep going whether that happens or not.
That frankness is refreshing, Brendon. What are some of the analog synths you would like to get your hands on someday?
I would definitely like to get an ARP 2600, and I would probably like to get an EMS Synthi. There's a lot of things I wouldn't say no to, put it that way.
Why those two?
Because I've actually had a chance to play with both for a certain amount of time. The possibilities of sound really piqued my interest, but I could never justify spending the amount of money people are asking for them now. I've been pretty happy over the last year because I bought myself a little modular synth, and it's been keeping me entertained, and it has put my gear lust a little at ease. In fact, I do my utmost to try and avoid the sort of blogs where I'm going to get enticed into that. Gear is an addiction that is pretty powerful.
I'm at the point now that I have such a great bunch of gear for my studio, and for live that it would take my years just to exhaust the possibilities of what I have so shut that out. I realized that with a guitar and a synth, you should pick your instrument and just stick with it and get to know your way around it and be able to play it better than anybody else. And if you're jumping from synth to synth or VST you're never going to get to grips with the real potential of something.
I enjoy watching and reading how technology is developing and where it's all going. I think Karl Krieger said in an interview about synthesizers, the more you know the less you need. If you've got a couple of oscillators, and a filter and an envelope generator and LFOs you can go to town and do a heck of a lot.
So there's no need to have racks of gear. It would be nice, but I have a wife and two kids now, and I would rather spend the money on them. There are more guitar pedals than synths that I want right now, but you just sort of have to hold back.
Do you operate out of the box for the most part these days for live?
Oh, no. I've been using hardware for my live set. I finally managed to move beyond the need for a laptop about six months ago. Just a drum machine and two synths, and I go out there punk rock style and just fucking wing it. It was a challenge I set out for myself, and I'm happy that I did because it taught me to understand these bits of kit and go out there and play them and jam.
I can hook up with other like-minded musicians, and we can hook up our boxes via MIDI, and we can jam. I would like to see that happen more in the future. As you know, there are synths and boxes that are so much more portable now and so much more flexible, and you can travel with them. There's no need to feel compelled to stick with Ableton or Fruity Loops or whatever and play it safe. In fact I think with electronica right now is what's killing club music.
Obviously there are going to be people that are going to hear what I do and go, "What the fuck is this?" But I'd rather have those people going, "What the fuck was that?" rather than another night of homogenized, undefinable, uncategorizeable impression. At least if they walk with "What the fuck was that?" it'll be something that was unique to me. When you see what they were doing in the '70s and what Suicide did in New York with a vocalist with a reverb and delay pedals and a guy on a synth -- shit man, I miss that when I go to a lot of live shows.
It has become so predictable right now, and it shouldn't be because these drum machines and synthesizers were made to be played. They're easier than playing guitars because they have arpeggiators and sequencers, and you can get a bass line going in a heartbeat, and you can program drums on the fly. You can play music and add effects. They're begging to be played. I'm not saying I've not seeing great Ableton-driven sets. Just on a personal level, there's so much more fun doing it this way.
It's probably more engaging and visceral for you as a performer and for people that show up to see what you're doing.
Exactly. I definitely use hardware for live and in my studio it's a combination of hardware and software. I love the fact that I can straddle the hardware and software thing because they complement each other so well.
How do you determine whether a track should be released as Brendon Moeller, Beat Pharmacy or Echologist?
You know, ultimately now what these three monikers have become for me a vehicle for putting out as much stuff as I can. From the get-go the monikers were never sort of a different style. It's more based on economics. Labels I signed with wanted exclusivity for the monikers. The first one was Beat Pharmacy which I signed to Francois K's Wave Music. He was paying me significant advance money before the whole thing collapsed. I came up with Echologist as another moniker and then there came the need for another one and I just used my name.
They've all been around, and I wouldn't say I've seen them as artistically unique in their own way. It was more just as a vehicle to put stuff out there and not have people go, "Jesus, Brendon Moeller is putting out a new record every month." Which is kind of what I do. And mostly because people want it, and I have the opportunity to do that. I'm a studio person, and I love recording music and I love making albums and that's what I do.
I've had a lot of journalists say, "This guy's output is too much. How can he put out five singles and an album every year." But if you look back at someone like Bowie, he did eleven albums in the first nine years of career. Or to take it to the extreme look at someone like Zappa, for instance. I love recording music in my studio, and if there's an outlet for it and somebody wants to put it out, I'm happy to put it out there, and I don't really sweat people who are going to come and me and go, "There's just too much out there."
I also realized that I'm not the best judge of my work. In fact, this Prologue record that's coming out and the single that's coming out, three tracks from that project I've had to retrieve from my Time Machine backup on my Mac because they were tracks I had deleted because I thought they were shit. I'd sent them to the guy three months ago and he finally came back and said, "That track is fucking dope. I played it."
Now I don't delete things anymore; I archive them. I've also got to that point as well where you do something in the studio and listen to it the next day and think it's garbage. But now instead of deleting it, I archive it. I've also written tracks, and been into it, and sent it to an A&R guy, and deleting it the next day, and hearing from them three months down the line. This has been happening to me for the last two years, so I said, "Okay, just stop deleting things. Especially things you send out to labels."
Sometimes when you're in the studio, when the muse takes over and the magic happens, you get to an end result, and who's to say if you like it or not. Also with live, you have shows where things work out, and there are times when it isn't. That's also part of the excitement. I'd rather have that than just hit record and just add some effects here and there.
If we want to call ourselves musicians, we have to step up. Which goes against the philosophy now that most manufacturers and marketing companies are pushing, which is, if you get that and use that, you can be a DJ; if you get that and that you can be a techno musician, and if you get that sample pack...People are starting to realize that there's so much more involved to be able to truthfully call yourself a musician or a DJ.
You're doing this full time these days. When did that switch over for you from having to have a traditional job?
I've been fortunate enough to be really be able to be winging it since 2005. At the time I was working for a big music distributor here in New York and the sort of collapse of the industry was imminent. Things were going south and vinyl sales were dropping from forty thousand copies moving and labels now struggle to move a thousand copies. The writing was on the wall and I was putting out my second album with Francois and it was a good time to see what the possibilities might be.
I never jumped off thinking I would never ever have to go back into working a nine to five. I'm still very nervous about my career because I have a wife and two kids. You're only as good as your last record or your last Facebook post at this point. I'm sort of winging it and taking it month by month, to be honest.
I've been clever about making sure I take care of every little possible avenue where money can come in. I make sure all my work is registered with every publishing company worldwide. I make sure that I've got music supervisors pushing my things. I get decent royalty checks every three months. I make sure that I get things licensed and I make sure I take care of the back end of things which a lot of people don't seem to do.
So basically I'm scraping by and thankfully my wife has a job that has enabled this scenario to occur. But like I said I don't see this as permanent and I know things can change as quickly as a month. I don't take anything for granted and I enjoy it while I'm doing. I'll always keep music and releasing it. In terms of making a living at it? Who knows? It's tricky.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.