Richie Hawtin: 'I'm playing by the seat of my pants'
The world’s foremost techno DJ Richie Hawtin catches up with Charles Leonard before he plays in South Africa for the first time.
Richie Hawtin’s image fits with his sparse, stark, minimalist, otherworldly music. Even though his music is thoroughly modern, his look has a retro-futurist feel about it, some David Bowie in his film title role as The Man Who Fell To Earth, his hair a blond version of sleazy Soft Cell singer Marc Almond’s, there’s a dash of his man-machine heroes Kraftwerk, hints of glam-era Bryan Ferry, Human League’s Phil Oakey and the S&M industrial disco duo, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft. But despite these visual insinuations, Hawtin’s look is unique.
“Most of us see something before we hear it, so because of this image is very important,” he told me earlier this week. “It's just another layer of communicating to people, your fans and expressing yourself.”
Because of snow last week in his home of Canada, which had a logistical nightmare knock-on effect with his shows in Brazil and travelling arrangements from there to South Africa, we had to resort to an email interview. This meant I had to rely on research on the web to get a sense of the man beyond his incredible music (under his alter ego moniker Plastikman and DJ sets available online).
Wide reading and research tells you that Hawtin the person can’t be further removed from aloof, alien and extraterrestrial his publicity shots portray. In a recent in-depth documentary, Slices — Pioneers of Electronic Music Vol. 1: Richie Hawtin, he comes across as the nicest, most down-to-earth person one can get.
Born 42 years ago in the UK, Hawtin and his family moved to Windsor, Ontario in Canada when he was nine. Very important to note that Windsor is literally across the river from the American city of Detroit – hometown to techno pioneers, Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.
Hawkins had a happy, geekish, computer-dominated childhood. “We honestly thought this was what he was going to do in life,” his mom Brenda says in the documentary with a glint in her eyes. “With a real job, perhaps with computers ...”
They were always supportive of his career in music, still today.
He spent a lot of time in Detroit, drinking in the influences, playing in the clubs and eventually developing his own unique style, earning being called an innovator and being a DJ superstar.
Through his Plastikman persona he has released a series of four ruthlessly minimal albums. His Decks, EFX & 909 album released in 1999 expanded the concept of a DJ mix album. He also owns acclaimed Techno imprints Plus 8 and Minus Records.
Hawtin does not only DJ around the world, but has also become a contemporary artist. Asked to contribute to a French Millennium Exhibition celebrating different ideas of beauty, Hawtin created a musical installation based around the clicks, hisses and pops of vinyl – a beautiful sound, he argued, to his generation.
Hawtin was also moved by the mournful purple washes of the late Mark Rothko, which now hang in London’s Tate Modern. Rothko’s work, says Hawtin, “is very, very subtle, just washes of texture. It kind of gave me a visual perspective of what I was trying to get out of my head, sonically. On a flat surface.”
Hawtin, who is performing for the first time in South Africa on Friday (Cape Town) and Saturday (Midrand), is also here for the launch of Bridges for Music, an international organisation responsible for the development of electronic music.
Here is my email interview with him:
Tell me about your set you’re going to play in South Africa please – old or new, or both?
“I'm constantly listening to new music, demos, releases and re-evaluating my performance setup to ensure that I'm both inspired and challenged ... this gives me the best energy and anticipation of each of my sets and hopefully excites the audience as much as me! Each week I can receive over 5 000 new pieces of music, so there's always new surprises for all of us!”
"There's different types of performances; the small dark club with a strobe light, the mega festival/rave with thousands of people in front of you and everything in between. We look at all of the performances and decide what's best for each one ... luckily in South Africa I'll be doing a bit of everything and I'll have my long time friend and collaborator, visual expert Ali Demirel, with me to perform at one or two of the gigs!”
?Length of set?
"These vary, anywhere from an hour and a half to eight, nine or 10 hours ... But for this first time visit to South Africa I'll only be doing two-hour sets as we have more to experience and offer than just playing music this time. What I mean is that we'll also be doing some talks and workshops as we hope to not only entertain while in South Africa, but also inspire and educate!”
When do you finalise the set or do you change it during the show?
“A show is never finalised. My best performances are when I'm playing by the seat of my pants deciding what to play next as I play it ... this 'musical stream of consciousness' is the only way that I can find my way into the moment and have the freedom to perform at my best.”
?Will we see some crowd surfing?
“That's up to the crowd ... but not from me. The last time I tried that I ended up in a CatScan machine because I thought I had internal injuries ... I prefer to focus on a more musical experience rather than a theatrical one these days!"
?Music-wise, how do you travel? Lightly? Vinyl, CDs, laptop, any other tools?
“Laptops, hard drives and controllers ... I can't remember the last time I played vinyl and I'm happy to enjoy the freedom that digital DJ'ing offers me!”
?What were the shows in Brazil like?
“South America in general has some of the best parties in the world, why? Because music in engrained in every day life down/over/across there ... the warmth of the people and their understanding of the groove helps to elevate many of my gigs there to another level. In fact, Warung Club in Florianopolis is considered by many of us as one of the best clubs in the world!”
How did you get involved in Bridges for Music?
“Valentino from Bridges for Music is an old friend and knew that I always had a passion for talking about my craft and helping to introduce new technological ideas to the next generation. As Valentino was putting his concept together, we were also putting our CNTRL: Beyond EDM educational tour together for the US and found many parallels that brought us even closer together!?”
Can music raise social awareness?
“Music has the incredible ability to take people away from their current situation and live within a moment of communal enjoyment and experience. During these moments and experiences many new bonds, friendships and relationships are formed which can allow people to come together for a greater good.”
?Are you working on new music, a new album?
“As a record company owner and travelling performer, it's increasingly hard to find enough time to do everything you want, but thankfully I have most of April and May off in my studio in Canada and will start to develop new ideas that I hope will form the basis of my next album.”
?How much man, how much machine? Cerebral or dance, or both? When you make music do you aim at the head or the feet?
“Who knows. You never know where the creative process will take you, however I'm a firm believer that the best music is created when there is the perfect balance between man and instrument, when their relationship is almost symbiotic.”
Any vocals on the album?
“Normally no, as I'm not a big fan of vocals ... but saying that, the last Plastikman album was full of them :) ... again, you never know ... you go into the studio, you record, you experiment, you create and you allow things to develop naturally. The outcome [as with a performance] is often as much as a surprise to the audience as it is to me.”
Will it still be minimalist? How much more minimalist, or should that be, how much less can you go?
“I strive to find the perfect balance of what's really necessary within the music that I create.”
?What inspires or influences you when you make music: sounds, places, other music, art?
?This is your first visit to South Africa – what are expecting?
“A beautiful landscape and, I hope, a land of optimism.”
?What music do you listen to?
“Favourite right now, Andy Stott, Voices from the Lake, and Rrose.”
?What are you reading?
“Just finished the incredible How Music Works, by David Byrne from the Talking Heads.
Is there politics or philosophy in techno? If yes, what kinds?
“I believe the philosophy of techno is the optimism that man-made technology can help lead us to a better world.”