Techno and Technology: An Interview with Richie Hawtin
By Liz Ohanesian
For Richie Hawtin, 2008 began with silence, ten weeks without so much as a 12-inch single or live engagement from the producer/DJ and his cohorts at Minus Records. It was a time of reflection for the team upon the tenth anniversary of the label and also a time of preparation for the slew of globe-hopping dates set for the rest of the year.
In celebration of a decade of pure, underground techno, the Minus family has come together for Contakt, a ten city series of parties, cosponsored by multi-track DJ system Traktor Scratch, that boasts Hawtin and others collaborating on live mixes. In between Contakt dates (the only U.S. bash was in Detroit on May 24), Minus is hosting a series of anniversary parties, including a May 31 engagement at Cinespace in Hollywood, promoted in connection with locals Compression, featuring sets from Hawtin and label mates Magda and Heartthrob.
Hawtin made his first appearance in Los Angeles more than fifteen years ago, as part of a tour with Moby and the Prodigy. Since then, he has become an underground icon. He formed the label Plus 8 with fellow DJ John Acquaviva in 1990 and helped bring about the second wave of Detroit techno. His experimental electronic releases as Plastikman earned him both a cult following and critical acclaim. Under the name Richie Hawtin, tracks like "Minus Orange," which sampled Yello's hit "Oh Yeah," became dance floor favorites. Meanwhile, the Canadian-bred, now Berlin-based sound manipulator has become the champion of digital DJ innovations, combining techno and technology into one pulsating mix.
We caught up with Hawtin by phone during his recent stay in Detroit.
LA Weekly: During the ten weeks of silence that you held at the beginning of the year, what did you reflect upon or what were your realizations about where Minus might be heading?
RH: I think in the beginning it was more on a reflection of how far things had developed in such a short time. When we started Minus, it was really kind of a reaction against how large and how crazy Plus 8 had become, my last label, and it was a bit of a reflection to see how in some ways Minus had developed very organically and had become quite a large label, quite a large operation, but it had developed in a different way and had retained much more of the spirit of its earlier times than Plus 8 did. Plus 8 got kind of out of control after a while and I think the reflection was a way to enjoy how far we made it with still the original idea in place.
We couldn't have picked a better time to have our tenth anniversary because the thing that we noticed was after the last four or five years of development of Minus, the artists like Magda and Heartthrob, Marc Houle, Gaiser and Troy Pierce, they were also at a certain point in their careers where they wanted to take a step back and see where they are headed. Where they are headed is, of course, where the label is headed and I think that is to the next steps of their careers, working deeper into their creativity and becoming the artists that they have been developing into. I think that is where you are going to see Minus going this year and next year, with full length artist albums and much more creative artistic development instead of being a label of just what we think, hopefully, is good 12-inches and cool parties, but developing all those to the next level.
LAW: You mentioned that Plus 8 had gotten "out of control." Did that affect you as an artist in any way?
RH: Not really. When we started Minus, Plus 8 was so busy and successful that it was more business than fun. Of course, business has to be business, but we wanted to find a way that we could kind of balance those two things and really enjoy working with a group of artists, developing their careers and doing it in a very serious way but remembering that this is the music industry and the reason we got into it was because we like going to clubs, we like hearing music and we like having fun. That's what we try to do with Minus.
Plus 8 became a label with many artists from all over the place doing a 12-inch here and there. We had kind of an open door policy. What we have learned from that is that Minus has a little more of a closed door policy. We've tried to slowly add artists and we try to develop the artists, many of them being our friends or end up being very close friends because they've worked so long together, and trying to nurture a certain sound for us and for the artists and to grow with them. I think that is probably the biggest thing that we learned and what we try to keep within Minus. There is this nurturing, family feeling. Although many of the artists have different ideas and different sounds, we're on a very similar pathway, a certain wavelength. We're on a mission all together.
LAW: Has using Traktor Scratch changed the way you DJ at all?
RH:I think it changed the way that I think about the music that I play or the music that I could potentially play. When you're playing two decks, with or without turntables, you're still working in a more linear way and you're always remembering that at a certain moment, there is always going to be one record playing because you're going to have to take one off and play the next. So, you always have to make sure that that one record can stand by itself at any moment. That's your mindset when you're listening to records.
Now, when I'm listening to records or demos or things that get sent, I can think about things on a number of levels—main track level, loops or hearing just a melody or part of a track that I know could work but perhaps with other things. Using Traktor, especially the four deck set up, it feels much more like producing and [being] creative as you're performing. You feel that you can go in many more different ways than before. There's a certain freedom to it because you're not constrained to just playing—some people would say this is the problem with it—you aren't just playing finished pieces of music. I can get really cool demos, which perhaps aren't perfect, and bring them into the mix and feature perhaps music that other people couldn't feature just playing two records, or feature great ideas from young producers who are sending me things. I think that's the way we're going with the whole music industry right now. There's a time and a place for a great artist album, but there is also, there should be a time and a place for great artistic ideas that perhaps aren't fully formed but are still great ideas unto themselves. I feel that I can take that information, or levels of information, different levels of completion, and complete it in my own set and create something that is very creative, that is unique and special for that moment when I'm performing.
LAW: After Minus' anniversary is said and done, what's next?
RH: Right now, with Minus, there are so many artists that are just about finishing up their albums, so 2008 and 2009 will be big album years for Minus. Plus 8, in 2010, will have its 20th anniversary. In 2009, in between the 10th anniversary and 20th anniversary, I would love to say that there will be more productions from me. That's one of my goals right now, to spend less time in the office and more time in the studio. I think that would make me more happy, and possibly some of the Minus and Plastikman fans.
We're trying to develop album projects this year and we're trying to develop the shows that we do. The Contakt events that we're doing are for us a big push into what we may be doing next year. The Contakt events take our main artists and bring them onto the performance stage together and we hope that those performances become something unique unto themselves. You're seeing myself, Magda, Troy Pierce, Heartthrob, Gaiser, Marc Houle all kind of mixing and matching pieces on top of each other and it's becoming much more of an amalgamation, a mash up, of the whole Minus sound. I think that has interesting possibilities.
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