|Photo by Katie Glicksberg|
By the backbiting standards of Detroit’s techno scene, it was a coronation. While introducing Underground Resistance’s DJ Rolando for his headlining set at this year’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival, event producer/
techno godfather Derrick May handed out props to the Motor City’s beat-music innovators — the familiar Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin . . . and Matthew Dear, a 25-year-old on Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International Records. Dear isn’t just among the bright young hopes of American techno, he’s also a central figure in Ghostly’s mission to create an audience from both the indie and techno camps.
America can be excused for being alienated by electronic music. The groundless hype behind electroclash, along with the overabundance of wallpaper house and down-tempo, has rendered it mostly trivial in comparison to hip-hop and rock. The few young listeners exploring progressive beats nowadays look to superstar jocks or in the import bins before investigating locally.
This is a foreign notion to 24-year-old Ghostly founder Sam Valenti IV, who grew up close enough to Detroit techno (the affluent Bloomfield Hills suburbs) to breathe it in, but distanced enough to develop his own sense of place. It’s a characteristic he’s built into Ghostly.
“We identify with Ann Arbor,” he says, citing the likes of Iggy & the Stooges and Brendan “Ectomorph” Gillen as his college town’s musical roots. “I’m into the Saddle Creeks of the world, labels from what people think of as nowhere. Our artists are mostly from the Midwest. I hope that’s inspirational to kids who listen to us in Iowa or Wisconsin.
“Our goal is to bring people to electronic music. We see it as something that is not just club or chill-out music, the way it’s been branded in America. Ghostly is listening music.”
Matthew Dear best embodies the Ghostly cause. Having grown up around San Antonio as a music-geek son of a traveling folk singer, Dear says he spent his teens as “a Southern-rock head,” writing songs with an acoustic guitar and a drum machine. He didn’t discover techno until his mom relocated to Detroit, and he started attending dance parties at the University of Michigan. But soon Dear changed the tools of his trade, hooked up with fellow Michigan student Valenti and recorded “Hands Up for Detroit,” the first Ghostly release.
Dear spent three years establishing a rep with a string of 12-inches that — in true Detroit style — were propellant, yet warm and full of hooks. Then his 2003 full-length debut, Leave Luck to Heaven, established Dear as a crossover singer-songwriter who could combine crackling micro-rhythms with a lovelorn nature. Its majestic minor-key anthem, “Dog Days,” found the middle ground for emotive indie-rockers willing to tap their feet and techno kids who liked choruses. (“And in the Night,” on Dear’s new Backstroke EP, repeats the feat, while adding some Latin percussion.)
Traditional song structures are now permanently on Dear’s horizon. The current Ghostly tour is the first to find him singing live while retaining the electronic accompaniment. And he says he’ll continue to incorporate live musicians, leaving the solo sampler-reared burners to other aliases he records under (Audion, False, Jabberjaw). “It’s all been the same process, regardless of whether I make music with an acoustic guitar or on a laptop.”
Dear isn’t Ghostly’s only heartthrob with vision. Tadd Mullinix is best recognized for the blipped-out instrumental hip-hop he records as Dabrye (check his current single, “Game Over,” with Jay Dee & Phat Kat), but also makes acid-happy bangers as James T. Cotton. Todd Osborne releases jacked-up tech-house as Osborne, while spearheading the jungle revival under the name Soundmurderer. The electro power trio Midwest Product and the shoegazing one-man-overdrive Mike Dykehouse help Ghostly tap into indie-style rock-tronics more directly.
“Sam is motivated to try new things,” says Liz Copeland, a DJ on Detroit’s WDET whose nighttime radio show has surveyed the city’s musical landscape for the past decade. “Not many local labels are.”
Valenti refashions that on a more populist note. “We’re a very accessible label. But it isn’t a genre thing — you’ve got to be open-minded to be a Ghostly fan.”
Let electronic music’s freedom ring!
Matthew Dear performs at the Echo on Saturday, July 31.