Since the early ‘90s, Richie Hawtin has continually redefined electronic music. As a producer, under the names Plastikman and F.U.S.E., he pushed the limits of acid techno and Detroit futurism in lysergically mental albums like Sheet One and Musik, as well as harrowingly personal ambience in later works like Consumed and Closer. While Hawtin’s output as a producer alone guarantees his place in history, his DJ’ing, integrating studio tools with traditional turntables, is his greatest contribution to electronic music.
In 1999, Hawtin released the groundbreaking Decks, Efx & 909, perhaps the greatest techno mix of all time. The mix was a real-time tour de force of tribal, industrial, and dub sounds on three turntables and a variety of effects machines. A chart in the liner notes showed the progression and layering of the individual tracks, and Hawtin developed this idea further with 2001’s DE9: Closer to the Edit. Though this mix bore the DE9 name, Hawtin abandoned turntables for the then-nascent Ableton Live software, now the standard live performance tool for electronic musicians. For Closer to the Edit, Hawtin chopped up tracks into hundreds of loops, reconfiguring them into a minimal, yet richly layered whole. Hawtin then took this concept on the road by working with Allen & Heath on a prototype DJ mixer that allowed him to sync software to turntables via MIDI.
Hawtin further ups the ante with his latest mix, DE9: Transitions. Once again, he works in Ableton Live to layer hundreds of minimal techno tracks in ways impossible to achieve with turntables. But this CD also comes with a DVD that includes the full 97-minute version of the mix in 5.1 surround sound. With the addition of a 3-D sonic field, as well as conceptual videos, a making-of documentary, and a visual component showing tracks fading in and out of the mix, Transitions is Hawtin’s fullest exploration yet of the immersive experience.
On February 10, for the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, Hawtin will debut “9:20”, a collaboration with Italian choreographer Enzo Cosimi featuring dozens of dancers and acrobats. PopMatters spoke with Hawtin about Transitions, technology, and the future of DJ’ing.
Are you still living in Berlin?
Yeah, I plan to be there for a while now.
How is it, and has it been overrun by Americans yet?
Berlin is still for me the most interesting city in all of Europe, for sure, and probably all of the Western world. There are a couple of cities I like in the Far East which are really interesting, but Berlin is something very, very special. You’re right, there’s a lot of Americans, a lot of Canadians, but Berlin has always had a history of having a lot of foreigners and different people coming through, so that’s what makes it a special place.
[English breaks producer] Tipper spent 600-700 hours on the 5.1 surround mix of his Surrounded album. How long did you spend on yours?
Probably around the same amount of time, but I would say around the same amount of time to finish the surround and the stereo versions. I did a lot of research, testing, and experimenting on the surround before I actually started, and downgrading the surround to the stereo didn’t take so long. I was in the studio quite constantly for about two months recording the mix. It was pretty intense, very time-consuming, and sometimes a little bit tedious, but never really hard. It was quite easy, it really kind of started to flow out, and once I got my hands on the controls, and got it under control, it worked pretty well.
For the stereo mix, did you run the 5.1 mix through a channel converter, or did you do a separate mix?
No, I don’t believe in any type of channel converters, whether they’re up-mixes or down-mixes. It was definitely going back through from the beginning to end, and re-mixing it down, changing some effects, changing for sure all the panning settings. Although the material is exactly the same in both mixes, if you played them at the same time, they’d sound a bit differently, because sometimes the fades and the frequencies bring out different things in each of the different versions, so they are slightly different beasts. And especially with the surround, you have so much more space and room to move things around that it sits a little bit easier than, say, the stereo version. But I also think the stereo version, because of the EQ and frequency manipulation I’d done on the surround sound to make it sound right, the stereo version benefited from that and came together really, really nicely.
Most people don’t have 5.1 surround, and most club-goers might not care about the nuances of micro-editing. Does this bother you?
No, not all. For me, it’s very important, especially with the last two DE9 records (Closer to the Edit and Transitions) that on a very basic, basic level, it has to just be a really fun CD to listen to. Perhaps Closer to the Edit was more instantaneously fun, and Transitions needs a little bit of time to get into it, but once you’re locked in, I think it’s a very enjoyable experience. We have to remember, as much as I talk about pushing forward and experimenting and blah blah blah, and for sure those are very important to me, we’re making something which is entertainment. When I’m at a club and I’m playing, I want to fuck with things and play with people’s heads and use new computers and blah blah blah, but they’re there also for entertainment. So you have to find a balance between that. For me, all the experimentation is a waste of time if people just can’t sit back and listen and enjoy.
“It’s Process Not Substance” [by Stewart Walker, a track Hawtin used on his Decks, Efx & 909 mix[—is that an ironic title?
It’s totally ironic, and I was laughing when I chose to use that. Techno sometimes does become more about process than substance, and I think this is when techno is going a little bit the wrong way. For sure, you need tracks in that kind of theme, because it really pushes things forward, it’s the way you develop some of your ideas. But if all the music you do and all the tracks become all about that title, then you lose part of the humanity, you lose part of the entertainment. I’m not out there to be the most experimental person. I’m not out there to be, say, at the bleeding edge of what’s going on, but I’m out there to be at the cutting edge, and have people enjoy it, that they get to have fun while hearing and listening and experiencing something new.
On Transitions, you use a lot of tracks from different artists. Was licensing the tracks difficult?
No, luckily it wasn’t difficult, [but] it was time-consuming. Because a lot of people had heard and read about the second DE9, Closer to the Edit, they knew what I was about to undertake, and so they were really open-minded with what we were presenting to them and what we were offering. [The artists] were very supportive about it. We sent out 550 licensing requests, and we cleared, I think, 540. It was harder the first time around, and much easier the second. It’s just time-consuming, going back and forth, even over email and getting people to respond and say yes, and then actually sign, and this and that—that’s just time and energy. This is why the cover of the album has everyone’s name, and it makes up my face, because I’m only as good as the parts that I put in. This type of project would never be possible without the support and real open-mindedness and assistance from all the artists who were involved.
That said, you’ve given your own names to the individual tracks on this mix. Is there any concept behind the names, and how does copyright work with the track names?
The copyright issue isn’t really an issue, because the way the licensing and the publishing and the money goes, everyone is paid exactly the same per track. That was the deal we made with people. The idea behind the tracks was to give the sense of what I was feeling and I was thinking about as I was recording, and really to push the point home about how far we have gone down the road of sampling and looping and reevaluating the music that’s out there. So on the front of the cover, you’ve got everyone’s names, but on the back, you’ve got no track names, and I’ve given totally new ones. So it’s a bit of a push to everyone to think about where does new composition begin and end, how far do you have to take something, to what extreme do you have to go to then call it your own. I don’t know if I’ve fully answered that question yet, but I definitely pose that question.
In the DVD to Transitions, you talk about the advantages of not having to beatmatch. However, when you DJ, you’re still beatmatching. Have you thought about dropping the turntables?
Yes. I think about it daily. One of the problems with dropping turntables is finding an interesting way for me to interact with the technology that I’m using to create the experience for the people. And not only on how I create, but also how the people react by what I’m doing with the technology. The crowds these days are used to watching DJ’s behind turntables with some computer technology and this and that, and it’s something that they enjoy. They know the nuances, they understand, like when they see a drummer or someone strum a guitar, what the DJ’s doing. That brings a connection between audience and performer, and that’s where the magic is created. And unfortunately, I don’t see that magic as often as I would like when I see someone just up there with a computer. So although I would love to move to computers only, it’s not the software that’s holding me back, or the ideas in my head. It’s the hardware and the interface. I’m looking and hoping for something which will give me more ways of physically interacting with the computer and those technologies to give myself inspiration, something to do and also something for the people to watch. So there’s so many different levels that need to come together before [computer performance is] going to be an important experience for both sides of the equation.
Do you ever get tired of technology, and want to get back to basics with just two turntables and a mixer?
Not really. I do a lot of after-hour parties and special events in the summer with Ricardo [Villalobos, minimal techno producer whose tracks figure prominently on Transitions] and Magda and the whole gang, where we’re just playing some records, and those are always really, really fun. I would definitely not want to go back that way all the time. But for sure, I can’t say it’s not fun, going to someone’s house with 100 friends and throwing on some records. Again, that will change when we come up with an interesting way to interact with this technology. People aren’t paying money or coming to experience someone checking their email. That’s what it comes down to. They’re coming up there to see what Hawtin does and how he interacts with all his machines, or how Jeff Mills plays three records at once, or how Marco Carola moves when he’s playing really funky, cool techno tracks. That humanity, and that man vs. machine interaction, gets a little bit lost when it’s man vs. computer. So that’s what we’re all looking for. We’re looking for a new way to recreate that kind of interaction and make it inspiring.
My personal wish when I see laptop artists is that I can see a screenshot of what’s going on.
This is also good, and I do like this, but I like that there [be] mystery. When you see a DJ playing, you can see what they’re doing. You can get a sense of their nuances when they’re bringing the EQ up, [when] they suddenly move their left arm because they’re bringing something up and they’re really into it. But you don’t know all the records that are playing. Some of the information is blatantly in front of you, but some of it is mysterious. When you see someone using a computer, and you see their computer screen on a big screen, you can see everything. And that’s like seeing the wizard behind the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz, and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, it’s just a regular guy.” People don’t want to go to a club to see a regular guy. They want to see someone who’s inspired and doing something that perhaps they only dream of doing, or that they hope to do later, or just to see someone doing something that’s beyond their capabilities.
So it’s anti-punk rock in that way.
I think so, totally.
Has there been any backlash from the old school techno artists like Jeff Mills or Oliver Ho to techno’s minimal trend?
I haven’t heard of any. I know Oliver Ho and some of the other more harder techno guys from England have been producing a little bit more minimally now. I just had an amazing email from Mike Banks [of Detroit’s seminal Underground Resistance label] thanking me and congratulating me on the Transitions album. There’s always people who want to live in the past, and there’s always people who want to look towards the future. I’m trying to align myself more with the latter than the former.
Is there any risk of minimalism painting itself into a corner?
There’s a risk of any kind of artform painting itself into a corner, but I think the only people trying to paint “minimal” into a corner are the journalists. All the things that we do with my label, M_nus, and Minimize to Maximize [a recent M_nus compilation], it’s all tongue-in-cheek. Some of our tracks are very, very minimal, but it’s not ultra-minimal. Sometimes it’s both extremes. At the end of the day, if people enjoy it and it works on the dancefloor, that’s what it’s about. For us, it’s about balance. Good music and good art is always about balance. Balance comes in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a very minimal painting, sometimes it’s a very maximal thing. It’s using and understanding, as an artist, what are the essential ingredients to get your point across to your audience.
What would you want to do on the next DE9 that you couldn’t or didn’t do on this one?
That’s hard, I have to admit. Usually after each DE9, I’ve exhausted most of my ideas at that point. There’s a lot of different ideas I have for performing. But for the recording, I’m really, really happy with the surround version. I’m really happy with the way the visuals turned out, especially the credits on the DVD where you can actually see the tracks coming in and out, [which] gives a new way to people of understanding what’s really happening, and draws people in closer. It’s a little bit hard to say. I would love to be able to have better technology and better installations at clubs so I could perform more in quadraphonic and/or 5.1. That’s what I would like to do, more immersive environments, and not have to sit in the studio to create it.