2010 has seen a massive progression in the ways in which we enjoy electronic music as an experience. For me, there have been few acts more pivotal and innovative than Richie Hawtin, whose Plastikman Live show toured all corners of the globe this year, immersing seas of people in his minblowing hybrid of minimal techno. Last week I had the honour of catching up with Richie, to chat about Plastikman, Detroit Techno, and that curtain thing everyone’s been talking about. Here’s how it went …
GDD™: Richie, thanks for taking the time. You had the privilege of taking your Plastikman Live show to premiere festivals all over the world this year. What was the best moment for you?
RH: Easily the best moment was Detroit. The last Plastikman show in Detroit was in a dark, dirty old warehouse in 1994. To then come back onstage in Detroit and see the old generation and the new generation, not only the kids who are coming to the party, but even the old techno generation who are there together in the audience. To deliver that concert, it really felt like people were singing along to Plastikman songs. It was In-credible; bone chilling and hair raising at the same time.
GDD™: One can only imagine how that must’ve felt. Was it almost like a homecoming show for you?
RH: I grew up in Windsor, which is about ten minutes outside of Detroit. And Plastikman was really born out of these old warehouse parties that they used to do in Downtown Detroit, so coming back Downtown to do Plastikman in 2010, you know, it was really like a homecoming. It was really magical, because the people from all over the midwest, who’d been at those original parties, drove in to this event and they were there next to these 18-19 year old kids, who’d only heard about these legendary parties from 10 years ago. “This Plastikman guy, what’s he gonna do?” It just built up such an incredible excitement and anticipation. I think you need all of those things for a great concert experience.
GDD™: So how does it feel to be playing out your original tracks, some as old as members of the audience, and still watch them really feel it in the crowd?
RH: That’s nothing short of incredible, to realise that some of the people dancing and listening, weren’t actually born when these songs were created. It’s still mindblowing for me, but at the same time incredibly satisfying, not only that my music has a staying power, but that we’ve now passed 20-25 years of electronic music and we continue to see it grow and gain wider acceptance without really becoming any more commercial. Of course there’s larger acts and bigger acts, that party on the more commercial side of it, but Plastikman is delivering a modern outlook on that original acidic, quite strange sound. This melodic, loopy, minimalistic sound that in a way shouldn’t really be on that large stage, but because of the myths, the stories, the logos of the albums all this time, and everything else I’ve been doing with Hawtin and Minus, it’s kind of built in to this thing that people are gravitating towards. I really feel that people gravitate to something where feel they’re going to get some kind of experience, that is going to be magical or different from what everyone else’s offering. I want to give the most people the most underground experience.
GDD™: What does Plastikman mean to you? And what prompted you to revive it?
RH: When I was DJing, I often heard other people playing the old Plastikman records, and referenced the sound as an influence. So I thought that if people are playing these records: first of all, the sound and idea is still relevant; And second of all, it means there’s no one else doing that sound right now. So the only person who should be really doing that sound right now is me. So I started to refocus on the thing that is uniquely Plastikman. At the same time that I was listening and thinking this, I was also watching a number of live shows. There are some good live shows out there – you’ve got your Chemical Brothers, your Moby’s and Deadmau5’s, but these are people with a little bit more pop-sensibility, or commercial sensibility than I present. And I thought: wouldn’t it be great to have a f**king full on, balls to the wall live show, center stage, ten-fifteen-twenty thousand people, but with the sound of Plastikman? Something darker, something weirder. You’d have people in the middle of the dancefloor wondering, “did someone just spike my drink with acid or something?” – So I was like: I think it’s time to get back to work and bring it to the people.
GDD™: How do you think your move to Berlin affected the course of your development as a musician? And could you imagine your career being different had you remained Stateside?
RH: I don’t want to put any disrespect on to North America, because without Detroit and everything that happened in the early 90s, there would be no Plastikman. But I do think the development and further development of Plastikman and even my label, Minus, DJ Richie Hawtin, I had to spend some time in Europe, because North America did take a little dip in the late 90s, early 2000s. I needed to be closer to more people that lived electronic music as a lifestyle, and to find other people that woke up in the morning and had electronic music for breakfast, and then had it for lunch. To be able to jump one hour to Madrid, or London, or Frankfurt, just enabled me to make a really great network and connect with like-minded people. And it was those like-minded people who started to help build Minus into a bigger entity and to also build Hawtin and enable us to do concerts or shows at contact, which is what we did 2 or 3 years ago, where we brought 8 of the artists on Minus all together onstage, with a huge LED behind us, and toured it around Europe. We couldn’t have done this in America. You couldn’t tour in America like this, there wasn’t clubs that fit enough people to pay for it, and we wouldn’t have been able to find the right technical people. We found all that here, and now off of that success, we’ve been able to build a show like Plastikman and then start to do Plastikman Arkives to kind of come back to America, to reintroduce the new generation and be part of that scene where we started.
GDD™: So you mention this new generation. You really are known to be a pioneer of pushing a raw sounding music, while turning music into an overall experience for all senses. Looking to the future, how important do you feel the marriage between music and technology is?
RH: For me, I’m here because of the interaction and entanglement between man and machine. Whatever project I’m doing, I’m trying to look forward to discover how the newest technology available can be used to heighten artistic freedom, user experience, or allow me to do something that previously wasn’t possible. With Plastikman Live we are able to take a whole LED curtain and not put it behind, but in front of me. We hide the actual performer you’re coming to see, from everybody. And then, by using that technology to actually obscure me, we use similar technology with the iPhone and wireless technology to then bridge that gap. We live in an age where technology ties the whole world together. But y’know, what I want to do is always use that technology to bring people together physically and once we’re together, to use that pile of technology to create an expanse that is even beyond a physical experience.
GDD™: There are many artists who now loathe the ease with which anybody can pound out a new track with software on their laptop, or become a DJ without laboring over simple skills. What’s your stance on this – Do you love this democratization of dance music and see it as beneficial to the music as a whole?
RH: The democratization of music started a long time ago. When there was rock musicians and other studio musicians who said to me: “you’re not making music, you’re using a drum machine, you’re using a synthesizer, you can’t play any notes. You can’t hit a drum in time” – No I can’t. I can’t play a tune on a keyboard, but with a computer and with the right technology in front of me, I can take my creative ideas and put it through those machines and it comes out in a way that is uniquely Hawtin, or uniquely Plastikman. So, how could I be against the technology, because that’s what made me who I am! I’m very open to anything that allows the newest or the most unusual person to have access to their inner creativity through the technology that we’re building. I actually want to welcome that, I want to encourage everybody to try their hand at DJing, to try their hand at mixing two sounds together now that you don’t need to worry about beat matching. A lot of people are gonna make crap, but some of those people are gonna be like “F**k, I’m gonna be good at this”, and those are the people who are just like me, 20 years ago, when I said: “I think I can actually make electronic music, and I think I can make some pretty f**king good electronic music”. Here I am 20 years later.
GDD™: In what ways do you see the Plastikman Live set-up evolving in the future to keep it fresh for a potential second world tour?
RH: It took us a lot of time to curate and develop what the live set up that you see now is, but basically what you are seeing behind that LED curtain is a next generation studio. Right now that studio is filled up with loops and sounds that were based upon earlier Plastikman tracks. But this is very important: it’s not just a playback engine of samples of my own songs, it’s all those old songs recreated, that get recreated in real time every time I play. So it’s a live running studio, it’s really like a live organism because there are so many technical parts to it. And so what that enables me to do is play within that system, to start adding and subtracting and really just being in the studio and producing. The engine is running now with Plastikman Live, the studio is there in front of me and in front of the people, and between each show and between each tour, that studio can be set up, tweaked, or modulated, and so hopefully each time wonderful things will come out of that. With Plastikman, I used to go home, go into the studio and record an album and then that would be released. But now, my thinking is that the live show is the studio. The live show is the release mechanism, and is the full Plastikman experience.
GDD™: And no two shows will ever be the same…
RH: Exactly, and for sure right now it’s the beginning. So the palette is somewhat limited. We have a certain amount of songs and visuals and there’s so much we can do with that and modulate and change. But as we go along, we build and start to produce more and more in that system. It just starts to grow with more possible variations between songs, between visuals and then it has a life unto itself. It had to start, we built this live show system, this connection between audio, visuals, and lighting, and we had to fill it with things that we knew. And also we needed to reintroduce people to the sound of Plastikman, so I started with recreating old songs, but that will slowly filter away and be replaced by only new songs.
GDD™: So Richie, one final question I’ve wanted to ask: how many people make up the Plastikman Live set up, do you have VJs and lighting specialists – who controls what?
RH: There’s a video operator/technician, who’s making sure everything is working. His job is to watch the computer and make sure it doesn’t crash. I also have a lighting technician and he is adding some lighting movements during the show, but other than that, my computer onstage is in direct communication to the lighting console and to the visual console and by the decisions that I make, by the faders I move, by the midi clip that I launch – that’s tells all the systems do specific things. So if Mathius the lighting guy and Ali the video guy were to stand with their arms crossed and I just performed, pretty much the whole show would just continue. And if I press stop, the whole show stops.
GDD™: Again, that’s incredible man. A few of us couldn’t get the iPhone app to work at Coachella this year, so we were a bit bummed about that…
RH: Yeah, the network was a bit strange, but that’s again another part of that, I am running my computer system and that is sending communication to the lights, to the video computer, also sending information directly to the iPhone. I hit a certain part of my set and it sends a pulse to all the iPhones with that app open, which tells it to open a certain page that wasn’t previously possible – only I can open that page on your cell phone.
GDD™: The whole experience is utterly mindblowing, we look forward to catching another one of your sets.
RH: We definitely plan to get the whole live show back out to the West Coast again soon, we really really wanna come out there again.
GDD™: Fantastic, that’s great to hear. Richie, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
RH: Thank you man, see you later.
Plastikman Live at Coachella 2010 courtesy of Justin Ewert on Vimeo.