Interview: Richie Hawtin - Plastikman Live 1.5 tour 2011
Full transcript of interview with minimal techno producer and DJ
The term 'concert' seems inadequate term to describe your current live show. What exactly is this thing you do now?
Well, live music exists somewhere between music, theatre and circus right? You're there to entertain and grab the people. I think what many DJs have learned over the last 20 years is that we are entertainers. Sure, our number one responsibility is to play great music and play great sets, but we're also there to somehow entertain, whether that's only by what we do musically, or by throwing our fists in the air, or programming a drum machine on the fly. There are all these different ways that you can create a show. Plastikman Live enables me to jump much further from that and bring lighting, a visual aspect, music and sounds together and have them interact in a way that is both partly pre-programmed, in that you have to make choices before you get to the show, and also very, very spontaneous and has that live feeling. It's the liveness and spontaneity of a music concert combined with the pre-planning, lighting, visuals and design of a theatrical show.
You've always been interested in the live performance aspect of music. The original Plastikman records are single pass stereo mixes, right?
In that way, yes. What I would always do is go into the studio and set up a number of possibilities - effects, routing, sounds, rhythm and sequences - and then I kind of jammed with that and tried to grab the moment. That's what we're trying to do with Plastikman Live. We set up the paramenters - set up what we call the Plastikman system - connecting, say, the claps to the strobe lights, or the size of the circle on the screen to the frequency of the modulation - and then i'm able to do the show and interact with all those different elements. I guess the different thing is instead of just being in the studio listening to stereo speakers, i've got speakers, i'm watching what's happening on a video screen, i'm watching the lights, so it gets a bit more complicated, but brings together a fully immersive show.
A bit like inviting everyone to your studio.
It is like that. That's exactly why i'm in the middle of the technology. I'm shrouded by the LED displays which encircle me. I mean, I've made a couple of records with other people, but Plastikman was always me locked away with my machines in a dark studio. We basically built that studio and surrounded it with LED screens on a stage - and then I tweak and twiddle and see what happens.
I suppose if you're a drummer or guitar player, doing your thing is already a visually arresting thing - you're moving your hand, hitting a snare - whereas if your producer, if you're increasing a parameter or introducing a new element to the music, that's not really physical in the same way. People know you've done something, because they can hear it, but there isn't that same physicality. What you're doing reintroduces that.
Exactly. What we're trying to do, in a way, is adding a new language to that. So say, linking claps to strobe lights, people hear it and they see something. They see something on the screen moving in correlation to the sound they're hearing. That's the difference between our shows and other shows. There are a lot of audio visual experiences out there, but there aren't really any tightly integrating what you hear and what you see. That's what a great concert is, like you said, hearing a snare and seeing the snare being hit as you hear it, or with someone play a guitar. Most of the planet and most of the people at the concert are putting together the experience using what they are taking in visually and sonically, and that's what we're trying to play with.
You've always been very transparent in sharing how your stuff is put together and the technology behind it. In the sleevenotes of (Richie Hawtin DJ mix album) Decks & FX & 909 there's a diagram illustrating how the tracks overlap and how many measures of each track are used. Why is involving people something you want to do?
I want to inspire people by what they are hearing but also maybe give them further information about how things are created, perhaps to get them to try their own version of that idea. Also, electronic music, or music in general, can sometimes be hard to understand. You've got all these sounds rhythms and computers involved, it's almost so transparent you see through it, you've really no idea how it was done. So these diagrams i've used, or podcasts, or behind the scenes films work on a number of levels - it helps promote the idea, but also even if people watch something, even if they don't fully understand it, it makes them feel closer to the creation of that idea, closer to the artist, and to the mindset behind how that thing came to be and I think it leads to a deeper connection to the experience.
You've mentioned that one of the things that inspired you to go in this direction was Etienne De Crecy's Cube.
Are there any other shows out there that you've seen that are trying to do something interesting?
I haven't seen too much that has really blown me away. There's a lot of big, over the top productions right now, but a lot of it is just the firing back of sound and visuals that just don't really have any correlation, and that doesn't really inspire me. But it does feel like there's a movement toward connecting these things more and more. The best show that i've seen, which was very impressive, is the Amon Tobin show. That's a texture mapping type of thing. It's a very powerful experience, but it also feels a little bit like a laid-out movie, and seemed a little bit contrived.
Did you see the Fever Ray show?
No I haven't.
That's maybe the only other thing i've seen recently exploring different territory. It's more like a piece of theatre. It's very dark, with a few synced-up standard lamps, two enormous lasers and some costumes. It's not about the personalities or the people on the stage at all, more about creating an atmosphere.
I've just written that down and i'm going to check it out right after we get off the phone
You've described your show as being 'over the top'. In what way?
It's over the top in what we have to do to make that show happen. If you think about coming in with some guitars and plugging into an amp, or plugging in a DJ mixer, or even a 909 and a 808, it's relatively easy. For this show I have nine people travelling with me. We have a networks engineer, lighting engineer, video engineer, an animation engineer. We have wi-fi, ethernet, fibreoptics amd DMX protocol going back and forth across the stage, and all these thing have to be working 100% or the show doesn't work. You lose one of these connections and and it starts to fall apart like a big lego bridge where you've taken the wrong piece out. So it's very fragile and delicate, so in that way it makes me feel that it's just fucking over the top sometimes. The sheer amount of technology, cables and plugs it take to create a show that's synchronised and tied together.
Doesn't it make it quite stressfull?
The more shows we do, the more relaxed that whole team is, but you can never be too relaxed as you also rely on so many piece of technology that we can't afford to carry with us. So at each place it's 'OK, new cable. Is it the right cable? Has anyone stepped on it?'
So a lot of unknowns
You have to have an almost blind belief in technology to do this show. It's like being the caption of a 747 and thinking about all the things that could go wrong with a 747. You're the captain of that flight, but there's no way you know all the systems that you have immediate access to, so you have to really have a belief that everyone has put it together right, and that nothing is frayed or getting out of date. And then you fly it. And that's what I do each show.
The attention to detail that has gone into it seems pretty obvious, and reflected in the thing you have at the end of it.
I hope that kind of level of detail is reflected in everything we do, from Plastikmam Live to Arkives to any other project i'm involved in. I have a great, incredible team that support me with these ideas and who put in hours of time behind the scenes to make these things happen. It's really incredible.
You're also working with the manufacturers of the technology you use. In a sense your stress-testing their stuff.
We are! We definitely are stress testing it. We're stress testing all the technology and they are helping us test our stress!
A nice relationship to have.
Wonderful! It's what i've been doing for 20 years. It's a wonder i don't have grey hair already!
Things have changed so much in that time. I think I first heard you at Edinburgh club Pure around 1994 or so. Prior to then people didn't go and see DJs, people went to clubs. People face the front now. People know what DJs looks like now.
Everyone's facing the front. People are aware of who's playing, but also aware of what they're doing too. In the early days DJs were boring people - you didn't need to watch them. Now the hand movements and head movements have become part of the language of what we do as performers. It's incredible how far things have come. We're now seen as artists in our own right as people have come to understand the language that we use to create our thing.
You've had to invent a performance aesthetic.
Every DJ has their own way to connect to people. Some hold a record over their heads and punch their fists and that's what their crowds wants and how they make their connection. Part of the reason i have my drum machine and other things up there is to entertain, not just sonically, but also to let people see that i'm doing something - "Look he's moving over there, now I hear that line, I guess that machine makes that sound". It brings another tighter, closer connection between audience and performer.
It turns into an experience for all the people in the room.
Exactly. Even though the scene has grown, there always going to be those people who are on the dance floor with their eyes closed who don't give a shit about what's happening on stage, who just want to feel and hear the music - which is a very important, pure experience that needs to be there. But there are also other people who want to look, and ask "What is that person capable of doing? What is that human doing on stage? What are they doing that I can't do that's inspiring, interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining.
UK rock critic Paul Morley talked on the BBC Review Show about his hopes for live music the future of unfolding into a vast version of theatre - basically a version of what your doing now. In your head, where are we going to be in the future?
I think music and performance in general and all these things will tie together into creating experiences that seem more lifelike and more "realistically unrealistic". Possibly using sight, sound, but also even touch, taste or smell in creating these things that feel real. In a way, I feel we're moving towards what a holodeck is in Star Trek, where you can walk into a room and it can be anything you choose. Some people will choose to recreate reality, some will choose to travel back in time, and be there with Christopher Columbus or whatever, and some people will go into that room to be taken into something that seems so real that it's impossible. I think that's the future of the concert.
An immersive experience
You've talked before about never really enjoying being in bands for various reasons and that working alone meant you could be in control of everything and so on. With the amount of people involved in Plastikman Live, isn't it a bit like being in a band again?
I am in a band! For sure. I'm in a band, i'm travelling with nine people. It makes logistics very hard. There are different temperaments. Everybody gets up in the morning in different mood and you have to find a way to come together and do a great show night after night no matter what happened the night before, or what's going through your head. It's exactly like band. And it's not even a three-piece band, it's a fucking nine-piece band!
Requiring a whole new level of skills from DJing
I love both. Being able to be in that team together to do Plastikman is incredible experience and very, very rewarding, but it also makes jumping on a plane with one friend to do a couple of DJ gigs quite light, airy and relaxing.
So they feed off each other?
For sure. They always have done.