Magda and Steve Bug‘s origin stories are well known. Raised in Detroit, Magda was drafted into operations at Richie Hawtin’s Minus label as a novice DJ, and when she proved to hold her own behind the decks she swiftly rose to dance music’s upper ranks in the early 2000s. By that time, thanks to tracks like “Loverboy,” Steve Bug and his flagship label Poker Flat had already built significant momentum. With their shared affinity for sleek, minimal house and retrofitted techno, the Berlin-based selectors have shared many bills over the years, and on October 17, they’ll play together again as part of a GEIST showcase at Amsterdam Dance Event. In a recent conversation, they compared notes on the status of minimal in today’s electronic music landscape, their newest bits of gear, dealing with the physical tolls of intense touring schedules and whether industry is stifling a scene they helped to build.
Steve Bug: The first time we ever met was in New York. I was working with Richie [Hawtin] in the studio, and you were playing a show with Troy Pierce using Traktor. I think we even shared a cab ride home. I got out first and told you not to forget your laptop in the car—which you did. That was around the time Final Scratch [Hawtin’s DJ hardware that manipulates digital files with turntables] was released.
Magda: I think it was still in the testing stages. It had this long scratch amp that constantly broke. For me, that’s around when I first heard [Steve Bug’s] “Loverboy,” which was a defining moment in German minimal house. I used to work for Minus sitting in this little room upstairs, surrounded by billions of records. It was very claustrophobic. I digitized everything for Rich, so I got to hear all the promos that came through from smaller labels in Germany. I remember one Poker Flat record in particular that had such a powerful minimal house sound, but very warm. It really reminded me of my favorite DBX records. What kind of connection have you felt to Detroit?
SB: I discovered that more tech-y sound in ’87, ’88. If you listen to house and techno today, it sounds old, but those tracks still sound like the future.
M: Especially Drexciya and Juan Atkins’ stuff.
SB: Did you go to clubs a lot growing up in Detroit?
M: I did. I started going out in 1994, and the scene was very small. I’d go to warehouse techno parties playing really hard Underground Resistance stuff, and then walk down the street to a small, gay black loft party with Theo [Parrish] or Kenny Dixon playing 110 beats per minute, or an electro party with bands like Le Car dressed in full new-wave suits.
SB: I missed the whole house movement in the States. After the Wall came down, I went to Berlin a lot, and it was very special. They put soundsystems in all these warehouses. That’s the closest I got to Detroit at the time.
M: Detroit and Berlin have been sister cities for a long time. That desperate, desolate vibe has changed now, obviously, but it produced some incredibly emotional music.
SB: The minimal movement that came around 2000 was seen as German, but I think minimal really began with Daniel Bell and Robert Hood, or even some of Jeff Mills’ early stuff.
M: The techno records Minus released piqued my interest in this kind of music, and once I moved to Berlin, I really felt like there was a renaissance going on. One thing that comes to mind are the Beatstreet parties, which were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was chaotic, insane. This hotbox! People would play together that probably wouldn’t nowadays. You’d often see Rich and Ricardo [Villalobos] play back-to-back, and a lot of the Perlon guys, and then we’d come in, and it was just this free, experimental environment, very intense. I’d never seen anything like that since the ’90s in Detroit. Those were my strongest impressions of minimal at the time.
But over time, all movements change and morph or become more generic. People get bored and look for different sounds, different ideas. I still buy tons of records that sound like they’re from that time. I don’t think minimal has died, necessarily. It’s just not present right now. This is how it goes, from deep house to acid house to hard techno. It’s gonna come back again. I also noticed that a lot of the new generation are really adamant about playing vinyl and rejecting the digital approaches available. I have many friends who are in their 20s and take the old-school method seriously.
SB: That’s actually why we started the Wax Only series on Poker Flat. It’s a different sound than we usually release on the label—a bit more stripped-down and rough. I don’t really tour with vinyl, but I still use a vinyl controller because I like the old-school handling. When we played together in Basel, I noticed you have your own controller, right?
M: Yeah, I designed my controller [VERSUS] with my friend NYMA in collaboration with Faderfox and Glanzmann DDS. They stand for high quality and experimentation and they’re super nice guys to work with. We wanted to design something that was really versatile to use with other gear or in the studio. It’s an instrument rather than just a controller, and you can hook up a synth or a drum machine or effects unit. At the end of the day, it’s very personal the way someone plays, but it should be fun. I noticed that you bought a Cyclone 303?
SB: I did.
M: I was curious how you like it, and how it compares to the original.
SB: I did a lot of comparison, and I think it’s missing a bit in the bottom end. Of course, the original 303 makes noise on every note, like tsch tsch tsch, but the Cyclone is its closest clone, and if you want to play live, I’d definitely use this one instead of the original. It’s not much easier to program, but it has MIDI function.
Lately there’s so much great equipment coming out, like the MOOG Sub 37 and the Pro 6. These are all old-school, in a way, but they offer some new filter or an addition that the originals didn’t have. I haven’t bought synths for a long time, because it was mostly just the old stuff on the market, and I had most of it. But all the new stuff, like the AIRA TR-8 drum machine, is really interesting, especially for people that want to play live. It’s a great time for hardware in the studio, and they’re not that expensive either. You can afford the smaller boxes, at least. Are you using some of this stuff in the studio?
M: I am. I really like hardware. There are some really exciting, interesting little modules that I find are much more user-friendly and work well in combination with my other gear. I dabbled with modular setups seven years ago, but there wasn’t much available at that time, and I gave up too quickly. But as you said, now there’s a lot of smaller hardware that’s inexpensive but super tight, especially the Korg Volcas. I have those. They’re tiny and affordable, and they still sound so fat and nice. You can really tell in the music that’s coming out that a lot of producers are using modular gear, and it just sounds so warm. They create a lot of weird sounds or unusual patterns.
I think our scene changed quite a lot in the last few years, not only in terms of production methods and styles, but also because electronic music has become much more known. Management, for example, has taken a huge role in a person’s career. In the past, agents and bookers were the ones who looked out for the artist. I’m curious how you see the whole thing.
SB: It’s really taken away from the spirit. Some people have in their contracts that they have to be the headliner. It’s ridiculous. And of course, it’s become a money machine for a lot of people. When I started, the DJ was the guy standing in the corner, and he didn’t even make enough money to buy the records he was playing. Now, a lot of young guys have a full business plan and partners to help them realize it, and they make it faster than the ones who do it the way I was doing it. It seems like club-goers have bought into this system, too. They believe what they’re being told: the biggest name on the headline is the biggest guy of the night, and the party with the best promotion is the party they should go to. People have lost their own sense of music–everyone is going for the same thing. And the vinyl-only DJs can be narrow minded, too. But after 30 years, it has to become something different than it was in the beginning. It’s like rock music. All I can do is keep buying and playing music that I like. I never went for trends.
M: I think you and I are very similar in that respect. We’ve been around for a while and experienced all the scene changes and trends, but we have to find a way through that is authentic to us. Whenever anyone asks me for advice, that’s all I say. “Don’t follow any trends. Do a lot of research.” At the end of the day, people are still yearning for something new and different-sounding.
SB: I agree with you. Long term, it’s better to do something that you really feel and can stand behind. On another note, I know that you travel with a tour manager now. I’m always on time and I would never leave my computer in a taxi, but I always thought it would be nice not to travel alone. Do you ever feel like you have to take care of your tour manager, though?
M: It’s such a tough job for him, because he has to deal with the promoters, settle everything on the rider, stay for the whole set, set up, break down, make sure everything works, and with our schedule over the past few years—I’m slowing down a bit more, which is good—but he would get home and be so confused. One time he woke up in the middle of the night, thought he had to go to the airport, packed up all the equipment, and then in the cab to my house he realized, “Oh my god, I just landed.” Moments like that made me realize how affected you are.
SB: Do you have a problem getting back into your sleeping rhythm when you’re not playing? My doctor treats a lot of other DJs, and most of them have problems with getting back into normal sleep patterns.
M: If I just do two shows on the weekend, I have no problem getting back to my normal sleeping habits. However, if I go on a tour and it’s, let’s say, two weeks, or if I do four shows in a row, I always have trouble.
SB: That’s what happens to me when I have a weekend off. I go to sleep, and then I wake up like, “Oh shit!” My body is used to being awake on Friday night, so it’s really hard for me to sleep then. But on Sunday, I sleep perfectly.
M: It’s a funny sensation because oftentimes, I wake up at 3 a.m. and think, “OK, I have to go to the club.” And then I realize, “No, I’m at home.” It’s the best feeling.
SB: Do you do any sports to compensate? I’m doing bouldering [rock climbing] now…
M: I would fall apart if I didn’t. Especially now that I’m older, it’s crucial for my psychological and physical being. I mean, doing this job? Really. I have back problems, like every DJ, so for me it’s really important to get back on track. It just kind of resets me. And then I can just be clear, go to the studio, do the things I need to do. It’s do or die. And other than that, I love to cook, and it’s such a comedown for me to come back from tour and not hear a song or any music and just get in the kitchen for a few days.
SB: Hey, that’s good! I like to eat. Invite me one day. I’ll bring some wine.