I met Adonis by coincidence. It was 1992, and he had just gotten back from the UK, where he had lived for a while. Somebody I had business dealings with back then used to hang out with him. When things fizzled out between us, she told me that she was hanging out with Adonis and asked if I’d like to meet him. Sure, I wanted that. I had seen him around at parties, but I never felt like walking up to him and introducing myself. He did his own thing, and I didn’t want to bother him.
But when we eventually met, we kinda clicked right away. We chatted about life and stuff. At first we didn’t talk about music production or anything like that, but I thanked him for his creations and contributions to house music. Eventually we started hanging out in his apartment, where he also had his studio. I was really curious about the process of creating music. I wanted to learn how to use the mixing board, how to program basslines, everything.
Adonis told me to start with something simple and to work myself up from there. He gave me a big bulky drum machine that was sitting in the corner of his studio, and I walked around with it for almost a year. It was a Korg DDD-1. He said I had to really learn it inside and out. “If you can program any interchangeable rhythm, measure or drum pattern on this, we will graduate to something else,” he told me. To him, being able to create an endless variation of rhythms would eventually help when we’d move on to chords and strings. He said it would help me create better melodies later. So that’s what I did. But after a while I really wanted to get my hands on something other than a drum machine.
At the end of the day, his mentorship was more on the spiritual side: how to deal with certain things in life. Before there was the music business, there was the individual being living in the physical world and dealing with the self. Everything else is just semantics and falls under that. He mentored me on how to survive in the music business and how to approach it. I was 19 and living so much in the moment, having fun, that I didn’t have a regard for the long-term.
He kept himself informed about the new generation, but he didn’t feel the need to try and stay relevant. He stayed connected to see what was new and fresh. But apart from that, he stayed autonomous and did his own thing. I was the complete opposite. I was out nearly every night, taking everything in, self-absorbed, driven by ego. I was young. I was learning. And I did report back to him afterwards.
He told me not to take the business too seriously. If you do, it’ll swallow and suck all of your energy out of you. He said the music industry can be a very depressed and lonely place—especially if things aren’t really working out for you. He was adamant that I always had something else to fall back onto, something other than music to share my energy with. In every industry or business, you have people who are out to use and abuse. I have been fortunate enough to have been insulated from certain events—especially while on the road touring. If something happens, I don’t take it personally. I don’t get emotional to the point that I start ranting about it online.
The bullshit waves ride themselves out. Always. That’s also something Adonis told me and that I’ve validated over time: every five years there’s a new generation. Things move quickly. So if there are things that I’m uncomfortable with right now, chances are good that they’ll fade out in a couple of years. I just have to stick to my guns and keep my head down.
1992 was a very precarious year for house music culture in Chicago. In a way, it felt like the end of something, but at the same time a lot of brand new things emerged. It felt like a new seed was sown. It was a time of transformation. Ron Hardy was dead, Frankie Knuckles had left Chicago for New York. There was special vibe in the city. You had Derrick Carter and his Rednail crew; you had Cajmere with Cajual and Relief Records; China Club; Shelter. There were a lot of crews and clubs that kept the culture alive.
After taking the drum machine practically everywhere, I went for nearly a year constantly working on beats, I knew that I was ready to do the next step. At that point, it wasn’t even about if he agreed with me anymore—I just knew. I could’ve started to focus on other things besides the drum machine six months earlier, but I stayed dedicated. I was very much invested in the moment and the process.
Adonis and I had the same idea and understanding about the process of creation. People can have the same feelings or energy, but they can’t fully explain it because they don’t have the knowledge or experience necessary. That was me back then. But somebody else can feel what’s going on with you and can express it because they’re in tune with you. Adonis was able to feel what I was trying to express and break it down to me intellectually.
We come into this existence as beings, and then we put other things into existence through creation. That’s what I learned from him: this whole thought process. If everybody had that mentality of honoring creation, then people wouldn’t be so keen to honor and hold up destruction and chaos.
People put so much energy, faith and worship into these machines that they totally forget about the human experience. Adonis made what he made because of his human experience. The human makes the machine—not the other way around. Some experiences in my life caused me to be the way I am. So when I started to create with his machines, I turned into a conduit of all these emotional and mental and spiritual experiences to transform them into a physical experience.
You can’t let the machine override your humanity. The result would be watered-down, fake. It would feel empty. So when I create, it’s basically like a sonic diary. I’m emulating and bringing into the universe. It’s an ongoing process. I’m still learning, still evolving. That will never stop. And musically, that journey started for me in 1992.
By the end of 1994, I self-released my first cassettes. In 1996, I put out the first vinyl releases on Mathematics as white-labels. After that I took a break until 2000, when I restarted the label. There were times where I was frustrated about not being heard. I was struggling. But Adonis’ advice helped me to keep pushing. Some people get burned and they walk away and feel bitter and defeated. But you shouldn’t complain about something and then just walk away. If you do that, chances are that nothing will change for the better. What you can do is mentor the next generation so that things can improve. If you start to teach the young hopefuls a new and unifying way to pursue their dreams in the music industry, things can shift in this culture. I think dance music is in a very chaotic and very fractured state at the moment. But look at Mike Huckaby; he didn’t complain about how things are. He took his resources and planted seeds and made a change. I look up to him for all the great work he’s doing teaching young black kids to produce music at Youthville in Detroit.
A while ago I got involved in my own mentoring adventure called Chicago Phonic. The facility is there and we’ll open soon—most likely in early November. The stage is pretty much set: the gear is there and we’re ready to go. The people I’m dealing with for this are private investors who don’t want to have their names out in public. They don’t care about facetime. So I’m kind of the face of the operation because we’re dealing with poor kids from Chicago. I come from that.
I don’t want to complain anymore. I want to give something back. And hopefully my involvement will encourage others to get involved, too. It’s not that hard to set something up—especially if you have a sponsorship with a gear company. Don’t fill up your crib with Moogs and whatnot just for yourself. Open up a facility for kids to use the equipment. Chicago Phonic will be very different from my time with Adonis, though. With him it was very personal: one-on-one. In a facility like Youthville Chicago Phonic, it becomes a classroom, and you have to refine your teachings. And you shouldn’t try to be their parent. You want to be able to convey a clear message—especially about the music business, but also about how their experiences in life will affect them. It won’t be all hands-on-gear right away. I’ll talk and explain my experience, and then I’ll ask each individual to explain hers or his up to that point in their lives. And then I will let them know: the conversation we are now having is the same you’ll be having with the machines.
Silent Servant has long been a flagbearer for the contemporary dance floor avant-garde who blends the sounds of warehouse techno, industrial noise and post-punk. His signature brand of minimal wave-indebted techno has exerted a profound influence on the tastes of producers and fans since his initial experiments with Sandwell District 10 years ago, and many rising stars have followed in his musical footsteps. One such artist is Phase Fatale, a Philadelphia-born, Berlin-based producer who has garnered attention for a DJing and production technique that weds early ‘80s electronic sensibilities with contemporary techno. His penchant for the style has earned him releases on Silent Servant’s own Jealous God label and the Ostgut Ton sub-imprint, Unterton—not to mention regular bookings at Berghain.
The two producers have collaborated more frequently over the last few years and have performed together at shows like Berlin Atonal. For our latest Mentors column, we sat down with them to discuss their shared musical pasts, the influence they’ve exerted on each other’s productions and their recent collaborative 12″ of edits accompanying Phase Fatale’s debut LP, Redeemer, which came out on Vatican Shadow’s Hospital Productions on October 13.
Phase Fatale: A lot of the music that influenced me the most came from the Wierd parties in New York—they happened weekly at Home Sweet Home. It was the coldwave and minimal synth party in the States that was bringing this sound over from Europe that had already been going on for years—since the ‘80s.
Silent Servant: I worked in advertising for a long time, so even when I was living in LA I would go to New York for work, and I’d also end up at the Wierd parties. I didn’t know anybody. I would literally just go and sit in the corner and listen to music. But there’s a similar party in LA. We had Part-Time Punks. The thing with Wierd, though, is that the guy running it, Pieter Schoolwerth, also had a record label for the whole thing, so there was a very stable music community that revolved around it. A lot of those same bands would play in LA. So the connection was there. Pretty much all of the stuff that he did and the bands that he brought out would come play with us in LA. And I would DJ at Part-Time Punks a bunch, too, so it was the same thing happening on both coasts.
PF: I think the thing about Wierd—or Part-Time Punks—is that there’s an aesthetic approach to it. It’s not just a traditional goth party that plays The Cure. It was something that dug really deep and was super nerdy, but at the same time it was very eccentric and had an almost club kid vibe to it.
SS: Yeah, exactly. I think it became a place where you could listen to really good music that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. You could hear any minimal synth band or goth thing that we’re into. I don’t pretend to be super goth or anything, but a lot of the appeal of this music aesthetic for me is that it’s what I grew up with. I’m a little older—I saw the end of the ‘80s—and I saw my older brother go to all of these new wave clubs. I always really wanted to experience that. LA has always had a lot going on in that scene. So as I got older, it just became a part of me.
PF: Yeah, the same goes for me. My dad was involved in the scene in the ‘80s, mostly with new wave and goth and post-punk bands, so when I was little he kind of drilled this music into my head. We listened to a lot of new wave and post-punk bands in the backseat of the car. So I grew up with a lot of music that most people in my generation didn’t have exposure to. I actually remember the first time I walked into Wierd. I was completely underage; I wasn’t even 18. I just remember walking in there and hearing these songs that my parents used to play for me when I was a kid and I would always just listen to them at home. When I walked in there, though, I was like, “Woah, they’re playing this song in here?” I never thought that existed outside, because of course when I was younger, I wasn’t going to bars.
SS: We actually met at one of these things. It was some weird-ass party that Martial Canterel was playing. It was just one of those things that you experience with certain people where you see someone and you’re like, “You kind of look like me,” or you have some other commonalities from a visual standpoint, and then you realize that you have commonalities from a musical standpoint that’s totally outside the techno stuff. And for me, that’s even more of a connecting point.
PF: Yeah, it’s more interesting when you can find strange common ground. We ran into each other a few times in the last few years, and then we ended up working together after all of these small meetings. Our first “collaboration” was the Grain EP on aufnahme + wiedergabe, but I don’t even know if you could call it a collaboration since we didn’t work on it together—I just sort of threw him the stems.
SS: Yeah, I remixed that and then kind of forgot about it, and then I started hearing it out a lot and was like, “Oh, cool!”
PF: I guess the first real collaboration of ours was the 2016 Atonal performance. We decided to make something special rather than just each of us playing solo again, which happens all the time.
SS: There were already certain influences that I really wanted to be part of it, but you were like, “Oh yeah, totally.”
PF: Yeah, I think what was nice about it was that we were able to pull from different references that we love but that we wouldn’t use our own selves as solo artists because they didn’t fit into our individual sonic palettes. But together we were able to expand and make something a little more referential by combining different elements.
SS: But at the same time I think that because of the way we mixed it, it still didn’t sound that referential, which is kind of cool. For me it was about experimenting with types of rhythmic patterns and shit that I don’t normally use. Then I made some stuff, and you made some stuff, and we spent, like, two days piecing it all together.
PF: There was even one part we made that was a KR-55 drum beat that I had sequenced, and we were like, “What would happen if we just mashed them together?”
SS: We were like, “Yeah that’s kind of cool!”
PF: It actually ended up becoming a whole song that changes and everything. It was completely not premeditated at all.
SS: Yeah, the set was a lot of happy accidents. But I think that’s also a testament to the fact that two people who work in similar contexts can be completely different, but that the references are kind of similar, you know. That’s why I started working with you—because I was like, “You know what’s up in my world, and we get along.” You just find commonalities and are like, “I can also be friends with this person.” There are some people, you know, you meet them and it’s strictly music, because you probably wouldn’t hang out with them normally. But in this context it’s cool, because I think of you as a friend. Plus we have these root aesthetic commonalities. Working together is not hard. It feels very natural.
PF: In order to work with somebody closely like we do, there has to be more than just music, obviously.
SS: You’re spending a lot of time with that person. It won’t work if you want to kill them at the end of the day. The only person I’ve really, really worked a lot with before is Karl—Regis. Karl has been such a big mentor for me. If it wasn’t for him, my life would be different. He literally just plucked me up and was like, “Come work with us,” and I was like, “Okay!” For me it’s like, trying to find the payback. And it’s not like, “I have to give back to the community!” I just think it’s really special when people are provided opportunities that you can give.
PF: I don’t think that having a mentor is necessarily critical to learning the ropes, but it’s really nice when you can find someone who will help you. This scene is so large and it can seem so daunting—there are so many different places where you could fit yourself into it. It’s good to find someone who’s already done things that you want to do and who shares your mindset.
SS: I think it’s more about finding people who culturally inspire you, because then it becomes a two-way street. As much as I talk to you, I get as much back from you just being enthusiastic and providing some perspective.
PF: People working in techno especially can be really insular. I’m coming from playing in bands and stuff where you’re always working with people, and they’ll tell you, “Your playing sucks. You’ve gotta try this.” It’s actually good criticism, even if you don’t agree with it. You always need another perspective, otherwise you can’t develop.
SS: A mutual respect has to be there too, though. There has to be a common respect to let people do what they do and give them new ideas.
PF: The 12-inch of edits coming out with Redeemer was actually your idea, because you did it for your release on Hospital Records in 2012. It turned out to be a really awesome idea. We just sat in my studio for, like, two days and went through the album together. My tracks tend to be so dense, but you have a more minimalist sensibility that works out really nicely in a dance floor setting because there’s more space and your tracks mix a little better. So you were like, “Take this out, take this out, make this longer.” Just through that short process, I garnered so much about how to better arrange a track for the dance floor. Before I just threw everything in, and now I know more about space and how to have different elements come in and out and small details that I can make way more intense rather than just turning everything up to 11.
SS: That’s something that I learned a lot from Karl. He’s really good at arranging. It’s not like I’m that good at it or anything, but especially when I’m DJing, it’s like, “Where are these parts going to go where I can mix in or out?” It was the first time for me being on the other side and helping someone in that way. Because when I worked with Karl, he just showed me and I just watched.
PF: It was great to go through this process of conceptualizing and then editing it technically. I also worked on it a bit faster than usual, which was good. Otherwise I dwell on stupid details that don’t matter. In the end, if you start screwing with something too much, you make it worse than it was before. It’s always the case. The first take is always the best take, so they say.
SS: That’s an interesting element to the music that we’re making—there’s almost an element of immediacy. And I think that’s why bands like Suicide are so good. There’s this immediacy to it that you feel right away. If you keep fiddling with things then a track can become too refined and sterile.
PF: In the end, I saw Redeemer as a way to put together all of the references that I love, like all of these past musical influences that I could summon up and recreate in my own statement and sound. It takes the Jealous God records and the sounds that were created there and transforms them into a new thing by using more guitar and vocals. So I’m going back to my band background and making something you really couldn’t do on a three-song 12-inch. It feels like I closed one thing and now I’m moving onto the next stage of my evolution. It was the perfect time for Dominick [Fernow]—Vatican Shadow—to ask me to work on it, because so many things are changing for me right now. This record closes one door and lets me continue.
Silent Servant’s photo is courtesy of Shawn Reynaldo at XLR8R, and Phase Fatale’s photo is courtesy of Fredrik Altinell. The video of their performance at Berlin Atonal was shot by Alex Baker of Postpunk.com.
There are quite a few Detroit techno kids out there now—the 313 offspring are starting to come out. Juan Atkins told me that he’s teaching his daughter how to DJ, and I spoke to Lou from Scan 7, whose son is now DJing and producing, too. At this year’s Movement Detroit Festival, I talked to Kevin Saunderson about being a dad and having your kid follow in your footsteps. My daughter, Lyric, was exposed to this music from a very young age—even before she was born. I remember when I played in London and my wife was pregnant with Lyric. She was with me standing in this warehouse with this heavy music reverberating through the room. So Lyric surely felt it in the womb, too. When she was 9 or 10 years old, she introduced me on the microphone at I Love Techno in Belgium. I was ready to start, and one of the stage engineers suggested letting her go out first to introduce me to the crowd—and that’s what she did. That was her first exposure to a huge festival. She kinda grew up in this. I guess that’s one of the reasons why she has such an intuitive understanding of this music. She just turned 21, and apart from being on tour with me she doesn’t have that much firsthand experience with club culture so far.
My wife and I noticed Lyric’s love for music really early on. As time progressed, she started to show an interest in DJing and maybe even making beats. One day, I asked her how she felt about coming into the studio with me and DJing for a bit. I wanted to see if she had an ear for it. She caught on right away. But did she really have the desire to do this, to pursue this as a career? A lot of people really like music, but they don’t love it and don’t have the passion to dig deep. Watching Lyric, I was convinced pretty quickly that she had the work ethic and the commitment it takes to pursue it. So my wife and I bought her one of these DJ mixer and controller packages after Lyric DJed at her own sweet sixteen party. Watching her do her thing then was incredible. She started to make mash-ups of her favorite tracks in her room with the gear we bought her. For her first one she took a beat from Skrillex and a vocal from Lady Gaga, if I remember correctly.
From there I saw her musical taste develop in fast forward. I tried to step back as much as possible and let her figure out the history of the music for herself, though. I was curious to see what she would discover by digging on the internet, what artists and eras would speak to her. Every once in a while she’d come to me and say “Daddy, I found this track from MK; I found this track by Kevin Saunderson; I found music from Frankie Knuckles.” Once she had a basic knowledge of the heritage of house and techno, I got active and filled the blanks a bit, giving her the bigger picture of the Detroit sound or the Chicago sound. She loved that. She was still a teenager back then, so at that time she was also into Katy Perry, Martin Garrix, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber. Seeing her balancing all these very different artists and styles reminded me of myself. When I was her age I was into a lot of different stuff as well. I was into Stevie Wonder, Depeche Mode, The Specials, A Tribe Called Quest and so forth.
For me it’s really important that she knows what the Motown sound is, what rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop are and how important those genres are—no matter if she’s planning to work in the industry or not. At the same time I want her to find her own way and for her not to get programmed by me at an early age. She should maintain her own sense of wonder. I am acutely aware not to guide her in any direction without her specifically asking me about it. The other day I was driving to a gig and Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” came on the radio. It took me back in time. Q-Tip is on that record, and Bootsy Collins is on it, too. It changed the game back then; you had all these different influences going on, from funk to hip-hop to soul and disco. It was like a disco ball of expression. That, to me, is what Lyric is. That track embodies her mindset and spirit. She’s pure. She’s coming in with a new energy, a new way of looking at things. It’s very exciting to see this untapped passion and energy and what it develops into.
The first time we ever played together publicly was at Movement in Detroit a few years ago. I told her beforehand that she was free to do whatever she wanted, whether it was playing EDM, acid or techno. So she played Beyoncé, she played Martin Garrix and she played Katy Perry—right in the middle of my live set. I loved it. Granted, it caught quite a few people in the audience off-guard and probably confused some of them, but I knew that was gonna happen. We are so programmed sometimes—especially when it comes to house and techno. A lot of people have these purist ideals these days. They only like it a certain way. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen. I never understood why music should be segregated.
After that first set, the idea to work together on music under the Floorplan moniker happened pretty much instantly. We bought her an MPC to play around with. It was and still is mesmerizing for me to watch Lyric getting the hang of working with electronic music gear and how quickly she gravitates to it. Sometimes she programs a beat on her own and then she brings it to me and we rework it a little bit together, and then we add keys to it. She really likes basslines. A lot of the time we slow the raw beat down to maybe 103 BPM and then she taps or plays the bassline she has in mind. She’s very inspired by MK and Todd Terry at the moment. Once we have the whole groove, we start to add vocals. We’re pretty much making songs together on a daily basis. If needed, I later clean those raw ideas up a little bit. But that’s happening less often. Take “Music” from one of our last Floorplan EPs, for instance; she came up with the bassline and the drum patterns. I had very little to do.
My philosophy is and always has been that too many choices will end up confusing you, so I tell myself, “Keep it simple, stupid. Use what is essential and important to you.” That’s what I tell Lyric, too. You don’t need the newest gear. If you’re always on the lookout for the new, hip gadget, you’ll get oversaturated and eventually it will only slow you down. I think so far she fully subscribes to that philosophy: less is more. And, as Jeff Mills said to me when I was just starting to produce, “You know when the cake is ready.” You just have to establish that knowledge—that connection to your soul. At times it was tricky to leave myself and what I like out of this process as much as possible. I gave her some techniques. But I wanted her own ideas of how to program beats to fully come out and bloom, too. It’s hard for me sometimes not to step in, though. So every once in a while I leave the room to let her do her thing. I’m the same way; I like to be left alone sometimes to work out some ideas.
Lyric really made me step up my game. She made me pay closer attention to what I produce and what I put out. These days, she’s sort of the A&R of M-Plant Records. She’s become the go-to person for me to say yes or no to a track. If she doesn’t play it in her sets, I question if I’m even going to release it. She lets me know right away if something is for her or not. She’s my fresh pair of ears. It’s amazing to see her grow. She has come a very long way in a very short time. It’s very inspiring to see that. She’s fresh water on this musical landscape. She has also reminded me of the importance of taking calculated risks. Compared to her, I was late in the game. I was a graphic artist at first. With Underground Resistance, the thing for me was not to rush—to be able to hold my own sword and carry the name. I remember once when Jeff Mills stepped away from the turntables and I took over. It sounded like galloping horses. It was a mess—I thought I was ready and I wasn’t. So I know that things take a while. I learned a lot about patience working with UR, and that’s what gave me strength. It doesn’t help if you’re in a rush. That’s the same process I’m taking my daughter through at the moment. Take your time. You don’t want to crash and burn at a young age after being the flavor of the month for a bit. Or maybe she decides on her own that the music industry or DJing ultimately is not for her. But at least if she does decide to stay in it, she’s standing on a solid rock.
Her ascent has happened a lot faster than most, though. To be honest, I’m trying to keep it at a slow pace, but it’s not easy. I mean, a little while ago she played Coachella with me. It’s just such a fast-moving train at the moment, and a lot of that is due to her. When she came into Floorplan, the ball started rolling so much faster, and it’s hard for me to jump off this fast moving train—to get off of it, to take a look at it, assess it and see what’s actually going on. It’s amazing how fast she came up in this thing we call techno and house. I’m really interested to see where she’ll be in five years.
I am a proudly over-protective father—always have been, always will be. And my wife is the same. We’re shielding and guiding her, knowing that she has to make her own experiences and her own mistakes. We’ve always been really hands-on with her, and now, slowly, the time to be more hands-off is coming. There are a lot of temptations out there in the world—especially in nightlife. But she has to make her own decisions and choices. I wouldn’t let her tour on her own just yet. I would be in the background, in the shadows, watching her. You know, that’s my baby. When the time is right and she still wants to I’ll let her do it all on her own. It’s coming. And I will have to face reality.
I started DJing in 1992, when I was living in Kansas City, Missouri. One of my best friends at the time, Theo Parrish, encouraged me a lot when I was learning and discovering how to DJ, but ultimately my dream was to make my own music and be considered a true artist. Unfortunately there wasn’t that much going on in Kansas City. You had raves in the Midwest, but they were usually small—maybe a couple hundred kids. There were a few gay clubs that I frequented, but they only played the 20 most popular dance tracks and only occasionally something fresh to my ears. Basically, there was no scene. I threw parties with a few dedicated, likeminded souls, but I still felt that Kansas City wasn’t the right place for me.
A little later, a friend of mine moved to New York and invited me to come visit. I loved it! New York was perfect in the early ‘90s, like a musical paradise—at least for me. Everywhere you went—it didn’t matter what kind of store—you’d hear beautiful house music. I knew right away that I had to move there, too. But when I finally arrived, I didn’t know anybody except that one friend. I was like, “Okay, I’m in New York and I’m ready to DJ. Now what?” At this point I had been playing for at least four years and was pretty confident about my skills, but I quickly realized that it didn’t work like that. I didn’t know anyone, and I was a woman, which apparently was a big deal because women who DJed were considered a sideshow. It’s sad that it’s still an issue, but back then it was even worse. Being a female DJ was treated as an anomaly—let alone a black woman DJing.
So I had all these things counting against me, and I wondered, “What the hell am I gonna do?” One day, feeling a bit defeated, I went to this Japanese restaurant, and by chance an old friend from Kansas City happened to work there. He was like, “Are you still DJing? They need a DJ here.” It was one of the first restaurants in New York to have DJs. I got the gig, and from there many more followed. And once I was a DJ with professional gigs, I started going to record stores weekly. But I was completely ignored in nearly all stores I went to. Nobody would help me; nobody would answer questions; everybody was rude! They—all guys—would just stand there and look the other way and talk to anyone else there but me. I would have happily ignored them, too, but almost all the record stores at that time did not have listening stations, so you had to ask the DJ behind the counter to play a record for you if you wanted to listen before buying.
There were only two stores where I got some respect: Vinylmania and Dance Tracks, which Joe Claussell co-owned with Stefan Prescott. When I walked in there, Joe would always greet me with a smile. He would say “Hey sister, how are you doing?” He was really nice to me, and it freaked me out at first because I wasn’t used to it. Over time I started going to Dance Tracks exclusively, because that was the only place where the staff treated me well. After about six months of shopping there regularly, Joe asked me out of the blue if he could talk to me.
“We see you come in here all the time, and we like your energy,” he told me. “Your taste in music is impeccable. We would like to offer you a job to work here.” I was like, “Say what? You’re offering me a job?” I was speechless! Back then there was maybe one other woman working somewhere in a record store in the city—at least in all the places I went to, and I went a lot of places. So it was a big deal for them to hire a woman to work in their store. I have to say, they were quite progressive because they also had another woman, Colleen Murphy, working there as well, and I felt like I had finally arrived.
That’s when my friendship and mentorship with Joe began. He really took me under his wing and was very kind. He showed me how important real relationships were, also in business: how important it is to be kind; to be yourself; to be authentic to people. I watched how he was always himself and wouldn’t treat anyone differently just because of their status. At Dance Tracks we had people coming in from around the world, from all walks of life. All the big name DJs went to that store, so it took me a long way to learn about about how to treat people and how it benefits you personally and professionally in the long run, as opposed to thinking, “Well, I’m at the top, so I don’t have to speak to you.”
He knew that I was a good DJ, and I was slowly getting really popular in the city. I was playing all the little clubs and lounges so I had a gig almost every night. At that time, Joe, Danny Krivit and Francois K had just started Body and SOUL, and in ’96 or ‘97 they asked me to play there, which was a big honor because they weren’t asking everybody. That invitation boosted my confidence as a DJ. I felt that I was on the right path, and continuing to be authentic would allow me more success artistically. Joe was very instrumental in giving me this platform.
The next step was to produce my own music. I didn’t have a lot of money and no studio, so I decided to work with people who did, which at first was kind of disastrous. I could express myself musically—I could play the notes that I wanted. But I couldn’t express what I wanted technically. I had little to no knowledge of how music software worked as I did not own my own software. How do you make the kick sound like this? How do you translate this melody into this kind of track? I cannot tell you how humiliating it felt. It was like being full of words but having no sound come out of your mouth when you speak.
And then you have people in the studio who kinda want to work with you, but they also prefer to be the lord over the whole thing. That’s not really a collaborative spirit, and it was really frustrating. One time I told Joe about it. “I’ve done all these collaborations and I’m pretty unhappy with the results, but I feel that I’m ready to do my thing.” He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “I want to make electronic music, dance music, but I want to infuse my roots as an African person.”
At that time, Joe and Stefan had started doing the label Spiritual Life Music through the Dance Tracks store. He gave me the opportunity to learn how to run a label, and I was always included when it came to Spiritual Life with how albums came together as well as the distribution and promotion. So when I felt I had a clear vision of the statement I wanted to make as an artist, I plucked up my courage and told Joe about the kind of album I wanted to make. Joe already had a big reputation in New York as far as DJing goes—everyone respected him, for he is one of a kind. But his productions had taken the house music world by storm with his style of fusing house with rhythms and traditions of the world, so I knew he was the best person to talk to about doing my first album, and he said that he’d release it on Spiritual Life Music.
From there I learned a lot about what it really takes to make an album. The whole process turned into this real deep and at times soul-crushing period, but that’s when I felt my true mentoring from Joe really took hold. I had to go pay for my own studio time, and I learned that I had better have all those receipts because those costs have to be recouped first. I had to learn how to organize my time before I went into a session and that I had to have my ideas really laid out. I also learned how to communicate with musicians and engineers so they take you seriously. I learned a lot about dealing with difficult people and standing your ground.
I could talk to Joe about these struggles, and he would offer limitless advice and encouragement, but like a good parent, he would push me right back out there. After listening to the progress of each track I would submit he would offer commentary that I sometimes was not prepared to hear. One thing he often said was, “This is good, but you can do more. You can push yourself more.” He always wanted me to reach for a higher bar. “You need to push it over the edge.” “Ugh, how do you push it over the edge?” my soul would ask. To this day I still produce music by trying to find and push over that edge, which is why there are such long gaps between my productions.
I had a cheap but effective Yamaha keyboard at that point that helped me record some basic melodies at home and later took to the studio. Joe was familiar with some of the musicians I hired, so I would use that as a calling card to settle my unease of having less technical experience in explaining myself properly. Joe would keep me grounded. So for instance, I would write an echo-y, ambient melody and then tap in a West African rhythm, and I’d be super excited when I got those ideas working together and sounding great. Magic! But then Joe would walk me through my track and tell me how I could work on every element a bit more and how it would affect the end result differently—how to make it sound more wide or more live, for instance.
I was still so young and fresh to all this, so dealing with his feedback was jarring. I knew he meant to elevate my artistic voice to another level, so I appreciated his honesty, but it was still difficult to accept. I’ve only gotten slightly better with handling criticism, even after years of releasing my own music. So in my mind I’m like, “I know what I’m doing. I’m the shit.” And he would be like, “just keep working.” Joe kept sending me back to the studio. The album never came out in the end, but I still have a lot of the tracks. I said, “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t keep creating an album for years without an ending.”
Only much later in my career did I realize how much I’d actually learned. It was all training. All the knowledge I got about how to turn your ideas into a tangible thing and how to push yourself out of your comfort zone prepared me to be the artist I yearned to be. I learned all of that from him. He would always tell me, “You can do more. I feel it in you and I know that if you just allow yourself, it can be completely over the top.” That’s how Joe produces music: over the top into another dimension. He taught me to be able to go beyond the superficial.
Shortly after this experience I decided to start my own label, Bumako Recordings. I decided I didn’t want anyone telling me what I can’t do; training time was over. You have to trust your vision. I got to the point where I knew myself as an artist and stopped looking for approval. It can be difficult when you really crave the approval of your mentor, and I did because I held Joe in such a high regard. I still do, he is always my brother! But at some point I realized, it’s alright. It’s not for him. I’m not doing this for approval. Trust your voice and instincts as an artist. And I am forever grateful that Joe always pushed me until I learned that.
When Don Buchla produced his first modular synth in 1963, he had no idea that his creations would become the bonding material for a working relationship and friendship between two American composers: Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Both initially used organic instruments before falling in love with the Buchla and becoming fixated on making music and exploring sound design with its variations. While Smith has yet to coin anything as widely spread as Ciani’s “pop & pour” design for Coca Cola, she’s provided panoramic sound bytes for the track “Boys Latin” from Panda Bear’s fifth LP and produced some original material, including a collaborative record with Ciani, Sunergy.
They first formed a professional relationship at Ciani’s house in Bolinas, California, a secluded beachside hippie hollow nestled in the headlands north of San Francisco. Suzanne found herself feeling like a mentor to Kaitlyn, who had become her studio assistant. It was during this time that they decided to work on a record together for RVNG Intl. that later became Sunergy. While they share many similarities, Kaitlyn’s experience as a woman in the contemporary field of modular synthesis is very different compared to Ciani’s memories of how it was for female electronic musicians in the ‘60s.
Suzanne Ciani: Kaitlyn sent me a copy of her album, EARS, and asked me to write a little blurb for it, and that was the first time I had heard Kaitlyn’s music. I felt like a mentor towards her because she was very young and I wanted to encourage a young Buchla player. I liked the fact that her music had pitches in it and a nice energy, and she seemed to be very relaxed in relationship to the machine.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: About eight years ago, I was lent a Buchla 100 from my neighbor—but at the time, I had no idea what a modular synthesiser was. My husband was well aware of what it was and sent me some videos of Suzanne playing one. I got really excited because Delia Derbyshire was an influence at that time, so to find a female who was playing this very unique instrument in front of me was really exciting. That was my first introduction to her; through Buchla videos.
SC: The Buchla 100 was the very, very early one. To me, the 200 was the peak, and now we have the 200e, which is the hybrid that’s both analog and digital. The 200 was 100 percent analog, so it had no memory and a very lovely sound. The 200e, which is the modern version of the 200, is quite different, so now that I’ve come back to it, I’ve had to deal with a new reality there. It’s not always as good as the old reality.
KAS: My relationship with the Buchla isn’t as long as Suzanne’s. I’ve used a Buchla 100 for eight years and the Buchla Music Easel for the past four or five years. That’s the main instrument I perform with.
SC: You’re so lucky, Kaitlyn! You’re so lucky that you don’t have to lug around this huge system. [Laughs]
KAS: I know—mine’s a suitcase! It’s my main performing instrument at the moment, but I also play other synthesizers.
SC: My experience with the Buchla goes back to the ‘60s, so for me, it was an early love. I spent ten years exclusively on that machine, and that was my sole possession when I moved to New York. Then half of my Buchla was stolen and half of it broke down, so I gradually weaned myself away from it. When I moved back to the west coast, I met [Don] Buchla again. We played tennis for ten years before the 200e found its way into my studio. I had no intention of going back to playing that machine, but there was a gravitational pull, so about five or six years ago, I got a new 200e. I’ve always had a very honoured place for Buchla in my heart, and he’s been such an important part of my evolution, so now I’m concentrating again on the Buchla exclusively.
Don Buchla was a generation before me, and every generation has its cultural viewpoint. In his generation, men were men and women were…women. Women were not part of a man’s professional world back then. They didn’t know how to respond to a woman in a professional context. There was a lot of discomfort and it was really odd. This was also during the moment of so-called “women’s liberation.” I was in Berkeley, California where they were burning bras and making a lot of manifestos about women’s rights, and all of this threw a wedge into the old paradigm. The old one didn’t work because women were seen as sexual objects, and that was it. There was no definition of a woman as an independent, professional person. They just didn’t know how to respond.
KAS: The only time that I really feel treated differently as a female is if I go to Guitar Center. [Laughs] That’s the only time in my career that I’ve felt that. At [the University of California] Berkeley, when I was in the Sound Engineering department and when I was a stage manager, I never got treated differently. When I go to play shows, I don’t feel different. So I feel it’s a huge difference since when Suzanne was in studios and in Don Buchla’s shop and getting that treatment.
SC: Last year, Moog reissued the Model 15 using original parts from the ‘60s and built some new ones. Moog asked me to go to Asheville, North Carolina to demonstrate it because I’m still alive and had played the old one. Kaitlyn has played the Model 15, too.
KAS: They had a 35 and a 50 and something like 15 in the video that I was a part of, which I think is the same one you were featured in. It seemed like it was a combination of different generations. Suzanne and I had met in Bolinas a few months before that.
SC: In New York I wasn’t a loner; I had a big studio with a couple dozen people working there. It was a different scene. I came out to Bolinas and suddenly it was just me. That was good and bad, but sometimes the energy level gets a bit low when you’re generating it all yourself. Bolinas is kind of isolated, and I’ve lived out here since 1992, so I was excited by the possibility of having a talented, young musician to assist me in my studio because I’d had various studio assistants over the years. My current assistant drives all the way out from San Francisco, and that’s a long drive! But here was Kaitlyn, right in Bolinas.
KAS: It’s very remote. It’s right on the coast.
SC: I say it’s famous for wanting to be unknown. It’s a part of town that takes down the sign so nobody can find it. It’s had an isolationist mentality since the ‘70s, and they have a moratorium on building so nothing’s changed very much and it’s remained a community. That’s just starting to change as it’s being discovered. I have a studio right on the ocean, so I look out on the mountains and across the ocean to San Francisco. I listen to the ocean all day and all night. The birds wake me up. I came here from New York to escape from the city because I had early stage breast cancer and I found it very healing to be here—to leave the loud city and come to this gentle environment.
KAS: I grew up doing home schooling, so it was essential for me to be really self-motivated. I try to create a bubble around myself when I’m working, but the main difference that I notice between Orcas [Island], Bolinas and the city is that when I’m in a remote place, I can get refreshed and take a walk and jump in the ocean. In LA, I go outside and it’s sweltering and there are cars everywhere, which is not as refreshing. It’s similar to what Suzanne was saying about having that energetic level of people hustling around you. It’s something you feed off of.
SC: I hired her to work here in Bolinas, and she was very professional; always showed up on time. She’s a very sharp cookie. Then the project came up. Kaitlyn knows a lot more about what’s going on currently. I’m not aware of all the ins and outs of the electronic world. There was a series of projects uniting younger and older artists called FRKWYS, and she brought [RVNG founder] Matt Werth out here and proposed that we do this project together. That’s how it started.
KAS: We were focused mostly on figuring out the different patches and creating the memory for the Buchla 200e. We would go through each module and read the manual and be like “Okay, what’s everything this module can do?”
SC: I was preparing for a tour and trying to focus. I get very distracted all the time because my life is very busy so it helps me to focus when I have a support system here to keep me on track. I was working on putting together my Buchla performance with Neotantrik [Andy Votel and Sean Canty]. I was hoping Kaitlyn was going to teach me Ableton! I notice in my book keeping that it always says Ableton lessons, but I never got one.