If you’re going to test out a new piece of DJ kit, then Berghain’s probably the place to do it. That’s what Electronic Beats’ Editor-in-Chief Max Dax did with Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ for iPhone. Here are his thoughts.
I’ve DJ’d all my life, but it took me a long time to find out how. In 1988 I was asked by my then boss and club manager Ingrid Lockowandt to perform my first DJ set in an acid house club called The Base in my hometown Kiel on the Baltic Sea. I was 18 years old and something of a consultant to her on musical trends. Ingrid thought I knew what young people like me would be up to. She also thought that rookies should be thrown into the deep end to learn how to survive. I was proud as hell to be invited to DJ, and marched over to The Base with sixteen records, among them the brilliant brand-new double vinyl Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit. Needless to say, at the time I thought that all it took to DJ was to be armed with great music. Obviously, I was incredibly naive. It was in that live context, failing in front of a party-hungry crowd that I experienced just how much records don’t match automatically. The debut was a disaster, and I almost died of shame. But this didn’t prevent me from trying it again and again and again.
Of course, those were different times. CDs were rare; Laptops, MP3s and iPads were still science fiction. There was even a healthy majority who thought that music made by or with machines couldn’t compete with the handmade. I also only partially understood DJs who stuck to functional dance music just to please a crowd or show off their craftsmanship. To this day, I get wary when I experience DJs sets where it’s all played safe. When Einstürzende Neubauten asked me to DJ at their 25th anniversary party in 2005 at Columbiahalle in Berlin, I played tunes by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Public Enemy, Primal Scream and N.W.A.—music of all genres that was held together not by matching beats but by musical virtue. It was great to see Bobby Gillespie, who was a guest at the party, dancing to his very own “Swastika Eyes”. And it was even greater being invited the same night by Berlin actor Ben Becker to become resident selector in his Bond-like nightclub Trompete. It was there during a two-year stint that I would play long, monotonous instrumental pieces by The Cinematic Orchestra while Becker would recite self-penned love poems to former RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.
Don’t get me wrong—I admire DJs who can mix. And, in a way, I had made peace with my own inability to develop any mixing skills. But maybe it was too early, because now DJing has changed and the barriers have come down between the records, the DJ, and the audience. Appropriately, on May 1st, Native Instruments released the Traktor DJ iPhone app, forcing DJs both professional and occasional to recalibrate their sense of what’s possible. The app display is set up for two tracks, each represented as sound waves. Neither technically nor visually does the interface attempt to emulate a typical turntable or CD player set-up, but it is capable of synchronizing every tune, with an algorithm that suggests matching tracks while you mix in real time. Suffice to say, this is not entirely a paradigm shift—that came with Ableton Live, which was the first software widely available that no longer required much skill to mix, create loops or use effects. However, Traktor for iPhone underscores an idea that has come to mean more and more to DJs these days: size matters and the smaller the better. Of course, it’s mattered since the advent of CDs and even more with laptops, MP3s and iPads.
Naturally, like most brave technological voyages into uncharted territory, the app is not without its idiosyncrasies. Due to the fact that the iPhone only has one audio output, you can’t pre-listen to a track with your headphones. Everything you do will be heard, which means that you better know the tracks you’re going to mix. But then again, it makes trial and error a playful component, as any mistakes are at least assured not to be out of synch—something I greatly appreciated when I was invited to DJ in support of Tricky for his recent gig at Berlin’s Berghain. I put together a kind of improvisational instrumental loop of Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times”, combining it with the bassline of Alva Noto’s “Uni Asymmetric Noises”. It felt absurd to mix without headphones, like some kind of technological phantom pain. I missed clamping the headphones to my ear. In fact, I briefly felt tempted to pretend to use some, but the feeling passed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Traktor DJ app spawns a legion of new DJs whose lack of skill will no longer prevent them from performing in public. And while you’re wondering whether this will be a blessing or a curse, consider the potential for individual music libraries to not only surface but also intertwine more than ever before—thanks in part to an algorithm that suggests tracks on basis of their BPM as opposed to genre. My recent experiments mixing Daphni’s “Ye Ye” with The Monks’ “Monk Time” worked surprisingly well. ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 34 (Summer, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com
Ninja Tune’s dark dubstepper shows a more human side on her new album DVA, exploring the poetry of her European roots.
By whatever definition you care to define it, dubstep has had a massive impact on the world of music. By 2011, the plucky little sub-bass-that-could had shed it’s UK chrysalis and become almost a household term, its influence spreading into genres, nations and the minds of producers—including that of Czech transplant Ema Jolly, who discovered the sound during her time growing up in London. After some time spent attending Tectonic Recordings founder Pinch‘s earliest parties and working as an intern for Ninja Tune, she eventually found herself in another city known for its love of electronics: Berlin, her current base of operations. Using her classical training, experience as a sound designer for Native Instruments, and taking equal inspiration from the haunting lows of her old haunts and the club-friendly techno of her new home, she adopted the moniker Emika, under which she released her first self-titled (and rather well-received) album in 2011. Her second, the recently-released DVA, finds her exploring similar realms less cold—with more than a touch of the rebellious.
The first thing I noticed about your new album is the title. “Dva” is Czech for “two”. The second thing I noticed was that your vocals sounded far more natural, less processed than your previous album. Was the title meant to be a statement about exploring a second side of yourself, or did you choose the name simply because it’s your second album?
Emika: The title actually came after I’d finished the album. The first album really created the second, because there was a lot of demand for me to perform and release more. There wasn’t really a period where I had a break in-between. I have a very strong fan base in Eastern Europe, and traveling there so much really opened up it’s history to me, as well as helped me explore my own Czech roots. After growing up in England, this all felt so new to me. So all these stories of my experiences performing as well as the experiences of my audiences helped form the narrative of DVA, and I felt that was the perfect title for this learning journey I’d been on. When it came out, though, everyone thought it meant “Diva”, which hadn’t even occurred to me!
I read an interview with you recently where you stated that DVA was a “rebel diva album.”
[laughs] I’m not sure I actually did say that, but now that statement is everywhere. I guess it’s rebellious in the sense that I don’t want to be told what to do. I manage my career myself now, I make all my own beats, and I feel like that’s rare for a woman to do all her own production, music, and management herself.
Many people tend to assume there’s a man behind the scenes, or at least a manager.
Exactly, and when I put out my first record it was that assumption that made me so crazy. It’s like… fuck you, world. I was meeting all these young girls after my shows telling me they wanted to be producers and asking me about the technology I used, and I’d always say just do it, just make music. But then I thought, “Well, can I actually do it all on my own?” So I made a promise to myself that I would, although actually I’m not sure it’s entirely me because I did steal quite a few amazing ideas from my fans [laughs].
But would you say it defines you as an artist more than your first record, or more as Emika the person?
My first record was a very selfish one; I mean it’s even named after me. With Emika, I was trying to establish myself as a producer, get myself out there and introduce myself to other artists and producers. I wanted to be part of the club scene, to have a place within dubstep. I don’t really care so much about that now. DVA is more about just expressing myself.
It does feel more humanistic than Emika; more natural-sounding even though the medium remains similar. The videos you and Matt Lambert have made work perfectly in that context, because they feel very humanized.
It’s something we’ve always been able to produce as a team. I feel like I could work with Matt for the next ten years. He’s able to coax things out of me so that the videos are directed rather than staged, and that’s such a difference. The things we make spring entirely from us; it’s not about money, fashion or other sort of cultural props. So it will always feel sincere.
I thought the way the videos were released was a bit brilliant, because the first one released was “Searching”, and it was so stark, just you lost in the snow and quite drunk. Then as the others were released it became an evolution, showing more of yourself in different ways and following a progression in the same way an album would, exploring fragility and sexuality at the same time.
Women are usually so two-dimensional in film narratives—this one is the Happy Girl, this one’s the Bitch, and so on. And in music videos, women are often there just to promote the idea of ‘happiness’, or as a prop to ignite jealousy, or in an overly glamorized way so that you associate buying the music with buying the woman; it turns both ideas into objects. With Matt I never felt like that. I never felt that there was ‘A Man’ watching me through the lens. He was happy to let me do what I pleased; he never said, “Oh don’t do that because it isn’t sexy, or it makes you look ugly,” or whatever. That felt so liberating, to have the freedom to just be myself.
What has the response toward the more ‘natural’ shift in your sound been like?
They’ve been really varied; there’s been a lot of dissing going on, which I’m actually quite excited about! The big German paper Die Zeit referred to it as “chart-worthy music” while Pitchfork slammed it and said I was showing all my flaws. People either seem to really love it or think it’s total rubbish compared to the first record.
Extreme responses are always better than middle-of-the-road ones.
Definitely, and I do understand some of the reactions. None of my vocals are edited; I was using a live mic and most of the vocals were done while I was actually performing rather than in a studio. I kept all the imperfections in this time. What you’re hearing is purely me.
Electronic producers seem to often disdain or even fear humanizing themselves or their voices, which is what I found so refreshing about DVA. The imperfections make it truer, more vulnerable and open.
That’s something I want to see more of. Whether they actually enjoy it or not, people are hearing my choices. I feel like I’ve made myself clear; anything beyond that is out of my control. ˜
Mostly Robot isn’t just a band or a so-called supergroup. It’s not that Jeremy Ellis, Jamie Lidell, Tim Exile, Mr Jimmy and DJ Shiftee came together by accident. There’s a sense that this is a whole new method of band making. Native Intruments are the ‘curators’ who brought the musicians together, famous of course for their hard- and software: designed and produced for making state-of-the-art music and helmed by former Viva2 anchorman Mate Galic. We teamed up backstage with the Mostly Robot crew to get the background on this most unusual, self proclaimed ‘boyband from the future’.
EB: How did the relationship with Native come together?
Mostly Robot: Each one of us was approached by Native in different ways. It grew pretty organically – the original idea that we might do something grew from a Native anniversary party that Jeremy Ellis, Tim Exile and DJ Shiftee played in the LA. At the same time Sónar wanted to work together with Native again on a creative level. It wasn’t really a strategic move to cast a band, but as it developed, we wanted to create something unique.
Does this mean that the days of musicians looking for a label or distribution are over? Normally there’s a line between artists who are creating and companies who want to make money.
We would consider this as a kind of curatorship, of unifying talents which couldn’t be unified otherwise. You always have that in art, this idea of the curator, a person who brings different artists together. So we wouldn’t see that in such a harsh light; it’s the show and the end result which have to catch people emotionally.
Of course, the Guggenheim in Berlin is funded by Deutsche Bank, a body very much into making money while, in 2012, many labels are struggling.
The difference between Deutsche Bank giving money to an artist and Native is that Native makes synthesizers and other musical gear. They make a whole lot of things that we can use and we’re proud to have the Native affiliation because we’re all nerdy in our respective fields and Native are at the cutting edge of technology. It’s not a big corporate thing because we’re with the people pushing what we all want to do. We use the gear because we want to and the fact that we can come together like this is a happy bonus.
Looking fifty years into the future, how do you think the music industry will develop? Will there still be big labels supporting musicians? Or will it be corporations trying to support musicians, bringing them together to play festivals and releasing albums because all the oldschool labels fell behind because they didn’t understand the internet.
‘Yes’ is the answer to that. In the past, patronage used to be powerful families: the Medici, say, or else think of all the artists who used to create for their nation’s royal families. Now we’re in a capitalist society, the representation of that power has moved to corporations and that’s normal. What’s more, there’s a sense of creating relationships with people: we’re humans, we want to make connections, and, likewise, companies want to make connections. As individuals we want to look the way we want to look and be received in the way we want to be received, and companies want to do that too. Of course, big companies always want a bite of the subculture.
But what is subculture in 2012?
All I mean is that if you show people on the high street names like the bands playing at this festival (Modeselektor, Junior Boys, Nicolas Jaar or Mostly Robot) and if they don’t know who they are then it’s a subculture we’re dealing with. Red Bull is a great example; people don’t know who professional surfers or skateboarders are, it’s a niche thing, but they’re sponsoring 75 different sports. And they’re supporting a lot of freaking cool shit.
Returning to Mostly Robot, it’s hard to find any tracks on the internet. Is there an album release scheduled and how will that work?
We don’t know is the answer. Ultimately, it’s a pleasure project. There’s a lot of cameras at our gigs, the Native team are putting together videos, however while we’re together it’s about fun. When we all go back to our separate corners and get back on email we’ll talk about serious things. In the meantime we joke a lot, have fun and play the music. There’s no masterplan. We did CDR in Berlin the other night, we played a lot and encouraged people. That’s one thing we’re definitely are: we’re an experiment band.
What can we expect from the live show?
It’s five people onstage and three people running the visuals. Visuals wise, we’re a live band and it was our concept to show that. Every position gets a visual object so you see what you hear. We gave each member a different form or shape that rebuilds his instruments like his pad or his keyboard and these get triggered by the midi notes. We then mix this up with animations that we’ve done in advance because if we just translated the music mathematically it wouldn’t work; music is emotional and a show needs peaks.
How many gigs have you played now?
Sonar, Berlin Festival and this one. CDR wasn’t really a show. We’re jamming, we don’t know what’s going to happen, if it was all click-synced it would be boring for us and the crowd, it needs to have the spirit of the live band. That was the idea, for everyone to jam live and not have a grid where everybody presses play. It’s about getting back to the instruments.
There’s no masterplan, but what about the immediate future? Surely it’s not all spontaneous. You’re playing EB festival, what’s the next step?
As we said, it’s a pleasure project. We will get together when there’s time and talk about it and a plan could emerge, we don’t have a plan not to make a plan. As we do stuff it creates opportunities to do more, one step at a time. We do have some recorded jams … However, that’s the other thing about recording: the one thing about us and recording that’s different is the severe lack of overdubs – that’s the whole point. If we were actually going to go into a studio then we would go into Abbey Road. We would use the pre-amps, plug in and then play it down like it’s 1962. As if we were on a Roy Orbison record. We’re a live band. We exist in real time.
Photos: Attila Masa & Bartalan Soos
Mike Huckaby is the living fulfillment of a DJ’s deepest desire: to bring people together by making them dance. His broad insight into the culture of electronic dance music as well as his approach to it is crucial. Huckaby is a prolific producer; besides working as a sound designer for various software companies such as Native Instruments, he also runs his own imprints Deep Transportation and SYNTH.
His deep house and techno productions are highly acclaimed, as are his remixes for artists such as Deepchord, Juan Atkins, and Vladislav Delay. The cocktail of a hard and dry beat mixed with jazzy chords and melodic shivers is one of general appeal to a broad audience.