Step Inside Richie Hawtin's Plastikman
Published Nov 01, 2003Ronald McDonald knows it. Calvin Klein knows it. The Rolling Stones know it, and so does Richie Hawtin: in today's 500-channel universe, logos matter. Whether you're pushing burgers, clothes or music, your brand's image is just as important as the quality of your wares. That's why corporations spend so much money on marketing; knowing full well how busy all of us are and how apathetic they strive to give us exactly what we want. Just the same old thing.
One of the best features of the rave scene was how resistant it was to the corporate sales model; just when a genre had become entrenched as the people's choice, a new form emerged to destabilise things. While pop music continued along the path of star worship (whether of Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur), a parallel history of the 90s was written underground, a mutable realm where community mattered more than celebrity, where dancers played just as large a role as musicians in the sustenance of collective euphoria.
Since the release of his first single, "Elements of Tone," in 1990, Richie Hawtin has cultivated an ambivalent relationship to his own fame. On one hand, the Windsor native has adhered to rave's celebrity-shunning template, working under a half-dozen aliases and releasing tracks that are the very embodiment of angular minimalism. And yet, despite his music's seeming inaccessibility, Hawtin has become one of the world's most famous technoists, a DJ whose trademark appearance (shaved head and black-frame eyeglasses) and squiggly Plastikman logo have earned him an international profile normally reserved for pop singers.
As the brains behind the revered M_nus and Plus 8 labels, Hawtin is a shrewd businessman, and he willingly admits that his image was designed to help him pull away from the pack. "There is a certain power to taking my profile out of the realm of the nameless techno producer," he explains. "If you want to bring new people into the fold which our scene definitely needs they have to have more to latch onto than 12-inch records and featureless labels."
Coupled with the gains of celebrity increased record sales, sponsorship tie-ins and princely one-off appearance fees Hawtin's distinct persona has necessarily reduced him to a caricature, that of the severe modernist who flays his crowds with ruthless abandon.
"That's one of the things I feel uncomfortable about," admits the 33-year-old DJ. "It's hard having a certain public persona and having people think that they know who you are when they don't. That's what scares me most about it."
Frustrated with his public's false expectations, Hawtin recently trashed his trademark look, growing out his hair and dropping the glasses in favour of contact lenses. The producer still comes across as an intense fellow, to be sure, but also one who laughs easily and looks back over his career with nostalgic glee. At once proud of his achievements and restless to see what he'll do next, the artist is a study in contrasts: a beat fiend and an ambient guru, a passionate aesthete and a methodical capitalist, a patriot and an internationalist, Richie Hawtin is an archetypal figure for our baffling age.
After years spent jetting back and forth between Windsor and the European club circuit, Hawtin has finally established a base in Berlin, a city where he now spends half the year. When I catch up with him in early October, the Canadian reports that winter is closing in fast on the German capital, excusing himself as he fixes up a cup of ginger tea. "I can tell winter's coming," he says, the clinking of saucers and spoons audible over the phone line. "As soon as it becomes winter, I stop drinking black tea and I start drinking ginger tea."
That the DJ is a tea drinker comes as no surprise; he is, after all, British by birth, having lived in Oxfordshire before emigrating to Canada in 1979 at the age of nine. Hawtin's voice still bears trace elements of his English background, and his speech is imbued with a deeper resonance than one might expect from his slight physique. When I raise the subject of Canadian music, Hawtin swells with Maple Leaf pride, eager to assert a commitment to his adopted homeland.
"It's wonderful to see," he says of the Dominion's growing reputation as a techno powerhouse. "For a long time, John [Acquaviva] and I were the only ones being Canadian ambassadors. But as people like Akufen and some of the guys from Toronto started to produce records and get noticed, it's been really nice to have more people join us to hold the Canadian flag throughout the world."
The producer was particularly happy to take part in this year's edition of Mutek, Montreal's renowned festival of music and technology. After putting on a suspenseful solo set at the cavernous Metropolis nightclub, Hawtin closed out the festival proceedings as part of Narod Niki, the eight-man laptop super-group including such genre stalwarts as Akufen and Ricardo Villalobos which delivered an improvised performance to a roomful of orgiastic admirers. Ever obsessed with new methods of music-making, Hawtin recalls that night in rapturous tones.
"I can only explain it as the most interesting, the best, and the most inspiring thing that I have ever been a part of and that I've ever seen that had anything to do with electronic music," he enthuses. "Seeing Kraftwerk was amazing, but being up there and being part of something that was so spontaneous and fun and aggressive; it doesn't even seem like it happened, it was so special."
Narod Niki goes some way to addressing one of minimal techno's fundamental shortcomings: the scarcity of collaboration. Too often, laptop tracks comes off like the monochromatic doodlings of a bed-ridden depressive. For all their technical prowess, laptop technoists will become parodies of their melancholic selves if they continue to shun emotions like rage and elation. Well aware of the potential for stagnation in the scene, Hawtin figures that Montreal's minimalists are sowing the seeds of a revolution, one based on the idea that there's strength in numbers.
"Collaboration has to be the way to help electronic music grow again," he stresses. "It's another way of progressing things. The last couple of years, it seemed as if people were getting a little too serious about things and being closed off and not sharing ideas. There has to be a greater openness within this sort of music. If you share your ideas, you can go much further, much faster."
Hawtin reckons that Montreal's techno community is even healthier than the Detroit scene was in the early 90s, when the Motor City was plagued by divisions between cliques on the East and West sides of town. As an outsider, though, the young Canadian broke in to the scene with relative ease, free of the baggage and beefs which may have slowed down the locals.
"No matter the feuds, there was such a huge amount of energy back then," recalls Hawtin of Detroit's techno infancy. "As a kid, you'd always hear about certain scenes, like, say, the hippies in California in the 60s, and suddenly I was in something that seemed like it was one of those scenes that people would read about later. That was a special time."
Fourteen years after his initial visit to Detroit's legendary Music Institute, Hawtin is finding new inspiration in Berlin, a city not unlike his former home away from home. Like Detroit, the German capital is a sprawling, decayed metropolis, one which has had its middle gutted by decades of social strife and industrial neglect. While most cities swell to their extremities, Detroit and Berlin necessarily grow in on themselves, unable to expand before they fill their own cavities.
In this poetically barren environment, Hawtin has composed Closer, wherein he like the city he now inhabits turns inward for inspiration. Before his fans even get a chance to hear the album, they will have to make their way through the disc's intricate packaging, which acts as a metaphor for the music contained within. The cover of the album features a close-up of Hawtin's eyeball, hinting that the journey ahead is akin to a trip inside his mind. Within the sleeve are four small sheets of paper, on which are printed photos and the artist's own stream of consciousness writings, a disorienting counterpoint to the sleek outer image.
From the blotter of fake acid tabs that accompanied 1993's Sheet One to the complex casing which enveloped 1998's Consumed, the presentation of Hawtin's records has always figured greatly in the music's overall impact. "The packaging for Closer is the most important of any of my albums," claims the producer, clearly excited by the way his latest product has come together. "You actually need to destroy and tear apart the package to see the whole album, which is exactly what I had to do to get inside my own head to capture its workings in recorded form."
This is heady stuff, to be sure, and Hawtin's intent only becomes clear upon repeated listens to the disc, which somehow manages the trick of being his most abstract and emotional outing to date. As the technoist himself explains, "All my previous albums were about me creating some kind of exterior landscape, something that had never existed before. This is the album where I tried to capture the landscape inside my own head."
When he undertook the recording of Closer in November 2002, the Canadian was just getting over the end of an eight-year relationship. Viewed in this light, Closer is a revolutionary break-up album that deals not with the emotional hallmarks of failed romance (e.g., regret and recrimination) but with the incoherent interior monologues that invariably follow a split. This is Hawtin's treatise on the nature of love, a perplexing emotion that resists easy definition.
The producer explores this theme in several ways, most noticeably with the use of voice. While he has experimented with vocal snippets and spoken word throughout his career, Closer marks the first time that Hawtin has captured his own speech on record. Here, he scatters grains of voice all over the album, interrogating himself on the nature of helplessness ("I can't help you; help yourself"), addressing his own self-immolating tendencies ("I'm starting to enjoy the pain") and questioning his own sanity ("I don't know"). None of these declarations are sung, per se; instead, Hawtin's utterances have been digitally denatured to enhance their textural features, resulting in a voice that sounds positively sub-aquatic, as if the producer were speaking from the depths of the Atlantic.
"I knew the album had to be personal and I knew I had to use the voice, but I didn't want it to feel like I was preaching or have it feel like it was just me sitting there talking," he explains. "I wanted there to be some kind of abstraction to it so that people still felt that they could identify with it, so that even if they knew it was coming from Richie Hawtin, they might feel like it was the voice in their own head coming through."
Psychological dysfunction has been a recurring theme in Hawtin's work as Plastikman, and while mid-90s tracks like "Skizofenik," "Panikattack" and "Hypokondriak" connoted frenzied psychosis, the producer's new songs address the pathos within us all, no matter how placid our outward appearance. With Closer, Hawtin gives us an album whose depiction of mental instability assures us that we are not alone in our insecurities.
Whether he's talking about music or technology, the word Hawtin uses most often during our chat is progression, insisting with unwavering zeal that no endeavour is worthwhile unless it is aimed at the future. In line with his promise to keep pushing the form forward, Hawtin is agog over the CTRL mixer, a new DJing tool that he recently designed with the help of his father, formerly a robotics engineer at General Motors. Hawtin calls the CTRL a "unified device," one that will allow DJs to manipulate the sound parameters on a variety of inputs, distilling his patented decks, effects & 909 setup into one portable unit.
But for someone who has been such a fervent champion of new technologies like the MP3 vinyl system known as Final Scratch Hawtin's work as Plastikman will forever be linked with an instrument first released in 1982, the Roland TB-303. Best known for its distinctive humming bass tones and corrosive synth sounds, the 303 is the machine most commonly associated with the acid house movement; given those strong nostalgic connotations, one might suspect Plastikman's postmillennial productions to be made with entirely new technologies. Not so, says Hawtin.
"The 303 is the recurring nightmare in all Plastikman albums," he cracks. "I think the people who have made their mark in electronic music are the people who have spent longer than others on certain machines. I'm not done with the 303 yet."
Indeed, Closer finds the producer teasing entirely new sounds out of his trusty 303, whether it's the atonal plucking on "Lost" or the lustrous bass line on "I Don't Know." The latter track emerges as if from a bottomless well, adorned with only trace elements of sound: panning hi-hats, arrhythmic clicks and that incessant low-end throb. Much like the tracks on his 1998 echo-chamber epic, Consumed, "I Don't Know" practically begs the listener to climb inside and fill in the missing pieces.
"That's something that comes from listening to a lot of Miles Davis," insists Hawtin. "When he played standards, he would often skip notes and leave spaces where there shouldn't be. Because his audience was so familiar with the tunes, they would sort of fill in those missing notes in their head. Ever since [1993's] Sheet One, I've always been trying to leave space so that people can interact with the kick, the hi-hat and the clap and feel that the music isn't too cluttered for them to join in."
Hawtin is, of course, a dedicated minimalist, someone whose aesthetic preferences are manifest in his Windsor residence, a converted fire hall that he refers to simply as 530. Throughout the 1990s, the producer shared that sprawling home with his brother Matthew, a painter whose work (viewable at www.mhawtin.com) is the visual embodiment of Plastikman's music. Most striking of all Matthew's pieces are his "torqued paintings," single-colour strokes rendered on canvases that literally jump out at the observer.
"It makes sense that our work is so similar," avers Richie. "Through the last decade, his art was all over the house and my music was always being played, so there's a natural intersection there. My brother's paintings reside on the wall looking like a monochromatic, flat painted surface. But the closer you get, the more you notice the space and depth. Suddenly you're being invited in by absolutely nothing."
This idea of beckoning the audience closer with a bare lure underpins Plastikman's entire oeuvre, nowhere more so than on his new LP's centrepiece, "Headcase." By the midpoint of that track, we are fully immersed in Hawtin's inner landscape, hearing only the microscopic blips and echo-laden delays of his scattershot thoughts. Just when we're at our most disoriented, the producer throws us a rope, dropping in a steady handclap for us to latch onto. From there, Closer pulls the listener back on to the dance floor, its metronomic drum kicks inciting each of us to dance alone, all of us together under Hawtin's watchful eye.
Plastikman Sheet One (NovaMute, 1993)
In retrospect, this album's psychedelic flourishes seem almost gaudy, but at the time of its release, Sheet One was seen a desperately minimal work. Shunning the lush orchestration favored by his Detroit contemporaries, Hawtin battered listeners with militaristic drum patterns and fleeting melodies born out of his love for 80s-era industrialists like Nitzer Ebb and Front 242. When the 90s revival strikes, this one's going to be huge.
F.U.S.E. Dimension Intrusion (Warp, 1993)
Of the many aliases he has used, Hawtin claims that F.U.S.E. (Futuristic Underground Subsonic Experiments) is the only one he cares to resurrect. A key release in Warp's Artificial Intelligence series, this album represented a significant progression from the postindustrial throb of his work as Plastikman. Infused with cozy melodies and scything acid lines, rave anthems like "F.U." and "Substance Abuse" bore the distinct influence of LFO's Mark Bell, Warp's master of humanistic techno.
Richie Hawtin Concept 1 (Minus, 1997)
Banned from the United States during 1996, Hawtin turned his music inward with Concept 1, a series of twelve 12-inch singles, one for each month of his exile. Built from a limited template of sounds, this series was Hawtin's reaction to the dub-techno tracks emanating from German labels like Basic Channel. Of further note is the album's companion piece, Concept 1 96: VR, wherein Germany's Thomas Brinkmann reinterpreted the source recordings using his custom-designed double-armed turntable. The results breathed new life into some of Hawtin's most experimental pieces.
Plastikman Consumed (NovaMute, 1998)
Inspired by the beguiling obelisks of Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and the highly-textured brush strokes of English painter Mark Rothko, Consumed was Hawtin's most abstract effort to date. Darker and more spacious than any of his previous work, the album foreshadowed the yawning atmospherics of Closer, as the producer shunned traditional dance formulas and located the groove in between the beats. Straddling the ambient/corporeal divide, Consumed swallowed up the listener whole.
Richie Hawtin DE9: Closer to the Edit (NovaMute, 2001)
Unlike so many of his colleagues, Hawtin has never released a straightforward mix album, insisting that each compilation be an artistic statement in his own right. DE9 is his masterwork, as he culled samples from over 100 different tracks and stripped them down to their most basic elements (some lasting as little as one note) before reediting those loops into a consonant 50-minute mix. A bracing lesson in real-time remixology, this disc confirmed Hawtin's status as techno's leading turntable technician.