Why Richie Hawtin has returned to the studio after 13 years

Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©Riva Sayegh
Le 09.08.2016, à 13h38
12 MIN LI-
©Riva Sayegh
Écrit par Trax Magazine
Photo de couverture : ©Riva Sayegh
There can be no doubt: Richie Hawtin made techno history with his label Plus8 and the Plastikman project. By the end of the 90’s, his successes culminated in the EP Consumed and compilation mix Decks, EFX & 909. The Canadian (born in England) soon decided to make major changes in his career. He moved to Berlin, proved his skills as a selector there and quickly became a major hit in Ibiza. Before long he was one of the top bankable DJs in the world, though some purists were hasty to judge. After 15 years of partying, and following Closer, his EP that came out in 2003, once again Richie Hawtin wants to come back to producing. And much more besides. By Arnaud Wyart, Berlin. Translated by Marianne Berges and Henry Hodson.

After all these years, can you finally say which came first in your life: technology or music?

It’s a tough question. Before discovering Detroit techno, I would do things like breakdancing. And even before that, I was really into computers. Now if I go even further back in time, I remember my father listening to music all the time on his hi-fi. There was always music playing in our house. He also made circuit boards and that sort of thing for General Motors and it triggered something in me, too. When you asked the question I first thought it was technology, but the more I think about it it’s not that obvious. The bands my father would listen to at the time, such as Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream, were quite electronic. There was one particular album I remember. I was turning 9 and my parents threw me a birthday party and one of the presents was Disco Directions. The compilation had a lot of classics in it, but there was also this song called The Crunch, by Rah Band, that was very synthetic, with no vocals at all. I also really enjoyed the disco soundtracks for sci-fi movies. Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars, but with synths. I really liked those alien sounds. Around the same time, my father would give me his old reel-to-reel tapes and I used to record bits of TV shows onto them. I really think he played a major part in that whole process.

Could you explain why technology has played such a big part in your career?

Many other artists, house or techno, really want to be part of a group and search for a special connection between them, sometimes to form bands or just to produce and work together. Maybe they’re trying to get back to the roots of funk or jazz. I, on the other hand, have always wondered how I could use technology to do better on my own. I really enjoy working with other people and labels, collaborative work is great, but when it comes to my music, I like it better on my own.

It is some sort of personal challenge? 

Absolutely. When I was 14 or 15, I used to spend hours programing video games and software. I even created a system using an old modem that allowed people to leave me messages. We even managed to chat sometimes. Because I used technology a lot and soon started to control it, I could connect to others while being alone. It’s exactly the same today. When I create a program to chat or make music, it allows me to express ideas and feelings.

Do you think your life would have been different had you grown up in a big city?

Certainly, yes. I think my moving from London to Windsor (editor’s note: a Canadian city just across the river from Detroit) was the biggest change in my life. It was very unsettling to move far away from home at 9 years old. It was just my family and I. I had a funny accent, I came from Europe, my brother and I really felt like aliens. We didn’t know anyone there. I became an introvert and the only way I had to communicate with others was through computers. Thanks to them, I travelled, discovered many things, met people and I managed to conceptualize my ideas. In a way, technology helped me create my own world.

What kind of music did you listen to?

Alternative or electronic stuff. New Order, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and some more industrial music, too. I found out about the Detroit sound on the radio, with The Electrifying Mojo (editor’s note: legendary Detroit DJ who hosted a radio show called Midnight Fun Association) but also Jeff Mills, still known as The Wizard. He was a huge influence. We were 16 or 17 years old and he was on air every night. It was really different from nowadays, it was all about technology, we didn’t even know what he looked like, we just wanted the best station to listen to. It was very pure, there were no news or anything, just the magical music that Jeff played. Listening to that show was like travelling to space.

It seems like you have a strong connection with Jeff Mills…

He opened a door for me. Because of his shows, I went to Detroit to find him and see him mix. He often played the same tracks but in a different way each time. As I knew neither the artists nor the titles, I used to spend hours in the stores, each time wondering if I was going to find something. I remember a decisive moment when I laid my hands on Bounce Your Body To The Box by Reese and Santonio. When I read the name on the cover, I thought of a track Jeff regularly played. I thought I heard something like ‘bounce your body to the box’ when I listened to the lyrics but I wasn’t sure. When I played it, I went nuts. I also understood that all this came from Detroit. I started to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

By the end of the 80’s, Derrick May was a guest on a weekly radio show in Windsor, that’s how I got to meet him. Radio’s invisible airwaves were a big deal to many Americans at that time but even more for me, who didn’t even live in the States. The radio offered many sounds from different cities that seemed so far away.

How did Plus8 start?

Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, they all had their own camp. Originally they were all friends who started making music together, and then put it out. In the end, the friends became labels. It’s exactly what happened with Plus8. I had already met Kevin and Derrick but I was still an outsider. We thought about it, with my friends, and we thought « if we can’t work with Transmit, Metroplex and KMS, let’s take a look at what they do and make our own thing. » John Acquaviva, Daniel Bell and I were in the same sort of situation, so we decided to work together and see what happens.

It seems you also developed a special bond with Carl Craig…

We’re from the same generation, we’re Derrick May’s ‘children’. We went to the artists from the first generation to be part of that. As he was from Detroit, Carl joined Derrick’s side (Transmat and Fragile). At the same time, I created Plus8 and we became good friends. We were the same age, we had followed the same path, tried the same things. Carl has always been really open-minded, he likes to work with people who are very different from him. Some labels are only focused on Detroit, but Carl’s vision has always been worldwide.

You career was soon to become something quite extraordinary, with your innovative sets (3 decks, a 909, effects, etc.) and a huge discography, until the culmination of the Plastikman project and the album Consumed, in 1999. That’s when you decided to move to Berlin. Why did you make that choice?

I wanted to be part of the community. At the time, the North American electronic scene had sort of collapsed. I had become friends with artists such as Ricardo Villalobos, Zip and Sven Väth. I have to admit it was a bit lonely when I came home. No one really understood that. My friends had grown-up lives, with families, regular jobs. They didn’t want to go out anymore and I started feeling isolated again. I decided to get closer to my gigs and my fans. But what I really needed was to go down the street and have coffee with my friends and talk about electronic music.

Didn’t you also want to change things up from Plastikman?

Yes, I wanted to get rid of the image people had about Plastikman or Richie Hawtin. I wanted to be relaxed, just have fun. Enjoy life basically. Also, it was a way of going back home, and reconnecting with my European origins.  I like it better here, I like the way of life in Paris, London or Berlin. It’s not the same when you live in New York. Back in the States, you have to drive for hours all the time. There are so many differences… But you’re right, I needed a big musical change, something radical. I needed to open a new life chapter. I think I’d reached a limit with Decks FX and Consumed. I basically threw myself into DJing, every weekend. I wanted to do as many gigs as possible, to go out as often as I could. I wanted to be fully part of the movement. It may be different today, but fifteen years ago, there was no such thing as a local scene for American DJs. Here, though, it was non-stop: all these parties, the producers, the labels. There was amazing energy in Europe.

But you still understand how people reacted to your change in looks and everything?

I’d just spent 10 years working on my music. Besides, it had become a little complicated with Plus8. It was 100% business and I really didn’t like that. I wanted to go back to Detroit like it was in the beginning. I had to go out, have fun, dance and be with my friends. That’s exactly what happened when I came to Berlin in the early 2000’s. Lots of parties, and a different look. I think I needed to find who I really was.

It must have been a struggle to bridge the gap between Detroit and Ibiza…

Back then, Detroit and Ibiza couldn’t have been more apart, but we didn’t go to Ibiza to listen to crap. Rather, we went there to bring good music. But no one understood that. This huge change, from 2000-2001, the mere fact of going to the island and doing mad stuff there, it was just the beginning of Ibiza changing. Of course, the place is still cheesy, but if you go now, you’ll see Marcel Dettmann, Ben Klock, Sven or Ricardo play. Some more commercial stuff like Jamie Jones, too. Basically, there’s much more musical diversity there nowadays. Ibiza is more representative of the musical scene than it was. People should understand that it is now at least a part of it. But then again I can understand why people thought ‘What the hell is Richie Hawtin doing in Ibiza?’

I think people said you were partying a lot and not making music much…

I know, but life should be an adventure. You have to do what makes you happy. At its best, music is a gateway to emotion, even if you can’t really hear that on the record at first. People won’t be thinking ‘oh, he must have been in love when he wrote this’ or ‘he must have been sad’. But they’ll know for sure that the only reason I made this record is that I really wanted to, like a kind of necessity. For instance, when Sheet One came out, I knew I would make another one someday. Same thing with Ex. If I don’t seriously feel the need to make a new record, then all I can do is try, and it’s never good to start working on something new when you don’t really feel like it. People notice, they can hear the lack of motivation. You know I’ve been through months, even years when I didn’t care that I wasn’t in the studio. It would have been useless. In 2000, all I cared about was playing to an audience. It was much more exciting than locking myself up in a studio and producing alone. I can honestly say that I loved it. But now, I’m glad to be back in the studio. I don’t really know why, but I know that it’s what I want. I just need to feel free.

You also made the decision to move to digital mixing back then. Why not CDJ, for instance?

This totally links to your first question and it may answer it. Which came first, music or technology? When I chose to move to digital, it was in order to find a new form of excitement, a different way to play music. Clearly, technology made that possible. It was a prerequisite. To me, it really is the heart of techno music, this concept of the future that you can never reach. Each time you think it’s at arm’s length, it moves further away from you. It’s what got me at first, when I had the chance to talk with Derrick May or Jeff Mills and listened to their records. It’s still what I believe in today. If people who listen to my music think they’re in the future and enjoy it, it means I have to try and do something different. At first my music was more acid, then Decks FX and Consumed came out and finally, I tried digital mixing. I understand how it may seem awkward to some people, but that’s the way it is. I need to keep moving forward.

They are a lot of purists in techno. One can see that just looking at the vinyl phenomenon. What do you think about it?

I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be a purist, whatever the subject. I’ve always tried to find what works for me. Some friends, like Recondite, only produce music with computers, and I love it. It’s amazing, very emotional. But I just can’t do that. On the opposite side, there are producers who only want analogue sounds, just like I did 20 years ago. But does that necessarily mean I’ll only use that kind of hardware? No, I’m just a technology fan, I like discovering new machines. So I just try to find the right combination. People should understand that it’s not like going to a store and buying a guitar or a drum kit. For a guitar player, choices are pretty simple: Gibson or Fender, a pedal, a set of chords, I guess. There aren’t many decisions to make. Electronic music is much more complex. You have thousands of possibilities. For instance, I’ll find this digital machine and that analogue machine and it’s by combining the two of them that I’ll have my instrument. I don’t think there is a good way or a bad way and it’s the same for DJs.

Are you interested in the new ways of playing sound, like 3D?

Of course. A lot of people are working on that. The idea is to imagine a sound system that can place sounds anywhere on the dance floor. I think we’re getting there. But there’s also virtual reality. This technology is creating actual physical space. You just have to make sure it’s pretty, but the sound still needs to be realistic. That kind of innovation will grow in clubs, so that the audience won’t need to focus on the stage like during a concert, due of the right/left stereo barrier. It will spread the sound directly towards people and all around them. The time I enjoy the most is when people forget about everything but the music. But things have changed. Nowadays, everybody takes pictures. They hope they can post something interesting on social networks when they go home. As a consequence, they don’t know how to carpe diem anymore.

Now would seem the perfect time to talk about that whole speaker drama… (editor’s note: in December 2014, at the Time Warp in NYC, Richie Hawtin threw a speaker at a girl’s face because she was filming him too close)

It just went ‘baaaaaaaam!’ but then again it’s the world we live in… You can take any picture or video and take it out of its context. Now this whole speaker story is hard to explain. We all do cool stuff in life, but we also make mistakes. We make good albums and others not that good. Now if you start judging someone on one thing he did, we’re all in trouble. A person is more than one mistake.

But the more you’re exposed, the more you take risks...

Right. And if you take risks, you must be extra careful…

Let’s get back to technology. Easy access has taken over some kinds of commitment, paying for music, for instance. Do you think it’s a good thing for artists?

Music has become free. It has completely lost its value and I don’t think it’s the right way to go. On the other hand, it gives access to a larger audience to listen to all kinds of artists and music. The electronic scene is a hundred times larger than it was 25 years ago, and it’s thanks to the web, to digital technologies, starting with MP3. What do we want to do with our music? To only give access to a small part of the population or to offer it to as many people as possible? In the 90’s, it was all about buying records and playing them for an audience. Now it’s easier, the notion of effort has disappeared altogether. But did the effort necessarily mean that you were going to like that sound? The only true question is: ‘will the audience want to connect to this world?’ If you find a track with Shazam, good for you, because then you come to a choice. Are you just going to say ‘Cool, thanks’, or are you going to dig a little deeper and find out who the artist is, where he comes from, what kind of music he likes and that label he works with? Ultimately, it’s the same kind of trip as in a record store. In a way, things are easier now, but when you log on to the internet, there is so much information that you still have to find your way through.

What would you say to the ever growing number of young producers who would like to make a living out of it?

I think everyone needs to find their own path. Doing more gigs, selling T-shirts, making special merchandise, etc. I’m sure there’s always a way to make money, but it’s only my point of view after 25 years in the business. If you look at techno at the beginning, the only thing you had to care about was creation. If you liked what you were making, then it was good enough. ‘Let’s sell 5,000 of these and make money’ was a thought that never crossed our minds. All we cared for is that people would listen to it. 25 years ago, I wasn’t a musician, but I thought technology would help my creativity. Nowadays, kids download programs like Traktor and use technology to create music. I think it’s cool, I’m happy about that. Technology should open doors. They will find their own way of creating things and it brings us back again to your first question. All the new tools, the new places to dance, all those things we talked about, to me, that’s what it’s all about: to play something different and take a step towards the future. It’s the reason why I’m not only coming back to make music. I want to help develop new tools to create and broadcast music. So, is it technology first or music first? It’s both at the same time. It’s a circle, and I’m locked inside it. 

5 Plus8 essentials:

For the label’s 25th birthday, created with Acquaviva, Richie secretly went back to the studio to update the sound of his various pseudonyms (FUSE, Circuit Breaker, Robotman, etc.). The record is a nod to From Our Minds to Yours, released in 1991, and offers 15 tracks of a very typical techno sound. It also incarnates Plastikman’s return to the studios.


Kenny Larkin – We Shall Overcome (1990)

Plastikman – Plastique (1994)

Plastikman – Musik (1994)

FUSE – Approach & Identify (1990)

Speedy J – Public Energy N°.1 (1997)

Interview published in Trax #190 (March 2016)


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