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Scratching the Surface: Hypothetical Club Constructions

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Scott Wilson investigates an emerging strain of DJs and producers making club music which aims to combine mainstream musical culture with experimental tendencies, discussing Total Freedom, the Janus collective, Dutch E Germ and Sentinel.

In the first of his new System Focus column for The Fader this month, Adam Harper gave an interesting overview of a group of artists he sees as creating an aesthetic he defines as “epic collage”, something he describes as the sound of a number of artists, including Total Freedom, E + E, TCF and Diamond Hearted Boy, “combining fragments of pop with epic textures and violent sound effects”. Like the slightly ridiculous names attributed to many other emergent sounds, it’s easily open to ridicule and dismissal, but as descriptors go it’s a pretty good one. It underlies the complexity behind what these artists are doing, which could be easily written off as just a few experimentally-minded producers throwing a few R&B vocals and dramatic textures into their productions.

Harper’s piece is excellent and well worth reading in its entirety, but it seemed only to touch on the ways in which this sound is being used in a club environment. E + E for instance admits that the notion of parties and the club environment disinterests him, while TCF’s productions seem much more weighted towards the trance-inducing end of this spectrum. The majority of what Harper picks out as “epic collage” only seems to tell half the story, with a recent preponderance of artists emerging over the past few years who seem to be more interested in exploring how this kind of aesthetic can translate to a dancefloor setting – real and imagined – driven by complex motivations spanning sexuality, politics, art, culture and the way they use technology.

If there’s anything remotely close to a central figure for this club-focused analogue to “epic collage”, then it’s probably Ashland Mines, the artist who goes by the name Total Freedom. Mines is closely affiliated with the Fade To Mind label, the transatlantic Night Slugs counterpart overseen by Kingdom and Prince William which has released some of the most boundary-pushing club music to have come from the USA in recent years. If anything though, most Fade To Mind artists feel conservative next to the approach of Mines. He seems to be pathologically interested in disorientating his audience, having admitted to Noisey last year to having held a party in which he stopped the music whenever anyone tried to dance.

Dat Oven - Icy LakePrimarily a DJ, Mines doesn’t release original productions, stating that the music he does make himself is closer to noise than dance music. Most productions that do exist from Mines are remixes, which ably demonstrate the paranoid space his music operates in; last month he contributed a remix of “Icy Lake” to the first joint Night Slugs/Fade To Mind record, a track originally released in 1989 by an artist called Dat Oven he discovered on YouTube. With its combination of disembodied voicemail message, digital blips, semi-automatic drums and nightmarish chimes, it’s not difficult to see what he saw in it. You could suggest that the Total Freedom remix merely adds a few bits of tactical reverb and some bloodcurdling screams into the mix, but what’s going on feels a lot more complex than that. The fact it has a kick drum at all feels almost incidental to the picture Mines is trying to create; listening to his remix is like walking around a video game simulation of a slasher movie-induced nightmare; screams cry out from the darkness and phones ring terrifyingly off camera while sound effects strike down like the well-sharpened blade of a knife. It’s like an audio collage of Wes Craven’s Scream, a film that was similarly sincere in its use of irony.

It is however DJing where his style really shines, blending wildly experimental textures with recognisable mainstream tracks and vocals. Although Mines had begun to develop this DJ style many years ago, as he told The Fader last year, his aesthetic began to crystallise after being given the platform to play one of the early GHE20 GOTH1K parties in New York in 2010. “I was turning into my image of the worst fucking trash DJ, and then GHE20 G0TH1K happened—this space where I could actually be creative and communicate,” Mines said. “They actually saved my life. I’d probably be working at Subway or something.”

GHE20 GOTH1K was started in 2009 by New York-based DJ and promoter Venus X along with her friend Shayne Oliver, the man behind fashion label Hood By Air. Although it would be a stretch to situate the movement in an “epic collage” context, the way in which it offered a platform to queer club and other marginalised forms of music amongst more commercial tracks parallels the way in which which many of these artists seem to approach their productions and DJ sets. It was also a party where figures from the city’s fashion, music and art worlds all congregated, some of whom – Mines included – would go on to do even more radical things with club music. The environment and ethos of GHE20 GOTH1K was one that seemed to encourage a kind of creativity not seen in many other parties, as Venus X told The Fader last year: “The politics are radical. They’re anti-capitalist and are pro-freedom and democracy—things that we don’t know much about anywhere in the world.”

The Banging Bells Of Hell mixtape Mines recorded for GHE20 G0TH1K back in 2010 is perhaps a good starting point for understanding his style. The opening five minutes, in which a computerised voice recites bizarre poetry over the sound of Gregorian chanting and Hollywood-scale sounds might be a little less radical than the path he would eventually take, but it still foregrounds the shock and awe approach he would go on to take – his mixes for Dummy and Boiler Room are particularly recommended. His recent runway soundtrack for the Fall/Winter 14 collection from Hood By Air, entitled 10,000 Screaming Faggots, is probably the most extreme example; scored by ex-Gang Gang Dance drummer Timothy DeWit and featuring spoken word poetry from Juliana Huxtable, it’s the logical end point for Mines’ synthesis of fashion, art and music, a document that has the same abstract, meditative, and epic quality as his DJ sets, even if the imperative to dance is much less clear.

Mines may be the most well known of these artists, but in Berlin are a group (some of whom are from the USA) doing very similar things. The Janus night was founded by Dan DeNorch (an NYC native who is responsible for bookings at the city’s Chesters venue where the party now takes place) with Michael Ladner in 2012; DeNorch was apparently also a regular at GHE20 GOTH1K when he lived across the Atlantic. In many ways Janus seems to be an attempt to create a Berlin party with a little of the same spirit as GHE20 GOTH1K, indeed, Venus X has played there in the past. Its resident DJs are Kablam, Lotic and M.E.S.H., all of whom have a similar approach to DJing as Venus X and Total Freedom. Each member operates under the same principles, but with a distinct personality that shines through.

Lotic is perhaps the most well known; he grew up in Texas, and began playing music on college radio. As he told Thump last year, his direction also had much to do with his race, sexuality, and the way in which the kind of music he liked was viewed. “It also grew out of wanting Austin to have some kind of interesting dance music going on,” he explains. “My friends and I definitely approached it from this queer/people of color point of view, like, why aren’t any of us doing this? We got tired of hipsters playing hip-hop with their tongues in their cheeks.” Although Total Freedom is perhaps his closest point of comparison, Lotic’s musical approach feels much darker. In his own productions he embeds samples so deeply in his music that they become part of the fabric of the tracks themselves; for him, as he told 032c recently, production and his DJing are part of each other. “I think on a base level, one is more of a job and the other more of an expression,” he explains. “But personally I’m really trying to make those two things one.”

His recent Damsel In Distress mixtape is a case in point. As he told FACT recently, it’s entirely comprised of his own productions and intended as a “clean slate”. Lotic’s rhythms may be mechanical, but they appear to be at least semi-organic, with an uneasy sentience simmering underneath; the vocal samples he uses appear to vibrate on a totally different frequency to the rest of his sound, standing out in the most unsettling way. At the eight-minute mark, after a harrowing barrage of low bitrate drums and cyclonic hoover synths trapped in the high end of the frequency range, a silence descends, broken only by the vocal taken from Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love”. It’s a moment that encapsulates the mixtape’s pull between the Satanic and the heavenly, as Beyoncé’s vocals, swathed in screeching noise, are pulled into a serene bath of chords, and then pitched down into a chopped and screwed negative of herself. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what he describes to FACT as his “attempt to fake a signal”, using the recognisable and the experimental in an attempt to stand out among the crowd using drama and intensity in a club setting.

M.E.S.H. is also a US native living in Berlin, on the verge of being much bigger thanks to the forthcoming Scythians EP for Bill Kouligas’ PAN label, which is one of the best things I’ve heard this year. It’s a cybernetic twin to Lotic’s more gothic sound, characterised by a sense of complete data overload. M.E.S.H. doesn’t just create soundscapes to peer into, his soundscapes feel like they’re actively trying to interface with your brain, and his recent mix for the Functions of the Now series on Truants shows how this approach extends to a DJ setting, with more traditional techno from Marcel Fengler and DJ Richard finding a place alongside the more angular rhythms of Mumdance & Rabit. Kablam is a less known quantity, with a SoundCloud profile revealing a DJ style to be one that seems slightly poppier than the other Janus members, albeit one with a love of machine rhythms and strange holographic textures in which tracks from Jhene Aiko can coexist with Brian Eno. The style they all share is one with with an important technological distinction, owing a great deal to CDJ technology, as DeNorch explains to 032c. “It’s like the introduction of oil paint. Before it was all flat, and then you could paint depth,” he explains. “In a lot of ways, that piece of technology is really crucial to what the sound is and what it means and how you’re playing. That’s everything. It’s all about that relationship.”

The interview that 032c conducted this month with three of the Janus members recently shows that the people behind the party are some of the most intelligent and self-aware artists currently operating in the world of club music, and it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve read on where club culture might be heading for some time. “I think as residencies become less and less the norm, club music becomes more theoretical,” Lotic explains of how he sees club culture developing. “It’s like people could dance to this somewhere. This might go off in a club somewhere, I don’t know what club, because I don’t play anywhere. There’s a lot of that.” As DeNorch explains of the Janus sound, “there’s a feeling that we’re searching for a sound that doesn’t exist.” This notion of a “sound that doesn’t exist” has clear parallels to those making “epic collage” music in their bedrooms, but for Janus – and Total Freedom – the club is the space where it happens.

Although much of the music mentioned so far has been based around DJs or mixtapes, there appear to be more artists emerging who create tracks around this combination of “epic collage” textures and rhythms with a faintly club-focused intention, and Dutch E Germ is one of the most notable to have emerged in recent times. Better known as the aforementioned Tim DeWit, a former drummer for Gang Gang Dance, he recently released IN.RAK.DUST on New York’s Uno label. It straddles the line between album and mixtape, and sounds like a purely synthetic take on what Total Freedom might do in one of his DJ sets. While the rattling snares of “Nami Nami” might reference trap, and the jittery triplets of “Nine” might resemble footwork, it’s the infinite scale behind the underlying structure that makes DeWit’s sound what it is. It feels very much like IN.RAK.DUST could be the recorded version of Janus’ club-based experimentation, seeking to make the soundtrack for a theoretical space in which to play out imagined club rhythms. Interestingly enough, he has played at GHE20 GOTH1K, as he revealed in an interview with Dazed, and in a sense, this feels like club music specifically meant for the home – a holodeck simulation of some imagined club space.

Sentinel is another lesser-known figure who seems to be distilling down an imagined club experience into something that’s less “epic collage” and more of a “sound that doesn’t exist”. Sentinel is supposedly from Baltimore which makes sense – the producer’s music sounds like it’s a software version of some future form of Baltimore club, also having parallels with the current movements in UK grime and the otherworldly nature of artists like Oneohtrix Point Never and DYNOOO. The producer’s debut album Hybrid has just been released on Bandcamp, and it’s just as brilliant as the productions from M.E.S.H. and Dutch E Germ, though Sentinel’s take on the theoretical club sound is one that sounds like it’s taking place in the sterile environment of a futuristic production line. What sound like hip hop references in the sound of pistols being cocked could just as easily be the clattering joints of Sentinel - Hybridbusy robot appendages, and the few sampled voices that do make themselves known take on the stuttering quality of an malfunctioning android vocal chip. At only four minutes, the brief “City” is the longest track on the album, but it feels like a 30-minute epic, combining hip hop rhythms, Reichian minimalism, symphonic sweeps and electro-acoustic textures before it finally floats off into the ether. Sentinel’s aesthetic may not be as bombastic as the mixtapes of Total Freedom or the Janus collective, and he may be a producer first and foremost, but his music seems to share the same underlying skeletal structure, a form which has little prior genre precedent.

A lot of the music these artists make is, by its very nature, concerned by surface veneer, and without any genre to easily link it to, often feels conceptually as intangible as it sounds. It would be easy to write off a lot of this music off on that basis, but there obviously exists a fairly radical politics underneath that seems actively trying to push club culture forward on a wider scale. As Dan DeNorch said in his interview with 032c, “Janus has also become an experiment in trying to trying to manage the most radical musical possibilities, but at the same time making it commercially viable.” Whether they will succeed or not is anybody’s guess, but it’s clear that the ambitions of Janus – and the other artists making this strange kind of dance music – are much bigger than a genreless existence lived out in the ether of cyberspace.

Scott Wilson

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