Richie Hawtin may be taking his DJ sets to bigger and bigger stages, but he never strays far from the underground, aiming to bring his audiences closer and closer to his early rave days with new ways of performing, imbibing and empowering creative people. This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store.
For the last half decade or so, countless journalists have made claims that DJs are the new rock stars. Despite traveling the world as an in-demand DJ and often playing massive festivals with thousands of people watching him perform, Richie Hawtin would respectfully disagree. Refuting the image many people have of contemporary DJs, “a floating torso pumping its fist,” as he describes it, Hawtin’s career has been marked by a desire to stay true to his underground roots while innovating the practice of DJing and constantly reexamining the nature of live performance.
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Hawtin would frequently cross the Canada-U.S. border into Detroit to attend raves in their early, formative days. He was inspired by early techno pioneers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, as well as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, early German electronic music introduced to him by his father. Soon after experiencing the frequencies of this music of the future, he began mixing records with two turntables and a mixer in his parents’ basement. Increasingly, he traveled south into Detroit for his own DJ gigs.
With a childhood love for computers and discovery of drum machines such as Roland’s TR-909 and 303, Hawtin found an intergalactic home on planet techno. He released his first record in the early ’90s, and soon gained international recognition for his unique take on hypnotic dance music. Hawtin formed the second wave of techno, pioneering its minimal subgenre with records on the Plus 8 and M-nus labels he founded with John Acquaviva.
In some circles, he’s best known under his Plastikman moniker, producing techno that moved from acidic to ambient, always hypnotically resonating with visuals that would accompany his live performances. Possibly one of the first electronic artists to consider the fully immersive nature of a performance, Hawtin takes inspiration from his pleasantly disorienting rave days to remove the distance between himself, his machines, and the dancers to create unforgettable experiences. His latest endeavor is CLOSE, highlighting the art of DJing through spontaneity and synchronicity.
Sat on the balcony of his studio, where paper lanterns hang from the ceiling and an array of Japanese drinking vessels line the walls of the kitchen, Richie Hawtin discusses his techno upbringing; the frequencies he’s explored in fashion, technology and music; the electric oscillations of drinking sake; and where he hopes to venture next.
Do you remember how you felt the first time you went to a rave?
My first experiences were tied to how much I love music and love to dance—I didn’t go to be entertained visually, I didn’t go to watch the DJ. Later on, I would go in the booth to observe a bit of their technique. If I wasn’t there; I was on the dance floor and I would just want to be lost in my own mind, surrounded by frequencies, hypnotized with my eyes closed. I love to get lost in the type of electronic music I play, where there isn’t an obvious vocal narrative. Storytelling through frequencies and ups and downs and tension building—that’s what I want to give people. If I do my job right, at moments people should get so sucked into the visuals that they actually don’t even know what they’re looking at anymore. I want people to lose themselves, find themselves and inhabit their own special place.
When did you start thinking about the visual aspect of your performances?
Probably in the late ’90s, as I was moving outside the typical 500-person club to festivals and bigger raves. People are standing there looking at you, and so whether you like it or not, there’s a show going on. With a series of shows in the late 2000s called Contact and of course with Plastikman Live, I was exploring how I could work more closely with lighting designers. My friend Ali Demirel in particular helped visualize the kind of frequencies I was making with my music, going beyond the typical flashing strobe light, multicolor, visual orgasm porn.
When you think about early raves, everything was hypnotic—just a dark room with a strobe light. There was very little visual information; it was mostly a sonic experience with a couple of things that really fucked with your brain and allowed you to get lost in the music. So how do you take that to the next level and still find a way to make it still hypnotic? Every component should have its own value. But the sum should be something that just makes complete sense.
Was there a specific force that inspired you to create this new CLOSE experience?
The original idea came maybe four or five years ago. I find that the whole DJ experience can be pretty visually uninspiring, especially as it scales up to larger audiences. You have big LED screens and a torso that kind of disappears in all these flashing visuals. No matter how good the visual programming and the lighting are, the DJ’s aesthetic and the festival’s aesthetic gets mashed together.
It can be a great experience, but it’s never really aesthetically pleasing for me. It’s rarely synchronized or composed. For all of those reasons I wanted to create a show that was beautifully designed and that highlighted the human form and interaction between the machines; to let people get a little bit closer to the creativity of a modern DJ.
I’ve always thought of DJing as an art form, it could elevate to an extreme form of creativity and spontaneity. CLOSE is my attempt to let people have a better understanding of what the art form can strive to be: through the cameras, by taking away the table and letting people see my form and how I’m interacting with my machines, even if someone’s at the very back of a field with 10,000 people.
What was the first piece of gear that you used to make music?
I spent about two years in the basement of my parents’ house with this Numark mixer, one Technics turntable, and another turntable that belonged to my father, which you couldn’t really change the speed. I was constantly trying to figure out how to mix and match beats with a not-so-perfect setup. The mixer had a five-band EQ similar to those used by DJs I would watch at that moment in Detroit. With that piece of equipment, you could drastically change the records you were playing by really carving out sound. It really inspired the style that I play to this day. The records I really loved in the late ’80s were Detroit techno records. Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, they all had this certain futuristic, metallic percussion.
I remember being at my partner John Acquaviva’s house in London, Ontario and he had a Roland TR-909 drum machine. I was already kind of dabbling with music, but nothing was sounding right. When I turned that machine on, it opened up a whole new palette of sonic frequencies and sounds that those Detroit guys were using. Immediately, I said to myself, “Okay, this machine is part of my direction.”
Technology has obviously had a huge impact on the way you make music and DJ. When did you start introducing computers into your setup? How did that impact the way you performed?
Throughout the ’80s, my best friends were computer games and computers. I loved programming—telling the computer what I wanted it to do, whether that was making a game, flashing something across the screen, or talking to people via modems. Before music, the computer was really what inspired me to go deeper into myself. Although there wasn’t a computer in the DJ booth back then, the music was still very mechanical, electronic and computerized; it was music that was infused with technology at its heart.
Because of my prior fascination, when computers started to come into the DJ booth in the late ’90s with things like Final Scratch, I jumped onto it right away. I have always felt so connected to technology, it has always allowed me to do things I never thought possible. My instrument is a collection of boxes and knobs and that instrument changes all the time. And that exploration of “Where am I gonna go next? What’s gonna be released next? What should I do? What’s right or wrong?” That’s the heart of it all for me. That’s the challenge, that’s the fun.
How has your DJing changed since you developed the MODEL 1 mixer?
For the last decade, I was playing in a certain style with similar pieces of equipment with a similar mixer. I sat down with the designer Andy Jones, and we thought, “If we’re gonna put our energy into creating a new DJ mixer, do we just make something that’s better than the rest in terms of sounding better? Or do we make something entirely different?” We chose the latter. By adding a different layout of filters and EQs, the mixer forces you to play differently. It’s not really better or worse than any other mixer or any other way of playing, but it’s an alternative.
My favorite saying is: “Fuck it, we’ll figure it out later. Let’s do it.” That’s what I do with a lot of my projects. I love exploring and getting involved into things that push me into a corner and force me to reevaluate what I’m doing and who I am.
Since you’ve been in the electronic music game for a while, how has the culture surrounding it changed?
Electronic music was always very DIY and a niche community virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Now with EDM, the secret community has been blown out, so there are more challenges to maintain our anonymity, control and DIY aesthetic.
My ex-label partner John and I have an investment firm now, where we’ve invited nearly a hundred different DJs to pool their money together to reinvest in companies and technologies that empower creative people. In a way, it’s so far removed from where we were 25 years ago as a little record company. That shows you the size and the complexity of the scene, how it’s truly become an industry. No DJ or electronic musician, save for Kraftwerk and a couple others, have reached this age. Many of us don’t really know where it’s going, or how we’re supposed to act. How long is the career of a DJ? Where do we go from here? Should we be slowing down as we’re getting into our 50s or 60s and not be in the booth in a club for 20-year-olds, or is that part of the magic?
Tell us a bit about your passion for sake. Do you remember the first time you tried it?
I talk a lot about frequencies, like the frequencies that resonate with me when I’m playing. I think we all are vibrating slightly differently but when we come together, whether that’s with music, with loved ones, or in a group of people, we all start to oscillate at the same frequency when things make sense. When I went to Japan for the first time in 1994, it didn’t make sense to me, it was just mind-blowing. It felt like the future.
I was coming from making music with these Japanese instruments, so it was kind of like going to the birth of electronics and technology and techno. I just wanted to take it all in as much as possible. When I would go out before the club and drink real, pure, Japanese sake, it was just incredible what happened with the people at the table. Everyone started to sync up. The feeling, the vibe, the conversation, reminded me of being on the dance floor or playing onstage. It was very hypnotic, very heady. Even the music that I was making back then was probably even more heady. It was Plastikman, it was acidic, we were throwing late night parties and experimenting with lots of things to try and open our minds up.
Being in Japan surrounded by technology, drinking sake and getting this heady, fuzzy buzz, started to sync up to the music that I was playing, and just made sense. Then in 2008, I met a friend of a friend who was brewing sake, who suggested I take a sake sommelier course. After studying and diving deeper into the world of sake, I had the idea to make a record label based upon the drink. Instead of having artists releasing music, I wondered if I could find brewers in Japan to release sake in a similar way, and start putting all the things I had learned with my record labels Minus and Plus 8 and traveling together for a new adventure. That’s the adventure that I’m still on—Enter Sake.
How does fashion influence your music?
Early on I was inspired by Mute Records from London with bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure who had very strong visual aesthetics. That was something that I wanted to bring into what I was doing. First it came through on the design of the records, and then later on in the design of stages and visuals. At a certain point, I started to realize that there was more power in presenting myself aesthetically as a whole so that people got the idea of what I was trying to represent.
There was a shift for me in the mid-2000s, a response to finding designers that had the aesthetic that I was looking for, like Raf Simons and Rick Owens. I was always into black and a more minimalistic look, but fashion also has to be functional for me. I’m lanky and kind of alien-robotic looking anyway, so that’s what I want people to see—a kid in the machines and the physicality of going back and forth between them and these frequencies that emerge.
I often take a step back and think about how we all take the world in through our different senses. People are listening to me on stage, they’re listening to me talk, they’re seeing photos of me. How can I best represent who I am?
Are there any creative endeavors that you haven’t yet explored that you’d like to?
I love just giving people an experience that they’ve never had before. It started with music, and I’ve built upon it to give people a completely immersive 360 degree view where they can’t even escape if they want to. I admire people like Anish Kapoor, who I collaborated with, as well as Tadao Ando, Raf or Rick, who create environments where you just walk in and everything makes sense and feels like a complete reality.
Having the opportunity in the future to work with an architect and design a space specifically for music, working with a designer to make sure that everything that’s a part in the experience has a certain look and feel, to go beyond CLOSE and my previous Plastikman Live shows and go into three dimensions, to go deeper into spaces, would be an inspiring next step for me.
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.