Explains his complex minimalism
FUSE and Cybersonik are among the techno monikers of Richie Hawtin. On Warp's first Artificial Intelligence collection he chose to submerge his identity in UP!, while as Plastikman he's onto his second album. Roger Brown separates the artist from the artifice...
It's appropriate that Richie Hawtin should describe his aural landscapes in interior design terms.
"I like to be able to step in between a kick and a hi-hat and see a space around me. There's really a lot of space there, but there's also a lot going on. My new phrase to describe my style is 'complex minimalism'. Every time you listen to it you may hear something different, and my stuff is really spacious".
Hawtin cut his teeth on the antecedents of ambient, and likes the feel of 'wide open spaces'.
"I was brought up on a variety of different music. My dad got me into Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. The two biggest influences for me were Derrick May and the whole of Detroit techno, plus Chicago acid house. Four years later, I can sit back and say I've got a good combination of the two. When I did some early acid tracks, it was quite a while before a lot of people hit back. It was aggressive, and after that a lot of people started doing it. I sat back and re-grouped and let everyone get on with it.
"Plastikman is when I really came to understand what I was doing. As I learned my machines I realised what I had to do and how to do it. I think it's important to work real hard and get something that's unique. That's the whole philosophy that's come from the Detroit area, and now you've got these pockets of techno all round the world. You've got the Frankfurt techno sound and that Artificial Intelligence English sound, which is a bit sickly and too clean. When you look at the Detroit sound, everyone's going back to it. If you take ten records from different people in Detroit, none of them really sound the same. Derrick May doesn't sound anything like me, Kevin Saunderson is completely different but there's this common thing. They're all individuals and I think that's what's made the Detroit scene strong."
Windsor, Ontario is a Canadian town on the other side of Lake Superior where Richie moved with his family as a boy. It looks idyllic and pastoral in comparison to Detroit's run-down industrial city. This suits Richie down to the ground, affording him a retreat to record his music, as well as the chance to play out his tunes at parties which sound as though they still retain the flavour of the early Detroit scene.
"We're referred to as a suburb of Detroit. That's where I've grown up and DJd for the last 6 or 7 years. I go to the city, I get my inspiration from going out around Detroit. There's something about the place. I then take a step backwards to my place 10 miles away. It's the best of both worlds. I wouldn't be doing the same kind of music if I lived in Detroit. Living in downtown Detroit can be really depressing. If I was anywhere else in the world I might not be making music, and I would definitely not be making the same sort of music as I am now. I DJ'd at Club UK the other day. I really like spinning over here and in Europe, but I still prefer 400 people in a sweaty box. We could try and do a Detroit-style illegal party over here, but there's no way you can do it. I was here when they had that Trafalgar Square do, and that was really powerful, but it's not that many people really, if you think about it. It's definitely got a bit depressing in the last few years.
"Whatever goes on in Detroit, it's really strong. People will travel for 8 to 10 hours just for one party. I'm not really doing much better than anyone else over there. I'm just doing it. The grass is always greener on the other side, but you can't forget where you came from. If it wasn't for those kids in the mid-West, coming to my parties and freaking out to new music, then I wouldn't make new music for them to get into. It's a whole circle. They've been listening to this new album for about six months now when I play it out. It would be the greatest present to the kids for Derrick May to come and play a five hour set once in a while, because a lot of them know about him and want to understand what's going on, because they're too young to know."
We like to get a kit list to go with interviews in The Mix, and most people are only too happy to oblige with a catalogue of all their favourite toys. Richie wasn't into that.
"When you look at the Detroit sound, everyone's going back there."
"I don't give out equipment lists. If I give out a definitive list, it's like someone's gonna go out and buy all the gear I have and try to 'get' my sound. I think that people who make the best music know a few things inside out, and they use that to their advantage."
Alright, so the guy was playing coy here, but what were those pieces that Richie knew inside out? Coming from the Detroit scene, I was pretty sure Richie was into the classic Roland trio of TB303, TR909 and 808, but what made his so special?
"I've got mods on my 808, there's extra filtering and extra decays and tuning, and the same on my 909. I also use the 606 quite a bit, not so much on the new album but I always use an extra drum machine, one that isn't really out there. You know, it's so easy just to use a 909 or 808, but if you use them and then layer in some other sounds it makes it all seem a lot fresher. A big part of the sound of my drums, just coming from the Detroit scene and being so close to it, is heavy 909 rhythms, so there's a lot of shuffles and stuff. There's things like certain set shuffles that I use, which aren't the normal ones on the 909, but a lot of it's to do with EQing too. That's a big part of it. You can make an 808 or 909 sound like something else if you just EQ the fuck out of it.
"Both the Plastikman albums were done on an Allen & Heath S2, the first generation one which didn't have a high end cut-off, very nice mids and lows. Now I've got a Mackie 32:8 but I don't know if I'm going to stick with it. I don't know if I'm as impressed with the EQ, I'm back and forth on it. Either the next album will be done on that, or I'll take it back and expand the S2. I really like the EQ on that, and EQ has always been my biggest thing. All my friends went out and bought really big desks but I just thought, fuck that, I'd sooner have a small amount of channels and really good EQ.
"The big things that help me are my modifications: the EQ, and also the filters. I have a stereo filter and I use that on every track. Anyone can get it, it's like a sound shaper. The stereo filter is from an old electronics book in the 70s, which is an English book because my Dad was an electronics buff. There's a company in America called Peer [he likely means Paia]. They make sets to build a keyboard up. You get an oscillator, a filter etc. I'm always up for trying things which you're not supposed to do."
As well as that bare Detroit sound, the Plastikman album has some fascinating intros and interludes, with a weird range of synthesised 'natural' sounds. Crickets chirruping, overheard conversations and so on. The album begins with a very expressive piece of tonal sculpting which evokes the sound of water and whalesong. It is an impressive piece of programming, and being unable to figure out just how the man had got it down, I just had to ask him what he had used to record that.
"You're going to laugh when you hear what that was. Vintage Keys very filtered, and a K2000. Both albums were done with an Akai S3000. On this album I used quite a lot of drum samples. Samples from 808s and 909s and vocal samples of myself, which are just heavily filtered and then re-sampled and stretched. There's a track called 'Fuk' on the album which is all 808 and 909 but everything is pitched strangely. If you hear that on a system it sounds incredible. Nearly every time I spin it, some kid comes up to me and asks me what it is and it's just 808, 606 and 909 snare all filtered and EQd. In between the albums I had a single called Krakpot, which was a thing called Recycled Plastik. It was basically a 909 and a 707 kick put together with a 303, and it was all put through a filter. If you hear it on a good system - you'll like it. A lot of my stuff has weird frequency shifts and stuff."
"I'm always up for trying things which you're not supposed to do."
The acid sound of the 303 is most strongly associated with Richie from his early days as FUSE with tracks like 'Technarchy' and 'Approach & Identify'. As Plastikman the 303 is still there but less acid, more filtered and funky. Richie's love of modified analogue gear has led him to seek out a new 303, to help him achieve his own sound as well as some other interesting pieces of new and modified analogue kit.
"I've got a new 303 now called 'Devilfish'. There's only 13 or 14 of them around at the moment. It came from a guy from Melbourne named Robin Whittle. The input in the back is now a frequency input, CV and gate inputs and you can change your slide time by about four times the length. It's got an attack, distortion overload, extended range filter. It's like a modified 303 still in the same box. On the new album, there's some times when it doesn't sound like a 303, more like a Moog or an Oberheim or something. There's one on there which sounds like a didgeridoo! There's also a track on the album called "Kriket" which has a cricket sample.
"My new baby is my Serge module. They used to be made in California and there's a place that's re-making them, but still in the old way. They're expensive because they're so painful to produce. I'd like to have a 32-oscillator Serge system eventually. I went down to California to meet one of the guys that was making them. There must have been about 64 pedals. He had a controller for the thing, I don't think it was MIDI because he had a box, like a suitcase. He was playing it live and it sounded like he was jamming along with Kraftwerk.
"I've played with the Bass Station a week ago. It's just like a 101 and a 303, but it's neither of them. It's good, but the thing that everyone's forgetting is that the best way to control a 303 is to programme it yourself. You can do amazing things with it, and make things loop in the weirdest ways. A lot of my earliest stuff was done like that. There's a lot of interesting things you can do if you put in half time and stuff. As well as analogue writing, I also use Cubase on the Atari. I don't do anything an exact way every time, it's always different. Sometimes I'll run everything through a 909. A lot of people didn't think you could trigger the 909 with an external instrument - it was a big mystery for a few years. Sometimes I'll sample a 909, trigger the samples off an S3000 and click through something else. Usually my click is my Serge sequencer. The Serge sequencer is nice because it's got a touch button at the bottom, so you sit there in the mix-down and hit it with your thumb and hold it. If you hold it, it'll play the note that's on, and when you let go it clicks and starts where you left off back in time. It's wild.
"My best tracks are usually in analogue. There's usually a good 8 to 15 minutes of what I like, and then I change it and cut around at the end. I used to do it on to 1/4", now I put it down on to DAT and edit on an IBM 2 track digital editor. My albums used to be edited, brought to analogue tape, to get some really crisp highs, speeded up, and put back into the digital editor with the low end beefed back up on the master. It clips a bit actually, but it sounds good. My friend said that I had to buy one of these BBE sonic maximisers, which I think are bullshit. But now I use it to send mono things in, and accent highs and accent basses, so I'm sort of using it back to front."
The first Plastikman album, 'Sheet One' led to one of Richie's fans being arrested in possession of the cover, which is perforated into 2mm squares, each with the squiggly Plastikman logo on the back like a Superman acid tab. Richie had a surprising little postscript to add to our interview.
"I never do drugs in my studio. A lot of people listen to my music and say, 'This guy must be really fucked.' I like that 'cos that's the effect I'm after, but I never do drugs in the studio, OK?"
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Interview by Roger Brown
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