Next month, Richie Hawtin will return to Australia for an ambitious show at Sydney Opera House as part of this year’s Vivid program. In the lead up, JACK TREGONING got on the phone with the electronic mastermind to talk techno, DJing and the art of performance.
It’s mid-morning on a grey Wednesday in Berlin, and Richie Hawtin is in typically fluent form.
“If I’ve had a good swim in the morning and a cup of coffee, talking is pretty easy,” he says. Unlike many of his peers, the techno lifer is as comfortable in conversation as he is in the DJ booth. That ability to sell his ideas – whether in a wordy Facebook post, a marketing pitch or a simple logo design – is as central to Hawtin’s success as the music itself.
Today he’s talking about his new stage show, which boasts the very Hawtin title of CLOSE – Spontaneity & Synchronicity. (See also: the PLAYdifferently MODEL 1 mixer and his US college tour, CNTRL: Beyond EDM.)
CLOSE is coming to Sydney Opera House’s Northern Broadwalk next month as part of VIVID Live. While Hawtin gave the rig a trial run at select European festivals, the first official CLOSE show was at this year’s Coachella. The crowd in the Mojave Tent saw Hawtin in the dark between two tables of gear, with cameras projecting the movement of his hands on the mixer and synthesisers.
“I was watching electronic music performances with flashing LEDs and unsyncopated visuals and thinking, god, this could be done so much better”
CLOSE is a DJ set with on-the-fly live elements from Hawtin’s array of “little modular rigs”, but it’s also intended as a look behind the curtain.
The seeds were planted on his 2009 trip to Australia for Future Music Festival. “I was watching electronic music performances with flashing LEDs and unsyncopated visuals and thinking, god, this could be done so much better,” he recalls. The vehicle for doing it better was the starkly mesmeric Plastikman Live, which he brought to FMF two years later.
Hawtin set his sights on a “more DJ-based” show after playing Coachella’s intimate Yuma tent in 2013. “It was great in there, but it was just like every club I play every weekend,” he says. “The reason I do Coachella is to be outside, see the palm trees and hopefully have some people stumble upon you.” He resolved to return to Coachella with a spectacle you’d be happy to stumble upon.
Hawtin can talk at length about the premise of CLOSE, which he hopes will dispel misconceptions about DJing.
“People understand what’s going on with live music,” he says. “They understand the hitting of a drum makes a certain sound, and they feel connected. Electronic music has always had a hard time making that connection – even for the pure dancers who are quite happy, as I am too, to close their eyes and just lose themselves on the dancefloor.
“I’m doing so much up there beyond what most people think a DJ does these days, which is pressing start on a CDJ”
“I’m doing so much up there beyond what most people think a DJ does these days, which is pressing start on a CDJ,” he continues. “That was the beginning of opening up the stage, turning the tables around, and making sure people could see my whole body. It’s about feeling more connected to the human in front of them, rather than some nerdy guy looking into a computer behind a table.”
CLOSE fits neatly into Hawtin’s theory of DJing. While the likes Ricardo Villalobos and Sven Vath see no reason to abandon vinyl, his eye is always on the next digital technology. Hawtin was already rethinking the standard DJ setup on his 1999 mix Decks, EFX & 909, and he’s stayed restless ever since.
For some critics, Hawtin’s obsessive interest in the latest tools and tricks has diluted his DJ sets. However he sees music and technology as indivisible. “Working on something like CLOSE is the little bubble that I love to live in,” he says.
Hawtin also feels a responsibility to showcase the possibilities, not just the ease, of new technology.
“I didn’t work 25 years of my life to have everyone talking about DJing but actually having no idea what DJing is,” he says. “To get into DJing is much easier than it ever was. You can even point the finger at me and some of my friends who helped develop Final Scratch, bringing digital DJing into the world with beat mapping and auto syncing.”
“To get into DJing is much easier than it ever was”
He also notes the impact of “EDM bringing a more pop sensibility” into electronic music. “Having it become about an artist’s presentation of their biggest hits has also derailed the definition of DJing: let’s play one track after the other, have a lot of drops, punch our fists and jump on the DJ decks.”
He pauses and laughs. “Which, OK, I’ve done before too, so I can’t get too opinionated – when the energy takes over, you never know what you’re going to do.”
More than his high-end gear and savvy branding, the sound of Hawtin’s DJ sets over time has fuelled countless online threads.
Hawtin commentary reached its fever pitch in the 2006 to 2009 period, when his Minus label was at the centre of minimal techno trendiness. (His Contakt label showcases, featuring a glowing sci-fi Cube, were ripe for parody.) The discussions of whether he’s techno enough have never gone away, but then neither have the fevered crowds he commands on his perennial world tour.
The way Hawtin plays today is an evolution of his celebrated 2001 mix DE9: Closer to the Edit, which rearranged loops from over 100 tracks into an “audio jigsaw puzzle”. That intensive process creates a particular Richie Hawtin sound – loopy, mechanical, druggy, unfriendly to Shazam – that suits six-hour closing sets at Time Warp.
“In a club set I can quite easily follow the DJ before me and start at 123, 124 [BPM], and play slower and funkier, or also swing into faster, more monotonous, banging techno,” Hawtin says. “It really is about a story between me and that crowd.”
The CLOSE festival shows demand a different approach. “CLOSE is very much pummelling techno, maybe a little bit more connected to when I first got involved in techno,” he says. “There’s a lot of heavy production, big claps and flanges, and really pushing the envelope of frequencies and distortion.”
Hawtin, of course, has a neat sentence to sum it up. “It feels like CLOSE is an intense, dark short story, while my club shows are more of an adventurous, hypnotic novel.”
Richie Hawtin: CLOSE Spontaneity and Synchronicity hits Sydney Opera House on June 3. Tickets are on sale now.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.