Amidst the breathtaking scenery of the Finger Lakes sits Ithaca, N.Y. A college town engrained with a grassroots approach, this city is also home to record label Blank Slate. Kamal Naeem, the label’s founder, is an Ithaca native and a graduate of Ithaca College.
“I spent nearly 20 years in Ithaca. It’s where I grew up and where my family is. And though it doesn’t have a tradition of electronic music (besides Robert Moog developing his synth up the road), it’s safe to say it was responsible for providing a variety of very strong musical experiences,” he says.
He was raised in a musical household, dominated by jazz, West African and classical Indian music. “My father is a huge music connoisseur, who has that bug that most DJs have, to search for the next piece of music that explains or predates the why of the current favorite record. I grew up going to concerts with my father, starting from a very early age. Shout-out to my mom, too, because she is always very supportive and put up with a huge amount of awful, very loud music in my formative years.”
Often joked to be “centrally isolated” Ithaca is actually 4-6 hours by car to a major city which Naeem says influences the area with an array of world-class music. “There was always a steady stream of jazz,” he says, seeing the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Joshua Redman and the Mingus Big Band, all at local venues. Additionally, Cornell University’s South Asian community hosts classical Indian concerts, from acts like Zakir Hussain and Hariprasad Chaurasia. Local music festival Grassroots has been taking place in Ithaca since 1991 bringing a gamut of global artists.
Naeem says, “When people think of electronic music, I’m sure Ithaca isn’t what comes to mind. In place of the often imagined industrial wasteland, Ithaca offers a gorgeous lake, waterfalls, farms, and some of the prettiest fall foliage you’ll ever see. It’s a place that seems stuck in time and yet, because it’s a university town, every four years, 30,000 of its 60,000 residents are brand new.”
With Ithaca College’s music school there is no lack of talent in the rural city. He continues, “Though Ithacans might not be familiar with electronic music as a concept, we never had to fight for the music to be considered important or a worthy use of our time. And folks were more or less supportive when we started going in the electronic direction. Now Ithaca is slowly developing a tradition of electronic music.” To his knowledge he says there are four labels with ties to Ithaca. Soren went to school at Cornell and while living in the same city he and John Barera wrote the first couple EPs on Supply. Also a native to Ithaca is Mirko Azis who was involved in the Detour Crew while attending Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Penn. Phil Chung and Tahj (Turtle Bugg) Morris, owners of Basement Floor Records, would throw parties along with Naeem during his years at college.
Naeem began development for Blank Slate “out of the desire to contribute to a music scene beyond isolated Ithaca. I had recently returned from my first trip to Berlin, and even in a city where so many people love electronic music, I was surprised to discover I was a fully fledged music nerd there as well.” Solely run by Naeem the label originally was developed with the efforts of Soren Jahan (René Audiard). On the visual side Mathea Millman is the art director for nearly all the label’s B-side art. Azis and Mike Lavigne contributed with design, as well as Max Hull who lent his graceful handwriting for the logo.
“The name Blank Slate does imply a certain level of minimalism. One of the initial ideas was to keep it simple and easy to read in the dark. In retrospect, I suppose the minimal design was another way of letting the music speak for itself,” he says. “There has always been some evolution in the design – the first two records were stamped. We progressed to printed labels, B-side photography was added, and finally color was added for the recent record.”
While the label was in the early stages Naeem spent a majority of 2013 studying in Berlin. He used this time to network and really explore deeper into club culture. “I’d never really been clubbing (I was too young to go out in the U.S.), and it was amazing to be in this seemingly huge city with so much music happening all the time. I came back to Ithaca to complete school and save some money.” Blank Slate began to pick up and he officially relocated to Berlin in January 2015 with hopes of continuing forward as an artist and label head.
It was a tougher transition than expected, he says. “Though Berlin has so many musical opportunities, working here can be quite the challenge. My initial plan was to try and work in the music industry. I found this quite challenging, as the music industry here has a very loose relationship with anything resembling professionalism and there are so many eager young people that businesses often take advantage of this. You’d be surprised at the number of big name businesses here which operate on a steady flow of recyclable interns.” Currently he is working in online marketing for a Berlin startup.
On a music level Naeem has noticed that Berlin is overwhelmingly populated with electronic music and there can be little wiggle room for other genres. Within the U.S. he says “there are so few things going on that keeping an open mind and going to a concert or show you might not like is often how people expand their horizons. Berlin has such a huge electronic music scene that people’s interests often remain very narrow. Folks seem very comfortable going to the same parties and shows over and over again, and not really broadening their horizons.” With an incredibly diverse background in music, he recognizes that on a technical and cultural level music should be open to variation.
“For me, music is about constant curiosity – so this mindset of being satisfied with only one or two particular styles is foreign to me. For all its many musical opportunities, the Berlin music scene is also incredibly white, which doesn’t really do justice to where this music we all love comes from.” – KAMAL NAEEM
With reflections on the Berlin music scene aside he recognizes that Blank Slate being based in Germany is ideal for his releases. It is ripe with networking and access to artists who live and perform locally. “Meeting artists who are much more experienced and knowledgeable has certainly helped me in the running of the label,” he says.
There are many factors that discern what fits into a label’s groove. Naeem walked through the process of putting out a record through Blank Slate and the many considerations that go along with it. Varying for each individual release he says “it’s important to remain flexible with the process, because at the end of the day artists are allowing me to release their work. As the variety of music on the label suggests, I’m not listening for a certain sound. I’m after original work, expressing something of its own.” He listens to the track on repeat and always makes sure he is informed on the musical history the artist is drawing on because if you’re not informed “how can you know if the music is actually original?”
The diversity he strives for not only in his music knowledge and label’s output is also reflected when given the opportunity to DJ. “When I am granted the privilege of playing for others, variety and diversity are very important to me,” he says. ”Sure, playing an amazing set of just house music or just techno is one thing. But the DJs that I hold in the highest light have the ability to transverse timing, genre, geography and pretty much any other imaginable boundary. You might start off listening to something you kind of know and by the end of the night you’ve fallen in love with a type of music you didn’t know existed. I aspire to be able to play all my favorite types of music in the same set.”
This year he was asked by the Pittsburgh-based Detour crew to play Hot Mass and he “was over the moon to have the opportunity to play one of the best parties in the world. When I took the helm over from White Visitation, I was playing some 135 BPM techno tracks from Soren and the crowd kept an open mind and stayed with me as I jumped around from house to disco to African music and, if memory serves, I even got to play my favorite Sylvester track.”
He studied politics at Ithaca College but has yet to pursue anything in that direction but says time will tell if he decides to enter the world of academia. “A close family friend told me that one’s early 20s were ‘a perfect time to make mistakes.’ I’m currently putting music first in my life, so we’ll see how that goes,” he says.
When asked why he loves music, he eloquently responded with relief that he does not have an answer to that question. “My fear is that if I could put the answer into words, the mystery would be solved and my constant curiosity would disappear. A good portion of the credit is due to the household I was raised in. Not only was there always music playing, there was also a steady stream of music from all over the world.”
Catch Kamal Naeem and Israel Vines this Saturday, Jan. 7 for his Buffalo debut for the Sequencer/Redux party.
Eric Cloutier fell in love with techno at an early age and over the past 20 years has developed into an esteemed selector and curator. Born in Birmingham, Mich. he was first exposed to the culture of the scene while flipping channels and stumbling upon “The New Dance Show,” a low-budget Detroit version of “Soul Train.” As Cloutier grew older he became increasingly more drawn to the techno sound and scene in the city of Detroit.
Moved and moulded by Richie Hawtin’s moniker Plastikman, the 1994 album Musik was “damn near flawless” for Cloutier. In the beginning he moved to Detroit and started working at Oslo on Woodward Avenue, now known as the Whiskey Disco, for resident parties by way of Hawtin and Stacey Pullen. But Cloutier could be found playing or just spending his spare time in the dark backroom pit of The Works.
“Just growing up in Detroit was enough of a pedigree. You’re constantly immersed in exceptionally good and – at that time – groundbreaking music, so it’s near impossible to not have some level of inspiration come at you from all angles,” he says. “Going to raves and such in the late ’90s was a proper blessing. And just on those nights out alone, I think I learned more than I have in the last few years.”
By 2009 he became an official resident of The Bunker, a New York City-based party who have hosted an innumerable amount of incredible DJs. Cloutier first played in 2006 and just a month or so after made the move to the city. He reunited with Mike Servito and Derek Plaslaiko, formerly of Detroit who became Bunker residents as well. The liveliness of New York and the output of music there was an inspirational pool for Cloutier. There was something unique – it was ever-changing.
“Music is my life. It honestly gives me energy in the day, helps me through bad times, pushes me when I’m uninspired, and keeps me calm when I’m on travels, amongst other things. I honestly don’t know what I’d do besides working in music – it’s just what speaks to me the most,” he says. As his career grew Cloutier began landing gigs and exploring the European scene. He picked up his things once again and for the past three years he has been living in Berlin, another city rich in history during the birth of techno. Although he can be found playing clubs throughout Europe, Labyrinth in Japan and performing for thousands at festivals in places like the Netherlands, Barcelona, Russia, Montreal and more, Cloutier still understands the significance of his roots. Born into the concentrated dancefloors of Detroit, he nods to the importance of parties in small cities, and the role they play in the grander scene.
“If it weren’t for the smaller cities none of this would have really pushed boundaries. It’s so easy to rest on your laurels when you’re in a larger city, but when you’re the runt of the pack in a tiny corner of the Earth, you really have to do something profound to be heard and I think it’s exceptionally important for the little scenes to find their voice amongst the masses. All the most interesting stuff comes from the strangest places.”
The most unsuspecting cities, particularly in the Northeast, are establishing strong communities for house and techno. Cloutier says, “Without a doubt the tiny cites go off harder than the big ones, simply because it’s a luxury for an outside guest to come through and they make the most of it. You can tell people schedule their nights out around those once-in-a-while events, and it’s super important to them to get it while they can before it’s gone again.”
During his sets Cloutier demonstrates expert track selection and navigates the crowd, leaving them lost in time and space. His dedication to the music, whether as an opening DJ or headlining, has provided him a platform and a background for growth. For years Cloutier has explored the art and technical skill of DJing and it wasn’t until the last few years in his long career that he became more involved in producing. Although Cloutier releases will be relatively limited as he focuses on quality over quantity.
What’s next for the intrepid traveler? “Not totally sure where life will take me in the next few years. While the missus and I do enjoy Berlin, I can’t see it being the end point for my life travels…but who knows! As far as where to next, I’m always down to move to Amsterdam or the south of France, but…we’ll see!”
He kickstarted the techno scene for the debut Signal > Noise event in Rochester, N.Y. and now Cloutier returns to Western New York tonight for the next installation of Strange Allure in Buffalo, N.Y.
When Peter Croce developed Rocksteady Disco in 2014 he created something more than just a record label. He established a platform where cultural influences of disco and Detroit converge to inspire progression and awareness.
Croce was raised in a musical household in an inner ring suburb of Detroit. His father was a professional drummer who encouraged Croce by age 10 to try his hand at electric bass and his mother “has funk flowing through her veins.” Moving into the city of Detroit he says “shaped my musical tastes; funk and high tech soul music is in our social fabric here.” Raised on artists such as The Gap Band, The Time, Jean-Luc Ponty and Michael Franks, the deeply rooted musical influence of the Motor City has played a formidable role on Croce.
Stylistically his DJing embodies the characteristics of Detroit mixing: gracefully precise track selection that varies on the musical spectrum.
“So many DJs and producers in Detroit are known as techno demigods overseas, and while they are prolific in that realm of music, I admire their ability to blend funk/techno/house/soul/rare groove/whatever in their sets here in Detroit,” he says. “In some ways, the bar is pretty high in this city in terms of technical proficiency and booking talent. Yes it’s true that pretty much any night of the week you can hear some DJ playing somewhere, but I think to be respected by those at the top you really need to come correct with your mixing, track selection, and cultural awareness.”
Rocksteady Disco — “mindful music for the body and soul” — came to fruition initially as a weekly happy hour at MotorCity Wine in May 2014. Due to playing out frequently, others were sending him dubplates and exclusives for his sets; in November that year he realized he had enough tracks for release and Rocksteady Disco was then formed. The label’s hardworking crew is comprised by Croce, Grand Rapid’s Matt Dandois, Pontchartrain, Topher Horn, and Lafleur. With a number of residencies allowing notable artists like Rick Wilhite and Cordell Johnson to the table, the group has since minimized their events to “focus more on quality over quantity.”
Currently Croce is producing in his spare time, but is often occupied by performing, executive production, A&R and other label business. “I’m definitely more of a social being, which makes DJing much more natural for me than producing. I have some productions under my belt, many of which are DJ-inclined re-edits. I also have been playing guitar and bass on peoples’ productions, most notably a release on Fat Finger Cosmic dropping July 2016 entitled ‘Big Kahuna.'”
Under the efforts of Lafleur, Dandois, Pontchartrain, and Topher Horn, Rocksteady Disco now has five records out, with a sixth dropping in August. Croce says he hopes the label will be known for original output, like the most recent release Rocksteady Disco All-Stars Vol. 1. “Our focus is music that is soulful and equally danceable as it is listenable, with the occasional socially conscious edit release.”
Additionally, he has recently developed and launched another label: Mr. PC Versions. White label and vinyl only, Croce will be doing limited runs of freshly edited tracks. “With so many bootleg labels I’m trying to be really conscious of how flooded the market is, and how I’m a white man re-editing (usually) black folks’ music. But some of these tracks just need to be rescued from their LP format and brought into the beautiful world of 12″ singles.”
It is clear through Rocksteady Disco’s ethos that there is an inherent drive to do more than produce music and throw a party. Croce’s personal background has developed a mission to provide a sanctuary, a place of comfort for humans to let go.
“As a selector, a DJ, a lover, a person with a Master’s of Social Work, and a Christian, I have to use my platform to make things right in any way I can. DJing, for better or worse, gives me a fair amount of power to set the tone and mood of an evening. Most every DJ has this power to use this pulpit for good or bad, and in our nation where wealth has stagnated for decades, where women are still assaulted and abused simply because of their gender, where blacks get beat down and murdered by the police rather than uplifted and supported, where my gay and trans* brothers and sisters get gunned down, where my Muslim brothers and sisters get spit at on their walk into the grocery store — how could I make what I do just about me? I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t use this platform to make people feel better for at least the night, or to raise consciousness and build a movement.” — PETER CROCE
When Rocksteady Disco throws an event, inspiration is drawn from David Mancuso. In 1970 this legendary DJ took the party out of the club setting to establish The Loft in New York City. The space played a pivotal role in creating underground parties that maintain legality. Clubs are monopolizing by nature and are not inherently designed to foster social progress. “If anything, I find they more often than not reinforce capitalist patriarchy,” Croce says. “Fortunately though, I only throw parties at places that are notoriously progressive,” hosting events at Detroit’s Temple Bar and MotorCity Wine.
“When you have a place that is not dominated by capitalist patriarchal thinking, it allows people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation to transcend their social boxes and scripts we’re forced to live out on a day-to-day basis. When people enter these liberatory spaces something really special happens; they let their guards down, they allow their bodies to move, they allow themselves to become sexual beings without being objectifying beings, and people move to the same rhythm of people older than them or of a different race from them. This last point cannot be overstated: how many intergenerational parties can you think of? In Detroit all the good dance parties are intergenerational. Furthermore, many of the young white folks on the dance floor here were raised in the suburbs. By policy and by definition this means we were not raised around very many people of color or people in lower economic classes. So for many of us white suburban-raised folks, the deepest and earliest relationships we’ve built with people of color was on the dance floor. The fact that music can be the catalyst for this, and that I can be the person bringing the music, is a tremendous gift,” Croce says.
This sense of liberation is exactly the essence of the music that reverberates from Rocksteady Disco. Historically sound, disco as a genre has had an incredible and undeniable impact on both a musical and social level. Hey says, “Disco is liberatory music. It is inherently tied to the civil rights and gay liberation movement, which is why Disco Demolition Day happened. And the way disco DJing was done in the ’70s was completely ruleless — DJs jumped BPMs, styles, geographies (‘Soul Makossa’ being the most notable), and the major focus, aside from sex and drugs, was sound quality and elevating people through music. I just wish I could’ve been in New York the first time Walter Gibbons was beat juggling drum breaks, or when David Mancuso first dropped ‘Drums of Passion.'”
But gentrification seems to be settling into certain areas of Detroit, bringing a sense of worry to some locals. Croce started his monthly event †Sermon† at Temple Bar just a couple months before officially launching Rocksteady Disco, but he has noticed things have changed in the city in a short amount of time.
“Like most heavy issues I feel really complicated about gentrification. Part of the reason I love Detroit so much is because I believe it can be the model for how to redevelop a city in ways that doesn’t displace people, and that uplifts the voices of those who have stayed in Detroit through the gnarly times. There are literally people who have been collecting their own water and living without electricity for months in this city, keeping things moving in their own ways. Somehow, though, they can’t get bailed out but Mike Illitch’s Olympia Entertainment can get a bunch of land for $1 with no community benefits agreement. That’s not justice, that’s not democracy. That’s deplorable.”
He goes on to agree that Detroit in fact needs some cash flow for a steadier economy, requiring new restaurants and businesses, but does it need to be done so through big corporate establishment with no focus on benefits and needs for the community? Croce notes that he defines gentrification not based solely on race, but as a raising of property values which ends up displacing the poor communities. This in turn is effecting the music scene.
“Regardless of the definition, the black population continues to decline in Detroit while the white population grows. This has a variety of implications, but I’ll speak for the dance music scene. A lot of these folks moving into or partying in the city have a really disgusting entitlement problem. The way they treat incredibly talented DJs/bartenders/venue owners is unfathomable to me. So what you’re going to see is these folks taking over downtown and Midtown and some other neighborhoods as well. There’s a number of venues that the heady dance music community just won’t go to anymore because of how suburbanized they have become. I don’t want to DJ some of them either,” he says. “On the same token, a large number of white folks moving to Detroit are moving here to find their souls. So people like myself need to be careful of just writing all new people off. Shoot, I’ve only been in Detroit for 3 years after all. Many of us immediately went traversing in the underground looking for the culturally important stuff. As DJs we can be cultural ambassadors for these folks. So we should trust but verify rather than categorize new people as guilty until proven innocent.”
However, from disparity can grow beauty. The label’s namesake nods to “rocksteady music,” which derives from Jamaican reggae. That time period between first wave ska and modern reggae. Croce says, “I wasn’t in Kingston in 1966, but that summer seemed like a glorious time to be alive. Ska was slowing down and the lyrical content was becoming more soulful. The music was sexy, smooth yet raw, and yearning for some sort of connection. And that sound for yearning for love, community, and connection is precisely what we try to do with our releases and parties.”
Croce says, “My fiancée puts it best: there’s ‘vertical’ music and ‘horizontal’ music. Vertical music would best be defined as a lot of the techno coming out right now. It’s brain music, it’s upright, and it’s stiff. These characteristics aren’t bad, they just are what they are. Horizontal music would be disco, soulful house, and rocksteady reggae. People move their hips side-to-side when they dance, and it’s less individual. Both of these styles have their place, and you’ll hear me touch on all of these sounds in my sets.”
Regardless which way the groove moves, Rocksteady Disco will be there to lift you up and keep it going.
Stay tuned this week for a very exclusive Sequencer Soundcast from Peter Croce.
If you so choose to explore the dimensions beyond your structural consciousness – and seek expansion of how you might define spatial extent – you will find Interdimensional Transmissions. For more than 20 years the Detroit label has been creating inspiring techno, and continues to develop a realm to truthfully reunite with music, the concept of self, and universal consciousness.
Detroit native Brendan M. Gillen, otherwise known as BMG, founded Interdimensional Transmissions in 1994.
“I was born in Detroit and raised in the dream of where the edge of the forest and the city meet, that so much of Michigan urban sprawl is based on. I grew up on Detroit radio with the likes of the Mojo and the Wizard (Jeff Mills) and Mike Halloran and Peter Werbe. That alone should get you ready for a revolution. If you add all that up, you can see it in the music we make and play,” he says. His favorite memory as a child was visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts and watching six of Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs spin around.
His creative inspiration derived from a visionary esoteric place during a trip to Europe in 1991, when he realized that techno stretched to a global level beyond Detroit. During his trip he also had an experience at Dún Aonghasa, a fort on the Aran Islands near Galway, Ireland. An individual that is both scientifically-driven and spiritual, Gillen heard voices that told him to change his life path and to start creating music. Eventually, he listened and Interdimensional Transmissions was born, named after the guiding ancient voices that seemed to permeate into his reality. The label went on to become essential to the Detroit scene as Gillen had a mission to create techno for the city itself, not just for export.
“Detroit’s history is profound, corrupt, confused, inspiring and crushing. When you move to the city of Detroit you enter into a who-dun-it. Who killed this city? Why? What factors? What confused byproducts of previous wars are left here? You’d be quite surprised at the answers.” – BMG
For several years he worked as music director at WCBN, a radio station at the University of Michigan. Erika Sherman, deemed co-conspirator of the label – joined the station’s efforts her freshman year. “We met pretty quickly through weekly music review meetings. I was spending a lot of time at the station volunteering and learning about music, and we became friends,” Sherman says.
She eventually became program director of the Ann Arbor station and in 1997 Gillen asked her to join Ectomorph. “There was a personnel change in Ectomorph and Erika seemed like a very interesting solution; she entered into the project and it was a long-term evolving education thing from which she later fully emerged as the artist you know today,” he says. The two have been creating sounds together with all analog live hardware sequencing under that name ever since.
Daughter of a famous scientist, Sherman was born and raised in a home of technology and music. At a very young age she was well-known for developing a BBS (Bulletin Board System) as well as launching erika.net – a freeform streaming online radio station.
Sherman says, “My relationship with Detroit has always been primarily about music. I started going to Detroit right around the time I joined WCBN to see bands play, go to raves, etc. — all while studying music at the radio station. During this time period I learned the most about jazz, rock and techno: music forms that are a part of Detroit’s cultural makeup. I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Detroit’s place in music history/music present.”
As both a DJ and a live performer her mission has been to gather collective human energy and transfer it through sound. The energy is palpable and can be seen above the crowd in a cloud, according to Gillen. In a means of call and response Sherman says she loves how the energy on a dance floor is “visceral and raw. At its best, it’s both pure individual expression while also a shared experience. It brings people together, forcing a group of friends, acquaintances and strangers to channel their energy into a collective moment, even when dancing by themselves. As a dancer, I like to be lost in the music, dancing by myself, but also feeling the energy of others around me having this moment with that track.”
“You can’t see it, you feel it. It exists without boundaries. It works within your mind but also on a multitude of primal levels. It connects us all, and reconnects us to things far beyond what we can see. For me it is my place of meditation of mental and personal growth, mental relaxation or mental exploration. Freedom for the mind,” Gillen says about why he loves music.
Both Sherman and Gillen perform live as well as DJs. Sherman is well-known for her rare use of The Octopus in her live PA, which is a midi-sequencer that was discontinued by genoQs Machines after the company shutdown in 2010. With her upbringing in a science-based environment, it is clear she uses that influence in her creations; as an example, her video for “North Hex” takes tones of the song which are sent to different machines including computers, a World War II submarine oscilloscope and video synths, all of which are captured with real-time modulation.
Through both of the artists productions and performances, it is clear that space exploration is a driving force for inspiration. What about this science and thought is so intriguing to these artists?
“First, that we know so little about it, so there is tons of room for speculation and contemplation. I can imagine it to be so many different ways inside nebulas, on planets, circling moons… I also like the idea that when we are looking up into space we are actually witnessing ancient history; the light that travels to Earth from the stars has taken so many millions of years to get here. So what’s going on today?” – ERIKA
Gillen continues, “We are stardust. We are the result of a random cosmic collision … We are not unique, but we should stay alone for now. We are totally responsible for what has happened here. Our culture, our achievements, our failures of past societies – that is us. The way we have treated this living organism of earth, you would hope that we never explore beyond our planet. A defining aspect of civilization is that it destroys wherever it is. When I look at the stars I don’t ask myself, ’Is there life out there?’ I already know. The answers are not in the sky, in the stars, in alien lifeforms. I am not waiting on my angel. I don’t need the cosmos to answer a mystic question. I just enjoy witnessing the endless creation, destruction and rebirth.”
In the early 2000s the sound of the scene changed, as did the environment. Minimal became hyper-prevalent and events in Detroit were being held in bars and clubs. It was that time in techno that many are familiar with, where there was a lull followed by a resurgence.
Gillen made a phone call to Derek Plaslaiko, a Detroit native, and pitched an idea to reawaken the local scene: a party that would last 12 hours. In 2007 at an abandoned bank, No Way Back was created. The party has been housed in many places but is mostly known as an after-party at Detroit’s Movement festival and is now co-produced with New York City’s The Bunker.
No Way Back is more than a party. It is an experience that is deep, contemplative and psychologically expansive. In the environment created, the dance floor is a place to transcend in the most primal and honest way. In recent years, it all takes place at Tangent Gallery and from moonlight to sunrise people are flowing in and out of the industrial blank art space building. Nearly 10 minutes from downtown Detroit – just beyond the entrance gate – the floor and the patio are packed. There is a chill room that glows in cool colors, music on the ambient side lets you flow into the space and there are chairs to sit back if you need some ease for just a moment. Past the bar, through the hallway, beyond that door, is the main room. It’s dark, and the temperature is high. Giant parachutes hang from the ceiling and military netting provides background behind the DJ; the label’s recognizable symbol of a hand can be found there as well. The environment is created to inspire certain feelings and vibrations – what you do with the experience is up to you.
In regard to No Way Back Gillen says, “We live in a world of accelerated time, where everyone is multitasking, living these 24-hour lives always pushing but so rarely in the moment. I like to think about vast concepts when you remove the gradation, like music is continuum that we divide into 12 tones, but there is so much more there when you apply different scales or look for notes in between notes. Gagaku [ancient Japanese music] uses only seven notes. Another very fun one to think about is time — how we divide up time. Like there are currently more than 14 calendars on Earth right now, in some places the year is currently 1437. The October Revolution that started too much in Russia happened in our November. Astrologers still use the Julian calendar. Yet my favorite to ponder is Eternity. The absence of time moving forward.”
“That is the space I hope you can return to at our parties where the past the present and the future all exist on the same plane, and you are experiencing that without thinking about it. Our culture robs us of so much of the tribal highlights of living, and nothing beats the dance for actually stretching out your brain and resetting yourself for daily living. So the party must be a place where the mind can go free, and we respect that and structure our parties around that. A free open space for you to be you and to reunite with music, which was our language before words,” he continues.
At No Way Back you will see performances from the likes of BMG, Erika, Carlos Souffront, Mike Servito, Patrick Russell, Scott Zacharias, Orphx, Bryan Kasenic, Derek Plaslaiko, and others. Many factors and well-thought planning are at hand to create a party that for many is inexplicably life-changing. Sherman says “with No Way Back we hope to provide a safe environment in which you can lose yourself in sound and time. How we construct the environment – with an emphasis on the quality of sound system, top-notch DJs, and immersive environments – is something we bring forth from the heydey of rave culture in Detroit. This party is an attempt by us to not look backwards, but to bring the best parts of our early rave and warehouse experiences to today’s crowds.”
We forget in the daily minutia that our innocence is there to be embraced. We deny our darkness for fear of what we’ll see. Our concept of where we are and who we are with is sometimes not as clear because we do not take the time to really be aware. Interdimensional Transmissions in its cognitive and visionary nature brings you into the depths of what it all is, what it all means. Once you get a true glimpse, there truly is no way back.
The cab makes a left down a road toward a dead end. It’s the East Side of Buffalo, N.Y. and there’s no one around. “Where is it? Do you hear anything? Maybe just up there a little bit. Oh, that’s definitely it.” Feet scamper down the road toward a warehouse where a few other souls are found milling outside the building smoking cigarettes. There’s faint light spilling out. Someone, open the door.
Although Buffalo is a Rust Belt city and a primed breeding ground for artful events, it wasn’t until Strange Allure came to fruition just last year that there has been a boost of fueled excitement to the city’s typical party scene.
A man that calls himself Alan Frank was living in Cleveland, Ohio for almost six years before moving to Buffalo about two years ago. He was born in a town south of Cedar Point, right between Cleveland and Toledo, in the middle of nowhere.
When he was just a teenager, Frank was booking and playing punk and hardcore shows. While he was in high school he would book touring bands at a clubhouse by the local reservoir. Grind and extreme music exposed him to seeing the American underground music scene. But overtime, he says, the scene became oversaturated with bands and the payoff wasn’t ideal.
“I had always flirted with electronic music and techno, but all my friends were punk and we all liked hip-hop and dub.” Techno was his guilty pleasure. But Frank grew up with knowledge about turntablism and was semi-familiar with Detroit techno; occasionally he was able to pick it up on the radio due to his proximity being in Ohio. Artists such as DJ Shadow and any of that “moody groovy weird stuff” drew him in deeper. He started hearing more and more about DIY house and techno, and simultaneously began collecting records. A self-acclaimed Craigslist hound, he scored a collection of Detroit techno and dub techno and from that point forward he was convinced. Additionally, “in a crazy stroke of fate” he was able to flip a mediocre pair of turntables for a mint pair of Technics at a price that was somewhat unimaginable.
“I started collecting techno records and there’s a really sick shop in Cleveland called Bent Crayon, which is legitimately the best record store in the country.”
Frank would pay close attention to the owner’s favorite picks that he would showcase in the shop. Additionally, the shop’s owner would throw events and Frank found himself at Regis and Veronica Vasicka. “That was probably the first techno thing I’d really gone to … it was just freaks coming out,” he says.
When Bent Crayon brought Voices From The Lake, Frank ran into previous co-worker Adam Miller and from there they “went down the wormhole” together. Frank and Miller started going to Hot Mass in Pittsburgh in 2013. “That was huge to see – how cool a party could be and how un-club like it could be.
“It was funny because I really didn’t want to go … I was tired,” he says. His interest was piqued for psilocybin, nothing serious and without a very real intention toward it. But Miller approached him – unaware of Frank’s predisposition – and said he had some mushrooms. The romantics might call it fate, regardless, they both hopped on the Interstate 76 toward Pittsburgh.
“[Hot Mass] was unlike anything I’ve ever been to. You know, just a tiny dark room with a killer system. People weren’t talking, people were dancing. You could dance with other people. Totally uninhibited.”
After Hot Mass, Miller invited him to Sustain-Release and with hesitation Frank eventually agreed. “That’s when I got my mind blown about the possibilities of the intersection of DIY culture and dance music … I was dialed in throughout the whole weekend. It’s the most cohesive, perfectly built thing I’ve ever seen. It’s insane.”
The communal vibe of Sustain-Release was a clear inspiration which has worked as the oncoming structure for Strange Allure parties.
“Just seeing all the different people that would come out. Certain people, and groups like Discwoman, using it as a platform to approach real issues and talk about things in a very punk sense, it was really cool. The thing that was cool about Sustain-Release is how represented the female talent was, that was awesome. There have been things that I’ve been to that were clubby and just fucking bros … if there’s one thing I cannot relate to, or one thing that will drive me away, it’s that.” Sustain-Release, a total void of the surface mainstream EDM, became a beacon in his mind’s eye.
“Seeing the detail and the care that all these people put into building this thing and it turning out perfect … such a cohesive idea, seen all the way through – it was really cool.” — ALAN FRANK
Sometime later, friends of his were throwing a Halloween party and asked him to DJ. “It went way better than I expected,” he says and people urged him to continue playing house and techno. In the summer of 2015 he decided to explore something new and assembled a group of 10-12 fresh air punk homegrown people. With connections in real estate he started bouncing with the idea of curating an event in the city of Buffalo.
Frank had the name Strange Allure in mind a long time ago. Inspired by Mission of Burma, a post-punk band from Boston, Mass. in the ’70s-’80s, he scribbled the name down on a dry erase board in his bedroom studio hoping to one day use it for something. Next step was to figure out who to book for the first event. While in Toronto to see Jay Daniel, by happenstance arrived in time for doors; “I was there so painfully early and nobody was there except me.”
Stuart Li, otherwise known as Basic Soul Unit, was there and the two started chatting. Li agreed to come through to play in Buffalo and the first Strange Allure party was born.
After a slight location snafu before the launch party he cold called people for five days straight and eventually landed on the East Side space where Strange Allure held it’s first party. “I was so stressed out because I did not want to cancel that show because I thought we were going to be able to ride something really cool that was happening with Western New York and all this stuff that was coming to a head,” he says. In a warehouse that functioned for powder coating and as a lumberyard in the 1920s, the collective started to turn it into something different.
“That spot was totally haphazardly thrown together. We got in there maybe two days before the show,” he says. “I had no idea how to build it up. We made everything out of stuff that was found there. The sound system, we built that little makeshift stage and all it is was are pallets and drywall. We dropped the subs in front of it and it was perfect, totally flush. The speakers fit perfectly. That bar is just an old headboard. The car seat we put in the lounge area. The table we were using at the door was already there. Everything was just in there.”
The day began at 9 a.m. to prepare the party and after loading in and loading out they cleared the warehouse by 9 a.m., a few hours after the party ended.
Prior to the launch party, the crew put together a fundraiser event at SolRise studio on Buffalo’s East Side. “It wasn’t a great turn out but the people who came out were really excited to see techno in the city,” he says. “We really tried to build it up and promote it as a community-based party and make people feel welcome and make people feel like they’re part of something.”
Working hand-in-hand to create something together, an evening of Strange Allure is one worth exploring and full of surprises.
For the next Strange Allure installation, catch Detroit’s Erika and BMG [Interdimensional Transmissions] on Saturday, June 18.
Raised on Detroit’s westside, Norm Talley and Delano Smith began establishing themselves as artists in the early days of house and techno in the Motor City.
Talley was influenced by music at a very young age. “During this time in my youth there was a strong musical presence on the westside of Detroit. Lots of great record shops and parties to go along with that; they even sold records in department stores like Federals along with records shops like Detroit Audio, Professionals, Chaunceys, Kendricks, etc.”
With genuine determination to explore his love of music, he picked up a paper route to earn money for records as well as another turntable to complete his set.
“Motivation comes from within and if I wanted it I went out and got it, so at this time in my life as a teenager my motivation was collecting good music and dancing before I even had two turntables.” – Norm Talley
Smith was born in Chicago, Ill. but he and his family moved to Michigan when he was maybe 4 or 5 years old. Although his roots stem from Detroit, by the early ‘80s he started to develop a taste for Chicago house music. “There was no place like the Detroit’s westside growing up. That’s where the scene started in Detroit,” he says.
Each artist were influenced by the late and great WLBS DJ Ken Collier, a Detroit-native and pioneer to the techno community. Collier was ultimately known for his after hours sets at Heaven, a gay nightclub on 7 Mile and Woodward. Like Frankie Knuckles and others, Collier played a pivotal role in the era of post-disco, when the energy was high, the scene was pushed further underground and a new sound was brewing.
“I opened for Ken a lot in Detroit at many of his residencies … I already knew how to beatmatch pretty much prior to having the opportunity to open for him. He did advise on little things like blending, EQing and volume, but just watching and speaking with him when we played together taught me a lot,” Smith says, adding that he has too many fond memories of him to reminisce on just one. Smith did begin to DJ alongside Collier and began gaining most of his notoriety at L’uomo Detroit, a warehouse type club.
Talley lived four blocks away from Collier and regardless of being a bit younger at the time, he was still gaining knowledge through the music he shared. Collier was a mentor and a friend to him, providing him knowledge about disco and progressive which developed that signature Talley sound and energetic set. “One great memory of Ken playing was when he got ready to mix a record he would tell the light guy to ‘blacken the floor!’ which meant turn off the lights and when the mix was complete, and the next record was introduced, the light guy would then turn back on the lights!”
Smith took a break from DJing in the mid/late ’80s around the time that house music was becoming more popular. “I’d already been DJing for a long time making no money, so I decided to get a real job and further my education and eventually left Detroit for a few years. When I returned in the early ’90s the music had changed completely. I was at a friends house that happened to have some turntables set up in his basement — one thing led to another and here we are.”
Fully inspired and on the grind, Smith had his mission at the helm and in 2003 joined forces with Tony Foster to develop Mixmode Recordings. Prior to that, Smith and Talley developed the Detroit Beatdown Crew, along with Mike ‘Agent X’ Clarke. Their first compilation LP was released through Third Ear Recordings in 2002. As a trio their sound began seeping into the European scene, leading Smith to Germany where he developed a very impactful relationship with Yossi Amoyal, head of Berlin label Sushitech.
Both artists have performed on an international level, including places like Germany, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Japan and more.
“When I first began to travel internationally overseas they seemed to pay very close attention to detail as far as sound system which was pleasant for me and now I see a lot of clubs in the U.S. paying more attention to details. Don’t get me wrong, there were some clubs in the U.S. in the late ’70s and early ’80s that had great soundsystems but I guess it seemed as all the clubs overseas had great sound systems,” Talley says.
According to Smith, “The music is taken more seriously in Europe and Japan it seems. A DJ can really play from the heart. People that come to hear you are truly your fans, they buy your records and are knowledgeable about the music and the entire scene in general. It’s a lot different in the U.S., and I’ll just leave it at that. There are many factors in the U.S. that divides us musically and culturally.”
Regardless of international differences, “the D” is the birthplace of techno. Creation and community was so poignant during the early days on the westside, it helped spark and develop a culture that remains authentic. According to Talley, “I think DJs and producers living in Detroit at that time were heavily influenced by the rich history of music coming out of Detroit through radio, our parents, backyard parties, high school gigs, DJ crews … so I think it just carried on into our adult lives.” The city is still growing with new waves in the scene, many shaping the next generation of music from that city and carrying on the legacy. From two artists who have seen the city’s evolution, they shared with Sequencer who they find to be an important player in shaping the next generation of music from the 313.
“Really hard to say as there are so many and I like a lot of them,” Smith says. “Too many to name actually, but I will say – with the new younger generation of music producers, the scene will be left in good hands!”
Talley continued, “A lot of producers and DJs have brought their sons into the music business and I think they will carry the house and techno torch when we’re old and grey. Guys like Jay Daniels, Kyle Hall, Dantiez and Damarii Saunderson, and Generation Next to name a few.”
Tens of thousands of people will make the pilgrimage to Detroit on Memorial Day weekend for the annual Movement Festival. Movement attracts people from all over the world, exposing them to the city and perhaps showing it in a new light, breaking the negative connotation that many people might have in mind. There is a culture of art, music and cuisine that is more than a pleasure to explore.
Each person that has a connection to the festival has a special meaning in their heart for Detroit. For Smith, “I like the fact that Detroit is shown in a good light around the world. The guys at Paxahau have a top notch production in the U.S.A., we need this here, and it’s done in my hometown where techno was born.”
Movement, produced by Paxahau since 2006, will be celebrating 10 years this May and has grown to become one of the largest electronic festivals. “It’s a positive thing all the way around exposing people from Detroit – and worldwide – to electronic music from Detroit and abroad,” Talley says.
Talley will be returning to Rochester, N.Y. along with Smith on Saturday, April 23 for the seventh installation of Signal > Noise who have previously presented The Black Madonna, Claude Young and Eric Cloutier. This event has also been selected as an official Movement Pre-party.
Both artists have been friends and DJing with one another for decades. Smith says that he and Norm are like family. “I’ve known Norm for many, many years and we’re very close friends, like family,” Smith said.
“Great friend of mine for many years, and we have held residencies together here in Detroit for over 20 years,” Talley says. “[He is] very passionate about music and pays close attention to detail which is right up my alley. Great DJ and label owner of MixMode recordings which we have done records together in the past and more coming in the near future!”
Signal > Noise 2.1: Norm Talley and Delano Smith
Saturday, April 23
45 Euclid (45 Euclid St., Rochester)
See the Facebook event page for more details.
Detroit native Mike Servito needed a clear slate when he decided to move to New York City. Inspired at an early age he would tune into The Wizard, Jeff Mills’ nomenclature while on air for Detroit’s WJLB. Servito debuted in 1995 and continued to build his repertoire throughout the years, establishing a reputation that incites early feelings of house and techno roots.
Starting with the Poorboy parties, he then became an originator of Detroit’s decade-spanning party Dorkwave. Branching off with DJNathan Rapport they developed SASS, a popular monthly queer party. Servito has blown minds playing the beloved No Way Back parties, hosted by Interdimensional Transmissions, during Movement (Detroit Electronic Music Festival). Resident Advisor named his 2014 set as mix of the year and the publication commented, “His headsy but party-rocking selections are ceaselessly flawless, his quick and cut-happy mixing style is a riot, but perhaps the real winning ingredient is the pacing and programming.” Additionally, he holds residency under record label Ghostly’s UNTITLED and is represented by Beyond Booking in North America and Odd Fantastic in Europe.
His residency with The Bunker is what really got the gears in motion, although he says “I spent the first year in New York detached and quickly becoming disillusioned by the vanity of the city. I think when you leave a city for another, it seems like a fresh start but it was isolating and depressing.” Luckily, the spark reignited in 2012 when Bryan Kasenic asked him to become an official resident of The Bunker, a party based in Brooklyn, NYC.
Servito says, “That was the affirmation. I was having a good run with Movement in Detroit doing No Way Back and a few Bunker events prior to my residency. I was playing really solid sets and then it escalated to this point of wanting to play more and more. Bryan asking me to become a resident reignited the spark. It came out of left field honestly and I am so glad it happened. It’s pushed me and driven me to become a better, more focused DJ.”
“I feel super lucky to have come into my own over the past few years. I would’ve never foreseen this outcome, getting gigs and traveling as much as I am right now. I know I’m in a really good place with my Bunker family: Bryan, Seze, Derek, Eric, and all our extended family,” he continued. “It’s really important to make those connections as friends and as colleagues. There is a mutual respect. I want to do my best for The Bunker and I know they want me to succeed.”
Inspiration derives from so many places for an artist and Servito constantly nods at his fellow influences like Mike Huckaby, Derrick Carter, Derek Plaslaiko, Richie Hawtin, Derrick May, and Theo Parrish to name a few. However, inspiration may be found beyond the realm of the art form we work in, often reflecting something significant. Servito has been finding meaning through dreams and similar to his classic way of performing, he gains creativity through looking back on what was to create something new.
“I’ve been having dreams about my youth a lot lately. Sometimes lucid, sometimes not. I don’t know what that means but, I guess I am inspired by my youth currently. But not in a retro sort of way. I really enjoyed my freedom as a kid, exploring and learning about new music and art and discovering things in a way that we don’t necessarily do present day,” he says. “I find inspiration in my dreams, reading about art I enjoy, watching old film clips and videos, old fashion-related things. I find inspiration in the past a lot. I love a good reference point.”
The artist’s vinyl collection is heavy weight, and with such an extensive library he maintains flow with track selections to feed an ultimately seamless set.
When it comes to selection Servito doesn’t think of classic versus modern productions. “I think about how this track fits with this track. How this hi-hat sounds over this bassline. It’s really interesting to be playing music from 1988 with music from 2015. It’s about connecting the dots, but, it’s also about blurring the lines too. I have a thing for cohesiveness. I think the newer generation throws that out the window completely and that’s fine. But, I need to stay locked into my groove. I don’t want to jump from 125 BPM to 140. That’s just not my style.”
Servito chooses his tracks based on feeling. “I know it when I hear it. There is an excitement that occurs when I hear a bassline or a drum kick or a really good sample. I am just well aware of what kinds of sounds I like. It’s basically whatever moves me and what I want to dance to. Those are the biggest factors. Would I personally wanna dance to this track? Is this going to make me lose it?! Those are the prerequisites to enter my bag.”
With a steady uptake of records he says “it’s important to keep things changing. I have my staples, the ones that I play a lot. It just depends. I’m always putting things in and out of rotation. I try to buy new records at least once a week. I have a problem. It’s a big vice for me.” Swinging between house and techno he curates a set and pulls records appropriate for all aspects of the party.
“I think that’s important. Making sure you are pulling the right music. You don’t want to be playing deep house records if you’re opening for Silent Servant, or you don’t want to play too aggressive when you are opening for Kerri Chandler. You have to be aware.”
During a set there is so much stimulation: the lights, the crowd, each person reacting to the music on their own, yet the whole space is simultaneously emitting a general feeling. The Sequencer asked Servito about his headspace during a set. Does it become lifted into a meditative state, or perhaps to maintain such fluidity of motion does he require meticulous and mechanical focus?
“I like this question. There’s definitely a lot going on. There are so many elements all at once. I’ve always been a person who is easily distracted. I think being focused and being insanely meticulous leads to a meditative state when I am playing. There’s definitely a zone state that is acquired while I play and it needs to happen. I’m at my best uninterrupted,” he says.
An uninterrupted state is not a constant for a performing DJ. Continuing on, he discussed this as a major issue of depiction that is very prevalent for performers in the scene.
“I am not a hype man. I’m a DJ. I think people have to realize that there is some technique and effort to what we are doing. I think that it’s undervalued. You would never interrupt someone playing the piano or the drums to tell him those notes sound nice while they are playing. It’s the same idea. I wonder when people will take that into consideration. It is tremendous work to create this experience and environment. I find it funny that people always want to talk to me while I am mixing. I seriously don’t get it. I’m sure people think I am a bit of a diva, but I am a perfectionist. I want things to go well 110% full on. That requires all my attention to the work. It’s always about the details.” – MIKE SERVITO
For an international DJ, parties from New York City to Berlin more or less have an established crowd. Although with the heart of the same animal, those major scenes beat differently than those tucked away in smaller cities. Yet these lesser populated places are receiving rave reviews from high-caliber artists. Norm Talley, Sassmouth, Black Madonna and Shawn Rudiman have all played Signal > Noise parties in Rochester, N.Y. and speak well of it. What is it about these places that evokes such excitement?
From Servito’s perspective he says, “I think an environment in which it is more intimate is preferred. You are more likely to have everyone’s undivided attention. You know everyone is there for you. The allure is quality programming and a quality crowd. When it’s intimate, you know everyone is there for the same exact reason. There is just a greater, direct connection with artist and audience. You lose some of that when you are playing these 4-5 thousand [or more] capacity events. Everyone needs an escape so it’s really important that more cities — such as Rochester — do these kinds of events with extended sets. You get the full experience. Not just a sample.”
The spotlighted artist will be making his way to Rochester for the next Signal > Noise installation, to be held on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 45 Euclid in Rochester, N.Y. His message for all those making their way to the ROC: “GONNA MAKE YOU JACK. ;)”
Find more information on the Facebook event page.
Toronto-based DJ/producers Ryan Lamont and Boris Kurtzman founded techno label OddSine recordings earlier this year with an intent to focus on the darker, brooding side of electronic music. According to the founders the label was conceived with an aim to affirm the differences that unify their sonic community. To give voice to the most intelligent expressions of the multiple subdivisions of techno by creating a space open to their infinite potentiality for hybridity, deviation, disassemblage and reassemblage.
The label emphasizes the importance for OddSine producers to have a unique creative vision. Lamont says, “The one thing we would like for the artist we sign to the label to have is a desire to be unique and make music that they are passionate about and not just the trending sound. It’s hard in this day and age to seek out artists who purely produce for themselves and not for whats in.”
In addition to providing a platform for both rising artists and techno veterans, Lamont says the crew will continue to host events in Toronto in order to “build stronger relationships with the artists we sign and also give us a chance to to expose the smaller artists on our label. What we feel defines a successful event is when we get positive feedback from both patrons and headliners and everyone is looking forward to the next adventure. It’s a big city with a lot of competition so sometimes it’s hit or miss but hopefully we will build a brand with a strong enough following that if another techno event is happening it won’t put a strain on turn out.”
Both Lamont and Kurtzman have been DJing since they started going to raves in the late ’90s, although it wasn’t until recently when they started producing their own tracks.
“Boris got into DJing in 1999 because he always had an ear for futuristic and innovative music, I got into it after I started going to raves in ’96,” says Lamont. Initially producing tracks for his own sets, he moved into production after dabbling with sound design for several years, while Kurtzman formed OddSine production duo Aerodromme with Steve Chan in 2008. In the coming year, the label will be releasing a compilation comprised by various artists, as well as streaming live feeds from their events.
OddSine Recordings on Facebook