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Richie Hawtin Goes Beyond EDM with New CNTRL Tour

Richie Hawtin photographed in Berlin by Alexander Koch

Richie Hawtin is no stranger to the North American electronic music scene. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit, Hawtin and his Plus 8 crew threw some of the Midwest’s most legendary parties in the early 1990s. As Plastikman, Hawtin played raves from coast to coast, sharing bills with the likes of Moby and the Prodigy. Since moving to Berlin a decade ago, however, Hawtin has focused his energies primarily on Europe, where his brand of minimal techno thrives.

Now he aims to crack North America once again. This fall, Hawtin, Loco Dice, and a handful of their DJ peers will crisscross the East Coast and Midwest with “CNTRL: Beyond EDM”, a college tour aimed at introducing listeners to what he terms “the deeper side of electronic music.” As with all of Hawtin’s initiatives, technology plays a key role; DJ Tech Tools founder Ean Golden, a lead developer of numerous digital DJ products, is along for the ride, and the production/DJ academy Dubspot will lead workshops and master classes. The lineup, meanwhile, highlights artists whose roots run deep in the American scene — Carl Craig, Kevin Saunderson, Josh Wink, Victor Calderone — along with young guns like Seth Troxler and Paco Osuna.

I spoke with Hawtin last week as he was wrapping up his summer season in Ibiza — incidentally, Deadmau5 pretty much hit the nail on the head when he goofed on Hawtin’s charmed life — to find out why he’s hitting the road, and what he thinks lies “beyond EDM.”

How’s Ibiza treating you?
I love it. It was the best thing I ever did, moving here for the summer. It’s been incredible. Not only Enter and the events, but the whole momentum of being on the island and having a real summer, being able to squeeze in half a day off, being near the beach, just seeing the water. It’s been perfect.

That’s been your home base for the whole summer?
From July until next week, and then next year probably a little bit longer. It’s luxury. I’m definitely a lucky guy.

How have the Enter parties been?
You know, they’re my parties, so what am I supposed to say? It was an incredible season. I would say, out of my top 10 gigs of the year, seven or eight of them were at Enter. Plus, the energy on the island, all the people coming internationally, and just the feeling that we’re giving back in a different way than the other parties. There really hasn’t been a downside. It’s been an absolutely incredible fucking three months.

People were really worried coming into this season, because they say this is the first year the economic crisis has really made its way onto Ibiza. Talking to some friends in the restaurant business, July and August were pretty much like normal, but June and September, they could feel a bit of a difference. There was probably some difference, because some of the crowds shifted between parties. I don’t think everybody had as good a season as they had in the past, just because there was more competition, times are changing, and people wanted something a little bit different. But from my vantage point, for us it was incredible. The numbers were great, people were at the party drinking and spending money at the bar, so the club was happy. I think Ibiza is continuing to be a stronghold in the international dance music scene.

In Ibiza, how much correlation do you see to what’s happening in the United States?
The EDM sound of America is coming more and more into Ibiza; of course you have your Guettas and your Steve Angellos; you saw Skrillex and Deadmau5 coming in the past few years doing a couple of shows each, and I think you’ll see those guys expand more in Ibiza. With the EDM explosion, as much as people are having success over there, a lot of those artists are looking to come over and find more success and more of a stronghold in Europe. And while they’re doing that, the European electronic scene is looking to gain ground in North America. We’re all looking to expand our territories and to educate or inspire people about the music we believe in. At the end of the day, we all believe in electronic music, but electronic music is such a wide and diverse genre these days. I guess it needs all of us to hold our flags and stand fast for what we believe in, and let everybody know about that.

That’s why we say “Beyond EDM.” To us, EDM is too narrowly defined in North America right now, and we want to come in there and blow that open. There are hundreds of genres and subgenres in electronic music which all kind of fuse and work together to create new subgenres, and it’s time to talk a little more about that. This is our pathway. And we’re trying to keep our pathway a little bit open, not only on a historical level, inviting people like Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig, but also having Ean Golden involved showing the controllerism side. I’m hesitant to use the word “underground,” but let’s say these are the deeper shades of electronic music. I don’t mean that only musically; these are people we’re bringing along to show the wide scope of this music, not only over the last four or five years, but over the last 20. We hope that resonates in a different way from what’s being talked about.

What was the genesis of the tour? Obviously, you’ve been active in North America since the early 1990s; at what point did you decide that the kind of music you represent isn’t getting exposure in the U.S.?
The last five years, you saw kind of a dip in electronic music in North America, pretty severely. It became harder and harder to come into towns and get crowds for acts like myself or Sven Väth or Loco Dice. For a while, I don’t think it really bothered us, because things had been so crazy everywhere else. But as many of us started to see the new interest in a different type of electronic music, we felt that, okay, at least the doors are opening; at least the term “electronic music” is on the lips of more regular people, and maybe now is the time to go back through some of these towns and grab a new, younger audience. The genesis of CNTRL was just, “Hey, why don’t we pack a bus with all the hottest DJs we know in our scene, and just fucking roll through there and pack it so that you can’t even deny the kind of excitement you’re going to get?” Not only from the old fans, because we haven’t been back so much, but fans spreading the word, and people saying, “Electronic music? Who are these guys coming from Europe, they’re doing this EDM stuff, or is it EDM?” That was really the beginning of it, and then a couple of conversations with some artists quickly pulled it together, and Dice and I really believed in it. It’s basically, are you prepared to take a month off and put everything on hold, roll through America, not worry about what we’re going to make, and just try and fuckin’ create as much buzz as possible? And Dice was all, “Hey bro, I’m in, let’s go for it.”

So this is actually going to be a bus tour?
It’s the only way to do all these dates. We’re taking two buses with a lot of infrastructure for broadcasting and filming and doing the Dubspot sessions. Along the way, a couple artists are coming on board either for the lectures or for playing on the nights. There’s probably 20 artists coming through, all in all. We’ve done some bus tours in the past, two weeks with the Minus gang going through the territories where we can always fill clubs, but this is a little bit different. We were like, let’s find where the colleges and the universities are. I also saw Tiësto and some other people doing these college tours. Well, okay, these college kids, for sure, right now, they know the word EDM. They’re talking about or playing or listening to some type of electronic music. This is our window. We need to go in there and do something.

We’re not going to go in there like Tiësto and play for 8,000 kids; they don’t know us. But let’s go in there and try to give them what we can offer, beyond someone like Tiësto or a lot of the other guys. Even Tiësto probably doesn’t have as much history as many of us on the bus tour. We’re talking people who have been into this whole thing for 20, 25 years, and have always had a different angle than just coming and doing big shows. Many of us have been running labels, have been quite involved in technology, or doing talks and lectures. We know we’re different. And we wanted to come in and highlight why we’re different and why we love what we do, and hope that resonates and inspires a couple people in the audience.

Let me play devil’s advocate: What does make you different? What are you offering that Tiësto isn’t, and why should someone who’s happy with EDM care?
I think a lot of what’s out there right now is based upon instantaneous gratification. The high energy of Skrillex, the catchy lyrics, the melodies of Tiësto. There’s a deeper shade of electronic music that is the foundation of what all this stuff is built on. That takes time to develop. It has its own intricacies and has its own way to grab people. But it’s not instantaneous. Our music isn’t for the masses. We’re not trying to preach and turn the masses onto Hawtin and Loco Dice. But we believe that there’s a bigger population of people out there who love electronic music, but want to hear more subtleties in it. And I don’t think what’s big on the EDM charts right now is synonymous with subtle. [Laughs]

Some of what’s popular in the United States right now feels like a question of infrastructure. You could look at how Berlin’s 36-hour party culture made it possible for, say, Ricardo Villalobos to make the kind of music he does — and why America’s club scene, where most kids get their EDM from 45-minute festival sets, or in bars that close at 2 a.m., might favor music that provides instant gratification. Is it a challenge to create an experience where your kind of music makes sense?
I think that is one of the challenges. I think you’re right with music developing in Europe in connections to the places and ways that it was played. What we’re doing, coming through with CNTRL, is to find a balance working within the context of North America, but also doing what we do. This is a showcase: We have four artists playing each night. We’re playing, usually, one hour or 1:15 each, but within that time, we all play differently. We’re trying to find a way to capture the kids in the overall programming of the night, that goes from highs to lows — between what I’m playing, what Dice is playing — and have more storytelling throughout the night. That comes through in the way we play. We’re hoping we can capture the kids and they’ll be energized by maybe all of us, or maybe someone really feels connected to Dice or to me, so the next time we come through, our sets are longer again. It’s a slow introduction to what we do. I don’t think there’s going to be a sudden shift and we’ll get kids going from a 45-minute Skrillex show to a six-hour Hawtin-type set. But we need to get them listening to us, seeing if they feel connected to that, and slowly stretch those sets out, and I guess, sensitize them to a deeper sound of electronic music.

Is the name, “CNTRL,” a reference to controllerism?
You’ll see it when you see the logo, which is kind of a fingerprint embedded with a circuit board. Our fingertips connect to the technology, and technology is ours to control. It’s ours to use to show the individuality of each person. Dice is on board, and he’s using turntables still; I’m using my [custom] controllers, Ean Golden is very ingrained in the more hip-hop style, with buttons and knobs and faders. We want to really inspire kids that there’s no one way to make or perform electronic music. If you want to use Ableton or a keyboard or CDJs or turntables, or you want to just have fucking buttons in front of you, it’s about finding the best way to interface yourself through technology and come out, at the end of the day, being an individual. That’s this fingerprint idea. Our fingerprint is one of the best ways to identify us as individuals. No matter what you use, the most important thing is that your music, your sound, or your technology-driven creativity, ends up being original and defined by who you really are.

Are the workshops your response to a perceived lack of resources for people to learn about technology?
I think there are incredible resources out there to learn and find out more about all your favorite artists and why they’re doing things. You’ve got Dubspot and other organizations doing online classes. If you want to learn to DJ, and you have an internet connection, you can get a free course or a fully certified $600 ProTools course. It’s all out there. But learning and reading books and taking courses is one thing. Having a chat with an artist who has been doing it for many years, and getting that kind of direct inspiration, there’s nothing like that. I remember going to a radio station and meeting Derrick May, and him giving me a record, and just feeling Derrick’s energy that day. It was infectious. I left the radio station with that record feeling, “Fuck! Even more so than before, I want to be Derrick May!” You get that a bit online, but you know what I stand for — I love all the technology out there, but all the parties and events we do, we always try to bring people back together physically. We’re human beings. We’re not wires and circuit boards yet. It’s trying to go through these places, while these students are out there hearing about electronic music and wondering about electronic music, we’re going to give them a chance to come face to face with some of the people we feel are the greats in electronic music.

Where do you see house and techno headed right now?
The explosion of EDM in America was very pop-driven. Every song that’s getting attention has some kind of pop lyrics or melody. Over in Europe, you’ve had an influx of pop-driven music. Hot Creations and a lot of that music is what I’d call “underground pop” music. So I do feel that we’re about to go deeper again, and kind of explore where electronic music, and house and techno — or dubstep — can go. I think kids are getting more and more involved with the technology, learning about Ableton, taking these classes, going to raves, going to festivals, going home and saying, “I want to be part of that.” I think the music scene is so huge and diverse right now, but it’s only getting more so. I’m getting so many interesting, eclectic demos right now. In most of my sets, my peaks and my highs are from people that I don’t even know if they’ve ever had a record out before. It’s incredible.

Did you find the author of that unidentified acid track you were trying to locate the other day?
Yep. Got it. Not only did I find it, but I found a photo of the guy giving me the CD that his friend had taken, in Moscow. And on top of the CD that I had, I just received a new demo from them two hours ago, and we’re in contact and trying to figure out what to do together.

I hope they tagged the files this time.
They tagged the file. Then they sent me a little bit of a bio — who they are, how long they’ve been producing. They’re using the Korg blue machine and red machine and a couple of Kaoss pads, really low-tech, and really warm and beautiful. This is what’s happening. They found their own way. That’s really the message. There’s no right or wrong technology — software or hardware, digital or analog — if you feel it, do it. If that feeling comes through the other end, it’s going to resonate with someone. We all connect to some type of emotion, but there has to be something there, and that’s going to take you to the next step.

The CNTRL tour is pretty exclusively about house and techno, yet so much progressive music is being made outside of those genres right now.
Okay, let me give you the pitch: “You want to get on a bus for 30 days? We’re going to do lectures during the day, we’re going to do gigs at night. We’re not going to have much time to sleep. If you do this, I expect all your fucking energy. And probably you’re either going to make zero or you’re going to lose money in the end, because we’re all going to share the deficit.” You know, only your friends are going to come on board. It’s not really the time or place to say, “Hey, I love your music, dubstep guy. We’ve never met, but come over here, we’re going to do a great thing, believe me!” We’ve got a lot of incredible people on board with that type of pitch, but it can only go so far. Honestly, in all the projects I’ve done, you bring like-minded people together who are passionate, who have a great connection, hopefully a strong friendship, and you can do incredible fucking things together. We hope that this takes off with CNTRL because of that kind of foundation. And if it works, we can continue it. We can open it up as other people come in line with our vision. The vision is just to open up the definition of EDM.

And next year you can have a whole caravan of buses.
Exactly. We’re the fucking Mad Max nomads coming into the wasteland of America right now, with EDM being so huge. You’ve got kids making music for three years who are selling out 8,000-person stadiums and getting $100,000 fees in Vegas. I don’t want that to sound like a complaint — that’s actually amazing for electronic music. But now is our time to come through and show what we’ve been believing in for 20 years. And I’m sure there are kids out there that are going to be like, “Fuck! That’s the type of electronic music I’ve been waiting for.”

The CNTRL tour runs from October 29 until November 19; see for details.