Disco Nihilist: A New Career In A New Town
“I had a mattress and a library card.” So says Mike Taylor, who, like many a great artist, upped sticks, moved to a new town and worked in isolation. He left his home in Detroit, packed his earthly possessions in a car and drove 1,400 miles to Austin, Texas. It’s not the most obvious path to gain recognition, but it worked: an impressive debut for Pittsburgh imprint Love What You Feel was followed by three EPs for Daetron Vargas’s Construction Paper.
These releases helped define the Disco Nihilst sound: raw and uncompromising music made using analogue sequencers and hardware, with demos recorded to cassette before being sent off. It gave his productions a crunchy, lo-fi charm many producers now seek but few achieve. These records also piqued the interest of a certain Gerd Janson, with the tastemaking Running Back boss snapping up the excellent Running (Far Away) 12 inch, released last year, with another EP set to follow. James Manning spoke at length to Taylor about his time in Detroit, his plans to start his own label and why he is kryptonite to Jeff Mills.
How exactly did you first get into making music?
I started making electronic music back in 1995. I got an Alesis drum machine out of a Trading Times listing for $75. I had hardware back in the day, a cheap little Tascam mixer, and I recorded to cassette with a few other drum machines. I did that for a few years and then started getting out of dance music; I sold off most of my stuff and started playing guitar, then moved across the country from Detroit to Texas in 2004. The amount of possessions you can fit into a car is what I brought with me to Texas – I had a sampler and a multi-track recorder and that was about it. A year or two later I bought a PC, and in a way it was a revelation because it was a really good writing tool. You did not have the limitations of hardware. If you needed a flanger, you could just click a button and have another instance of one. If you needed another synth, you just loaded another one up. It was a great writing tool in that respect. I also had a friend who ran a club night called Get Broke, and I could play my tracks on the system before the place opened up.
Fruity Loops sounded too tinny and didn’t have the right bass response, so I went to Ableton, which was better but I still spent most of my time fighting the software to get it to sound right. Around 2007 I thought, forget it, I’m going to back to hardware. I didn’t have much money at the time so I got a $50 Tascam 4-track Portastudio; they’re kind of trendy now but five years ago it was more a case of necessity – I needed it because it was cheap and had a built-in mixer. My 707 was like $100, I bought it from a guy who used it to play rock music in high school. He practiced guitar with it, and then put it in his closet when he became a “real adult”. It is the same with my others synthesisers, everything cost between $100 and $200 because nobody wanted it back then and it was all I could afford.
What club were you playing these tracks at?
Merrick Brown had a Thursday night thing called Get Broke at a place called Plush. Plush was a small bar that had a pretty good club system and it was the one place in Austin at that time that featured underground club music. I would get there early, like 9.45, and the place wouldn’t even properly open up until 10.30, and they let me play whatever I had been working on that week across the sound system full blast. It was a really great excuse to have something new ready every Thursday. I got into the habit of making one or two new tracks every week and through that practice I really improved my ability to make music. It was the one good party in Austin too, you’d hear the broken beat stuff, you’d hear old Detroit techno, classic house, Italo disco, New York deep house at the time – it was really just a mish mash of everything.
You are involved with Daetron Vargas’ Construction Paper Records – how did that come to be?
Everybody involved with the Austin vinyl scene met up through Get Broke sometime between 2006-2008. That’s how I met John Angle and Daetron Vargas, Majora Y Minora, Billy Converse, Jim Carlile and a whole host of other people. The scene was pretty small back then, so that handful of DJs were the people that hung out together. I did the record for Love What You Feel, and through that I knew how to get records pressed and how to set up distribution. Daetron and I decided to cut some tracks in my studio and we put it out. Later, I did a couple more records for them and that was my main platform before I started releasing music on Running Back. It’s wide open for other artists right now – Analogue Desires by Steve Summers just dropped. I’m still on good terms with them and I might do something in the future, but at the moment I’m trying to pull all my work inward and just work for myself for the next year or two
Does this mean we’re going to see Disco Nihilist Records?
Talk is cheap and I’d rather do what I’m going to do and let it go out there rather then say I’m going to do X, Y and Z, and be bound by that.
What did moving to Austin do for you as a producer and as a person?
For one, it got me out of the provincialism of Detroit – that was a big thing. I used to worry about what other people were up to – keeping up with the Jones’s – that sort of thing. When you go out to Austin, it’s like going out to the desert, you are basically out there on your own. I had a mattress and a library card. There’s no money, no audience, no stardom, if you are going to do it, you are going to do it for the right reasons. So rather than it being a status or scene thing, you do it because you are into it. It doesn’t really matter what anybody else is doing because nobody is paying attention, nobody cares. You might as well be making music on Mars because nobody gives a shit about dance music in Austin – that’s what Texas taught me. I went out there and made the music I wanted to make, and it was a good place for me to work through the awkward stuff that wasn’t good and get to where I finally am today. We were aware of the trends, but so far away from the main centres of dance music that they didn’t really affect us.
At Backspin we would get all the records that were coming out of Detroit and Chicago at the time. We were one of the few places in America who were ordering and selling that stuff back then. There happened to be lots of used acid house records; those records were dusty at the time and then they were reissued to death a few years later. All of those records happened to be sitting there for just about nothing and nobody was interested. I just started poking through the shelves and started getting into them.
I was into older stuff before – my first introduction to older dance music would have been the Warp Influences compilation that came out in 1998. There were miscellaneous things that would be kind of obvious now, like Adonis, Jamie Principle and Arthur Russell and what have you. I have been interested in that stuff for a long time, but I got a lot deeper into the music through Backspin. It’s all kind of obvious now that it’s been reissued to death, but if you go back 10 years, or even five or six years, and most of that stuff was as far from being cool as you can imagine – everyone was in the throes of electro house and minimal – the old black American stuff people were not into so much. I felt like a musical exile through most of the 00’s.
You worked at Backspin Records in Austin?
I was a customer there for a very long time and eventually I got hired. After Eric got tired of ordering dance vinyl, I pretty much took over that duty. I would also clean records in the back room, which was a pretty awesome job because all the used stock came to me first and I got to clean it all up, look at it and get it before everyone else. So I learned a lot in that little back room cleaning records throwing on what ever looked interesting. It wasn’t glamourous, but it was a great education.
So you have mooted an Disco Nihilist label, how about an LP?
The LP format is something people think they have to do to legitimise themselves. From my own perspective, I really don’t listen to dance LPs that often; if I’m going to listen to a record it’s going to be a 12” single. Most dance LPs are filler any way, cut the filler out and give people three good tracks and call it a day. If I’m going to listen to “real music” I’ll listen to jazz or rock or something like that, and then yeah, LPs are totally cool. I don’t feel the need to do it for the sake of doing it, to have a checked it off my career to-do list. The LP format simply doesn’t lend itself to what I do.
What about remixes?
I haven’t done any remixes. It’s one of those things which would be cool to do to get a bit of notoriety and money, but it doesn’t lend itself to the way I work. I don’t work with samples that much, I like being just hardware, I don’t multitrack, I don’t use a computer, everything gets mixed down on the board and bussed to stereo. It’s kinda different from a guy who has 14 stems he can email to somebody to throw in their DAW and play with the EQ settings and move the little coloured blocks around and call it a remix.
The other aspect is; if you’re going to create an object, a record – I still think of this music as vinyl-centric and I think you are creating an object that transmits sound – so if you are going to make something physical, like say an oil painting, why would you do three quarters of the painting yourself and then pay an established artist to finish the bottom left hand corner in their style? Why would you do that? By extension, if you do not have the skill to do complete oil paintings, why are you sending your work out into the world?
My number one question when I make decisions about the project is: Am I going to feel good about it in 10 years? I don’t believe in doing things you are “supposed” to do because that is they way everyone else in the industry does it. First, I don’t know if that leads to success for most people, and second, it doesn’t seem like an interesting way to run your career. So far I feel pretty good about what I’ve accomplished. After the tour in September I will have done everything I set out to do in music.
Are you still happy about your first record on Love What You Feel?
Yeah, it’s a funny record man, it’s been repressed recently and a lot of people are like ‘Oh yeah, that is my favourite record that you’ve done.’ I think it’s funny because when you look at where I was then and where I am at now, it’s a cool record and I feel good about it, but I feel I make better records now. At the time no one was really doing that sound and acid house hadn’t been reissued to death. People were still in the throes of fake deep house, tape wasn’t cool yet, hardware wasn’t cool yet… it’s just interesting to see how things have changed in the last three years. I feel like a lot of people got permission to make lo-fi records by following my example: it’s like ‘man this Disco Nihilist record is fucking terrible, I bet I can make something this bad!’
You are touring your live show, which I’m told fits in your backpack, but no computer?
I am playing Bob Beamann Munich, Robert Johnson in Frankfurt, and Panorama Bar in Berlin at the end of September. The computer is not going to go, I thought about doing that, but … urgh (laughs). Computers are great and if you can get a good sound out of one God bless you, but man there is nothing more uninspiring in the world than trying to put something together on a computer. It’s going to be all hardware, it’s going to be really raw, simple loopy stuff. I’m going to keep it real minimal, real nasty. I’m probably not even going to have any effects – a few synthesisers and a few drum machines and that is it.
You said you only play live when you tour in Europe – how often are you spinning vinyl these days?
Not very often to be honest with you. I have my records and I listen to them, but I don’t DJ that much any more. I live out in the middle of nowhere and there aren’t any gigs. I have made the decision that that’s not what I am going to do. I’ll be honest – I’m not a great DJ, I’m really not. I can play you three hours of good music, in a way that makes sense and makes people enjoy themselves, but if you put a gun to my head and said beat match 10 records perfectly… I am a dead man (laughs). I can do it, but I can’t play a flawless set. The business is cut throat enough, you can’t show up to a club and trainwreck and expect to come back.
So what does make a good DJ?
For me, my whole thing in music is that I’m trying to relive the feelings I used to have. It’s like having a flashback to a room, perhaps a minute long memory, but it’s total sensory awareness – I remember how I felt, how it smelled, how it sounded and how it looked. I try to remember how it felt on the dancefloor and have the feeling that you’re at the greatest place on earth and that there’s nowhere else on the planet you’d rather be. When I think of what a good DJ is, one of the reasons why my tracks are so short is because I’m not really into long blends where you’ve got Traktor auto piloting it for you, and you’re playing an eight minute track with three minutes of filler on either side, where it’s literally a kick drum build for 90 seconds. I guess if your party lasts for nine days straight, that’s a good way to work, that’s what you need to do. But I come from a culture where the liquor laws say you have to shut at 2am, so you’re partying from 11 at night to 2, and it’s the same in Texas. The intensity of the party, and the way you write for that, is different from saying, I just got off work on a Saturday night, I’m going to sleep for the next eight hours and then go to Berghain at 7am. It’s a totally different vibe. So the reason my tracks are shorter and more frenetic is based on the idea that the party is only going to last three hours, so you have got to blow that shit up, as quickly as possible.
So the things I think make for a good DJ would be first and foremost track selection, that’s the most important thing. You can do all the turntable gymnastics you want, but if you’re playing bullshit it doesn’t matter. For me the most painful thing to watch the world is DMC championships, you know it’s like insane scratching routines where they beat juggle with their nutsack, or whatever stupid trick they come up with to win. That is the most painful thing in the world to me. You have to have good music and you have to have a selection. I don’t want to hear that you’re the king of this one little microgenre, like you’re really good at New York house, and you’ve got every single New York house record from 1990 to 1994, and you can play them for nine hours. That music is cool and I like to hear it, but I don’t want to hear an entire set of you playing every record from that era. I want to hear some techno, house, Italo, disco, and make it all work in a thematic way and work through your records in a way that makes sense and takes you through history.
Deck skills are incredibly important too – and by that I mean lining up your records, keeping your mixes and blends tight, not being afraid to cut hard and juggle beats. The idea of seamlessly blending one house record into another is fine, especially if you’re playing great records, but at the same time I really miss that Detroit battle style of DJing where you’re trying to one up everybody and it’s like an arms race between everyone to see who can be the best. So you have to have the records, you gotta have the smooth blends, but you also have to have the tricks, and be able to cut and juggle. Obviously it’s about knowing the room and knowing when to play and when not to play – all the kind of stuff that sounds obvious when you say it, but when you actually see it in practice it’s amazing.
I’ve always heard stories about Jeff Mills not even putting the record back in the sleeve…
Well the funny thing is, I am like kryptonite to Jeff Mills. You put me in a room with Jeff Mills and he will fuck up so bad (laughs). I have never seen him play him a good set – I love him, he’s a huge influence on me and I have seen him play good sets online – but whenever I have physically been in his presence he’s always played shitty sets. Speaking of shitty sets, back in 1998 or 99, there was a party at the State Theatre called The Wizard, and the idea was Jeff was going to play a tribute set to his Wizard era. I go to the party, Mills is off, and the sound is bad, the whole thing doesn’t come off like it should, it’s a disappointment. Then my friend and I go to this little place over on Michigan Avenue, I can’t remember what it’s called, there was nobody there – three DJs, two bartenders and us. If I remember correctly is was Al Ester, Mike Clark and maybe Delano Smith. So they decided to just trying to make some fun of it and try and one up each other. There was a mixer and three turntables, and it was a combination of them throwing on records, juggling the records and doing dance moves while they were doing it for 45 minuets, and it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. It wasn’t like they were trying to perform for an audience – me and my friend Keleigh were the only ones there – they were just cutting up and trying to one up one another. It was like having three records lined up perfectly, and having three faders and chopping it to make one track out of three. And they’re dancing, talking between themselves, mixing on the fly – I have never seen anything like that before or since – It was like ghettotech battle style, but smoother and without the scratching.
You haven’t done loads of online mixes – why is that?
There are guys who are amazing DJs, who really should be running the sound systems, and there are a ton of producers, chucking stems into Ableton and phoning it in. Right now, the producers have all the attention and the advantage and I think that is a negative thing for the culture as a whole. One of the prevalent ideas in the digital age is that you need to spam every communication channel available to you 24/7 in order to cut through the noise of the system. I don’t believe in that at all, I think you are better off doing a few things very well, rather than just throwing as much shit at the wall as possible and hoping some of it sticks. I think I make decent music, so I am going to stick to what I do well.
I don’t even listen to podcasts to be perfectly honest. If I am going to listen to something, I will throw on a record. I am sure they are a great shortcut to name recognition, but that isn’t really why I do what I do. Growing up in Michigan, that’s one of the reasons I don’t DJ that much: what I expect from a DJ – Detroit is a breeding ground for first rate DJs – and the calibre of what I consider acceptable for a DJ is higher than what most people expect. I think if you are going to call yourself a DJ, you need to put in that 10,000 hours. Just because you can produce doesn’t mean you get to call yourself a DJ. They are different skill sets. Norm Talley is a DJ – me, not so much.
What is your relationship with Gerd Janson like?
When I put out the first DN record, I want to say he was the first person to write a review of it in Germany. It was for Groove, he brought up Nietzche for some reason which I thought was fucking hilarious. Between that and the Theo Parrish interview for the Red Bull Music Academy – which is a really good interview – I figured he couldn’t be too much of a douche bag! I emailed him and he said he was interested with working with me and I sent him some material and that’s how it went. I consider myself very fortunate to work with him. Running Back is a pretty big label – I’m not going to divulge his numbers – but he can sell a shit ton of records. Like the Tiger & Woods stuff, or the Todd Terje stuff, those were really big records. He has Tensnake records which get repressed over and over again. If he wanted to he could just put out those huge records all of the time but he doesn’t. He also puts out the Hammond Decks record or the Sound FX record or that Compassion Crew record. He’ll put my records which, compared to something like Snooze 4 Love, are a drop in the bucket. He does really big successful records, but he also makes room for smaller, more idiosyncratic projects. He puts as much care and dedication into the small projects as the big ones. He’s a great guy to work for and he is a great A&R man. One thing I’ll give him credit for is that he’s never asked me to change or make compromises, he wants me to be exactly who I am and looks for what I do rather than asking me to make things sound a little more like (Tiger & Woods’) “Gin Nation” or something like that. He’s a real easy guy to work with and a real nice guy too, one of the nicest guys in the business. He deserves every bit of his success.
Have you got more tracks lined up after your next Running Back release?
It’s a really weird thing, you always get what you want when you don’t want it. Lately I have been getting an offer from a different label every week. The thing is I’m completely pulling everything in and not doing anything with any other labels. I might do some stuff with Gerd and Daetron in the future but that’s about it. It’s at that point where I need to release my own music on my own label. I could send the archival material out and sign 3-4 records right now, but I don’t think I will feel good about it later on. I’d rather release less material for the right reasons, than spam the record scene in hopes of getting a little hype and a seasons worth of bookings. It’s time to do it myself on my own terms. I am doing the best work of my life right now, and I can’t wait to get it out there.
Interview: James Manning