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Luke Hess on arcade games, dub techno and the restoration of Detroit

There’s short video clip on YouTube that follows Theo Parrish as he wanders the streets of Detroit in baggy acid wash jeans and Adidas shell toe shoes, armed with a recorder, boom pole, mic and windsock. The revered producer records raw sound – hanging out the window of a speeding car, banging on rusted and paint chipped playgrounds, shuffling around sparring boxers and setting up under a damp archway to collect natural reverb, collecting the natural sounds of his city, part archivist, part musician.

Several years later Luke Hess too was combing the streets of Detroit for found sounds when he came across something – actually, someone – that eclipsed Parrish’s efforts. He found Papa Smurf, a spoken work artist. “It seemed like he needed to get some things off his chest… I just let him go on for about 30 minutes,” Hess says. The result was “Humility (Renew Your Mind)”, one of the highlights of Hess’s latest album Keep On, which begins as a lone analogue beat and is slowly caressed by what sounds like crackly rain but is in fact a processed field recording of something else he captured that day. Enter mellow chord stabs, a filtered bass riff and Smurf’s vocoder-assisted “Renew Your Mind” vocal loop, and the result is a prototypical juncture into the world of dub house.

“I’m pretty sure Omar S can beat anyone in the world in the Defenders arcade game”

Whereas Parrish’s eminently musical, sample-based approach fits neatly into the canon of  house music with which Detroit is synonymous, Hess’s dub-infused techno follows a lineage set by minimal pioneer Robert Hood, and, later, Richie Hawtin. As Euro-centric as dub techno may be these days, the cutting edge can still be found in Detroit – Hess and his compatriot Rod Modell are two of the finest practitioners pushing the supposedly frozen genre into exciting and inventive new realms. But as dub-focused as Hess’ productions may seem, it would be unfair to paint him with dub techno’s hued brush. His productions consistently fall somewhere between chordal techno and resonate house music (dub house for those brave enough), but it’s his approach to minimalism that gives his music a distinctive voice.

Hood and Hawtin steered Hess toward minimalism, sonically indoctrinating him with a “less is more” musical disposition. “I think when I focus on shaping each individual sound and focus on the groove and use fewer channels, my music always seems to have more depth and character,” he reveals. His debut LP Light In The Dark was an album about “discovery and finding a voice”. Keep On, however, released via Omar S’ FXHE imprint last month, represents “perseverance through life’s storms”. “It’s about running the race when things become difficult and building character and growing as a person through these struggles,” he says.

So what is it that separates Hess, an electrical engineer for research and development in the US Army, from other producers associated with delay, reverb and processed saw waves? “I think I’ve been able to strip my sound down much more than when I completed my first album. I have the ability to do this now because I have more analogue gear and analogue effects to create unique and constantly changing characteristics in each individual sound,” Hess explains. “My goal in the second album was to have a completely analogue signal path.  I recorded my instruments and drum machines for 64 to 128 bars. Once I had the groove, I recorded variations into an analogue mixing console. Then I mixed all the tracks by hand on a desk, with no overproduced sequencing tricks or techniques.”

“Keep On is about persevering through life’s storms, running the race when things become difficult and building character and growing as a person”

Omar S lent use of his mixing desk to Hess for the album and added his personal touch to the LP by mixing down “Overtime”, a track Luke produced with his brother Jeff which is characterised by downtempo Basic Channel-esque sketches and moody reggae riddims. The influence of Omar S stretches beyond analogue mixing consoles; it also involves video games. “I’m pretty sure Omar S can beat anyone in the world in the Defenders arcade game,” Hess says with a laugh, something which he acknowledges on “Briefing Defenders”, a 30 second interlude halfway through Keep On. Schoolyard chatter and spiralling Atari synths create the backdrop for a voice to explain “that saving humans in mid air gives extra points” as well as imparting a hint on how to use the “hyperspace” button effectively. “I thought it would be fitting to add some sounds from Defenders – it helps breaks things up a bit.” Although releasing his album on FXHE exposed Keep On to a larger – and wider – audience, Hess’s own DeepLabs label remains a trusted bastion for his own sonic experiments. “Dub techno is not very big in Detroit,” Hess says, “there isn’t the fan base to support it. Even classic Detroit techno is less desired in Detroit than more commercial genres like tech house and dubstep”.

Hess says the DeepLab imprint will continue to grow, with further releases planned for 2013. “Sure, the feel of Detroit is evident in some of my sound, but it’s nice to be able to experiment and grow,” he says. “I have a 12″ series (on DeepLabs), which is focused on personal themed releases – either solo or guest artists are welcome. I also have a 10″ series focused on a collaboration with my friend Mike Z, who works with Chez Damier and Balance Alliance.” So far the label has only released twice; DeepLabs debut 2010 EP Soundmind by Luke Hess, which was later followed up in 2011 by the split four track Community EP with Motorcitysoul.

Another relationship unique to Hess is his link to Christianity and ‘90s warehouse raves. “I’m thankful I was able to experience some of the underground warehouse parties in Detroit in the mid ‘90s. I think these parties and experiences shaped my interest in electronic music, from collecting records, to finding the right analogue equipment for my studio, to even how I engineer my sound”. And although it happens more than the secular sort probably realise, it’s not uncommon to see a Christian caught up in the assumed debauchery of nightclubs and warehouse raves. “You can find the same things happening at a techno party than you can on any city street. To stay away from the people at a warehouse party would mean that I would be passing judgement, and this would be completely hypocritical,” he explains.

Detroit in 2012 is a shell of what was once a great city, an archetypal example of urban decay.  Through his music, Hess says he hopes to reflect the darkness of what the city has become, while shedding light and hope on what the city can be.  “I hope that my music and my message spreads awareness of the deeper issues that humanity in general – not just Detroit – is facing. I hope it proposes solutions through the medium, and I hope in turn it inspires others to focus on restoration as a community.”

James Manning