Separate Mind: Techno – the Middle Age

A shift in focus for the latest Separate Mind column as Richard Brophy discusses the possibility that techno has grown up.

“We are at a turning point in the history of techno music – if the younger generation has less interest in supporting music, then why don’t techno labels begin to create and release music targeted to an older generation?” Jeff Mills made this point nearly a decade ago in 2004, to the now defunct Jockey Slut magazine. He qualified these remarks a year later, in a follow up interview. In explaining his original statement, Mills said this: “As a DJ today, when I play for an older crowd, I can play a more diverse, progressive set, I can play older classics and a wider range of music. In terms of survival for independent labels, if you’re releasing music for others to buy, you need to focus on a particular type of customer.

“The tendency is to put out music to accommodate all kind [sic] of buyers, but if the indications are very strong from younger generations that they’re just not interested in one particular sound, then you need to find your own place. In the context of what’s happening these days it’s wiser to look at the generations that started electronic music; they’re the ones who probably understand it the most, they’re the ones who grew up with it and made it all happen. If they had an interest in it before, then they probably still have one now [sic]. I think it’s questionable, this general thinking within the music industry that dance music is only for young people.”

Has the Detroit producer’s prophecy come true? In 2013, is techno a style of music designed for and targeted at middle-aged traditionalists and one abandoned or ignored by a younger generation that is more interested in other, more daring approaches? It’s impossible to say for sure whether the age profile of those who go to clubs to hear techno has risen or to state for sure that labels sell their products to predominantly older customers than they did a decade ago.

Arriving at evidence-based answers to either of these questions would require vast tracts of costly research to be anywhere near conclusive. Equally, it is difficult to make sweeping assumptions about any style of music or cultural movement, so for the purpose of this piece, we will rely on anecdotes and events. To start with, Mills himself is one of the most convincing arguments for the assertions he made nearly a decade ago. He continues to tour, despite having turned 50 this year. It’s hard to know if he is specifically targeting the first generation of people who grew up with his music, but as the recent Something in the Sky series shows, he continues to streamline a singular vision of techno music.

Elsewhere, it does seem like the form has become an older person’s pursuit, or at least that techno has grown up considerably. This month, one of the most prominent European techno operations, Delsin, put out its 100th release, featuring tracks from Claro Intelecto, Gerry Read and Unbroken Dub. Mark Stewart, who works as Claro Intelecto, fits the age demographic that Mills had asserted techno labels would target, and contributes the churning, dense chords and plunging bassline of “Fighting The Blind Man”.

Less predictably, Gerry Read, who was barely out of diapers when UK techno was in the middle of its golden age during the early to mid 90s, drops “Granny Bag”, a mixture of early Planet E rhythmic twitchiness and Stasis-style acid spangles for the Dutch label. Not to be outdone, Unbroken Dub dropped the droning, pulsing bass and floaty synths of the aptly-named “Spacing”.

As is its wont, the pithy description on Hardwax perfectly summed the release up as “classy 1990s ’intelligent’ techno, electronica & Detroit school rooted EP”. But suggesting that to celebrate this milestone Delsin reverted to familiar – some may say over-familiar – musical tropes is to miss the point.  This hundredth record in the label’s history shows that in many ways, the Mills prophesy has come true and the Dutch label is the embodiment of his claim. Like Tresor before it, part of Delsin’s remit was to act as a beach-head into Europe for US techno producers like Dan Curtin, Optic Nerve and Strand. It has since assumed the role of underground electronic music’s go-to outlet for those seeking to make that very mature statement; the artist album.

In some ways, this would always be its fate because Delsin’s owner, Marsel van der Wielen, had released albums and compilations since its inception; his own sporadic Peel Seamus project kick-started the label in 1996 with the Publik Draft cassette and he told me last year:  “I come from the home listening side of things and I was always more into artists than having a favourite DJ. Electronic music has a functional side, but there are also a lot of people who like listening to it at home.” This sentiment, coupled with the fact that the label had an early web presence, puts Delsin front and centre of the modern home listening techno boom.

In a globally dispersed, aging community, experiencing electronic music at home is the ideal solution for those too old or no longer bothered to rub shoulders with strangers in a sweaty club. After all, if you have limitless access to the music you love via the internet, why get on one in a club when you can simply get online to achieve the same result? The development of electronic music for ‘beyond the club’ isn’t a new thing. Ambient and experimental music predates techno and house and goes right back to the turn of the century.

However, for the purpose of this discussion, it has been in existence since the early ’90s when Irresistible Force urged us to ‘lie down for your rights’, robots chilled at home with doobies on the Artificial Intelligence album series and the sadly deceased Peter Namlook started his prolific album journey via Fax. Ambient, ambient dub and later increasingly awkward terms like illbient, ‘intelligent techno’ and IDM were conceived to soundtrack those counterpoints to the ‘harder, faster’ aesthetic of hardcore, techno and later drum’n’bass. The difference between the ’90s and now is that high-speed connections are the norm and that the internet has become a giant repository for music and live performances, seven days a week.

The other factor that cannot be forgotten is that the people who were in their 20s or 30s when the first wave of ambient / home-listening music appeared are now considerably older. If they are still interested in electronic music – let’s assume that not all of them have moved onto Coldplay – it is reasonable to assume that home-listening music remains their preferred choice. In tandem with this development and irrespective of whether or not it is a coincidence or causal, there has also been a shift in house and techno tastes and the ambient, abstract and glitchy weirdness of what was once confined to back rooms or chill out areas is informing conventional dance music.

“In a globally dispersed, ageing community, experiencing electronic music at home is the ideal solution for those too old or no longer bothered to rub shoulders with strangers in a sweaty club.”

It explains why techno has shifted in the past three years from the Chicago and Detroit-inspired sound of the Berghain/Ostgut stable to the off-centre approach of Stroboscopic Artefacts and its Monad series and the abstract house of L.I.E.S. This environment allows artists like Samuel Kerridge and Vatican Shadow (there are many more worthy mentions, but let’s avoid turning this into a list) space to be heard and that can only be a good thing.

The other point is that the form itself has become older. Indeed, if you subscribe to the view that 1988/1989 was year zero for techno (rewind another six years if you’re an electro fan), then there should be a lot of quarter-century celebrations taking place right now. It certainly feels like there is an unofficial process to recognise techno/house music’s milestone already under way. Everywhere you look, institutions like Sonar, Kompakt or XLR8R Magazine are celebrating twenty years in business; oral histories are being published; some are worthy, at times fascinating projects, others are being carried out in a more cynical fashion and see electronic music’s rich culture and heritage plundered by corporate interests to sell more energy drinks. Concurrently, heritage techno producers like Carl Craig or acts who missed the boat like Virgo Four, are reissuing early material, this time around packaged and remastered with no expense spared.

While all this activity reflects the fact that the form has reached a certain milestone, the tendency to repackage the past is also catering to people who were in their 20s in the ’90s, hit their thirties in the ’00s and now, in the second decade of the new millennium, are sliding into their 40s. Invariably people in this age group will have cut down on their clubbing activities – although this would appear to vary by country, especially if one compares mortgage-strapped UK and Ireland residents with the renting culture of Spain and Germany. Nonetheless, they may have larger incomes than before and want to continue their relationship with music and their past experiences by picking up a Psyche/BFC reissue, a remastered Tyree Cooper bomb or just sitting back and playing one of the Kern mixes from DJ Deep or Hell for instant early ’90s gratification.

Can’t remember if it was in Rubadub in Paisley or Lost in London when you first that Shakir track? Was it Derrick May the first DJ to drop Psyche’s ‘Crackdown’ or ‘From Beyond’? Fear not sir, here are your formative techno memories handed back to you in a box set for the reasonable price of just €49.99. It is also possible that this cohort of first generation fans is supporting the stealthy electro revival. After all, when else has a scene been spawned on the back of releases from a loose collection of music-makers scattered across a continent – with no DJ or club framework to support it?

For these reasons, Mills’ original point that labels should target cash-rich older customers makes sense, albeit in a financial sense. On the more contentious point that “it’s wiser to look at the generations that started electronic music; they’re the ones who probably understand it the most”, it would appear that from a production perspective, this is no longer the case. While it seems that techno music still appeals to some people who first came into contact with it twenty years ago, there are only a few producers from that period who are still making cutting edge music.

Luke Slater springs to mind thanks to his return as Planetary Assault Systems, as does Adam X with his Traversable Wormhole project. Both projects were helped by their association with Berghain and Ostgut. Aside from these names, Regis and Surgeon are the only other producers from the ’90s that continue to surprise. This is because of their constant reinvention; in O’Connor’s case he has moved from the hypnotic Sandwell releases to the dense rhythms of In A Syrian Tongue on Blackest Ever Black – itself a progression of his Kalon release for Sandwell – to the Sandra Electronics abstractions and his post-punk patronage of Downwards via releases like So Click Heels or the DVA DAMAS LP. In Childs’ case, 2011’s Breaking the Frame album and this year’s The Space Between People And Things saw him go off the radar and take the kind of risks his Djing usually does. In particular, Space, a collection of found-sound recordings that he had built up over the years, is in tune with electronic music’s abstract approach.

After that, it starts to get sparse; Robert Hood, like Slater and Adam X has made an impressive return, but in the main, many of the big names from that era are still DJing, which makes sense, as they came from a time when it was possible to build a career based on playing other people’s records rather than making their own. It is far easier and more lucrative to be a DJ, but the fact that so few techno producers have endured with any level of credibility also implies that electronic music artists only have a limited shelf life.

In their place, a new wave of producers and labels has appeared who seem focused on re-imagining older music. Blawan and Karenn’s hugely popular releases are a modified version of the grungy, dense techno that Regis’s old distribution operation Integrale Muzique used to specialise in and Developer and Truncate’s collective output appears determined to distil the loop aesthetic into an unflinching, reduced groove. At the other end of the scale, Aroy Dee’s M<O<S label – and its Deep offshoot – has been delivering deep but clubby takes on classic Detroit techno, while TLR’s Crème and now R-Zone offer compelling visions of Chicago jack and ’90s rave techno respectively.

But there is one other element of techno’s ageing that has allowed for a new type of artist to emerge – the late bloomer. In the same way that US house artists like Patrice Scott, Keith Worthy, Delano Smith and Jus’ Ed only moved into production later in life, a number of techno producers have also found recognition when they were more mature. Maybe this has something to do with the possibility of techno artists to work part-time or live in a low-rent city like Berlin. Whatever about the explanation, this month sees the release of US producer Steve Tang’s debut album, Disconnect to Connect. It’s been 15 years since his first release, and it sounds like the culmination of a long time spent in the wilderness, fulminating, contemplating and making music. The result is that Disconnect to Connect has a real coherence, and instead of the usual dance floor bangers or serious artist approaches, it inhabits a place where melody, atmosphere and the menacing warble of the 303 can all find a home.

The other most notable late bloomer in modern techno is Function, aka Dave Sumner. Like Tang, Sumner has been making and playing music for 20 years, first on his Infrastructure label and then via his involvement with Sandwell District. However, this year saw the release of his debut artist album, Incubation. With its acid-soaked bass ripples, menacing synths and streamlined metallic rhythms, it is the work that most accurately captures both the spirit of a once incendiary youth form and its ascent into a more refined, logically thought out place.

The process behind Incubation has been well-documented, with Sumner placing particular emphasis on post-production. Drafting in Tobias Freund for this job, Sumner said that he wanted the album to be redolent of albums from the ’70s and ’80s, when he was growing up. By this, he meant that there should be real artistry involved in making a techno album. That should not be confused with auteurship, and it is clearly audible that both Tang and Function have spent a large amount of time and painstaking effort to make sure their albums are lasting artworks, ones that can be appreciated afresh in 10, 20 or 30 years time.

This writer recently went to hear Function perform recently – no one says ‘DJ’ anymore. It was impossible to gauge the average age, but Sumner’s set was in keeping with Mills’ assertion that “I can play a more diverse, progressive set, I can play older classics and a wider range of music”, thanks to the inclusion of Mike Dunn’s “The Pressure Cooker” and the chilling “Dark Manoeuvres” from Envoy dropped amid the prevailing hypnotic pulses. If Function’s set is the embodiment of Mills’ claim, then let’s break out the sensible sweaters and bring on middle-aged techno.

Richard Brophy