With a hand in production, label management, distribution and more, Aaron Siegel is a busy man doing a lot for the music of Detroit and beyond. Oli Warwick checked in with him to dig a little deeper on a man with a tireless work ethic in the world of music.
Anyone working in the music industry will tell you how it’s a game of multi-tasking. There are few operatives out there who aren’t spread across at least two disciplines that would ideally be mutually exclusive, between the producer, DJ, PR, promoter, A&R, designer, journalist, distributor, booking agent, and so on. It’s partly down to the need to be adaptable to scratch a living, but equally results from unbridled enthusiasm engendering a tendency to say ‘yes’ to everything. It’s no different for Aaron Siegel, a man who was arguably known for his work as one of the key distributors in Detroit before he was ever known as a recording artist. That he also runs the Fit Sound label (and designs the artwork) and DJs as well should be no surprise.
Although he was actually born in Milwaukee, Siegel grew up in Michigan from six months old, leaving school early to go to college on the East coast before returning at the age of 20. It’s telling that he didn’t want to stay in the academic system; throughout his career he has taken a practical, self-reliant approach to realise his aims.
“When we were around 14 years old, me and some friends of mine would take the bus downtown to skate and it was completely different to how it is now, it was super empty,” Siegel recalls. “We would take scrap wood and shit we would find, and build ramps and stuff to skate in the city. There was nothing going on so you were creative with the stuff that was there, and it translated to music. There’s this void, a lot of freedom, a lot of space, and you can use your imagination to do something.”
This necessary ingenuity has echoed throughout Siegel’s endeavours since, most obviously manifesting in his decision to start a bike courier company after tiring of working “shitty” jobs for other people. However, music was always a draw; from playing piano from the age of eight through joining various bands as he grew up and hitting punk and hip hop shows at the Shelter when he was in middle school.
He readily name-checks Pan Sonic and Stereolab gigs as being significant experiences, while Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, The Return of Durutti Column and the Mr Fingers album Amnesia all had an impact in his late teens. These may count as de rigeur discoveries for a musically motivated young adult to be encountering, but they form a fitting backdrop to the attitude Siegel takes to his work today.
“I’ve always been all over the place,” he concedes. “I’m a sucker for melody and a good bassline, as well as dissonance. I suppose I’ve always been attracted to music that is raw, and conveyed a genuine emotion regardless of the genre. It’s beautiful when you can hear someone stepped up and spilled their guts all over a piece of music.”
The evidence of Siegel’s own development as an artist is somewhat scant at this stage. After he first appeared with the Tonite 12” on Omar-S’ FXHE label back in 2012, there have been but three EPs since on his own Fit imprint and one collaborative EP with Gunnar Wendel, better known as Kassem Mosse. The high profile partnerships with Omar-S (and vocalist L’Renee) on “Tonite” and with Wendel on “Enter The Fog” certainly drew attention to Siegel’s musical craft, but there was a sense that he was avoiding trading in on the stature of his co-conspirators just to make a name for himself.
What shines through on his compositions more than anything is a sense of elegant melancholy, from the mournful synth lines in the DD Mix of “Tonite” to the emotive strings that hover in “Cocomo”. “Very rarely do I make music where I’m just gonna make a dance beat,” Siegel says of his tendency to make more expressive forms of electronic music. “I try to go somewhere.”
That said, when quizzed about the finer details of his intentions, Siegel is quick to posit himself as an artist who avoids contrived concepts when switching on his studio. His creative process is a daily toil in amongst the distribution work and label management, but he firmly sits in the camp of artists that have to work on instinct to achieve honest results. What has thus far been released is but a small fraction of the work that comes out of Siegel’s set up, but he is fastidious about the standard his music needs to be at before it reaches public ears.
“I put in the time on what I do and sometimes it can be a painful process to be honest,” he explains. “I’m not in a rush and I don’t want to leave behind mediocre music with my name on it when I’m gone. I want to present what I think is the best I can do. It’s not about putting out records to get gigs.”
While it may be trickier to gauge the full scope of Siegel’s artistic progression based solely on his released works, it does seem apparent that he has hit a level of maturity and confidence in his production that is shaping up a distinctive style, not least between the last two singles on Fit Sound, Cocomo and Carmine.
“It’s been and continues to be an ongoing process of experimentation,” he states, “but within the last three years I feel that I am moving closer to, as Theo says, my ‘sound signature’. I don’t think I’m totally there yet but I’m more on that path.”
In particular, “First Found” on the flip of the 2015 single Carmine is a prime example of the more developed style that Siegel is capable of at this stage in his career. The intricate rivulets of piano notes and synthesised plucks create a dense, playful kind of techno that carries weight without needing to be loud or heavy. I put it to him that it’s one of the most complex tracks he has written so far.
“That track has got a lot of sequenced things and it’s not so much chords and basslines,” Siegel concedes. “It’s a lot of interplay. I used some different sequencers on that track that I don’t use on maybe some of the other ones, ‘cos that track called for it. I needed that tool out of my box.”
Despite the time and consideration he pours into production, Siegel is a committed, seasoned DJ as well. He’s the first to profess his sets rarely reflect his own music, but rather a limber spread of his personal tastes in the fields of house, techno, wave and beyond.
“I like smaller, intimate, darker things,” Siegel says of his preference for nightspots in which to work a crowd. “It doesn’t really matter the city. The first times I played in Europe, I wasn’t like, ‘oh my good god, it’s so much different’. If it’s a good party, it’s a good party.”
“Very rarely do I make music where I’m just gonna make a dance beat. I try to go somewhere.”
While the booming European club scene has provided Siegel with ample opportunities to play abroad, some of his more exotic experiences on the road have been in the Far East. In 2011 he managed to fit a string of gigs in China, Cambodia and Thailand into time spent travelling in a region not commonly found on most DJs touring schedule.
“Alot of people had never seen anyone DJing with records in the Far East,” he reveals. “They’d heard about it, but like in Cambodia there were two sets of turntables in Phnom Penh. One guy owned a set and another club had it, but it was for Serato. No-one brought vinyl there, so people were really freaking out seeing records.”
As well as the novelty of playing wax as opposed to digital sets, the other cultural difference that left an impression on Siegel was the appetite for more aggressive, intense sounds, most notably in Bangkok. “They like darker shit,” he exclaims. “I thought I was gonna play more uplifting house music or something, but the harder and darker the music got, they were more into that. I was surprised, but because it’s so nice there maybe they want some darker shit.”
Siegel’s experience as a club DJ was earned through promoting parties in Detroit. While he had roots in radio shows where he moved between punk, indie, ambient and electronic music, it wasn’t until he started organising his own events that he got used to playing in front of a crowd. His bike courier company was running Monday to Friday, and on weekends he would pull two shifts at Oslo, a club in downtown Detroit. From initially organising some parties there, he then moved on to less official spaces such as the Fi-Nite Gallery and the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. Over time he invited international guests such as Legowelt, DMX Krew as well as local acts such as Aux 88, Ultradyne and DJ Dijital.
“It wasn’t like I wanted to do electro parties,” he explains of his choices of guests. “I would just think about who hasn’t been here in a long time, and then find some other local people in Detroit to play as well that would complement. My favorite was the party with Egyptian Lover. It was Egypt’s first time in Detroit since 1984. That party was very special. You had a lot of the OG Detroit producers in the front row in awe.”
After his time spent promoting parties, Siegel noticed the number of independent Detroit labels that were springing up, particularly around the more contemporary waves of producers that have emerged in the past ten years, that weren’t represented by a local distributor. Submerge has been the long-running bastion of distribution for the old guard of Transmat, Underground Resistance, Axis and Planet E amongst others, but with younger labels such as FXHE, Wild Oats, 7777 and La Vida needing a reliable channel to get their records to an expectant global market, Siegel saw an opportunity to start a business and help the music of his city in the process. Rather than any notion of competitiveness, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks (he of Underground Resistance fame) took Siegel under his wing and guided him in the ways of distribution amongst many other things.
“I figured I would pick up the slack and take on the rest of labels here,” Siegel explains. “I’ve had my studio at Submerge for the past six years and Mike has been supportive behind everything I have been doing, and I can’t appreciate that enough. From logistical things with business, to mixing and EQ, he’s shared much of his knowledge with me, and it runs deep.”
In his choices of labels to work with as much as the signings to his own imprint, Siegel exercises some form of creative curation alongside his business instinct. As a stamp of authority Fit Distribution is rich with pedigree clients; from Aesthetic Audio and KDJ, Beats In Space, Dark Entries and Environ to Future Times, Metroplex and Mister Saturday Night. There is of course a leaning towards US and more specifically Detroit based outfits, and equally on Fit Sound artists such as Marcellus Pittman and Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir have filled up the roster, but there is also space afforded to the likes of Dungeon Acid and Patrik Sjeren, both Swedish producers.
“The location doesn’t matter to me,” Siegel says of the signings to his label. “Of course there happens to be a lot of talent in this city around me. It’s just about the tracks really. If I heard some sweet shit from someone in Egypt or Nicaragua I would roll with that. Primarily though I am looking for new sounds and perspectives that I haven’t heard before. Either that or just some really twisted shit that makes me think, ‘what the fuck is that?’”
Siegel points to his Fit Sound sub-label Est. 83’ as an outlet for some particularly surprising music he wants to release. The first two releases came from a forgotten Detroit band called Especially Good, who fall somewhere between industrial, post punk and electro. The third release was a vinyl reissue of Madteo’s Mad Dip Revue mixtape that originally came out on The Trilogy Tapes, and the future plans continue to be a reflection of Siegel’s more eclectic tastes. The next 7” on the label will come from an anonymous Detroit band that he stumbled across on cassette with a crisp new wave sound that he likens to The B52’s. For a lack of knowing who they are exactly, Siegel concedes to call the artist, “unknown Detroit band or something.”
From obscure punk bands and globetrotting techno producers, the inspirations of years spent riding the city streets to stretches of party promotion in intimate night spots, the Motor City is where he came from and where he continues to be. Even the location of his house has a family significance, albeit a grisly one.
“My father’s side of the family is from Detroit,” he explains. “What brings things full circle is that my house is a few blocks away from where my great grandfather ran a scrap metal business called Siegel Iron And Metal Co. He was killed there in 1960, shot once in the back of the head execution style during a robbery.”
It’s a shocking reminder of the toughness of Detroit (as much as any city) beyond its long-celebrated creativity, and Siegel’s hard-working ethic and resourcefulness could reasonably be argued to be a product of that unique environment. While he’s more than just another dude from Motown, he’s also an ambassador for the good to come out of there, both in his own work and the artists he chooses to support.
Interview by Oli Warwick
Fit Sound on Juno