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Richie Hawtin | Plastik Power


Richie Hawtin

Photographed by Peter Murphy at Cielo in New York City

Back in early 1993, when acid house was on the wane and all-night techno raves were gradually giving up warehouse space to ambient chillout rooms, Richie Hawtin decided it was the right moment to try something a little different. “I wanted to go against everything that was happening at the time,” he recalls. “When it came to the records, people were making compilation albums, putting all their singles together and calling it something worth buying. For me, if you wanted to grab people for an hour or more on a CD and really take them somewhere, you had to think about the beginning and the middle and the end. It''s like telling a good story. If you''re trying to make a record that takes people away from themselves, you have to create a physical, all-encompassing experience.”

Hawtin was more than well-equipped for the task. As a DJ and producer based in Windsor, Ontario, he made an indelible creative mark across the river in Detroit, where the techno scene''s so-called second wave (in the wake of the godfathers Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, and others) was in full break. Plus 8, the label Hawtin founded in 1990 with friend and fellow DJ John Acquaviva, had released Kenny Larkin''s earliest 12-inch singles, and was home to Hawtin''s own mind-bending and increasingly minimalist techno excursions under his F.U.S.E. (Further Underground Sound Experiments) alias. To add to the mystique, Plus 8 parties had become legendary for their assault on the senses; these were honest-to-avant-garde happenings—techno blowouts with a warm, squishy, and often psychedelically enhanced communal vibe that inspired a legion of devoted fans.

Holing up in his basement studio in Windsor, Hawtin embarked on a sleepless 24-hour session that would comprise the bulk of Sheet One (Plus 8/Novamute, 1993), his first album as Plastikman and a critical step forward for progressive techno music in general. His main instruments were the meat and potatoes of the genre—the Roland TB-303 Bass Line and the TR-606 Drumatix—which he essentially played in a carefully orchestrated in-studio performance. Each unit was routed through banks of reverb and delay effects—including Ensoniq DP/2s and DP/3s, a Yamaha SPX-90, and an ART DR2a, with a Korg WaveStation A/D for additional filtering and shaping—and the results were mixed live to 2-track DAT on one of the first Allen & Heath GS3 consoles that were then available.

The result was an undulating, techno-psychedelic dream that at times felt stripped-down and linear, almost ambient, but with an elasticity that suggested the human touch behind the machines. As embodied in such 11-minute epics as “Plasticity” and “Plasticine,” it was beat-driven electronic music as ready-made for late-night private listening as it was for the crowded dancefloor, and it heralded a shift in thinking about the possibilities for full-length concept albums in a zealously guarded niche almost entirely defined by 12-inch singles, obscure white labels, and one-off remixes. Sheet One was quickly followed in 1994 by the even darker and more exploratory Musik (Plus 8/Novamute), and just as suddenly Plastikman had gone worldwide.

“I think all the albums I''ve made as Plastikman, in different ways, really cocoon you,” Hawtin says, “as much as they cocooned me when I was in my studio, by myself with my machines. I want people to feel like they''re being taken away from their location. I don''t want to say there''s a specific defining place where it takes every person, but it''s definitely supposed to be somewhere far from their normal version of reality. It should be alienating, but in some places warm and soothing—sort of womb-like, but in the strangest way. And I guess if you were ever conscious of being in a womb, that would be a pretty strange place to be, right? All the fluid and weird bubbles and warmth, and you''re thinking, ‘Do I want to stay in here? Do I want to get out?'' That''s pretty much a Plastikman experience.”

Six albums, 17 years, and multiple world tours later, the resolutely forward-thinking Hawtin has forced himself to stop and take a rare look back at the Plastikman legacy. Arkives 1993-2010 (Minus/Novamute) is a sprawling multi-
format retrospective, assembling remasters of the original albums along with outtakes, unreleased gems, all-star remixes (by the likes of Moby, Flood, François K, and more), videos, and live concert footage. The limited-edition set is a year-end companion to the 2010 Plastikman Live tour—a multimedia marvel of electronic music, visual art, and bleeding-edge technology that kicked off in March at the Time Warp Festival in Mannheim, Germany, and will continue into early 2011. Hawtin also plans to begin work in February on a new Plastikman album—his first since moving to Berlin back in 2003, shortly after he completed the extreme vocal-processed outing Closer (Minus/Novamute, 2003). Like any new Plastikman project, the latest in digital technology is expected to play a key role in its creation. During the years, Hawtin has fostered close relationships with software designers and gear manufacturers—Ableton, Allen & Heath, and Native Instruments being prominent among them—and has consistently pushed these companies to think way ahead of the curve when modifying and updating their products.

Now a company head himself (earlier this year, he and Acquaviva, along with designers Etienne Noreau-Hebert, Gareth Williams, and Nick Bugayev, co-founded Liine, maker of the Griid control interface for use with Ableton Live), Hawtin continues to search for new ways to heighten the interactivity and connectivity of the DJ experience. Although his studio setup has evolved to the point where he can accommodate massive Ableton Live sessions with multitrack recording in Avid Pro Tools, his approach to making music is still very much rooted in the performance-based fluidity of his DJ sets.

“I''ll definitely take the whole live show setup to my studio,” Hawtin says, looking ahead to the next album. “But I''ve known pretty much since 2000, when we launched Final Scratch and MP3s, and digital DJing at the Midem conference [in Cannes, France] that the next new Plastikman experience had to be a physical, live experience. Whether that''s a concert or an art installation or a gathering of people where weird s**t happens, it''s still one big area where Plastikman should evolve into, and that''s really what we''re developing now.”

Hawtin had a hand in developing the Griid app (from Liine), which allows remote control of Ableton Live from an iPad.

Hawtin had a hand in developing the Griid app (from Liine), which allows remote control of Ableton Live from an iPad.

What moved you to put together Arkives and to start doing Plastikman live shows again?
It goes back to early 2009. I was in Australia on tour with [DJ] Étienne de Crécy, and he was doing this cube presentation that was visually really interesting. I spent a lot of time in the middle of these festival crowds, just watching the kids and watching what he was doing. And that was the beginning of the idea of doing Plastikman live, which in turn was what brought me back into going through the archives.

I don''t actually like to be nostalgic and think about the past, but to do Plastikman live this year meant I had to go back and listen to those tracks. I''ve always recorded live—2-track passes, especially the earlier albums—so there weren''t samples or anything there that I could throw into Ableton Live. It was like, “Okay, I have to re-create everything.” And the more I re-created and the more research I did, the more I noticed what was special about the Plastikman sound and how much it was missing today.

And I don''t mean to sit here, and say, “Ahh, everyone''s doing it wrong today.” It''s not like that. As a DJ, I''m out there playing every week, and there''s lots of music that I love, but after going back into what I''ve been doing, I noticed that there really is a defining Plastikman sound. Putting out the Arkives opens the door for me to take that sound, once everybody is back up to speed with it, and continue it. And I think it deserves to be continued.

How would you describe the essence of that sound?
There''s always a concept, an idea, but there''s also a recording process where I just let things run. I would capture part of that on 2-track DATs, or later on with multitracks, and try to preserve as much of the feeling of what happens between me and those machines at that moment as I possibly could.

I''m the biggest freak about technology, but I think you have to allow your humanity to come through it and deliver that to the people in the most powerful way. Some producers don''t understand the balance between man and machine. If it tips over into the machine—well, some people want that. They want it to become robotic. I''m looking for more of a marriage. Sometimes it''s just about standing back and letting all the things that are running create something that''s beyond you. That''s much more interesting to me than fine-tuning envelope drawings in Ableton or Pro Tools, or smoothing things out with plug-ins. It starts to slowly rip the life away from us. I see a future where machines give us new insight into our human abilities and not where they rule our abilities.

When you were making Sheet One, what was one example of letting the machines create something for you?
I would always run all my effects in a feedback type of loop so that everything would be coming back to extra channels on the board. So delay 1 could go back to delay 2 and then back into the reverb—these would always be inter-consumed like this, just below the feedback threshold. As much as I would be playing with faders or knobs for volume on the [Roland TR-606] during recording, when you hit something with an effect, or brought up a level, or changed a filter on a sound, you would always get this kind of echo resonance in the interplay of effects that you didn''t have enough hands for. I would just let those types of things ride.

Sometimes I''d double the drums up, too. The 606 and the 808 have snares that are similar and yet they can become dissimilar—same with the 808 and 909 hand claps—and a lot of the time I would use both of them, but in different places. So you''d have an 808 clap on one part of a measure and the 909 clap on another, each with slightly different effects so everything is moving. This is why everyone loves automation now because you can program all this stuff. Back then, I was doing it all by hand.

Did you use any synths on those early albums?
My room was full of stuff, but the [Roland] Juno-106 gave me some nice sounds, and I was a big fan of the [Sequential Circuits] Pro One and the Six-Trak, and the [Roland SH-101]—you can hear the 101 in “Glob” from Sheet One. So those would be the basic things. And on the digital side, I know for sure the opening of “DRP” from Sheet One uses an E-mu Vintage Keys that I''d just gotten. It was a brilliant pad that was filtered through some analog stuff. I was big into my Serge modular system around that time, too.

Other than that, the Korg WaveStation A/D and the [Kurzweil] K2000 were there from the very beginning. The f**ked-up baby sounds you hear in the background of “Plasticine” and “Plasticity” are coming from the K2000, and any heavy strings or background sounds, especially on Consumed and Artifakts [both released in 1998], came from that. And really everything was processed on the WaveStation. That''s one of my favorite pieces of equipment ever.

With such a sophisticated system as what you have now, with Ableton Live at the core of it, how do you perform the older Plastikman songs? You can''t just plug in a 303 or a 909 like you did back in the day.
That was the longest and hardest part of developing the live show. I asked a friend of mine—an artist from Minus [the label Hawtin founded in 1998] named JPLS, Jeremy Jacobs—to help me with it. We spent, together and separately, hours and hours trying to figure out how to duplicate things digitally. There were a couple of things that we knew. To do the show visually—to control the lighting, to have DMX MIDI protocol, to have all the MIDI functionality and OSC [Open Sound Control] messages—there was no way I was going to bring a 303 and a 909. All this was going to have to come from the computer for timing and connectivity.

So we started testing different 303 plug-ins from D16 [Group Audio] and AudioRealism. Both companies were very supportive in letting us try everything. It took a long time to find out which ones were feeling right. I still have the original Sheet One 303s—all the patterns are still in there, but I''ve written them down just in case. We went through and transposed them into the plug-ins—note-by-note, by hand—and in the end we found the best combination, at least for now, are the D16 plug-ins for the 606, the 808, and 909; and AudioRealism for the 303s.

What you''re hearing at the live show now is basically a reconstruction of those early songs. The Ableton session is about 120 channels wide and 100 or so deep because every sound goes to a separate channel, so every sound in one drum machine can be slightly effected or EQ''d differently.

One of Hawtin's Allen & Heath Xone:62 mixers, modified for MIDI connectivity

One of Hawtin's Allen & Heath Xone:62 mixers, modified for MIDI connectivity

That''s a huge amount of information to organize and control.
That''s why we went to touchscreens because there are so many different parameters. You never really know which ones you want to control at a given time, so we''ve set up a way to jump between songs by using pre-made templates on iPads.

You mean the Griid interface. Tell us a little about the history of that.
My friends Gareth [Williams] and Nick [Bugayev] were the two developers for [JazzMutant] Lemur on this thing called Mu. Gareth had helped me do some programming before, and I told him what I needed—a full overview of a huge Ableton session and the ability to jump around and get at things quickly. I needed a custom-designed user interface. And he said, “It''s funny you ask me that because we''re going to launch Mu in a couple of weeks, and I think that''s what you need.” So he showed it to me, and we customized it a little bit further, and now I had a custom Mu interface for Plastikman live to use with Lemur''s touch-control surfaces. It was the only way. Without it, the show wouldn''t have gone on.

Shortly after that, the iPad was announced, and Gareth and Nick were like, “We need to put this through the iPad,” and, of course, I was all for it. So we started to develop that, and as we did, we started the company together. Of course, the version of Griid we use for Plastikman is even more customized because it interacts with my Lemurs. I can actually pick a song and all the touchscreens change and go to specific screens, and they''re ready for what I''m going to do next.

What else have you developed for the live show, and do these innovations translate to the studio?
I think they do. You can imagine I have this session of all these channels; for example, “Plasticine” has different effects from “Plasticity” or “Spastik” [from 1994''s Recycled Plastik], so I wanted a way that once I decided to go into a track, I could recall all my sends and all my different effects parameters in one go. This is going back to Sheet One and all the Plastikman material, which has always very heavily relied on sends and feedback within effects.

So Nick, who''s an Ableton genius, helped me develop a program called Capture, which is a Max/MSP for Live plug-in. Basically you load this into your Ableton master track, and it captures a complete picture of your overall session—every channel, every send, every level meter, every mute, and a certain amount of the effects parameters, too. You can do this in MIDI, but to try and change the whole thing is impossible. So now, each one of my songs has a snapshot, and with one MIDI command to click to the next snapshot, the whole session can go from “Plasticity” to “Spastik.” It''s great because if you watch the session, it''s all like chk chk chk and it''s done.

Now that we''ve created this proprietary system, it''s about fleshing it out. It''s about putting the content in and running the machine, and playing the machine, and seeing how far we can go. This is why the live show to me is an open-ended experience, an open-ended exploration for Plastikman, and it definitely will affect how I work in the studio.

The last full-length Plastikman album was Closer [Mute, 2003]. That was a radical move for you because you brought your own vocals into the recording process.
I really don''t know how to record vocals, but during the process of making Closer, I invited a friend over—a singer from Windsor named Nancy Drew—to try some things. Doing those tracks taught me enough about trying to make her voice sound okay that it gave me the confidence to press Record, go in the vocal booth, and start saying vocal lines.

I''d be working on some pads or a bass line, and be like, “Okay, this is going to fit.” I would speak the vocals with no effects, and then work on creating a way to bring them into the Plastikman sound. You couldn''t just use my voice—it had to be alien and disconnected—so the first thing I did was put them into [Native Instruments] Kontakt. I did some time-stretching—and this was the first version of the software so there were some weird anomalies and glitches with the digital artifacts that sounded great.

There was also a great plug-in from Antares called Kantos. It was this weird modular synthesizer talkbox vocoder. I still don''t know how to use it right, but all the vocals were put through that. In “Mind and Rewind,” for example, all the voices sound like electricity, like they''re breaking apart, and this was all through a combination of Kontakt and Kantos. That''s what''s great about happy accidents in the studio and flaws in the software, or some bizarre plug-in. They can end up being part of your sound for an entire album.

You''re also known for your equipment modifications—especially those you''ve done with your father.
For my DJ show, without the mods that my dad and I did, along with the support and help of Andy Jones at Allen & Heath, I really wouldn''t be here today. When I did the first Decks, Efx & 909 [DE9] remix album in the late ''90s, we had to rip apart an Allen & Heath [Xone:62]. We put some Doepfer MIDI control devices inside, and we took away two of the channels and added MIDI functionality so I could control my computers. That 62 modification actually became the production model of the 92, and that''s the mainstay of DJ mixers these days.

But my father helped me a lot with problems in the studio. He made this great filter from a schematic in an old ''70s electronics magazine from England. It was called the Plus 8 Super Audio Filter—a stereo lowpass filter that you can hear the most on “Rekall” from Artifakts. We also did a mod for my Yamaha SPX-90. The buttons didn''t allow you to readily change the flange, so we did a plug modification into that for a control-voltage pedal.

Foot pedals have been a key part of your production technique, too, right? There''s the Plastikman song “Panikattack” from the Sickness EP [1997].
The Ensoniq DP delays come and go really quickly in that, which was definitely foot-controlled. Honestly, I don''t know why more people aren''t all over this. As a DJ or a producer, you only have two arms, so anything that has enabled me to have another connection to my physical movements, my humanity, is something that I''ve always searched for. I''ve probably bought 100 Roland EV-5 foot pedals in my life. I want a sponsorship from Roland for that [laughs].

But again, it''s part of Plastikman, and that''s defined by who I am as a human. I think that''s why people gravitate to it because they can feel that in the music. It''s not just about the 303 or the delays I''m using—they''re the same as anyone who''s using Traktor or any other program. But this is where we''re at today. There''s a lot of new technology and everybody''s out there buying the newest controller, but it''s not about the toys. It''s about how you interface with that particular toy, and how that enables you to come out through it. If you''re not in control of that technology, if you''re not a master of it, then it''s just about the toys and you disappear. And if you disappear, it doesn''t matter who''s on the stage or in the studio, you know?

Bill Murphy is a freelance music journalist based in New York City.

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