After fermenting in some of that heady musical beer, Hess began DJing out in 2001, but it's only been in past two years that he's leapt headfirst into the realm of production. Like his sets—stripped down, deep and dubby—Hess' music shows the evidence of his many obvious debts to his geographical compatriots. (A string of classy collaborations with fellow Detroit producers Brian Kage and Omar-S, as well as those from further afield, show that Hess is in touch with the city's present as well as its past.) No one, however, can accuse his tunes of sounding like cheap pastiche: Even his earliest records have a distinctive sound.
Hess' deep understanding of software and equipment—no doubt helped along by his day job as an electrical engineer—enables him to produce extraordinarily well-built records. Combined with sincerely held Christian beliefs, and an uncompromising, perfectionist streak, it's hard not to hear the rare focus and clarity in his work. RA's Colin Shields recently spoke to the producer in advance of his European tour and his debut full-length for Echocord about his music, his city and his God.
Detroit is a very interesting and unique city. It's had its triumphs, but it seems much more known for its tragedies. However, I believe those who have lived in and around the city for most of their lives acquire a love for the city and a desire to see revival and unity. The difficult history of the city has in many ways given it a creative edge and an artistic character that is hard to find anywhere else. Musically speaking, techno in Detroit has created a kind of hope of its own. I'd like to think that after realizing the potential of their music, folks like Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Mike Banks and others were interested in creating a movement that Detroit could be proud of, something exciting and interesting in a deserted and forgotten city.
Many of these guys are or were involved in the city to some extent and used the music to reach out to the community in a number of ways. Detroit techno is much more than an excuse to stay out all night and do drugs; it's a chance to come together and produce something special. I'd say making techno in Detroit has given me an appreciation for what music can mean to an individual, to a community, and to the world. The disadvantage of making electronic music in Detroit and in the United States in general is that it's a less accepted form of music. And, geographically speaking, it's difficult to tour or make a living off of techno music, but I'm not sure I'd have it any other way.
That seems like an interesting way of looking at it, and a much clearer way of explaining how so much incredible music can come out of one place over many years. Do you think that spirit is still alive and well in Detroit?
If you look at Detroit statistically, economically and socially on paper right now, it may seem like there is a lack of vitality in the city. But I think there is a lot of progress taking place behind the scenes right now in Detroit, in the artistic community as well as in the business community. No one can say for sure how long it will take for the city to turn around, but there are many people working hard every day to make it happen. The spirit will always be alive and well in Detroit!
How do you think that Detroit parties compare to the European ones at which you've played? How is it different playing a party in your hometown to playing somewhere on the European side?
Detroit has had some fantastic parties. Maybe not the biggest, maybe not in the most glorious clubs, but historical and timeless nonetheless. There was something fascinating about going to see your favorite artists in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of the ghetto at 4 AM on any given weekend. But for me the best parties in Detroit were from '95 to '98, which means I probably was a few years too late to witness some of the best of them. But I'd say now the energy and enthusiasm in underground European events and clubs, with their amazing sound systems and curious locations, are more exciting now. What makes for a good party is experimentation. When the crowd and the artist are willing to experiment and try something different together.
Could you tell us a little bit more about some parties you've played in 'curious locations'? Were these successful experiments?
A couple "curious locations" and experiments that stand out to me from Detroit are:
Studio 95 on Woodward—I remember going into a record from a Japanese song flautist after playing "El Jem" by G-man and some people started standing around and scratching their heads, then I slowly brought in "M-6" by Maurizio and everyone completely lost it.
"Chop Shop," a warehouse in Detroit, was also one. There was a limousine on the inside of the building and DJ's would play out of the sun roof on top of the car. Seemed pretty cool to me at the time.
I've heard you described as a 'perfectionist' as a DJ. What should the perfect DJ do? Is there something particular he or she should strive for, or achieve?
I think I'm very hard on myself as a DJ. I remember after buying turntables the first two records I bought were "Dark Ages" on Definitive, the green and pink ones. I didn't buy any other records for about three months—well, maybe a couple M-Plant records. But, I went down in the basement almost every day for three months and learned how to beat match those records until I could mix the entire side of each record. When I started buying records at Record Time, you had to know your music. Often times the guys at the store would hide the best records or reserve them and wouldn't help much if they didn't know you. I remember taping sets off the radio every weekend and playing them for the guys at the store. It took them awhile to warm up to me. There was always this "elitist" feeling in the Detroit techno scene, so I kind of retreated to my basement and didn't associate with anyone, I didn't think proving myself to those people was important.
I think the most important thing a DJ can do is play music that means a lot to them, to play music that moves them. If you're just playing "hot" tracks, anyone can do that. Try something new, be creative. I think Rob Hood inspired me as a DJ. He'd throw a long monotonous track on and take another record and mix it in and out and then end with the same record he started with, then throw on another long record and do the same thing. That's what I aimed for in my DJ sets, to find records that I loved that I could mix well with other records and create my own sound. But everyone has their own idea of what a DJ should do, so the most important thing is to find music that your passionate about and play it, regardless if it's in or not.
Ha! Faulty equipment in shabby spaces. There is just a sound that I wasn't finding in the records that I heard that were coming out, so I started to try to create it on my own. Sure, I had inspiration, but I wasn't hearing all the elements I enjoyed in dance music all at once. I'm not sure if I'm succeeding in it just yet, but I'm happy with the music I've made and hope to continue to grow as an artist and get the music on wax that I have in my head. A message of truth is also very important to me; elements of soul and emotion that I'm hoping will have a positive effect on others.
With regards to inspiration, it seems like your records owe a debt to both the minimalism of, for instance, Robert Hood, and the depth of maybe Basic Channel, among others. It sometimes feels like the stripped down, dubby and deep sides of techno are hard for certain people to "get." What advice would you give to someone still trying to wrap their heads around these sounds?
Most of the time the best music is the simplest music. For me fewer warm, rich, dimensional and constantly changing elements blended together over time will keep me the most interested. Overproduction makes me lose focus. I'm still learning how to strip my sound down even more to the essential elements. I like to follow certain sounds in time and listen to how they change or morph into frequencies of other sounds. My definition of good music might be different than someone else's. It all depends on your set of requirements.
I'd say the two most important elements in electronic music for me is dance (function) and substance (form). A lot of people who aren't familiar with stripped down and/or deep electronic music don't understand it because they think to themselves, "You mean this is all it does?" But they may not be enjoying the sounds on the pallet of their ear or they may not be interested in following the sounds and finding out where they go or how they change. If you're watching water crashing up on the shore or listening to sounds deep in the forest some people might get bored; I personally watch how patterns in the shoreline change or how insects and the wind in the trees work together to create a panorama of perfect noise. I sort of zone out.
If I had to write a manual on how to listen to electronic music it would contain the following:
Step 1. Pay Close Attention.
Step 2. Dance.
NOTE: Please complete Step 1 and Step 2 at the same time.
In various places, you've described one of your influences as Ableton. On your MySpace you also have a video of an analogue synthesizer. Could you tell us a little about the combination that you tend to go with in your production?
Ableton has been great as a sequencing tool for me. It helps me get my ideas down quickly, before I lose them. However, nothing can take the place of analogue equipment, it's much more effective and has more character than software for me personally. I treat analogue equipment like God treats me. I find them broken, abused, and hanging out in the dumpster, and I restore them, give them true purpose, and help them achieve what they were meant to achieve.
I don't really have a certain combination or outline that I follow when I'm producing music. Sometimes I start with a field recording, sometimes I start with a kick. Most of the time there is no telling what can happen in the studio.
It's fun when you don't have a plan. For the most part it's a big experiment I guess, but I think your character and your experiences shape your sound into something specific.
OK. So your final sound is a combination of what's in your head to begin with, and what you find in your instruments. Is one more important than the other? Is it purely an organic thing, or has one got to have veto power?
I would say my final sound is delivered best when it's more of an emotional process. When an artist is writing for a particular label, trying to write in a particular genre, or thinking too much about theory, etc., that's when things start to become linear and predictable. When I can experiment with different sounds and musical ideas, use improvisation, and allow music to become a natural process, that's when I'm most often satisfied with the final product. There are days when you don't want to write, and there are days when you have to write.
I think he's had influence on me in a business and industry sense. I think a lot of artists get walked on because they're not sure what they want, so they take what they can get, or they lose their integrity for a particular "lifestyle," which is a huge lie. Alex has been an encouragement in regards to how I view my music, and how to keep it in good hands. He's inspired me to start my own label, which I plan on doing in the near future.
On "Agape Dub," which is just out on Modelisme, you include a vocal which quotes from the Bible. In that track, we're told: "fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves." For you, what does Christianity have to say to techno?
The passage above is from Philippians 2:3. It speaks of humility and unselfish love, something that we can't give in and of ourselves. Christianity has been misrepresented by religion and people that have used it for selfish gain. Christianity and religion are two very different things. Religion is a set of rules and regulations set up by man to try and get close to God or to control people. Christianity is a relationship with God, something that we can't earn, something that is given to us... all we have to do is accept it.
We're a messed up bunch, trying in so many ways to make life worth living, in what we do, in what we acquire, in the positions that we hold or in the status that we attain. The people in pursuit of wealth or pleasure or knowledge or status are the most miserable people. I know, because I was one of them. True freedom isn't found in any of those things. I can't point my finger or tell people what they should and shouldn't do, I'd be a hypocrite. But I know that there is more to life than we choose to see. Living for empty pursuits will only leave us unsatisfied, we can't fill that void on our own. Only God can. I hope to bring these ideas out in my music.
Late '90s Detroit Classics
Intrigued by his unique timing on the Detroit scene, we asked Hess to highlight some of the tracks and releases that were soundtracking the city when he first started going out to clubs.
Jeff Mills - The Purpose Maker [Axis]
It seem like every techno DJ in Detroit would play this record at least once during their set.
Convextion - Convextion [Matrix]
This track makes me think of spaceships and Matrix was a very cool label that seemed to be overlooked a lot.
Alexi Delano - Madness Continuum [Svek]
Not a Detroit release, but the track "Debajo" is killer for layering!
Robert Hood - All Day Long [M-Plant]
This is the first record I ever bought from Robert Hood. After that I, of course, went out and found "Minimal Nation" and "Internal Empire"!
Aril Brikha - Art of Vengeance EP [Fragile]
It sounds as good at 100 BPM as it does at 160 BPM and, more importantly, my Grandma danced to it.
Robert Hood - Red Passion II [Duet]
I remember hearing this record played at Motor Lounge in Hamtramck all the time and loving it.
Some Christians live in a box. They create their own little safe world and never reach out beyond themselves. Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world. We need God's power in our life to resist sin because we can't do it on our own. We're supposed to be a light in the dark; to love others, encourage others, show kindness, self-control, patience, you know... the good stuff.
There is more to life than living for ourselves. God says in His word that he wants to give us life and life more abundantly, how sweet is that?! He has given exceedingly abundantly more for us than we can think or imagine! We have to reach out to people's needs in the best way we know how. Right now I guess mine is through music.
The other thing I wanted to ask about is the connection between music on the dub side and spirituality. It seems like a deep/dubby atmosphere often goes along with some degree of religious belief, going back to Jamaican artists in the '60s and '70s. You seem to prefer producing on the deep/dubby side of techno yourself. It's a tough question, but have you got any thoughts on why dub atmosphere and spirituality seem to fit together so well?
Reggae and dub are definitely influences in my music. I especially enjoy Lee Scratch Perry & Scientist. Reggae music is more associated with the Rastafarian movement and not Christianity. A lot of it was a form of worship music to who they considered to be God. One reason why it may seem to some people that dub atmospheres and spirituality fit together is because of the use of organic sounds, sound effects, delays and reverbs. I think all of our natural surroundings, including sound, scream that there is a creator. Many of the noises we hear in dub music remind us of nature, which in turn points many in the direction of a creator. It reminds me of Psalm 19:1 - To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.