|Adam Beyer: Planet rhythm
The Swedish techno icon has remained one of the most relevant DJs in the world for nearly two decades through a relentless dedication to rhythm. RA's Todd L. Burns investigates.
If there's one word to describe Adam Beyer, it is consistency. The Swedish DJ doesn't shy away from it. He embraces the idea that you can come out to a show, know exactly what you're going to get and he can deliver on that promise. When we talked on the phone earlier this month, he stressed how hard it has been for Drumcode to remain relevant for as long as it has. Look back at the number of labels that have come and gone in the intervening 15 years, and you're inclined to agree. There have been undoubted highs—tracks that many will remember, parties that will go down as legendary—but, perhaps more importantly, there have rarely been lows.
At the moment, things seem better than ever. Beyer is helming a radio program produced by the same people behind shows from John Digweed, Carl Cox and Armin Van Buuren; and he will throw his first-ever label extravaganza in London next month at a warehouse space. In a lengthy chat with RA's Todd L. Burns, Beyer explains how he got here.
I understand that you recently moved.
Yeah, we did. I still have my studio at my old place. But me and my girlfriend moved to this place that's like a reserve, which belongs to the King. It's actually owned by the city [of Stockholm]. It's pretty central. There are only a few houses there, and no one is allowed to build more so there is a lot of space. The king has his sheep there and there are deer running round, all sorts of animals. It's quite rare that you can get hold of one of those but my girlfriend knows someone and we managed to rent it. We thought it would be interesting and different, so we got it!
You said in an interview that you never thought it would have such a big impact on you, having nature all around you.
Yeah, it's pretty secluded so I was quite scared to go there from the start because I've always lived right in the centre of Stockholm. I'm used to having a takeaway restaurant next door for example. But it was a really beautiful summer. I've only been there for a month, but the few weekends I've been coming home I realized that I just open the door and I go straight out into the wilderness. It's quite nice actually. You just sort of come home and get away from everything... Maybe I'm getting older as well, I don't know. It's a nice contrast to the gigs and all the travelling and everything.
Did you grow up in central Stockholm?
I did, yeah. When I was 9 I moved into the centre. Stockholm is made up of nine islands and we moved to the south one. I grew up there, and I've been living here pretty much since then except for like a year or two when I was working at [Stockholm record store] Planet Rhythm.
When did you start working there?
I pretty much finished school on a Thursday, and I started to work there on the Monday in the summer of '94.
Did you already have productions out by this time?
Yeah, that's kind of how I met Glenn Wilson [the owner of Planet Rhythm]. He opened a little store elsewhere, and then he got in touch with Cari Lekebusch and they decided to open the store in Stockholm. Me and Cari sort of got in touch around maybe a bit earlier than that, because me and a friend were playing tracks that we had been producing on the stereo at a house party. He came up to me and said, "Did you make that?" We already knew about Cari, so it was kind of a big deal.
He was sort of a local hero.
He had released on Harthouse. Which was huge. It was one of the most influential labels, and it was very rare that someone had a record contract with a label abroad. We were really happy to meet him. Shortly after, we got our first deal with Direct Drive in New York. So we already had some productions out when we met Glenn and when I started working at Planet Rhythm, but then we made some new stuff that he then picked up for Planet Rhythm Records as well.
It seems like Drumcode 001 was the first record that you thought, "this is my sound."
I'd probably released about ten records or so before that one, but they were all produced together with other people or there was some sort of compromise involved so I never wanted to put my own name on it. When I did that I felt like "this is something I'm going to build on and it's worth putting my name on."
What was it about that track that you felt conveyed that?
Well, already back then I was playing more techno. I was playing Jeff Mills stuff and early Surgeon records around '95, and this was the first track I made that I felt I could mix together with those tracks and it have it work. I think I just felt like "this is stuff I'm actually going to play when I'm DJing." That's what most of—about 80%—my tracks have been about: tracks I can play when I DJ.
What was the scene like in Stockholm back then?
There was definitely a buzz, because it was a new thing. I think I went to my first rave in '91. That was before the authorities and stuff in Sweden even knew what it was. There were quite a lot of things going on, people were throwing parties in weird spaces like gymnastic halls, bunkers or even in the woods. There were a couple of years that it really became quite big because we had this huge club that became famous later on because of its problems with the police. It was called The Docklands, and it was run by these guys, who were quite politically involved. They started to have parties there, and it held like 2,000 people. Every weekend there were more and more people; it became a really big thing.
Were there certain DJs that inspired you style-wise?
Not so many Swedish ones. Already back then we used to search for mixes from Sven. I was also into breakbeats, so some of the UK stuff, some of the early UK hardcore scene. The internet didn't exist really, so when I was in London I bought a lot of cassette tapes and listened to them for awhile. Then I went to the Love Parade, and found myself at Hard Wax in '93. That's when I got really sold. The biggest inspiration for me was Jeff Mills. When I was learning how to DJ, we were watching a lot of DMC championship tapes on VHS. I thought playing fast, scratching, manipulating and doing things was really cool. He was the first techno DJ I saw doing it at that speed and with that accuracy. It was also just the power of the beats and the rawness.
What was the inspiration to start Drumcode? Obviously you already had a number of outlets for your music.
I did a couple of records for Planet Rhythm which was good—it was nice to do it with someone in Sweden. I did a couple of records abroad as well. But pretty quickly I realized that, at some points, I had to wait maybe ten months for a record to come out because there were eight records before mine. And, by the time my record came out, I already had material for five more records and [the one] that [was just coming out] felt dated because I was making so much progress in the studio. I also thought some of the stuff getting released on those labels didn't really match the things I wanted. I just wanted a label for myself so I could choose the way I felt it was supposed to be.
How would you describe the techno that was being released at the beginning of the label? What defined Drumcode?
A lot of the time when I was buying stuff, I found maybe one track on a record with four tracks that I liked and the other ones were like, "Hmm, OK. But…" Sometimes I bought a record for the single, but I wanted to make a label with four good playable tracks. That was the whole idea. I wanted to be able to play every single track on every single release that I put out. I thought, "This is going to be a label purely for DJs, I'm not going to be too pretentious about it, I'm not going to write 'save the world' slogans on it, it's just going to be what it is—well-crafted DJ tools."
Adam Beyer plotting world domination in 2001.
Was there an immediate response from DJs? Or did it take a while for people to come to what you were doing?
The response was huge. I think Prime Distribution had just started back then, and I remember them telling me, "You shouldn't expect more than 1,000 in sales and should be happy that we're doing this at all because new labels are difficult blah blah blah…" Then the first 1,000 copies went out the door within hours. I think we did 3,500, and then I deleted it because I was very much into this sort of... not underground stage…but I thought it was cool if things get deleted and you couldn't get hold of it. That was pretty much the spirit of techno at the time.
As far as sounds go, what is inspiring to you right now?
As we speak, I think you draw lines back to different periods of time. If you look at what has happened in the last ten years, everything is more or less recycled. You hear things—and maybe you don't think about it consciously, but unconsciously you've already heard it somewhere during those 20 years of listening to techno. I think what inspires you is someone taking an idea from what has already been and you kind of make your own take of it. Or you find something you liked, you recycle it, make something new, then several hundred people do the same thing and you're on to the next thing. That's how it feels right now, and maybe that's a bit pessimistic but… I think other things that are inspiring are a life of traveling and listening to people. Everything from a club to different countries to what's popular in what country. It's still very much the DJing that drives me.
Do you see that slowing down anytime in the near future?
I don't think so. As long as things are moving upwards, and I feel like I have a place in the scene and I feel I still have something to say and what I do is relevant, then I think I can go on for quite some time. I don't want to become one of those DJs who had his peak and is on the way down and keeps struggling. It's maybe easier for me to say but you know. I started so young; I'm only 34 so there's still a lot of energy in the old man!
"I'm not looking to play sets with
my old stuff or going down
memory lane and being sentimental."
You talk about relevance: I think Drumcode is positioned quite nicely because the drive seems to always have been about functionality. That's never going to go out of style.
Exactly. And the thing with Drumcode is we're not extreme in the sense of being extremely minimal or extremely hard or extremely one way or another. When you're in the middle ground, it's pretty easy to evolve the sound and still be current without making too many changes and also keep a line through everything. I think you can feel the same vibe throughout the whole catalogue of the label. Maybe for some people that's boring, but if you look at its purpose, then I think it really makes sense. It's not an easy thing to do over a 15 year period—to maintain an interesting, updated formula of something you started fifteen years ago.
Do you find yourself going back, then, to tracks that you released early in the label's catalogue and playing them out?
Not really. I'm not looking to start playing sets with my old stuff or going down memory lane and being sentimental. Not yet. Maybe in ten years. I still feel the new stuff is more exciting. I think that's when you start to stagnate. When you don't have anything more to say you might go back because people want to hear the old things. I still get requests for doing sets with the '90s stuff, but I don't feel good about it. I'm still forward-looking, I want to play new stuff. I'll play the odd classic at a party though.
I saw you play in Amsterdam recently. One of the things I was really struck by is how you made every track sound like Adam Beyer. Even a track like Ben Klock's recent remix of Martyn, which has a distinctive personality of its own. I was wondering if that's a goal of yours. That people will always hear Adam Beyer going through a set.
I don't think it's a goal of mine. I think that's what makes me "me," you know? It's not like a conscious choice to try to make things sound like me, it's more the way I play those tracks, in what order, that...I don't know... I get a lot of those questions from journalists, and it's very hard to consciously plan your own sound. I just do things. It's the same when I DJ. I just do things because it feels good, the way it makes sense to me.
Do you find, though, that are certain defining things that you like that you can pinpoint? Are there certain things that you can say, "Yeah, that's what I'm about"?
I think there's a certain funk to what I do. Some people compare me, for example, with Chris Liebing. And, sure we might play some tracks that are the same, but there's a different rhythm to it. I would say it's all about the rhythm, the drums. And the swing of it. And how you build a set from start to finish. I think people would say I usually start at some middle ground, and then most of the time go slightly harder and harder then maybe have a drop. I'm also not afraid of emotions sometimes. I don't have a problem with strings. I also have periods where I go back and play more Detroit-inspired stuff for a few tracks. Unfortunately a lot of it is sometimes not produced in the same way as our stuff, so it can be a little bit difficult to mix. The transitions between mixes, these days, I like them smooth. I work a lot with EQ and the sound of the different tracks need a good blend. I don't like to cut things up anymore or have different-sounding track after each other.
Were you quite a bit more looser before would you say?
Yeah, in the early '90s and mid-'90s, I think the way of playing techno was a bit different. Today DJing has become more detailed and more precise. In the past it was more about chopping things up, you could hear people touching the records and sometimes it went out a bit of sync and you had to cut something off.
Do you miss that at all?
No, I don't. But I'm still actually playing CDs. I still have to beatmatch my records which a lot of people don't have to do anymore. That, for me, is one way of keeping in touch with my style of DJing. I always have to keep track of the pitches. I still move the pitch when I'm in a mix or I actually make small errors and have to correct records.
Adam Beyer playing at Movement Detroit 2009.
In a recent interview you said that you slowed down Drumcode a few years ago because of all the similar music flooding the market. It seems like in the past year or so, though, that you've really reactivated the label. Why now?
I went through a phase where everything was really good, and the parties were great, but then the harder techno came and it got bigger and bigger and I started to get tied up on that side of the fence. I played those parties, but after a while I didn't really enjoy it so much. It felt like it wasn't my vision of techno. I kind of just wanted a change. I went to Ibiza those first years, and partied with Rich[ie Hawtin] and heard a lot of minimal records. And that started to become really popular in Germany. It also reminded me of our early days when we did Loop Records. Cari used to be really into Robert Hood. We used to listen to all that stuff as well. So it just felt like a natural thing to slow things down a little bit to make a point that, you know, it's enough. I don't like music that's hard just for the sake of being hard—it has to have something else.
At that point, I almost decided to finish Drumcode. But I did a couple of other records: The Plus 8 one, the Cocoon one and some others. And I kept playing at a lot of parties where I felt people wanted something more. It was missing that extra energy. So I started to play around with the idea of starting Drumcode and really going for it again. I also realized the brand still had a lot of fans. People were still asking about it. So instead of starting something new, I thought I should keep on going with Drumcode and fuse old ideas and current sounds and keep going.
You say that you had sort of been grouped in with harder techno. Do you feel like nowadays you are being perceived in the right way by journalists and promoters who are booking you? Are you getting to play the parties that you want to play?
Yeah, very much so. I'm pretty much completely satisfied with my place right now. That was also the thing about starting Drumcode again. When you don't have a label, you don't have a home and people may not know what you're about, especially if you come to one party and play one sound and you play something else somewhere else. It can be a little bit confusing. I mean it's interesting for you, as a DJ, to be able to do that, but I think now with Drumcode people pretty much know what to expect.
Is that something you've wanted to build up to with Drumcode?
Yeah, for the last three years when I thought it was possible and I started to see what is possible, it's been the goal. In the past, I was like a one man show. I did almost everything myself. I didn't have management until last year.
It's only been a year since you've had management? Wow. You've said in previous interviews that you're a bit of a control freak. Is it tough to let things go for you?
Exactly. That's one of the reasons I never had it.
And you feel comfortable with the team now?
I do. Jeremy Ford is someone I've been working with since I bought records from him when I worked at Planet Rhythm. So I've known him for 16 years. He's someone I trust, and he's one of the few persons that really know me and I trust to take care of the brand in the way I want it. He knows me inside out.
It only took you sixteen years of working with someone to trust them enough...
[laughs] Well, sometimes this industry... A few of my friends [have had problems with] everything from agents to distributors and things like that. People you've been supporting and giving a lot of work to will just turn their back on you and fuck you. I'm not bitter about those things, I usually just go forward. I leave it behind because we are still doing well. But I think you need to have people around you, especially in this industry that you can trust because there are a lot of temptations. Things are moving fast so you need to be able to adapt, and if you can't trust people around you...
...what do you have?
Published / Monday, 16 August 2010
Photo credits / DJing at Movement - Matt Cohen