Gonzales, better known as MGUN, is most definitely of this new "punk" generation. More so than many of his contemporaries, however, he strikes a fascinating balance between his iconoclastic urges and a keen awareness of techno traditions. Like his sometime collaborator Kyle Hall, Gonzales' music simultaneously exalts and challenges the heritage of his native Detroit. But where Hall has looked to revered house figures like Omar-S and Theo Parrish for cues, MGUN productions—across a growing body of releases for Don't Be Afraid, The Trilogy Tapes and Hall's Wild Oats—display more of an affinity with the militant tone of early Underground Resistance or the faded futurism of '80s electro.
Gonzales' involvement with the Detroit scene runs pretty deep. When we spoke he had just returned from a trip to France, where he was DJing as part of Underground Resistance's Timeline band. In the past he's also toured with UR's Interstellar Fugitives collective. This must have been a dream come true for Gonzales, given his formative experiences listening to late night Detroit radio in the '90s (particularly WJLB, one-time home to The Wizard, AKA Jeff Mills).
"I was listening to shit really early," he recalls. "At seven or eight I remember first tuning into the radio late at night, trying to figure out what they were doing." The discovery that much of this music was coming from his hometown was a revelation. "I thought people were doing this all over the United States. Probably the first person that I really recognised was DJ Assault. He had shit like Straight Up Detroit Sh*t Vol 1 and Belle Isle Tech, so you're like, 'Oh OK, that's this city for sure.'" From there, Gonzales made it his mission to learn about the music he was hearing. "I wanted to know the artists more than anything," he recalls. "I would write down names, look for those records or CDs, or try to find them on the radio."
Gonzales' intimate knowledge of the sounds of Detroit's past is sometimes glaringly evident in his music. His more pared back techno productions (for example "Funnel Vision," from the recently released If You're Reading This EP on Don't Be Afraid) often sound like vintage Terrence Dixon passed through several layers of tape distortion. "Laser Jam," from a forthcoming release on Berceuse Heroique, cleaves to the vocoder electro formula so convincingly it could almost be a recently unearthed '80s classic. Gonzales, however, doesn't see these gestures as conscious homage, so much as a subconscious tic; an excising of sounds and motifs lodged in the memory from years of exposure. "Those are patterns that are stuck in my head sometimes," he says. "So sometimes without knowing, I might [use them]."
Behind Gonzales' mild deflection lies the sense that any kind of overt referentialism represents a failure of sorts—a failure to remain sealed in his own self-contained, self-sustaining aesthetic world. Although Gonzales is by no means shut off from Detroit's musical community, he seems to draw inspiration not from interaction with like minds but from a sort of self-imposed outsider status. The community around Wild Oats, for example, has never really held that much appeal for him. "Some guys hang out and keep in touch I guess," he says. "Not necessarily me though. I'm not really, I don't know, trying to reach out that much." Similarly, he works part-time in a record store in the city, Peoples Records, but maintains that he doesn't take part in the usual over-the-counter trading of demo CDs, preferring to "leave my music at home."
This reasoning is at least partly behind Gonzales' distaste for software too. MGUN productions are made using a motley assortment of hardware, and typically executed in a single take. Gonzales will occasionally load them into a basic music program, Wave Editor, to make final alterations, but otherwise he steers clear of DAWs like Ableton or Logic. "I don't understand a lot of it, for one," he says. "And I just feel like I get my sound with this shit and I should just keep it like that. I'm just gonna run with it, you know."
As a result, his tracks have a boldness that points to years of experience with the equipment to hand—Gonzales picked up his first bit of kit, a Casio keyboard, at the age of 11—as well as a willingness to exploit its idiosyncrasies. Take, for example, "Hand Over Fifth" from Gonzales' recently released If You're Reading This EP on Don't Be Afraid, whose queasily re-pitched chords sound like the product of a viciously defective sampler. Or "Westerns," from The Upstairs Apt EP, a gentle but ramshackle drone piece seemingly constructed from a handful of cheap synthesiser tones and a delay unit. In each case the idea is simple but striking, and executed in a succinct, unfussy manner; no matter how esoteric Gonzales' creations, his intention is always crystal clear.
Sonic clarity, meanwhile, is less of a concern. The fidelity of MGUN productions varies wildly, from subtle tape-warmth to distorted mulch (see the spindly Jefferson Airplane edit "Walk With Me" from TTT release The Near Future). But for Gonzales, the degradation of sounds isn't an end in itself so much as a by-product of his processes. "Sometimes it just comes out like that," he says. "Sometimes I'm trying to reach higher fidelities, but something just happens in the process of EQing, or whatever recording medium I'm using—it might get a little dirty and I might say 'OK, well that works too.'"
But while the rough-edged sound of Gonzales' productions may be the outcome of a method he's been honing for years, right now it places him among the growing ranks of producers rejecting digital perfection in dance music, preferring to wear their sonic imperfections like badges of pride. Gonzales, intriguingly, suggests that this movement is partly motivated by a desire to be kinder on the ears. "Everything's all sterile, man," he says. "Shit's sterilised, it's close-to-pristine, yet when it hits it kinda hurts your ears, you know? When you've got some kind of process of saturation or distortion on your recording, it softens that up a little bit."
Listening to the scorched electro of, say, "The Race," this reasoning might seem a little counter-intuitive. But there's no denying that Gonzales' productions, even at their most intense, have a rare richness of sound, where even simple elements, funnelled through distortion and filtering, become appealing sonic artefacts.
Some of these tracks, with their muffled spoken vocals and tinny beatbox percussion, sound like Gonzales' take on coldwave. Elsewhere, he explores chilly lo-def ambient and budget kosmische-style drone, while also allowing some crossover into baleful dance floor forms. Gonzales' SoundCloud uploads as Savant are occasionally accompanied by images of gutted buildings, either under construction or in a state of disrepair, and his music too (as both Savant and MGUN) can sound half-finished—all raw surfaces and yawning spaces.
There's a metaphor there, perhaps, for Detroit's young generation, who are forging new, provisional forms in a city in decline. But ultimately it seems wrong to reduce Gonzales' music to being solely the product of his hometown. His output is idiosyncratic even by the standards of his cohorts, and his creative practice seems largely concerned with the pursuit of a singular vision. Regardless, as recognition for his music grows, Gonzales seems willing to break with his solitary habits. "I've mostly just been hibernating and making tracks [recently], but I'm definitely getting back out there," he says. "I'm excited for going out to the UK in late July. And there will be a Third Ear release later on in the year." MGUN's output, rugged, mercurial and doggedly cross-genre, may seem challenging to many. But in 2013, with a little punk spirit floating in the air, who knows where it could take him.