|Daniel Bell: The nomad
He’s travelled a long way since his DBX days in Detroit, but he’s back in the city for the DEMF, and back as DBX. Lee Smith profiles minimal techno pioneer Dan Bell.
Music people – media, artists, fans – love to define styles of music by geography. Nowhere is this more common than in electronic music, which is always quick to sniff out and hyperbolise the latest emerging sound of this or that city. It’s an approach which gives journalists and listeners the opportunity to neatly define often quite abstract music with tangible signifiers, be they the crumbling expanses of post-wall Berlin, the urban decay of Detroit, or the smog-tinged industrial heritage of Sheffield.
So where does Daniel Bell fit into this scheme? Not easily. If you had to pick a city that his name was most associated with, you would choose Detroit, and the creative flowering of techno which blossomed there in the ‘90s. But then again, consider his Button-Down Mind mixes from the early ‘00s, which are widely seen as responsible for shifting techno’s focus onto the then unexplored territories of Germanic minimal. Or indeed, his current deejaying schedule: Bell is just as comfortable supporting the scene in Virginia or Philadelphia as preparing a new Thursday night residency in Berlin this summer. So while Bell’s most famous work is instinctively linked with Detroit, it’s worth remembering that he’s not even originally from that city, and hasn’t lived there for years. In fact, he claims he’s not from anywhere in particular.
“I really don’t have a home town,” he explains from his current base, deep in the peacefully rural climes of Connecticut. “I moved a lot when I was a kid. I was born in California, but spent a lot of time in Canada. We moved every two years or so.”
It’s a history of rootlessness which seems particularly suited to deejaying, an occupation which will rack you up more air points than a diplomat. At present, Bell divides his time between Berlin and the US, but he’s also lived in Toronto, where he spent time drumming in bands and taking classes as a film student, New York, where he first came into contact with the embryonic sounds of house music, and of course Detroit, where he finally managed to make his musical mark.
An advantage of this lifestyle, naturally, is that it gives an artist the tools to bring together far-flung influences and create something genuinely new, which Bell first hit on with his Cybersonik project back in the early nineties. A potent amalgamation of Chicago’s searing 303s and the brutal stomp of European hardcore, Cybersonik also imbued techno’s harder fringes with a touch of Detroit futurism, bestowing Plus 8 with its signature sound in the process. But wandering also has its downside. In the particular case of Detroit, it’s not easy to be a newcomer in a city obsessed with geographical mythologies and roots. Like fellow Canadian ex-pats Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva, when Bell first arrived in the city, he found himself faced with the task of trying to fit into a peculiarly insular, and segregated, environment. Nonetheless, after a life spent moving from town to town, from city to city, from scene to scene, he claims he discovered what he was looking for.
“I felt I had found my musical home,” he recalls. “Before then, I was much more into Chicago things – I wasn’t aware of what was happening in Detroit. But someone pointed out to me that the Rhythim is Rhythim records were coming out of Detroit, and I thought, ‘well, that’s not too far away, I can go there’.
The resurrection of DBX
by Lee Smith
DJing is a relatively recent addition to Dan Bell’s career. He didn’t begin deejaying regularly until the late ‘90s, concentrating instead on live shows as DBX. Now after a break of half a dozen years or more, Bell is reviving his celebrated live incarnation for one summer only. Bell premiered the p.a. at the Rex club in Paris last week, and this weekend he’s coming full circle bringing DBX to Movement in Detroit. Dan Bell on the return of DBX:
Why return to live performance after such a long time?
Bell: “The guys at DEMF asked me last year if I’d be interested. I was really unsure. I usually prefer to DJ. But I started thinking about it, and I thought ‘Yeah, it could be kinda cool.’ I thought it could be something new to do, and also, for a generation of people who might not know my music from the early days, it’s a chance to try it out.”
Does DBX use a laptop?
Bell: “No, I really didn’t want to do a laptop show. I just wanted to do something different. Especially if I was doing older tracks, it just didn’t seem right to do a laptop show. I have all the old gear up there, so the last couple months were spent going through the logistics and making it happen.”
What kind of gear are you using?
Bell: Ah, I think that’s still trade secret territory.
Has putting the new show together been enjoyable?
Bell: “Yes, absolutely. I haven’t done it for a while, and even when I used to do live gigs, I used a lot of older equipment. I’m having to remember how to programme a lot of older equipment. That’s made it a challenge – but it’s been great, too. Some of these pieces of equipment, I haven’t worked with for 15, 16 years... I’m not a very nostalgic person, but when you get these things you used to work with every day, then you have them back in your life, it’s kinda cool. It brings all the memories back.”
“It felt like it was an island or something,” he continues. “It was just incredible to me. At that time it felt like you were stepping five or six years into the future of dance music. It was a very positive place to be. There was a lot of enthusiasm, it was very progressive and very unique.”
Under the guise of Cybersonik, Bell quickly made a name for himself in techno circles as part of Hawtin and Acquaviva’s fledgling Plus 8 imprint, but according to many commentators from that period, the success of these “outsiders” didn’t come without its problems. Did the Plus 8 crew encounter difficulties as white guys turning up in Detroit and making techno? There’s a long pause.
“Yeah, but I didn’t really know a lot of the main players. I know that there was some friction, though. There was this infamous stamp that was put on one of my records [“The Future Sound of Detroit” was controversially inscribed onto Cybersonik’s ‘Technarchy’, a record made across the river in Canada]. Originally it was just me, but then after the success of that record, it was the group of us. And so that stamp, I wasn’t even aware of it. I wasn’t aware of the politics in Detroit. So there was some resentment, which I thought was understandable. It was maybe too provocative or something…Detroit is a racially polarised area in the US. If you move there and you’re a white person, you know, you have to think about that.”
Accordingly, Bell found himself something of an immigrant in his new surroundings, and like many immigrants with aspirations have done before, he set about proving his worth in a city that had little time for pretenders who failed to make the grade. While Hawtin went on to incur the public wrath of local luminaries – notably Drexciya’s James Stinson and DJ T1000 alter ego Alan Oldham – Bell quietly parted company with the wider, whiter US rave scene. By 1993, he’d formed his “mother label” Accelerate, which concentrated on DBX’s stripped-back hybrid of hard-wired house and metallic technoid clanging, as well as 7th City, a more stylistically open platform for his and label partner Claude Young’s various electronic experiments.
But it was in 1994 that Bell’s amalgamation of Chicago grooves, Detroit abstraction and European robotics really found its stride, in the form of DBX’s stone-cold classic, ‘Losing Control’. Claustrophobic and super-sparse, the track sealed his reputation worldwide, and even in Detroit, for articulating a new take on techno that stood in stark counterpoint to the overblown trends of the day. For the next 18 months, it was all but impossible to visit an underground club of almost any description without hearing the record’s endlessly modulating vocal refrain. Bell remembers not everyone picked up on its genre-crossing potential straight away:
“The day after I finished it, I remember I played it to this guy visiting from another city and his eyes kinda bugged out of his skull,” he recalls. “No one had really done the voice filtering like that before. But then the surprising thing was that Peacefrog rejected the track, saying it was “too housey”. But I persisted, and they finally went along with it.”
A wise move on Peacefrog’s part as the record went onto shift an unfeasibly high number of units, establishing the now commonplace less-is-more maxim on a wider scale than perhaps any record before it. In a somewhat ironic turnabout, suddenly this outsider was the Detroit guy everybody wanted to copy. Although Bell claims that he’s “not too bothered” by the countless plagiarisms of his style these days, the situation eventually culminated in a well-documented spat with Josh Wink over the similarity between DBX’s ‘Phreak’ (Accelerate, 1993) and Wink’s ‘Superfreak (Freak)’ (Ovum, 2002). Bell prefers not to re-hash the saga, saying merely that it’s “water under the bridge”, but he is quick to acknowledge that techno is inevitably based on at least some degree of sonic recycling.
"Music has been a part of my life for 20 years. I think as it’s maturing, it’s become even more inspirational."
“Everybody is inspired by things, but where do you draw the line?” he ponders. “It’s a grey area. In the end I’m glad it happened, it got the issue out there. As a musical community, we have to think about these things sometimes. How are we gonna handle the legalities? If you were to sit a jury to together, all the music would sound the same to most of them anyway. We have bootlegs, and things like that, and I just think that if you’re going to do something very close to someone’s track, you ask their permission, you know?”
Fast forward to 2008, and unlike many of his contemporaries, Dan Bell is still in business. His recent sets – filled with up-to-the-minute selections of Frankfurt and US house – prove that he’s stayed abreast of the scene’s new developments, something that can’t be truthfully said of many of the key players from his era. He’s also recently begun re-releasing 7th City classics, as well as digital versions of selected tracks from the notoriously rare Accelerate back catalogue.
“Well, I haven’t committed to the entire catalogue,” he says. “It’s awkward. It’s one of those things that I don’t wanna rush into. I’m not entirely sure how I want approach the whole digital thing. I want to support the vinyl industry as much as possible. I understand the reason for why people want digital downloads, but at the same time, I wanna take my time, so this was testing the waters. We’ll see.”
Additionally, there are new solo productions in the works, as well as a proper re-launch of both Elevate and 7th City. This month there’s also a long-awaited revival of DBX (see side-panel), after which he plans to return to Europe and get back into DJing. For now, though, he’s happy to rest up in Connecticut, balancing the physical toll of his DJ lifestyle with plenty of “swimming, running, cycling – all we have here is country roads.”
Time to wind up the interview – Bell is feeling the jetlag having just stepped off a transatlantic flight in New York. I squeeze in a final question about how he feels about dance music in 2008. His answer is typical Dan Bell: no grand statements, soundbites or blatant self-publicising, just quietly-spoken enthusiasm:
“Music has been a part of my life for 20 years,” he says. “I think as it’s maturing, it’s become even more inspirational, because there’s space for everything new. In previous years, there was always one sound that was really dominant. It was really hard to find space. But in the last couple years, it’s really opened up, and there’s lots of space for all the different approaches to this music. To me, it’s definitely as important as ever. Absolutely.”