I still remember my first booking. December of 1994, Sydney, the Antipodes. Fresh out of high school. Not only had I never performed in a nightclub before, I'd never gone clubbing before. I had spent years entwined in cheap headphones in the inky-black of my bedroom, filtering life through music which felt both entirely foreign, yet painfully intimate.
The venue was nestled in the infamous gay quarter of Darlinghurst—Taylor Square's Kinsela's nightclub, a gorgeous Art-Deco funeral parlour, functioning for years as a somewhat grimy, cavernous nightspot—almost ironically morbid in only the most perfect way. I'd lugged my bulky Windows 3.1 desktop PC, a DAT player, a rather primitive, monophonic Akai sampler, a Roland Juno-106 poly-synth and Roland TB-303 bassline synth onstage. My girlfriend at the time served as backing-singer cum much-appreciated chanteuse. The synth suffered an 11th-hour stress-related lobotomy and 15 minutes prior to the performance I remember hastily attempting to resurrect it by jacking in to the cigarette machine's power supply.
I can't honestly recall too much of the performance following. I was certainly relieved, and more than a little baffled by it all. 15 years later, and not much has changed. I'm now living in Berlin, with frequent shows across Europe, and "second homes" in Vancouver, Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle. I've performed at wonderful festivals like Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Fusion Festival, and EXIT in Serbia, yet my spirit still feels most at home performing in more intimate surroundings. Eyes to the heavens, bleary and squinting, through inch-thick frames.
If I've learned anything from years surviving as an "artist," it's that we are all inexorably linked, inter-dependant and essentially the same the world over. It's a truth that I hold dear. We ARE each other. It's a truth which, at best, we find revealed on the dance floor—blinded by sweat and sex and stench and promise—coded potentiality in the heartbeat of this "lightless light." This is house music, and this is the extended worldwide underground that has taken me in, giving me a place to belong, nursing my wounds and sharing shared dreams.
My live show: Noisy, uncouth and hand-made as well as pre-fab.
The United States still astounds me. As a study of civilization in decline, it remains a poster child of extremes, glaring paradox and brutal individualism. Sewn into its sprawling 50 states are west coast outposts of Seattle and San Francisco—bastions of relative sanity, and persistently inspiring progressiveness. You can actually buy food here which is not over-packaged and super-sized. The people are kind, soft; they beat their own drum. Kurt Cobain's spirit still roams the haze, slumping against mossy sugar-maples under a gun-metal blue sky, and curiously healthy squirrels scuttle amid the foliage.
I'm partying with the Shameless in Seattle crew this week, for the brilliant Decibel Festival—staying at the home of the artist-manager and her partner, both of whom are dear friends. These two alone have transformed the clubbing landscape in Seattle, with their regular Shameless parties playing host to European DJs/producers on a regular basis, and their hospitality is a salve to my flight-addled countenance. These are, above all, my friends and mentors and their ethos has been not only to prosper progressive dance music (Moderat, Lusine, the extended DirtyBird posse to name a few), but to nourish Seattle's fringe community at large.
The venue is Chop Suey, a long-running two room affair, homely and personable. I'm performing a live set, wrangling an assortment of hard and software, borrowed, cobbled together in somewhat temperamental modified union. For me, techno is most compelling when a sense of risk, uncertainty and potential failure is engineered within the mix. Meanwhile, down the road, Flying Lotus and band are channeling the underworld. Grime pressure versus Australian tech mayhem. Detroit's Daniel Bell and myself are on main room duties tonight. I'm more than a little anxious and stone-cold sober, tailed by jetlag and the quiet, gnawing fuzz that descends when I haven't performed in a few weeks.
Sound check is around 7 PM, but this is always a convenient deception—an exercise in re-assurance which never quite betrays the tone of the night to come. From experience, most of my sound checks feel like loose, chaotic reminders that I'm always flying solo in a craft I'm still learning to pilot. Or rather, flying a home-made glider across some east-west border town, patched (literally) together with bad soldering and gaffa tape. I know enough to ride the mild gusts, but it's headwinds I ultimately seek. My rig consists of laptop, analogue synth(s) and digital drum-machine, shackled via a rather temperamental sync-loop—one requiring perpetual attentiveness and finger-syncing. My machines need caressing, reassurance. They are noisy, uncouth, hand-made as well as pre-fab.
Close to 500 cross the floor this night. Far more than I would have expected. Machines thrum, pop, grind and misbehave. Acid indigestion and tensile 16th notes, finished tracks and fragments, on-the-fly boom-bap, garage-pressure, organic-rampancy. Good. Better than expected. Ridiculously enjoyable, raw, tactile. I'm still sober.
Good God, though. Even a solid performance serves to remind me of how much scope there still is to explore. And with the scope, always a prerequisite embrace of the possibility of failure, clipped wings, awkward stares of judgment. It is what it is. A slightly baffled Daniel Bell steps up after me, ironing out the chaos with consummate elegance. It's a good night. It's a great night, in fact. In the back room, a large mirror-ball is cathartically sacrificed on the greasy floor. Blood, but no casualties.
Top: Riot police waiting for trouble at a memorial for the Tlatelolco Massacre
Bottom: A sampling of the local cuisine
Mexico City MEX
My Mexican adventure commenced some weeks earlier, when a lovely young promoter invited me to stop off between US shows for three bookings in Mexico City. I've always felt that Mexicans have been unduly maligned by a reactive America—that the Mexican people's story is one of resilience and compromise in the face of outright racism. Of course I wanted to play—to glimpse, perhaps, a little firsthand perspective of a culture which felt foreign to me.
Days before my show, I was emailed with the unfortunate news that two of my three shows had been inexplicably cancelled. Right. I told the promoter that given the situation, I'd have to (regretfully) cancel the one remaining show which was to have bought me to Mexico for five days. What followed was a distressed e-mail explaining that the promoter's job with the club was in jeopardy if I didn't show. I didn't want to be held responsible for job loss. My hands are already soaked with too much mediocre karma.
I bit my lower lip and it stung. Suddenly, three shows as an international superstar in Mexico City started to taste like a humble pie-eating contest. Lukewarm, doughy, humble pie.
I touched down in Mexico City Airport at 12:30 AM, the morning of that night's gig. Two hours passed. I strolled hazy, confusing hallways full of sleeping travelers on dodgy stucco. It struck me that, in my idiocy, I'd neglected to take a phone number from the promoter. Finally, just before 3 AM, a figure emerged, repentant and evidently roused from slumber. I felt relief, exhaustion and the realisation that anger wouldn't serve anyone. I had two nights booked at a hotel and, at this stage, this was all I needed to hear. I collapsed on starched sheets to the sound of a noisy ceiling fan.
AM Club, it must be said, is one of Mexico City's finest—gorgeous, red-lit and stylish. I was performing my live set again with the hardware more-or-less compliant, and dovetailed by DJs who played a surprisingly tailored take on deep house/bar music. I felt slightly out of place pimping a rather more rambunctious take on machine music. My machines, my sound, is rust-stained, noisy, unquantised. Tequila and Cerveza, and then a carbohydrate-induced sedation of cheese-and-bean feast. I played well enough… despite some slightly baffled glances from the dance floor. It was commented that when I performed I had "no shame." I think that this was a compliment.
Now, for three or four days with no gigs, and no provided hotel accommodation… Mexico City doesn't get too cold at night—which is fortunate, because the flat I was now accommodated within had no real bedding and no hot water. My room, and most of the others, had no working lightblubs. Or power. Or blinds. A mattress... thank god. And a door. My hoodie approximated, well enough, a blanket. My bed companion was a gorgeous dog chewing my socks and shedding plenty of hair. Three days blurred into an odd stream of visitors, beer and marijuana, cheap 7-11, cheaper laughs, laments about girlfriends who'd left scratch marks on arms and stolen laptops. I felt suddenly very old, and very, very tired.
For several days, Mexico City was awash with riot police, which added to the surreality of the occasion. I discovered that this was due to a memorial gathering for the infamous 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. Knowing that hundreds of students were gunned-down during a protest for education rights bought me substantial pause. There's much more at stake here, for so many, than my lily-white artistic gripes. At least I ate well. At least I was relatively safe. At least my promoter, while proving highly problematic in matters of transport and money, had a heart and intention of gold. We drove, we ate, we talked.
I experienced a warmth of spirit, trust and open-hearted vitality which I'd not imagined. I was driven miles to Aztec Temples. I saw pilgrims raising their hands to their sun god, snapped pictures of their sacred relic. I saw fragments of an indigenous culture raped and subjugated by the Spanish. I felt small and thankful to have this exchange. I call him my friend now—more so after hearing his stories firsthand.
In dire need of a warm shower, I contacted a friend I'd only really met online – a wonderful motion-designer whose work for festivals like MUTEK is an outstanding testament to a thriving digital-underground, largely unknown to many of us in Europe. I stayed at her house and was offered a real bed, shower, internet and pizza. Once again spoiled by the kindness of strangers. I pray I'll never forget my place in the world, and the privilege it's entailed. I hope my dandruff wasn't too overbearing.
Berghain: It feels like coming home.
After years of travelling to Berlin for summer shows, I now live here, in this gorgeous, perpetually surprising city. Nestled in a quiet corner of Neukölln, I look over auburn trees and cobbled streets as I work. Turkish mamas and kids walk streets below. I feel the history between my toes, I see it burnt into brass plaques mounted beneath door jambs. It's compelling to remember that Berlin's legendary arts culture is hard-won. Winters are brutal, unemployment is heavy and a stifling bureaucracy fails to hide the fact that many Berliners bear raw scars from a past still being negotiated and transformed. Music is a survival strategy.
When summer tourists depart, a very different, sacred and haunted Berlin begins to unveil herself. I'm at once a stranger here, and honoured to be part of something so dear to my heart and to have friends and a musical voice honoured in such special spaces. In my native land, I'd often found it difficult to get work, and had become used to 20 year-olds rolling their eyes when I wouldn't play Justice or some equivalent posse of electro heroes in tight-black jeans. It's not that this music is bad—far from it—but it's not part of my personal musical story. I can only speak my truth on the dance floor.
I was preparing to play a two hour live set on the Berghain main floor, along with several other artists from my label Trapez. Playing in my favourite club in the world, in my new kiez, is a homecoming anticipated for decades—a small visit to Mecca, where so much music dear to my heart is spawned, revealed to the world and thrust into the hearts of clubbers for the first time. This, of course, translates into one thing—sleepless anxiety for at least a week.
It almost seems unreal being booked for a club like this. I had played Panorama Bar for the first time in 2007 (for Jesse Rose's monthly night), and back then I was beyond excited. Somehow, my Berghain booking felt flattering, or a dangerous error. What do I know about techno anyway? Flashbacks to 1994. Sheer, white knuckle terror. Creaking DSPs, cold sweats.
10 PM: My chaperone to the club arrives at my flat. Mountains of equipment, spread between canvas Lidl bags, our local budget supermarket. Toyota Tarago, crumbs and lint. Rock & roll, right? Driven, giddy and overexcited, I arrive at the Berghain entrance with my wonderful sidekick Sacha Robotti—an exceptional producer and dear friend. I feel grateful to have a companion tonight. It's so silent, so still outside.
The main room is impeccably clean, imposing, regal and offering a veiled suggestion of the hours to come. Concrete, glass and stainless steel, a 1000-capacity space and a six-stack Funktion One surround-sound array. I'm shown to an empty table and mixer and am almost paralyzed by the empty, expansive dance floor. The soundsystem softly ignites. Our engineer departs and my stomach feels suddenly still. I am light-headed, buoyant, curious, ecstatic. I feel like I've come home.
12 AM: Doorlist arrives. So many wonderful friends. Panorama Bar drinks.
3 AM: The club is at capacity. Minutes, hours, unguarded moments... Sacha by my side in the booth—my new family in front. We lay it down, because nothing else really matters now. What else is there? What is there to lose?
4 AM: Speechless. 1000+ semi-naked bodies pound in front of me on the floor. I'm sweating across my laptop. My glasses are fogged up: I'm blinded. Jack, thump, remember and forget. Exorcisms and rebirth, slipstreams and dreams.
5 AM: My exposition is over. I'm sober. The booker immediately asks me back. Giddy. The main floor continues to heave. I'm not sure exactly what just happened, but I'm not so concerned, because bread was broken, wine was drunk and in the middle of it all was an impenetrable silence.
7 AM: I herald a taxi home. My girlfriend stays on the dance floor. A line-up of 300+ strong still waits out front in the crisp morning air, glaring sun and steamy breath.