Brendan M Gillen founded Interdimensional Transmissions in late 1994 when he heard far too many ancient voices in his head. Positive that dimensions were colliding and that he could literally feel the deepest will of some mystic past, he decided not to ignore these voices but to contemplate their input, and thus Interdimensional Transmissions came to fruition and the idea-based project Ectomorph found a true home.
This past May, I spent an afternoon driving around Detroit with Gillen and Erika Sherman, his partner in the label and in Ectomorph (she also makes music on her own as Erika). When the moment felt right, I brought up the ancient voices thing. Gillen gave a slow nod and stared out the windshield.
"That was a strange experience."
What followed was a story I've since heard told by a few other people close to Gillen, always with the same set of details. It goes something like this. In the summer of '91—"whatever year Nevermind came out"—Gillen travelled to Europe to meet his girlfriend, who was teaching English in recently liberated Poland. They passed through Berlin and checked out Tresor. Gillen had been into techno for years but figured it was mostly a Detroit thing, so he was surprised when his Underground Resistance T-shirt got him into the club for free.
"Rok was spinning, one of the older guys who worked at Hard Wax," he said. "He later became a gabber DJ for a period of time, but he had incredible taste, he was playing all these records that just make you want to cry when you hear them. I went to Hard Wax the next day to try to figure out what some of them were. There's this skeletal-looking guy behind the counter who turned out to be Mark Ernestus. I was like, 'What was that music Rok was playing? Was that German techno?' He laughed and goes, 'There's no good German techno, the good stuff is from New York, England, Belgium and Detroit.' I was blown away. I'm thinking, 'This is bigger than my city?'"
Later in the trip, Gillen danced to Adonis's "No Way Back" and "Stakker Humanoid" at a club in Galway, Ireland. "'No Way Back'—that was a new song in Detroit at the time,' he said. "It was on The New Dance Show. So, same thing as in Berlin, I'm thinking, 'Wait—this shit is global?!"
As he mulled the implications of these experiences, Gillen took a day trip to Dún Aonghasa, a fort on the Aran Islands near Galway that was built sometime around 1100 BC. That's where the ancient voices come in.
"As I'm walking up to the castle, there's all these strange stones, and I start to get this really, really strange feeling. I'm hearing voices, they're telling me stuff I don't want to hear, don't even want to know about. And it's not just one voice, it's many voices, like a group of people. I get into the fort, and it has these ten-foot thick walls. People were short back then so I had to almost crawl to get in. I get into the fort, and there's like this perfectly short grass, like a putting green almost, and this altar spot."
Dún Aonghasa ends at a 300-foot sheer drop into the North Atlantic. Gillen peered over the cliff and felt a splash of seawater hit his forehead, thrown upwards from the surf below. "The voices are telling me, 'You're on the wrong path, get that girl out of your life, don't become a professor, you need to create sounds.' You know, that kinda shit."
Gillen stressed that he wouldn't normally go for this kind of thing. Though he describes himself as a "highly spiritual person," he mostly takes an analytical, science-based view of the world, if through a somewhat mystical lens. "Brendan isn't sitting around burning candles and chanting, waiting to be communicated to," Sherman assured me. "That's not what's going on here."
Gillen dismissed the experience as the result of travel fatigue, but a year later the voices returned, right around the time of the Celtic holiday of Sahwin. "We call it Samhain," Gillen says. "Bad Glenn Danzig band. Also the holiday that Halloween is based on. It's when they believe the planes of existence collide, like a loop-point in time. All the rules are off, the dead aren't dead anymore, you can visit your ancestors and shit like that. So the voices are saying all this stuff about music, about creating sounds. They're saying that's my gift, that's what I should do, and I should stay away from that girl. And they came back every year until I was not with her and I was making music and I had actually started my record label. I named the label after those guys: Interdimensional Transmissions."
From that point on, Gillen devoted himself to music completely, no matter how little money he made or how hopeless it seemed at times. His paranormal advice turned out to be sound: Interdimensional Transmissions became an essential force in Detroit's music scene, a platform for local artists as well as likeminded acts from around the world, from Dutch electro don I-F to Liquid Liquid frontman Sal P.
It also spawned No Way Back, arguably the last true vestige of Detroit's rave scene. Some 15 years after Gillen's night at Tresor, I saw that club's founder, Dimitri Hegemann, saddle up to the bar at Tangent Gallery in Detroit, this year's venue for No Way Back. It was the Sunday night of Movement festival, and Hegemann was one of many out-of-towners for whom this was an unmissable event. Amidst the dozens of parties scattered across the city that weekend, this one was the real deal: a warehouse rave with a spectacular soundsystem and a cast of seasoned local DJs. In addition to Gillen (as BMG) and Sherman (as Erika), the main acts were Mike Servito, Carlos Souffront, Patrick Russell and Derek Plaslaiko, with more DJs in a chilled "Outer Space" room next door. The music was fierce and absorbing all night—the créme de la créme of six DJs' decades-old collections. Dancing in the unchanging red light of the dance floor, it was easy to get the feeling that this is pretty much as good as it gets.
No Way Back and Interdimensional Transmissions both have the same mission: to galvanize the culture from which they were born. For years Detroit had an incredible scene, one that gave rise to game-changing events like Derrick May's all-night parties at the Music Institute or Richie Hawtin's extravagant raves at the Packard Plant. For Gillen, Sherman and all of the No Way Back DJs, these events were literally life-changing. But these days, on the 51 weekends of the year when Movement isn't happening, the scene seems oddly invisible. For Gillen, this presents a challenge. All of his pursuits to date have been guided by a certain maxim: "Techno for Detroit, not for export."
"Something that really upset me back when I started was that all the Detroit techno artists had focused on Europe, which makes sense—that's where your money is," he told me. "But they weren't making music for Detroit radio anymore. At least not the radio I grew up with. So what you're hearing on Detroit radio is songs that these guys did before they left. After they left and became international figures, they didn't make music that would get played on Detroit radio anymore, except Juan Atkins. I thought that was a shame, because people here should still hear good music, they shouldn't be excluded. So I wanted to make Detroit music for Detroit people."
Radio runs deep in Detroit. When Gillen talks about it you meet the history professor he might have become had his ancient ancestors not intervened. Threading through the traffic that afternoon, Codek's "Tim Toum" on the car stereo, he unspooled a chronology of Detroit radio that was as thorough as it was colorful. Since the '60s, stations in Detroit championed the "free-form" style of programming, intentionally mixing music for a black audience with music for a white one. In doing so, it reflected the city's unique racial tensions, something Gillen touched on in his 2003 RBMA lecture. "There's a lot of racial consciousness in the place," he said, "and there's this kind of fucked up polarization, like division, that people really want to transcend. This is the really interesting thing about Detroit music: it's really not talking about this, but dealing with it head on at the same time."
This made for a of lot incredible radio. Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Jeff Mills (known back then as the Wizard) all had influential shows. But the culture was best embodied by The Electrifying Mojo, an "acid-damaged Vietnam vet" (in Gillen's words) who changed the lives of countless music fans in Detroit, including all of the city's techno pioneers.
"He would use something like the Close Encounters theme, and for 20 minutes he'd be reading abstract poetry that he'd written about how Detroit needs to change, what the future holds, all that type of stuff. And his mythology and the way he talked—he was almost doing radio plays. The heaviness of his persona really helped create the body of theoretical shit that Detroit techno draws from."
For over a decade, Gillen worked at WCBN, the student station at University Of Michigan. He was music director and hosted a show called Crush Collision. "I wrote letters to Underground Resistance, got them to come on the air," he said. "Also had Hawtin on the show, Basic Channel, Autechre, Drexciya. Drexciya showed up in black and white makeup—one half of the face is white, the other is black, like in that episode of Star Trek? I'm like, 'You know this is a radio show, right?' I pitch-shifted their voices for the interview."
A number of IT artists first met at WCBN. Carlos Souffront was a DJ there as well, and Sherman joined in the first week of her freshman year. "A lot of us that were attracted to radio were quiet, weird kids that wore a lot of black and didn't know how to talk to anybody," she said. Sherman had always been introverted and technologically gifted—she'd started her own bulletin board system at age 11 or 12, in the very early days of the internet (she says it was "mostly about warez"), and more recently launched an automated free-form online radio station, erika.net. Very shortly after she arrived on campus, someone—she can't remember if it was Gillen or not—took her to see Hawtin at a rave, and her fate was sealed.
"It was dark and loud. I hadn't heard a soundsystem like that before. I hadn't heard DJs playing that smooth before, and I hadn't heard any of the music. Up until that point, I was listening to gothic, industrial, contemporary classical, whatever. And I thought techno was just like, this really terrible rave music that made kids go crazy and get knocked up and stuff. Then I moved here and it was like, 'Whoa, there's this really amazing music experience happening at these parties,' which I related to right away. So I started going to the parties as much I could."
Interdimensional Transmissions—or IT as it's often called—also has roots in another Detroit Institution: Record Time, home of the storied Dance Room, which sold techno 12-inches to local customers and shops around the world. Gillen worked there in the '90s, and in time crossed paths with just about all of the scene's key figures. Eventually one of them offered him a job.
"Carl Craig came in one day and he's like, 'You wanna work at Planet E?' And I'm like 'Yeah, sure.'" The two already knew each other: Planet E had released two records by Flexitone, Gillen's duo with Drexciya member Gerald Donald. Craig was about to get married, and wanted Gillen to look after the label while he was busy. "I put together the Psyche/BFC collection. And I did the Paperclip People CD, The Secret Tapes Of Dr. Eich."
Craig said he wanted to sign Ectomorph, Gillen's new duo with Gerald Donald, but things didn't go as planned. "Gerald and I make some jams," Gillen said. "We give them to Carl and he's like, 'Um, these are too street for me, too much like The New Dance Show, I don't think I wanna release these.' And I'm like, 'OK, I understand.' But I met with Gerald about it, and we're like, 'How about we give him the more experimental stuff, and we do this other stuff ourselves? So then it's like, 'OK, I'll start up a record label and release these.'" Thus was born IT No. 1: Ectomorph's Subsonic Vibrations.
"We put locked grooves on the first one, I wanted to make it really special. It has a song that goes backwards, you know, that old Detroit trick? Then I had like locked grooves, where the song's hiding in the grooves, which was huge. Then I got Archer Pressing to make a messy-coloured vinyl mix of black and clear together, so it looks smoky. I thought it wouldn't do so well, but then New Year's Eve comes around and the first song from the record was the theme song for WJLB's whole New Year's Eve party. It had connected."
Gillen learned the ropes—how to make labels, how to get tracks mastered and so on. IT would release another four Ectomorph EPs over the next two years. In 1996, the duo toured Europe, a trip that, like his original visionquest back in '91, left Gillen with a dizzying sense of possibility.
"We realized that what we were doing was bigger than we'd thought. The impact of Drexciya had been fucking massive, and people were really thinking about that kind of sound. So we figured, what if we show a prismatic view on that influence?"
This came in the form of From Beyond, a compilation series that connected techno and electro artists from Detroit with likeminded Europeans. Gillen asked around 25 people to contribute, sending them a "manifesto" explaining his idea—"pretending our music had no history, no influences at all," he said. "Year-zero kind of shit." In return he got reams of music connected more in philosophy than in style. There were Detroit artists like DJ Godfather and Anthony "Shake" Shakir. The Austrian duo Sluts n' Strings & 909 weighed in, as did Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas. But there was one undisputed star of the collection: Ferenc E. Van Der Sluijs, AKA I-F.
"He sends me this little purple DAT tape, and I put it in, and it's 'Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass.' And I fall on the ground. You know, nobody was doing vocals, the idea of a techno or electro song—that was a very novel concept."
From Beyond is one of those compilations that does more than collect a bunch of great tracks: it provides a snapshot of a specific moment, a peek into a strange corner of the musical universe. "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass," which was later re-released on I-F's label Viewlexx, remains an anthem today, and it planted the seed for another big IT release: The Man From PACK, I-F's debut album.
These records established Interdimensional Transmissions as an influential label, but they also helped usher in a strange new era that eventually sent it into a tailspin. "There's a word that I hesitate to say," Gillen said, "but I will say it, because after all it is a thing that happened." He paused dramatically. "Electroclash."
By then we'd made it to Ectomorph's studio, a room on the second floor of Gillen's house, a stone's throw from what used to be the home of Motown Records owner Berry Gordy. Outside the window was Boston-Edison, the kind of residential neighborhood whose empty roads and well-groomed sidewalks seemed made for paperboys zipping by on their morning routes. Inside were racks of synths, silently blinking. Gillen and Sherman wore mournful expressions as they remembered the electroclash days.
"There's a period where, you know, Tommie Sunshine gets into Ectomorph and From Beyond and all this," Gillen said. "He's all about Interdimensional Transmissions. And then ADULT. comes out, and he's all about ADULT. And then Fischerspooner comes out, and he's Mr. Fischerspooner. But it's like, there's this divergent path, from the techno/house path, that crosses with pop music and rock & roll and all this stuff. It got exploited very poorly, and made this trendy thing that burned itself out. And we were associated with that, with the word 'electro,' enough so that the parties we'd get invited to were electro-house parties, the kind of things where all the promoters had muscles. We were playing, like, American rock clubs. This one spot in Hollywood, the promoter's all excited to show us videos of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson naked on stage, Tommy Lee's drumming and doing coke and all this shit. And I'm like 'Why are we here? How did this happen?'"
Brendan M Gillen in São Paulo
This was the early 2000s, and Sherman had just taken over from Donald as Gillen's partner in Ectomorph. At that point in time, even the more musically daring clubs were pushing a sound with which the duo had little connection: minimal. "We're not jet-setters, we do not dress fashionably," Gillen said. It felt like techno had moved on from what they represented.
"We kind of stopped at that point," Sherman said.
Gillen took time off and worked as a record producer and engineer, cutting albums for artists like Wolf Eyes and pitching in at Ghostly International, which was just starting out at the time. "Personal stuff happened in my life," he says. "I got married, I moved. I turned down gigs. Turned down festival shows. Then suddenly I looked up and was like, 'I have no connection to this anymore.' I felt lost."
Slowly, though, it all came back. Friends who had moved to Berlin started sending back new, futuristic music—Hauntologists and early Sandwell District records stood out in particular. "We really fell back in love with techno," Sherman said. "There was that period where it got too hard, too fast, too male. Then it started to change. People were making weirder music again, it felt more welcoming. That's when I decided to come out as a solo artist."
Sherman got more involved with IT, spearheading releases from Perspects and G.D. Luxxe. The label's sound expanded throughout the 2000s, releasing oddball club cuts like Kill Bill by I.B.M. (AKA Jamal Moss, or Hieroglyphic Being) and Chromed Out, an Ectomorph EP featuring Liquid Liquid singer Sal Principato (whom Gillen had met at the 2003 RBMA in South Africa).
But something was still missing. The scene in Detroit was dead. All the parties had moved into bars and clubs, something that Gillen says never quite worked in Detroit. The raves that had so inspired him and his friends felt like a thing of the past.
"Derek Plaslaiko had moved to Brooklyn by then," Gillen said. "I was on the phone with him saying, 'Things are really fucked up here, everyone's playing in bars, we should do a crazy party, you know, 12 hours, everybody has tons of time to play.' We wanted to return to the source of what had inspired us—outlaw parties—but not in a nostalgic way. We just wanted incredible music all night."
"Ravehood friends," Sherman said. "Everybody grew up together, buying records together. All of them can tag-team together."
Their venue was an abandoned bank. Russell turned out to have a knack for décor, so he hung netting over the dance floor. This was both a reference to Detroit's legendary Syst3m parties and a way to catch the plaster falling from the room's unfinished ceiling. "It was cold and basically raining mud inside the venue," Sherman said, "but we had a keg of beer and we were raving. Carlos's records were scratched up disgusting for, like, two years after that."
The party was meant to be 12 hours long but ended up going for much longer. People kept coming well past the intended ending time. "Ryan Elliott showed up with a bag of donuts," Sherman said. "Someone else brought White Castle."
"I was at the venue for 24 hours," Gillen said. "I could show you a video of Derek Plaslaiko running through a wall."
Just like the events that inspired it, No Way Back aimed to plunge its audience into sounds at the absolute vanguard of techno and other kinds of electronic music. This was the time for its DJs, all of whom had been steeped in this scene for some 20 years, to go as deep as possible in their collections. Only a handful of events around the world have this kind of music policy. Another is The Bunker in New York, where Plaslaiko and Servito became resident DJs after moving to Brooklyn.
"Bryan turns out to be another fucking super deep music head," Gillen said, referring to Bunker founder Bryan Kasenic. "He wasn't born in the Midwest, but he's got that blood in him." Since 2010, No Way Back has been a co-production by The Bunker and Interdimensional Transmissions, with events in New York and other cities around The States.
The label's core artists, meanwhile, have gotten more and more recognition abroad. Ectomorph made their Panorama Bar debut this fall, and Erika and Patrick Russell have both played The Labyrinth festival in the past couple of years. Souffront and Servito have seen their gig schedules balloon, thanks in part to the reputation of No Way Back.
Part of the party's mission was to help revive the spirit behind Interdimensional Transmissions. In this sense it succeeded. Over the past five years, the label expanded well beyond its electro-tinged roots. Gillen released a pair of warped techno EPs with Plaslaiko (Is Your Mother Home? and The True Story Of A Detroit Groove) and a left-field disco bomb with Sal P, Credit Card. Sherman released her debut album, a weightless electro record called Hexagon Cloud. This year, Gillen and Sherman launched a sub-label called Eye Teeth with an EP from the LA-based artist Israel Vines, quickly followed by a remix EP. IT proper released From The Land Of Rape & Honey, an I.B.M. compilation that Gillen describes as "a fascinating mental battle."
"I would say that the point where it's at now, it's like, we're in a totally different incarnation of the label," Gillen said. "We have a really strong events, a promotion side that shows the vision of what it is, which was always hard to describe. It's like, 'Here's how we perceive it. Now you can at least see what we think it is.'"
As he spoke, his train of thought wandered and became increasingly lyrical—something that happened more than once in our interview. "What do the listeners think about?" he wondered. "Trippy patterns when their eyes are closed? Architectural spaces, life in space, life underwater, whatever—I don't know. It's a zoomed-out perspective, or an incredible internal perspective. You're imagining the creation of a new city."
This recording of BMG's set at this year's No Way Back embodies the dark and eclectic sound of Interdimensional Transmissions.
Filesize: 217.1 MB
Top 10 January / February 2016 Festivals
Here are ten of our favourites in the first months of 2016.
Breaking Through: Wata Igarashi
He's been a skate-punk, a jazz-head and a commercial composer, but Jordan Rothlein found out how Wata Igarashi is fast becoming one of Japan's top techno artists.
RA Poll: Top DJs of 2015
The RA readers pick the top DJs of the year.
RA Poll: Top 40 live acts of 2015
RA's readers pick the top live acts of the year.
Label of the month
Label of the month: Ascetic House
Noise, blood and chaos—Matt McDermott heads to the Sonoran Desert to hear the unlikely story behind one of America's most prolific underground crews.
Label of the month: Objects Limited
Ray Philp travelled to the UK's south coast to meet Lara Rix-Martin, founder of a crucial outlet for emerging experimental artists.
Label of the month: Brutaż
This Polish label and party intentionally pushes dance music beyond its comfort zone. Elissa Stolman catches up with its curator, RRRKRTA.
Label of the month: Latency
Oli Warwick profiles the immaculately curated French label that tries to programme its catalogue like a DJ set.
Label of the month: The Trilogy Tapes
We toast to a decade of Will Bankhead's label, an exceptionally curated outlet for noise, techno, house, drone and much more.