Siegel still hasn't settled on any one thing. These days he pours his time into three separate operations. There's Fit Distribution, a record distributor that connects shops around the world with Detroit's most respected house and techno labels, from Planet E to FXHE to Underground Resistance. There's his label, Fit Sound, which for the past five years has given us a steady stream of records by Midwest artists like MGUN, Marcellus Pittman and Walt J. Most recently, there's his own music as Fit Siegel, which, if it carries on the way it is now, threatens to eclipse his other pursuits.
There are other bits as well, like the leftfield sublabel Est. 83' Records and the Fit Sound merchandise, which is something of an underground hit (the New Order-referencing T-shirt is an increasingly common sight at techno events). Siegel's projects are the result of some ten years spent following his instincts, diving into things he knew nothing about and figuring them out on the fly. He's always worked completely alone, despite sometimes giving the appearance of being a full-blown organization—something his label's slogan, Est. 1983, seems to riff on (he was born in '83).
"I understand that you can get more done with a good team, I just haven't figured out how to do that yet," he said, laughing. "It can be very overwhelming to do everything yourself, it's kinda crazy. But it's how I've always worked."
Siegel has an ultra-mellow demeanour that belies his restless energy. We first met a few days before Movement Festival this past spring—a time he described as "super stressful," though to me he seemed perfectly at ease. Toothpick in mouth, records in the trunk, he cruised through the day's tasks at an easy pace. The main thing was getting copies of Carmine, his latest 12-inch, out to record stores before the techno tourists swooped in. He picked up a fresh batch at Archer Record Pressing, a tiny operation hailed as "Detroit's last vinyl pressing plant. Next stop was his office, which is actually his former apartment, now home to the scraps that make up Fit Sound and Fit Distribution, namely a computer, a phone, a lot of loose paperwork and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with records. He took this opportunity to give me everything on his label I didn't already have—a good eight or nine records—as well as a couple of t-shirts and a Fit Sound knit-hat.
From there we hit some record shops—first Detroit Threads, the beloved vintage and second-hand vinyl spot, and then Submerge, another local favourite. Submerge is more than just a record store. It also houses Exhibit 3000, also known as the Detroit Techno Museum, a private gallery chronicling the city's techno history. In the rooms upstairs are the studios of Underground Resistance, as well as Siegel.
"I'm friends with Mike," he explained, meaning core UR member "Mad" Mike Banks, "and there was a time when I had to move out of my loft, so I asked him if he had any space. He set me up with a studio in here. I ended up living in my studio for about a year."
Siegel is so nonchalant that it's easy to miss the significance of what he's saying: as a novice producer, he landed a studio down the hall from Underground Resistance. "It was cool," he admitted. "When I was first in the building, I'd be going downstairs to get a cup of tea, then I'm hearing Model 500 rehearsing 'Clear,' Juan and Mike and everybody. I'm lingering in the stairwell listening, like, 'Fuck!'"
When I met Banks that afternoon, he described Exhibit 3000 as a way of protecting the true history of Detroit techno. This museum was part of an effort to keep the record straight as to where this music came from. By way of explanation, he pointed to a photo in a display case on the wall. It showed a young Jeff Mills playing for a crowd of baby-faced white males, all of them craning their necks to see what his hands were doing. "Munich, 1991" read a message hand-written in magic marker. "Jeff Mills schooling mugs in Germany."
"When I saw that shit I knew the writing was on the wall," Banks said.
Banks and many other Detroit techno artists are notoriously cagey. So what exactly did they see in this young white guy angling to become a techno artist? Siegel shrugged. "He's a dude that everyone wants something from, you know? If you know your history you can understand why some people are protective and secretive. But if you're cool and honest, if you have good intentions, people will be cool and open to you."
That may sound too simple, but Siegel is proof that there's some truth to it. He's been self-employed since the age of 20, when he returned from film school in Boston and decided to start a bike courier service, something he knew almost nothing about. "I'd never done it before, I just liked riding my bike," he said. "I knew some people when I lived in Boston that did it, so I asked some questions, started riding around downtown, going to the courthouses, watching what people did. Made some business cards and figured out some rates. I'd call other courier companies in other states and ask what their prices were. Then I went door-to-door downtown, giving out cards and flyers. Eventually people started calling me and I delivered. Suddenly I was a professional courier. I made it look like a big company—I called it Reach VS Speed—but really it was just me and my phone."
Siegel ran the courier business out of a loft in Corktown where he lived at the time. Business was good, but soon he picked up another gig. "I helped a guy who was doing a club downtown called Oslo. I did construction there, then worked the door."
Siegel had never been much of a rave guy. "I caught the tail end of it," he said, meaning the storied era of Detroit warehouse parties. "I went to one when I was like 16. DJ QBert and Green Velvet were there. I thought it was cool because I liked dark, underground shit, and you're walking on different levels and there are people in catacombs and cruising around looking down, boys and girls going in the same bathroom. I was like, 'This is cool.' But there were definitely corny elements of it, too. I was more into skateboarding back then."
The job at Oslo teased out Siegel's creative side. He'd been fooling around with experimental electronic production since high school, and all that club music whet his appetite. He was about 21 by then, getting more and more into records. "My rent was $150," he said, and I was making a ton of money working at this club and doing the bike courier stuff, so I started acquiring equipment and building a studio with that money. And buying records."
Soon Siegel was throwing parties. Some of them were called Members Klub, others had no name at all. "I wasn't into building a brand or anything, no one really knew who I was," he said. "I was just playing around because I had some extra money and it seemed like fun." His first guests were artists he'd met working at Oslo: Legowelt, DMX Krew, DJ Godfather. "I had Egyptian Lover, that was his first time playing Detroit since 1984. I just hit him up on MySpace, like, 'You want to come play in Detroit?' And he's like, 'Cool.' I booked him with DJ Stingray."
Organizing the parties led to a quick dabble in booking. Siegel found himself planning US tours for artists from Europe, the payoff being that they'd play his gig for cheap. Once again, he felt his way through this new trade, asking experienced promoters what they'd pay for a given artist and basing his offer on that.
One of Siegel's guests was Serge, the main force behind the Dutch label and distributor Clone. Serge mentioned to Siegel that it was hard getting records from Detroit in Europe because there wasn't a "main hub" to buy them from. This got Siegel thinking. He was ready for something new. "I'd done the bike courier stuff for five years," he said. "So yeah, I decided to figure the distribution thing out."
Just like the courier service and the Members Klub parties, Siegel had no idea what he was doing when he started Fit Distribution, but he knew people who did. Serge shared some wisdom with him, as did Banks. "Me and Mike would meet late at night at this 24-hour diner and just talk about stuff—politics, philosophy, anything, and a lot of music stuff," he said. "I'd ask him questions, you know: 'What do you do about this? How do you handle this?' Business stuff but also music stuff, mixing, the whole gamut. We'd be there till 6 AM."
Soon Siegel had enough to go on, so he started buying records from labels and selling them to shops. "I'd be like, 'Hey can I buy this? It's for a company called Fit.'" He had to laugh at this. "Like it's a real distribution company! And they'd be like, 'Yeah sure, here's our new release.'"
The name Fit came naturally. "I like that it's two things at once," Siegel explained. "It can be something positive, you know, 'fit' as in 'top shape.' Or it can be negative, like schizo, 'having a fit.' My mood changes a lot, sometimes I feel both ways, so I liked it. Then I found out it was the name of a Honda and got kinda bummed."
Siegel had built up a lot of contacts in Detroit over the years. Some of them were from his Members Klub parties and his days at Oslo, but many were simply people he'd seen around town. "Detroit's a small city," he said. "I'd see Carl Craig and Derrick May at my local bakery having coffee. Pretty much everyone I started buying records from I had met before. Alex,"—that is, Omar-S, "I used to see him at Rick Wilhite's place. That's how I know Kenny [Dixon Jr.], Theo [Parrish], Carl Craig. And eventually I started selling their records. It was very organic."
Once again, Siegel found himself going door-to-door, this time to record stores in Detroit and other American cities. Fit Distribution launched online and Siegel's network swelled considerably. Soon he was selling American records to shops in Europe, and going the other way as well, distributing European labels like Clone, Running Back and the Sex Tags family to storefronts in the US. Fit had become a linchpin of dance music's international vinyl trade.
Business was good enough to quit the courier service, which Siegel passed off to a friend. But soon he felt something lacking. "I can do the business stuff but I'm really more of an artist," he said. Fit Distribution was certainly curated—Siegel only bought and sold records he believed in—but it didn't quite scratch that itch. "There's nothing creative about accounting," he said. "I decided I needed to do my own label."
His first thought was Marcellus Pittman. "I got his number because I really liked the music he'd done, and there wasn't that much of it. That's when I was living at Submerge. He played me some tracks and worked on them in my studio. There were no "Oh my god!" moments, they were just really fluid, and that's kinda my style."
M. Pittman's Erase The Pain set the tone for Fit Sound: dark, raw and, to use Siegel's term, fluid. He followed it with 12-inches from Detroit artists like Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Walt J and MGUN, as well as the Swedish artists Patrick Sjeren and Dungeon Acid. In 2012, he released an EP with the Chicago veteran Marcus Mixx, with a B-side credited simply to Fit.
That was actually the second track of Siegel's to hit wax—a month earlier, Omar-S had released Enter The Fog, a collaboration with Siegel and Gunnar Wendel (AKA Kassem Mosse), on FXHE. "Alex helped me a lot back then," Siegel said. "He'd be behind the mixing board recording, he showed me a lot about mixdowns." Tonite, Siegel's first solo record, appeared on both FXHE and Fit Sound.
"I had this track and I said, 'What do you think about this?' Alex is like, 'That's sweet but it needs a singer.' Then I found the girl that's singing on it, L'Renee, someone recommended her. I contacted her and played it and recorded the vocals and it kinda evolved. It wasn't my idea to put vocals on it, that's totally Alex and it worked."
By then Siegel's approach to production was becoming more and more personal. As a film student, his work was "mostly textural," and this started to creep into his music as well. "'Tonite' is a song. It's got a melody and a structure. But then there's stuff like 'Seedbed,'" he said, referring to the meandering B2 of his 2014 EP Cocomo. "That's more textural, or even more like a sculpture, rather than a song."
His output since then has been slow, with only a half-dozen or so tracks in the last few years. This is mostly because of his ardent perfectionism, something that's partly the result of handling so many great records as a distributor—if he didn't have something to add to all that, why bother?
It's a standard he holds to other artist's music as well. "I want to hear some timeless shit," he told THUMP in 2013. "I know that every track is not going to end up a classic, but at the very least a producer needs to make their very best attempt at capturing an original idea, emotion or thought from within themselves. Otherwise, what's the point? You can't fool the true listeners and the real dancers."
Much of Siegel's music lives up this ideal, but none so much as "Carmine," a lullaby of an acid track that came out at the beginning of this year. "Most of it came in one night," he said, "then some little bits in another session." True to form, he said it didn't feel like a big deal. "When Mike heard it he was like, 'This one's the shit,' but it didn't feel like a breakthrough or anything." Still, "Carmine" hit a new level of originality and expressiveness for Siegel, and showed that his perfectionism was paying off. Or starting to, at least.
"We're still in the beginning I think," he said. "I'm still just listening and working on my own."