Melancon is in his early 30s. When we met last September, he brought his infant son, who sat on his lap and crawled over his shoulders. Techno was in the Seattle air that week. Decibel Festival was taking place, and Seattle Weekly had given its front cover to secondnature, another crew responsible for the city's techno renaissance. The article had a lot of input from Melancon, who spoke about secondnature's effect on the Seattle scene. When I talked with members of that crew later in the week, they returned the sentiment, saying the guidance he was offering them and the city was just as vital.
The MOTOR collective are a bit different from the techno heads who make up the rest of Seattle's underground scene. Melancon comes from a more avant-garde background, and his cohorts come from scenes not typically associated with dance music. His label is all about misfits making dance music that digs deep into the region's psychedelic rock and noise roots, and through that, MOTOR has eked out its own individual style.
I first encountered MOTOR in 2013 at Debacle festival, named for the experimental label Melancon has been running since 2005. The MOTOR showcase closed out a weekend that was otherwise packed with drone, ambient, noise and grindcore. The aesthetic was still rough around the edges, but dabbled with dance music. Wildly varied turns from Prostitutes, Black Hats and TJ Max were topped off by a crunchy set from Hieroglyphic Being. The overall style was loose, live and improvised.
MOTOR was Melancon's attempt to create something more focused and curated than the catch-all nature of Debacle Records. It dovetailed with his rejuvenated interest in techno, a world that had piqued his interest since he was a kid. "I like to tell the story that when I was 13, the first two CDs I bought were NOFX and The Chemical Brothers," Melancon says. "I always felt like that was my dual path."
Melancon isn't your typical techno promoter. He doesn't come at the genre from the usual angle, but then neither do the artists he's interested in. For years he was surrounded by musicians who incorporated electronics in their music. Once he realized that many of them had been experimenting with dance music at home, purely for fun, it seemed like MOTOR had to happen.
With a sprawling scene down in Portland and Seattle friends like Nelson Bean, AKA Black Hat, Melancon had a strong talent base right under his nose. He entered the scene cautiously. He didn't want to be seen as someone encroaching on established ground in an intimate community like Seattle's, so he put on his first events at unusual spots like the Lo-Fi Performance Gallery (essentially a white-walled box) and The Comet (a notoriously cheap and dingy dive bar).
Melancon's arrival onto the scene was well-timed. Long-running dance parties like Shameless and Sweatbox were still going strong, but they attracted an older crowd, and the closure of beloved afterhours spot Electric Tea Garden signalled the end of an era and the beginning of a new one defined by gentrification as the tech industry swept into the nightlife-heavy neighbourhoods of Downtown, Belltown and Capitol Hill. Seattle needed something new, and Melancon saw an opportunity.
"When I named it MOTOR, it was like... 'I'm going to be doing a night in Seattle and I don't know if I'll ever do a label.' Because it's actually kind of a dick move of a name, it's so obvious. If I had named it Motor and I was from Detroit, people should shoot me, right? But what I really liked about it was the concept of speed and the mechanical, of always moving. Being in love with steam-powered engines, it jives so well with techno and dance music in general. I don't know that if I planned to make a label and have it get big, I still would have been like, 'Yeah, MOTOR!'"
Early MOTOR parties drew from a pool of local artists that no one else was dipping into. Crossover between the rock, experimental and techno scenes made for a varied crowd. Sensing that he had a grip on something good, Melancon began looking outside the Pacific Northwest for bookings. He reached out to other American artists like Patricia, Profligate and Container, acts whose rough-and-raw sets fit well within MOTOR's hardware-focused MO.
There was no one else bringing these sounds to Seattle, and there hadn't been anything like it for years. Most people, Melancon included, didn't even realize the city had an appetite for it in the first place. He had to actively persuade booking agents to take a chance on the city because it had been off the grid for so long, outside of that one week of Decibel Festival. Luckily for Melancon, domestic flights to Seattle were cheap, and the city could provide an easy way to beef up a North American tour, even if the shows were small. "We're not like Chicago, we're not like New York," Melancon says, "but we can have really goods shows that are still fun."
"Fun" is a core tenet for MOTOR and Melancon, who is fully aware of the dark, noisy and claustrophobic reputation so often associated with this North American DIY scene. He told me he started MOTOR to highlight music that was "bright, accessible and fun," and you can immediately hear that. MOTOR's first 12-inch, from Airport (AKA Jayson Kochan of psych rock band Midday Veil), has more in common with chiptune than anything in the Brooklyn warehouse scene or the darker corners of LA's underground.
MOTOR's discography lays out a cross-section of dance music unlike that of any other contemporary label. There's no particular impulse towards anything cool or trendy. Though you've got charcoal-black electronics from Black Hat and Sean Pierce, there's also the startling, sample-heavy work of Scott Goodwin, an experimental musician from Portland, and the glitzy "missile bunker disco" of Timm Mason, AKA Seattle's Mood Organ.
Mood Organ feels like MOTOR's definitive artist. His mix for the label's ongoing series makes a good primer. Hard techno grinds against vintage industrial, the power-tool noise of Pete Swanson, the scorched-earth fog of Muslimgauze and the progressive rock of Goblin. It's always dynamic, far from a reckless bludgeoning.
Mason's rework of Airport's "Sweat" blends bleepy melodies into a heady swirl, while his Hom remix puts the track through a smelter. Even better is his Outer Heaven EP, with a sultry neon glow like a release on Italians Do It Better. The common thread through all of that is the feeling of live performance and the sense that anything could happen, an approach that trickles down to the rest of the MOTOR aesthetic and discography.
"I was like, 'I'm going to have MOTOR and you can predict what it sounds like,'" Melancon says. "But then you take MOTOR to techno heads and they're like, 'What are you talking about? This is all over the place!'"
What is consistent is the focus on hardware. This choice doesn't come from a place of snobbery. It's just the sound that Melancon prefers—big, raw and uncomplicated. "When you're playing live, you're not going to be chopping up beats in a very complex way," Melancon says. "You usually have a couple of tools in the toolbox, and it's a type of restriction that I really like."
"What I think makes MOTOR MOTOR is that I don't really care what genre you're playing. You're trying to be semi-danceable, but still deep-listening, with a focus on psychedelic tones and textures."
Melancon has had a warm welcome from the electronic music community in Seattle, young and old alike. He works alongside outfits like secondnature, noted warehouse party High & Tight and experimentally-minded events like Elevator, whose presence he welcomes as both competitive and friendly. ("Do you know how many shows we get to see now?" Melancon said in that Seattle Weekly feature when asked about Elevator sidling up to his territory.)
As MOTOR has grown beyond what Melancon had originally imagined, so has the workload of running two labels in addition to having a full-time job and raising a family. In October of last year, Melancon brought on Nathaniel Young to manage both Debacle and MOTOR. Young, originally from Portland, is a New York resident whose taste for techno matches the Seattle scene. He also runs his own label, Blankstairs, which has a healthy connection to Seattle, including releases from Archivist and Josef Gaard, artists who have played at MOTOR parties.
"For someone my age, growing up in the Pacific Northwest and having any sort of interest in adventurous and underground or unconventional music, it was almost impossible to not be aware of Debacle Records and Debacle festival as a staple in the region and scene," Young told me over email. "In 2012, MOTOR was an obvious step for Sam as the hardware-focused community of Seattle began growing into something more than just a family of hobbyists."
Young says that Melancon will stay at the helm for the creative direction of the label, noting that he's become a mentor of sorts. MOTOR's commitment to supporting artists and helping them grow is another defining element of its approach. "MOTOR has become Seattle's techno support group," Young told me.
"There's an incredible amount of diverse and eclectic talent in Seattle, and the majority of it is vastly underrated and unnoticed. Something in particular that sets Seattle apart is everyone's sincere lack of pretense. It's hard not to pursue a creative endeavour without feeling supported and actively encouraged—compared to New York, the dichotomy is inviting and unparalleled."
As MOTOR gets bigger, its guests have become more prominent too, though that won't affect the label's policy of nurturing local artists. New releases should come from P L L—whose gliding take on techno I heard for the first time at last year's Decibel—Apartment Fox and Sean Pierce, along with a Vancouver contingent centred on Selectors Records.
"I wanna show people we legitimately have something going on here. I don't wanna be catching up to other people," Melancon says. "I'm not gonna get the best record from Ital or Shifted. I might eventually, but what we're building, it just feels like a lie, it feels like I'm making the third best version out of something when they're trying to help me out. It's not going to be vital, it's not going to be real. I wanna do it on my own, and be like, 'Hey! Trust us! This gonna be cool!' That's kinda how I've always operated. I want people to believe me that I can pick out the good stuff."
Melancon says that, although Seattle's scene has grown in scope and prominence over the last few years, people are still pretty open-minded, which allows him to do weird stuff.
"I'm sure people are like, 'Oh, that's not how I would run that show,' but I would rather be that than be the best, perfect techno night," he says. "Nights where you don't even know when the DJ changes, I'm impressed by those nights, I like going to them, but I don't wanna put those nights on. I want clashing of ideas, I want starts and stops, I kinda want some frustration and I want some challenge to the artists. I love kicking off MOTOR nights with a weird noise guy for everybody who's there early. A lot of things that people I love—like secondnature or High & Tight—would never do. So I think that's always gonna keep me a little bit outside of it, but I'm truly happy about that."
Rough, raw and psychedelic—this mix, from party resident DJ Slow and featuring plenty of unreleased music, embodies MOTOR's outsider ethos.
Filesize: 167.2 MB
Apartment Fox - Dead Crossing (Mood Organ Mix) [MTR011]
Patternmaster - Strum [Unreleased MOTOR]
Operative - Pulse [Ecstasy]
Airport - Dreams [Unreleased MOTOR]
Apartment Fox - Traded Structures [MTR006]
Simic - 10011110011100101001111 [Unreleased MOTOR]
Sean Pierce - Mischgewebe [MTR013]
HOM - Somn (Identity Theft Mix) [MTR002]
Nick Bartoletti - Alpha Beat [MTR009]
Mood Organ - Wimex [MTR005]
Apartment Fox - Orbit (Etbonz Mix) [MTR011]
Bankie Phones - Crawlingvoice [Unreleased MOTOR]
Black Hat - Willow [MTR008]
Aos - Tiaga [Unreleased MOTOR]
GOODWIN - TNJ [MTR004]
Opinion: Electronic artists should make their own music
The practice of discreetly paying for co-production is normal in dance music. Will Lynch argues that it shouldn't be.
Top 10 March 2016 Festivals
Here are our favourites from around the world in March.
Playing Favourites: Dane
House and disco are sweeping Western Canada, and it couldn't have happened without Dane MacDonald. Andrew Ryce talks to one of the region's most respected DJs.
Machine Love: Felix K
Hovering somewhere between techno, ambient and drum & bass but rejecting the conventions of all three, this Berlin artist's records are as elusive as they are absorbing. Mark Smith hears about the production methods behind his sound.
Label of the month
Label of the month: Dark Entries
The San Francisco label is a prolific source of esoteric dance music from the '80s and the present day. Matt McDermott talks to Josh Cheon, the man making it all happen.
Label of the month: Butter Sessions
Andy Webb hears how two youngsters from the Melbourne suburbs developed one of Australia's essential dance music labels.
Label of the month: Posh Isolation
Holly Dicker explains how this small DIY operation based in Copenhagen became a globally respected experimental label.
Label of the month: Lullabies For Insomniacs
Through her radio show, mix series and record label, Izabel Caligiore has created a sound world for the midnight hour.
Label of the month: Dream Catalogue
Andrew Ryce profiles the label at the forefront of one of electronic music's most exciting new scenes.