The highly respected US DJ selects some choice cuts from his collection.
Born in upstate New York, Meier spent most of his life in Chicago, first growing up in the western suburbs before moving to the city proper nearly 20 years ago. His credentials, if you want to call them that, are pretty much impeccable. He's worked at key Chicago record shops Reckless, Dave's Records and, most importantly, Gramaphone. He and his brother Ken Meier, whom he often DJ'd with, were the first in the Windy City to play out with Pioneer CDJs (and he'd stick to playing with CDs until changing over to Ableton Live a few years ago). Along with countless bookings at smartbar and around Chicago, he's been hosted by leading US techno crews like Interdimensional Transmissions in Detroit and The Bunker in Brooklyn. A crucial international connection occurred in 2002. After meeting Karl O'Connor, AKA Regis, at a rave in Ohio, Meier spent a year in the UK working at his distribution company, Integrale Muzique. More recently, as calls for overseas bookings have increased, he moved to Berlin.
Meier is involved in production work, notably the excellent Kalon record that came through Sandwell District in 2008, though he prefers not to talk about it. These days he's better known for collaborating with his friend Jon "Stave" Krohn under the name Talker. The duo's freewheeling take on industrial techno has been a perfect fit for Downwards: they've made a few appearances, including an LP in 2014, and they'll release another EP later this year. This has led to them playing their rumbling live set on both sides of the Atlantic.
In typically erudite form, Meier talked me through his selections, which took in plaintive pop, sprawling experimental rock and, naturally, a couple choice techno cuts.
Of All The Things We've Made
OMD were my first musical obsession when I was a kid, and Junk Culture was the first cassette I ever bought in a shop. Prior to Junk Culture, they made a record called Dazzle Ships. They were clearly influenced by Bowie and also Eno's early solo work—you have these weird instrumentals and experimental interludes rubbing up against pop songs. "Of All The Things We've Made" is perhaps their finest hour. Like some of their best tracks, it's incredibly stripped down, with this haunting, elegiac quality.
How old were you when you first heard this?
I was only eight or nine years old. I can't even say why I was compelled to search for music like this at the time. I never gravitated toward most of the music that was played on top-40 stations. I was always looking for something a bit alien, even at an early age. A few years later, I joined the Columbia Record & Tape Club, and discovered The Cure, New Order, Joy Division, Siouxsie And The Banshees... the list goes on.
What did your parents think of you listening to all of that?
They were incredibly supportive. They never placed restrictions on what I was listening to, thankfully. My parents had a sizable collection and enjoyed all kinds of music—but I was mostly intrigued by their Velvet Underground and David Bowie LPs. I wasn't really interested in "classic" rock, so to speak.
We lost Matt Cogger from cancer at the end of 2014, which is just a tremendous loss. I never met him personally, but his music had an extraordinary impact on both me and my brother. Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been? and Beyond The Pinch are two of the only albums that I bought because I didn't exactly understand them. There were of course moments of brilliance, but very few of his tracks are playable in the conventional sense. I don't think functionality was a particularly high priority for Matt.
What stands out to me on this one is the tightly wound percussion, and how that kick drum fits in.
He learned a lot from Derrick May in terms of drum programming, especially the snares. That slightly militaristic cadence—I love that. The way the track builds and develops is remarkable. The cumulative emotional impact is unlike anything you'll hear in modern dance music. It's really the kind of record you'd play at the end of a set.
Derrick May did a remix of "Artemis," and for a long time it was only available on this impossibly rare Rephlex/A.R.T. compilation, The Philosophy Of Sound And Machine—I'd been looking for that record forever. Eventually, it got re-issued on the Electric Institute compilation back in 2005.
Here's something that's 100% Detroit.
I wanted to include a Detroit techno record on this list, but at the same time I thought I'd choose something lesser-known than a track from Mills or the Belleville Three. I first heard "Covert Action" on the Equinox / The Beginning / Nite & Da comp on Retroactive—which I found in the cutout section at Gramaphone. It's not surprising that it got licensed to Mo' Wax, as it fits perfectly into the aesthetic that they would later cultivate. I've always felt that this is one of the quintessential Detroit techno records, in that it could have only been made in the Motor City. It has this melancholic, moody atmosphere that immediately conjures steam hissing from manhole covers and desolate cityscapes. Not to mention the unforgettable bassline and inspired drum programming.
I like how the drums sound really live.
Yeah, exactly. It has a real hands-on feel to it.
Do you or did you play any instruments?
I played percussion from around fourth grade up until several years after graduating high school.
Why'd you stop?
Well, it's one thing when you're in high school, and you can easily have a kit set up in your parents' basement. But when it's time to move on, it becomes a bit complicated in that you have to decide if you're going to spend the money to have a practice space, continue to take lessons, and actively look for people to collaborate with. This was especially tough growing up in the suburbs, as hardly anyone I knew appreciated the same kinds of music as I did.
Were you getting more into DJing?
Towards the end of high school, yeah. That happened by accident, honestly.
I always saw myself as an enthusiast, I guess. There was no grand design or ambition to become a DJ. I went to a demonstration at a pro audio store in Chicago for the first generation Pioneer CDJs, and I was impressed by the ease of use and the design. Plus, I knew I'd be able to utilize all the music that I already had on CD. There wouldn't be a need to build an entire library from scratch.
Wire are probably my favorite band of all time. There are very few artists or bands that accomplished more over their first three records than they did. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 are the high-water mark for British post-punk in my mind, and despite the fact that they had very little musical ability at the beginning of their career, they accomplished in a few short years what most bands are unable to achieve in a lifetime. They understood what it means to be subversive—and they were particularly adept at being mysterious and evasive. Lyrically, they could be quite inscrutable as well, leaving the listener with few clues to determine the meaning of a song.
There are days when I think Our Swimmer is the greatest 45 ever made. It was done right before they broke up for the first time. They released 154 roughly a year before this. What's remarkable is how they do so much with so little. It's just that insistent groove and a simple, repetitive riff.
It manages to sound tense and uptight, but strangely cheery.
Right. On one hand, it's quite jagged and angular, but it's also incredibly catchy. I get it stuck in my head constantly.
Is this something you'd use in a DJ set?
If I'm playing lots of old post-punk records, then yeah, I'm guilty of playing this all the time.
To my mind, Renegade Soundwave's In Dub is every bit as important as [De La Soul's] 3 Feet High & Rising or [Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique. While they might not have a lot in common on first listen, the use of sampling in particular is similar—a freewheeling, "let's throw this at the wall and see what sticks" approach, which I love. I don't think In Dub could be made today, partially because most of the samples are uncleared. It's a shame really, because I think a lot of records from that era used sampling in an incredibly creative way.
"Transworld Siren" is one of the best things they ever made. I hate to use the word "epic," but it truly is. It's just immense sounding, and it's also worth noting that this came out before trip-hop and all that. The whole LP is ahead of its time, much like Renegade Soundwave in general. You couldn't pigeonhole them. They weren't quite house or techno, or industrial or hip-hop, they were all of those things, and even though I think that confused some people it's also what made their music so great.
To Be Surreal
There's always room for Luke Slater. Tell me about this one.
I'm hesitant to include a Luke Slater record here, as I think it's more or less understood that he's one of the most important and visionary electronic musicians of the last 30 years. But I've always felt that his 7th Plain material is some of his most underrated. Both of the full-lengths he made for GPR, The 4-Cornered Room and My Yellow Wise Rug, are enduring masterpieces. They're completely idiosyncratic and unique and don't easily fall into any category. They're certainly miles better than most of the stuff they got lumped in with—all that sterile, dull electronica that came out in the wake of the first Artificial Intelligence compilation. I could have chosen any track of his from this era, as they're all varying degrees of brilliant, but "To Be Surreal" might be my favorite. I love how hypnotic it is, and when those chords first come in, it's just sublime.
Sadly it seems like he doesn't really touch on this style anymore. It's usually beat-'em-down techno nowadays, which is cool, but I love how relaxed and atmospheric this is.
Well, it's true that he hasn't made a lot of music in this vein since then. But I think he's interested in revisiting the project. It's my understanding that some of the 7th Plain material might be reissued in the near future. He also re-purposed "Railer," one of the cuts from an unreleased 7th Plain LP, and used it on one of the last Planetary Assault Systems records for Ostgut.
Would this be a favorite alias for you? Or could you pick a favorite?
It's impossible. Next to Jeff Mills, he might have the most incredible and varied catalogue in techno. For a long time, back in the '90s, the Morganistic LP Fluids Amniotic was a holy grail—I'd been after the CD forever. The first time I went to London, I found it at a shop called Sister Ray. I couldn't believe it. It's still one of the most amazing techno albums ever made. It's both heady and physical, and the production and sound design is just incredible.
I have to include something from Demdike Stare on this list as an example of something made within the last few years that I find really exciting. Their whole catalog is just endlessly inspirational. For a long time, I was growing more and more frustrated that, in the dance music realm, a lot of producers weren't drawing on outside influences.
I love how open-ended Miles and Sean's aesthetic is; I think they've proved that they can do just about anything, and do it well. Ambient soundscapes, breakbeat-driven dance tracks, you name it. They also have this deep love and knowledge of film scores. I'd love to see them properly score a film, I'm sure they'd do an absolutely brilliant job. "Bardo Thodol" is nearly perfect in every way, the production and arrangements are just excellent. I get goosebumps every time I hear it.
There's something of an Arabic vibe.
The vocal sample sounds like it could be from an Arabic folk record—it has this hypnotic, wailing quality to it. But it's especially impressive how they use the source material not as window-dressing, or in an exploitative, dilettantish way—as "cultural tourism"—but to create a new sonic vocabulary. A bit like Can's Ethnological Forgeries series or what Eno and Byrne were doing with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. It's like world music from a world that doesn't exist yet.
Do you listen to much world music?
There are lots of things I enjoy listening to that could fall into that category, whether it's gamelan music or Afrobeat, or someone like Ali Farka Touré, but there's so much amazing music out there from all over the globe, it's hard to find the time as well as an entry point, really—it's overwhelming. I'm always happy to get recommendations from people, though.
So here's a group from Chicago.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I'm friends with the members of Zelienople, but that doesn't change the fact that this entire album, The World Is A House On Fire, is an absolute masterpiece. Zelienople have been quietly making brilliant records for over a decade now, and quite why they haven't gotten more attention for it (especially here in The States) is consistently baffling. Part of what I like about them is that they're lifers, they don't care about what's fashionable or trendy. You can tell what they like—late period Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, Low, Neil Young—but the end result always ends up being more than the sum of their influences. They're excellent live as well, I've seen them countless times.
Matt from Zelienople invited me over to his place to listen to this record when it was completed, it was a total honor, and honestly, one of the most moving listening experiences I've ever had. When he sings that opening line, "There's a chemist in the doorway / he can wait a thousand years," it just completely freaked me out. Even though I don't know what he's singing about it's just so evocative, like something pried up from under the floorboards of his subconscious.
I figured you're a big fan, given this "reconstruction".
I worked on that with my friend Jeremy. The band were interested in having one of the tracks from the LP remixed, so we got the stems for "The Chemist" and had a go at it. I was pretty happy with how it came out.
Is Jon Stave a fan of this? I wonder if this is something you'd have in common. Those loner guitars.
Yeah, he likes them as well.
Is this the sort of music you guys connected over?
To an extent. As much as Jon loves techno, he grew up listening to a lot of rock music, for lack of a better term. We're both pretty huge Steve Albini fans. Fugazi. Chicago labels like Kranky, Touch & Go.
Zelienople has released a good chunk of music through Type. What are some of your other Type favorites?
Type is a terrific label. They've put out excellent records from Richard Skelton, Jon Mueller, Mokira, Svarte Greiner, Deaf Center and lots of great reissues too, like Thomas Köner and Porter Ricks.
This is your longest pick, I would also say that in its own quiet way it's the most intense. It's quite the ambitious way to start an album.
I agree. Even though the atmosphere is quite dream-like, it is intense, especially due to the subject matter. He was going through a painful divorce, if I'm not mistaken.
David Sylvian is sometimes dismissed as a poor man's Scott Walker, which I don't think is fair, even though their careers have some similarities. They were both pin-ups/teen idols back in the day and, over time, their tastes evolved to the point where they were predominantly inspired by avant-garde music and improvisational music. This album Blemish is fascinating for many reasons, although I find it especially interesting because he made it so late in his career, and it bears almost no resemblance to any of his solo records up to that point. It's a lot like wandering around a hall of mirrors—you're just plopped down into this strange world and left to fend for yourself. Have you ever seen the Tarkovsky film Mirror? It's a bit like that. For me, Blemish is one of the most important records of the last 20 years or so.
So this is pretty much the most DJ-friendly thing on your list.
For my money, it's still the greatest techno record ever made. It's as close to perfect as is humanly possible. It has tension, mystery, it's sleek and cinematic, and the production and attention to detail are just off the charts.
Do you remember how you discovered it?
Vividly. I bought the first Ifach compilation CD at Gramaphone, which, like a lot of records I consider to be seminal, was recommended to me at the behest of Josh Werner, the techno buyer there at the time—and my biggest inspiration as a DJ, without question. I was listening to it in the car on the way home, and when "Dead Eye" came on I thought I'd have to pull the car over. I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. Part of what's so fascinating about it is that Peter Ford essentially re-invented himself as an artist, and developed an entirely new sound that was completely different to what he was doing before. It was obviously influenced by Detroit and Chicago, but he sublimated those influences and made something completely his own.
Do you have a favorite Baby Ford album?
Headphoneasyrider on Black Market. That's a masterpiece. I think it represents the acme of that classic Ifach sound—sparse but warm-sounding, with lots of strange atmospherics and tension.
You mentioned Josh Werner. Who are some other DJs who inspire you?
Well, growing up in Chicago, I was massively influenced by all the great DJs from there—Derrick Carter, Diz, DJ Heather, Mark Farina, Miles Maeda, Mystic Bill, Hyperactive—all DJs I used to see when I went to Shelter back in the day. My biggest influences otherwise are Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Claude Young, Laurent Garnier and Surgeon. Today, my favorite DJs are mostly good friends of mine that have kept the faith and haven't lost their ear: my brother Ken, Israel Vines, Justin Long, Nathan Drew Larsen, Patrick Russell, Carlos Souffront, Dave Siska, Mike Servito, BMG, Erika, Derek Plaslaiko, Zach Lubin, Nihal Ramchandani. The greatest DJ of all time is probably Mr. John Peel. He just played the music that he believed in.