As a DJ and a producer, Joe Seaton's sound is as wild as it is poetic. Will Lynch finds out what makes him one of the most striking artists in electronic music right now.
"I guess I had encouragement from an early age that your work should just be an extension of who you are," he said. "You don't really have to worry about whether you're good at drawing, or playing your instrument or whatever, it's just about your ideas, how truly your ideas are an extension of yourself and your interests. At this point I feel like my life in general is just an extension of my interests, and that's something I'm very grateful for."
It was easy to see what he meant. Sitting there, gesturing and swiveling in his chair, Seaton was the nucleus of a space in which everything felt like an extension of his self. From the handsomely shabby furniture and weathered records leaning against an old chest of drawers, to his outfit, an artful clash of prints and colors so well-balanced I wondered if he thought he'd be photographed that day, everything was an outpouring of the same singular flair that makes his records some of the best in electronic music today.
It also helps, Seaton said, to have a more deliberate signature, something you do in your art that others don't. Could he describe his?
"I dunno," he said, his gaze floating upward. "I think there's probably something in the way I like to leave things slightly unfinished, but highly finished in other ways. I've always been quite into the idea of feeling very in control of what's finished and what's not, but that 'not' part being something that other people maybe can't work out so easily, they listen to it and think, 'Hang on, that doesn't sound quite right, but then this does sound right.' I think that tension is fairly consistent in my tracks."
My mind jumped to the cover of his debut album, Suzi Ecto, a tangle of blue zig-zags on a peach backdrop whose artful composition is disrupted by what looks like haphazard drops of black paint. This controlled chaos is a defining aspect of both his music and the method behind it. Many of his tracks feel loose and organic, with wandering structures that lend them a sense of poetry. But they are far from off-the-cuff. All are the result of countless hours of work within a strictly regimented work schedule.
"I'm a 7 PM guy," Seaton said, meaning he works from nine or ten in the morning till seven at night. "Routine is essential, you have to turn up every morning. I might have a terrible day where I make two or three things I'm working on a bit worse, but the important thing is that I turned up and did something, pushing the whole thing forward."
Within that regimented schedule, though, is a lot of whimsical exploration and messing around. Take "Blue Dot," the title track from what might be his best record, released last year on The Trilogy Tapes. "I made most of the percussion in 'Blue Dot' out of the sound of welding two sheets of metal together," he explained on Instagram. The track also includes one of the only field recordings he's ever used: "the bells on the goats in the field behind my parents' house." The result is an exquisite piece of ambient music, lush and ghostly, summoning a vivid imaginary place. In his review of the record, Matt McDermott wrote: "'Blue Dot' sounds like music that could have been created by various visionary types at any point in the last half-century."
Ideas, more than any other aspect of creativity, are the driving force of Seaton's music, and they seem to come more easily for him than they do for many artists. Sometimes he's struck by something unexpected—the goats by his parents' place, for instance, were the source not just of a field recording but for the entire idea behind "Blue Dot." Others come from the instruments themselves.
For Seaton, who describes himself as a "lightning conductor" of ideas, the challenge is not finding inspiration, but managing it. "You need to learn not to get too hung up on certain details," he said. "Just let the ideas roll, and then try and capture them and marshal them. You learn not to spew them all out, but to reject them, to edit them."
He told me this one freezing night at Le Saint Amour, a Lyonnaise restaurant by a canal in Kreuzberg that, with its red wallpaper and flaming créme brûlées, has the antiquated quaintness of a Wes Anderson film. Seaton, loose from a glass of wine and the warmth of the small restaurant, began to wax nostalgic.
"When I was young and going to clubs, I used to make a lot of track requests," he said. "I saw Laurent Garnier one time, he'd played an absolute blinder at The End. I went and asked if he had 'Acid Eiffel' on him, because I'd never heard him play it. He was like, 'I do... but let's see what happens.' We got to the end of the night and he hadn't played it. I asked him, totally out of curiosity, 'What wasn't right about it?' He was like, 'Oh, it's really hard to tell, but most of my job is about deciding what not to play.' That always stayed with me."
Seaton is as gifted a DJ as he is a producer. His sets, like his productions, are wild and flamboyant, but also tidy and technically sound. Many eclectic DJs forego smooth blends in favor of daring track selections. Seaton has it both ways, deftly connecting the dots between, say, Rhythm & Sound's "No Partial" and Talk Talk's "Such A Shame," as he does on Blowing Up The Workshop 40, probably the best existing example of Call Super as a DJ. You get a more streamlined version of this on fabric 92, a mix Seaton whipped up on the turntables in his studio, opting for a classic approach instead of an immaculate Ableton sculpture.
Seaton doesn't hold back in clubs. I first saw him play one Sunday afternoon in the garden of ://about blank, going back-to-back with Ben UFO. Thanks to recent noise complaints, the whole thing was quieter than we all would have wanted, but both DJs found a way to roll with this. Seaton chose the first record: DJ Sprinkles' "Grand Central, Pt. I (Deep Into The Bowel Of House)," a half-ambient deep house track that drifted almost imperceptibly from the speakers. From there, it was easy to notch things up. Seaton offset Afrobeat and other unquantized music with steely electronics like Lynx's "Call."
As closing time loomed, Ben played William Onyeabor's "When The Going Is Smooth And Good," a curio firmly on the classy side of party music. For the final track, Seaton went low-brow to enormous fanfare, with DJ Falcon and Thomas Bangalter's "Together," ending the party in a blaze of whistles, pumped fists and even a bit of pogoing.
Last month, I saw Seaton play at Panorama Bar with Pariah, a set that, while much more pumping, still had his unmistakable flair (Lynx's "Call" made it in again). It was a winter afternoon, already pitch black outside. A gaggle of Seaton's friends held court at the bar. Leaning against a pillar by the booth was a tall, professorial man in his 60s, looking stern save for a subtle head-nod. He was the kind of Panorama Bar attendee who gives regulars faith that this place, true to its reputation, attracts all types, not just 20-somethings dressed in black. In fact, this was Seaton's father, a professor of art and a musician himself. Berghain's promo text for the party had described Seaton, more or less accurately, as "the son of a New Orleans jazz clarinetist." The elder Seaton has also appeared in the music of Call Super and Ondo Fudd—Suzi Ecto features him on oboe and clarinet in sessions recorded at their home in Andalusia, Spain (the goats presumably dinging away outside).
Standing by the bar in a scrum of people half his age, Seaton expressed a calm wonderment at the scene. "It's amazing to see Joe play here," he said, his gaze drifting back to the dance floor. "Honestly, though, I would come here no matter who was playing."
Art runs deep in Seaton's family. "My dad, my grandfather, actually going back five or six generations, they're all painters," he said. This gave him a lot of invaluable perspective. Seaton grew up around artists, most of them failing. His father, who made a living as a professor, painted a bleak picture of the art world. "You could see that he was stressed out and pissed off," Seaton said. "I'd listen to him talking to mum about how shit the system was, how fucked the research funding was."
Seaton studied visual art, starting off doing "quite big paintings" and then becoming "obsessed with print-making." But the world of art beyond university held little allure for him. Seaton was keenly aware of its brutal economics—as he saw it, you graduate, suck up to gallerists and then pray someone takes you under their wing, only to become totally dependent on them. Like his dad, though, he had an interest in music that was something more than a hobby. As a young teenager, he'd learned guitar, and after a while his teacher showed him some things in his studio.
"That kind of dovetails with me getting into my first raves," he said. "And then I got my first piece of kit, a late '90s Roland Groovebox, which I got from my dad's university. I fell out with my teacher and decided I'd never study music again, which was a good thing because then I did it at home on my own, just kind of chipping away. I'd gotten some decks at about 15."
Music became more satisfying than visual art, partly for practical reasons. "You know, living in small rooms in shared flats, it was just more possible," he said. "I wasn't interested in doodling. If I was gonna be working on art, I'd need more space, more materials, and all that shit costs money. Whereas I had the thing I could make music on."
Seaton's taste was enriched by London's early '00s music scene. He had transcendent nights out at places like Turnmills and The End, as well as at weirder ones like The Drome. "That was by London Bridge," he said. "It was run by the IRA, but the actual place was an incredibly safe environment, there were drug testing kits there for people to use, and you'd have three rooms, a kind of acid techno, sometimes more psytrancey room, and then a jungle room, and then a chill-out room, where there'd be some crusty playing a fucking recorder with their dog on one side and their four-year-old child on the other."
The End was the one that made a lasting impression. "It was small and intense, and they had Jeff Mills and Laurent Garner pretty regularly." Both of those DJs played in a way that defines Seaton's DJ style to this day—roughly speaking, a much looser definition of techno, based more on the energy of the set than the genre of the individual tracks.
"Mills doesn't do this anymore, I guess because his sets are predominantly festival gigs," Seaton said. "But when he played all night, he would play all different kinds of music. I remember him playing Beastie Boys in The End, The Sugarhill Gang for fuck's sake. I thought, 'Right, so techno is all of that.' And I guess that was part of hip-hop culture too, sampling culture. Within hip-hop you could have anything, you could make a 4/4 track in hip-hop if you wanted. With those guys, techno was like that, not so strictly defined. You can change the tempos, you can just suck whatever the fuck you want into this thing and try and make it make sense, and that's because you're a techno DJ. You have that freedom. Or at least you should, I think."
He thought about it for a second. "I think that's what made me think, 'OK, this is my music.' I like lots of different music, and it all makes sense under this umbrella."
As time went on, Seaton became increasingly unsure about the wisdom of art school, and eventually dropped out to study politics and Islamic architecture. This landed him in Glasgow, where he caught the golden age of Optimo at Sub Club, and then in London. He was offered an internship at Monocle when he graduated, but turned it down to move to Berlin, a place he'd been regularly visiting. His medium-term goal was unclear, so he improvised.
"I got by pretty well DJing in bars," he said. "There was one called Trust in Mitte, King Size Bar, right up near the Theaterhaus Berlin in Mitte. Swanky, but also kind of in no man's land. Like very much neither here nor there. They both paid, I dunno, €150 or €200 to play all night. I'd do one of those each a month, and my rent back then was around €150, so I was really doing fine."
Seaton's first record came together three months after he arrived in Berlin. One of his new friends, Jakob Gehring, suggested they start a label, with two of Seaton's tracks as the first record. The label was called Nocturnes; the record, Yphsilon. Hard Wax agreed to stock 100 of them. They quickly sold out.
"Jack Revill emailed two weeks later asking if this was gonna be repressed by Hard Wax," he said, referring to Jackmaster. "And I said, 'I don't think so.' He said, 'Well, can we do a Rubadub distribution deal where we pay for the records etc.' Jacob and I didn't have a sense of Hard Wax's influence, and we didn't have any money, so it was too big an opportunity to pass off, we had no costs, if we made any money we'd see it. So we went for it." Yphsilon, Seaton's first EP (and the only one released as JR Seaton), came out in September of 2009.
His sense of momentum was stymied by an album deal that went sour, which put him into a bit of a tailspin. "It was a bad year in general," he said. "I'd had this really encouraging beginning and then it went bad kind of quickly. But I think it's important to have those experiences. Make bad calls, get fucked over. The things that go wrong are interesting in themselves, the errors in judgment you make are interesting. It would be too bizarre to have this personal history in which you made the right decision every time. That would probably lead to some kind of personality disorder."
Time passed. Seaton paid the bills with DJ gigs and shifts at a call center, plus the odd bit of freelance writing—"I did something for a French magazine about the decline of the European left," he shrugged. Meanwhile, he kept making music. In 2013, fabric launched Houndstooth and Seaton sent four tracks to the label's manager, Rob Booth. These made up what, despite being his second release under the name, was effectively Call Super's debut: The Present Tense.
From there it all came naturally. Seaton released more records with respected labels (Dekmantel, The Trilogy Tapes). His aliases proliferated, first with Ondo Fudd, and then, last year, with Elmo Crumb. Over time, his leftfield house sound gave way to something more organic and hard to define, a development exemplified by his debut album, the dreamlike Suzi Ecto. Released in 2014 on Houndstooth, this remains the fullest document of Seaton's signature style—avant-garde but soothing, meticulous but uncontrived, serious but not self-serious.
The title alone is a kind of rosetta stone to Seaton's creativity. We wandered onto the topic late in the evening at Le Saint Amour, as Seaton explained why, for as long as he can remember, he's been haunted by an obsession with death. "Every day of my life, it's very rare that I won't think about death, or the process of dying, someone I love dying, myself dying," he said. "I think it comes from having terrible asthma as a kid, being on a life support machine. At one point a nurse said to my mum, when I was lying next to my mum, that I wouldn't make it through the night. My mum is being told this and having to prepare for my own death in front of me, with me bearing witness to that." (As a teenager Seaton grew out of his asthma for good.)
Suzi Ecto was a name he made up for that nurse. This title reflects the deep personal element that, though totally inscrutable to the listener, gives the album a sense of gravitas. It also happens to be a joke about drugs.
"That's part of a thread I have running through a lot of my track titles," he said, "which is: pills. Ecstasy pills. 'Ecto' is Scottish slang for a pill." Another is Fluenka Mitsu, his 2015 EP on Nous, which obliquely shouts out the Mitsubishi pills common in London throughout the honeymoon period of Seaton's raving career.
"The cliché is that this is music people take drugs to. But I wanted this theme of like, the halcyon days of this music. This culture had an unsaid political power, because no one really knew what the fuck was going on, and without anything stated, ambiguity is the most potent political force in society. So yeah, ecstasy, I don't know, it's really crass, but on every level it works. It's funny to reference that on a weird, moody, thoughtful record. But at the same time it's totally sincere. I think ecstasy is an amazing drug, and I like the fact that this music is linked to it. The music opens people's minds to the drug, the drug opens people's minds to the rest of their lives. Lots of people come from quite uptight roots and are changed for the better through experiencing this music and the drugs that go with it. And there's nothing insincere about that. I love that this exists around this music, it's something to be celebrated."
"It's bizarre," Seaton said. "We both came to this city not quite the finished article, but each having a skill set that the other one lacked, so we were able to feed into one another incredibly seamlessly, in terms of just helping the other person with what they need. TJ had a degree of technical ability that I think I was just a bit too louche about, that I had kind of deliberately ignored for too long because I just didn't want to get hung up on that stuff. He tightened things up for me, just had a way of being very, very precise and kind of cutting through to a very specific thing an idea needs. He has a harder time with the actual dreaming up of ideas, but once he has all the components he has no problem engineering something fantastic. I find the generating of ideas very easy, but I need him there to bolt them down. He helps me with the parameters of those ideas, kind of stops them from going too far."
As DJs, too, they are almost eerily compatible. I saw them play together at the end of last year in a low-key gig at Sameheads, an offbeat bar in Neukölln with a dance floor and a soundsystem in the basement. Entry was four euro (with a free shot), which included a one-euro donation to help resettle refugees. Throughout their set, both DJs gave Jägermeister to people in the crowd, friends and strangers alike. "Otherwise we'll drink it," Hertz explained, somewhat counterintuitively.
The night was a rare glimpse of Objekt and Call Super in bar-DJ mode, applying their slick mixing and stylistic flexibility to a much more tongue-in-cheek range of music than they're known for. Early in the night, when the tempo was still below 110 BPM, the energy was already roaring. Seaton offset Hertz's robotic funk (Naum Gabo's "Sleep C'mon") with low-slung burners like Escape From New York's "A Fire In My Heart." Barely an hour in, a group of rambunctious Frenchmen had their shirts off.
"It's only getting cheesier from here," Hertz said. "I've got a bag full of nuanced records that are obviously not getting played." At one point Seaton played a dub 7-inch, despite the club having no adapter—he just placed it very carefully at the center of the platter. "Probably wouldn't pull that one at Warehouse Project," he quipped.
A queue for track IDs formed by the corner of the booth and persisted for much of the night. Many of the highlights were gleefully uncool: Wamdue Project's "King Of My Castle," the "Cordless Mix" of ADULT.'s "Hand To Phone," and, most fantastically, the jingle bells edit of Jeff Mills' "The Bells" (Christmas was two weeks off). Near the end, Seaton pulled the heartstrings with Everything But The Girl's "Wrong"—his own edit, combining the original with Todd Terry's remix. Hertz wove this into Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy," and then Seaton brought it home with Pete Wingfield's "Eighteen With A Bullet," a doo-wop ballad from 1975. Eyes closed, hands in the air, the sweaty crowd swayed from side to side. Whistles and whoops shot out of the darkness. When the music stopped, it was hard to accept the night was over. Any chance of this continuing someplace else? "Unfortunately not," Seaton said. "I'm painting furniture tomorrow."