Ryan Keeling hears how this former Lady Gaga collaborator came to find herself at the heart of the techno scene.
As Martin pointed out, we may not have even been talking that day if it weren't for a single fateful night a few years ago. Surgeon and his wife were at a Lady Gaga concert in Birmingham, and were surprised to find the support act, Lady Starlight, warming up with an uncompromising live techno set. Starlight told the audience how excited she was to play the hometown of one of her heroes, Surgeon, and the pair wound up meeting after the show. It was the start of an ongoing live performance collaboration that's seen them play across Europe. Surgeon has called Martin "the techno sister that I was separated from at birth."
For Martin, the switch to techno is just the latest in a series of left turns. She's spent her career trying to challenge people's expectations, fuelled not by a sense of arrogance but a natural curiosity and an appetite for hard work. She's humbled that she seems to have been accepted by her new scene (her blistering debut has just been released on Stroboscopic Artefacts), but she sees it as her artistic duty to question techno's established order.
What brought you to Berlin?
I didn't want to commute anymore. It's such a waste of money to live in North America if you have a techno career. Because there's no money there, all of the gigs are here, all of your fans are pretty much here. I did it for a while but I was like, this makes no sense. And I was desperate to get out of New York because it's just a horrible place.
I owe New York everything really, because I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for living in New York. But after a while you're just like, what the fuck, why do I live like this? Once you get over like, 36, this quality of life is really not acceptable. I think I'd like something better than this but I'm not a millionaire, so I'd like to maybe enjoy my life instead of working all the time to pay my rent in a shitty apartment with bed bugs and roaches. I think I'd like to not have that anymore.
So this has been a positive move for you.
It's been definitely positive, but quite difficult. The language is very difficult and just—I'm 41, moving to a new country, even just to a new city at 41 after living in one city for 15 years, moving out of my apartment in New York City after eight years was difficult. When you go into a new culture, even just a new city let's say, it's really difficult because so much of who you are as an individual and as an artist is in relation to what's around you.
As an artist—well, that's actually not true, I live in a fantasy world when it comes to my music. I just don't pay attention to anything else that's going on, which I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I'm just like, no this is it, this is what I'm doing.
But does it make it harder for you to reach that headspace when you have upheaval in your life?
Well actually producing is the only thing that makes me feel comfortable and safe. It's a safe zone. Everything else goes away. Once I started making music, electronic music, I was like, oh this is the best escapism ever, it's like an anti-anxiety thing. Especially techno, because it's one, two, three, four, five... 16. It's very ordered, it has this hypnotic duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. Especially working on hardware, it's just the lights going. It's like therapy of some kind.
Exactly. It makes me block everything out and not worry about other things. It's been my rock.
How have you found the nightlife here versus New York?
I haven't really gone out in maybe like ten years. I mean, I will go out occasionally but once nightlife becomes your job, which it's been my job—not in techno for so long—for at least ten years. So you see behind the curtain. Because I'm out all the time, because my job is out, I don't really feel like going out so much. And then I get tired and I don't do any drugs or drink very much, I have the tolerance of somebody's grandmother, I'm like one drink I'm wasted. I'm the worst person to go out with.
Thinking generally about the last few years, your increasing involvement with the techno scene has been one of the more curious stories of late. I was interested to know what it's been like from your perspective. What have people's responses been like?
Well, the thing is, coming in with Surgeon there's a certain—like, you can't fuck with him. If it wasn't for him, I definitely would not be where I am right now. There's almost no one else I can think of in the techno scene that people respect as much as Surgeon. How people react to me still can't be taken out of the equation but in general it's been really great.
When I started doing techno, anybody that I would talk to that had some involvement in the scene were just like, "Ah it's not going to work"—this is before I met Surgeon—"nobody's going to accept you... it's not going to work with the pop star association." And I was like, "Oh no, no, it's going to work, people will get it." That's like the key to my success I think, always being somewhat delusional: "No this is going to work, of course it's going to work. It's going to happen!" And then it does.
Bearing in mind some of the other moves you've made over the years, is it part of your artistic mission to shift people's perceptions? To shake the boundaries that are created around things?
Absolutely. When I'm really interested in something that's not the original intention, because why I believe that anything I go into would work is because I love it so much and I learn as much as I can. I'm such a nerd, you know what I mean? I'm learning all about the gear and then into hardware and then into modular, and I'm like, "People will see that won't they?" and they do.
People subconsciously recognise when somebody really loves something and believes in what they're doing. And, because authenticity is so, so important to me, I think it's important to work really hard at learning what you do and what you're interested in. It's just been my whole life, wanting to know as much as I can.
So, then it comes to a point where, you know, I kind of just follow... It sounds a bit out there, but it's like there's this message from the universe of what I'm supposed to do, there's that part of the universe that you can kind of tap into, and what what I'm supposed to do, it just comes to me. Somehow I'm like, oh that's it, that's what I need to do. So, everything I've gone into, it seems like none of it makes any sense but somehow I guess it does to me, not really, but something will come to me, this is what I want to do now, this is what I'm interested in, this is exciting to me.
I come from a punk rock and hardcore background, so like anarchist punk, that was really what I was into when I was a kid. So yes, maybe I like a little bit of button pushing.
Having an opportunity to be on tour with Lady Gaga... most people might like the idea of using that for monetary gain or establishing some commercially successful career, but this never even went through my mind. I was like, oh you're going to give me an arena full of these pop music fans, what can I do to fuck with them!? Woo, OK, you have to stand here and listen to this. You can't leave because you're standing here and you waited all of this time. So that was an added bonus. On that tour it was about pushing people, because that was a situation I was given.
You presumably got some bad reactions?
Yes. I've gotten booed definitely. The really, really challenging, really horrible part of that tour was the afterparties where I was booked for DJ gigs. I'm in there still delusional about what normal people like, thinking yeah this is dance music, don't they like to dance? So, multiple times, I'd go in there and just go in with proper techno, and they were playing hit trap music before. I like trap music but these people were not getting it, they did not want to hear techno.
I think one time I played in Vegas, I played for 45 seconds, they were like, "Yeah this is not working." I would often get kicked off, they'd be like, "OK that's good, we're good, you can wrap it up," after like 30 minutes. So that happened like all the time. Talk about feeling terrible, but I just kept going I was like, OK, I still got the money, and I would buy a bunch of gear.
Was Lady Gaga always 100% into the idea of you performing?
She's really just a great person and a great friend and she is like, "Whatever you want to do, I trust you." So basically I could go up on stage and take a shit and she'd be like, "Fierce!" But to have a friend, no matter who it is—and then of course somebody who's as talented as she is—and to have total faith in you is just amazing. She loves to fuck with people, so it all works together. We have the same mindset in that way.
The story of how you met Surgeon is well documented, but around the time he said something about you guys connecting on many levels. I was wondering what he meant specifically by that?
It really is just when you meet somebody and there's this base level of the way that you view the world and you're just like, "Oh you, I know you." It's that feeling when you meet someone and all these boxes are ticked, and it's your relationship to the world and what you're doing here on Earth and all these basic attitudes and ideas.
I was such a big fan of Surgeon because he always did exactly what he wanted to do. Any artist that I love always has that quality where they risk everything, saying, I'm going to do this now, I hope somebody follows me but if they don't I'm still going to do it.
And it's the idea that the same thing would be happening whether there was an audience or not, and that's real, that's what artists should be doing. Living your creativity, like it's a totally immersive thing, like this is my life, what I'm doing artistically is my life. That's why I think I've willed myself to succeed, because there's definitely no plan B, it just has to work because this is what I do.
This idea of not having a plan B reminds me of the way you guys have been performing together, which I understand has been totally improvised.
We're like, I hope it works! Fingers crossed! Oh there's no kick drum, oops, shit!
Was it even a question as to whether or not you would perform together like this?
Yeah, absolutely. I guess because the first time we performed, I went to his house, and it's rare to meet a person that you connect with on that kind of best friend level. There was no time to prepare anything.
When I was booked that for the ArtRave tour, Stephanie, Gaga, had asked me if I wanted to go on it and I was like, "Well, my techno project isn't ready yet, guess I'll have to make it ready." So that's how it happened. I'm going to be on stage in an arena, I guess I better figure out how to use these drum machines, and that's what I did. I was like, I'm not going to not do this, so I have to be bad at it and then get good at it. I'd rather do it badly than not do it at all—the Lady Starlight story!
It could be a title for your memoir.
Oh I have so many, that was a good one though.
Tell me about your experiences of the performances with Surgeon. And are you guys planning to do lots more?
Yeah, absolutely. We have some gigs in two weeks. It's an ongoing project. It's just great, it's really nice to hang out, it's so much fun to be up there with somebody else. Sometimes when you're performing by yourself you're just like, "Oh I dunno did that happen, I don't remember?" There's nobody to talk to about it. Techno can be very lonely because most people don't have anyone travelling with them, so it's a very solitary life. It's very much appreciated when you can share that with somebody else.
And you've been doing some live work with Truss.
Yes, we only did it twice and hopefully we're going to be doing it again soon, but that was really great too. He's the best, I love him so much. We are also really compatible in this weird way. Also the two us look great onstage, the most wrong-looking combination.
You're on the verge of your first solo release. Tell me how it came about and how you're feeling about it.
I'm very excited and so thankful to Lucy. I feel super honoured that he would believe in my music enough to put it out, because Stroboscopic is a very selective label, and also my music doesn't sound like pretty much anything else on the label, which I really like. My favourite thing about Lucy is he is one of those people who doesn't give a fuck. You know, you have to have a healthy sense of "I don't give a fuck" to be a great artist. It's like yeah, I'm going to put this out because I believe in it and I think it sounds great.
Overall I'm a bit nervous. I know that there's going to be a lot of critical eyes on it. People don't—and not in a bad way—but people don't know really what I'm going to come out with at the end of the day. Only the people who have seen me perform live are like, "Oh OK, yeah."
But there's a lot of confusion. People still think I'm Lady Gaga! There's so little information, and that's my fault, that's not anybody's fault. I've not come out with anything so I can't expect anybody to think any differently, there's no information, so now I'm finally giving people information. I do believe that it's good. It's quite different to everything else that is going on in techno, which I think is important also. It's just really fast.
Yes, I was going to say.
Faster, faster, faster. To me that is techno. That is the BPM of techno: 140. Because it's what happens at that BPM, with the shuffle and the way it moves. It's not an idea, it's the way the actual music moves at 140.
Would you say that the release is broadly representative of the spirit of your live performances?
Yeah, it's pretty much like the recording of a performance. The way I make tracks is I write them all on my machines and I just record them from the mixer. So I don't do anything, but I do some EQing. The idea of somebody doing a remix is going to be really special for the remixer, they'll be like, "Oh wow that's annoying, it's like three tracks." It's kick drum, percussion, synth, because I only have three channels on my mixer that work now.
If I go on the computer... I would just get on it and be like, this is not it. It didn't make any sense, and then when I got on the machines and heard the Roland, the 909 open hats and that kick drum, it's just like, yeah that's techno, boom, that's what it is. Working on the gear was the only way it made sense to me. I don't like the way the computer looks, it's all in the grid, not that the drum machine isn't on the grid, but there's something about looking at it—you're not listening.
That interface imparts all these rules of what you can and cannot do, and that's what I hear in techno that I don't like at the moment, there's a lot of rules. There's a lot of rules in techno across the board of what you can and can't do, and that doesn't make any sense to me. I think a lot of that is not just the artist it's a lot to do with the way that the music is made.
In considering the place you've arrived at now, where you're about to put out your first release and the live performances have been building some momentum, do you see this as being the beginning of the path you're on?
Absolutely. It's very exciting just to be able to have an audience for what I do. Whether or not people like it, it's still like, wow it's out there and I hope somebody likes it. No one will DJ with it because it's too fast, but OK.
At the very worst they'll pitch it down.