Tony Poland meets the artist who is cutting a singular path through the modern techno landscape.
Over the course of the next hour, Gwyer ramped up the energy levels with a physical display of improvised hardware techno, using an Octatrack and an Analog Rytm. It proved a fine advancement on the drawn-out techno style she has developed over releases for DBA, Alien Jams and Nous. Despite this being the debut of her new set, Gwyer looked in the zone.
Afterwards, I caught up with Gwyer in the bar and asked if she was happy with the performance. "I'd say around 60%," she replied, telling me she had little time to prepare and practice. Gwyer was still at Bloc when I left a few hours later, standing towards the back of the dance floor and beaming as DJ Bone schooled everyone with a dextrous closing set.
Later that month, we met in less noisy surroundings to discuss Rembo. Gwyer has eased back from talking to the music press in recent years after feeling put off by the journalistic focus on her children, "or the creative process when you were pregnant," which followed her 2013 debut album, Needs Continuum. Gwyer and her family live in a striking and unconventional house rented from two travelling Italian musicians. It's part of a housing development on a winding cul-de-sac in a leafy South-East London suburb, designed by the noted German modernist architect Walter Segal in the early '80s.
Entering their house is like stepping through a time portal to the open-plan living space of a wood lodge in the Pacific North West circa '86. Gwyer's husband, Mattis, arrived soon after me, walking through the door with his bike as I was being sized up by their two young sons and pet cat, Poncho. Both parents were tired (their youngest kept them up most of the previous night with teething issues) but welcoming hosts. Over dinner they revealed their plan to relocate to Europe this year. The ongoing Brexit mess will be left behind for life in Barcelona, Lisbon or Paris.
After we finished eating, Gwyer was keen to discuss live techno artists in the current clubbing landscape—or perhaps more accurately, the lack of them. "I know a fair few people now who produce techno," she said. "Yet when they are booked in clubs, they don't play live but DJ." Gwyer waved a hand at the rows of records on the shelves to emphasise her point. "This is crazy, look at all the techno records that get released. You can buy one every ten minutes for the rest of your life. Where are these people?" She reeled off Beatrice Dillon, Avalon Emerson and Call Super as three examples of artists she'd like to see play live but don't. (It turns out we both saw Beatrice Dillon play live for the first and only time at Café Oto a few years ago.)
"I'm struggling to think of the last time I saw anyone else play a live techno set," Gwyer said. We quickly thought of some artists we've both seen. Gwyer added them up on her fingers: Laurel Halo, Kassem Mosse, Via App, Patricia and Gunnar Haslam. It seemed Gwyer had a point.
Gwyer feels she's in a weird place, where promoters just don't get what she is doing. If it's not turning down requests to play daytime ambient sets, she's contending with playing much earlier than the intensity of her music merits. "I get put in the situation time and time again, where I'm on at the beginning of the night, and the DJs carry it through. Sometimes I want there to be a big, really sweaty vibe for me to feed off," Gwyer said.
"What I play is super intense and super heavy, and then people come up to me afterwards and ask why I was put on so early." I told her this is exactly what a friend said to me when we saw her open to an empty dance floor at Moth Club earlier this year. "What is wrong with these promoters? They just don't care and are lazy!" She followed up with stories of promoters who've offered her a wooden bench to sleep on or are surprised she turned up with sequencers instead of records.
"I am very happy to be playing them all," she told me, but added that some of these bookings have taken their toll. "I feel like I haven't done my duty in doing the right thing at the right time in that lineup," she said. Opening to a near-empty room means she ends up being more conservative with her performances. "And then I go to bed feeling unhappy about it, thinking to myself I could have gone that extra mile, but didn't because the crowd wasn't ready for it."
If promoters need convincing Gwyer's place on a bill is when a club is packed, they just need to listen to Rembo. Put simply, it bangs. The album retains the curious marbling effect that has characterised much of Gwyer's work, with minor details coalescing to form hypnotic fluctuations. There is much more urgency here, however. People who missed the smattering of singles since her two 2013 albums will get a shock to the system when they hear tracks like "The Workers Are On Strike" and "He's Been Teaching Me To Drive." Gone is the drifting sensation of her earliest work, replaced by a forceful yet capricious techno that feels quite alien from anything else out there.
I was curious to discover where she sees herself in the modern techno landscape. A few days before we met up, Gwyer played with Kowton, Hodge and Pev at another DBA night in Oxford. She felt their sound was "really brutal," and told me she's trying to push a style of techno that is more in line with the melodic approach of Claude Young and Drexciya. These were the artists she fell in love with as a teenager in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I mean they had just achingly beautiful synth work," she said.
You can hear this love and appreciation in Rembo, especially the heart-tugging tones of "Why Does Your Father Look So Nervous." Gwyer views the album as her attempt to "keep pushing techno further, while keeping it weird, but hopefully not end up in a situation where it becomes predictable."
Rembo also further strengthens the bond with Don't Be Afraid. After working with No Pain In Pop for her debut album, Needs Continuum, Gwyer has tended to hop from one label to another, happily working with whoever wants to put out her music. "I've never thought twice about it," Gwyer said, adding that other people seem to dwell on it.
She doesn't quite recall how the approach from Don't Be Afraid came about, offering something vague about an exchange of tweets between her Benji Semtek. From a contribution to a split 12-inch last summer, Gwyer quickly became a key artist for Don't Be Afraid. After long players from MGUN and DJ Bone's Differ-Ent, Gwyer's album expands on the UK label's love for artists from Michigan.
Being part of the DBA family offers Gwyer a certain amount of security when it comes to bookings, too. "Benji is very up for it, good on the business front and organising shows," she said.
Gwyer also admitted that working with DBA offered a challenge she felt was needed. "With Benji, I knew I had to step up my game in terms of production, because previously it was terrible," she said. Semtek walked her through several processes that helped improve the quality of her productions. Can she hear this in the finished album? "I mean yeah, it sounds a thousand times better," she said. "Not compositionally, but the production quality makes my old records sound so amateurish. I want to bury my head in the sand thinking about it."
Semtek later told me over email that, as a listener, he didn't feel anything was lacking in Rembo. "In fact, the LP changed very little from the point at which it was delivered to us," he wrote. His advice was more about "what a DJ might look for in a track and how her sounds might translate over club systems."
I asked Gwyer if this was something she'd paid much attention to in this past. "Oh god, no," she said. "I've felt like I've really ignored that to the detriment of my playability." But she does feel her sound has naturally become more DJ-friendly as a by-product of her live sets. "Ultimately, that's the most sweat-inducing thing I've got going on. In a roundabout way, I think my stuff has got more playable by other people, simply because I've had to make it more playable myself in a live setting." She agreed the new album is her most dance floor-focused release so far, and thought that it will be more appealing to DJs. "To at least the DJs I really, really like," she added.
If there is a clear progression in the Karen Gwyer sound, her actual production method for Rembo remained a process of happy accidents. I asked how she came up with "The Workers Are On Strike." With a slight look of puzzlement, she said: "I'm not really aware of how I managed to pull that track out. It all just happens." In fact, the only time Gwyer approaches production with any sort of plan is if she decides to copy someone. "It's a really good method of making something," she said with a laugh. "Especially if you are stuck in a rut." One of the album tracks came through attempting to recreate the bassline build from "I Want To Leave My Body," a classic Green Velvet production. "It doesn't sound anything like it," Gwyer said, "but I broke myself out of a creative dead end."
Gwyer's music has a history of obscure and amusing titles that hint at some untold narrative, and the new album is no different. Googling "rembo" brought up only links to a wedding dress boutique. There is an intriguing call and response theme running throughout the album: "Why Don't You Make Your Bed?" is followed by "It's Not Worth the Bother," and so on. But Gwyer seemed hesitant to discuss the meaning behind Rembo or its track titles. She preferred to talk about how amused she was at the theories people have come up with. My suggestion was they were inspired by discussions with her family. Wrong.
Others have had more outlandish theories. "John Thorp [the writer behind Rembo's press release] thought he could actually hear owls in the music and some of the track titles were very political," she told me, cracking up. "I really enjoy people trying to understand something that I feel is not the point. Why should track titles be the focus of any of this?"
For Gwyer, giving her music strange names is an attempt to instil some fun into techno. "My god, how many records do you buy with track titles that are one word and have something to do with some sort of emotion or texture?" She doesn't feel comfortable sharing everything about her personal life, so obscure track titles are an attempt to convey her humour. "At least I can give people something to chew on, rather than just a track title called 'Duality' or something."