Elissa Stolman speaks to Tony Fairchild, a Pittsburgh DJ whose labels are leading the charge in a new school of artists from the Midwest.
"Increasingly people are like, 'Yo, you're loafman, aren't you?'" Fairchild told me. His Discogs account serves as a kind of guerilla marketing for his label, is / was, which reissues obscure old dance records. It's a slick way to reach an important target market: other heads just like him, who plunder Discogs 20 tabs at a time.
is / was has two sub-labels, was / is and TerraFirm. All three trade in retro flavors of house, techno and electro from the US, particularly Pittsburgh, where Fairchild currently lives. Their sound is more groovy and UK-inspired than the noise-impregnated grit that incubated in New York and less Balearic than the laid-back house washing in from the West Coast. It sounds more like the stuff DJs in the European minimal scene have been playing to dance floors of Shazaming track ID hunters.
I wasn't surprised when Fairchild brought up diggers like Evan Baggs, Binh and Nicolas Lutz. These DJs were mostly booked at big-room events in the States until they broke into a headsier circuit in the last few years, including parties like Hot Mass. As Fairchild put it, he and his peers had recently added "cracked-out old tech house" to their stylistic melting pot.
In the wake of Hot Mass's success, a cast of young DJs has started pushing new music, record labels and parties in cities where club scenes were pretty dormant for the last decade. Fairchild has played a role in many of these developments. Born and raised about 30 minutes outside Detroit, he caught the techno bug as a college student at Ohio University. After graduation he moved to the nearest city, Columbus, bought decks and started collecting records. In 2015, he his friends Jed Fenton and Kevin Brugger started a party called Midwest Fresh to unite the region's old-school ravers with the younger heads and local art kids.
"I felt really unsatisfied with what was happening in Columbus," Fairchild said. "I wanted to throw a warehouse rave, not play to a bunch of Ohio State fans eating jalapeno poppers. I wanted to do it in the tradition of how I saw rave culture."
Around the same time, a queer night called In Training launched in nearby Cleveland. It, too, has gained enough traction to get its organizers gigs abroad, including artists like Kiernan Laveaux and Father Of Two.
"Hold on, Kiernan's calling me right now," Fairchild said early on in our conversation. She was in town to play Eris Drew's Motherbeat at Hot Mass the night before fellow In Training organizer Father Of Two headlined the club's Honcho party alongside Seattle-based promoter and DJ CCL (who took the photos included in this piece).
"It's like extended family at this point," Fairchild said.
He cited Laveaux, Miah Benton (AKA Adab) and Father Of Two as a "confluence" that provides a rough idea of the musical vision uniting the new-school Rust Belt scene, an omnivorous Hydra spawned by millennial Discogs spelunkers. The canonized sounds of Detroit and Chicago bleed into off-the-beaten-path strains of electro and bleep, English and American breeds of swung house or dry, pumping 1990s New York and Midwest techno.
That description of the current Midwest sound could just as aptly characterize Fairchild's family of record labels, and in particular was / is. Fairchild initially excavated the heroes of the '90s Midwest scene, like Charles Noel (AKA Archetype) or Omni A.M., and soon crossed the pond to revive gems from English heavyweights like "Leicester lads" Wild Geese or Crayon boss Mark Ambrose.
is / was focuses on new music, and so far has mostly featured artists from around Pittsburgh, like Chase Smith and hometown hero Shawn Rudiman. TerraFirm, Fairchild's latest endeavor, has released two EPs so far: one from Columbus-based Placebo and another by Flora FM, who used to live in Detroit and now resides in Seattle.
"I would like to have something that's like, this tight-knit crew of people that I'm helping to unite," Fairchild explained, citing labels like Mosaic and Ifach as inspirations for what TerraFirm is trying to achieve. They appeal to him because their catalogs provide a document of a hyper-specific sound developed by a group of friends at a certain time.
"All that Mosaic stuff was made by tech-y dub guys that all hung out. Ifach was Mark Broom and Baby Ford smoking weed together. I want TerraFirm to be conceptually and aesthetically taut like that," Fairchild said.
The first release Fairchild organised was a by-the-books deep house 12-inch from Detroit first-waver Dwayne Jensen, who released on local labels like Kevin Saunderson's KMS from 1997 onwards. His Regain Your Soul EP came out on is / was in 2017.
"The label started as a celebration of that Midwestern heritage," Fairchild explained, reflecting on the first three records he published across is / was and was / is.