Andrew Ryce heads to Texas to learn the history of the South's under-appreciated electro capital.
Also with us was Christine Maars, Estornel's wife; Scottie Canfield, AKA DJ Redeye, a Dallas scene stalwart since the '80s; Gerard Hanson, a legendary producer who makes dub techno as Convextion and electro as E.R.P.; Wanz Dover, AKA Blixaboy, an artist who has made almost every kind of music you could think of over the decades; Coy Wright, of the '90s breakbeat group Paradigm Shift; Bishop, who makes electro as Vectorvision; and his wife Katherine.
In this bowling alley was decades' worth of dance music history from a city whose contributions often go ignored. Maceo Plex is one of the most famous DJs in the world, and Convextion is a cult figure whose records are revered among electro and dub techno heads. Most people I've spoken to, even fans, don't realize these artists came from Dallas.
"If you trace back the history, people will always default back to Los Angeles, Detroit, New York—but people who know their stuff will bring up Orlando and Dallas," said Jeff Kovarsky, a former radio DJ from the '90s who now works as an announcer for the hockey team Dallas Stars.
Dallas's scene has waxed and waned over the years—from the infamous and influential Starck Club in the '80s, to the early ‘90s rave days and the vibrant house music club culture that emerged after—but one of the constants running underneath has been electro. It was always there in the background, coming in and out of prominence. The music is desolate but beautiful, a paradox that inspired the name of Estornel's newest label, Lone Romantic.
Driven by labels like Lone Romantic and a worldwide resurgence of interest in electro, the scene is livelier than it's ever been, with a mix of legends and newcomers all making music. Aside from my bowling crew, there's also Gavin Guthrie, who makes electro and house as TX Connect. He celebrates his home state's electronic music tradition with his label Texas Recordings Underground. Gina Garza, an acolyte of Guthrie's, is a whip-smart DJ who could easily become one of the genre's most in-demand DJs if it weren't for her successful career as a contemporary artist. (At the time of writing, she was spending the summer at an artist residency in Catalonia.) A young artist called Textasy found such quick success that he almost immediately moved to Berlin, and then there's Cygnus, a producer of such preternatural talent that Autechre asked him to go on tour with them when he only had a handful of records out.
The vitality of this scene was on display at Electromagnetic, an all-night party Estornel throws with Corey and Bon Spengler, the duo behind one of the city's best venues, Proton. The lineup that Saturday night was enough to make any electro head drool, with turns from E.R.P., Vectorvision, Blixaboy, Paradigm Shift (for a retro breaks live set) and Lacy Lawson, who DJs as ill76. It was a warehouse party that would stand up to anything in New York or Los Angeles. Even Dallas luminaries who weren't playing came out to dance, including DJ Redeye and Cygnus, who fell asleep in the corner as the party pushed past sunrise. (It went until around noon.)
Electromagnetic is organized by Estornel together with Corey and Bon Spengler, a married couple who also run Proton, a warehouse that's one of the best venues in town for underground electronic music. Otherwise, you're likely to end up at the It'll Do nightclub, a long corridor with a fantastic soundsystem and a light-up LED floor. Raves come in and out of fashion in Dallas depending on police presence and venue availability. EDM is huge, and there are plenty of big-ticket techno events—Adam Beyer played a 1200-person theatre while I was there. But if you're looking for good electronic music, particularly electro, you're likely to end up at Proton, It'll Do or any number of small dive bars around the city.
"In the '90s, there were two or three big parties going on every weekend, and a good club scene," Rick Simpson told me at The Grapevine. "You'd go out to the club midweek, go to a club on the weekend and there'd be a rave afterwards. It was just non-stop crazy."
Dance music was still on the radio, too. In addition to Dr. Rock, Jeff Kovarsky had a show called Thud Slap on the renowned community radio station KNON, which he said was mostly for "aggressive industrial music." As the rave scene took over, Kovarsky's tastes broadened and so did his radio broadcast, which eventually moved to KDGE, then known as The Edge, where he hosted Edgeclub. With Edgeclub, Kovarsky expanded the the show's focus, inviting guests from around Texas, the US and Europe to do mixes.
I spoke over the phone with Kovarsky, who seemed proud of his legacy and eager to talk about the past. "We were very fortunate in Dallas," he said. "Dallas embraced rave culture ahead of the curve. There were warehouse parties and raves in abandoned smokestacks. There were parties being thrown in fields. And Dallas was also influential because of what we were able to do in the early '90s on a radio station."
Kovarsky did the Midnight Mix, which would sometimes broadcast live from The Church. They would feature guest DJs and host DJ competitions to encourage local talent, which was how Estornel, then known as Eric Entity, made his introduction to the dance music world. He won two years in a row.
Estornel's contest-winning radio mix marked the rise of Dallas breaks and electro. It was around this time that Hanson debuted E.R.P. and the duo Paradigm Shift put out their self-titled album (an essential piece of American breakbeat history full of soaring vocals and hip-hop influenced drums). Breaks and electro went hand-in-hand, and suddenly, the electro that ruled Dallas radio in the '80s was creeping its way back in amidst the dominant sounds of house and techno.
Dallas was well-represented by Down Low Music, the label founded by Minto George and JT Stewart, AKA $tinkworx, in 1999. Aside from putting out music from Hanson, whose releases had their own set of catalogue numbers, Down Low might be known best for Messages From Machines, by Dallas duo Plastic Sleeves, a holy grail for electro heads. For further electro cred, the only other Plastic Sleeves record, Robo Sexual, came out on legendary Dutch label The Bunker. (Helena Hauff recently highlighted Plastic Sleeves as one of her favourite acts.)
George and Stewart first met via Hyperreal's 313 mailing list, a sort of proto-message board centered around dance music coming out of Detroit. It was a typical story: the two had their own music, and music from their friends, and no home for any of it.
"The late '90s saw a resurgence of techno, but it felt like a shell of its former self, so we became frustrated and decided that releasing our own vision of the music was the right move," George said. "Dallas has always been a premiere music scene... And we did have a run for about six years where we put on events around the city and tried to push not only electro but the deeper sounds of techno, house and more obscure music."
Down Low's catalogue is arguably the most impressive and comprehensive document of Dallas's scene. Highlights include Satellite Cities, a compilation EP showing off Dallas electro artists whose music feels like a blueprint for today's scene. Also worth checking out are Minto George's duo Phrenic and a relatively rare collaborative project between Legowelt and Orgue Electronique called Macho Cat Garage. (Legowelt's Polarius alias made a Down Low appearance as well.)
On Sunday afternoon, I was eating fried chicken with Wanz Dover, AKA Blixaboy, while a bar band played Fleetwood Mac covers. Dover is Dallas's Renaissance man. In addition to his electro project, he's been in all kinds of bands, put on shows and festivals, and worked as a music journalist for a local paper. He talks in an assured but long-winded way, a precise stream-of-consciousness. He's one of those music nerds who likes almost everything, and wants to be an expert about almost everything, too.
But right now, electro seems to be one of his main passions, and he's good at it. His roots in electronic music, aside from a longstanding love of IDM and old electro (before he knew what it was called), stretch back to when he used to put on Laptop Deathmatch parties in Dallas, as part of a wider national network of events that led up to a country-wide contest in Seattle each year.
The rules were simple: you had a laptop, an audio interface and a MIDI interface, and three minutes to make the gnarliest, craziest thing you could muster. They would have 15 people at a time, but three artists stood out in those early days: Blixaboy, Hanson and a young guy named Phillip Washington, who called himself Cygnus.
"That's how I met Cygnus," Dover said. "And for the longest time, the winners went... Cygnus! Wanz! Cygnus! Cygnus! Cygnus! Wanz! Some other guy! Wanz!"
"Gerard had been all but retired at that point—early 2000s—and he started going out to the Deathmatches, he thought they were cool," he added. "He was just friends with my girlfriend, I didn't know who Convextion was. He doesn't tell anyone shit! Deathmatch were his first shows back after retirement."
Once the Deathmatches ran their course, Dover was in search of something new, so he went to Detroit, which he called his "finding Wakanda moment." A near-death experience and the ensuing recovery period led Dover to dive deeper into his newfound interest in electro.
"I was sick, I had a ruptured colon," he told me. "I was just fooling around. I got more into the Detroit electro stuff. It connected modern electro with my favourite elementary school music from the '80s, when I was wearing parachute pants, checkered Vans, rising sun bandana, cut-off sleeve shirts. We'd go outside and play and fight over who gets to be Ozone and who gets to be Turbo. I was a huge Krautrock junkie in the '90s and Kraftwerk was a big part of that, too. And then I sent my electro stuff to CPU and I was signed three hours later. 25 years of making music... And then that? That's how it happens."
Across town in Oak Cliff, I met Phillip Washington, or Cygnus, at a combination book store and bar. He's a soft-spoken guy who gets excitable if you ask him about the right things. Like Dover, he's dedicated his life to music, an interest he inherited from his parents. Laptop Deathmatch came when he was fresh out of high school, and he dove right into it.
"I was making IDM drill & bass craziness," he said. "The impression that I wanted to leave on the audience was shock and awe. That's diametrically opposed to the impression I go for now, which is smoothness and funk, etc."
Of all the electro producers in Dallas, Washington is probably the most musical, certainly the most funky. He's known for singing on his tracks with a vocoder, a tradition that goes back to the roots of hip-hop with artists like Egyptian Lover. He's also prolific. When I spoke him he had just self-released an album as well as an EP on CPU, and he was already showing me the mockup for his next album, on Fundamental Records, which came out a few weeks after our meeting. Electro isn't all he does, but it's what he does best.
"I had always been writing electro music," he said. "I loved freestyle, Drexciya, Ultradyne, Model 500. I think around 2008 or 2009, I was writing hip-hop electroacoustic weirdness, but on the side I was making electro for fun. Tom Knapp, who ran a label called Icasea, asked me for a release. I sent him a bunch of songs—like 45—with around 15 electro songs. And he said, 'Why don't we put out a Juan Atkins-style electro album?' People loved it. Then we did another electro release, a cassette that's very valuable now. Since then I've been putting out electro releases. I can write a lot of stuff, but this was like a chain reaction."
The reaction to Washington's early releases was swift and positive, but it mostly came from outside Dallas. Chris Smith tapped him to do the first release on Sheffield label Central Processing Unit, which has since become one of the leading lights in electro. Autechre, his heroes, asked him to open for them on their North American tour in 2015, though he still felt like an outlier even then.
"I was writing live sets that were electro, and no one else was doing it. I'm not throwing shade—that's just how it was. I was met by so many people who were my heroes and colleagues and they were like, 'Why are you making that shit?' And I was like, 'It's electro, it sounds cool!' The more people told me to stop doing it, the more I wanted to."
Meanwhile, over in a nearby college town called Denton, Gavin Guthrie was switching gears from an experimental rock band called Florene into straight-up dance music. (A brutal Pitchfork review tanked the band's prospects, or so Guthrie says.) He got into Detroit techno, Chicago house and other strains of dance music through a friend who had a project called Testicular Manslaughter, and he fell especially hard for electro, citing acts like DMX Krew, Legowelt and Unit Moebius as some of his early favourites.
Guthrie became a resident at Rubber Gloves in Denton, with a night called Deep Shade, which started out mostly as a house and techno party—the only place you could hear that music in Denton—but which skewed electro once Gina Garza entered the picture. Garza, the contemporary artist, is easily one of the best DJs in Dallas, electro or otherwise. Like most people in the city, she came to electro through her own personal explorations. Her introduction was through Canadian act Lowfish, whose 2000 album Eliminator she found in a used CD store, The strange cover art and alien music mesmerized her.
Garza went to the graduate school in Denton. "I started DJing when I was in graduate school," she said. "I went to SXSW just to visit a friend. We went to go see John Maus play and I met some people and talked about music. I never talked to people about music. I had a conversation with someone who knew about Lowfish and I was like... what? Then Ultradyne came and played in Denton and I was really like... WHAT? It happened really fast. My world of electro wouldn't have blossomed if it wasn't for meeting these people in Denton. It was so random!"
Both Garza and Guthrie eventually moved to Dallas, and have become integral parts of the city's scene. Guthrie runs Texas Recordings Underground, which focuses on artists from all around Texas, in several different genres, but has also had a number of important electro releases, like the compilation Cyber_Tex, which featured the first-ever appearance from Textasy. Garza, meanwhile, is a core Dallas DJ and has started to play elsewhere at venues like Chicago's smartbar. She used to hold all-night loft parties at her house before the situation became untenable, thanks mostly to gentrification.
As I spoke with all these DJs, young and old, one thing became clear: Dallas is at something of a cultural crossroads right now. Even Deep Ellum, the city's lauded entertainment district, isn't somewhere you'd go to hear anything other than EDM or rock music these days. But the resurgent electro scene is strong and tight-knit, enough to support parties like Electromagnetic.
"I would compare Dallas to the Dutch electro scene," Bishop told me from his living room, where we were surrounded by vintage space-age furniture. "A small group of people, but we work together, we support each other. Especially four or five years ago, when it really started to get going. Someone like Gavin knew about the younger people that were coming out of Denton. And we still get quite a few people coming from Denton that enter our little world. There's not a huge following for the weirder electro stuff, though younger people are trickling in."