Quiz time. How many gigs has Steve Bug missed in his career? Here’s a hint: fewer than Sasha. In an era of “lost” passports, twenty-four hour mystery illnesses and temper tantrums, Bug’s professionalism is refreshing. It’s a work ethic that’s enabled him to build a little empire: these days Bug runs three respected record labels (Poker Flat, Dessous and Audiomatique) and DJs top of the bill at the best clubs around the globe. The minimal house sound that he’s been championing since the late nineties is now slowly bubbling overground: latest Poker Flat release ‘The Last Resort’ by Trentemoller even threatens to break into non-dance markets. And Poker Flat are now up to 12” number seventy-five with no sign of slowing down yet. But hang on. You don’t get this far in the notoriously shark-infested waters of the music biz without a ruthless streak, do you?
Well, maybe. When Steve Bug turns up to DJ as sick as a dog, he’s not doing it for the paycheck. When the talk turns to music, he turns into an excited schoolboy. He’s probably had this exact same conversation a hundred times before, but if he’s faking his enthusiasm, he’s very convincing. Steve Bug believes. He cares.
“In my sets I really care about smooth mixing and that the harmonies work together,” Bug enthuses. “Sometimes if you play a new track some new harmony comes in and it doesn’t really fit in with the last one, I can't get over it. I'm just like ‘You're fucking up the mix!’ I care so much about it. Probably the crowd would forget about it after two seconds but for me I care so much about it. Sometimes probably too much but I like to be perfect in some parts.”
When Steve Bug talks technical – the pros and cons of Final Scratch, which he’s been using at gigs for over three years now – his speech speeds up like he’s calling from a payphone and running out of change. Steve Bug is German, but he speaks perfect English, even at a hundred miles an hour.
“Sometimes Final Scratch is too much looking at the computer maybe for the crowd. But on the other hand I don't have to turn my back on the crowd to go looking for the records. I'm here all the time. I'm looking there but I still have the vision of the dancefloor. And that's another thing I really like about it. You still see the crowd.”
Front and center, facing the crowd and tailoring his sets accordingly. A DJ who refuses to adapt their set to suit the audience, no matter how famous, won’t receive many callbacks from promoters. And Steve Bug receives many callbacks from promoters. In the best sense of the word, he’s a crowdpleaser. Bug on why he prefers Final Scratch again:
“You can carry so many tracks around. Like for example, I played at Rimini, and it was kind of a weird party, something like Spring Break, so there were a lot of crazy people totally drunk and off their heads. I didn't know what was going to happen. But since I had Final Scratch I could go deep in the trick box and find something to really, at the end, really have an amazing party.”
So did Bug have a cigar-chomping, suit-wearing world domination plan from the get-go? Not really. Back in the early nineties, Bug got fed up with just clubbing and collecting records, and he decided to make a contribution to the biz. But humbly enough, he didn’t set out to become a DJ. His first gig was trying his hand as a lowly DJ booker for Hamburg label Superstition.
“I couldn’t do it. I’m too nice,” Bug told DJ Mag last year. “You have to be tough and it just wasn’t in my nature, so I bought some equipment and did music full time.”
But when Bug sets his mind to something, he sees it through. He started taking DJing seriously back in 1991, and producing a year later, first releasing deep house on his own imprint Raw Elements out of Hamburg. Witness one of his sets today, and his house roots show: even after moving to Berlin in the late nineties and getting thoroughly infected with the minimal bug, his sets still sit somewhere between deep house and minimal. Of the labels in his empire, Poker Flat is for minimal and Dessous is for house. How does he balance the two styles?
“If I have the opportunity to play a long set I'm definitely going to play deep house tunes and techno and…everything. If you play minimal all night or electro it's going to be really boring. With the energy that techno has, if you start playing it for half an hour it's like "Yeah!" but then it kind of loses it. You have to go down a bit to take it up again. For deep house it’s different. I think it's really about the trance feeling on the dancefloor, closing your eyes and just letting it go.”
As a DJ, Bug is also a producer pleaser. Sure, techno is for mixing, but you suspect that in every producer’s heart of hearts lurks a proud auteur who doesn’t like you messing with their tracks. On Bug’s recent mix CD ‘Bugnology 2’, he goes against the grain by using Final Scratch to edit tracks with a nod to their original integrity (as opposed to the two-tracks-a-minute collage approach of the likes of Hawtin and Magda).
“I edited the tracks without totally destroying them. I tried to keep the original feeling of the tracks. I heard a lot of people say they can't hear my edits. To me it's a compliment.”
So with Final Scratch, has Bug weaned himself off vinyl completely? It must be nice not having to lug the box around anymore.
“No, I bring an amount of records just in case I have to take over or the set up is not done or I have to hand over to another DJ. I usually play two records at the end, take everything off so the next DJ can start without me disconnecting cables. I hate it if you're playing and someone starts connecting their stuff. It's really disturbing”
Okay, let it be known: Steve Bug is the kind of guy who unplugs his gear to make it easy for the next DJ. Halfway through the interview and we have a headline: Steve Bug – gentleman of techno. Too flattering? Well, no one cares if you are nice or nasty as long as you make good music. But there can be a downside to manners: politeness can be boring, and too much concern about where you fit in can make Jack an unoriginal boy. And to play devil’s advocate, these are criticisms sometimes leveled at Poker Flat. They play it too safe. There are too many releases which settle for genrified inoffensiveness. “Martin Landsky’s ‘1000 Miles’ is a splendid tune,” goes the complaint, “But doesn’t it sound a teensy bit like Chardronnet?” Well, yes, but that’s what happens in close-knit families – like begets like.
It’s not like Bug is not paying attention. Ask him to define the Poker Flat sound and a flood of references come pouring forth, a potted history of minimal, how “minimal” doesn’t mean anything nowadays, how Poker Flat fell in with Chicago house and then electro – Steve Bug is a record bug, and he knows exactly which way the dance winds are blowing. Still, if you’ve heard everything, is it more difficult to come up with something original? The age-old question of anxiety of influence. Recently Bug the uncanny experience of hearing young up-and-comers producing music that sounds like his own. Some wouldn’t care, but not Steve Bug. It stumped him.
“Yeah, I was kind of stuck,” Bug admits. “I didn't know what to do. There are a lot of people producing music now which could have been produced by me. It uses the same kind of harmonies and beat structures and arrangements. Even friends were telling me "Wow, this sounds like one of your tracks!" It really felt weird because that had never happened before, but I was playing these tunes and I had the same feeling, and I saw that these tracks were better. It took me some time to get over it. I knew I had to develop something.”
So what got him over the hump? For all the hi-tech Final Scratch hijinks, what has been inspiring him recently is his rediscovery of analogue.
“I was playing with a lot of the so-called minimal stuff, playing for two hours in this club and then I started to play some old school acid tunes and some early Plus8 stuff. Suddenly it was like, ‘Man this sound…’ Even played from the computer, it was huge!” Bugs eyes are like saucers now. “The sound was banging and strong and I was like ‘Fuck! This would never happen with a computer-produced track!’ In the end, computer-produced stuff all sounds pretty much the same. The energy of an analogue-produced track is massive, really massive and that's what I’m trying now. I'm working on some things with Martin Landsky which are more techy than the stuff we’ve done by ourselves before.”
There’s something international about Steve Bug. Look at his website and there’s not a German word to be found. His English contains flecks of an American accent. Maybe it it’s the US deep house influence, but somewhere along the way Stefan Brügesch became Steve Bug, and you sense that someone had a grim determination to succeed, and succeed big. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in an age where the world is buying up unpronounceable compound nouns released by Dominik Eulberg, Bug’s internationalism is something of an anomaly. Did he have his eye on the international stage all along? Now that he’s here, there and everywhere, what does Bug think of his name in lights outside the big rooms around the world?
“I like small clubs,” confesses Bug. “Play in a small cool club and you can go from deep house to techno and everything in between, even play new stuff that no one knows but people still go crazy,” says Bug. “But you don't have that every weekend.”
As for his labels, Poker Flat, Dessous and Audiomatique are resolutely family affairs. Rest assured they won’t be signing the latest hot young thing for the kudos or the exposure anytime soon. Like an Italian Godfather, Bug prefers to keep it in the family.
“With Poker Flat we're trying to focus on the people we've been working with, to keeping on going with our base of Guido, Martin Landsky, The Martini Bros, ” explains Bug. “But we also try to get new people and hope that they don't start to release on all the other labels. We always want to work for a long time with people, to have a relationship, at least for an album or something, to build people up because it helps the label if they go with you.”
It’s well past time for Steve Bug to get to the DJ box, but he stays put. Gracious as ever, he wants to put extra effort into the interview. But we don’t want to make him miss his gig. That wouldn’t do. Time now for the answer to the quiz. Just how many gigs has Steve Bug missed in his career?
“I think I've only missed three gigs by my fault. Well, not even by my fault – like not getting an airplane. They cancelled my flight and there was no chance.”
Come on. Friends of friends tell us that you even missed a show at this year’s Miami’s Winter Music Conference.
“Well, I cancelled because there was some trouble with some other DJs on another night,” Steve admits. “The bouncers were very bad to them and threw them out of the club. It was a really rough story and I didn't want to go there.”
Was that the night when the bouncers ejected Richie Hawtin from the club in a headlock?
“Yeah, they all had blue marks everywhere. Mathew Jonson got in between. He was just trying to say, ‘Hey, take it easy.’ I was hanging out with him at the bar afterwards and I told him, ‘Look, I don't do this.’ They say that the bouncers have to deal with hip-hop guys and pretty tough crowds. They don't know the nice guys.”
So it's settled then - Steve Bug is one of the nice guys. Despite his professionalism, his perfectionism and his eagerness to please, sometimes the show mustn’t go on. Sometimes the only gentlemanly thing to do is to cancel.
Author: Jeremy Armitage
Interviewer: Cameron Eeles