Analog meets digital in Detroit.
Music styles come and go, but Detroit keeps chugging along. Luke Hess is the perfect example of this. A Motor City lifer, he grew up immersed in its underground music scene. Since the mid-'00s, he's put that wealth of musical knowledge to work on a steady stream of EPs for labels both international (Kontra-Musik) and homegrown (FXHE, where he's one of the few regulars who's not Omar-S). All the while he's honed a uniquely dubby sound rather than follow trends. It reached its apex last year with Keep On, his FXHE-released, RA-Recommended second full-length. And he leant his studio knowhow to his longtime friend Omar-S by mixing down "I Just Want," a standout track from Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself.
The sound he favors in the studio is well reflected in his DJ sets, which pair the atmospherics of icy dub techno with buoyant rhythms that are anything but. He puts that style on display with RA.368, which winds its way through all sorts of deep techno textures. As Hess tells us below, the mix is about more than the records played: he's making a statement about the art of mixing itself.
What have you been up to recently?
I've been in the studio a lot working on collaborations and some more solo material. It's especially nice to enter into the studio with different artists who I respect and who share similar ideas about music. I'm working on a collaboration now with G-man, and another with Steve O'Sullivan. These will come out on my own imprint, DeepLabs.
I'm also working with Brian Kage on another Reference project. This one is for our friends in Cologne at 200 Black. I've started another project with Sascha Dive for the Minimood label that I'm super excited about. Also, just last weekend I spent a few days surrounded by piles of analog gear in Steve Hitchell's studio. We're working on a project called the Gospel Of Deep that's especially fresh and close to my heart. And of course, it's always a pleasure to spend time with Mr. Omar-S coming up with new ideas. He's always a big inspiration to me. Lastly, my most recent vinyl releases were on Finale Sessions and Echocord Colour. You should check them out if you haven't already.
How and where was the mix recorded?
The mix was recorded at my place. The first half of the mix was recorded with vinyl, two Technics and a DJM-600. (Yes, I know I should update my mixer.) The second half of the mix was recorded using Traktor and four decks. The middle of the mix—0.000000000000000001 seconds or so—was seamed together in Ableton.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
The idea behind the mix was to end the war between vinyl and digital DJs.
I love vinyl: I still collect it, and I still play it out at gigs. I always will. I think it's important to know how to beatmatch very well (you had to in order to gain respect in Detroit as a DJ), to understand how to blend a record smoothly with an EQ and understand phrasing, to respect what labels go through to press vinyl and what artists go through while producing music specifically for vinyl. However, I also love Traktor and playing digitally. It gives me the ability to do things that I cannot do with vinyl and to play brand new music straight from the studio (since I'm not so into using CDJs), and it allows me to layer tracks in ways I would never be able to with just two records.
Do I think the war will end with this mix? Probably not. But digital DJs should get romantically involved with vinyl if they haven't done so already; it will change their life. And vinyl DJs should respect digital DJs for wanting to push the envelope in a live performance and not deal with inadequate equipment at clubs—as long as the digital DJ isn't just mixing only two tracks, pressing sync and raising their hands for attention.
Dub techno is sometimes criticized for being too beholden to past. Do you feel like there are producers who are still pushing the genre forwards?
I'm not sure why I was labeled a dub techno producer. I think it helps people sleep well at night when they can push an artist into a certain genre and leave them there. However, my last album on FXHE, Keep On, is a techno album. Sure, it has elements of "dub," but it's mainly based on my influences from artists in Detroit, not from dub techno.
Sure, there are some artists pushing dub techno forward in amazing ways, and I still buy some dub techno records. But what is forward and what is past? Music is art, and art is timeless. My roots are Detroit techno, and this is what I consider my sound, since I'm from Detroit and I write techno. In my opinion, Detroit techno has a very wide variety. It's best not to try to put music into a box or label it a specific genre. Enjoy music for what it is if you like the sound.
You told us a few years back that you were on a quest to make your sound as simple as possible. Do you feel like you got there with Keep On?
My idea behind stripping down sounds is to not over-congest a mix and to allow beautiful sounds to stand on their own. The album Keep On was a big test for me to see if I could keep things simple, dig deep into a synthesizer or drum machine, write dance music based on the fundamental elements and mix everything by hand in one take or several takes on a mixing desk without the use of software sequencers. I feel like I accomplished what I had in mind for the album. I was thankful that Omar-S believed in my vision and encouraged me in it. Now I'm on to the next challenge: understanding how to write down pure inspiration quickly, but engineering it to bring out all the qualities in the sounds without losing the initial inspired idea. I think this is a never-ending adventure.
What are you up to next?
I plan to release more music on my own label—solo releases and various artist projects. I'm also preparing for fall tour dates in Europe, for DJ and live sets. I also might be making a temporary move to Europe soon so I can take more tour dates, lord willing!