John Templeton has been a part of the techno scene in the United States for over a decade. His knowledge of it is as deep as it is wide; having been on the label management, production, deejaying and promotion ends of the industry. We asked him to share his perspective with us as a respected luminary and show the world some US techno.
Techno has strong roots across the United States, but hasn’t been properly nurtured and appreciated since its inception several decades ago. There has always been uncertainty surrounding many techno communities, especially given the recent events that occurred at the beginning of December in Oakland, California. Many feel that Europe, particularly Berlin, has applauded and legitimized the genre for the art form that it truly is.
Many cities in the US such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Philadelphia have bar and venue closing times of 2:00am. In various places around the world, and particularly in Europe, the headliner does not perform until 1:00 or 2:00am at the earliest. This is why quality techno is forced to go underground across the States. The type of intimacy and musical build-up that is properly needed to procure a wonderful night of techno is hard to achieve in a standard American club when the party is limited to five hours. Most party-goers don’t show up until 11:00pm or midnight and by 1:50am, the lights are on and club security is on the dance floor telling patrons to go home. That is almost unheard of in Europe, yet in 2016 it is still a constant reality in the States.
There has to be an ability to let the party unfold and not be forced into action. Great DJs need time to let their sets breathe, to bend, and gradually connect with the audience. Again, that is hard to achieve without throwing under-the-radar and possibly illegal events simply to keep the music going past 2:00am. Tightening things further, the gentrification of most major metropolitan areas in the US over the last decade has put a premium on venues used as underground spaces. Several cities such as New York and Chicago have extended bar hours to 4:00am, which gives promoters more flexibility with their lineups. While a two hour extension may not sound like much, it makes a huge difference to the crowd. Not only does it allow an international artist a solid three hours, but usually up to four hours of warm-up time for local artists and other national talent billed before the headliner.
Beyond the difficulty of throwing great parties in America, the country is continually losing top underground techno talent that chose to move to Europe. This is nothing new. US artists have been moving to Europe since the mid 1990s. Dustin Zahn, who grew up in a small city in Minnesota and cut his chops in the Midwest techno scene for years, moved to Germany in 2011 after spending increasing amounts of time overseas. “Breaking up with my then-girlfriend was the catalyst for moving to Berlin. You would be surprised at how often this ends up being the case for most expats,” said Zahn. “[Berlin] was an obvious choice because I had already been spending a lot of time here, among numerous other predictable reasons: many old friends, cheap rent, centralized EU travel, nightlife spots like Berghain, and the bohemian artist vibe. Most of those things are gone now.”
When asked if he could continue to live in the United States and maintain the same professional career as a techno artist he replied, “It can be done, but it’s next to impossible if you’re on the road multiple weekends per month. Nearly all of the regularly touring DJs I know still living in the States happen to have a second home in Europe. People like Derrick May and Josh Wink still live in the States. Their legacy enables them to get away with flying in and out every weekend. Many European DJs opted to move to LA once the money started rolling in. Nearly all of them moved back to Europe within a year. The weekly international flights will kill most people.”
It’s incredibly difficult for most US techno artists to be able to sustain a viable income through gigs and record sales alone. For larger cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the cost of living is so high that many artists have a primary career with techno as a secondary job or lifelong hobby. Mike Parker, who lives in Buffalo, New York, is best known for his signature sound of hypnotic analog techno on labels such as Prologue, Spazio Disponibile, and his own Geophone imprint. While he is an assistant professor of Fine Arts at Daemen College; he is also an established producer and DJ, touring and playing some of the best gigs in the world from Berghain to Labyrinth. Erika, a Detroit-based DJ and producer, is also a lead UX Designer for a major US marketing and advertising firm. She balances an incredibly busy work schedule with an equally tiring music career: a live duo with BMG as Ectomorph, running the Interdimensional Transmissions label, and organizing the critically acclaimed party No Way Back. Both of these artists are able to balance multiple careers without giving way to the pressures of creating art for income.
However, there are artists who do live Stateside and are able to make techno a full-time job like Bryan Kasenic, owner of The Bunker New York. His work entails a rigorous schedule of promoting parties in New York, operating a booking agency, running The Bunker New York record label, and frequently releasing podcasts. He also has a bi-weekly show on RBMA Radio and DJs on a regular basis both in New York and abroad. When asked if he thought the overall trajectory of techno in the US was pointing up or down he said, “We are definitely seeing more people at our parties, but there are also way more people throwing parties than ever before in New York.” This observation seems to be shared across the country. There are a lot of parties going on in the United States, but are there are lot of good parties?
Obviously, that answer is relative and subjective, but one place that many American clubbers seem to agree upon is Hot Mass in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Often going until 7:00am, Hot Mass has been a top spot in the country since 2012. In that time, they have hosted an impressive list of international artists such as Prosumer, the Zenker Brothers, Nick Höppner, Tama Sumo, and Basic Soul Unit. Besides landing top international touring talent, the party does an incredible job of showcasing American talent. In 2016 alone they had parties with The Black Madonna, Volvox, Umfang, Ectomorph, Derek Plaslaiko, Bill Converse, DVS1, Gunnar Haslam, Anthony Parasole, Mike Huckaby, and Claude Young.
Hot Mass is also known for Honcho, a primarily gay male party that takes place once a month. “I have to give Aaron Clark credit because Honcho and the gay community have been a huge part in bringing people to Hot Mass,” said Paul Fleetwood, co-promoter of Humanaut, one of the crews using the same venue for their events, “It’s not just straight, white techno dudes at Hot Mass.” And this is a big point. Many domestic clubs that play techno, house, and particularly EDM are not very welcoming to the LGBTQ members, while Hot Mass has had a mutually beneficial relationship with the gay community in Pittsburgh from the beginning. Moreover, DJs love to play there, and fans across the country make special pilgrimages each month.
The US will continue to cultivate new talent in techno and dance music. Austin, Texas – amongst other cities in the state – has a burgeoning techno scene. Bill Converse, one of the true hidden gems in the American techno circuit, is making waves and looks to be another breakthrough artist over the next few years. Uun is another under-the-radar talent from Kansas City, Missouri, who is getting increasingly noticed through his Ego Death label and hard-nosed live sets.
Out on the West Coast, Los Angeles is strong right now with a wealth of talented artists and promoters booking every single sub-genre of techno; simply too numerous to name them all. And while a lot of attention has been paid to tragic events in Oakland recently, the Bay Area in general has seen a resurgence in techno-related bookings. Long known as a “house town,” San Francisco is pumping out solid events on a weekly basis via promoters such as As You Like It, Surface Tension, and Direct To Earth. Seattle is equally impressive with multiple crews throwing parties, and labels such as secondnature and Further Records producing and curating some of the most unique electronic music in the country.
And Brooklyn is not only a hotbed for techno right now, but also one for women in the genre. Antenes, Umfang, Volvox, Via App, and Aurora Halal are just several New York artists making a significant musical impact, breaking through boundaries and pushing the large-scale community into fresh territory.
Techno that was founded in Detroit and brought to life in Europe through cultural change and political instability has an everlasting legacy. The upcoming radical paradigm shift in American politics within the global spectrum will be another caveat and catalyst for growth. Art mirrors society, and it is inevitable to expect significant development in the music as well. Let the shift begin. It’s time.
AND THE PODCAST
Dustin Zahn: https://soundcloud.com/dustin-zahn
Mike Parker: https://soundcloud.com/geophone
Bryan Kasenic: http://thebunkerny.com/
Hot Mass: https://www.residentadvisor.net/club.aspx?id=74874
Patrick Russell: http://thebunkerny.com/artists/patrick-russell
Karl Meier: https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/2651
Bill Converse: https://soundcloud.com/billconverse
As You Like It: https://www.facebook.com/AsYouLikeItSF/
Surface Tension: https://www.facebook.com/SURFACETENSION.SF
Direct To Earth: https://www.residentadvisor.net/promoter.aspx?id=22774
Further Records: http://furtherrecords.org/
Via App: https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/2512
Aurora Halal: https://www.facebook.com/aurorahalal
Cover photo by Alena Dubavaya: Inside Apex Movement, an underground one-off venue in Denver, Colorado at the 2015 Great American Techno Festival.