The Communal Autonomy of Techno

A CONVERSATION with Nic Holt and Trevor Cunnien

Photo by Meghan Angelos

How did you get into the techno scene?

NH: In undergrad, I was really into Noise Music. I was a big fan of very heavy, very distorted Japanese Noise, like Mainliner, and High Rise, and Acid Mother’s Temple, and stuff like that. I think the idea of sort of walls of sound, just like masses of sonic texture, always appealed to me for some reason. Even when I was very young, I just remember dialing through white noise on the radio… 

TC: Yes

NH: …in an old apartment. I couldn’t get any signal whatsoever because I lived in a basement, and I remember thinking that was so interesting – completely formless sound that still generated a kind of emotional, musical response. That translated into harsher noise in undergrad, and then, towards the end of undergrad, I think the entrance was Aphex Twin, which I feel like for a lot of people…

TC: Yeah, I started listening to Aphex Twin in high school. That was one of the first electronic musicians I listened to. There was this local college radio station that played different dance music, from eight to midnight every night. They had like a trance night, and like a jungle night, and a drum and bass night.

NH: Oh my god, that’s so good.

TC: I found this when I was like twelve or thirteen, just like flipping through stations one night when I was trying to fall asleep or something, and I was like, “Oh my god what is this stuff?” And I started tuning in every Wednesday night for this DJ’s drum and bass set.

NH: That’s amazing. And that’s the thing, I found Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works Volume One. It’s mostly ambient but there are a few break beats, and through that I transitioned into a lot of drum and bass, a lot of jungle, just like that really fast. I feel like the tropes that have stayed with me are fast, heavy, sort of distorted. Break beats really had that for me, especially if you listen to someone like Venetian Snares. That stuff is really, really, really intense. And then from that, just like 90’s sound of rave culture, jungle, break beat, I found techno. That was actually fairly recently, just like this past summer. My friend Andrew, who I would go to the city with and we would party together, gave me a USB drive, and one of the folders said “Dark Techno.” I listened to that and I was like, it was like coming in contact with, I don’t know… I remember listening to that, and then a show by one of those artists, Vril, was being held at Output in Brooklyn…

How would you describe “Dark Techno”? 

NH: I would say it uses, a lot more bass-y sounds. It’s a bit discordant, a bit more distorted. Umm… I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s minimal, because minimal techno is a whole other thing in and of itself, paired down instrumentation and textures. Dark techno is very cold. It’s hard, its one of those intuitive sorts of things, where you listen to it, it is dark. It’s heavy, it’s intense, it can get abrasive, has some acid sounds to it. So that’s like darker techno. Because you can have techno that’s more on like a light side, that doesn’t sound so punishing or brutal. It’s a very gestural sort of genre, it has moods, it has feelings. Within techno itself, there are a lot of different shades for a lot of different situations.

TC: Yeah, I mostly listened to more up beat stuff in high school and early on, like eight bit music, like chip tunes, that sort of came out of break beats, because they use a lot of break beats in that from drum and bass. My friends and I found hard style when we were like seventeen; we were really into that. Hard style is just like outrageously over the top, way over produced. It’s a four four beat, heavily distorted kick drum, at 150 BPM, which is really big in Europe. It comes out of the 90’s Hardcore techno, the Gabber scene in Holland, Rotterdam.

NH: Rotterdam Speed Core, oh yeah!

TC: So then from Hard Style, they use really heavily distorted melodies, it’s super catchy, kind of pop-y almost, and cheesy. And silly and fun.

It’s the kitsch of techno?

TC: Yeah, it’s really Euro Trash. That’s who’s into it. And from there we went back in time, and got into Happy Hardcore and Gabber. And then Happy Hardcore is like, the precursor to Hard Style, it’s in-between this Hardcore Gabber and Hard Style. Gabber is like the original, like Holland, Rotterdam scene. It’s like the same style; it’s really heavy, 150 BPM. Really heavily distorted, grating melodies and synthesizers, and sounds.

NH: It’s metallic, it’s over and over and over, it’s very abrasive. There’s a great documentary on the Gabber scene, you can find it on YouTube. (I have a screen grab from it on my tumbler, my old tumbler.) You should probably put that on here. It’s really good.

TC: Yeah, the word “Gabber” in Dutch means “friend.” Gabber was one of the first rave culture musics, and then Happy Hardcore was, I think, the more famous rave music in America, and it’s basically DDR music. Like really cheesy and high pitched, distorted. Mickey Mouse style.

NH: It’s so good.

How has your relationship with techno and rave culture evolved? 

NH: So I came into it through that darker end of the spectrum, which was predicated at first by early Aphex Twin, break beat, drum and bass, jungle stuff, and then I got to the darker techno by way of my friend Andrew. He’s like this really energized Nigerian guy, he’s crazy, and for a long time he was my main source of new music. Eventually, I started going off on my own, and the trajectory I’ve been on since then has been towards very particular, usually German, early- to mid-90’s acid techno, and that stuff is intense. It’s good; I really like it.

How is it intense?

 NH: So acid is a particular type of sound. It’s a squelchy sound, very textural. There’s a particular set of hardware, 303’s and stuff like that, that produces that kind of sound. It was really popular in the early/mid 90’s; a lot of the 90’s techno conforms to that acid sound, and that’s what I’ve been getting into lately. As I explored more avenues in terms of the music I was listening to at home, I started going to different kinds of shows; I think most people who listen to any particular genre of music frequently, you find yourself a little niche, a little pocket, that you sort of go through, more and more and more… Currently that’s where I’m at now, so I think it’s just about becoming specific.

TC: I started going to these dance shows when I was in undergrad—some friends of mine made some fairly cheesy dance music—and they would throw shows, so I would go to that. And then it wasn’t really until I got home, I had graduated, and started going to the local rave club in my home town, basically, and just like this tiny little club, and every Friday night they would have different techno, local techno producers, hardware, house producers, noise producers, all in the same little scene. So that’s where I got exposed to a lot of this, noise and house and techno, and that was my favorite thing to do back home. It gave me a sense of place, and having like a little culture there, a little group of people there that you knew.

NH: And that’s the thing, I think, that rave culture in general does foster a particular kind of community. It’s weird, because you think of something like techno, and you think of these more esoteric genres of music, and you attribute that with a certain kind of exclusivity. It’s like only a certain type of people like this, only a certain type of scene, but at it’s core is really a space in which you can just sort of be free to do what you want, and you can just sort of express yourself in that space, without fear of judgment, without fear of looking funny; you don’t have to worry about those kinds of things. I always think of it as, so there are clubs people go to, to be seen. They dress up real nice, get all fancy and they go to the club, and it’s a very particular sort of social event. And then there are places that fall more under this rave culture where no one cares. No one cares what you look like, no one cares how you’re dressed, you could be old, you could be young; you go to just dance and have fun, and this kind of music usually follows those kinds of spaces. Whether it’s techno, whether it’s house, whether it’s more underground forms… not necessarily super experimental, but certainly not any kind of strongly commercially viable type of electronic music, like EDM. EDM festivals are a totally different thing, and I don’t know if they even warrant conversation. I mean, that’s, you known, unfair, but at the same time, music that rejects a particular kind of commercialization, or produces a more underground atmosphere, creates a space in which you have more of a community, you know? When there’s not so much impetus put on promotion, and there’s not so much impetus put on the particular space in which it’s being held, what accounts for that, what sort of supplements that, is the feeling of community that is fostered between your fam, you know, your rave fam. I used to talk to people about that all the time. You know, you go, you have a few people that you know, you see em, and you have fun… It’s good. It’s very good.

TC: It’s funny that you mention EDM festivals, ‘cause I went to the Mad Decent Block Party that Diplo throws last year, and it’s just completely over the top. Tens of thousands of people there, starts at like two in the afternoon, all the underage kids are throwing up, passed out, by four o’clock, it goes until ten, ten or eleven that night, and it’s completely different.

NH: If you can imagine like, capitalist barons were thinking, “what is the most gratuitous and gratifying kind of music that we can make, that people will pay large amounts of money to see at very large festivals?” That’s sort of what EDM is. It’s all about the drop.

TC: It’s so primal

NH: And techno is primal too, but I feel like the drop is essentially electronic music’s analog to Guy Debord’s spectacle, that’s what the drop is. It’s this thing you wait for, and you really fucking want it, and when you hear it, you just want it again. It creates its own lack, and just doubles back on itself to keep people interested.

TC: It’s like an exploitation of the base level of human experience.

NH: Exactly! It’s fun but it’s engineered to make you want to hear it and then hear it again, and that’s fucking capitalism, engineering music for the highest/easiest possible consumption. And, that I find hard to get behind. Techno is primal in a certain sense, because it has that ritual repetition to it, but it’s not easy to swallow, by any means. But it’s worth giving it a try. Everything is worth giving a try.

TC: With EDM, there’s something of that sense of anonymity and reduced judgment, but it’s not in that small intimate rave space, where it’s like, everyone who is there is completely nonjudgmental…

NH: …And is there for the experience, is there for the music more or less.

TC: Yeah, like if they’re there, they know about it. They haven’t been told about it. It hasn’t been marketed to them.

NH: And that’s the thing. It hasn’t been sold to them, in a particular way. It’s upon their own volition. And I think, again, that’s where that really interesting contradiction comes, it seems like it’s this exclusive, esoteric space, and I think that’s part and parcel of it being less commercially viable, but at the same time, at its core, you go just to enjoy it. You go just to have fun and not worry about the things, the other sort of market driven things that attach themselves to any form of entertainment. You know? Of course they’re there. They’re always going to be there. They’re everywhere, they always will be. But this is a particular type of community that attempts to move away from that as much as it can, I would say. And it is, I think, doing some sort of collective good, for society – or at least the thirty people who have stuck through the party until 8:00 am.

Does the rave atmosphere change based on different kinds of techno? Is it a different aesthetic?  

TC: I think there is a core experience of these sorts of shows and events, but I think the vibe will be different depending on the type of show. Like, even a hard techno show is going to have more of an aggressive, faster vibe, more so than like a house show, or like an acid house show, where it’s a lower BPM, and it’s…you lose yourself in the music in similar ways. It’s hard to say how they’re different.

NH: If you go to a heavier, darker techno show, it’s going to attract darker people. I mean, I’ve been to shows that are specifically very heavy, very dark, and I’ve been in bondage gear, and a lot of people are like that, in the crowd. And it’s funny you mentioned a leather bar; that sort of BDSM vibe aligns itself with music that is as analogously aggressive, and you know, I’ve been to shows where I have a fucking harness on, and you see a bunch of other sweaty dudes with shaved heads and harnesses, and girls with black lipstick and intense eye-liner, and it’s like all right, word, my people.

TC: The shaved head, I think that’s going to be it: the harder the show, the more shaved heads you’ll see.

NH: It’s like you count how many: this show was 10 shaved heads, it was great! But at the same time, it’s funny, because you go to a show like that, and you’ll see people just fucking head banging and throwing their fists around like their exercising personal demons, but then after the show, you talk to people and everyone is just smiling and having a good time. It’s easy to see these things as exclusive, like hard to get into, but at the end of the day, it’s like any community; it just want’s to grow, it just wants to exist, peaceably.

TC: Yeah at a softer show, it’s going to be less head banging, and more head bobbing. The vibe is like, are people floating around, or are they like crashing around?

In what way does it resist being commercially viable? Do you think it is the music itself? Is it just really intense for people to listen to?  

NH: I think it’s a sort of a complicated mix of all those things. The music is, like we were saying, there is some techno, there is some Hardcore, there is some Hardstyle, that is generally very, very difficult to listen to. It is very abrasive. An awesome story is, Parelli Tires went to Aphex Twin in, I want to say 1994/1995, and they were like, “Oh hey, can you give us like music for a commercial?” They knew who he was because he was like sort of famous by then, but they didn’t know the kind of music that he made, and he was like, “Yeah sure, I’ll give you a song,” and he gave them “The Garden of Linmiri” which is on the compilation album, under the alias Caustic Window, and it’s this very grating, very mechanical sounding, hard techno track, and they got it and they were like, “We can’t use this! What do you mean! Like what are you doing?! We can’t put this on TV!” So you have this music that is difficult to listen to, at least on first encounter, right, so that is working against it being commercially exploited. Also the spaces in which it’s housed, are…usually not the nicest. More often than not, it’s like a basement, or a shitty venue that’s been just put together. Occasionally it’s, at a place like Output, which is like a “club” club, which has an amazing sound system, but the crowd is always… it’s really difficult to get with the crowd, because it’s not a ton of people who are there for the music; they’re there for other reasons. I think, it’s a network of things that all sort of land in that space, whether it’s the particular venue, the particular kind of music that’s being played, the event for which it’s being played, you know, sometimes they’re under particular rubrics, headings that have a particular theme or something like that. And all of those provide for a situation in which it’s not easy to… if you charge a lot of money for it, people just wouldn’t go. So a lot of these things are like $10, $15, $20 for an entire night of music.

Do you know if when rave culture kind of took off in the 90’s was it more of a commercial enterprise? And is that coming back, with the revival of Berlin’s grunge culture that is happening now?  

TC: In that Gabber documentary, if it’s the same one that I watched, there’s this promoter in the documentary, who’s talking about people criticizing, like in the early 90s, how Gabber, how those shows were becoming commercial, how the prices were going up, and the guy was like, well, we have to make money to put these on, people demand it, so there has always got to be a commercial aspect to it, like event production. Rather, “how commercial,” is the question, I guess.

Photo by Meghan Angelos

NH: And what is the sort of tension that is created between fitting something that seems, I don’t want to say that certain things are inherently not commercial, because you can sell anything, but there is a tension that is created, between attempting to sell something that isn’t immediately, really sellable. If I were to give my top 5 techno tracks to people, they would be like, “ughhhh, I don’t know, if I can listen to these all the way through.” And I think that initial resistance, creates a space again, in which you have a community of people that do get down with that, and that do appreciate it, which is usually smaller, which lends to lower ticket prices, smaller venues, a more intimate atmosphere, which provides it’s sort of underground feel. I would think though, in the 90’s especially in New York and Berlin, it’s probably more underground than it is now. It was around in those times, but people weren’t talking about it as much. Of course there was the commercialization to a point.

TC: That guy was in Holland, so I don’t know much about Berlin.

NH: Yeah, and there were like, illegal parties, but especially in Germany at least, techno culture, especially you know, after the wall fell in 1989, and there was like a collective angst in that society, that I feel like a particular kind of heavy, sort of like, angry, intense acid techno, allowed people to explore that in a safe space. And now, like you said, that has sort of an appeal to it, that dirty, sort of club, where people pay a lot of money and go, in like very expensive clothing, that also looks really dirty, but is like designed to look dirty. So it’s true, I think everything from the 90’s in general, 90’s in fashion, is coming back, 90’s music, is becoming more and more popular. Everything goes through the cycle, and there are pockets of underground resistance, (shout out to Detroit) it’s a process. It’s involved.

TC: I think as we were saying, the music is kind of hard for a lot of people to get into. So it sort of can’t be that commercially viable, you can’t make that much money off of it. You sort of have to be dedicated to host a space where like real techno is played, and like real house music. My little club back home was down a back alley, like a street away from this main street downtown, just lined with restaurants, and all the bro’s from the college are there, and we’re just hiding in the alley, and those guys that own that space, also owned a record shop, that sold a lot of the music, local music, music from the Detroit scene, whatever. They had been in this community, fostering this music scene for two decades at least. I was really lucky to stumble upon it when I got back home. I had been to like one show there as a freshman in undergrad, and my friend started making music, started networking with these people, and started bringing me out to shows there, and I started going on my own. It was a great community.

NH: I think that is ultimately what it comes down to: What are communities? Communities are groups of people who are linked by common interest in a certain cause, or a certain thing. If it’s the case that that common linkage is something that, one: you can sort of take pride in, and two: it’s something that’s not easily accessible to a general public, then you look around and you’re like, “alright, I like this space, it’s not so easily exploited,” you know? It’s not so amenable to just being picked up by the next promoter, and made into this huge festival for like eight days in some forest up north, or something like that. I think that’s what it comes down to: it’s the idea of community. I grew up in a town that didn’t have that. Places like those are sort of like oases, they need to be supported, they need to be given as much energy as they can.

TC: Yeah I drove like 45 min to get there. It was not close, but I loved it so much.

NH: And that’s the idea, that’s what happened to me in the summer. I was living in Jersey, and I found myself just about every weekend, making that fucking commute all the way to New York City, all the way to Brooklyn, to crash on my friend’s couch, and just go out for the weekend, go to raves. It was one of the better summers I ever had. If there is a musical history, a legacy to the town, like Detroit or Chicago, then on occasion, you’ll find fairly commercial spaces hosting fairly noncommercial sort of acts or shows. Here we’re very lucky, and I recommend anyone who reads this to try out Smart Bar. On occasion, they have something called the Octave Series, which Jeff Derringer, who’s a local DJ, has managed to get some of the biggest names in techno to come play at Smart Bar. And Smart Bar is a fucking… it’s a basement. It’s a commercial basement. It’s a club, more or less, but it’s a small, intimate space, and the crowd is nice, the crowd is good, and you can on occasion, see some very, very good shows.

TC: I haven’t been to many shows… I’ve been to a couple that were thrown in like art galleries, or like artist’s loft spaces. Producers or DJs will use the space for the night, to throw shows every once in a while. Like the party company, Them Flavors, that my friend turned me on to. He knows the guy who runs it, ‘cause he’s like in the Chicago footwork scene. I’ve been to a couple of their shows, and their always really, really fun. And I’ve been to, oh shoot, I can’t remember the name of that club…

NH: Where’s it at?

TC: North.

NH: They’re all north. I think Berlin Bar does techno nights.

TC: The one I went to, the party’s called Cold Tech. It’s a pretty sick show, they play like hard house. The bar is above this overdone biker/punk bar, and upstairs is just like the grimiest, normally a leather bar, and on Friday or Saturday nights they’ll have techno shows. And umm… the whole place smells, it just stinks…

NH: Sounds great

TC: …but you know, really dark, black paint on all the walls, laser lights…

NH: My dream!

TC: …fog machines, you can’t see a damn thing, and I think that’s one of the other things that fosters a sense of safe space just a lack of vision, lack of visibility, you can’t really see other people, you know, you feel sort of like in your own little world that is sort of like solipsistic, but you know you’re with other people.

NH: It’s like that Sherry Turkle thing “alone together.” You know that you’re in a space in which people are enjoying the thing that you’re enjoying, and you’re all sharing… the stimuli is shared, what is providing the enjoyment, what is providing the experience is for each and every person it’s the exact same thing, but within yourself, and within your own little space, that enjoyment is localized. You can barely see, it’s dark, it’s grimy, and it’s oppressively loud. And that’s another thing that I want to write a fucking paper about, is the hapticity of techno.

Photo by Meghan Angelos

TC: For sure. It’s very bodily.

NH: It’s an incredibly bodily experience. It borders on the ritualistic. It’s repetitious.

TC: I think about it as a sort of religious experience. 

NH: Speaking of religious experience: July 14, I went to a show called Cell-Injection, it was Drumcell, and Audio-Injection. I just remember walking in, and I heard, I heard and I felt, I feel like I felt before I heard, just like this very insistent, very loud, very bass-y, over and over and over again, just this pounding. And, I remember walking into this space and just feeling that intense bass, over and over and over again, and literally feeling it as a very physical presence. If we can characterize a religious experience as something that is very earnestly felt, has a physical component, seems to link you into something that is larger than yourself, if all of those are things we can use to classify a religious experience, that is exactly what I had the first time I experienced a techno show. It’s something special, and I think that’s what keeps it alive. This shit has been going on since the 90’s. When we go, we’re having, maybe not the exact same, but we’re having an experience of the same magnitude, maybe differing in degrees, but of the same magnitude as those crazy Netherlandish Gabbers, in the early 90’s, as those really fucking angsty German youth in the mid 90’s in Berlin. We’re partaking in a similar kind of situation, and it’s one which you’re there to just fucking experience.

Does the tradition of it enhance the experience, the fact that it’s been going on for 20/30 years at this point?  

TC: Yeah, I think so. I think knowing, as you delve into the history of these things—and you don’t have to, if you go to these shows—you start talking about the music, and their hardware, and about this history of this machine, and that machine, and how… some of my friends you know, they play with like a whole table, their set up is all wires, and like different boxes, and I don’t understand any of it. One of my friends tried to explain it to me because it’s fun, and I don’t get it. Some people use like digital synths and sequencers, but if you’re really Hardcore you’re all analog, which is amazing. No laptops. Learning about the history, talking about gear, learning about the history of the music, this scene or that, you sort of build up your sense of community around that, put your feelers out beyond where you are, in your certain place and time.

NH: You sort of find like a credence through that; a sort of justification almost. You realize that you’re linking into something that sort of spans history…not only spans history, but like, at different times provided like a social good for certain people. And I think linking into that enhances the experience. Again, it’s not necessary; when I first went into these shows I had no idea. I mean, I knew it was popular back in the 90’s, and there was an appeal because of that, but I didn’t know anything beyond that surface level fact. So you can definitely have a really fun time at these places with zero background knowledge, but the more you get into it, the more you immerse yourself into this community, the more you become a “head,” the more you do realize that it is something that is larger than yourself. It is a community, and it feels really good. Any community is nice to be a part of, you know. That’s why people have religion, that’s why people have clubs, that’s why people have these things. Because they want to link into something they can be a part of. And it definitely does that. It does that very well.




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