Thumbnail Music Redux: Part Four - Richie Hawtin
This interview, originally published on Urbansounds.com in October, 1999, is part of a series of reprints I'm publishing here, intended as a look back at the rise and fall of minimalism over the past decade.
Windsor, Ontario's Richie Hawtin is one of North America's premiere minimal techno producers. On his early albums under the name Plastikman, Sheet One and Musik, he turned acid into a pointillist exercise, opening up worlds of space in and around relentless, staccato percussion. Banned from the U.S. in 1996 for lacking a work visa, Hawtin turned his music inward with the "Concept" releases, a series of a dozen 12-inches that were minute variations on a rhythmic theme. Though he's known for refusing to allow others to remix his work, in 1998 Hawtin released Thomas Brinkmann's variations on his "Concept" series, in which Brinkmann used his home-made double-armed turntable to extract hidden rhythms and repetitions from the records. Hawtin's Consumed full-length, also released in 1998, presented his darkest, most stripped-down vision yet. His current project is called Decks, EFX & 909, a tour and mix CD featuring Hawtin's extended DJ work.
The following interview was conducted earlier this year following Hawtin's return from a European tour.
Your work on Consumed and in the "Concept" series has been widely discussed as a new foray into minimalism. But even your older work -- Musik, for instance -- seems just as minimal, just as stripped-down. What's new, then, with these two releases?
People are finally looking at it that way. But to me, most of my work has been in that vein. Not in the very beginning, maybe, like in 1989, 1990, when I started to record. I was just learning the technology, and I was learning about myself, what I wanted to do. There was a bit more going on in my tracks then. But I don't think I've ever worked on anything that was too "full" since then.
Especially around Sheet One and Musik, going back to those albums, they were stripped-down. They were supposed to be stripped to bare essentials, to give a feeling, an emotion, without giving people too much information. Listening now, in comparison to Consumed, they don't sound that stripped-down. But in context, if you compare them to other things that were being produced at the time, they do.
A lot of people think minimalism, using less information, is the easiest way to record. But it's actually the hardest; to know when there's the right balance, to know when there's enough information to keep people there, not to make them feel overcrowded. I don't think I've gotten more minimal, just more efficient in my use of sound.
How much of those albums were influenced by the techno that was current at the time?
Those two albums weren't really working with what was going on then. A lot of my projects are really kind of reactionary. I stopped doing acid tracks with F.U.S.E. because everyone started doing the same thing, copying or extrapolating that style. When that happened, I took some time off, and at a point where producers were bombarding people with noisy, aggressive 303s, I came back with something stripped-down, subtle, sexy. That's why Sheet One and Musik were created. I don't think they sound like anything that had come before.
What do you think accounts for minimalism's current vogue, especially the minimal techno of Jeff Mills and others? Where do you position yourself with respect to this tendency?
For electronic music, because it's been around for the last 10 years, it's been very prevalent in many people's lives. So not only are producers becoming more at ease, more refined, listeners have become more attuned to the subtleties of what producers are trying to do. The easiest thing to do with electronic music is to add more and more. It's easier even than in rock music, logistically. With electronic music, there's no one to tell you when to stop, that enough is enough, so you just keep adding. I think as listeners have matured, there's been a program to get rid of that excess baggage. Techno producers are hung up with the future. It's tied to technology -- all these high-tech companies are making things smaller and more compact. The '90s have really been about miniaturization and minimalism. Across the board, this scaling back and providing smaller things for a wider purpose. And musically, that's what we're doing, scaling back, giving people less musical information, but a broader journey.
How do you know when enough is enough?
That's a hard question, something you can't really explain. I can't answer that question. It's a feeling, it's a learned behavior, or maybe it's hereditary. When it's done, it's done.
If I sit with my tracks for more than a day or two, they've lost the initial impression. In terms of the actual recording process, the faster the better. I'm trying to capture a specific point in history. That's another thing, my take on technology is to use it to help you, not to let it control you, not to get too methodical, to sit and stare at the screen for days and days. It's not about perfection, but the right balance between perfection and imperfection.
I read somewhere that Consumed was your response to an experience in the north of Canada. Is this true? Of course, I think immediately of Glenn Gould and his Solitude Trilogy, and the "idea of north."
Everyone has had experiences in life that are more inspirational than others. We did a party up north, for a birthday. When you're living in a city it's very hard to get away from sounds, people, even light. Up north we were able to do all of those things. I remember walking out through the forest with a friend. When everyone was quiet, it was really silent. And the blackest night I've ever seen. The idea of that blackness, that kind of void, where you don't know exactly where you are, what's around you. If there are 10 meters in front of you, or 10 miles; if you're at the edge of a cliff, or at the beginning of a pasture. Consumed is a sonic representation of that experience. Or at least that experience enabled me to see what was in my head, sonically. It's this idea of a multi-layered environment.
There is a certain sense of isolation in Canada. It's why I continue to live here, why I'll keep a place here. I like the isolation of Canada -- it's not a destination. Detroit, too, it's not a destination. It's very isolated, from the rest of the world and from itself. I think that's reflected in my work.
How does technology influence your work? How does it affect your methodologies and the form of your music?
I'm definitely a product of technology. I'm looking for technologies which enable people to represent what's inside them, but still keeping a sense that it isn't a battle between them and technology, where technology has the upper hand. I'm interested in technologies that give people the opportunity to approach things from a different angle. Not to repeat things that have already been done.
I'm not really working in a different way now than I was on Musik. Even though I use technology so much, I'm not particularly concerned with brand-new technologies in my studio. I filter through things, I'm aware of what is happening and what's new, but I'm not out to use every technology just because it's the newest or supposedly the best. I think we're seeing a heightened use of technology in the presentation of music, whether it's Internet-related or in terms of installations -- technology can create new environments, it can help present the music, but we're still controlling what the technology delivers.
Are you preoccupied with form? I often think of music like minimal techno as being essentially a theme and variations, a kind of asymptotic approach toward an ideal type. Would this -- the idea of theme and variations -- describe your work, even on Musik?
I guess there's a certain form to what I'm doing. That is, there's a set of variables I'm working with, changing the order of those around and coming up with new things, not adding new things. If anything, in progressing, I'm getting rid of variables. If I add something, it's something I haven't tried before. Overall there's a sense of elimination in what I'm doing.
Could you talk about repetition as it figures in your work?
If you're trying to do something that sounds different than the listener is used to -- to get a reaction from someone, to get them to understand the nuances -- you really need to bring them into your realm of thinking. And that's done by repetition, bringing people into a realm of similar events, a balance between interesting and nearly boring. Allowing the listener time to become comfortable with something before you make a change. For them to understand what you're doing, they need to feel comfortable. The music needs time to develop, and the listener needs time to acclimate.
I've been reading a biography of Brian Eno, and he's really into this generative music, always into new patterns. It always relates to the piece before, but it has less to do with the beginning than with each movement forward. It's a case of intelligent, generative repetition. Maybe technology is only getting to the point now where it can provide that kind of music. Maybe what we're doing as musicians is providing the groundwork for people to understand what will come next. For people to understand a never-ending, non-repeating cycle of events, they'll have to understand a simple cycle. That has to happen before they can understand music regenerating each time, but still relating to what came before. Maybe we're training our ears for the next form of minimalism and technology-based music.
What did you set out to do on the "Concept" releases?
The "Concepts" were a reaction against everything I'd done, against myself, musically, what I stood for. It was also a reaction against that situation, the period of exile when I wasn't allowed in the States, and I really felt that it was a time I needed to get back into the studio and progress with my ideas. It was a time of everyone wanting to release a record, not caring what was on it, what it looked like. I wanted to represent something bigger -- about the process, the time it took getting it mastered, the artwork and packaging that contained the record. And musically, over that year, how things progressed from release to release, at the end of it you were left with something a lot bigger than the sum of its parts. It was so many things. I don't necessarily need to make money off my projects, but it was sad to see so many people not taking this art form seriously. I wanted to show what it meant to me. That there was more to it than just beats on a 12-inch.
How did the Brinkmann remixes come about?
The only reason that saw the light of day is that it was an unexpected event. He called me, he was in Windsor -- he'd done Mike Ink's Variationen, so I was aware of that. And it was funny because there was this continuity between Mike and myself -- we'd both done acid, and then the Studio 1 and "Concept" series. So Thomas was in Windsor, and he played me the music and at the same time he explained how he'd done it. And it was that combination that made it interesting to me. It wasn't just about the music, but about the process. Here was someone giving me sonically interesting ideas, variations of "Concept," but also a very interesting concept in itself, due to the process -- playing back the records with the double-armed turntable. Through placement and ingenuity, he'd created something completely different. I'd never wanted anyone to remix my work, and I still don't. But he didn't remix my work. He allowed everyone out there, and myself, to listen to the music I'd created -- differently.
The amazing thing about what Thomas did is to highlight elements that pre-exist the listener. Not everyone understands all the subtleties in the "Concept" releases. Thomas allowed people to listen to it in a whole new way, without changing anything. It's not a remix -- Thomas didn't change one thing about the record. The only thing he did was pick up the listener by the head, move them slightly to the left or to the right, and allow them to listen with different ears. An intervention.