Theo

This interview was conducted in 2002 by Marc Rowlands

I haven’t seen you do many interviews. Do you not like doing them?
It’s not that I don’t like interviews, I just don’t like silly questions. I like questions that are about music, not fluff.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on this vocal project at the moment with a young lady called Angelique Brown. To explain; I’ve started doing this project called Rusty Waters: Rotating Assembley where I’ll be taking the role of executive producer and writer, rather than just producing from start to finish. The first one, ss 017 is out already on white label. That’s called “Illumination”. We’re hoping to work with a lot of different musicians on this, a lot from areas around the lakes, hence rusty waters (because of the high iron content in the water). There’ll be a rotating line up that includes bassists, guitarists, percussionists, horn players, string players.

When you say executive producer, does that mean there will be others sharing the production duties with you on these Rusty Waters projects?
Yes definitely. The first one was produced by Hanna (Warren Harris) and myself. Marcellus Pittman has done some writing for us too and Bill, the vocalist from Illumination did some writing too.

Is this the first vocal track you’ve released?
This is the second vocal piece I’ve released, the first being “You Forgot” on Sound Signature 013, then there was a bit of a cut and snip vocal on SS 010 with Dwele.

You must have found it easier to construct music when you were alone in the studio. Does this new inclusion of musicians in your studio projects mark a growing confidence in your skills as a producer?
Not necessarily, I’ve been using different musicians for a while now. Using vocalists and actually writing songs is new to me. I think a large part of me doing this was I liked the idea of challenging myself. It’s a bit more difficult to write decent songs and a lot more difficult to then make those songs sound right sonically. It’s a lot to try and balance, the vocals, the sound and mix, to try and create a tight song that people will want to listen to, to dance to and play but at the same time will challenge them musically.

Are you not worried that you might restrict the imagination or the listeners interpretation of your work by adding a lyrical message to your tracks?
Not necessarily. It all depends on how it’s arranged. If the arrangement is subservient to the vocal, like most vocals are, then it might. You can find plenty of records out there where you prefer the instrumental versions of tracks rather than the vocals. Ultimately I’d like to have these songs down so tight that I won’t need to put out instrumental versions, eliminating the vocal. I don’t want to interfere with people’s imagination too much. I’d like to think that the vocals will be as poignant and directed as possible so that people will focus in on it if that’s what they want, or simply loose themselves in the arrangement.

Has modern music to some extent lost those people capable of writing truly great songs?
No. I think there are plenty of good songwriters out there doing stuff, just not in dance music. In dance music that element of good songwriting is lost.

Why do you think that is?
A lot of the time, every other record you pick up is a song and they generally have these typical, over the top notions of ‘taking you higher’ or whatever (laughs). People need to concentrate on the sounds more, when they’ve got the sounds right, then they can start going back to the vocals. There are (good) vocals out there, the Blaze’s and Ursula Rucker’s of the world, but most of it’s so pedestrian. Production houses, while they might have some great vocalists, they just don’t have the actual songwriting to match. It’s quite hard to do unless you just want to produce some saccarine love song, if the intention behind it is getting radio play, getting into the mainstream and having a hit, you know you’re going to have to dumb it down. You’re not going to be able to be as sharp as you would like, if you want that kind of appeal.
I see the vocals as another instrumental element, you could have the vocalist saying the same line throughout the whole song, but if that line is delivered with enough energy and is right on time with what’s going on musically, then it can work. A great example of that is “Is It All Over My Face” (Loose Joints-West End Rec.s). That’s such a classic, and she wasn’t even a great vocalist, it was her energy, the way she meshed with the song. You have records like “Can’t Believe I Loved Her” (Pevenn Everett-Nitegrooves Rec.s), man, that’s a bananas song, it’s nuts. It’s so long and it’s instrumental until about half way through, if you havn’t been playing for a while, you’d pass that up. You can tell from the way he sings it that it’s felt. Maybe it’s wrong to think that there aren’t some well written songs out there, I mean there’s one right there, perhaps the issue is why they’re so obscured from us.

Did you enjoy Pevenn’s “Studio Confessions” LP?
Yeah, it’s a solid album. I’m always going to prefer Pevenn more when he’s in his dance format, but in terms of where R n’ B is right now, that’s a solid album.

Do you check out a lot of R n’ B?
I listen to everything. There isn’t really anything that I don’t listen to.

What other R n’ B artists have you been enjoying?
Dwele, of course, Vivian Green, Rashaan Patterson, Glenn Lewis, Jill Scott of course, Erykah Badu, it’s funny you say these names and they sound kind of pedestrian.

I wouldn’t describe any of those artists you’ve just mentioned as pedestrian.
Well I’m hit in the head all day with that stuff, I hear it all the time. These aren’t folk I’ve just started to pick up on, I’ve been following these guys since the start of their careers. The first time I saw Jill Scott play in Detroit, there wasn’t that many people there, she wasn’t the huge star she is today. When you see an artist come from humble beginnings and they arrive with an honest intent, I guess that’s what really makes you appreciate them a whole lot more over a long period of time.

You’re coming from pretty small beginnings, can you foresee a time when your profile will be elevated – not perhaps to the same degree as Jill Scott’s and Erykah Badu’s – but can you see a point where your music might reach a much wider audience than it does today?
Sure, why not, anything’s possible. Who knows, I mean you can’t really focus on who you’re going to reach with your music, that rarely has any relevance on the true intentions of why your doing what you’re doing. It’s almost a challenge to not focus on who’s paying attention, who’s not, how many people you reach. It’s a double edged dagger, you want to know and appreciate, be grateful of the attention, but you don’t want it to alter your sound or change the way you make your music. The music should come from your heart whether you know 10 people or 10 million people hear it.

How much exposure does your music get in Detroit itself?
I have no idea. It gets some, but it’s difficult to guage. I played in Chicago last week and a friend of mine from Detroit popped up at the party. I played this remix that I had done and he knew it, he was hoopin and hollerin about it and that, to me, was a surprise, a nice surprise.

Do you hold a residency in Detroit at the moment?
I sure do, it’s called Instant Vintage and it’s at 5th Avenue on the last Sunday of each month.

Does what you play there differ to what you play when you come over to Europe?
I always play whatever I feel. If I feel like hearing some Mobb Deep, I bring my Mobb Deep down. Man, that’s bound to happen anyway.

What have your experiences been like playing here in Europe? How have you found the audience reactions?
Every party, every night it’s a whole other energy. You don’t know what’s going on in those places, you don’t know what people are going through locally, there’s so much alchemy that goes into having a night come off. You really couldn’t narrow it down to any one thing like attendence. Ten thousand people could turn up to see you but if nobody was feeling it, what does it matter? I’ve had sets where the crowd was whack and I was good, I’ve had sets where I was whack and the crowds were good not just in Europe, but all over the world.

Where are your favourite places to play in Europe currently?
Plastic People in London and Paradiso in Amsterdam.

What is it about Plastic People that makes it such a great place to play?
The system is ridiculous, the crowds are always extremely knowlegeable about their tunes and they’re always up for a party. The times I’ve been, there don’t seem to be many people in there standing around talking.

What are you trying to express to an audience when you’re playing in a club?
It’s all to do with spontaneity, whatever sparks me at that second. A lot of times I let a song play out because I’m waiting for the next idea to flash in my head. I try not to go in with any preconceived ideas of what I’m going to play, I try to bring a nice array, different textures and then feed off the crowd.

How important is it for you to be able to play a wide cross section of moods when you DJ?
It’s pretty important. It’s not necessarily important to take people through moods all the time, it’s more important to feel that you’re able to do that, to have that flexibility.

What do you think has more of an influence on the records you select, the mood you’re in or the mood the crowd’s in?
It varies. I try not to go with too much of either. I like to base my mood off the crowd. If I’m in a bad mood when I walk in, I know that my bad mood has nothing to do with the people who have paid to come see me. They might be in a great mood, so I know they have the potential to put me in a good mood. If the audience is keeping me in a bad mood then that’s when I’m going to start to mess with them. It’s never that binary though it all depends, like I say, it’s like alchemy. If I’m playing in a town where I know they hear techno all the time, I probably won’t play ANY techno, knowing that they’ve already been exposed to it. What’s the point in me bringing to them something that they already have?

How do you find programming your own music into the sets you play?
It’s pretty funny. I’ve had a really hard time programming my own music.

Why’s that?
I don’t know, I’ve always had a problem with it. Lately I’ve started to break out of that, but generally I’ve always thought “Why am I playing my own stuff when I could be playing something really great by someone else”. There are so many great songs out there that need to be heard or can convey a message that my records don’t. But then a lot of the time people come to hear me play all my own stuff, they expect it. I’m not going to do that. I might play a different version or an edit or a new release, I dunno, it’s like I can figure out how to make the things, but I haven’t quite found out how to programme them yet. I would rather go into a place and hear someone else play my music, I’d get excited by walking in and thinking “Right, so that’s how you’re supposed to play my stuff”. Also I sometimes shy away from playing them because when I do, it throws people for curve balls. It’s strange, I guess I’ve had to start changing that recently because I guess I figured out that people do actually like dancing to my stuff.

I read somewhere that you said you were a dancer first not a DJ. Do you still get chance to go out and check other DJs out?
Yeah, I try and hear as many people as I can do, there’s still so many people I’ve never seen. The last person that had me dancing was a guy called Howard Thomas, before that Rich Medina and Osunlade, and I was at The Shelter recently too.

What other DJs do you enjoy or have inspired you?
There’s a bunch of em. Ron Hardy, Farley, Jay Hatchett, Craig Loftus, Gene Hunt, Terry Hunter, Farris Thomas. I could go on forever.

When did you start DJing?
I started spinning in 1986/87. The very next summer a pal started making stuff, so I started making stuff with him too. When I went to school I never stopped spinning, but when I went away I had no equipment. But, it turned out that the art department had equipment, so I would make these sound pieces. I found out in art school that you could pretty much write your own ticket and get a degree in whatever you were doing. So I started studying John Cage, folks like that, to really get into the more avant garde ideas they had for arrangements. I’m really fascinated with the bridge between noise and music, when does music become noise. What I’ve found is that the division between music and noise has nothing to do with notes and keys, but everything to do with arrangement.

These studies have clearly had a profound influence on your work.

Oh totally. It really influences my work, particularly in the mix. I can never find a sound that’s wrong or not usable. You can pretty much use any sound, it’s all about designating the sounds, the overall feel of the record.

Do you think you’re exploring different emotions within your studio productions to when you’re playing records in a club?
Most definately. In the studio, that’s when you can express yourself and the things you’re going through completely. Sometimes other peoples songs can bring that to you, but it’s a different thing when it’s coming out of you. I find it therapeutic to be able to get things off my chest in that way, to be able to share your pleasure or your pain, there’s a certain catharsis there and that’s something you wouldn’t necessarily want to do in front of a club audience.

Is there a particular ethos behind Sound Signature as a label?
Well basically Sound Signature is my own vehicle, it’s an outlet for myself and likeminded individuals to be able to put out music without any hinderences, without anybody else saying “this is right, that’s wrong, this is what’s acceptable for people to be listening to”.

Do you consider your music to be leftfield?
What’s leftfield?(laughs). I consider everything to be leftfield. My life, my whole existence is leftfield. In terms of my own definition of ‘way out’, I guess some of our stuff can be that way, but I don’t really look at it that way.

Are you surprised by the popularity of Sound Signature releases?
No, I’m not actually surprised. I’m grateful, but not surprised. If you know that something’s necessary, like if I didn’t think that what I have to say musically was necessary, then I wouldn’t be doing the label. If I didn’t think it could help loosen people up and make them think about sounds differently, or just clear their minds out for them, if I didn’t think it that kind of power or potential even, then I wouldn’t be doing it. So it doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the whole different range of individuals that enjoy it, I hadn’t anticipated that.

Is the Three Chairs project an ongoing concern or has that project ended?
No, that’s definitely ongoing. We”l have something finished off, if we’re lucky, the middle of next year.

An album?
It’s more likely to be a triple album, a double cd and a teaser.

It’s still KDJ, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wilhite and yourself?
Yeah, although there are a bunch of other people going to appear on it, Norma Jean Bell, Andres on percussion, Bill Beaver again and Amp Fiddler.

You’re not necessarily producing the same kinds of music, but is there a connection between the fresh crop of Detroit artists that are emerging at the moment, people like Amp Fiddler, Dwele, Recloose?
There’s a richness here, a musicality and an energy that’s underneath everything that’s around here. It makes people galvanise together. A lot of the people you mention there have worked together repeatedly. Even if they don’t know each other, they know of each other, I mean the musical community here is pretty tight. Everybody knows everybody else, there’s definitely a kinship going on. I think a lot of it is down to the fact that Detroit is long overdue the kind of attention it’s just starting to get, though it still isn’t getting what it deserves.

How important then is the Detroit Music Conference for the city?
Initially it was extremely important. Now, it is less important. The intention changed so quickly. The first year it was about the music, people were respected, all the artists were paid to play there, it’s a great pleasure to play in Hart Plaza and be compensated for your work and you’ve been hired to do it by someone you know. That’s redemption. If the second year they’re telling you that you can’t make any money playing there and you’re hired by someone that you don’t even know, it’s importance becomes diminished as you realise the individuals involved in running it are seeing it as a money making scheme and they’re not at all interested in seeing that you as an artist, whose music this festival is based on, is looked after.
The whole thing’s been pimped out by the companies that got involved, since they arrived it’s been pretty whack. The beauty of it now is the parties that go on afterwards. At least now people are coming to the D and they get a chance to check you out at the afterparties. the only problem is these parties aren’t advertised the way the DMF is advertised, so some people can’t see a reason to come. this year I hear Kevin (Saunderson) and Derrick (May) are going to take care of the festival, that’s a great prospect. That’s putting it back in the hands of people who know and care about the music, so I hope it goes well. It’s a good thing for Detroit, especially all the up and coming artists. There’s a hotbed of talent here, people you havn’t even heard of yet.

How much of an influence has Detroit techno had on you?
(laughs) Detroit techno? You see when you say that, we never even called it Detroit techno. I was at The Bismark the first time I heard ‘Strings Of Life’. It was this hotel in Chicago that Lil Louis did a party at just about every holiday. The rumour goes that Louis and Derrick traded songs, ‘French Kiss’ and ‘Strings Of Life’. When ‘Strings Of Life’ came on at The Bismark I went biszerk, it was nuts. It had a huge impact on a lot of people in Chicago. ‘Nude Photo’, ‘The Dance’, ‘Kaos’ – they all had a huge impact, just about everything from the Transmat label was getting a lot of rotation on the radio and in the clubs. Model 500 ‘No UFOs’ was a huge jam in Chicago. Those songs had such an impact, but to this day I don’t consider them to be Detroit techno. That might have been what people were calling them, but they weren’t techno to us.

What do you think of the scene that has evolved from that music, specifically modern day Detroit techno?
I don’t really understand it. I don’t know enough about it to be able to comment on it. I know that there’s one or two producers that stand out, that do it for me, people like Rolando. That Jaguar tune was huge, but that wasn’t a techno tune to me. I dunno, I guess I just don’t believe in the monikers ‘techno’ or ‘house music’ anymore. Those terms are so outdated, it’s difficult, or dangerous even to try and describe the music of new producers and refer to those terms.

What was it about the Derrick May and Juan Atkins tracks from back that made them so different? Why did people take such note of them?
Because they were fresh. Nobody in the world had ever seen or heard anything like that before.

So where is that pioneering music coming from now? Where do you think the sounds are coming from that nobody has ever heard before? Is it coming from Detroit?
It sure is. You look at all the different musical forms, it’s way out, totally innovative. Look at Dwele, Amp Fiddler, Slum Village, KDJ, he never ceases to amaze me, just when I think I know what he’s going to do next…. It goes further than Detroit, you have people like Kaidi Tatham, Frankie Valentine… that ‘Below The Radar’ is one bad assed album, totally different. I love the track ‘Intro/Outro’, it’s not the most innovative thing on there, but it’s beautiful. Again Osunlade, he’s not perhaps going to win the Miles Davis Award for innovation, but with Yoruba he’s definately going to remind folk that good music’s coming out of New York.

Were your ‘Ugly Edits’ not done purely so you could have something unique to play out?
Yep.

So why did you end up pressing some copies up?
Basically because I wanted them to be available to a few DJs. I wanted them to be rare, I wanted people to struggle to get them so that if you were one of the few that got them, you’d really want to play them. I just wanted to inject a little bit of fun into things, so many times you walk into a store and get a record and you know that everybody’s got it. It used to be like you could go to a store and get one record and you’d know you had something special, something there wasn’t that many of. It was just a bit of fun for the DJs. A lot of those edits were inspired by edits that I’d already heard, ones that DJs in Chicago had done a long time ago.

So how do you feel about the fact that they were bootlegged over here?
Well what can I say? There’s nothing I can do. I’m kinda disappointed that someone got greedy. All anyone would have had to do was call me, but the bottom line was that they weren’t meant to be that accessible. It was about them being coveted and wanted, now that they’re out like that I’m having to consider whether I want to do them anymore. If I feel I have to put a full run out there, that totally defeats the object of doing them in the first place. I wanted to press just 300 of each and do that all the way up to Ugly Edit 10, then they’d disappear. Now I don’t know if any of the others will see the light of day at all. This bootleg shit is ridiculous, but how can I complain ? I’m sure there are people out there going “Why did you even edit my stuff in the first place?” It’s a double edged dagger. It doesn’t distress me that much, but I’m upset that some individual out there is now making a whole load of loot out of someone else’s original work and that’s not what it was about.