Man vs. Machine: Richie Hawtin on the Return of Plastikman

No pomp or ceremony can be seen on the bustling streets of Barcelona. But within the half-shaved head of one of our times’ foremost electronic musicians, a changing of the guard is underway.

Reclining on a leather sofa every bit as black as his clothing, Richie Hawtin may not look like a man divided. The Canadian artist is chipper and friendly, a far cry from the portrait of protracted seriousness he displayed during his spellbinding performance as Plastikman the previous night. Hawtin is set to DJ under his eponymous moniker, serving upbeat techno and tech house rather than Plastikman’s brooding soundscapes. As an artist whose music is inextricable from identity, it’s no surprise that his persona has similarly shifted.

“Well, the funny thing is that most people expect “Richie Hawtin” to be the real Richie Hawtin,” he says. “Of course it’s part of me, but I’ve learned how to be the performer I am onstage over the past 25 years, to interact, feel and party with the people. Everything you need to put on a great DJ performance. It's more of me now, but I was always more of an introverted kid. The nerd in the corner who would be playing with computers and technology.”

Donning a nostalgic smile, Hawtin trails off for a moment.

“That’s why I got into this music, but Richie Hawtin is really not 100% that person,” he says. “Plastikman is closer to the real Richie Hawtin. It's me locked away by myself, and the music, the frequencies, the structure and the journey you’re taken on by listening to a Plastikman album is about as close as you can get to my thinking, my feelings and my emotions. The alter ego is closer to the human than anyone thought.”

Reviving that alter ego after a decade of dormancy was not an overnight decision. Hawtin describes an incremental process of collecting and refining ideas during the long stretch since 2003’s “Closer.” They ultimately found form in Plastikman’s performance at New York’s Guggenheim Museum last November, which was recorded for “EX,” the first Plastikman album in over a decade.

“It wasn’t that there was no Plastikman thought going on or creativity, it was just never the right moment to capture it,” he says. “The most important thing to recognize as someone trying to unleash creativity is the moment where all of those inspirations and ideas have suddenly bundled together and they're ready to come out. You don't know when that's going to happen. I had a number of free weeks last October or November and all these ideas that had been filtering around in my brain were ready to come out. Thank God I had some days off.”

Hawtin describes being happy with the Guggenheim gig, but disappointed that all of his hard work and preparation would only yield a single show. He soon decided to bring the concept to Sonar, the forward-thinking music festival he holds close to his heart.

“With the explosion of electronic music in the States and everywhere, we've brought more people into our world, but we've actually tightened or shortened the definition of electronic music,” says Hawtin. “I want to make sure people understand the breadth and diversity within our scene, so coming back to Sonar, this place that welcomes installations, exhibits, experimental artists and DJs all under one roof, I thought was the perfect place to present what Richie Hawtin is at this moment. It was important not only to do Plastikman by day, but to also do Richie Hawtin by night.”

The former entranced the Sonar faithful with his immersive “Objekt” performance concept, which finds him locked in a sonic struggle with a giant looming obelisk whose shifting lights and patterns provide a visual canvas to the show’s sweeping minimal techno soundtrack. I tell Hawtin that I interpreted the Objekt to be a nefarious entity that Plastikman had been entrusted with confronting, taming and tending. He grins.

“It's a bit of a David vs. Goliath,” explains Hawtin. “What can man accomplish with technology? What do we gain? What do we lose? Where is the humanity in all of these technology driven lifestyles?”

Hawtin’s passion is palpable from the steady pace of his words and the riveting focus in his eyes. Tourists stream past the window from La Rambla nearby, but their muted chatter seems light years away.

“Electronic music isn't music made by computers or synthesizers, it’s music made by humans using computers and synthesizers,” he continues. “I think right now people are perhaps forgetting or not understanding how much the human spirit is involved in it. It's the most important, and so to have this man vs. machine and find this balance between lights, visuals, music and synchronicity was everything that show was about. It was about that object having a life of its own, but where did that life come from? Was it the power and the technology or was that my life, my spirit, that I was channeling through it?”

This ethos is reflected in Plastikman’s current and constantly evolving live show. Unlike many “live” electronic artists who deconstruct and re-layer their songs as audio loops, Hawtin generates all of his sounds live using synthesizer plug-ins and digital drum machines within Ableton Live. Controlling both the sounds and visuals with an array of controllers and custom programming, Hawtin says the show mirrors his studio approach.

“When I turn the computer on, there is a Plastikman album inside that box, but after I press start and before I press stop, I’m really free to explore what that album should sound like at that moment,” he explains. “That's how I recorded “Sheet One” and “Consumed.” It was just me in the studio with hardware and I made some loops, some drum patches, switched the arrangement and just jammed. It’s that feeling of someone being in control and not just sitting in an arrangement window.”

Hawtin pauses. I ask what goes through his head when he plays as Plastikman. He takes a second before responding, perhaps momentarily reliving last night’s sights and sounds.

“At some moments, you just want to close your eyes and just listen and feel the music,” he says. “Of course, you’re going by the feeling the whole time. You’re listening. You're watching the screen. To have the best type of experience at a show like last night there has to be these magical spontaneous moments where everything suddenly syncs up together. That’s what its about for me, setting up a mechanism and then playing within that framework and hoping magic moments come out of it.”

Hawtin promises that more such moments are on the way, then laughs and admits he made similar promises of new material way back in 2004. Whether or not it takes another 10 years this time, Hawtin clearly views Plastikman’s current incarnation as a new beginning, rather than an end in itself.

“I really had to revisit what Plastikman was to try and go figure out what Plastikman should be,” he says. “’EX’ is called that because it's an experiment into where Plastikman might go. It's not there yet. I think there's moments on the album that are really delving into some new interesting places, and I'm actually excited to spend more time very soon to explore those uncharted places.”


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