Richie Hawtin at Coachella 2017: DJ Discusses Sake & His History With the Festival

DJ Richie Hawtin performs at the Mojave stage during day 1 of the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival (Weekend 1) at the Empire Polo Club on April 14, 2017 in Indio, Calif.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Coachella

DJ Richie Hawtin performs at the Mojave stage during day 1 of the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival (Weekend 1) at the Empire Polo Club on April 14, 2017 in Indio, Calif.

If you scratch just past the surface, it’s true that most of the artists on the bill at Coachella are there to promote something -- an album, an upcoming tour, a reunion show. But Richie Hawtin, the techno DJ, may have the most interesting promotional story on the field: as well as debuting a new show, “CLOSE: Spontaneity and Synchronicity,” he’s the founder of ENTER.Sake, a high-end line of the Japanese rice wine that’s made its debut at a North American festival via a stand in the VIP Rose Garden this year.

Hawtin’s love for sake runs in tandem with his love for Japan overall. “I ate and drank my way through Japan over about 10 years doing gigs,” Hawtin says in his trailer backstage. “If you called me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come to Japan,’ I said ‘OK, yeah!’ When I landed, I was like, ‘What do you mean it’s only for 50 people?’” While there, Hawtin realized that sake was a sort of lifeblood during his gigs. “It's something that [when I’m drinking it] I can play two, three, four, eight, 10, 12, 24 hours,” he says. “I don't know if it's the amino acids -- there's lots of different theory here -- but the frequency that it vibrates at, it's perfectly in sync with pure, great electronic music.”

Hawtin’s take on the sake brand is running it like an old-school record label -- signing distributors to make content specifically for the brand sometimes, and white-labeling other sakes as if they’re indie releases picked up by a major. “It's interesting because the whole music world, since I started in 1989, has become digital,” Hawtin says. “I went from a world of making records and distributing them and physical sales and now I've kind of gone back to that.”

He’s in another nearly unique position at Coachella this year: Hawtin and DJ Shadow are the only performers on this year’s bill who also played the inaugural fest, in 1999; in essence, his career has grown up with the festival, which is one of the reasons he decided to debut his new show -- which turns his gear towards the audience and uses cameras to show the entire audience what he’s doing at all times -- at Coachella. “What's good about Coachella over the years is that I've been able to either go and meet [Goldenvoice founder] Paul [Tollett] or I'll give him a call or email and explain, 'Hey, this is the concept. This is where I'm going and I think it would fit,'" he says.

In this case, it’s clear from the show that part of the idea is a response to music fans who think that EDM has just become a series of superstars hitting play and collecting a paycheck; it’s clear watching Hawtin onstage that he’s executing each sonic tweak live, perhaps triggering a beat but then live-looping its intricacies and effects and controlling the path the track takes. “Part of the idea of the show, the close show, came from being at festivals like Coachella and watching how electronic music was represented,” Hawtin says. “Thinking and wondering, ‘How do I do a show which shows the crowds out there what a DJ can do?’”

He continues, “I think it makes sense that I would be here debuting a show that isn't in the normal house or techno arena, but takes a lot of the ideas of what techno is and tries to do it purely and authentically.” Ironically, though, it means he doesn’t have a hand free to drink sake while he’s doing it.