About six and a half years ago, as he walked through Coachella’s Indio Valley, Richie Hawtin had an epiphany.
An icon of the techno music scene, the Windsor-born, Detroit-raised Canadian producer and DJ has spent more than 15 years crafting a raw, minimal sound that helped define the genre’s second wave. He pushes himself to take techno to new artistic heights through intense and creative live performances, both for his own work and with aliases like Plastikman.
He’s beloved by dance lovers, but the multi-genre festival Coachella afforded the techno man a rare opportunity to hang back and appreciate a wide variety of live music. He noticed a certain spell that fell on the crowds when watching traditional bands. He envied the direct connection between what the audience heard and saw, the very tactile reality of playing a guitar and hearing it amplified across the acreage.
“(Traditional bands) usually play the same songs, or all the songs that people are expecting,” he says. “But when I play, if someone sends me a bomb new track, I’m gonna play it that night, and that might replace a track that somebody is expecting to hear. The way I play at my best, people can’t expect to hear something that they’ve heard before. I’m already confusing the people, so how do I keep them engaged?”
It wasn’t a bolt of lightning, but a seed planted deep in his thoughts. Six years later, his vague vision became a solid concept. It was fate, perhaps, that he debuted the show at this year’s Coachella, in April of 2017.
“The idea of fusing together some live elements, like synthesizers, and drum machines, and playing records on top, and all my controllers… I know there’s a lot of stuff going on up there when I’m playing, and I know most people don’t know it,” he offers. “And I was pretty sure if people could get an idea what was happening, even if they couldn’t say, ‘Okay, that nob twist is making that sound,’ even if it was still a little bit abstract, if I could bring them close to those little details, it was going to be a real strong connection between me and the audience. That’s really the basis of CLOSE.”
CLOSE is an immersive audio-visual experience that invites participants into the booth with Hawtin, while simultaneously deconstructing the concept of the DJ booth in the first place. It is a minimal, stripped-down performance that maximizes what is most important, by turning the often-distracting visual component of an electronic music show into a spotlight for the artist’s craft.
Hawtin works inside a semi-circle of tables loaded with gear while six strategically-placed cameras share a live feed of his hands at work on a giant screen above and behind him. The video is filtered to varying degrees of abstraction, to give the visual more oomph, but the real wonder is just watching his skilled hands make the music you’re hearing. It bridges that gap between a traditional band and the elusive work of the DJ.
“It feels like the audience is sitting on my shoulder,” Hawtin says. “They’re just peering in, and being very curious about what I’m doing. With so many of the shows now, the visuals bring the DJ to a point of being an entertainer and a performer. There’s only so much I can do jumping around on stage or having gimmicks before I feel that I’m not being me, and I just want to be as close to who I am up there and somehow make it entertaining.”
CLOSE was a huge success at its Coachella debut, and as its snaked its way through the United States, it continued to evolve. It’s a living, breathing installation, and the only boundaries are the walls of Hawtin’s imagination. In his own words, there’s nothing he can’t do.
On his right are computers running a variety of loops and records through Abelton and Tracktor. On his left are a number of controllers to manipulate those foundational sounds, drum machines and Eurorack modular synths all synced together to manipulate, add, and build at his whim. He creates melodies, basslines and drum rhythms on the fly, riding each sequence until he feels its run its coarse, all the while juggling and testing new phrases and beats in his headphones, letting each level come through one by one as he sees fit. Even his foot works a peddle below. Watching him backlit through smoke machine fog, it becomes quite obvious that for Hawtin, CLOSE is full-body contact creation.
“Hopefully I understand enough of the possibilities in front of me, that I know enough of the records, and enough about what each little module does, so I can fuse it into something that makes sense and is coherent for 75 minutes, because there’s nothing really there to begin with,” he says. “People say, ‘Why don’t you play longer?’ I can do a regular DJ set and do a four or five hour show, but the amount of music that I go through up there … 75 minutes is so intense. You’re completely exhausted emotionally and creatively after.”
What begins as a slow hum builds into a frothing frenzy of industrial, sci-fi noise. Highs are breached, valleys are traveled, and each set is a unique mind-altering experience. In classic Hawtin style, the starkness of sound is mirrored with minimal lighting, carefully crafted to set a cinematic mood. He employs a tricolor palette of red, white and yellow, red signifying a warm heat but also a darkness, yellow tungsten light contrasting with white LEDs.
“Many of the shows now and concerts are filled with the largest amount of lighting that the budget can provide, and usually that means more lighting rather than better lighting and that usually means all LEDs,” he says. “LEDs can make every color under the sun, but it has a different frequency and a different warmth. It can be annoying after a while. It can be tiring… The type of music I do is somehow minimalistic and stripped down. It’s always been important for me to make sure the whole experience has the same weight and balance.”
CLOSE leaves the audience feeling as if they better understand Hawtin’s process. He has made the pure craft of live techno production the center of attention. Even if you don’t usually enjoy the genre’s nuanced drones, CLOSE bridges the knowledge gap with a surreal intimacy.
“For a DJ or musician who spent most of my like behind a table half-concealed, opening up completely to the audience is really, really strange,” he says. “It’s like being naked in front of everyone, but at the same time, when everything is running and I can control things to the right with one hand and left with the other … When it’s happening, you’re in that moment with everybody else. It feels very exciting. It feels very powerful, and that’s what the show should be like. If I can get to that point during the show with everybody, that’s why I got into this music. Being locked in this cloud of frequencies that feels like its from tomorrow; that you’re living in the future.”
While most of Hawtin’s live projects have been limited runs, CLOSE is something Hawtin sees as his forever-evolving reality. He’ll have his regular DJ gigs, while Close will offer him room to grow. It took him six and a half years to find it, but his strange music and artistic performance perspective now have their own unique home.
“The show six months ago is completely different, but I feel that it’s starting to become locked down,” he says. “The next three or four shows will get a bit deeper into it, then (I’ll) take six months off of CLOSE, and I expect to come back June of next year with a development. I know where I want it to go. I think it’ll take one or two years to get it to CLOSE 2.0, which would be pretty crazy, but I definitely want to see this one reach its full potential.”
This weekend, Hawtin brings CLOSE to Club to Club Festival for it’s Italian debut. It snakes its way through Europe the rest of 2017.