Richie Hawtin has built a thirty-year career on an insatiable hunger for experimentation, always seeking out new technology and new ways of interpreting techno. From his innovative record labels to developing the Model 1 mixer, Hawtin has always been pushing electronic music in new directions.
Close is his latest sonic adventure, which is divided into several parts: Close Combined (Glasgow, London, Tokyo – Live), a mix-album and seventy-five-minute audio-visual show recorded with intimately placed cameras that the user can manipulate and interact with through a mobile app; and Closer, which is the app itself. This intimate insight into Hawtin’s process unfolds onscreen in real-time, bringing the audience closer to this intricate balance between man and machine. We met with him in Berlin some days before the release to know more about his take on new technologies, always pushing the boundaries forward, why visuals are as important as sounds, and what keeps him excited after more than three decades behind the decks.
You started touring Close Live in 2017 in Coachella but you’re still in the middle of it – with upcoming shows in México and Amsterdam. When and why did you decide to expand the project from a live performance into an album and an app?
Sometimes, I have ideas that can’t be fulfiled technologically and need to wait for the technology to develop. I started a series of DJ mix albums called Decks, Efx & 909 in 1998, 2001 and 2005. They were studio mixes where I was taking lots of samples from drum machines and records and creating these ‘master mixes’. I’ve always wanted to take that onto the stage. On top of that, I’ve always wanted to then, after taking it on stage, record some shows and take all this material back into the studio. Somehow, that idea finally came to fruition when Close started. 
I assume it’s because technology has finally reached the point where you can use it to do all this. But what has exactly changed?
I was able to, one, have the cameras recording what I was doing. I happened to have much more instrumentation and drum machines and was recording all these extra channels on my computer, so suddenly, we started building up a backlog of multi-channel video and audio recordings. The video and audio were there, but to actually edit an audio-visual synchronized release was tough because it felt impossible to find a computer and software package that were powerful enough.
Then, there was another technical problem with this idea. In order to deliver a multi-channel audiovisual experience with some interactivity, the speed of the device you’re watching it on needed to be at a really high level. We’re only just there now. If you watch the release on the app and you’re running it all and exploring the interactivity, you’ll notice how hot your phone gets because it’s just processing at such a high level.
What is the ultimate goal of Close?
Conceptually, Close is my attempt to capture what I do while I’m onstage and highlight the human factor – the spontaneous and improvised factor – and how one person can use technology in a completely different way to another. I want to invite people into my creative process. I know that the way I set up my equipment and how I use my interface is different from how other DJs perform. I want to share that. I actually think that DJing is misunderstood or unknown.
I think my favourite DJs live on the edge, reading the crowd, mixing and matching and taking people on a trip. The best DJs that I know, once they step on stage, there’s no planning, you have no idea what’s going to happen. I hope that on one level, people will watch and listen with this release, and on another level, interact, rewind certain moments, see how it’s all pieced together. Maybe they will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of electronic music, and maybe, they’ll even want to follow my path and get into that type of performance.
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You’ve stepped out of your comfort zone, yet again, with this project. How does producing an album/experience like this differ from a traditional studio album? Could you guide us a bit through the creative and production process?
Sitting in the studio and recording something original, completely from scratch, with synthesizers, etc. is difficult in the beginning because you’re searching for your palette and the atmosphere. Once I grab it, I usually go down a tunnel of creating music that somehow fits together. With Close, it was very difficult because, as I said, we were recording twenty-five shows. There were some where I liked the whole thing, and there were others that had a few good moments. I change the records in my crates every two weeks – there are another one hundred tracks that go into the set –, so it’s constantly evolving.
I was trying to think and listen to what we had recorded and how some of them would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn't until we did five shows together – London, Glasgow, Tokyo, Paris and New York City –. all recorded in the space of two months, that it started coming together. When I started listening to them, they started coalescing in a natural way. The first edit came together within three days. The framework of what you hear was done. It was an hour-and-a-half journey. So once I was in the studio, it came together quite quickly, but listening and thinking about what was coming together was a three-year process.
That’s a long time…
We were recording everything with this idea that I was going to put multiple shows together and interweave it into this experience. That’s difficult to approach because of the number of shows. Every show is about thirty-two channels of information, from effects to drums and different decks. Trying to put that all together and also match tempos and moments was difficult. The Close shows usually have an arc, but there are no exact written time zones, there are no records that specifically fit each moment – except for the beginning. The first two or three records are always the same because stepping up on stage, I’m asking myself, where am I? Who are these people? I need to have something that allows me to take a deep breath and then figure out the direction. There were a lot of things to bring together to make it work successfully.
In what ways does each part of the artwork complement each other – the live show Close Live, the app Closer, and the album Close Combined? Do you understand it as a whole piece or as a sort of trilogy?
They’re all supposed to make you feel like you’re experiencing something unique and for the first time. That’s easy to capture when you're doing a show; every show is different, every crowd is different. I wanted to take all those recordings together to mix and match them. There are moments of the London show, moments of Glasgow and Tokyo, and some of Paris sprinkled on top – which we don't talk about (laughs).
How can you make a recording sound fresh and live? That’s what I’m trying to grasp. Spontaneity is at the very heart of DJing. What are they going to play next? Is that my favourite song? Is that a drum machine on top? What’s going on? I love that. Those are my best moments on the dance floor – the ‘what’s going on?’. In the end, you have to stop trying to figure it out and enjoy it!
“DJing is about asking what’s right for this moment, but you don't know until you’re in that moment.”
The project demonstrates the relationship between human creativity and innovative technologies. What role does improvisation play in the performance? Does the technology have a mind of its own, like a sort of AI software?
I’m always searching for new instruments, technology, and plug-ins. Being on stage and knowing where certain pieces are and knowing how they function is important, but having some unknowns where happy accidents can happen is really important for me. I have a certain set-up of modular synthesizers and early on, in the first shows, I had a little sequencer on which you could dial in different notes. I was trying to get something perfect and I was twiddling too much. 
And in the last?
In the last shows, what works much better now is that I have some faders, which I basically move up and down. As I do, it’s grabbing high notes or low notes and it’s just random. I listen to it and I wait until I get something good. Then, I can turn notes on or off to give it a rhythm, and that works really well. I have no time to worry about what's in key. DJing is about asking what’s right for this moment, but you don't know until you’re in that moment. On the app, you can see this moment unfold. I’m searching and figuring it out live. Once the new improvised element is in, you need to figure it out and make it work because if you bring it back down after you brought it in, everybody knows it was a mistake. You’ve done it, now live with it!
You give the audience/users the power to experience Close in a very personal, intimate way. They can choose their perspective by playing with different camera angles and footage, and they have the opportunity to listen into separate audio channels. Why is this personalized/custom-made experience so important to you? In a way, they’re co-creating the piece as they’re experiencing it. Do you feel like the authorship of Close is not exclusively yours anymore?
I’m sure there are DJs out there who know each of their records and know the exact timings of when to drop each one. I was never like that. I made notes about my records like ‘minimal’ or ‘banger’. Sometimes, I would make a note that this worked well with that. There are little directional points. Honestly, sometimes it works really well, and other times, you have to spend more time searching for it in front of people. A DJ set has these dynamics. My best is when I’m going up and down and bringing people to a point and letting them down to breathe again. Sometimes that’s on purpose, but other times, that’s because I’m not quite sure which way I should go. A great DJ show is pretty honest, you have your records or instruments and you know how they sound, so you have to go from there.
There are other ideas for the app that aren’t technically possible yet. I’d love to really give people the possibility of manipulating the show and actually record their manipulation so it becomes their own unique show. Where does creation stop or start? Some musicians would say that what I do is not music because I’m playing prerecorded sounds. I’m ‘reappropriating’ music and mixing it together, so the idea of letting your fans and audience do the same is powerful. Once something’s out there, it’s kind of public domain. It’s about how we reinterpret it as an individual that makes it interesting. So much has been done, maybe it’s not about a new track or rhythm but rather a personal viewpoint of how you want to listen to that or participate or experience that release. It’s also the same idea as a DJ show, it’s a stream of consciousness – start-end. What happens in between? Who knows?
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Mobile technology seems to be one of the most exciting new frontiers for creators. What first attracted you to it? After this project, do you feel like experimenting more in this field and continue to explore the possibilities of phones, softwares and new technologies?
The whole release is basically for the app so people can watch and interact. It’s really interesting to explore how to entertain somebody. Originally, we wanted to make a Close movie and put it on the big screen in an egoistic way. But it’s much more interesting in the palm of your hand, watching it, analyzing it and pausing it. The Close show is a bit of an experiment every time I get up in front of people. The app is also a bit of an experiment; we’re not sure how people are going to consume it, if people are going to interact with it, or if they’ll just watch it, if they’re going to turn sounds on and off…
You seem to be fascinated with the machines behind the music, discovering new ways of making sounds and mastering them. What is the latest piece of technology that has you excited and curious? Also, is there a piece of equipment in your arsenal that has been there since the beginning?
There are so many incredible instruments and technologies out there, and I don't think you can classify any of them as good or bad. It's just what’s right for you as a human. We all hear things differently, we see things and touch things differently. For me, one of the most important things about an instrument is how I interface with it – maybe even more important than how it sounds sometimes.
The classic machines for me are the 808, 909 and 303 sounds. They are great, but it’s the interfaces that are incredible, the 303 specifically. The sounds they produce are wonderful but that’s only because of the slides and weird squelches you get with the accents, which is only possible because the sequencer is built inside. It completely fails at its original intention at making a realistic bass line to have in your band. Fail. But that failure became the lifeblood of a whole new type of music. When creating the Model 1 mixer, that was our thought. Maybe it’s not going to work for some DJs, but maybe it will be used in a completely different way.
Let’s talk about it. The Model 1 mixer you designed with Andy Jones took a different approach to DJing. How did that come about?
I remember having a meeting with Model 1. We had a really nice group of artists but we were really split down the middle. We had this idea of having a different EQ, but half of the group insisted on having a normal EQ. I really remember talking to Andy and making that decision of going a different way. Every other DJ mixer has that in a different shape or form, so are we were going to compete on that level or take the opportunity to introduce the device on the market for creatives to play in a different way. To me, that was really important and in the end became part of the philosophy ‘Play differently’. Just to give people an alternative.
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This isn’t your first foray into installation art. What entices you to push music into different spaces?
I think it’s very important to challenge yourself and put yourself in new situations. I spend so much of my time in clubs that 4/4 music has become quite formulaic and I’ve always wanted to reach different people, or in a way, as many people as I want. I don't like to change my music or how I play in order to reach more people. Rather, I’m open to putting myself into new situations to reach people. Since the very beginning of my label, from Plus 8 to Plastikman and Close, there’s always been a deep interest in how visuals and music connect.
When you go into an installation gallery context and you’re working with painting or sculpture, you’re bringing frequencies into that. It nearly becomes three-dimensional. It’s less about speakers and this one-directional push. It becomes much more inviting and interactive, and that interests me. I’m usually behind the speakers, behind the stacks, and it’s like stepping off the stage and being closer to people.
You’ve always been concerned about the visual aspect of your shows. How did that side of performance begin and evolve for you? In a time when images are produced and consumed at an incredibly fast pace, what do you do to stand out and create a memorable visual experience?
There’s always a constant struggle with that. I come from club culture – from a dark room with a DJ in a corner with strobe lights That was perfect for me. It was completely, a hundred per cent music-focused. But as the scene developed to larger stages and festivals where you have ten thousand people with front-loaded stacks, there's only a certain percentage of people that are getting a really good sound. The rest are there en-masse, and there’s a thing happening that’s part music, part people and part visuals.
For me, as an artist who’s playing music, it was natural to say, there’s more going on here than the record I’m playing. Perhaps, for those people who are outside of that perfect spot for music, they have a beautiful view of the stage or the backdrop of the visuals. Let’s consider all that and create something cohesive. When you’re into technology, you want to use as much gear as possible.
But your approach, as you said earlier, is pretty minimalist.
I pare things down musically by producing with a minimalistic approach, so paring down lights and visuals to basic geometric shapes, single colours and primary colours complements the music. These little things can bring people together in a shared experience. For me, that is true to what I loved about music and DJing in the first place. Sending out these frequencies to two hundred or three hundred people in front of me and feeling like you have a certain level of control of that group. But on the other hand, there’s a communal level. If you want to have that communal feeling with a crowd of five, ten, fifteen thousand people, you need to think of all the elements that are there.
“Great music needs to be communicated and needs to be shared. What’s always kept me excited by techno music is just this advancement of technology, this idea that we’re creating the soundtrack of the future.”
Your career has been fuelled by a perpetual desire to experiment. Traditionally speaking, not all experiments are successes. Are there any major lessons you’ve learned from something going horribly awry?
If you’re going to get up on stage, be spontaneous and improvise, you really need to know the machines that are in front of you. Sometimes, I want to bring some unknowns into the show but I don't know the machines as well as I should. In some of the early Close shows, I added some modular synthesizers and other devices. It didn’t work out, and in the middle of last year, I replaced them with 303 acid machines – this was my sound from the ‘90s. As soon as I brought them on, there was an immediate impact from the audience and I thought maybe I should have done that earlier after two years of touring Close.
There’s more of that in the studio when you have more time and trying more things. Every plug-in is supposed to be better than the last – there’s another delay plug-in and another synthesizer plug-in. Finding time to satiate your curiosity but not get pulled down the rabbit hole is a very delicate balance. Any artist who’s using technology as one of their tools has that struggle.
You’ve seen techno culture flourish from its humble beginnings. How do you feel about the current state of the genre? What keeps you excited about techno?
One: since the beginning, I've always wanted to see techno and electronic music reach a wider audience. I’ve always made my choices in doing interviews, promo, visiting different cities and countries to share techno. Great music needs to be communicated and needs to be shared. What’s always kept me excited by techno music is just this advancement of technology, this idea that we’re creating the soundtrack of the future, we’re living with one foot in tomorrow. That’s why I love performing. That’s why I love going back to the studio with some old gear and new gear and say, this is exciting again!
Now, after thirty years, you’re feeling a huge wave of producers and a large audience coming into it for the first time. Seeing people hear records that I’ve known for thirty years for the first time is incredible. For me, it’s the past, but for them, it’s the future again! I find the whole scene vibrant, and this is why I became so attached to it from the beginning. It was the only thing that attached to me and didn’t let go or the thing that I attached to and I didn't let go. Anytime I loosened up, I felt like ‘what’s that new record’, and that would suck me back in and inspire me again.
Also, touring takes a lot of energy and time, but being in front of an audience and playing the right combination of tracks or music… Suddenly, you’re in this bubble together, maybe for a song or an hour or the whole set. That’s when it feels like you’re in the future together, you’re all experiencing something that’s developing as you’re hearing it. I don't know many other forms of music that are like that. In theory, every other music is like that. but most people like to hear their favourite song and they want to hear it over and over again. If they go to the concert, they want to hear their favourite song and if it changes too much, they’re pissed. I was the kid who was like, ‘Play me my favourite song in a completely different way’. I had a friend, this kid Adrian, at my gig in Ibiza two weeks ago. It was his 100th Hawtin gig. That’s a lot of shows. I want him to be as excited as the first time. I think only techno can really do that.
I would regret not asking you about your interest in fashion as you have a keen interest in the fashion industry. You launched a collection back in 2009 and made mixes for the likes of Raf Simons. How is your relationship with the fashion industry? And how important do you feel fashion is for you as a DJ and artist?
I think that played a big role in developing Close because you’re letting people in, the tables are open, so you see the silhouette in form. How I look and how the light hits me, there’s an intention behind that. It’s supposed to be a man (or alien) and machine and it’s supposed to be otherworldly. I think that’s always been a part of what I’m doing ever since the Plastikman days. It starts with the music and then I think about the presentation – whether it’s a CD release or an album. Is there artwork? Is there promotion? Are there press shots? What am I wearing? How does this music look like and how is the performance supposed to look like?
My music has an aesthetic, it has a certain futurism. It’s also somehow stuck, there’s a melody but I wouldn’t call it a rainbow of colour. So there’s black. I’m tall and gangly, so I have a certain silhouette and you key into that. I think that mystery and blank canvas is part of techno, there’s no big slogan, there are no words.
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There are no logos. The all-black is very akin to a fashion designer who creates the most lavish, out-there aesthetic but dresses in black, like an unreadable blank canvas.
Ok, there’s more logos now (laughs). The black is about starkness and getting sucked into this sonic void, losing yourself. I’m friends with Raf [Simons] because one day he sat behind me as I DJed and he remained there for five or six hours just taking it all in. You can tell when somebody gets it, and when you see that, you want to meet them. Hanging out with him and hearing his interpretation of music and how he follows his aesthetics through fashion is super inspiring and it brings us back to the idea of installation art. Bringing music and art together, all those conversations allow you to reinterpret what you do musically. Look at what you do from a different vantage point. Some of my musical ideas have definitely been influenced by looking at a painting or a sculpture and thinking how could I get this type of feeling into someone’s headphones.
What’s on the horizon after the release of Close?
Incubation mode. I have Richie Hawtin and Plastikman, and people often ask when a certain project is coming back and I can’t tell you, I can only feel it. Plastikman is much more cerebral and I can feel myself going in that direction. I’m in ‘extrovert mode’ now, but I feel myself going into a bit more of an introverted mode. 2020 for me is going to be a very important moment for creative discovery, research and development and setting up the next trajectory of which way I’m going to head for the next five or ten years.
It sounds like a real intuitive pull instead of a calculated move.
I’ve always gone by my instincts and feelings. You can analyse and overthink, but in the end, you have to trust your instincts. Trusting my instincts has given me a thirty-year-long career so far. The techno industry, technology and innovation; these things are super inspiring for me, but sometimes, you have to dig back under it and find where you fit in between all that, especially as it moves forward so fast.
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