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Talks Unconventional Collaboration With Chilly Gonzales & Why ‘In a Way, It’s Always Been Business Techno’

No matter how early you came into electronic dance music, it always felt like Richie Hawtin had already been there for a lifetime. The British-born but primarily Canada-raised Hawtin, is an elder statesman of techno, guiding the trajectory of the sound from the 1980s through to the present time.

A forerunner in not just techno, but technology, Hawtin and his longtime business partner, John Acquaviva, started the seminal record labels Plus 8, MINUS Records and From Our Minds. They invested in Final Scratch, the predecessor to Serato and were founding members of Beatport. Hawtin’s Plastikman musical persona is a pioneering force and revered by many to the point of worship.

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Twenty years after the release of the 1998 Plastikman album, Consumed, fellow Canadian and accomplished musician Chilly Gonzales discovered the polarizing LP, which marked a left turn for Hawtin at the time of its creation. Gonzales is no stranger to electronic music, having contributed to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (as well as being a collaborator of Drake’s and Feist’s). His response to Consumed, however, was visceral. Gonzales began playing along with the album instinctually, recording demos of three reimagined tracks. He sent these to yet another fellow Canadian musician, Tiga, who at the start of the pandemic, brought them to Hawtin’s attention.

Two years plus later, Consumed in Key is Gonzales’ reaction to the original album, made without any input from Hawtin — until the mixing stage. The two collaborated with each other through sound and feeling, rather than verbal discussions and studio sessions. The result — out today (April 1) via Tiga’s Turbo Recordings — is sublime breath of new life into the timeless LP.

From his studio in Berlin, one of Hawtin’s three residences — the other two being his adopted hometown of Windsor, Canada and his latest stopping point, Lisbon, Portugal — the ever-thoughtful DJ/producer beams in via Zoom to reminisce about the past while staying firmly in the present, and always with an eye to the future. “I truly believe that dance music fits in every circumstance,” he says. “It’s just about finding the right song for that situation.”

Where are you at the moment?

I am in my studio in Berlin. I’m going through records for the first time in 20 years. Over the last couple of months, a friend of mine went through all of my records in Canada, which is probably between 10,000 or 20,000. That was something that I didn’t want to do. It felt too tedious. But my friend and I actually met on the dancefloor 20 years ago, so he really knows me as a DJ and he whittled everything down to four or five boxes of classic tracks that I should have in arm’s reach when I want to play vinyl. I’m going through those now and reliving some memories.

What made you move to Berlin initially and what kept you there for so long?

In the late ‘90s/early 2000s, North America got really depressing for electronic music. There wasn’t a lot of support or acceptance or understanding. It got a bit tiring after a while. I started spending more time in Berlin. At that time, I had a lot of German friends and was working with some German companies. There’s something very special about the German acceptance and understanding of electronic music. I’m not saying other places don’t. I’m just saying the Germans who are into electronic music, the people on the dancefloor, the people behind the scenes, they live it on another level. It was really nice to be around people like that. I had great friends who were into electronic music in Windsor and Detroit, but Europe was more fun and re-energized me.

What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what was the medium?

On a grade school trip to Toronto, I bought Herbie Hancock “Rockit” on 12”. I had bought other records already. I had Prince albums and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but that was the moment when I started to go deeper into music, to identify with a particular sound. I was getting more into electronic music, and there was something special about that record that made me feel like I’m starting to go somewhere with my taste.

What did your parents do for a living and what do they think of what you do for a living now?

We lived in England, and when I was nine years old, we moved to Canada. We had a huge family in England and everyone thought my parents were crazy. I always thought my parents were a bit oddball. They were up for taking a chance and going against the norm. I get that from my mom. She was a teacher, and my dad was an electrician. In Canada, my dad had a cooler title, which was a “robotic technician,” which basically meant he worked at General Motors and made sure all the robots kept working. Later on, I released a record called Robotman, and when that got picked up by a UK label as a single, I put my dad on the cover, because he was always robot man. I did an interview pretending to be Robotman, and used my dad’s history.

I bring all that up because I found a lot of great records in my dad’s collection: Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, a lot of electronic music. He was always listening to music when I was a kid. I remember him wearing headphones and tinkering with electronics. My mom let him do what he wanted. There were hi-fi pieces all over the kitchen and half a built computer. That leads to how they accepted my career path. They were very open-minded. They could see that I was interested in electronics. I was interested in computers and music, and somehow, it was leading somewhere. They were cautious, but they were accepting of it.

Did you have a job before you started doing music in a professional capacity, and when were you able to leave the job and focus on music full-time?

My two big career paths were working at McDonald’s and a video store. I did corn detasseling, where you do something with corn stalks in the summer in Canada. I lasted one afternoon. But I kept working at the video store, Bandito Video, until we were releasing records. I would work at Bandito Video in Windsor on a Saturday until about six or eight o’clock. Directly from there, I would take all the money I had made, and go to Detroit, to Seven Mile, to a record store called Buy-Rite to get the hottest new imports and Chicago acid house and Detroit techno.

Then I would go Downtown Detroit to the Shelter and play those records. I had to keep that job at Bandito Video, because I was the warm-up for the DJ there and I was getting enough to pay the border crossing back and forth, which was about $2.50 each way, so I was making about five bucks for those shows, and I needed Bandito Video money to be able to buy records and keep DJing.

What was the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?

My Mazda MX-3. Up until that point, I was driving around in my parents’ metallic green Toyota Tercel. Talk about everybody going left and they’re going right. In 1979, my dad is working at General Motors, and he buys a Toyota. Nobody in General Motors would dare to drive up on their first day of work in a Japanese automobile.

Probably a year or two after the Mazda, I was able to buy my own place in Windsor, which was an old fire station, that I still have, and where my main studio still is, and where my brother has his art studio. That was a really great investment.

If you had to recommend one album for someone getting into dance music, what would you give them?

The first thing that comes to mind is a Kraftwerk album just because that was so influential for me. But now that dance music has developed and gone so far — not to say in a positive or negative way, just in a different place, 30 or 40 years later, I’m not sure if Kraftwerk is the right first listen. But I’m going to go with my gut and leave it at Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express or The Man-Machine.

What was your introduction to electronic dance music?

I was listening to Detroit radio that was coming into Windsor. I heard people like Jeff Mills’ “The Wizard,” Derrick May, all this early techno and house music and I wasn’t finding that in Windsor — even though there was a great record store there called Sound Effects, I wanted to dig deeper into the crates. Growing up, one of the things my parents did most weekends was go to Detroit. In the late ‘70s, Detroit was the murder capital of America. But, we went there to go shopping at bigger malls and hobby shops or computer shops. As I got into music more and more, it felt natural for me to go to Detroit. I started going to this record store called Records For You where I found all the records I was hearing on the radio.

Once I was buying these records and I ended up at clubs in Detroit, I started to understand very quickly that a lot of the records I was buying were coming from Detroit. The labels had Detroit addresses on them. I started to see some of the people who were making the records DJ at some of these clubs. You also started to get the vibrations and echoes of this upcoming Summer of Love in the UK in ’87, ’88. Detroit was on the map, and I was meeting these people so I was sucked in really deeply, really quickly. It was a very small scene and you really felt part of a musical revolution. It was such an exciting time.

What was the last song you listened to?

My wife and I we were listening to the new Grimes yesterday, and also to her first album because that is just such an incredible album. The last record I was listening to was one of the techno records on vinyl that I was going through: Carsten Jost’s “Pinksilver” on Sender Records. It’s a record from the mid-2000s when the techno scene got very minimal. This record is really hypnotic, minimal and trippy. I played it every set, sometimes even twice, so it was really it was a nice record to find again.

What was the first electronic music show that really blew your mind?

I saw Nitzer Ebb at St. Andrews Hall Downtown Detroit, when I was 15 or 16. I probably got in with fake ID. I got goosebumps. It was just so raw and energized. Douglas McCarthy and the gang were banging on what seemed like metal cylinders. It was electronic and it was loud and fast. It was brutal, really incredible.

What’s the best setting to listen to and experience dance music, paint us a picture?

When I think about why I love dance music, at the very core, it’s a dark room, a flashing strobe light and a massive PA system which is towering above me and I have to look up to it, like David and Goliath. I remember being at the Ministry of Sound in England for an afterparty. Five of us were climbing into the bass bins. Sound is so physical, and being in a dark room with giant speakers with your eyes closed, but feeling the intensity of this strobe light and the pounding of bass, that’s the perfect experience for electronic dance music.

How did this collaboration, of sorts, with Chilly Gonzales come about?

If someone had called me up and said, “Hey, let’s get together and rework one of your old albums, and sit, and discuss, and what were you thinking 30 years ago,” it would have been like watching paint dry. But the approach came through a friend, Tiga, who is a huge Plastikman fan and a huge fan of Consumed. When he told me that his friend Chilly had done this, I thought, “Tiga wouldn’t be telling me this unless he really felt there was something there.”

I didn’t know Chilly’s music, but I knew of him and his place in the musical scene, and that he was a very serious musician. If this well-respected guy sat down at the piano and composed, and my other friend, who has been the biggest Plastikman fan for 30 years is telling me this is super cool, I’ve got to take the whole thing very seriously. COVID was happening. I was in the studio working and my mind was in creative mode. I had space to think about it, and it all sounded really interesting.

Was the album finished before you heard it?

No, there were three rough demos, and I wasn’t 100% sure after hearing the demos. I’m not a big fan of acoustics and electronic music. I find it very rarely works. One thing outshines the other, and I still felt that. But again, the people involved were of such caliber and standing, that it just felt like it needed to be allowed to go to where it was going.

I spent a bit of time talking to Tiga about what Consumed was, and then I was like, “Let’s not have these conversations.” Chilly had already started his approach to the album completely in his own mind. He had only heard the album recently, not when it first came out. He was really coming at it from a very pure, intimate place. One reason why this album has come out in such a beautiful way is that it came together in such an unconventional way. Chilly talks about collaborating with my ghost, which is very much what he was doing.

My only ask was that I was able to mix the album once it was done. I had never mixed acoustic instruments, but I wasn’t going to let anyone else touch this. If they’re going to fit together, I’m going to do it. That part was inspiring for me. I love a creative challenge. When I was doing the mixing, I had to learn about Chilly by listening to what he had done. And he had to learn about me by listening to what I had done. There was a sonic conversation. We were communicating by frequencies. We didn’t meet until after the record was done.

Did you think your fans would be horrified at the idea of anybody touching Consumed?

That was definitely something I was sensitive to when this project first came to me. But going through the whole process and slowly rediscovering Consumed, and going back into it as I was mixing it again with Chilly’s work, it reminded me of how many fans of the original felt some discomfort because it wasn’t exactly like the other Plastikman albums that had come before. It was a real departure and it split the Plastikman crowd and alienated a lot of my fans who, I think, over time, rediscovered it and found it to be one of the favorite works. It’s really interesting that Consumed has a second life, and challenges people once again to listen and accept what it’s become. Consumed is the way it is because it got the final pass through my ears. I’ve had that final pass with Consumed in Key and it should be, I hope, if not liked, at least accepted by the Plastikman fans.

Are you familiar with “business techno”?

The business of techno was “business techno” from the beginning. To make music and get it released, my partner in Plus 8, John Aquaviva and I, had to start a record label. We had to take his Visa gold card, which in 1990 had a $5,000 limit, and use that as collateral to press 500 records. Then we went down, picked the records up, repacked them, drove to UPS and shipped them to record stores. That was as much of our job and our life as being in the studio and DJing. It was exhilarating and fascinating and incredible to learn all that stuff and do it yourself. You’d get up in the morning and see what fax had come in, “Oh, 100 orders to Manchester,” and then, “Oh my god, 125 records in Frankfurt.” In a way, it’s always been “business techno,” and, in that way, it was great.

What are your thoughts about techno’s evolution?

I see the whole movement as a global phenomenon now, and it’s massive. Maybe that’s also “business techno.” I can get caught up in having been there from early on and how beautiful those intimate dancefloors were, and I can pick apart things that we’ve lost. But there are new kids coming in and finding themselves on dark dancefloors in a warehouse with a bunch of kooky people, and identifying with others and feeling a great bond that is magnified by the frequencies around them. I think the music continues to survive that way, and grow, and mutate.

Thirty years later, techno being a sound of the whole planet, that’s pretty damn amazing. When I think about John Acquaviva and I and that credit card and starting our first record label and how we were like, “Let’s just do this. We’ll make a couple records. if we have to go back to university, school will always be there. But this music, it could be over in a couple of years. Let’s just enjoy it and let’s see what happens…” As you got into it, you’re like, “Wow, maybe I could do this for a little bit longer. Well, actually, maybe this is going to be my life.” You don’t really believe that you’re going to be doing it for 30 years until it’s been 30 years and you take a pause and you’re like, “F–k, it happened.”

What’s one thing about dance music that now that’s far better than it was at the start and of your music career and what’s one thing that’s far worse?

Access to music is better. It’s incredible that people can go out dancing or be into electronic music and turn their computer on and have access to sets. It was cool and fun when you knew the person behind the DJ record store counter and you had one of five copies of a record. That was ultra-cool. But music would have never survived or got to this stage if that hadn’t changed, so I see that as a great positive.

The bad thing is, it gets confusing with how many people are coming into the electronic music community, with it being so large and popular and fame and fortune and money and superstar DJs, which are all part of bringing it up. It’s hard to figure out who really is here for the love of the culture and the love of the music.

What’s the best business decision you ever made?

Being a founding investor in Beatport. At that point, the iPod had come out and the Apple iTunes store was this big explosion of making digital music accessible and usable. You had something that was portable. John Acquaviva and I had invested in Final Scratch, which was the first digital vinyl system. We were playing mp3s and we were recording every record into the computer so that we could play them in the computer and it was really tedious. We thought this is never going to take off unless there’s a really good online distribution point for dance music. When our friends in Denver came with the idea of opening a digital music site just for dance music, for us, Final Scratch was the iPod, and they were the iTunes. It made a lot of sense. For me, that was the beginning of taking dance music to the world.

It was really a bittersweet moment because with Final Scratch and Beatport we saw a lot of really great friends and old colleagues who had spent all of their lives doing record distribution and being in vinyl manufacturing, start to crumble or lose some of those things. But the upside of what it was able to do, allowing everyone access to electronic music was unparalleled.

Who has been your greatest mentor and what was the best advice they gave you?

There’s been a lot of people throughout my life who have been influential. John Acquaviva who brought me, the creative kid into the business side, I don’t know about a specific piece of advice, but he had a big impact on how I became interested and involved and excited about being on both sides of the equation. A couple years ago, we released our own analog DJ mixer called MODEL 1. Developing something yourself, funding it yourself and making a business plan, that idea and intellect, came from John Acquaviva.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

Everything takes time.

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