Two months ago, my brain was rewired. The first thing I remember about the night it happened was hearing the tin rattle. I was in a part of LA that I would never find on my own again — indeed, a Neverland for artistic expression. As I approached a dimly lit desk, I noticed a sign that said “No Pictures Allowed”; this wasn’t the kind of spot LA bloggers flocked to for the perfect Instagram shot. The warehouse behind it appeared to be breathing — inhaling with each kick — expanding and contracting its metal frame. I wondered how I was going to survive the next five hours inside the belly of a beast that was so abrasive and monotonous on first impression. But I was aware of my own musical naiveté — and I knew that cleansing the crevices of my brain of its dependence on Western music would not happen overnight. In fact, if it was going to happen at all, it had to begin here.
I entered through a heavy door and suddenly realized how much sound it had been absorbing. The 10’ tall speaker stacks were pumping out a minimum of 125 decibels. I quickly popped in my earplugs to minimize the potential for hearing damage, but they did very little to mask the bass that I could feel thumping in the center of my chest. Kwartz, the first DJ of the night, was methodically waving his hands to-and-fro, and if I was deaf, I would have thought he was conducting an orchestra in 4/4 time. Behind him, moving visuals depicted two robotic feminine shapes dancing on a monochrome Tron-like grid. The dance floor was sparse — it was only midnight after all — but the people that were there were ready for their fix. Flanking the left subwoofer was a thin figure, dressed in black from head to toe, precariously balancing a cigarette in one hand and gently waving in time with the other. His eyes were closed as he gracefully swayed to the pounding compressed air waves. Five hours went by and he only broke his trance to light a new cigarette.
Given the nascence of the techno scene on the west coast, the opportunity to hear music of this caliber in a setting that was so true to the art was a cultural rarity. The artists were Spanish wizards producing under PoleGroup, a label created by Oscar Mulero in Madrid. They are well known in European dance music circles, but in America, where people think of Zedd when you say “DJ”, their music falls flat on untrained ears. It certainly doesn’t help that many EDM artists borrow the terms “techno” and “underground” as a way to stand out in the oversaturated electronic scene, but truthfully, techno is to EDM as Stan Getz is to synthesized elevator music. One may take elements from the other, but they are crafted with entirely different tools and intentions.
Techno is stylistically characterized by three main components: the “four on the floor” kick drum, the offbeat hi-hat, and a tempo of 120 BPM and up. Due to its minimalist nature, the timbre of the kick drum is especially notable. Most producers opt for the Roland 808 or 909 drum machines to create the bass for their tracks, because of its distinctive industrial sound that is reminiscent of 1980’s Detroit, the origin of techno. And although it is fast in tempo, its velocity is notoriously slow. There are no bass drops, no melodic climbs and jumps, nor anything to latch onto and repeat like a chorus. But if you’re not paying close attention, the track will be a completely different one by the end of the 10 minute mark. Techno demands patience — and for those willing to stop their search for some semblance of familiarity — it offers the greatest reward in the form of pure introspection.
When I first started listening to techno, its nuance was admittedly lost on me. Although I loved electronic music, my musical palate was originally shaped by mainstream electro-pop influences like Daft Punk and Skrillex. I enjoyed elements like melody, harmony, and structure that provided build ups and releases, not unlike the overused “bass drop”. I still find guilty pleasure in some of these elements, but I listen to them for different reasons now. In comparison to techno, I find most other music escapist. I say this with extreme reverence for art that is effectively escapist by design — most artists dedicate their lives to making people feel something. When Bruno Mars won six Grammys last year for his pop album, 24K, he said, “Those songs were written with nothing but joy and for one reason and one reason only and that’s love.” If people listen to Bruno Mars to transpose an image of joy and love onto themselves, I listen to techno to impose an image of myself onto the music.
I found something in that LA warehouse that night that I have been unable to find in any yoga class or any meditation app. Techno carved out the mental space I needed to define myself. Although initially overwhelming, the fast, heavy kicks acted as a steady anchor for my brain to latch onto. The other elements in the music changed slowly enough to stimulate my mind and ask me, “What did I want out of this? And more importantly, what did I want out of myself and this one life?”. I was going through what many others have described as a religious experience: a real-time transposition of myself onto the music itself. I finally realized that the repetitive, methodical tracks could only be as interesting as the deepest corners of my mind. At first, I struggled to answer my own questions; the self-exposition felt a little too much like the Orthodox confessions of my childhood. But over the course of the night, as the offbeat hi-hats grew on me, I defined, and then redefined, my raison d’etre. I found a visceral power within myself that was rooted in who I am as a woman, as an engineer, and as a futurist with altruistic ambitions. I felt alone in my mind and it was blissful. On that dance floor — with the beat in our chests as the only unifying force — we were all alone. Alone, together.
In San Francisco, the seed for techno has sprouted and is being carefully cultivated by people with a passion for cross-pollinated creative communities. Local promoters like Direct to Earth, Surface Tension, Sure Thing, and recently minted labels, Asterisk Collective and Technoclam, have been collectively throwing shows at a healthy weekly cadence for the past few years. Most of the promoters founded their labels with the goal of growing the local scene organically. While headliners like Orphx and other Berghain residents occasionally sprinkle the scene, the majority of featured artists are local SF residents. There’s a strong chance that one of your coworkers moonlights as a DJ outside of her 9–5 tech job. Asterisk co-founder, Caleb Rau, believes that techno is the key to reviving the culture of Silicon Valley:
“The meditative quality of techno can have profound effects on one’s ability to separate materiality from self. The Bay Area is especially prone to intense focus on production and output as a result of the tech scene. This focus on efficiency can deprive the city of its color and identity without some respite or inward reflection. Techno provides a uniquely introspective community that reinforces one’s sense of self by accepting all peoples and art forms.”
Every show I’ve been to has been an oasis in the tech scene’s cultural desert, and camels of misogyny and discrimination are no longer welcome to drink from the proverbial well. It’s no surprise that in this #metoo era, people are slowly finding the “alone, together” lifestyle far more appealing than the druggy hedonism of traditional rave culture. But don’t take my word for it; the proof is in the pudding.
Asterisk, which celebrates its one-year anniversary tomorrow*, was founded by two Stanford grads who found their love for “computer music” at the Center for Computer Research for Music and Acoustics. David Grunzweig and Caleb Rau founded Asterisk with the goal of featuring local artists in multiple mediums, all while promoting egalitarian principles. One of the key founding rules of the label is that every show they throw must feature at least one female artist, and they are steadily working with the all-female label Technoclam to bring that ratio to at 50/50 for all shows. Both founders are staunch feminists and have a clear no-bullshit policy that they publicize when promoting their shows: give people their space or you’re out. Techno is forcefully inclusive, and promoters like Asterisk and Technoclam are on the forefront of a sociomusical movement that I predict will shape club culture for generations to come.
*Tomorrow (4/5/18), Asterisk celebrates its one-year anniversary by throwing a show at one of the city’s premier clubs, F8. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since their humble beginnings in the upstairs lounge of Elbo Room on Valencia. If you can’t make the Thursday show, Direct to Earth is also throwing a show on Friday night.
Photo credit: Will Hamilton/Indexthumb.