In the anonymous realm of electronic composition, Richie Hawtin cuts a somewhat unique figure.
While most producers tend to be invisible forces moving behind the machines that bring their music to life, Hawtin is the rare electronic musician who has honed a concrete image. If you're familiar with the man and his work, in fact, chances are you've already got that image in mind. The glasses, the shaved head, the Plastikman logo, the clinical, minimalist aesthetic associated with his record labels, Minus and Plus 8 - all contribute to an idea of who Richie Hawtin is, might even trick you into thinking you know Richie Hawtin.
Now, come Closer.
Richie Hawtin's first album in five years under the revered Plastikman alias marks another unpredictable artistic leap and an unprecedented move towards the personal for one of second-wave techno's most celebrated auteurs. The music - remote, hallucinatory and disorientingly Cubist, although not without the occasional, inviting wiggle - is as enigmatic as anything in Hawtin's eclectic canon, continuing the uneasy voyage into the outer limits of mutant acid house Plastikman first began a decade ago with the seminal Sheet One. But it's also the most accurate channeling of the sounds rattling around inside his head Hawtin has achieved to date. Of the voices and the emotions, too: On Closer, for the first time in his career, Hawtin speaks.
"After 10 years of recording Plastikman records, every day I learn new things about the way to record the instrumentation," says Hawtin, seated amidst the gleaming, Star Trek-like confines of the studio beneath the former firehouse in Windsor, Ontario, he calls home. "And as you get more and more comfortable, you get closer to being able to take what that idea is in your head, that thing you're trying to grasp, and actually getting it through the equipment and having it come out the other end. On all the other albums I've done so far, more 'me' has ended up coming out the other end than on the previous one.
"With this one, though, I definitely feel more vulnerable than I have before. I don't know if that's because of the vocals on there, or because the wall between me and the audience has, over the last 10 years, slowly come down and brought me closer and closer to them. But listening to what's on this album, sonically and vocally, it's as close thus far to how my mind really works."
That mind is as restless as ever. After probing the dungeon-like depths of ultra-minimal techno on 1998's spare Plastikman masterpiece, Consumed, and completely redefining the concept of the DJ-mix disc - twice in two years - with 1999's sleek dancefloor juggernaut, Decks, EFX & 909, and its highly ambitious follow-up, DE9: closer to the edit, Hawtin ventures further into the unknown on Closer.
It's unmistakably a Plastikman record, although Hawtin confesses the decision to revive his best known alter ego is never consciously his own, but one determined by a nebulous "state of mind" and the music that tends to come out of it. And while the Plastikman signature has proven to be more a half-elated, half-creeped-out feeling than a specific formula, the hallmarks of the Plastikman sound are certainly here: Uneasy atmospheres; subtle shifts and trompes l'oeil amidst complex, repetitive motifs; rhythms that bend time, entwine impossibly, collapse inward upon themselves and then reassemble. The twitchy sense of funk that informed Sheet One and its more spacious sequels, Musik and Artifakts (BC) was reduced to a distant, metronomic pulse through much of Consumed, but it's once again in the foreground. The Roland TB-303, the archaic "super bass line" machine that was a defining component of Closer's predecessors (albeit often in unrecognizable form), for its part, remains a rare constant in the decade-long evolution of the Plastikman sound.
"That was the box that was used on every album. And over the last 10 years, each time I found I had something more to say under the name Plastikman, each time I had a new theme to explore, it was also around the same time that I'd come across a new piece of equipment, a new way of processing that box," says Hawtin. The child of a robotics technician, after all, he's not averse to new gadgets himself - hence his proclivity for augmenting the standard two-turntables-and-a-mixer DJ set-up with the Roland 909 drum machine, samplers, looping devices, effects processors, the digital/vinyl interface Final Scratch and, most recently, more easily portable iPod technology ("It's always been about what I can do, at this moment, with the technology at hand," he professes).
Weighing heavily on Hawtin's mind when work began on Closer was "the sound and structure and atmosphere of the very first Plastikman album, Sheet One," he notes, since the new LP arrives within weeks of the first's 10-year anniversary. It's a minor milestone in some senses, perhaps, but an eon in electronic-music terms, where rapid obsolescence is a given. One goal thus became "to take those sounds from the original album, update them and move on to a place that would be interesting."
"Whether I'm DJ-ing or especially with the Plastikman albums, there has to be a reference point," opines Hawtin. "And with all the Plastikman albums, that reference point has been the 303 - that sound, that texture, even if it's heavily mutated or modified or filtered. Whether people know it or not, there's something there which is familiar. But it's really important that you take them somewhere new.
"There's so much more power when you can take someone somewhere they haven't gone without them knowing it until it's finished and then they're, like, 'Wow.' And that's what Derrick May used to do to me when he used to DJ. I'm dancing and I'm totally into it and then it's, like, four hours later and what the fuck just happened? I don't know anything he just played. I don't even know how I was dancing to some of that stuff."
Last winter, Hawtin eased off on the manic, worldwide touring schedule he's observed since the end of the 1990s and returned from a year-long stint living as "one of the faces" in New York to self-imposed exile in Windsor.
This low-lying "Canadian suburb" of techno's battered birthplace, Detroit, has been Hawtin's home since his family - father Michael, mother Brenda and brother Matthew - uprooted from its native England and emigrated to Canada when he was nine years old. It was in Windsor that Hawtin cultivated an appreciation for electronic music through judicious sampling of his father's record collection (Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, New Order, Genesis, Pink Floyd), and in Windsor that he inherited his father's penchant for tinkering with computers and other technological doodads.
It's also here that he became irrevocably smitten with the early techno records of Juan Atkins and Derrick May that would come wafting through his window at night via Detroit's 96.3 FM and a shadowy DJ known as The Wizard (and better known today as Jeff Mills). It was here that he started DJ-ing, sneaking across the river to spin at grimy Detroit nightspots like the Shelter and to mingle with techno's founding fathers before he was legally old enough to attend clubs as a patron. It was here that he began Plus 8 records in 1990 with friend John Acquaviva, here that he released his first track ("Elements of Tone," under the name States of Mind) and here, too, that the first four Plastikman albums were born.
"I didn't even tell all my friends that I was back in Windsor," recalls Hawtin. "I was really being kind of weird about it. I really wanted to be isolated, because this album is a very personal album. It's detached and it's about the things inside my head - it's not about anything else. It's about being cut off, isolated and alone, and I really felt that was something I needed to explore.
"I just wanted to be cut off from the rest of the world. And Windsor's pretty cut off from the rest of the world."
Cloistered at home, where he used to rip pages out of "whatever book I'm reading at the time" to jot down fleeting sonic ideas, Hawtin now found himself scribbling words in the margins, too.
He'd been experimenting with the human voice in earnest for a few months already, and distortions of real pre- and post-party conversations can be found amidst the throttling tunes collected last year on The Sound Of The Third Season, a subversive collaborative mix with pal Sven Vath inspired by the wild nights the two shared while DJ-ing in Ibiza for the summer. Now, though, nascent verse/chorus/verse structures were emerging. In the case of the single "Disconnect" - a seething, long-fused potboiler that seems to address the masochism involved in a dysfunctional relationship - Hawtin suddenly found himself with "this song that was, like, four verses and had absolutely no music to go with it. How the hell did I go from being an instrumental, electronic artist to recording vocals?"
Still, as Hawtin notes, the voice has always played an important part in Plastikman records. Sheet One famously featured a disembodied soul intoning "you're all crazy" in the voids between tracks. Vocal samples were scattered here and there on Musik, while Hawtin "chopped up and assembled" snippets of friends' conversations for Artifakts.
"That was kind of the seed that got planted last year," he says. "Could I make something that meant something, that made sense, that had the right texture for the stuff I want to do? So I started playing around and processing my voice. Would my voice integrate with the music I was starting to record?"
Curiously, it was the completion of one of the vocal tracks, the ominous "Ask Yourself" - which features Hawtin's heavily manipulated voice in conversation with itself - that solidified Plastikman's impending resurrection. "'Ask Yourself' was not the first track that was recorded, but it was the point of no return. When I finished that track, the vocals came together, the music came together. As soon as the master was played, I was, like, 'The Plastikman album has started from this point on.' And from that point on, everything made sense."
What emerged is a record consumed with ideas of duality: Sanity and insanity, decision and indecision, action and reaction (or lack thereof). Hawtin, a Gemini, isn't a particularly enthusiastic student of astrology, but he concedes that he's "a total Gemini - I'm definitely two people."
His multifaceted career is itself an exercise in contradictions - and often in contradictions within the warring sides of that duality. The consummate, technically proficient, forward-thinking "DJ's DJ," he's also earned a reputation on dancefloors across the globe as an unforgiving, endurance-testing techno brutalist and an unparalleled party jock. At the same time, he has intermittently applied the mind-bending sonic skills learned behind the decks to art installations and more obtuse, unflinchingly challenging recorded projects like Consumed and 1996's Concept 1 series.
"My whole career has been about this tightrope walk, going back and forth between my own split personality and ideas - going between playing clubs to five or ten thousand people and rocking it and partying and then making experimental music sets like Consumed or the Concept series," he says. "And I think that duality has really kind of come forth on this album more so than any of the previous albums.
"I'm always going back and forth in my ideas, and my friends are always making reference to the idea that I'm a Gemini. It really nails me, the idea of duality. There are two different sides I'm always playing in the electronic industry - rocking the party and then the introspective and experimental, the difference between who is Hawtin and who is Plastikman. And this all really came together on 'Ask Yourself.'"
Further reflection on even more complex dualities also led to much of the cryptic self-exploration transpiring on Closer.
"Living in New York, there were all these new dynamics with meeting new people - what they wanted, why they wanted to meet you," Hawtin observes. "There's this weird dynamic of who I am because of the success I've had over the last 10 years. I started thinking about what kind of mask I was projecting. And when you start meeting a lot of new people, who've only met you through what they've read or what they've heard about you down the line, you don't have the heart to tell them what's true and what's not and it just becomes mythology. Perhaps they do feel that they're close to you, but I don't feel like I'm close to them.
"The image I've had in the past has been quite well known. The glasses, the bald head - it had become part of who I was to people who didn't know me. The longer you keep doing this type of thing - the Plastikman series, my record label - there's more and more baggage of what people think they know about you. And maybe this record feels personal because maybe this is the first album that people can listen to and feel close, or 'closer,' to me."
The resulting album - familiar yet alien, queasy yet comforting, intensely personal yet veiling its confessions in pseudonym and technological disguise - is, perhaps, the first Richie Hawtin record that truly arrives, to borrow a phrase you might have heard somewhere before, from his mind to yours.
"When I did the first Plastikman album, I had an idea at a party where you could actually physically walk into a speaker - a little playground you could run into and play around in," he says. "But with this album, instead of having a playground in a speaker, with beats and kicks and basslines, you're actually running around in my head and tripping over lost thoughts and ideas, fragments of memory. Plastikman has always been about being lost in your own head. There've always been references to drug culture, to tripping, to having an altered consciousness. And I think this really goes one step closer.
"Instead of making a soundscape for people to lose themselves in, it's more like being locked inside my own head."
Or, at the very least, it gets us a little closer.