«Richie Hawtin is the extrovert guy and Plastikman is the introverted side of my personality» – In conversation with one of the biggest names in the techno music scene
Now based in Berlin, but born in Banbury, in the English Oxfordshire, and raised in Windsor, Canadian Ontario, where he moved with is family at the age of nine, Richie Hawtin is one of the biggest name in techno music scene (Best Techno Dj at Dj Awards for three times, seventeen nominees). Producer, dj, label manager and tech stuff passionate, he broke into the world of electronic music in the early 1990s, developing his own style and ranging from harder noisy techno to deep minimal abstract acid.
Growing up in Detroit: ‘Motor City’ sounds techno
Looking at the map, you see that Windsor is very close to Detroit, the industrial city that provided a context for the development of techno as an identifiable genre in the late 1980s. The relocation of the family in that area, due to the father’s work as a robotics technician for General Motors, was a lucky turning point for the young Richie Hawtin.
«My life would not be the way it is now, if I hadn’t grown up next to Detroit. I was very lucky to be a teenager who had to move to this Canadian town of Windsor from England and that life change made my parents, my brother and me very open and curious about this new place, where we’re living».
The perception of the city and its suburbs was different, to outsiders where the place of factories and assembly lines were fascinating. «When I was like nine, ten, eleven years old, I saw that my parents were attracted and open to Detroit, instead there were a lot of people, who grew up in that area, that were afraid of it. We didn’t have that fear, so the curiosity of my parents became my own curiosity». The alternative vision of reality, the search for something different already belonged to his way of thinking. «As a teenager I wanted to be a little bit different than everybody else: I was involved in different music, I liked to wear different clothes and I was always searching out for something a bit more alternative». It didn’t take long for Hawtin to discover the parallel world of clubs. «The curiosity of Detroit took me there to find other people I felt connected to and it took me to clubs, where I found electronic music, industrial music and techno, of course. I started to understand that the records that I was listening to in the clubs had actually been made in Detroit and I felt a lot of excitement about that discovery and those brand new records. I felt that not only I was hearing great records, but I was hearing something that was made in the city and it was typical of it. I felt that records were alive and it is something that can make a big impression on a kid: I saw something happening right in front of me and I really wanted to be part of it. In that moment I understood that it was an intersection for my life, a key point: I felt that something special was happening».
The stars were aligned
All the pieces of the mosaic were positioned to create the conditions for Hawtin’s future career as an electronic musician and dj. «My dad was a huge music fan and he had a large record collection with albums from Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, New Order and Pink Floyd. When I was a kid, their albums were the soundtrack of our family daily life, because my dad was always listening to music, coming out of his Hi-Fi system. For his background and his job as a robotics technician, my dad was also very much into technical and electronics stuff and early computer systems, so it was quite obvious where I ended up: I was a very curious kid, my dad was into electronics and he used to play electronic music, we moved next to Detroit: the stars were aligned».
The family musical background influenced Hawtin’s taste. «When I started to make music, I had a huge fascination for works of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk: what I liked about both of those bands was that they did these incredibly long conceptual albums with a well-defined theme in each one, even with songs of twenty minutes. Other important artists for me were New Order, Skinny Puppy and industrial bands».
Then Hawtin met the Detroit clubbing world. «I started to listen to Detroit techno from Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, but also Juan Atkins and Jeff Mills were key figures in my life. They were important not only for their music, but also because they were from Detroit and I used to meet these guys. Their energy inspired me. At that time the techno scene was very small – not like now, where techno djs are kind of stars in big stages – and they were close to the audience. Djs and techno producers were among the people, you could meet them in the club and even ask them what record they were playing or how they made your favorite track. This element was also part of the allure and it made the early techno scene very special, because it was as if everybody was on very similar wavelengths and on a similar level. I felt that the situation was more approachable and exciting for me».
Richie Hawtin released his debut album under the name of F.U.S.E. in 1990, then he created his main artistic identity, Plastikman, in 1993, developing his sound through early connotations of acid techno and high levels of energy to sonic experiments in futuristic rhythms and thinner atmospheres. Plastikman is an alter ego, a defined artistic personality who has his own direction. «Plastikman and Richie Hawtin became more distinct as time went on. Maybe Richie Hawtin really stands for this more infectious club pummeling sound, very much dance floor focused, instead Plastikman is always a bit more static and a bit more hypnotic, somehow it’s a bit more cerebral. Richie Hawtin is the extrovert guy and Plastikman is the introverted side of my personality. Richie Hawtin can be a dj for hundreds of thousands people releasing energy to entertain them, instead Plastikman is much more insular, much more intimate and it’s really a place where I go when I’m creating something very specifically for myself and it’s much more personal. Plastikman is about me, while actually Richie Hawtin, especially when I’m deejaying, it’s about me and the audience and these feedback loops. They are really two different things, even if they sometimes crossover and they talk, but they’re definitely coming from different places».
The importance of art and image
As a music producer, Richie Hawtin seems to have a strong relationship with visual elements and visual art.
«I’ve always been interested in contemporary art. My brother is a painter and we spent many years living in the same place with my parents, then we moved together in a warehouse, where he had his paintings studio and I had my music studio, so we shared inspiration and I learnt so many things from my brother Matthew about art, about people like Rothko, Anish Kapoor… Art gives me a reference point. It’s something that I can look at or experience by eyes, so I take those visual ideas and I try to incorporate them in a sonic landscape or architecture. For me looking at painting is very productive: for example, the shades of colors in Rothko’s paintings are really inspirational for me, when I’m working on small sounds, because they remind me that I have to give each sound a very specific place in space, they represent the way sounds can merge together and create something new, the way I can make the most impact socially and emotionally with the smallest amount of sounds. For me there is always an interesting connection between the visual medium and the sound».
Recently Richie Hawtin aka Plastikman made the sound for the art project infin.1.iridescent.stream by thecontemporary artist John Gerrard. In the work, which is a virtual representation of a natural element of the world, the digital copy of a python bites its tail as it moves endlessly tracing the figure of an eight. «This collaboration with John Gerrard makes it clear that, when you bring beautiful images together with beautiful sounds and those two things have a synchronicity or a cohesive feeling, they can elevate the whole experience. You feel like you’re nearly seeing more than you normally see or you’re nearly hearing more than you normally hear, because you’re using two of your senses. Humans have five senses, so when we can put two or three senses together, we can feel a much more profound impact on us. This last year, doing this kind of collaboration, that’s been very interesting and inspiring for me, because I’ve just seen how much more energy you can send to the people by bringing multiple senses together».
Techno music for fashion shows: a collaboration with Prada
A similar experience is working with Prada: the fashion brand asked Hawtin – again under the stage name of Plastikman – to produce soundtracks for its shows. «The collaboration started last August, when Raf Simons, Prada co-creative director, called me up and he explained that they were working on their runway show project, trying to create something more than a virtual show, a real cinematic experience. I had been a fan of Miuccia Prada’s work since 1997-98, when I released the album called Consumed as Plastikman. I love the silhouettes, I love the details from Prada design and so, when Raf called me and I heard that he and Miuccia would like to work together with me, I just thought “wow”. I thought that Plastikman’s work suited the direction that they were going. Of course, it was a challenge for me, because I’ve never done anything like this before, but I like to push myself into new directions. My focus was in understanding how to bring my sonic ideas and aesthetics into Prada visual film concept».
Hawtin approached the work, taking care of everything down to the smallest detail. «I did some studying, I watched a couple of documentaries about the whole history of Prada just to have a bit of historical context. The most important reason that prompted me to accept it was that Prada is independent, even though it’s a huge company: the idea behind the brand is staying independent, especially in this day and age. It is in alignment with the way I have tried to stay in control of my own brand. Probably I wouldn’t use the word underground for what I do, because I’m very well known, but I think the word ‘independent’ is a strong term representing my work and my connection with Prada, too».
At the end of November, Prada and Richie Hawtin presented a new project, called Prada Extends, with the aim of giving new opportunities for young and emerging artists from different places in the world, sometimes marginal and far from the most well-known circuits. «After working on the floor for the shows, we felt that we had started a really intimate relationship and we were just trying to see how we could develop it into other areas. Looking at my work, music is such an interesting way to touch people and it lets you release your emotions very directly. Especially electronic music can transcend culture, language or borders and it can speak in a kind of universal language. Fashion also can do the same, people see fashion in different ways and they can use it to communicate to other people around them, saying anything by words. As we said, music and fashion have a really powerful synergy and so Prada Extends allows Prada to step forward into different cities and connect to many musicians – the next generation of musicians – to help them to highlight new ideas, new forms of music and the celebration of that connection between music and fashion».
In Hawtin’s words there is satisfaction for the potential of a project in the making and for the strong creative bond created with Prada. «They had extended and opened up the family and welcomed me. I am excited about Prada Extends, because it is reaching out further to the musicians community around the world and extending the concept that the Prada aesthetics continue to connect new music to new audiences around the world».
The format will be a series of events in different places all around the world. «In some cities of specific regions we will bring together local musicians with local visual artists in order to explore the idea of extending possibilities. The concept is a square box, like a dance floor, where there are four artists – one on each side – playing and communicating with each other, while the audience is rotating around them. People can watch, over the whole time, each artist in a kind of a perfect setup. Sonic and visual aesthetics can communicate and also communicate with the audience. It is something hybrid between installation, party and celebration, bringing this sort of combined aesthetics of music and visual effects together into an impactful multi-sensorial experience: the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way you enter a room… It is designed specifically for electronic music. We are looking for next generation sound and visual artists, who are pushing the boundaries of creativity, who have their own identity, but who can also represent this shared aesthetic, working together».
From an aesthetic point of view, there is also another common thread, as Plastikman himself points out: «There is an underlying theme in this project, which is ‘less is more’, a key guide-line for me every time I am involved in anything».
British-Canadian electronic musician, producer, label manager and dj. Raised close to Detroit, he was involved in the second wave of Detroit techno in the early 1990s, becoming one of the most important artists in the global clubbing scene both by his real name and his alter ego, Plastikman. In summer 2020 he started a collaboration with Prada.