The Man Behind Plastikman



Richie Hawtin is the quintessence of a Renaissance man – an invaluable DJ-producer of electronic based music, creator of the ENTER. experience, M_NUS label boss, technological visionary, and art curator. Oh, and he’s Plastikman. Plastikman is Richie Hawtin – figuratively the same species, different animal – similar in creativity, dissimilar in agendas. In June, Richie dropped his first Plastikman release since 2003’s Closer. EX takes the signature Plastikman minimalism from the previous six albums to create a soundscape that includes multilayers of Detroit techno, acid house basslines, and an unexpected inclusion of perfectly synced melodies. Richie states, “Let’s be honest, I hadn’t written music for ten years. When I first sat down, I was like ‘Okay, I know what I used to sound like. I remember how to make those records, but I don’t really. That’s a long time ago, like 20 years ago.’ So, it was very weird trying to find myself and figure out what I should sound like. That whole journey became the album.” According to Richie, EX is just the beginning (he’s already back in the studio) – the first “book” of his newly redefined and ongoing Plastikman collection.

Life + Times: I noticed with Generation Y that’s now listening to electronic dance music, not all but many of them are not really familiar with the history. So, Plastikman and Richie Hawtin – how would you explain the difference between the two projects?
Richie Hawtin
: This probably would have been harder to explain earlier in my career because somehow they were closer together or more intertwined. The last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time traveling the world deejaying and kind of really practicing or perfecting – just really getting into the craft of deejaying and finding my own very specific way of playing. So I think Richie Hawtin as a DJ doing his own kind of take on what you can creatively do with other people’s music. That’s a very key point. It’s like, of course I’m playing some of my own music in my DJ sets but, it’s not about my music. It’s about what I do to other’s people music or an assortment of music and try to make that somehow sound like Richie Hawtin because I don’t like playing one record after another. I’m not good at playing the hits. I’m trying to kind of make a collage or a real time tapestry of music and sounds and have people thrilled by the way that I specifically do it. Still, the basis of it is manipulating pre-recorded music in my own way.

The Plastikman project – which may also sound opposite to what some people might have expect – is actually closer to Richie Hawtin than actually the DJ stuff because although I’m trying to stamp my own personality on the DJ stuff, it is still made up of other people’s music. But when I go into the studio as Plastikman, it’s me and my machines – my drum machines, my computers, my synthesizers – and there’s nothing in between those machines and the person who is controlling them. So, it’s very much more directly connected to my feelings of that day, my emotions, [and] my ideas that are in my head. So although it has another name, Plastikman is probably more pure Richie Hawtin than you’ll get when you actually see the performer named Richie Hawtin.

L+T: Got it. That actually kind of leads to another question I have with that identity. When you first started the Plastikman project over ten years ago, how do you feel that your initial ideas for it have evolved over time?
: I think the Plastikman sound is very tied to this kind of darker, sublime atmosphere. It’s very hypnotic, it’s very moody. It’s really trying to suck relativeness into a certain mind state for the duration of each of the album whether that’s 40 minutes, 50 minutes, or one hour. The development over time is like, you know, finding new ways to interact with the machines I use to kind of continue to develop that sound. I think you hear differences in structure in how much space is in between the sound. A lot of people tie me to the kind of minimalistic type of movement and a lot of the music that I’ve been doing over the last 20 years has kind of come more stripped down as time has gone, you know. That’s the exploration of my music and the exploration and development of Plastikman sound is how I can continue to touch people and take them on a trip with as little framework as possible. I don’t make pop songs. They’re not really super catchy. They take a long time to develop. People need to have patience. There’s a lot of space in those pieces. So I hope as I explore where I’m going, each album gives people a different way to explore the sounds of Plastikman.

L+T: I agree with you. I feel like with EX it’s very expansive – no pun intended. I think of the old adage of, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” With this EX album although you can hear some of your signature minimalistic tones – you’ve branched out musically. I admire that. In what specific ways did EX challenge you creatively?
: You know, I haven’t recorded an album for a long time. For a long time, I didn’t really feel like it. Most of the albums come when I feel I have something – a development of something that I’ve said before or there’s been a new technology or piece of equipment that allows me to kind of reinterpret things I’ve done in a different way. With EX, it takes steps further into – it delves into more space than the other albums. It also brings in deeper and longer, more complicated melodies. Somehow I was never really that melodic or interested in writing notes, but in this album the best moments for me are where you can really grab on and sing along with the accent lines. They moved a little bit from hypnotic to more melodic. That’s kind of the consistency of this album – losing yourself and feeling free but still having these points of reference.

L+T: Very cool. You just mentioned the significance of technology. With “EXpire” on this album, you used a TB-303 which is so old-school. What made you decide to use such a throwback piece of equipment on this album?
: Well, every track has some type of sounds generated from a TB-303 or a TB-303 like machine. The two threads that bind all Plastikman albums together are really Richie Hawtin and his exploration into how far the classic acid sound can go. So, it’s really featured everywhere. On this album it’s funny, some people are quite sure it’s an old 303 on there, but actually there’s no original 303’s on this album. It’s just either plug-in versions or other devices that tried to sound like 303. My mission was to make the album sound like a classic 303 Plastikman album, but without using the original machine and try to have it feel new and exciting again. It’s only subtle things you need to change and suddenly things are sounding fresh. It’s like changing a track on a certain sound. It just opens up in a different way than you ever heard before. Suddenly, a sound that you know just feels different and that was kind of the exploration that I was on for this album.

L+T: It’s so easy to have puns with this album. (Laughs)
: Yeah, that’s why it’s called that. I didn’t know it was going to be expansive, but it turned out that way – and exploration. Those are the two words that really were in my head for the whole writing period. Let’s be honest, I hadn’t written music for ten years. When I first sat down, I was like ‘Okay, I know what I used to sound like. I remember how to make those records, but I don’t really. That’s a long time ago, like 20 years ago.’ So, it was very weird trying to find myself and figure out what I should sound like. That whole journey became the album.

L+T: I was reading in a past interview about when you first performed this album at the Guggenheim. You brought out that this allowed you to step away from the dance floor and it gave you a huge amount of freedom back. When you refer to freedom, in what sense are you referring to it – creatively or personally?
: Yeah, that’s a good question. (Pause) Of course there’s a structure to dance music and club music. I feel that I have quite a lot of freedom in my DJ sets creatively. I play lots of different tracks and styles, but somehow I always bring whatever I’m playing into a context that I’m happy with. So, I don’t feel that I’m handcuffed and I love deejaying, but I do respect that the Hawtin DJ shows do work in some type of framework. I’m very happy to make people stop dancing and bring it back up. That’s part of the dynamics of a great DJ set, but if most of the DJ set in a club was not danceable it probably wouldn’t work – and I probably wouldn’t be as successful as I am with that side of me. (Laughs) So to have a different type of freedom with playing at the Guggenheim, I know that – one – of course there would be Plastikman fans and they would be excited and hopefully have anticipation and pretty much be open to anything that I was going to do. Then, there was going to be the art crowd who probably wouldn’t make a difference if I had a beat or not, you know, [they] were either indifferent or maybe like pleasantly surprised by what was coming out of the speakers. Then, there’s fashion people who maybe would be in the same boat.

So, I was like, ‘Well, who am I playing for here?’ It was really like, ‘Oh, I’m not playing for anyone. I’m gonna play for myself.’ Actually if I was playing for anybody the nearest next person to me would be Raf Simons from Dior because he was a really big Plastikman fan. Also, from his friends I heard that he played some of my albums just constantly – so constantly that they’re sick and tired of them. (Laughs) ‘Well, Raf’s a fan. I’m pretty free to do whatever I want here.’ Since this whole project was an exploration, I was like ‘Okay, let’s get up there and play something that I’m happy with and that I feel really, really positive and proud of.’ That was kind of the framework. And also with a DJ set there’s a lot of things on YouTube with people watching and there’s new tracks coming in and out, so there’s different types of anticipation and wants and needs for a crowd like that. This was the first kind of Plastikman tour in years. I’m playing a show and people knew that. If I didn’t know what I was supposed to sound like then surely nobody else would. It was really, really, like anything could go.

L+T: That had to be exciting!
: Oh, for sure! You need something exciting to be doing right after three months on Ibiza or you’re not gonna have enough energy to do it. (Laughs)

L+T: That makes complete sense. With that being said, what do you have planned going forward?
: There was a couple of milestones in the project. When Raf asked me to do the project, I kind of knew in my head that I didn’t want to do what he asked me to do. He asked me to do a Plastikman show that he had kind of seen on YouTube, but I didn’t want to get up there and do something that he had heard. I didn’t want to get up in the Guggenheim for the first time and just rehash an old show. So I had this crazy idea to record all new music. I had about ten days to do it. I didn’t tell my team or anything. They were all working on the old show getting it ready to go. (Laughs) About five or six days before I was like, ‘Okay guys! Just to let you know, I’ve decided it’s gonna be all new material. We need to create a whole new show.’ They were like, “Are you kidding me?” I was like, ‘No.’ I’ve done enough work that I was positive at that point that I could pull it off. All of us, my team, we all turned directions and we made that show happen.

It wasn’t until just before the show I was like, ’Fuck. We should be recording this because it’s all new material. I’m really happy with this. Maybe it could be a release.’ By the time the show was done, it was like, ‘I think I just did a new release.’ (Laughs) Really within the next couple of weeks we planned the Sonár show. The end of the story which is what I’m trying to explain is it really became something that surprised all of us. Now after the two shows, the most important thing for me is that over the last ten years I didn’t do much music. I just did tours and remixes of old material. Everything was great, but now that I have new material – I don’t want to just sit back on my laurels and just rehash this new material. Now that EX is out and now that the Sonár second show is done, it’s finished. Now it’s back to the studio to continue where I left off. Really from the last moment of the last track of the album, “Exhale”, that to me I was just starting to get going. I really want to see where that goes, because that would be disappointing if I put all this energy now back into the Plastikman project finally done an album of exploration and experiments and take everything that I’ve learned in the last eight to nine months to continue and go much further and deeper of where I think it has even more potential.

L+T: I’m looking forward to whatever comes next. So, when Ibiza wraps up you’ll be back in the studio?
: I have a small, small studio here so I’m playing around. I guess making music is like riding a bike – you don’t forget. The first time you start riding without your hands after a couple of years, you’re not as good as you used to be when you were a kid. I feel like I can ride one-handed a bit now. (Laughs)

L+T: (Laughs) Nice! I feel like a lot of artists and fans focus on what’s wrong with the electronic dance music industry as of late. With your ENTER. experiment you’re surrounded by so many different artists – both new and legendary. What do you think is the most exciting aspect of dance music in the times that we’re in now?
: Wow. I think it’s really exciting that now after modern electronic music has been building for the past 25 years and now we’re seeing this mass explosion of people looking into our scenes, more kids than ever before getting into electronic music. I think this is the beginning of really when electronic music can touch more people than ever before. I want to be part of that. I want to help as a musician, as a DJ who’s breaking new music and helping promote and also just kind of a spokesman who’s been around the scene for a long time. Many people know how wonderful and how deep and diverse and intricate this whole world of electronic music is, you know. So many people are just coming in now and just seeing one new artist or a little part of one scene and thinking, “Well, that’s kind of cool” – but it’s not just that. It’s not just what I’m doing. It’s not just what Carl Craig, Derrick May, and what those guys have done the last 20 years. It’s also not what Sonny (Skrillex) and the gang have done in the last 18 months. It’s about all of that. Not everybody’s going to understand or appreciate all that, but it’d be nice if as many people get a bit more sense of the depth of the scene than there is right now.

L+T: Agreed. Very well put. Now for my last question I end with every producer – what are your thoughts on DJs as musicians. Is a DJ a musician?
: (Pause) It’s like, what is a musician? There’s musicians and then there’s fucking musicians. There’s DJs – guys that get up there and play one track after another, have a set list, do the same shit in and out every night. Then there’s fucking creative people that get up there and mix together other people’s music in a way that it becomes something much, much more. I think the best DJ – the most creative DJs on the planet – are as good if not better than most amazing musicians out there. Great DJs are like great jazz artists. They live on the edge, they improvise, they go with the flow, and they take you to the really, incredibly deep places.

L+T: Wow. I can honestly say I’ve never heard it put like that. Then again, I never get the same response at all. I respect that.
: (Laughs) I’m very opinionated. The art form of deejaying and the creativity of deejaying is absolutely mind-blowing and it’s at the infancy of the general public understanding that. That’s a big thing for me to try and bring to the people is just to show the depth of creativity and what people can do. So, that’s one of the next missions because right now one of the side effects of electronic music becoming kind of a household name is so widespread. The definition of what a DJ actually becomes more restrictive. A DJ in my mind isn’t someone who plans and makes set lists and shows up at a gig and does ten in a row exactly the same. It’s just like a great live show. If I go to see a band and it’s my favorite band but they play the same ten hits in the same order every time I do a live show – is that really a live show? No, that’s just them getting over and trying to make some money. I want to see my favorite band wow me, to surprise me – and that’s what any great artist, what a great musician, what a great DJ should do every night or at least try to achieve that every night.

EX (released via Minus Inc.) is out now on iTunes.