Detroit Sludge: The Micro Scene Of The Motor City


The internet, so current wisdom goes, has stopped the incubation of new sounds in electronic music because it allows any local scene to immediately be heard and copied in other cities around the world. At this year’s Movement Electronic Music Festival in Detroit, however, we got our introduction to the world of Detroit sludge, a sound still so localised it’s currently being made by only a handful of producers.

The two we meet are Marshall Applewhite, real name Joel Dunn, who released his debut album Leave Earth on Yo Sucka! last year, and The Friend, aka Konstantin Papatheodoropoulos, a seasoned producer with a number of other aliases including Simple and F.A.M.E. Often put out on vinyl only releases, via labels such as Local Heat or How To Kill, sludge’s dark, gloopy, mid-tempo stomp has already caught the ear of perceptive US selectors and beyond. “"We can't keep records locally,” says Dunn, “we can't keep record at Hard Wax or Gramophone in Chicago."  

Perhaps it’s because sludge feels like a sound so genuinely born out of its environment. While Juan Atkins watched the sky for UFOs, hoping for salvation from another civilization, Dunn’s alter ego borrows the name of the infamous US leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult. In 1997, believing that Earth was about to be ‘recycled’, Applewhite and his followers committed mass suicide in the belief that their souls would board a spaceship bound for another planet. The failed dreams of techno are the heavy, dark, weight of sludge. 

Perhaps, this time, the internet might also be able to help. "You literally can't do anything being here,” says Dunn on a problem that seems to face many US artists, admired in Europe but barely able to get a booking in their home city. “I have a passport, if anybody wants to fly me literally anywhere, I will play for brisket or mac and cheese, couple of bucks, a place to stay…" 

So keep watching the sky, hopefully you will see these guys fly.

What is sludge?

MA: It's a slow tempo mix of ghetto tech, industrial, acid house… A lot of sub bass, raw, very unconventionally mastered. More texture based.

TF: Unfiltered, unhinged, trashy, kind of pitched down. Built around the energy and not so much the fluidity. It's not supposed to be smooth, it's jarring. 

MA: It's not meant for digital consumption as much as white label. You're not opening with these tracks, you play 'em late. You play 'em slow. 

Doing the vinyl thing you can play them interchangeably on 33 or 45. We've really come up with a formula where the subs will hit slow or fast, the drums will hit slow or fast. You're not losing anything, you can gain things at either range.

How does it relate to Detroit and the legacy of techno, if at all?

MA: Everything here is kind of stagnant, everyone here is ripping off Berlin, everybody is ripping off the UK. What people call Detroit techno is more Berlin or Chicago, you know? We were never really that four on the floor city. I mean, you're got Robert Hood and Jeff Mills doing that. But the real Detroit techno is like a broken, electro sound, you know? And it was experimental, they were playing with sounds. They weren't just using presets. They weren't trying to be superstars, they were just expressing themselves. They were doing this for club.

TF: It was also, originally when they were making techno, a kind of fuck you mentality towards the establishment and towards the oppression of technology in Detroit. And as things progressed over time, there was no more of that energy that used to be energising in the scene. The idea behind sludge was a return to that. Fuck you, we're gonna put it out because we just wanna put it out. We're not going to be something that we're not.

Did you come up with the name sludge?

MA: I mean, that was John Ryan, wasn't it? John Ryan was making slow disco that he was calling disco sludge. You had shown him some stuff. And he was kind of like, this is actual sludge. You hear the music and it drips. It's slow, it's very dark and murky.

TF: It could be slow techno, but it lacks so much definition that when you hear it, it doesn't sound like normal techno.

Given the tempo, is it related to moombahton at all?

MA: When The Friend and I first met we were calling in moombahton, but it wasn't like Dillon Francis. I was doing a more techno sound with the tropical rhythms, but there was nothing really like bleepy or whatever about it. The Friend heard that and was making music in the same tempo range, but really it was a lot more dark and pitched down. We started talking, we should really combine these ideas, you know? Obviously if you hear our tracks, you're not going to think it's the same person. We have very distinct styles. I do a lot of electro, yours is a lot thicker.

TF: The idea behind sludge itself is that it lends itself to go between so many genres of music. It can be electro, it can be disco. If you hear techno for a long time it's just the same thing, which is great. I like to play records and I like to hear music, but not always the same thing.

You said it's stagnant here. Can you talk more about the scene? It seems in some ways there's a kind of renaissance, partly thanks to Movement bringing people to experience the city.

MA: What Movement does is amazing. It bring in a lot of people from out of town to see that it's not like it is in the news from where you're from. You can go and venture out. Like any big city, we have problems. But people here don't focus on that. We focus on what we have and what we can do. We make do with what we have, we just kind of build off of that. As far as the stagnation, all I see is people – it's not just Detroit, it's a global thing, it's the internet – people hear things they like, they want to build off of that, but they're just imitating. It's so easy to get Ableton and Massive and use the same patches that Worthy is using, all the Dirtybird sounds, or all the electro house sounds, or whatever you want. All the bigger mainstream stuff, which is fine because the bigger mainstream stuff is bringing kids in. I know a lot of people that dislike dubstep immensely. I have no problem. It brought so much young blood back into dance music that we needed. The US is very lacking in the pop aspect, we don't have dance shows on the radio anymore. It has it's place, I'm not a huge fan of what stuff, but I appreciate what it's doing. You get 12-year-old kids and they don't need to listen to our music right away, they can find that as they grow. It's an alternative. 

I know a lot of people are just working off something they heard. They like it, they make it, rather than really working with programs. The Friend and I, for example, work extensively in Reacktor. You make your own sounds from scratch. We do a lot of sampling on our own, it's not getting a sample pack and running with that. If somebody is already doing it, why do you need to do it?

TF: Talking about the stagnancy of Detroit, a big thing that happened is that people felt privileged to be from Detroit and be involved in the scene, but did not feel the need to create anything for such a lot period of time. A lot of the big artists that remained created these very small cliques. So when you leave the festival, which is an amazing family affair, for the rest of the year it's stagnant because it's very cliquey and people are hesitant to change. But there is a renaissance happening in Detroit, after a long period of hibernation I feel.

MA: "It's not just music. It's art, food, fashion. We went to the Red Bull alumni art show on Thursday and it was legitimately like being in New York. It's really nice to see us finally getting culture culture here, you know, outside of just music. Detroit's always been a music city, from Motown to rock and rock to techno, we've always had something. For a long time there's been a gap from anything really new new coming, people pushing boundaries as far as they could. A lot of people are scared, or they’re just boring people!

Have you toured what you're doing much around the US yet?

MA: Not at all! I barely even play locally anymore. This [the Movement Electronic Music Festival] will be my first show in over a month here. I have something in Montréal in August, that's about it. I don't really promote myself as much as I probably should. I don't have any representation. I'm really reclusive. If I'm not working at a bar, I don't really go out. I don't have a day job. I like to stay home and write music.

TF: Part of the stagnancy is that people want to be the loudest in the room. They want that representation, they want to promote themselves, and they don't really want to do any work to get to that point. That wasn't ever the goal, at least for myself. The creation of music was everything. If the gigs and everything else happen with it, that's fantastic. I think in good time. It's starting to spread very, very quickly. I was just in New York and people were coming from all over just to hear sludge music. They've been buying the records but they haven't heard it live. They have no idea how to play the records.

MA: I don't think they even realise that every single track are Simple and I, and Bobby [Robert Casalou]. I play mostly originals, but also as lot of my edits and remixes. When you play all original music to people, there's a disconnect. They want to hear something they know.

What do you have coming out next?

MA: I have the 'Flying Objects' 12". I have the Detroit Underground cassette release. It's like two thirty-minute sound collages. We have a new How to Kill record, we got another Local Heat. 

TF:  Danny Daze has showed an interest in sludge music, [I’m working] with the Rubadub guys in Glasgow, they've very interested in sludge. We've got a record coming out with them. I worked with Illian Tape for a long time, and there's another record coming out with them. A lot of people are reaching out, they clearly see something of value. It's not for the money, it's just for the fun.

MA: We're going to die homeless and poor! There's no question about that. And it's going to be sooner rather than later! But, I mean, I don't handle this well. I can't grasp why people like this. I just sit down and make it. The fact that people enjoy it is amazing to me, but it's still hard to comprehend.

TF: I was talking to Kris Wadsworth, he runs Breed [which launched with a track by The Friend] and he's good friends with Danny. He called me when he heard Danny approached me about this stuff and he warned me to warn everyone else that was involved in this music to steer clear of managers because they're going to reach out and tell you to change a little bit. Try and tell you, if you just do this you could just have that. It bums me out that [honesty] is such a rare thing, because being honest with yourself, especially artistically, is so important to progress, to evolve, as an art, as a culture. We're birthed out of conflict too. A lot of people in the city are opposed to conflict. They want to please everyone. Because we've accepted we might live under a bridge playing a guitar when we're 60-year-olds, we don't mind rocking the boat a little bit.