DIsco Nihilist TAlks
Mike Taylor aka Disco Nihilist is a somewhat unassuming character. A Detroit native, who made his home in Austin before settling in his current residence of Maine, he prefers to let his music do the talking, with his raw brand of analog house gathering something of a cult following amongst the underground. With some warmly received 12s on a variety of quality labels, including Gerd Jansons Running Back, Mike is finally making his long-awaited debut in the UK this May and we got the chance to talk to him about his Detroit hang-ups, hardware and what it takes to be a great DJ
What would you say your background in music is when you were growing up in Detroit?
There is the clich of Oh yeah, Detroit radio was awesome. Its repeated so often, but Detroit radio really was amazing when I was growing up. We had access to the mix shows, pre-Clear Channel black radio for hip hop, R&B, and soul, good jazz programming on WDET and WEMU, Motown on oldies radio, experimental music via CBC on Brave New Waves. You could see dance music after school on the New Dance Show. Industrial music from Chicago was on alternative radio. If you were willing to listen there was a wide variety of interesting music. Radio in the other cities Ive lived in has never had the same level of quality.
You have to remember that Im old enough that I grew up in the era when drum machines and American polyphonic synthesizers were just getting into pop music. My listening experience starts when I was about 3, so that puts it at about 1980. I grew up with MTV and the second British Invasion of pop music from 1981-85. That had a huge influence, really uncool bands like Culture Club, Haircut 100, Thomas Dolby or Duran Duran. Its likely that my taste for electronics came from listening to those sounds early on.
Im not sure if its that uncool to listen to all of that stuff these days
Those records are never going to completely disappear. The only time that stuff is going to go out of popularity is when my generation gets old enough that were no longer a saleable demographic. It happened to 50s music about 20 years ago and then it happened to 60s music and its starting to happen to 70s music. In another 20 years or so its going to disappear and then itll be all 90s and 00s. Thats just how the waves of nostalgia go, once you get past a certain age commercial music isnt marketed to you because you dont buy new stuff.
You moved to Austin, how old were you when that happened?
Fairly late it was the day before my 27th birthday.
I assume youd be making music in Detroit previous to that?
I spent most of my life in Michigan, then I moved to Austin for about seven years and Ive lived in Maine for the last 3 years.
What sort of stuff were you making when you first started out? Is it similar to what you were making now?
No, Ive made all kinds of music. In the mid 90s I made crappy techno because unless you had $20,000 thats what you made (laughs), its not like today. I made smoother stringy Detroit stuff, I made ambient music for a while and played a bunch of shows back in Detroit. When I left Detroit and moved to Austin I wasnt terribly interested in electronic music. I listened to the stuff Id always liked, but I played a lot of guitar at that point of my life. That was a big thing for me then.
From an electronic music point of view, it might seem a bit weird to move away from a place that seems synonymous with house and techno music and continue to make the music you do. Did you think of it like that at the time?
Not really. The party scene was pretty dead by then. How foreigners perceive Detroit, and how Detroit actually is in real life are two different things. It was so underground even at its peak in the 90s a big party was 800 people. It wasnt 10,000 people going out dancing, it wasnt a populist music. By the early 00s the dance music scene in Michigan was pretty grim.
The first Detroit Electronic Music Festival happened in 2000 and by then Id been going to parties for 5 or 6 years. In my fathers mind it had no legitimacy and it essentially didnt exist. Once that festival started happening and there were actual proper press releases, my father would show them to me like, Oh, this is a real thing isnt it? (laughs). It had been a real thing for 15 years, it was just that no-one gave a shit about it. Things that were big in Detroit were things like Kid Rock, The White Stripes and Eminem. J Dilla? No-one knows who the fuck he is. Derrick May or Theo Parrish? Nope. Theyre big overseas and theyre big among really hardcore music heads, but as fair as them being part of a popular conscious in Michigan? Not at all.
The only way you could hear it in the media in the 90s was through the weekend mix shows on WJLB or 105.9 or during the drive-time mixes in the afternoon. Depending on the show, you would hear a mixture of bass music, hip-hop, Juan Atkins, Adonis, George Kranz and some house music. Youd have that and on the weekends after 10 oclock, youd have different mixes from people like Gary Chandler, Wax Taxin Dre, Kim The Spin Doctor James, DJ Fingas, Reggy Hotmix Harrell, DJ Godfather, there were so many
I know someone who recently went to Movement Festival in Detroit and he said it was really weird. Rather than it being a bunch of people who were into Moodymann, Theo Parrish and all that, it was just kids there to see EDM in day-glo rave gear.
Thats been a conflict for the past decade, it just depends on how conspiratorially you want to look at it. Is it some big evil thing or just shit happening? I dont know With DEMF its just that Catch 22 situation where youve got to get people in there whilst trying to maintain your artistic integrity. You can make the argument that they havent treated Detroit artists as well as they should have, but at the same time, what theyre doing isnt an easy thing. Its really easy to shit on someone when theyre doing something in a way that isnt exactly as you think it should be. Ill give them credit for at least keeping it going, I know I couldnt.
Id love to have it be free, musically eclectic, more inclusive of Detroits black community, and people of all age ranges. The first one was like that and it was really good. That being said, the festival was a total business, political and logistical clusterfuck until Paxahau took it over. For all their faults, they keep it safe, organized, solvent and happening year after year and they deserve some credit for that.
Your first few releases were with Construction Paper, run by Daetron Vargas in Austin, but the last couple of 12s have been on Gerd Jansens Running Back. Has this move across the Atlantic to Europe been an active choice?
I dont think Ive necessarily moved away from Construction Paper. Daetron has a lot of things on his plate and hes not necessarily focused on getting records out. He has other artists he wants to work with, which is fair enough. Its not like weve had a falling out or anything like that.
In music there are levels of success. The most bare bones level you can get to is a self-pressed 300 copy white label. Thats the minor leagues of dance music. Everybodys looking at those to look at whos making good records. If youre making good records people are going to pull you up. Youre going to rise according to your ability, work ethic and business acumen.
With Running Back, its great. Gerd has great distribution; hes really straight with his business and Running Back has opened a lot of doors for me. He lets me be who I am and doesnt force me to compromise myself musically. If I wanted to compromise my sound to fit into the label I would do a million variations of Snooze for Love (Todd Terje). My records are doing better, but I havent sat there and thought to myself, Ive gotta make these changes and these commercial compromises so I can step up to this next level. If anything has changed in my music, Ive just gotten better at what I do.
Ive always thought that your public presence has always been a bit mysterious, for lack of a better word, placing the emphasis on the music rather than you as a person. Is that a conscious thing?
I hate to say it because its just such a douche-bag thing to say but its kind of a Detroit thing (laughs). Audiences in Detroit were more interested in your skills, and the fashion was always secondary; whereas in other places those priorities were reversed. The performance is what matters, not who you are or what you look like. Im not trying to suggest that Im keeping it real or whatever, its not about that. Thats what my value system is. I cant control what other people do or what the market prefers. I only have control over my own actions and how I choose to conduct my business says more than complaining about the state of the industry. Im just a normal person who has a passion for music, thats all there is to it.
At the moment theres a bit of a thing about the rise of the superstar DJ, with the focus being on image which is obviously a bit against what you think it should be about
Nah dude, that bullshit has always been there. If its not Deadmau5 and Skrillex, its Paul Oakenfold or Marusha or the corny-ass shit Sven Vath was doing 20 years ago. Its always going to be there, because theres always going to be a split in dance music. At its most base, this music is lowest common denominator boom boom for drunks. Its not art, its not special, its not eternal. Its just bullshit to get drunk to and find somebody to hop on and wake up next day with a hangover. At that level, its not supposed to be sophisticated or arty or important. The flipside of that is a much smaller audience with smaller money thats interested in ideas and creativity. If youre willing to forego the big lights, 9000 LED displays and the big payday, you get the reward of being able to practice your craft on your own terms.
If youre starting to make a track whats the process?
My studio is in a large 120 year old administration building that used to handle all the rail freight between Canada and the American east coast. Its cool because you can walk through it late at night and there are all these left over fixtures from a century ago. I only go there late at night. Everyones left the building for the day and have a small room that I open up and work in. Its basically just a chair and a handful of keyboard stands, some speakers and some sound dampening. Thats about it. Theres no computer in my studio at all.
I have a basic idea in my mind when I sit down to work on music. Ive been turning it around in my mind for about a week. Then I start working and then I see where it goes. New ideas will suggest themselves and get incorporated into the original idea. By the end the track is a mixture of my original idea and a place that revealed itself to me as I worked through the process.
Is that a matter of preference or something outwardly against computers?
I dont have any ideological need to say what Im doing is more pure and more real than what somebody on a computer is doing. If you make a good record on a computer, good for you! Im just not creatively inspired by working on a computer and it doesnt really work for the sound Im trying to create. I would really struggle to get the sound I have in a computer. I could do an approximation that was almost indistinguishable, but Id have to really work to recreate the sound of the hardware. Its just easier to get a cheap DX100 synth than spend hours trying to recreate its noisy, aliasing sound on Operator or FM8. Computers just dont work for me and thats all it boils down to. I wish it did because it would make my life so much easier (laughs).
You prefer to bring this hardware with you when you perform rather than delivering a more standard DJ set, has this always been the case or has it evolved from DJing in the past?
I started out producing and playing live in the 90s and didnt start DJing until the middle of the 00s. I hate to say it, Im just dont think Im a very good DJ. I think DJing is a really serious thing, which is another fucked up Detroit hangup I have. Growing up listening to those radio shows and seeing the caliber of the performances that were common around town; I just think its a serious thing. The people who were at the top of the game worked extremely hard and it was mind-blowingly wonderful. If youre not going to work to reach that level, you shouldnt be there.
Do you think that vinyl is an important part of dance music culture then?
If you dont know where youve been, you cant know where youre going. History is extremely important. If theres any piece of advice I can give to anyone getting into dance music, it is to dig your ass off and learn the history. The selection of digital music is getting better all the time and theres no reason you cant play a great set on all digital. However, if youre operating in a strictly digital format, youre never going to find out about all those weird old records. Youre never going to have a solid disco set, access to great boogie records, or all those old Chicago records. Youre going to get Greatest Hits compilations with wildly varying mastering quality. The underground history of this music is stored in vinyl. The primary source of our culture from 1975-2005 is vinyl; thats 30 years of music youre cut off from not playing vinyl. If you think the last six years is the width and breadth of dance music, youre really selling yourself short. Im not saying you cant play a great set with Serato or CDJs, if thats what you need to have a good set then so be it. Im not here to be the vinyl police.
Who do you think are the masters when it comes to DJing?
Thats such a difficult question One guy who Id say that doesnt get any credit at all is Bill Converse. Hes actually fairly young, but he was going to parties when he was 12 in Detroit . You know what though? When I think of really amazing DJs, I think of people in Texas that nobody would ever give a shit about. Rick Simpson out of Dallas is an amazing DJ who has done a handful of records under the name R9 and, not to insult him, no-one gives a shit about him. But oh man, he can slaughter people, hes so good. Luke Sardello is another one of those guys from Dallas that is just amazing, but no-ones ever going to hear about them. D-Win from Detroit could play some records back in the day Terrence Parker is another who could play, Rolando, Derrick May, Mike Clark, Alvin Hill, Norm Talley… man, lots of people. Theo Parrish can beat a crowd.
Theos one of those guys that can just play anything and it works. Ive seen him play jazz for half an hour and people are still going crazy for it, he just knows how to control a crowd.
Yep, thats just what comes with age, when youve been playing for 20-25 years youll start to learn exactly how to control a crowd. Its pretty easy to get a crowd primed to listen to house music to dance if you play good stuff, but to get people to lose their minds in a creative way? That takes skill and experience and youre not going to get that without putting in the time.
Do you think its getting easier to play what you want to a more captive audience? On Ben UFOs 4-hour set on Boiler Room recently, he didnt play any electronic music for the first half and still got a really good response. It just seems to me that people are becoming more willing to listen to good music without the need for it to fulfill certain expectations
I would definitely say that. Ben UFO isnt a new jack, hes been doing it for some time now, so its a similar thing.
I think hes going to be remembered as one of the great DJs of our time in the future for sure
That really wouldnt surprise me. He played my first record on Running Back on some show in the UK and instantly I had a bunch of new contacts on social media and several vinyl orders for the record on discogs. It was weird because I had no idea where it was coming from at first. I definitely owe him one.
One of the first times I ever heard your music was on Levon Vincents Boiler Room a couple of years ago when he played Relentless Drums, do you think that social media is making it a lot easier to get your voice heard?
Yes, absolutely. There is so much noise in the system that its hard to get noticed, but at the same time there are so many more opportunities to get noticed compared to 20 years ago. Music was more mysterious before the internet and social media. You didnt have the connectivity and the easy access to information so it made it a bit more romantic. If you cant have something its automatically cooler. But the other side of that is Im video chatting with a guy on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean through a computer that is a fraction of an inch thick and fits in my hand. How crazy is that? I remember watching the video chat scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in the early 90s and were basically living global video chat now (laughs). As a musician, the opportunity is available for you to get yourself out there, its never been easier.
I gather youre making the trip over to the UK in May? Have you had any experience of the UK, what are you expectations?
Its going to be weird. Growing up in Detroit, we have this relationship with the United Kingdom that certain other places might not have. The UK was always this magical place, my teen years were spent listening to stuff like The Cure, or The Smiths, Joy Division, The Fall, The Buzzcocks, all those Manchester bands. You know at the beginning of this conversation, I was telling you about the idea of Detroit as some sort of techno Mecca where every car you pull up to is going to be jamming Model 500? Growing up in America we had the same idea of England as a place where everyone dressed like The Smiths. The entire North of England did not dress like Echo and the Bunnymen, its not like that, but growing up you had the perception of England as this cool artsy place. But I think Ive read enough to realize that there are class issues, race and religious conflict, poverty, and violence; just like America. I dont have a set of expectation, Im just going to get in there and do the best that I can and try to rock those crowds. Thats all I am after.
Thanks for talking to me Mike!
Disco Nihilist’s new vinyl series is out on Don’t Be Afraid and a new secret project due out this summer. He’s also currently confirming the dates for a European tour, visiting the UK over the May Bank Holiday
Artice conducted and connected by the ever excellent Patrick Henderson