Spectral Sound, the dancefloor-oriented sublabel of Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International, turns 10 years old this year. To mark the occasion, there’s been a changing of the guard: Matthew Dear and Ryan Elliott have stepped into A&R roles at the label.
Dear, of course, is Spectral’s flagship artist, under his Audion guise. And Elliott has long represented Spectral as one of the label’s chief DJs, despite the fact that he doesn’t also produce his own music — a rarity today, when most DJs are producers, and vice versa, if only for professional and promotional reasons.
After a decade spent working at the Ford Motor Company, Elliott recently relocated from the Detroit area to Berlin in order to focus full time on Spectral and his music career. I sat down to ask him about the A&R change and Spectral’s new compilation, ‘Document’, which includes longtime members of the Spectral family (James T. Cotton, Kate Simko) as well as allies (Mike Parker, Kassem Mosse), inspirations (Hieroglyphic Being), and rising stars (Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss, Gadi Mizrahi, and of course Seth Troxler).
But the conversation took an unexpected turn when we got onto the subject of file-management in Traktor Skratch, the turntable-driven digital DJ platform that Elliott uses. What I figured for a geeks-only question, sure to be left on the cutting-room floor, struck a chord with this “DJ’s DJ”, who’s clearly thought long and hard about what to do — and what not to do — when bringing a laptop into the DJ booth.
So you and Matthew Dear are running Spectral now. How did that come about?
Over the past few years, the Ghostly side has been taking over more of Sam Valenti IV’s time. Also, Sam doesn’t DJ as much as he used to, and he’s not as involved in that side of it as he was. He trusts us. We’ve been friends forever, and Matt and I are the guys out every weekend in the clubs, playing alongside the new guys, getting demos, record shopping or buying on Beatport ourselves, so we’re the ones that are kind of on the cusp of techno and house, because we need to be for our jobs. We thought, why not use that to the label’s advantage. So that’s how we decided — and it was really Sam’s idea, and we agreed — to take over the A&R side of it.
Audion, ‘Just Me’
It’s good to have someone on the ground in Europe as well, I’m sure.
The home office is still in the Midwest, and Sam’s there quite a bit, but he has a place in LA now. Matt lives in New York, and I’m here.
No matter what anybody says, that Berlin’s not Berlin anymore, it’s still the absolute epicenter of house and techno, and I think it always will be, or it will be for a long time. Just me being here for six months has been really helpful. Whether it be giving promos of the more techno stuff to Ben [Klock] and Marcel [Dettmann], or giving promos of the more housey stuff to Cassy. We just did a Gadi Mizrahi EP, and I got Lowtec from Workshop to do a remix, because I met him here. When you’re here it’s so much easier. There’s a face there, there’s a handshake and a beer. That does so much more than 15 emails ever could.
Tell me a little about the compilation.
With me and Matt taking over, it’s not a changing of the guard, but it’s definitely a different time for the label. And for all labels, it’s getting hard! You think you have a really great release, and maybe it sells like you thought it would, but it doesn’t surprise you. I also think it’s a time where you’ve got your Svens and Richies and Ricardos, but there’s this whole other group that’s coming up. What I love about techno and house, this culture — you know how they say that dog years are like eight to one? I think 20 techno years happen in one real year. I’ve always loved that. So you’re constantly proving yourself. People quickly forget, whether you did something good or bad. You can use that to your advantage. So this is a time where the label is changing. And the compilation is our way of putting up a flag and saying, Ok, we’re making a change, here’s a new comp, and it’s got some artists that we’ve been associated with in the past but also some people we want to work with in the future, guys that we grew up with that are doing good stuff now, that kind of thing.
Hieroglyphic Being, ‘Got No Place to Go’
Personally, I think we’ve always done a good job of balancing the real heads’ stuff — your [James] Cotton, your Hieroglyphic Being — with stuff that is a little more mainstream. None of this is mainstream, but a little more accessible. That’s what I wanted to do with this. I think that Jamal [Moss], Hieroglyphic Being, makes some of the most mindblowing stuff. Or like the Workshop guys, I got a Kassem Mosse remix [of Lawrence]. I love the whole Workshop thing. They were one of the first ones to do the hand-stamped thing. Now everyone does it, but they were one of the first ones to do it. Lowtec, him, Even Tuell, I love all their stuff. So we got Kassem to do a remix.
Lawrence, ‘Divided (Kassem Mosse Remix)’
Then people like Ryan [Crosson], Seth [Troxler], Lee [Curtiss], Gadi [Mizrahi], those are new guys we’re bringing on. With Ryan and Seth and Lee, Matt and I have known those guys forever. Seth’s younger than Matt so they didn’t go to the same high school together, but they grew up in the same town. I’ve known Seth probably eight or nine years. So these are guys we’ve been friends with forever. And now they’re really coming into their own.
Kate Simko, ‘Zhivago’
Kate [Simko] is someone that I adore musically and as a person. We’ve always supported her. Then Mike Parker actually lives in Buffalo. He’s an art professor. He’s got his own label, Geophone. It’s always this super, super deep, loopy techno, and when I play techno sets, it always works so well. So I struck up a relationship with him and got some stuff. He gave us this, and I tested it out at Berghain last year when I played Ben [Klock]’s album release party, and the whole place went off. I said, “That’s it, we’re signing that.”
Mike Parker, ‘Protolanguage’
Let me ask you a geeky question, because I know that you use Traktor to DJ — how do you organize your files?
This is what a dork I am: this is one of my favorite topics to talk about. I’m playing at Pollerweisen this summer, the same weekend as the C/O Pop festival in Cologne, and I would like to get invited to speak at the conference on this topic. It’s something that needs to be addressed.
If you think about it, if you don’t organize anything on your computer, it’s exactly the same as taking every single record you own and having it in the booth with you. If you did that, you wouldn’t know where to start. What I’ve done, and what works for me best, the first thing I do, before every set, I still pick a crate just like I would physically pick records. And I even go so far as to only pick about 60 to 100 tracks, just like would fit into a crate.
And then you create a playlist for that.
Yes. I manage my playlists in iTunes. I do that because I used to use Serato, and Serato and Traktor both read iTunes, so it’s just easier that way.
I used to do finance for a living, so everything’s numerical for me. The top two crates are “Tonight” and “Tonight Loops”. I play a lot of four- and eight-bar loops that I cut up, because they work exactly the same. I work pretty fast anyway, and I EQ a lot, so if there’s a song where I only like 30 seconds of it, I just make a loop out of that.
Then I separate everything into what I call an “intensity ranking”. It’s not really house or techno. The first one is “Afterparty”. One’s kind of house, one is techno, and one is kind of between techno and house. I do that, and then I save a crate of the date that I pulled it in. So if I want to know, what music did I add to my library on October 30, I’ve got that. Then, the last thing that I do, after the show, is to change the name of the “Tonight” folder to the event name and date, and let it fall to the bottom. That way I know that if I’m playing a similar show, or I know what really worked well that day, I can go back and look. I keep a couple months’ worth of those old playlists below.
“Let’s face it, anybody that’s starting to DJ now, they’re going to be using Traktor. And they need to know that if they start organizing from the beginning, it’s going to be a lot easier on them.
So that’s how I organize myself. It’s a little anal, but you know, it’s a competitive business now. A lot of times you only get two hours to prove yourself. Everyone’s got the tracks now, but the thing is playing the right track at the right time. I don’t care if you mix internally, if you use CDs, Traktor, vinyl, the thing is what comes out of the speakers. And it needs to be the right track at the right time.
For me, and for everyone, whether they want to admit it or not, DJing is so much about the confidence you have. People can see it. I’ve had to play sick before, like the stomach flu or whatever, and people know. They know.
When I started, I tried to get as technically confident as I could. Now I make sure I’m organized. I’ve never once know that I’m going to play this track after this track. I never even know what track I’m going to start with, until I get in the booth. But I get as organized as I can be. If I know that I can mix well, and I know that I’ve picked what I think are going to be the right tracks, the rest of it is just reading the crowd, and I think I’m pretty good at that. Everyone’s going to have good nights and everyone’s going to have bad nights, but DJing is about being prepared.
There’s a gift to it, of course there is, just like anything else. But a lot of it is being prepared.
I don’t stare at my screen the whole time. I’ve gone so far as to set the computer behind me the whole time, just like it was a record crate. But that doesn’t work if your cable is too short. But I always make a point to never, ever put it on a stand right in front of the mixer. I try to always have it at an angle, and look at it as little as possible. I use a [hardware] looper to loop. Once in a while, I use effects, but I do it externally through the aux, so I don’t even have to look. The only thing I look at the screen for is to load a track.
I don’t like having a computer in the booth, still. But there’s no way around it any more. I’m testing out demos, I’ve done my own edits, loops—there’s just no way back anymore.
If you’re playing CD-Rs, the file management can get even more complicated.
I did CDs for a while. You know what stopped me? I left a few CDs that should never have been left. Maybe they weren’t important to anybody else, but to me they were important. I even do this: when I buy things off Beatport, I re-tag everything and rename the file. I take all those numbers off the front of it, I take “original mix” off, I take all that off. The way that I name a file is the track name, then in parentheses the artist name, and then behind that, the label name. The release, the name of the EP, doesn’t mean so much to me. I use the album field for the label. That way, everything is always the same, and I can process it all much easier.
I’m glad I asked you this!
It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. I’m starting to produce more now, and I’ve done a few remixes, but honestly, I wake up in the morning and think about records. And think about how I can better organize my stuff. And I don’t think there are a lot of people who are thinking about this. Or I don’t know, maybe they are, and they just don’t talk to me about it. That’s why I really want to talk about this. Let’s face it, anybody that’s starting to DJ now, they’re going to be using Traktor. And they need to know that if they start organizing stuff from the beginning, it’s going to be a lot easier on them.
You and Derek Plaslaiko both are known mainly as DJs, not producers.
There aren’t that many of us, really. I know that I’m very lucky to be able to get to where I am now, just DJing. I’ll be completely honest with you, I’ve gotten a lot of good shows because I’ve been booked with Matt. That’s ok — my goal, when that happens, is to play so well that they book me back alone.
I always woke up in the morning and thought about DJing. Production’s a little bit tougher. As a DJ who thinks he knows good music, I know what I want something to sound like. To be able to do that takes a long while. So for me it’s kind of been like pulling teeth. But I’m getting there, slowly. I think the reason I like doing edits so much, or even remixes, is that it’s still DJing, it’s just on a more micro level.
One thing that’s helped me for production, I’ll take a song I really like, and I’ll take a few parts out of it, and act like I’ve been asked to remix it, and I’ll build around those parts, and then I’ll take those parts away. It really helps—it’s like a coloring book.
How did you start DJing?
I grew up 25 minutes outside Detroit, in a small town called Carleton. I was too young for stuff like the Music Institute. I was in middle school. By high school, when I could have been going to, like, early Plastikman, I didn’t know any of that.
I worked for Ford for 10 years, and my wife and I still own a house in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. But where I grew up and went to school was a little further out. Growing up there, no one at my school went to raves. No one. I had never even heard of that stuff. When I went to college in Kalamazoo, I knew I liked going out, staying out late, getting into trouble. When I graduated and came back home and started working is finally when my friends and I started going to Motor, a club in Detroit. We’d go see Acquaviva or Wink or Rob Hood, whoever was in town. At first it wasn’t even so much about the music, it was just going out. Then the repetitiveness of the music really grabbed me. From there it was, what’s that guy in the booth doing? But I never had a DJ friend. So me and my roommates, they had the idea to get the Numark “Scratch and Sample” package. I remember it was delivered to our place on Christmas Eve, 1999. I fell in love with that stuff that day, and I’ve never fallen out. I love turntables, mixers, needles, loopers, headphones, records—I love all of it.
When I worked at Ford — and I don’t work there any more, so I can tell this story — I would come home at lunch and practice DJing. I’m still completely obsessed with the art of DJing, as hokey as that sounds.
We didn’t have anyone to show us how. I went to university for math, and I remember trying to beatmatch at first, taking two records and counting the BPMs for each track when they’re both locked [at zero on the turntable]. And if this one was, say, slower, calculating the percentage that you would need to pitch that up, and putting the pitch control right there. And realizing that that actually worked!
You were calculating this in your head?
Hell no. [laughs] From there, I started getting it. But I had no one to show me, like, to cue on the first beat. Then as we got into it and I started going to record stores, I had friends who did it. The other thing that was really helpful to me was having two copies of the same record. So you knew that by locking them, they would be in tempo. That was a little bit tough, because it’s the same track, so you don’t know what you’re really hearing. Lock grooves would help a lot. When I moved here, I only brought 100 records or so, and a lot of those were lock groove records, because I still carry those with me as tools.
Birds & Souls, ‘Birds & Souls’
Back to Spectral, what’s coming up?
There’e a group called Birds & Souls — it’s Ryan Crosson and a guy whose artist name is Sergio Giorgini. It’s big room techno, but the kick doesn’t drop for like six or seven minutes. We got Runaway to do a remix, and they gave us a really nice, old-school mix, like they do. After that we have a James Cotton EP with a Rick Wade remix that’s really nice. And then some more Childproof Man…
Tell me more about Childproof Man, that record is blowing my mind.
Childproof Man, isn’t it dope? They got it in the office on a CDR. And they sent more. He, she, whatever.
You really don’t know who it is?
I don’t know who it is. If Sam or Matt know, they’re not telling me. I don’t know.
Do you think it’s someone known for another project?
I don’t know! People have their theories.
I don’t believe you any more.
[laughs] People have their theories! Some people think it sounds like Matt, some people have said they think it’s a new Tadd [Mullinix] guise… Whoever it is, we’ve got another EP coming in June. We have another project which is Sergio, the guy from Birds & Souls, and one of his friends doing sort of big, piano house, it’s not minimal at all. On Ghostly we’ll have a Tensnake EP in late summer.
We’ve done a good job, I think, of not getting pigeonholed. Sam did a good job with Ghostly, for example, sidestepping the electroclash phenomenon when ‘Disco Rout’ came out. We’re always gonna have the whole spectrum. I want to keep that. I want to keep the Mike Parker tracks coming. I want to keep the house coming.
Ryan Crosson, ‘Don’t Look Further’
You’ve always had a diverse roster, without losing your core people.
Everyone is lying if they say they’re not influenced by new music coming out. As a DJ that record shops every week, of course I’ve been influenced by the house thing. Maybe I do play a little more housey lately, maybe I A&R a little more house now. But I do it with the kind of house I like. Of course you’re influenced. Everything ebbs and flows. Anyone who tells you they’re not, is lying. So with the label, you need to show that you’re on top of your shit. But at the same time you need to keep your focus. We’re a Midwest techno and house label. We may stray from there once in a while, but we’ll always have our Osbornes, our Audions, our Cottons.
Last year and this year have been good for us. Everyone hits a lull. I’ll be the first one to say it, I think we hit a little bit of a lull in ‘07, 08. But I think with Seth and Lee, some of the Audion stuff, hopefully the comp, I think we’re really getting back. I always think we do well, but I’m really proud of where we are right now.