Unlocking The Dancefloor: An Interview With Heatsick
, June 22nd, 2012 09:13
The ramshackle and fiendishly addictive dance music that Berlin resident Heatsick coaxes from a simple set-up opens a direct conduit between his own impulses and the movements of the dancefloor. Angus Finlayson caught up with him to discuss limitation, imitation and "unlocking" the audience
Steven Warwick used to make hazy, trippy ambient music - the kind that’s best suited to the defunct aura and fuggy artefacts of cassettes, and which saw releases on Not Not Fun, the producer’s own Alcoholic Narcolepsy imprint and elsewhere. Recently, though, his efforts as Heatsick (he was also one half of Birds Of Delay) have turned towards dancier fare, crafting house music of sorts with not much more than an ancient, battered Casio keyboard. In reality the shift was never so abrupt - last year’s Intersex LP on PAN featured both concrète jams and and toe-tapping numbers co-existing in skewed harmony. But with his new Déviation EP - again on PAN - it feels like the transformation is complete: this is dance music through and through, albeit probably unlike any you’ve heard before.
It’s tempting to lump Heatsick in with a broader wave of DIY producers turning to dance music for inspiration over the past couple of years. But it becomes apparent from quizzing him that Warwick’s concerns and motivations run at a tangent to the much more critically exposed aesthetic of a label like 100% Silk (the roster of which Warwick has shared a stage with on several occasions). Recent Heatsick records have the similar opulence-on-a-budget feel as early Chicago house, yes - a parallel Warwick draws in this interview - but he has no truck with the retrolicious aesthetic ascribed to much of the contemporary underground. And, given his adopted home of Berlin, you get the sense that this is less an outsider’s take on an exotic foreign world, more an idiosyncratic statement from somebody based right in the heart of the clubbing metropolis.
Communicating via email, Warwick shies away from outlining any grand conceptual project as he politely blasts the waffle out of my overwrought questions. Still, I can’t shake the sense that his music-making is motivated by a need to challenge or undermine the vestiges of an outmoded ideology; one that’s threaded through many of the various convolutions of dance music culture, not least house music. An idle YouTube trawl today brought me to house legend Kerri Chandler’s ‘Back To The Raw’ - a pleasant enough 2004 number in a New York style, whose spoken word vocal entreats us to remember “the way house music used to be... soul, feeling... fuck all that fluffy weak shit: let’s get back to the raw.” In the face of reactionary deep house purism, analogue gear fetishism and a younger generation’s reflexive desire to kowtow to the genre’s forefathers, Warwick’s productions - grainy, joyous, often threatening to disintegrate altogether as hand-played rhythms drift erratically out of time - seem to ask, “is this raw enough for yer?”
Crucially, though, rather than seeing Warwick’s music and performances as deliberately or solely provocative, as some kind of arch critique of dance music culture (an idea I tentatively floated in our discussion), he is open about his commitment to the basic liberating potential of dancefloor music - to the process of ‘unlocking’, as he describes it: the inducement to let go, zone out and get down. It’s a commitment that’s lead him to perform at some of the Berlin scene’s most revered spots, and is likely to equip him well for more of the same as his star continues to rise. And while the contradictions and the strangeness inherent in Warwick's MO might catch your ear at first, it’s the basic energy, vitality and freshness of Heatsick’s music that will keep you coming back.
You’re playing several dates on the 100% Silk showcase tour at the moment. I wanted to ask about your interest in house music: did it grow in parallel with a lot of other sectors of the underground, or was it a preoccupation of yours beforehand?
Steven Warwick: I had no awareness of other people making stuff when I was travelling around, I always stuck out musically. When I was performing at, say, Panorama Bar, I had no record out, they just wanted to see me, so I had thought it was cool that they did that. 100% Silk was still a newborn thing. I guess it's just as my records came out later [than theirs] that it could come across that way, but I was very active in Berlin playing more dancey stuff at clubs for some time. I guess I naively thought that I could take my time... I guess it's a question of mediation and the internet ,etc.
For me, my interest has been there since my teens and has always been hinted at. It has more to do with living in Berlin and going to some really great parties and hearing music late at night in a very pleasurable setting and finding a connection between what I do and what I was hearing. I already feel that I was quite explicitly referencing it in my Dubbed Sunshine cassette from 2008. Amanda and Britt [Brown, Not Not Fun/100% Silk co-founders] have been aware of my music for some time so I agreed when they asked me to play live at their shows, though I do also think that my music references a lot more than just "house".
How do you view the relationship between your ‘house’ stuff - which often feels very dancing-oriented in that it is heavily repetitious, kind of hypnotic - and the more beatless side of your work? Do you think there is a common logic that lies behind the two?
SW: I don't really distinguish between the more ambient work I did before [and the dance stuff]. It was really made logical for me when I saw Scion live at WMF in Berlin and I was blown away by how people were dancing to ambient music, and that they were playing this at 3am, appreciating it on both a musical and non musical level. It was somewhat of an affirmation.
I gather you use very basic equipment to produce - basically just a Casio keyboard. What’s your view on limitation as an aesthetic strategy? Do you explore other ways or techniques of making music outside of your core setup?
SW: I found the limitation liberating. When sat in front of so many instruments and options I find it a bit overwhelming and suffocating. Aesthetics does also play a role, there is something nice in the simplicity of seeing something being performed as it is in real time. It was part immediacy and having no money, part looking at how early house music was budget disco in itself and produced somewhat haphazardly, and also a play on this analogue synth fetish, which was/is around. In search of The Real whilst it simultaneously being a synthesizer. c.f the Disco Sucks movement, etc...
I cockily thought that I could do just as well on a cheap keyboard and my existing set up. On Intersex I was using bass guitar and recording in a studio, and on the new records I am using drum machine, guitar, percussion, voice, and also having saxophone played on it, so I'm really not stuck into how I initially made my music.
A lot of the 100% Silk roster, for example, seem to draw more on older house rather than contemporary stuff for inspiration. Are you conscious of trying to create an ‘antiquated’ sound with your records, or is that just a by-product of the equipment you use? Do you think nostalgia plays a part in your aesthetic?
SW: I try not to sound antiquated and people have commented that I manage to transcend the equipment that I use. Sometimes it can come across like a bloody psychoanalysis session when people see a Casio, everyone starts talking about their childhood, but I think that says more about other people than my set up. Maybe that's more interesting a topic than what model my Casio is. Nostalgia implies a lack, which I'm not so interested in, and as for "retro" – well, that word is a pejorative for me.
Playfulness rarely seems far from the surface in your music. Is humour an important part of what you do?
SW: I'm serious about what I do. My music is playful and also has elements of humour. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Most music is playful and has humour, or at least, most music which I find interesting. I mean, I don't consider myself a joke. Aren't most things ridiculous? I mean, you go into the Prado Museum and can see a cross-eyed Jesus and Madonna providing the Annunciation via lactation, yet that is "serious culture" because it's 700 years old?
When you perform live, you tap rhythms into your keyboard manually - a lot of your records sound similarly manually input. How important is the performative element to your music? Would you consider using more up to date technology to bypass this process?
SW: I do like to provide a live element when performing live, and the recordings are actually more delicate and closer to a recording experience. On the newest EP I use a drum machine so it is actually quite syncopated. I like to think of myself akin to an overloaded waiter serving orders at peak time. Part of the interest for the audience can lie in the act of whether I actually can pull it off live.
Yeah - to me the way your live show works has similarities with other contemporary operators like, say, Kassem Mosse, except where his live setup is designed so that these danceable grooves can be perfectly executed, with yours the skill required to keep everything in time, and keep the intensity up, becomes part of the interest. Are you concerned with whether people dance to your sets? Or is your intention more to kind of deconstruct that relationship between DJ and dancer?
SW: People normally dance to my sets, which I like of course, and when I can do that at peak time of a nightclub I think that it's a good sign. People tend more to stand around when it's a concert setting, but that's down to with the time and location. You are watching an act perform, etc. Part of what interests me in dance music is that the focus isn't on the performer and that people can dance and enjoy themselves and unlock. I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz when I play, that part when the curtain is lifted and you can see what is happening. It's not so important whether you watch it, but it's there by default. I used to play behind a curtain for a while.
Have you come up against any animosity towards your setup and the way you perform? Is that maybe why you used the curtain?
SW: Not really, no. I think anyone's preconceptions about the set up etc. are usually changed after listening to the set and getting into it. I used the curtain as at the time I thought that it wasn't really interesting to watch someone perform. People did say that it made them visualise the music more.
How does your live show relate to the conventions of dance music mixing? Would you say you’re consciously trying to mimic the contours and pacing of a DJ mix? If so, what is it that appeals about this form of imitation - as opposed to just mixing yourself?
SW: Yes I am doing exactly that. I like imitation, it has to do with memory and playing with and against a machine and mimicking a form. I mean, when you play live, people can compare you to "how you sound on record", as if that is some form of reality in the first place. When I play live, I prefer to say that I am playing intuitively and unlocking. Live is live and people can fill in gaps. I don't mind taking a risk.
What do you mean by 'unlocking'?*
SW: Unlocking myself and hopefully others. Unlocking how people think that they should behave in a certain situation, like that whole thing of, "Oh I wanted to dance but..." Loosening people up.
You’ve played shows at a number of big clubs like Panorama Bar. Was it always your intention to be accepted by the established house music community? I tend to hear your music more as a commentary on house rather than an unambiguous participation in that culture, but perhaps you’d disagree?
SW: I find that a bit patronising or even cynical. Maybe on the outside it can seem like that, but most of my friends socialise with each other and are organising parties and nights and it comes about rather unforced. I played at show, a friend saw it, he told his friend about it, he came along next time and then he told Panorama Bar to get in touch. I think that it’s both. It exists musically within [dance music culture], yet also comments upon it as it's happening. But both fields are genuine in their intention. It's a bit like how I feel about the idea of a community. It's nice to relate to people, but I think it's equally important to be aware of or reflect on how people can then try and define you through that behaviour or response. That's part of what Intersex was about.
And finally, any other plans on the horizon?
SW: I'm working on an LP, also on another project and preparing to show some visual work in a show this summer.
Heatsick’s Déviation EP is out now on PAN