AYLI Podcast #57 – Israel Vines

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Israel Vines has been around the block. Now based in Los Angeles, Vines’ roots run deep in the American Midwest, the birthplace of techno, with friends and comrades in Detroit and Chicago. Vines runs with a particular crew of artists, DJs, and electronic musicians — Interdimensional Transmissions — whose roster includes BMG, Derek Plaslaiko, Mike Servito, Carlos Souffront, and beyond, and whose rightfully-earned cult status is now known worldwide.

Israel Vines is a particular kind of techno DJ. He’s the kind of DJ whose selections are informed by a life-long love affair with music, electronic and otherwise, but more importantly, Vines is the kind of DJ for whom techno is not so much a sound as a frame. Techno is, for Vines, a “very broad spectrum,” as he suggests below, and when he’s DJing, he touches on many different points throughout this spectrum, tying them together in extraordinary ways.

Vines’ podcast for As You Like It begins with an undulating swirl of melodies that soon give way to a techno throb, building in intensity until it disappears into the whirlpool whence it came. Listen, and witness him in action September 10.

Chris Zaldua: What was the first album you bought — or, what was the first album that really made an impact on you?

Israel Vines: I know that every DJ is supposed to be able to answer the “first record” question, but I can’t. Two records early on that I remember being “mine” were AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” and “The Game,” by Queen. I’d listen along to them and try to play drums on the album covers with chopsticks, so they were completely fucked with pock marks. “Dragon Attack” on “The Game” is a hell of a song to try and drum along to, especially for an 8 year old who can’t play drums.

I soaked up a fair amount of my mom’s and her boyfriends’ music as well. Everything from Billie Holiday and Joan Armatrading to Meat Loaf and Bette Midler. The Beatles. Pink Floyd. The Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa. Gary Numan was a big one. The Kinks, Blondie, Velvet Underground. Prince. Bowie. Lots of soundtracks as well, like Rocky Horror, Close Encounters, Star Wars of course. The list goes on.

One particular record that really fucked my head was Jean-Michele Jarre’s “Oxygene.” I really liked the album art and would listen to it on headphones wondering where the fuck this weird music came from and feeling really out of sorts as a result. When I started buying my own music with paper route money, it was mostly metal. I was a huge Judas Priest fan, Iron Maiden as well … along with a lot of other stuff that I now consider to be utter garbage. In high school — I went to a small high school in a small town and wasn’t exposed to much music outside of the popular mainstream — the only music that I listened to a lot of that I still consider worthwhile is Public Enemy. Other than that, it was mostly forgettable stuff. My ears didn’t really “open” to my own tastes, for the most part, until I went off to college in 1991.

CZ: Tell me about how you discovered dance music (or electronic music), and how (or what) it made you feel back then.

IV: One of my college roommates at Michigan State University, Tim, was a Chicago kid. His brother was heavy into a lot of different types of music, but what Tim brought to the table (which was a lot of varied and awesome stuff) that brought me to dance music was LFO, The Orb, Nitzer Ebb, Meat Beat Manifesto, Front 242, early Ministry and other Wax Trax! stuff. Aphex Twin. Kraftwerk was in there as well. Shortly after that, I got a job at a place called Bilbo’s Pizza. Yes, it was a Tolkien themed bar / restaurant. Anyway, this place was sort of a hub for all of the freaks in East Lansing, and a few of the freaks I worked with — notably Kyle Tait and Heath Brunner — were some of the few people in town into DJing and producing electronic music.

There was also a college radio show that Steve Lammers had called The Mechanical Pulse, and a few people in town throwing parties, Brent Nicholas for one. I mean, we had everybody from Kevin Saunderson to Robert Hood, Rolando and Suburban Knight, Claude Young, Hawtin, and Jay Denham come play, often at small, small venues — like basements of co-op houses. This is the time at which I was properly exposed to Detroit Techno and Chicago House. It was a liberating time for me musically. I’m not sure if I can accurately describe how it all made me feel, but I can say that my third eye got sprung open pretty severely through it all.

CZ: Tell me about your roots as a DJ. Who (or what) inspired you to start DJing yourself?

IV: To get girls to like me. Why else? I’m joking. Somewhere between the time when I started listening to electronic music and the stretch when a small “scene” started to try and take hold in East Lansing, I went to my first “real” party in neighboring Ann Arbor.

This was the first time that I had heard techno on any sort of rig and a guy named DJ Sho was playing. I remember him mixing the Underground Resistance track “Atomik Witchdokta” out of whatever he was playing, and when the “third track” moment came and the two songs were perfectly blended together, I lost my fucking mind. I got home at around 6 in the morning and woke my roommate Jayme up and yelled at him, “Dude, we have to buy turntables. Like, now!” This was in 1994. So I had been listening to the music for a couple of years at that point, but in more of a passive way. I was also busy exploring other types of music during this stretch. But after this party and buying decks and whatnot, it was pretty much over for me. In it for life.

Moves to Chicago and Detroit followed in the years after college, and those times truly cemented my tastes and desires for what I love about electronic music as a whole and dance music in particular.

CZ: I consider all of the Interdimensional Transmissions DJs and artists to possess, without question, one of the most idiosyncratic and bang-on conceptions of “techno” I’ve ever come across. I rank you firmly in this cohort. Can you explain what “techno” means to you, and what makes a great techno record, in your opinion?

IV: It’s more of a feeling than anything, as corny as that may sound. Most people, I think, have a very strict or narrow definition of techno. For me, it’s a very broad spectrum. I’d be much better at telling you what I think is decidedly not techno, I suppose.

What makes a good techno record, to me, is what makes a good rock record or jazz record — sincerity. Along with technical abilities and style of course…but the sincerity of something that is rooted within the context of a larger genre is what makes it stand out. I can smell an insincere record a fucking mile away at this point, as well as one that lacks technical prowess or style.

What makes a great techno record is a bit beyond that, the difference between good and great being a personal signature on a record or something about the listening experience that is truly unique. This only happens when people have sincerity, prowess, style, and a willingness to explore beyond the blueprints and take you somewhere new.

CZ: How do you build a DJ set?

IV: Well, that depends on what the set is for. Opening sets are different than headlining sets, obviously. And making a podcast at home is much different than preparing for a gig. So there are a lot of variables. Whatever the case, I like to try to build an arc, or a narrative, or whatever you want to call it. I read an interview with Laurent Garnier very early on in my DJing career where he talked about good DJing being like telling a story. I’m sure that many people said that before him and many have after, but it really stuck with me and that’s always been a goal.

I also try to juxtapose different types of music against each other in a way that I think is fresh and new. It’s a balance of trying to switch things up along the way while maintaining a cohesive whole. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t — but that’s the goal.

For this mix specifically, I wanted to show a little bit of what the crowd at the upcoming party can expect from me. I wanted to keep it around an hour long, but still show some range. I was also really excited to showcase some new music made or released by close mates of mine. It’s always a pleasure to be able to do that.

CZ: You’ve fully embraced the capabilities and possibilities afforded by digital DJing. Tell me what you love about having switched over to digital (and maybe what you don’t love about it).

IV: The switch happened over a long stretch of time and is by no means permanent. I started messing about DJing in Ableton when I was first learning it for production purposes, so I kind of stumbled on it by mistake — but I had already been totally blown away by what people like Surgeon and BMG were doing with laptop DJing, and this is also around the time that my friend Karl Meier started doing Ableton mixing…so I was definitely interested in checking it out after years of being a vinyl-only DJ.

Also, a number of years ago, I started suffering from pretty severe panic attacks, and they would sometimes happen while I was playing. I don’t know where they came from. I was medicated for a bit, but haven’t sought therapy or anything, so as far as I know it was just a physiological thing attached to approaching middle age. Something like that. I’m lucky insofar as they seem to have subsided over the course of the last year.

Anyway, trying to play vinyl with shaky hands, blurred vision, and heart palpitations was pretty near impossible, so there you have it. Also, setups for vinyl these days are not always provided with care, and playing on a lackluster setup is bullshit. Oftentimes, stressing about the setup at a venue was a huge trigger for me, and that’s never an issue playing with Ableton. The last time I played vinyl to a crowd was at an Eye Teeth party in Detroit. The setup was actually perfect, but I was panicky and played a lackluster set, which is something I can’t abide.

All of this aside, even in a world made perfect for vinyl DJing, and in a world where I never have another panic attack, I still think that I would play primarily in Ableton at this point. It just affords me so much flexibility, and the format debate is fucking tired. For anybody who wants to take the piss on digital DJing, well, guess what…I can fucking mix records as well. I miss the physical aspect of vinyl DJing sometimes, but I can go back to doing that any time I want. I want to present things in what I think is their most engaging manner, and for now that’s with my laptop and a controller. Perhaps at some point I’ll switch things up, do more of a hybrid type thing, I don’t know. There’s certainly a lot to be said for vinyl, as there is for showing up to a gig with nothing but thumb drives — but for now I’m happy doing what I do.

CZ: Tell me about your own productions. What do you hope to accomplish with them, and what’s your process for writing them?

IV: What I want is to make good music. I want my music to connect with people in some way. At least in a physical sense, hopefully on an emotional level, and ultimately, in a visceral way. I don’t have a set process. I’m not one of these people who are making music daily, or regularly even. I’m a bit of an incubator. I’ll start things, leave them alone, work on them for 15 minute stretches and then just leave them alone until I’m ready to revisit them. Then there’s usually a moment when I find what’s going on or how the sketch of the track is speaking to me, and at that point I finish up pretty quickly. Remixes are always much easier for me…for those, I actually have a process. But I’m keeping that a secret.

CZ: One thing I’ve always loved about your DJ sets is your willingness to reach outside the box, often incorporating broken-beat and bass music-type tunes into your sets. How do you keep yourself (and your crowd) on your (their) toes?

IV: Honestly, my friends keep me on my toes. My friends are some of the best DJs on the planet, in my opinion. I won’t bother name-dropping here, but they know who they are and so do you, more than likely. Many of my friends are also my DJ heroes, and I think that being surrounded by these folks keeps me on my toes in the best way possible.

As far as playing the UK bass or broken beat or post-dubstep or whatever you want to call it in my sets, it’s kind of a no-brainer and I’m not sure why more “techno” people don’t do it. I always liked playing electro records mixed with techno records, and it’s a logical extension of that. I think that a lot of the UK bass producers take as much from Detroit Techno and Chicago House as they do from UK Hardcore and Drum and Bass, so it’s a natural fit to my mind and ears.

CZ: Speaking as a fan and listener, what, in your opinion, makes a really good DJ set?

IV: I like to hear people play from the heart, whatever style they play. I don’t play house music much anymore, but when I hear somebody throw down a hot set of house music, it gives me a thrill. I like to hear people play who clearly have a vision and work to communicate it in a fresh and interesting way. I like to hear people put together a set the in the same way that I try to as explained above, but with their own style and approach.

CZ: Finally, stepping outside of the dance music realm for a moment, what are some recent records you’ve loved for at-home listening?

IV: This has been a problem for me, actually. I spend so much time sifting through music that I could potentially use in DJ sets or listening to my friend’s mixes that I don’t have as much time to “just listen” to things as I’d like to.

Off the top of my head, I’m enthralled with the latest Swans album, as I have been with each one since they reformed. A friend recently sent me a vinyl copy of Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint And The Sinner Boy,” which I’m well into. X-Ray Spex have been in rotation a bit lately. The Cramps and a compilation of spiritual songs sung by Angola Prison inmates. I always enjoy new releases by Zelienople as well as Matt Christensen’s solo work. There’s plenty more here that I’m forgetting.

I listen when I can and try to soak up as much new stuff as possible while going back to old gems as well. There’s just so much music that we have access to these days, one has to be choosy and deliberate. You can’t hear it all.

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