Interview by Chris Zaldua.
Bay Area residents clued in to the rhythm and sound of modern minimal techno have no doubt become aware of the Diacritic Collective, a young and diverse group of DJs who have been hosting events, playing out at parties around the city, and simply love music: “making it, digging for it, and sharing it with one another, especially on vinyl.”
One of their leading selectors is Lily Ackerman, who has come a long way from milking cows in small-town Illinois (more on that below) to playing some of San Francisco’s finest clubs. She’s responsible for the latest installment in As You Like It’s podcast series, a 70-minute trip that shows off her penchant for melodic, groove-focused techno and deep house.
On Saturday, Dec. 16 at The Stud, a 51-year-old queer bar in the heart of San Francisco’s SOMA district, Lights Down Low, AYLI and Honey Soundsystem’s “Hardcore Holiday Party” — which is exactly what it sounds like — featuring a live set from one of the most evocative new voices in techno, Sweden’s Dorisburg (aka ½ of the duo Genius of Time) and Discwoman‘s techno up-and-coming star Volvox. Here, Ackerman will step up to the decks alongside AYLI residents Sassmouth and David Siska — read on to learn more about what makes her tick.
CZ: Tell me about where you’re from and how you landed in the Bay Area.
LA: I’m originally from a small town in Illinois called Chenoa, population 1700. I grew up milking cows on a family-run dairy farm, and ended up in California for educational and professional reasons. I moved to California in 1999 to attend graduate school in Pasadena, where I studied chemistry. After that, I worked in a lab at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and then moved to the Bay Area in 2004 to work at a chemical company. At that time, I had absolutely no idea that over a decade later, I’d be spending almost all of my free time and energy on music. I have played classical piano since I was 8 years old, but never dreamed I would be producing electronic music or DJing as intensely as I am today. I’m still pinching myself that any of this is even happening.
CZ: When did you discover electronic music? And what brought you to DJing — was there a particular “a-ha” moment, or was it a slow burn?
LA: I remember being taken to an all-ages dance club in the early 90s, in a town called Peoria, IL, about an hour away from Chenoa, but somehow dance music didn’t stick with me at the time. It’s a shame that I came of age not far from Chicago and Detroit, but didn’t fully realize the importance of what was going on there musically until much later. It was around about 2009, when I started going out more frequently to San Francisco dance clubs and discovered the underground scene here in 2010, that electronic dance music really came into my life and I felt “at home” in the music community.
After hanging out in clubs and various underground locations around the Bay Area, I wanted to feel more directly involved in the dance music scene. DJing seemed too daunting, given that I don’t particularly like being the center of attention anywhere, let alone at a dance party. So I started producing music instead and released some tracks on Mioli Music in 2013. The “ah-ha” moment for DJing came in 2014, when a friend of mine, Gerry Shih, lived with me temporarily before an overseas move and brought his turntables into my apartment. I started playing around with them and instantly fell in love with mixing records.
CZ: Tell me about your work with Diacritic Collective. When did it launch, and how did it come together? How would you describe Diacritic’s particular niche?
LA: I met most of the members of the Diacritic Collective between 2011-2012 music events we all attended together. We all were working on our own music projects at that time, but after those turntables showed up in my apartment in 2014, I started throwing house parties we’d all bring records to play. We moved these parties into clubs in 2015 — mostly because of noise complaints, naturally. Musically, the collective is wide enough that we play almost all genres of dance music, from the ’70s to the present. If we had a particular niche, I would say it would be bringing quality music to people in intimate settings. We promote an inclusive, family vibe that feels like an extension of the living room parties we started at my apartment, and we try to become friends with our supporters. This year we have been fortunate enough to have played several events as a collective. We also collaborate with other venues and crews, such as Public Works and Housepitality, to bring some of our favorite artists to the Bay Area.
CZ: I know you’re a committed vinyl selector. What do you enjoy about playing vinyl? Have you dipped your toes into the waters of digital DJing, and if so, is there anything in particular you like (or dislike) about it?
LA: I love picking up records and moving them around when I’m DJing. I just have this romantic, nostalgic feeling when I handle vinyl records — even though my parents only had a few records at home and my first music purchases were tapes. I love that records have covers that are also pieces of artwork. I’m familiar with hybrid digital/vinyl media such as Serato, but I feel less of that ‘romantic feeling’ when I’m facing a glowing laptop screen in the DJ booth. This year, I’m working on practicing more on CDJs, because I think it is important that I know how to play on all media. I certainly do miss the feeling of physically moving records around when playing digitally, though.
CZ: Tell me about your mix for AYLI. Is it representative of your typical style when DJing? Did you have any particular goals in mind putting it together?
LA: As a DJ, when I select music, I think about things like where I will be playing, the crowd, the venue, the other DJs I will be playing with, and the time slot. Because this mix is a podcast and won’t be played at a club event, I selected music that leans deeper and atmospheric, where I’m less concerned about the need to light up a dance floor.
I had a couple goals in mind when putting this mix together. Because the mix is coming out around the time of the one year anniversary of the Ghost Ship fire, I included tracks by Nackt (Johnny Igaz) and Cherushii (Chelsea Faith Dolan) in their memory. Second, I wanted to highlight some of the incredible talent we have here in the Bay Area, so in addition to Johnny and Chelsea’s tracks, I included a track by Muon (Marc Kelechava) and a track put out by Dark Entries Records.
CZ: If there’s one particular style of dance music I happen to associate you with (and please correct me if I’m off the mark!) it’s contemporary minimal techno. What about minimal techno gets your groove going? Do you find yourself drawn to a particular style of minimal techno? What labels do you follow?
LA: I think that contemporary minimal techno is what I leaned towards in the beginning of my DJ career, and some of the members of Diacritic were initially focused on that genre, but lately I find myself branching out and playing more diverse sets. Diacritic was really crazy about contemporary Romanian minimal techno — and I’d say we still are — but we don’t necessarily strictly stick to that genre. I lean towards subtle music that is stripped down and has space, but also has a groovy, hypnotic low end that keeps bodies moving. But as I mentioned above, the party, the venue, and the other DJ’s I’m playing will dictate what I will play at any given time. In the last few weeks I played house and disco at a Sunday day party with my Diacritic crew, disco at the Free Your Fabulous Thursday night party, an opening techno set back to back with AYLI resident Mossmoss (Mattie Bowen) at a Public Works Saturday night party, and more house and disco at a day party at the Vinyl Dreams record shop. I’ve gotten a number of comments — like “I didn’t know you played disco” — which makes me happy. I’d get bored if I only focused on minimal techno. I’m also in love with dub techno, and have been playing records from the Echocord Colour label out a fair amount — other favorite labels include Smallville and Dial.
CZ: On that note, what other kinds of music have you been enjoying lately? Anything in recent memory that stands out or made a mark on you?
LA: I already mentioned disco and dub techno above. As for recent stand-outs, another talented local DJ who played for AYLI recently, Trevor Sigler, introduced me to the London-based post-industrial band, Factory Floor. When I heard Trevor play a Factory Floor track in one of his DJ sets, I danced so hard that I simply had to know what it was — which Trevor then graciously ID’d. I’ve been playing some of their records out recently, and they have been lighting up the dance floor every time I play them. Factory Floor sounds like acid house, experimental electronic, and minimal techno all combined, but their unique sound somehow transcends the more traditional house and techno music I have in my collection.
CZ: What makes a really great party for you?
LA: A really great party has a mixed crowd of ages, colors, genders/non-genders, and sexual orientations. For me, the best parties are the most mixed parties, including the music.
CZ: Last but not least — what does a perfect day in San Francisco look like for you?
LA: The perfect day in San Francisco would include cuddling in bed, having no set schedule or planned commitments, moving slowly, walking in one of our beautiful parks, visiting a record store or two, and hanging out with music friends and listening to the gems they have discovered.