THE FOURTH COMING OF DETROIT Seth Troxler, Ryan Crosson, Shaun Reeves and Lee Curtiss are the next generation of techno producers from the Motor City – and they’re not going to let gun-toting robbers, burst kidneys or industrial machinery stand in their way Words Ed Karney Photos Lars Borges
HE CITY OF DETROIT, Michigan is where it all began. In the mid 80s, inspired by German electronic bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, the ‘Bellville Three’ (named after their high school) – Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May – started experimenting with synthesisers and drum machines and ended up inventing a whole new genre: techno. In the early 90s local African-American DJs like Jeff Mills, Rob Hood and Mike Dunn were joined by white kids from across the Canadian border like Richie Hawtin and Dan Bell, who experimented with stripping the sound back to its bare essentials, creating the early template for minimal techno. A decade later, local college kids Matthew Dear, Ryan Elliott and Polish immigrant Magda would build on this sound, exporting it globally and creating one of dance music’s dominant scenes. Now there’s a new generation of young, talented producers from the Motor City following in their footsteps. Thousands of miles from the Midwest, on a Tuesday night at one of Berlin’s oldest and best-loved clubs, Club Der Visionaire, Seth Troxler, Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss and Shaun Reeves – four 20-somethings from Detroit – are rocking the shit out of the packed dancefloor, moving effortlessly from disco to soulful Chicago house and melodic Detroit techno, much of which they’ve produced themselves. These four [[1L]] OCTOBER 2009
grew up around disco, soul and hip hop but also well-established house and techno scenes and, just as crucially, the internet. This crew of young, clued-up producers, all from bulletproof musical backgrounds, aren’t merely studio geeks but write their own vocals and sing on their records, all the while with tongues firmly in cheek. They’ve earned global recognition from a barrage of releases on labels like Wolf+Lamb, Crosstown Rebels, Wagon Repair, Trapez, Raum and Cityfox. As they gather in a deserted warehouse in their adopted hometown of Berlin for the photo shoot they quickly decide that they want to recreate the classic Clash press shot of the four relieving themselves against a wall (see our Contents page). “To borrow a British phrase, we’re all about taking the piss,” explains the ever-animated Seth Troxler. Looking like a cross between an NFL linebacker and a Wookie, Lee Curtiss adds: “For us humour is often more important than our performance”. Later that night at Weekend club, they tag team behind the decks playing back-to-back, more a single fluid unit than individual DJs. Their group dynamic is honed from years of close friendship. So close in fact that at one point when they were living back home in Detroit, Lee got talked into marrying Seth’s girlfriend at the time so she could get her US visa. Now they all live in a shared flat in Berlin’s Friedrichein district. Together they’re on a carefully conceived mission – to save the world from ticka-ticka minimal techno and wannabe Frankfurt house while having as much fun as possible in the process.
S ETH TROXLE R
With his electrified afro and paedo-tache, Seth Troxler comes across as part streetwise Lothario, part Napoleon Dynamite’s creepy older cousin. “I’ve always been kinda bat-shit crazy,” he explains. At 23 he’s the youngest of the four but also the most outspoken and confident, a 6’2” ball of energy, one minute quoting lines from the Big Lebowski, the next expounding his latest masterplan for world domination, his thick Michigan drawl peppered with ‘rads’ and ‘ills’. Descended from a family of cowboys and Baptist preachers, he’s part African-American, part Egyptian and part Cherokee Indian. When he’s not over-doing it on acid and getting naked at after-parties, he’s responsible for laying down some of the most original vocals in techno. Seth was born in Kalamazoo, a town between Detroit and Chicago. His parents split when he was two. Soon after, his Mum met his stepdad, who hosted a local radio show. “He’d play hip hop and early house,” recalls Seth, “and after midlight, ‘The Love Zone’ which was all slow jams. His DJ name was ‘2 Fine’ which was also his car registration plate.” Seth would sit up late with him in the studio. “There was never an option for me not to become a DJ.” At 14 he threw his first party, booking Madga to play it and at 15 was working in a Detroit record store with Theo Parrish. It was there the met Shaun Reeves who introduced him to Lee and Ryan.
RYAN CROSSON’S TOP THREE TUNES RYAN CROSSON ‘DON’T LOOK’ (SPECTRAL) “This is forthcoming on Spectral and should be a nice club tool.” BERG NIXON ‘VICTORIA STATION’ (M_NUS) “This appeared on min2MAX and a number of people who I really admired at the time played this alot.” 3. KIKI ‘GOOD VOODOO’ (VISIONQUEST REMIX) “Kiki’s original was amazing but very dark and this gave me, Seth and Lee an opportunity to really earn our stripes.”
R YA N C R O S S O N
First impressions of Ryan Crosson are of a polite, softly spoken young man, mild-mannered and organised. You wouldn’t think it, listening to any of his crop of off-kilter club bombs on labels like Trapez and Minus. “I come from a Catholic, middle class, super-conservative kind of family”, he explains. His dad built up his own business in a suburb about 20 minutes north of Detroit, where Ryan worked from the age of fourteen. He had, in his own words, a “super normal” childhood, until his last year of high school when he had an accident playing American Football and had to have one of his kidneys removed. During his rehabilitation (“where I come from if you had nothing to do you’d just drive around listening to music and smoking dope”) he discovered DJ Shadow, Kruder & Dorfmeister and eventually Plastikman’s seminal techno album ‘Sheet 1’ – “my doorway into techno”. Around the same time he started going to d’n’b parties in Detroit. It wasn’t until his first year at Michigan State University that Ryan went to his first techno party. “That inspired me to buy turntables and start seriously buying records.” He also met Seth Troxler, fellow college-mate Rudi (who now runs Minus), Richie Hawtin and Magda. Shaun convinced Ryan to move with him to Berlin in 2007. “I’d just split up with my girlfriend and was bored selling industrial machinery for the family business.”
SETH TROXLER’S TOP THREE TUNES SETH TROXLER ‘APHRIKA EP’ (WOLF+LAMB) “This was written for my mum, Grandma and all the women in my life.” SEX TROTHLER ‘SEXPLOSION EP’ (WAGON REPAIR) “This is where I want my music to be in the future. I love creating vocal skits.” SETH TROXLER & PATRICK RUSSELL ‘VALT TRAX’ (CIRCUS COMPANY) “These were fun tracks to make and I hope they’ll have a longevity having got support from DJs”
S H AU N R E E V E S
Shaun Reeves’ deadpan demeanour, punctuated by the occasional wry grin and Beavis-like snigger, belies a brain that never stops plotting his next move. Production-wise he’s the least exposed of the four, though at this year’s Miami WMC, Shaun played at more parties than any other DJ at the conference. He grew up in a small house at the end of a dirt track on the edge of a tiny village called Twining in the north of Michigan and most of his early contact with music came from his parents and the radio. “I remember listening to Eddie Grant records on my Bigbird Sesame Street record player and trying to breakdance on a piece of cardboard in my parent’s kitchen.” As soon as he got to college in Detroit he decided to drop out and concentrate on music full time. To make ends meet he delivered pizzas and couriered, throwing parties on the side in small bars, attic spaces and lofts. Cracking on at home with friends after one New Year’s Eve party Shaun answered the door to find himself thrown to the floor at gunpoint by four thugs who’d followed him home. Luckily the next-door neighbour’s kid had called the police. “The cops kicked down the front door and came bursting in with shotguns. They saved our lives.” Despite being caught red-handed, the thieves tried to argue that Shaun and his mates were a bunch of unreliable rave-junkies. “For me the final straw was having to stand up in court and explain to a bunch of up-tight conservative legal types exactly what DJing and throwing techno parties was all about.” After that Shaun decided to leave town and head to Berlin. Three years later, Ryan, Lee and Seth would follow suit.
L E E C U RT I S S LEE CURTISS’ TOP THREE TUNES LEE CURTISS ‘THE BLACK DOOR EP’ (SPECTRAL SOUNDS) “There’s a track on this EP called ‘Smoking Mirrors’ that’s got a very Metro Area sound to it that I’m really pleased with.” LEE CURTISS ‘SMUT’ (DUMB UNIT) “I felt that this was stretching it out there, especially for the label. I sampled Rick James and was moving outside of the techno scope.” LEE CURTISS ‘SEXY DANCER EP’ (WOLF+LAMB MUSIC) “There’s a long and, I’m afraid, illegal story behind this. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Despite looking like a grizzled, tobacco-chewing extra from a Spaghetti Western, Lee is maybe the most musically talented of the four. His tracks like ‘Watcha Need’ and ‘Smoking Mirrors’ are defined by their strong, distinctive hooks and riffs. The grandson of genuine cowboy and local man-about-town ‘Country Carl Moorhouse’, a fast-talking horse trailer salesman, Lee was raised in what he describes as a ‘podunk’ town called Cedar Springs in West Michigan – “the kind of place that was lucky to even have a MacDonalds” – and then the larger town of Grand Rapids. Inspired by his step-dad’s love of Led Zeppelin, Lee started playing guitar aged 8 and quickly discovered British bands like The Cure, Joy Division and Radiohead and was tinkering with a basic Casio SK22 synth long before he properly discovered electronic music. He almost became a semi-professional mogul skier at 19 but discovering raves and dance music soon put paid to this. “I met Matt Dear out partying when I was about 23, he was like ‘get the fuck out of Grand Rapids and move to Detroit, we’ve got something going on here’.” He followed his advice and started working for Paxahau, who organise the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, where he met Shaun Reeves. “He was like, you’ve gotta meet Ryan and Seth. At the time Seth was this teenage kid with dreadlocks getting snuck into all these parties because he knew everyone from working at the record store.” Seth needed somewhere to live so Lee offered to move in with him. It was holed up in their basement that their sonic experiment called the ‘Tesh Club’ (named after the German pronunciation of ‘teshno’), laying down the ideas and concepts for many of their recent productions.
SHAUN REEVES’ TOP THREE TUNES 1. SHAUN REEVES & MISS FITZ ‘THIS HOUSE EP’ (RAUM) “The first person I ever heard play this was Ricardo Villalobos, which for me was a big deal.” 2. THE ROYAL WE ‘PARTY GIRL’ (CROSSTOWN REBELS) This is my and Seth’s new track on Crosstown – just a really fun, playful groove that sums us up.” 3. WOLF+LAMB ‘IF U HAD’ (SHAUN REEVES EDIT) (WOLF + LAMB MUSIC) “This is a very deep and soulful track. I love everything that Wolf+Lamb do.”