Self proclaimed noise maker, artist, university lecturer and first and foremost electronic music producer, Mike Parker, has cultivated one of the most distinguishable sounds in techno to date.
Parker combines his quiet obsession with analogue experimentation, fascination of ring modulators and love of the atonal and dissonant, to create a signature and patented sound often recognisable from the first bar. Take one listen to Parker's original 1999 Drainhum - recently re-released on his own Geophone imprint - and it is clear Parker's definitive vision of techno has been rigorously cultivated since day one.
Rumour has it the late Arthur Russell spent one day fine tuning a kick drum, while his co-musicians waited to begin recording. Similar practice is not uncommon in Parker's "base of operations" - his apartment in Buffalo, New York, where he can obsess over a pattern for more than 24 hours.
Parker currently teaches Fine Art at a university level, where only his curious students find out who "Mike Parker" really is. Via Skype, I hooked up with Parker at his Buffalo HQ, where he spoke of a trip to the aquarium with Cio D'Or, why rave should remain in the '90s, his love for Prologue, dislike of the word drone and the need to start a tea collection.
One of your very first projects was an experimental noise band called P.Children. What was it like being in that band and what was your role?
At the time I was studying Art at Carnegie Mellon University. When I was there I took some electronic music classes in the music department. They had a pretty interesting computer music programme. I wasn’t enrolled in the full programme, but they offered computer music classes. Carnegie Mellon is actually known for its work in computer science, it’s a big engineering school. I was in the fine arts department and in the fine arts building they offered architecture, music, fine arts and drama, so I took some electronic music classes. I distinctly remember using pretty old equipment, including an ARP 2600 which was broken, but still functional. While I was there I met Robert Kurzinger, he was studying music and was a music composition major at the time, he and I were both interested in the extremes of music. We were interested in not just electronic music but building instruments from found objects and things like that. I was pretty influenced by some of the contemporary people at the time, like Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubauten. I was young and it was a great learning experience. I think Robert brought most of the interesting structural ideas to the band. My role was more of a sound designer. I’m not a trained musician, I’m a noise maker. We did perform live and we recorded a few things. Simultaneously to that I was DJing for a college radio station at Carnegie Mellon. All of those things came together around the same time. I was interested in collecting records, but I was also interested in making my own.
I think that background still influences me today; I’m still interested in atonality, I’m interested in sounds that are unnatural, I’m still really fascinated by ring modulators. Those types of things have really carried through. I was interested in those things and I still am, but it is a different format now. For me techno music was an amalgamation of all the different types of music I was into previously. For me it was an combination of new wave, electro, industrial, experimental music and even to a degree punk rock. I remember in the early ‘90s when I was involved in Baltimore’s rave scene, a lot of people were comparing techno to punk rock music. It was music being made by people who were not really musicians, they were kids making some noise. That appeals to me and above all ties it in with everything else that I’ve been into; electronic and unnatural sounds. Those types of sounds to me are still very unique. I’m still really into this and haven’t grown tired of it. I read somewhere Jeff Mills spoke about operating within the structure of techno. He said how he likes to remain in that framework and likes to work within in that framework. It’s a lovely framework to work in and I’m very much of the belief that techno can still deliver very interesting results.
From listening to your earlier records you seem to have been very sure of the sound you wanted from the start. It seems that maybe you have worked within your own framework and have constantly evolved that original idea?
Yeah I think so. I’m hoping that I’m getter better at it. I’m not sure it is always true, but I am hoping I am getting better at it.
Studying music production or sound engineering at a graduate level is still a relatively new thing. Today those types of degrees may be geared toward entering the work force, rather than an artistic venture.
One of the computer music classes was taught by an instructor who was a full time professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He also had knowledge of music and taught in one of the electronic music classes. It was pretty academic stuff and within the context of electronic music history. One of the text books we used was written by Barry Schrader, who invented the term ‘electroacoustic music’. He wrote a very famous text called ‘Introduction to Electroacoustic Music’. It was also at a time when any kind of reference to pop culture was discouraged. You were supposed to put your music into an academic and historical context. So the work we did in the class was based on music concrete or something else that referenced grounded music theory. This was back in the late ‘80s, now we are seeing a big change in how things are taught. Now I am an instructor and teach art classes - I guess this is post modern theory at work here - some of the barriers between the distinctions of so called fine art and pop art have been blurred, more so than ever. The new generation don’t have to worry so much about being accused as pop artists. Now there is less of a stigma, but back in the late ‘80s, at least at the university level, if you were talking about anything other than classical music or something grounded in music theory, people wouldn’t take you seriously. Techno is its own language, it’s a universal language, but in its own way it’s pop music. I think it is one of the most abstract forms of pop music ever invented. I really believe that - it’s so abstract. I don’t want to over intellectualise it, but its abstraction is why I find it so appealing.
You are involved with what could be considered an ‘abstract style’ of techno. Have you seen that style of techno evolve?
The people that like the sound have more access to it because of the internet, more so than 10 years ago. I had some problems getting my music published 10 to 12 years ago, everything was being pressed on vinyl and my distributors would often try to exert their influence and they could be troublesome. I was making music that was not in four-four time. I was releasing records that weren’t four-four, they were in six-eight or five-four. I would send them to the distributors and they wouldn’t know what to do with my stuff and that was an issue. I wasn’t interested in making music that would sell a lot of records, I wanted to make a certain kind of sound. I think now people can do this; they can release digitally, they can release very quickly and they don’t have to go through the same distribution channels they used to. I think that is the difference, the sound is not new. I have some fantastic records that go back more than 10 years - like Apathism and DJ Slip - they are fantastic and came out more than 10 years ago. I don’t like to make those distinctions too much, I just like to go with the sounds that I like. I have always been interested in dissonant sounds and sounds of ring modulators, there were a lot of people making techno like that more than 10 years ago. Now, I think some of those people have influenced others and we are getting a younger generation of people doing it. I just hope there won’t be a backlash, actually there probably already is a backlash. The one thing I dislike is the word ‘drone’. I don’t care for it. I think the word ‘drone’ or ‘droning’ can be interpreted as being a negative term - as in droning is boring. I don’t like it when I read reviews saying drone techno, or droney techno.
Has your music been reviewed as drone?
Yeah, every once in a while, I think it’s a lazy term. If a reviewer is going to say that, I think they are being lazy. I think it’s a dismissive term and I am worried there is going to be some kind of backlash. I don’t think that this sound is a trend that we can get over, I think this sound has been around for a long time. I think there is a big precedent for it; it’s atonal, weird, alien sounding and I like to think of it being other worldly. There was one person that suggested to me when I played for Octave in Brooklyn recently, that we should call it voodoo techno. I like that, it’s better than drone.
What are the similarities between Voodoo and this type of techno?
Perhaps a hypnotic sound and an emphasis on really syncopated structures. You can have patterns that are divided by three’s, five’s or seven’s, but they will loop on top of a four-four beat. It takes them longer to cycle, so you can pay attention to that, or you can go into a hypnotic state because it will eventually loop around and begin another cycle. To me that is a better description than “droning”.
In the past 12 months I have noticed many techno producers have been embracing broken beat and odd numbered patterns.
I have actually been writing a lot of four-four lately. I go through phases. I remember in the late ‘90s I was really interested in writing patterns that were divided by three. Then I moved into a phase where everything was divided by five, so I’m hoping I am variating it enough to keep myself interested.
You mentioned that you had a lot of trouble releasing your music that wasn’t in four-four time. Is that what led you to establish Geophone?
Definitely. When I released Dispatches I really wanted to make the statement of releasing a full album. When I was preparing the master during the late summer months of 2001, I was getting everything ready and September 11 happened. It was a terrible time to release a techno album. Everybody was depressed. It was such a horrible time. It was probably a really bad time to release a minimalistic techno album. But I decided to release it anyway because it was finished and I set the goal to do it. When you have your own label you can make clear artistic decisions, you don’t have to worry about the middle man as much. To this day on Geophone, when I want to release something I just release it. There is no schedule, pressure, deadline or certain amount I need to release every year. If I feel I have a record to go, I release it. I like it that way so I will continue with that no matter what.
I saw you re-mastered and re-released Drainhum.
A lot of people were asking about it so I decided to make it a priority. It’s the fifth release from Geophone and one of my old favourites. I still like that record so I was happy to re-release it.
Do you have plans for any other re-masters or re-releases?
When I have the time I will eventually try and re-master most of the back catalogue. During the summer I may have more time to revisit some of the older releases and have them re-mastered.
How much is creating the perfect loop a part of your music making process? Are you someone that will spends hours agonising over a single loop?
It’s a big deal. It’s music that is centred around a bassline. I will work with a sequencer and I will modulate that until it sounds right. Sure, there are days where I make nothing but noise, but then on the good days I’ll make something that I am satisfied with. Sometimes I’ll spend more than one day on a single pattern. If I take a break and come back to it and it is still interesting, then I know it is good. If it doesn’t sound interesting after being away from it then I know it’s time to do something else.
I have heard a lot of DJs enjoy using your tracks as basslines because they can throw other things over the top.
That sounds good. When you put your work out there you never know what people are going to do with it. If someone is going to take a little piece of it and build something around it, that’s great.
How much are your DJ sets a representation of the music you make?
When I DJ, I do play a lot of my own tracks. This might sound obvious, but I have always made records so I could play them. I like to play my own music and I’m now at a point where I have enough tracks to do so. Most of my music I have only heard in my studio, so I enjoy hearing it played out on a system, like a Funktion-One sound system. One of the more gratifying experiences I had was the last time I played at Berghain. Cio D’Or was playing and I was on the dance floor with everyone. She played eight or nine of my tracks and some of them I had never heard on a big sound system, I’d only heard them in my studio. It was great to hear them like that for the first time.
Your Pulse Trader ep has a track titled ‘Cio’s Underwater Track’. Is this a nod to Cio D’Or?
Yeah it is. The afternoon before we played our first gig together in Okinawa, we went to this beautiful aquarium. We were being tourists, taking pictures and stuff like that. When the both of us go on trips we get ideas for track titles and that was a nod to her and the trip to Okinawa.
When you are in the studio, is there a specific space you picture your music being played?
There is one place specifically that I can say for sure and that’s the Labyrinth Festival in Japan. I made a track for Time To Express that was specifically meant to be played on that Funktion-One sound system, during that specific outdoor festival. Even the title alludes to that environment. It is a great festival and that track was my interpretation of the feeling I got when I was there, seeing the trees and hearing the sound of the wind as it was moving through them, that’s how that track was envisioned.
Labyrinth Festival is a such special festival to so many people. How important is it to you?
It’s probably the best outdoor festival I have ever experienced. Not just as a performer, but as a person who has attended a lot of things. It is a very well thought out line up and they pay close attention to the details and the sound. Japan is a beautiful country.
Are you still teaching Fine Art at a university level?
Yes, I taught a class today. I teach a lot of what is called foundation classes, which includes basic drawing and basic design. I also teach print making and we have also been teaching something called ‘time based media’, some of which involves sound. It varies from semester to semester. I teach a lot of drawing classes.
Do your students know or ever find out who “Mike Parker” is?
No they don’t. But eventually they figure it out. The ones who are curious might google me. That happened to me recently actually. Sometimes I’ll do a presentation and let them know what I am doing. I try and relate that to the practice of what it is to be an artist and how to get by as an artist. They are interested nowadays because they are pretty acclimated to technology, even if they don’t like the music that much. I have to be honest, most of my students don’t really like techno, but even if they don’t like the style they are interested in the technology behind it and I can talk to them on that level, which is fine. There is a small percentage of them that do like it, if it is presented to them in the right way. Unfortunately here in the states people are bombarded with the commercial stuff and there is almost no way for them to hear techno, unless they seek it out themselves. But then again, if I can talk to them on any level, that is great. I’m open minded and I certainly don’t expect everyone to like techno. I’m glad that they are interested in any kind of music, as long as they are interested in something, that’s great. My experiences can at least illustrate how ones goes about making, producing it and promoting it.
How much time do you get to work on your own artwork at home?
When I am teaching it is difficult. In the summer I get more of my own work done. At the moment I am teaching three classes so it is pretty intense. 2011 was a very productive year for me, it was my most productive year. I think I released five eps and half a dozen remixes, it was a really good year for my music.
In 2011 you hooked up with Prologue twice. What is your relationship with them?
Prologue is great. The gave me the best representation I’ve ever had and they have been fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about them. They have been instrumental in arranging my latest tour and have been very supportive of the art work. They reproduced my drawings for the packaging of my Prologue releases. They were the ones who brought forward the idea of using my artwork for my releases. I am hoping to continue the relationship.
Have you found that you don’t have to stray too far from what you would normally produce when making music for Prologue?
No I don’t. Any of the tracks I have released on Prologue, I would be happy to release on Geophone. They are definitely supporting my sound. They are the first to hear new demo’s and they definitely have an influence on the choice of tracks, which is great because they plan things very carefully. I send them demos when they are ready and they choose the ones they want to use.
Tell us about the artwork you have done for Prologue and Geophone. Its fluidity suggests it represents your music?
With Geophone, the idea was to create original packaging in small additions. They are small enough that I can do them by hand. I only press around 300 to 400 records at a time. I hand print the jackets by myself and can do 300 to 400 jackets. It allows me to do something very personalised without spending a massive amount of money, it costs me a little extra, but it’s nice that I can add a personal touch to the way the records look, rather than using generic jackets. I realised that with my knowledge of print making, I almost had an obligation to print my own jackets. It wouldn’t be right for me to release records in plain jackets. In Prologue’s case, they were able to produce full colour reproductions which is great. I’m not able to do that with Geophone.
Tell me about your collaborations with Donato Dozzy and others?
I really like working with Donato. We usually work together when I visit him in Italy. We will work in his studio, he has a great studio in Rome. We have collaborated before in San Felice, it’s right by the coast, in a beautiful area. I think that we were influenced by the environment when we collaborated there. He is a pleasure to work with. Geophone it is my own boutique label, so I will have certain people do remixes. Usually it will be an exchange; I will do a remix for somebody and they will do a remix for me. There are a couple of people at the moment who I am trying to arrange remixes from, but I can’t say much because they haven’t confirmed.
Before you solo productions you were one half of Trybet with Aric Rist?
Trybet was very influenced by the Baltimore rave scene, where I was living at the time. It (Trybet) was slightly more accessible and commercial because we were going for a sound that was influenced by acid trance and hard trance. I moved to Buffalo, New York, to go to graduate school and Aric departed for the west coast. When that ended I began to concentrate on my own solo work which is the sound I do now.
Can we expect a Mike Parker live show?
I want it to happen someday, but from a technical point of view it is very difficult. It is something I want to do, but probably not this year. One day I will do another live PA, but It will have to involve me taking time out to prepare for it and I’m not sure how I am going to be able to arrange that. In order to do it properly I would need a sufficient amount of time to prepare. I used to tear apart half my studio to do it, I just can’t do that anymore.
How did the live show happen last time?
I used to get offers to do live PAs and I did a handful of them in the states and it was fine, but it was really difficult and I don’t like the idea of transporting vintage analogue gear. My Korg MS-20 is 30 something years old, I don't like the idea of bringing that on the road with me. There has got to be another way for me to do it. I don’t like the idea of ableton - it’s a wonderful thing - but if I do something I want it to be 100 per cent live. I don’t want to take tracks, string them together and throw some things on top. If I was to do a live PA, it would have to be 100 per cent live. It’s coming but you guys may have to wait a while. If I could get a sabbatical from teaching I could get a live PA going.
Do your fellow staff support what you do?
They are very supportive. I have been getting really good support from my colleagues at the university.
So you are not known as the raver that teaches art?
No, I’m lucky that those terms are not used anymore thank goodness. The rave hysteria or anti-rave hysteria is long gone and I hope that raves are gone too. I like the club format and good festivals like Labyrinth. The idea of throwing raves is bad because it attracts illegal things, whether it be violation of fire codes or buildings that weren’t designed to hold those amounts of people. There were always problems like that back in those days and I would rather perform in a legal club that has lit fire escapes and a licence for serving alcohol. I think the mystique of throwing outlaw parties is an anachronism.
I think today the term ‘rave’ can sometimes be miscommunicated by the word ‘clubbing’. Sometimes telling someone your into techno, that doesn’t know techno, can think is it something totally different to what you think it is.
It’s an interesting subculture. To people that don’t understand it, they need to experience it for real. I think there is some hope with the younger generation, they are pretty acclimated to the technology, so I think that is a good sign. I don't think techno will actually ever be popular in North America, I’m just convinced it never will be, but it is still a thriving subculture. It’s an exciting time to be making this music. The commercial stuff for young people can be a gateway. If they are exposed to something in the right context I think there is hope that we can interest more people in techno with a capital T. I get this a lot from my students and I look at what they’re are into and how they experience music. I don’t always like they way they experience music. I don't like the fact that they are listening to low quality mp3s on these little plastic headphones that they stick in their ears, it’s a shame. But you know what, I have to be open minded and forgiving. I have to say, if I was their age I would probably be doing the same thing. They don’t know any better. If you find a way to expose people to music in the proper way and in the right context, you might be able to convert a small percentage.
So no slipping Geophone Records in students backpacks when they are not looking?
No, I don’t do it that way (laughs). I won’t make them listen to my music, they can find it and the curious ones do. Music is such a subjective thing, so I hope they come to the music… you can never convince a person to like something.
Finally, what is your favourite tea?
Do you drink much tea?
No (laughs). But right now I probably need some. I’ll make a point to get some green tea tomorrow.
- Svreca - Obscur (Marcel Dettmann Remix)
- Louis & Bebe Barron - Love At The Swimming Hole
- Sev Dah - Saint Of The Cave (Donor/Truss Remix)
- Cio D'Or - Wasserkraft
- Realmz - Worlds Within
- Jack Dangers - Meteor Ride
- Mike Parker - GPH17A2
- Abstract Division - Floating Point
- AnD - BSR02
- Raffaele Attanasio - non002b1
- Tadeo - Signal 0101
- Deepbass - Orion
- Voices From The Lake - Drop 4
- Jeff Mills - Something in the Sky 002A2
- Shifted - Structure
- Silent Servant - El Mar
- Planetary Assault Systems - Cold Bolster
- Mike Parker - GPH15B1
- Emika - Count Backwards (Marcel Dettmann Vocal Edit)
- Marcel Dettmann - Unrest (Norman Nodge Remix)
- Function - Descending
- Mike Parker -Voiceprint (Voice Three)
Lononders - Catch Mike Parker's London Debut here
European tour details
06.04.2012 | Valencia , ES | Miniclub
07.04.2012 | Helsinki , FIN | Deep Space
08.04.2012 | London , UK | Coma
11.04.2012 | Barcelona , ES | Moog
13.04.2012 | Paris , FR | Botofar
14.04.2012 | Milan , IT | Privat,Dude club
15.04.2012 | Berlin , DE | Berghain