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Q&A: Adam X On Being Known As A Producer Instead Of A DJ, The Importance Of Mixing It Up, And Berlin's Energy

Q&A: Adam X On Being Known As A Producer Instead Of A DJ, The Importance Of Mixing It Up, And Berlin's Energy
Timo Stammberger

Born Adam Mitchell in Coney Island, Brooklyn, techno and industrial producer Adam X was one of the key architects of the early '90s New York rave scene. With his older brother, Frankie Bones—who famously brought the British rave template to Brooklyn, throwing parties in old warehouses and other out-of-the-way venues—Adam X was part of the Storm Rave crew, and the day-to-day manager of Groove Records in Brooklyn, the first all-techno record store in the U.S. (It was later renamed Sonic Groove after moving to Manhattan.) By the end of the '90s, Adam was an established rave headliner and, thanks to his hard acid and furious techno track making (see 1992's "Lost in Hell") and DJing (the 1999 mix Wax Trax MasterMix Volume 2).

By the early 2000s, though, Adam grew disenchanted with the scene—just as party crackdowns began around the U.S. in earnest. Creatively, he made a lateral drift over to industrial, or EBM (electronic body music), where his rough style fit right in. But he began to get the techno itch again a few years ago, not long after leaving Brooklyn (where he still owns, and rents out, an apartment) for Berlin, like so many other dance-music pros. There, Adam began a sneak return to techno's front lines by issuing a series of acclaimed 12-inches under the pseudonym Traversable Wormhole, telling almost no one for a year. Once the dots were connected, it was only somewhat of a surprise—no-nonsense techno was always Adam X's highest calling.

This weekend, Adam and Frankie play together for the first time in two years at National Underground. Adam spoke with SOTC at a diner in Kensington, Brooklyn, where he enjoyed a strawberry milkshake.

You were never big into drugs, right?

No.

So was the "X" in your name a science-fiction kind of alias?

More like in Malcolm X. "X" is just that unknown letter, a letter that's not really used a lot in the English vocabulary. Of course, if you go to somewhere like Malta in the Mediterranean, every letter's an X, and if you look at Roman numerals it's all X, V and L. I also got it from a Fred Flintstone cartoon, believe it or not: In one episode he winds up on some island. Fred and Barney are trapped and there's this woman, Madame X. It always stuck with me because people used to say "Madam Adam" when I was a kid at school, just kids teasing. But it was never related to drugs, because in the early days of the rave scene we never called Ecstasy "X," we called it "E."

That was the English thing.

Yeah. On the West Coast they were calling it "X," but in New York we always called it "E."

Do you think of yourself more as a DJ or a producer?

If you'd asked me that question 20 years ago I probably would've said a DJ, but now it's a producer. I love DJing, but when I'm dead and buried I want to be known as a musician and producer, more than the DJ aspect. Of course, I want to be known as a DJ as well.

Is it safe to say that DJing pays the bills and producing is more artistically fulfilling?

I think in this day and age you have to make music to get the gigs. You can't really just come out and start spinning: not many people can pull that off. Very few people have done that in the last few years in the techno scene, just making their name from DJing and getting gigs from it. When I first came up you could do that, and that's how I did do it, but I also was making records. But now if I don't have any records out I watch my gigs decline, because you have to constantly be producing and getting your name out there and getting records out.

How long did you use the alias Traversable Wormhole before you said who it was?

Probably about a year.

You "outed" yourself in a Resident Advisor interview in January 2010.

Yes, and the first [Traversable Wormhole 12-inches] came out in March 2009. Let me say—there were five records that came out during that period. I put out a rapid succession of them.

Does that tie into what you just said about DJ gigs? Did you have an easier time once your name came out as the guy behind Traversable?

Yeah. I think in the beginning people didn't really know how to book it. I had the MySpace page set up, and I wasn't really pushing for the gigs. It was really the first person that actually contacted for a gig on there was [xx], and they didn't know that it was me when they booked it I wound up telling him after he confirmed it with my booking agent. It was "By the way, did you know that was me?" [laughs]

Wow. So you kept it from nearly everyone.

Yeah, there were only ever a couple of people who knew. Some people from [Berlin dance-record shop] Hardwax knew...

Was Finn Johannsen [the Hardwax employee who conducted the RA interview] one of them?

No, Finn knew a little later. Actually the first guy who knew about it was Torsten, who works at Hardwax—he [records as] T++, and he worked with Monolake for a while—because he's the buyer there, so he was giving me the support I needed.

 

To go back to the beginning a bit, what kind of music were you playing as a DJ during the early STORM Raves?

We were playing a mixture: the British stuff, because in the beginning, in '90, when I first got into it, I was really always into the Sheffield sound, the Warp stuff, bass and beeps. Warp wasn't the only label doing it. There was Network, Chill Records, Ozone: There was a handful of labels that were making this kind of bleepy techno. I always loved that stuff, but at the same time I loved the Belgian shit, the hard beat Frank De Wulf, R&S stuff. So we mixed it all together. But we also played the London stuff. My brother is the pioneer of the breakbeats for techno, [which is] of course a lot of the precursor to drum and bass, or all that U.K. hardcore stuff. We used to play a lot of that as well.

You're well known for playing hard acid and very rough techno. Did you ever play gabber, like Lenny Dee?

No. I could play it. Did I ever drop a gabber record in my set? Yeah. But no, I could never consider myself a gabber DJ. I played hardcore. I play hardcore acid. I always said I play harder than gabber. I could play a 160 BPM, most distorted acid track where everything's just fucking rhythmic fucking noise, techno acid shit, [laughs] the darkest, evillest shit. What I played at a party, after all that shit, heads would be getting melted. [laughs]

Even though the warehouse scene died in '94, the [New York techno] scene got really fucking good. It got better because it got these guys and this kind of professional level of working. They could pay a decent fee to DJs and they were down to bring in really good talent from Europe or from the States. There was a lot of really great parties in that period. I think from the point from the [beginning of the] '90s to, I'd say, '98 techno was fucking amazing in New York.

Did it stop being amazing generally, or just for you?

For the scene—I think for everything, actually. It was so strong, the techno thing. The amount of records [Sonic Groove was] selling was crazy, man. Christian Vogel came out in '95 with Absolute Time; I think we sold 200 copies of the double-pack. It was a great, great period. That '95-'96-'97 period was some of the best techno, real techno. You could still play that shit now, a lot of that stuff is still good: early Surgeon, Regis, Christian Vogel. I hear people when I'm in Berlin, people playing these tracks out all of the time, still. I just heard Regis the other night at Tresor. Beltram was coming out with Places on Tresor. And Pulsegrind on JB3—there was so much good stuff that's timeless.

By '98-'99, you had the problems with the rave scene with the cracking down. You had a problem with techno. The market was flooded with all this loop techno stuff that was all sounding redundant. All these companies in England like Integral and Prime. All these distribution companies that were doing all these pressing-and-distribution deals with labels. They were just over-flooding the market with these fucking basic loop tracks. It was nothing more than a loop. I felt like the whole scene was just crashing: Musically, the people, the interest in people going out. As 2000 came, things started going more into different things, like electroclash.

There was a real backlash against techno right then.

I was so bored of it, man. I was looking for something new. Me and my brother were always going out secondhand-record shopping, around the tri-state area—Pennsylvania, Connecticut—because we did big business for the second hand records in the shop. We had the best collection of classics, and by getting them, you'd have to drive over to the ghetto neighborhoods in Philly for classic disco records. We were always doing crazy missions. So I just got more into secondhand collecting and was getting into Italodisco. I wanted something new. It didn't have to be totally new in sound. It just had to be something that you weren't already doing.

Is that what led you back to EBM?

That's what it was. I got into the Italo thing. I know a lot of these records from when I was kid. But the other records it was like, "This is great! These bass lines!" Then all of a sudden you listen to them, it's all this cheesy shit: "Aw, fuck, it just killed the whole record."

And then the EBM just came—a Clock DVA record just changed my game. It introduced me to another scene. With EBM and industrial music, there's as many different elements like techno. It has as many different subgenres in it. And then this girl that I knew was playing this rhythmic noise stuff, which was new at the time—this new form of industrial for the last 15 years—and it's techno. It's like Aphex Twin stuff in the early 90's, but more industrial. I found the niche that I was looking for, while everybody was doing their minimal thing. I was even trying to break some of this music in the techno scene. Now it works! [laughs] It only took 10 years.

 

Younger DJ's are more likely to throw in anything, even something that is not really even related, as long as they can mix in and out of it—and not always then, either. That's not altogether new, but it's more common now. It seems like younger kids are not as much like, "I have to define my style."

I think it's probably better, actually. I like versatile DJing. It's versatile like it was in the early 90's, like I described before: you'd play Detroit techno, [break]beats, stuff from London—it was very mixed up. I guess I'm more of a purist these days. Sometimes when I go to Berghain, everybody's playing techno all night. That bores me. I want to hear maybe some good acid-house track or something. Break it up, slow it down, throw a breakbeat in it.

A progression?

Totally, man. It's got to have peaks and valleys. It's one thing, because I grow up here in a culture where you have a one-hour DJ set. You go to a rave, it's like wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, and you go home, right? But in Berlin, since I've been living there, now I'm used to playing three hours. I'm at the point where I'm telling people when they book me now, here, I want to play—I just tell them the fee, and if they think it's too high, I'll tell you what, I'll play four hours. Don't book somebody else, and then you can pay me the little extra, because I would prefer to pay more.

Time-and-a-half.

Exactly. So, now that I get a chance to play these little DJ sets I have more of a chance to really build up and slow down and just move it all around, make it a little more unison, you know?

You went to Berlin in 2007. What prompted that?

Time for change: I had enough. I closed the store in October 2004. There wasn't enough [DJ work]. You had so many problems in the States with this music. Couldn't have a shop anymore, not enough gigs to play. How do you pay the bills in New York, when you own an apartment, when you own a car? I tried to work in real estate for a while. I never stopped doing what I was doing. I was taking gigs and I was pushing it just as hard, but I did part-time [work] being a real estate broker. I didn't really like the hustle. I felt like everybody was lying in that business. I'm not a liar; I'm very truthful with people. I'm honest. I was like, "I'm making some money here and I've been able to maintain for a minute but this is not what I want to do."

Then I happened to go to Europe to do a little bit of tour and when I was in Berlin I hadn't played there in many years and when I was leaving... I stayed there for a few days and when I left to go back to the airport something just said to me I don't want to go home. And I'd never had that feeling before. I always got homesick when I traveled. I always loved New York. I couldn't be without this place. After a week or two I'd go, "I've got to go home, get back." That was the first time I was like I don't want to leave. I said when I was leaving I was like, "I've got to come back here. This is the place. I need to be here."

I'm curious about the social energy of Berlin when you got there. Things had already been picking up for awhile. The great techno surge of everybody moving to Berlin had started happening by that point. Was that part of the attraction, just being a lot of creative people?

Yeah, of course: besides that, I just like the freedom of the city, the fact that I could go out every night of the week and I could go paint the graffiti. I could do whatever I want. I could drink on the street. All the stuff that I grew up [with], that I could do when I was young without having the police breathing down my neck on every little thing, the fact that it was so cheap there that you could [make] your music without stress, without compromise, without fucking worrying about anything. I could make enough money to live there comfortably without having the stress. It was just the constant stress to do my art, to do what I do. And I didn't want to have any restrictions on me anymore. That was one of the reasons I moved there. [Another is] the fact that it was a pretty international city with people that I knew people from everywhere: I knew the Hardwax guys for many years, different people I knew for years and years.

To be honest with you, when I went there it wasn't really a good time for what I was into because it was more minimal techno: There wasn't much real techno being made when I got out there. Actually, besides Berghain doing their stuff—and they didn't very good techno every night there. It was on the weekends. Sometimes it was like André Galuzzi and these other guys that still played more tech house. [Marcel] Dettmann and Ben [Klock] were the only guys that were playing techno, and they didn't play there every week. So it wasn't like you heard proper hard techno every week when you went out in Berlin.

Did it become that way?

It did later. I was doing a lot of parties for a while. I did, like, 25 events in Berlin. I was bringing people like Surgeon to play in Berlin who hadn't played in Berlin in two years. Same thing with Damon Wild, [Joey] Beltram: I was booking people that hadn't been playing in Berlin for a year or two years and weren't getting any gigs because there's not much of scene there.

So it energized you?

Yeah. It was wide open for me to break in and get a residency and play my own party. I wanted to make moves.

Frankie Bones and Adam X play National Underground on Saturday, July 28 at 10 p.m.

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