BY Alexis Waltz in Profiles | 25 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 16

More with Less

How DJ Richard and White Material are bucking expectations to be distinct

BY Alexis Waltz in Profiles | 25 AUG 14

DJ Richard, 2013. Courtesy: White Material

There are techno records that are traded as rarities, but it was a minor sensation when White Material 004 – with tracks by DJ Richard, Galcher Lustwerk and Young Male – started selling for US$60–70 on the vinyl collectors’ website Discogs just two weeks after its release in autumn last year. It seemed as if the eponymous label, White Material – founded in 2012 by Young Male and DJ Richard with a policy of limiting its vinyl records to editions of 300 – had come up with the perfect product for vinyl freaks with a liking for unorthodox club sounds. White Material’s rubber-stamped titles on white labels and arid sound play to an aesthetic developed in recent years by New York labels like L.I.E.S. and Novel Sound. White Material’s logo shows an electrician on a pylon; the slogan ‘Working Man’s Techno’ underscores the handmade ethic.

The momentum behind White Material is not easy to explain. Philip Sherburne’s review of White Material 004, published in Spin magazine in October 2013, revealed a certain perplexity: ‘It’s just a single loop of drum machine, sampled percussion, and a chord teased and filtered for five minutes.’ And as Josh Hall wrote on one of the tracks in The Quietus: ‘The subtly lysergic house music of Brooklyn’s Galcher Lustwerk tells stories with few words and fewer sonic gestures’. The usual solution of namedropping similar acts doesn’t work here in describing specific tracks. The music doesn’t do anything ‘special’ to justify its existence. David Lieske, head of Dial, the label due to release DJ Richard’s debut album later this year, puts it in a nutshell: ‘They [White Material] are original because they don’t do anything original.’

White Material 004 12˝, 2013

DJ Richard (Alex Field) comes from Rhode Island and studied at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence where he became involved in the city’s punk, hardcore and noise scene. The bands Lightning Bolt and Black Dice were founded there in the 1990s, and the Fort Thunder venue achieved more than local fame. During this period, a new sound emerged in the noise scene with hardware replacing instruments. Powerful thundering drones created by modular synthesizers were a shaping experience for DJ Richard. Aged 18, he met Young Male (Quinn Taylor) and Galcher Lustwerk: ‘they were the only ones who called their music house or techno rather than “rhythmic noise”.’

In the Providence noise scene of the time, working with laptops was considered boring. One had to familiarize oneself with analogue equipment, cassette decks or effect pedals in DIY mode. For White Material, then, releasing vinyl is not an artificial bottleneck, a means of contriving scarcity, but the consequence of a genuine interest in obscure, obsolete technology. DJ Richard plays down this aspect, ‘In contrast to releasing digitally it’s just easier to maintain a certain level of control with vinyl. When there’s no more there’s no more. It’s not a vinyl versus mp3 blah blah blah – that’s a debate I don’t want to get into. There’s no philosophy behind it. That’s the way we started: we just wanted to press our friends’ records.’

DJ Richard, 2013

If DJ Richard seems uninterested in the wider discourse, that’s because he’s more concerned with carving out a specific context. White Material operates within an extensive music scene reaching from Providence to New York to Berlin, where DJ Richard has been living since 2012. In Europe, scenes tend to be shaped by clubs and DJs. But since 2000, electronic music in New York has been so marginal that, instead of clubs, record stores (like A1) and labels (like L.I.E.S.) have become focal points. Electronic music’s spread via the Internet tends to ignore such contexts. For the protagonists, the temptation is to optimize their output for the net: for a label, this means signing the hyped act of the moment rather than preserving the integrity of one’s own scene; for a musician, it can mean indiscriminately mimicking touchstones from club music’s history. DJ Richard agrees that imitation must never disregard context: ‘I was reading this interview with Ron Trent. He got the inspiration for his track Morning Factory (1995) while hearing Junior Vasquez play at the Sound Factory. He hated the records. But five minutes later he was on the dance floor and realized the power of the sound system and how confi­dent the mixing was. Morning Factory sounds nothing like Junior Vasquez, but is so inspired by the vibe of early ’90s New York.’

Every club sound since the ’90s has, in a certain way, defined itself in contrast to that decade. DJ Richard’s music doesn’t, in fact he’s not interested in these kinds of distinctions. As he puts it: ‘’90s house and techno: you just can’t get any better. Then you didn’t have the software, so you couldn’t be like: fuck it, I’m gonna synthesize something else. You had to work with sounds that were used on countless records before. To really stand out you had to own the sound and put your own stamp on it. I really appreciate it when someone puts two kick drums together and you hear it’s their kick drum. That is what keeps me digging the ’90s: things sound more unique with less.’

Alexis Waltz is a music journalist who writes for publications including Groove, Spex and Süddeutsche Zeitung. He lives in Berlin.