That's my biggest complaint with a lot of contemporary music is 'these fucking kids need to do their fucking homework', whether it's house music or whatever. Very often my impulse is just like: you have the internet, you have access to musical knowledge, you have resources that can tell you everything in the fucking world about anything and yet you don't look beyond step one.
Shawn O'Sullivan is a hugely talented young musician with releases on L.I.E.S. (Vapauteen) The Corner (Civil Duty), Avian (400PPM) and Willie Burn's W.T. Records. Originally from Iowa Shawn relocated to New York in the early 2000s and was uniquely placed to experience the burgeoning minimal synth movement which steadily grew out of the city's dive bars and basements in the aftermath of the superclub implosion of the late 1990s/early 2000s. A member of influential synth group Led Er Est and acclaimed synth duo Further Reductions Shawn has also worked with Beau Wanzer and maintains relationships with some of the New York underground's key players. Here Shawn guides us through some of his musical influences including some of his favourite Midwest hardcore DJs, his personal requirements for collaborative working and just what happened to techno in the Big Apple during the 00s...
DT: I understand you recently got back from playing some gigs in Japan, what was that like and what were you doing over there?
SOS: Well, my wife Katie [Rose] and I went over to play for the Rural Festival in Niigata, I played the festival last year so I was asked to go back and it's awesome. I played solo from 10:30pm through till 12:00am and then Katie and I went back at 5:30-09:00am and we did an hour live set as Further Reductions and then DJ'd for two or three hours. I think the crowds in Japan are very open minded in ways that are lot of European crowds aren't necessarily, State-side crowds are certainly the most difficult to work with. Over there they like weird druggy, trippy, strange music, and don't seem to have too many preconceived notions about how a set is supposed to go.
DT: So in your experience Japanese crowds are happy to go with the direction you want and they're not necessarily expecting a specific set or sound?
SOS: Yeah, well that's sort of my impression, but maybe I'm totally wrong and they hated every minute of it [laughs].
DT: In your previous interviews you refer to quite obscure European, 80s predominantly synth bands as an influence on your own music, one was Belgium's 'Twilight Ritual' and another was Germany's 'No More' for example, how did you find out about this music because I'm guessing it was before the internet was widely available in most people's homes?
SOS: Well that was more when I was in college, by 2001 I'd started exploring that stuff and it was mostly through the internet but also digging through record bins. A lot of attention was directed at the minimal synth stuff in the early 2000s, the Flexipop compilations were circulating widely on the internet at that time and I think that was probably the big eye opener for me.
DT: So before you got into the synth wave stuff you were more into kind of extreme forms of dance music, is that right?
SOS: Yeah, I grew up listening to gabba, speedcore, breakcore, noise, early industrial you know basically the most abusive and abrasive things I could possibly find and as I got a little older I got a little more into IDM, more electro and techno. My musical journey was always somewhat coupled with the internet, but it also based around what was accessible. I was in Iowa so I would go up to Iowa City at least once or twice a week and get records, there was a store called Record Collector up there, that was the main record store that I frequented, it was a great shop.
I grew up listening to gabba, speedcore, breakcore, noise, early industrial you know basically the most abusive and abrasive things I could possibly find.
DT: Did they order this stuff in from Europe?
SOS: Yeah they would order stuff in for me, when they noticed that all of this very abrasive stuff was selling they started stocking it voluntarily, but you know it's the Midwest, Drop Bass was there, there was Massive Records in Milwaukee, Dan Doormouse [Midwest hardcore DJ] who ran the Addict & Distort labels so that stuff was all around. I would also order from History of the Future which was based in Minneapolis, I would order from Bent Crayon occasionally, so you know a lot of this extreme stuff was just accessible in the Midwest in ways that it perhaps wasn't say in New York or L.A., although New York had Strange Records, that was a great shop, and Sonic Groove of course which stocked some pretty heavy stuff.
DT: The Midwest got virtually zero coverage in the European music press compared to Chicago, Detroit or New York so to hear how you accessed these sounds is interesting, plus we've got this stereotype of the Midwest, which I'm sure like most stereotypes is mostly wrong...
SOS: Well it may be mostly right actually [laughs]. Actually another thing that I wanted to bring up that was hugely influential for me were two fanzines, one called 'The Skreem', which was ran by a guy DJ Entox who was from New England, but he ran a great fanzine and I would order directly from him. He also did fantastic mix-tapes that just covered all sorts of the most fucked up electronic sounds, I don't have any of his mix-tapes anymore but they would still sound really very fresh. They would be a mix of noise, hard acid, everything was recorded clipping and he would mix in a Patrick Hernandez track or something, that's actually where I first heard Patrick Hernandez's 'Born to be Alive', completely distorted. The other big 'zine for me was Datacide from Praxis Records which was South London based, Praxis is a great label, very influential for me, broadly speaking a hardcore/breakcore label but a very specific and somewhat sophisticated sound, that was ran by Christoph Fringeli. One more 'zine that I really liked was called Deadly Systems ran by Deadly Buda and it was based in Boulder Colorado at the time, Deadly Buda was another Midwest hardcore luminary.
DT: Ok so these three fanzines that you used to subscribe to these informed a lot of your musical choices between 95 and 99?
SOS: Yeah I would say so, from 96 to 99.
DT: You began DJing in your hometown and then you moved to New York State to study where you were also an active DJ, can you tell us a little about the events you used to play at? Did you organise any of your own parties during this time?
SOS: Well at Bard College it wasn't until my junior year that I started DJing very regularly, I DJ'd a few times a week at a local bar called the Black Swan which was in Tivoli, a town right off campus basically. Thursday night was my very own night, but I would play Fridays, sometimes I would play a few nights a week.
DT: Were you incorporating more techno orientated stuff at this time, or was this still more synth and noise?
SOS: There wasn't much noise, by that point I was trying to make people not have a wholly unpleasant time, although I definitely would play some very dissonant post-punk and industrial stuff if the moment called for it, a lot of Cabaret Voltaire, D.A.F. stuff like that, but as far as the straight up noise stuff, it wasn't for Tivoli. I was playing a lot of disco and Italo-disco and all the Bunker and the Creme and Viewlexx stuff too, that was really what I was most invested in at that point. I'd been following I-Fs Hotmixxes which I think was pre 'Mixed Up in the Hague', or at least contemporaneous with, that was another game changer for me for sure. This stuff is all currently relevant after much of it kind of lingering in semi-obscurity, I also played a lot of electro and Detroit stuff too of course.
By that point I was trying to make people not have a wholly unpleasant time, although I definitely would play some very dissonant post-punk and industrial stuff if the moment called for it.
DT: I understand that you moved to New York City proper in the early 00s?
SOS: Yeah, early 2004 I think it was.
DT: Ok and you've mentioned in separate interviews that you met your Led Er Est band mates and Beau Wanzer attending the Wierd Records' parties around 2005?
SOS: Well I met Sam De La Rosa from Led Er Est through Will Burnett [Willie Burns], I'm not sure if we met at ISS, but we definitely met through Will Burnett, we might have met at a DJ night that I was doing in bar called K&M in Williamsburg, and yeah Beau I met at the Wierd Party.
DT: What was the NYC club scene like then? Over in Europe we just heard about Mayors Rudy Giuliani and then Michael Bloomberg closing down all these famous nightclubs like Twilo and The Limelight...
SOS: Yeah well there was a big crack down, the club scene was pretty awful in the early 2000s.
DT: Because going on previous interviews you seem to speak about quite a lively music or club scene existing at the time.
SOS: Well there wasn't much a club scene in terms of 'club' clubs, you know nightclubs were not really a thing. For the first few years I was in New York once every month or so at least you could guarantee to wind up at some weird disused space in Bushwick, all illegal, but the actually club scene in New York was pretty bad. There were a lot of parties in small bar basements or backrooms, maybe you'd hear IDM at Bryan Kasenic's Bunker party in Subtonic or you'd see Traxx and Porkchop DJ in the basement of M Shanghai, there were also loft parties like Rubulad or the Chicken Hut. I would occasionally wind up at Cielo if someone like Theo Parrish was in town for Francois K's nights, but that was pretty much the only club night that I would go to. This was in an era when New York was feverishly anti-techno, you could not say the word techno without getting eye rolls, people wanted to hear disco maybe a bit of house, so yeah the tastes during those years were a little tough.
New York was feverishly anti-techno, you could not say the word techno without getting eye rolls.
DT: Where did Willie Burns host his ISS parties?
SOS: ISS was in the Tribeca Grand Hotel they had a backroom lounge space and yeah those were great parties, it was definitely a little bit swanky though.
DT: Did that contradict the music and give it kind of a strange vibe?
SOS: Well not particularly, it just made models go there [laughs]; but yeah it was a little bit swanky and the music was mostly disco and Italo, mostly you know older music. For most of the 2000s most of the DJs that I knew in New York, Will and Ron [Morelli] for sure, Love Fingers, Jeremy Campbell & Dan Selzer all these guys were very past minded, it was about excavating the past, it was not about what was going on currently. It was about exploring these broader unexplored histories, so I think in a lot of ways that may be the defining difference between what happened in New York and what happened in Europe, that here there was this big excavation process while you guys were busy raving basically, so...
DT: Well we had this huge minimal techno and tech-house tsunami.
SOS: Well yeah that utterly destroyed my faith in dance music...
It was about exploring these broader unexplored histories, so I think in a lot of ways that may be the defining difference between what happened in New York and what happened in Europe.
DT: Yeah I think in some sense the United States came and rescued us, labels like L.I.E.S. pushing this lo-fi kind of sound, it helped to open up a new space in European music...
SOS: Yeah well Ron's influence on things cannot be really overstated, say what you will about the label but Ron changed a lot, I have the utmost respect for the man.
DT: So these club crackdowns did they force everything underground into these smaller illegal parties and really fragmented the scene in New York, is that a good summary of what was going on?
SOS: Yeah, but I think by then the scene had just sort of fragmented anyway, I think even if the clubs had been around then the same thing would have happened. New York during those years was not a very dance music friendly city, there was a lot of really awful fashiony pointless stuff going on, electroclash really was the death knell for a lot of stuff in the city.
DT: It sounds like it needed this kind of breakdown and then this retrospective look at 'untold stories' as you put it to create this environment where something like L.I.E.S. and your own music could flourish?
SOS: Yeah for sure, I think 'needed' is a complicated word, but this is what happened and I think that break did allow for a long period of gestation to occur, no one felt any excessive pressure to make things bigger than they needed to be, it was more about these almost spiritual journeys into excavating this old stuff, presenting this music.
DT: There seems to have been a punk influence on electronic music for the past few years, I'm talking about yourself and Beau Wanzer, and others like Silent Servant and Sandwell District for example; a lot the L.I.E.S. artists seem to be channelling this post-punk aesthetic...
SOS: Well yeah again, dance music was very bad for a long time so we were exploring other things techno was a dirty word in New York so people looked to alternative forms. Also, at least in New York the abrasive, kind of scrappier rough-around-the-edges aesthetic was a reaction to the cleanliness and perfection of Ableton and in-the-box production. The Wierd Party was very live electronics focussed, there were no laptops allowed and it was a very free and open environment so you could bring in some synthesisers and play whatever you wanted as long as it was dark and weird.
Dance music was very bad for a long time so we were exploring other things techno was a dirty word in New York so people looked to alternative forms.
DT: Was this going on in licenced venues or was this also more in lofts and disused buildings?
SOS: Well the Wierd Party sort of came out of a party, I think it was called Decadance that Glenn Maryansky did with DJ Gilles Le Guen a French DJ who was existing as an expat in New York for a few years, Gilles and Glenn started Decadance, and Wierd sort of naturally evolved out of that. Wierd was at the Southside Lounge in Williamsberg for quite a few years, I would go to Wierd Southside a little bit but then the party shut down for a few months and they moved to Home Sweet Home in Chinatown in Manhattan, it was there from the beginning of 2007 until the beginning of 2013. Wierd was really very influential in New York, so much of what was happening between 2009 and 2012 was inspired by or directly reacting against Wierd parties in some way, in my estimation.
DT: Most of your music is release via New York based labels, how important do you think your personal connections were in securing those releases?
SOS: Well I only work with friends basically, Pieter [Schoolwerth - artist and founder of Wierd Records] is a friend, Veronica [Vasicka - founder of Minimal Wave and Cititrax Records], Ron [Morelli] & Will of course, Anthony [Parasol] are all just my friends, I just like working with people I know. If I haven't gotten drunk with you then I'm not sure if I want to work with you. The only real exception to that was working with Guy Brewer, Shifted at Avian, that was the one time someone contacted me and was like you know 'hey do you want to submit some stuff?', that's the one time that I didn't have a personal connection with someone, but I esteemed the label very highly so I agreed.
If I haven't gotten drunk with you then I'm not sure if I want to work with you.
DT: Do you have any plans to set up your own label?
SOS: Well it's something Katie and I talk about occasionally, it's something I might like to do but there's certainly nothing concrete. To run a label in this era it's perfunctory and pointless but also weirdly necessary as well, I don't know it's like you're nothing until you have your vanity brand. I certainly don't have a lot of time or energy to spend running a label, so anything that Katie and I might do would have a very specific focus, we know a lot of great musicians in New York that could use the appropriate outlet. Labels are most important right now for providing context and a platform for music, it's not a problem to get music out there, you can put music on Soundcloud or whatever but it accrues more meaning when it has a broader context.
DT: I watched your Boiler Room set from a couple of years ago and you're using drum machines and modular synth, is that still your live set-up?
SOS: Well my set-up is always changing but yeah the modular is the centre of it, everything is totally improvised, I go in with as little expectations as possible and as little planned material as possible, that's the way that keeps it the most fun for me. It gives me the flexibility to play different environments and to different audiences, if I had to play every set at a brutal 135bpm Downwards style set I'd probably be pretty happy but a lot of my audiences probably wouldn't [laughs]. A lot of times I'll show up to a show with more gear than I intend on using and you know, maybe I won't use a drum machine or a certain pedal is there's not enough space to set them up or something.
DT: Are Led Er Est still running?
SOS: It's certainly not officially disbanded, the band is in many different places geographically, so it's not inconceivable that we'll do something in the future, we have some older material kicking around that needs to be finished up that maybe we'll get to, but yeah the project is sort of in hibernation, Sam is in Austin, Owen is moving to L.A. so you know, it's hard to collaborate long distance.
DT: How do you see Led Er Est in relation to your solo work, does it function as a separate arena or means to explore different aspects of your personality?
SOS: Well every project has its own parameters and Led Er Est is particularly about the relationship that Sam and Owen might have together. My personal process is pretty much the same whether I'm working with Led Er Est or solo, or with Katie or Beau, the projects themselves are manifestations of the particular personal relations at work.
I wouldn't view any of these projects as exclusively archaeological; I think all these projects are built with the intent of interacting with current musical idioms and the current musical environment.
DT: So referring to Further Reductions specifically, do you see any differences between that project and Led Er Est?
SOS: Well on a certain level it's the same thing, an expression of musical relationships, though this time between Katie and me. We started Further Reductions with the intent of exploring many of the same minimal synth and post-punk influences, but also incorporating more new-beat and Italo and some early Chicago house kind of stuff, that was more or less the goal there.
DT: So it's still a project in excavating the past but it's got a broader range of musical influences than Led Er Est to draw upon?
SOS: Well I wouldn't view any of these projects as exclusively archaeological; I think all these projects are built with the intent of interacting with current musical idioms and the current musical environment. None of my music has ever been intended as revivalist, but I do hope that my music whatever shape it takes does display an acute awareness of the historical context of these sounds and explores the ways that these genres are inter-related.
DT: I think all good art has to show a certain level of schooling as to what has preceded it so you're able to draw on the best of what has happened before and then re-tool and re-contextualise it.
SOS: Yeah, totally, not to sound curmudgeonly but that's my biggest complaint with a lot of contemporary music is 'these fucking kids need to do their fucking homework' [laughs], whether it's house music or whatever. Very often my impulse is just like: you have the internet, you have access to musical knowledge, you have resources that can tell you everything in the fucking world about anything and yet you don't look beyond step one, I'm like come on. In a lot of ways we're in a really great musical moment because so much is open and I feel that generally speaking there is more interesting music coming out now than there has been in quite some time, but so much of it is also missing that spark that feeling that you only get with a certain degree of commitment and understanding of history.
DT: Are there any DJs, producers, promoters, bands in NYC that are really impressing you right now, anyone we could perhaps look out for?
Sean McBride: there's not many people out there who can ever touch what he does live I think and he's been a very key figure, he opened up the eyes of a lot of people in New York.
SOS: Well as far as promoters go The Long Count Cycle guys Zack and Leslie are doing a really crazy good job with their parties right now, we played with them in Japan, they're great guys great DJs and their parties are really well put together, always good sound, great spaces. As far as DJs my favourites are probably Lori Napoleon, she did a release on L.I.E.S. as Antenes she's from Chicago, I think it's not coincidental that some of the best DJs in New York are from Detroit and Chicago really; Patrick Russel is another fucking great DJ also from Detroit. Producers, as far as live performers it's really just the usual suspects, I absolutely love Jahiliyya Fields, Entro Senestre always puts on a good show, Bookworms has been killing it recently with his live sets, Lili Schulder / 51717 is a friend of ours and she does great sets, she just did a record on Jealous God. Sean McBride is probably my all time favourite musician from the recent years in New York, I think Sean's influence is huge, Martial Canterel is his main project and for me he's really the one who opened my eyes to the possibility of electronic music going truly live, There's not many people out there who can ever touch what he does live I think, and yeah he's been a very key figure, he opened up the eyes of a lot of people in New York. He's kind of unrecognised in a lot of regards, but he was a key performer at the Wierd Party and he really was the one who showed everyone 'hey, you don't need a computer, you don't need backing tracks, you can really make electronic music live'.
DT: Ok, our final question, do you have you got any future projects planned?
SOS: Well with Further Reductions we have a ton of material, when we were in Berlin a couple of months ago and we recorded eight, ten twelve or something tracks, I don't know how many tracks, so we're finishing those off and we're working with Veronica at Cititrax on releasing those. There's also going to be an EP soon, another 400PPM EP out on Avian, that should be mastered soon and we're working out some new stuff for The Corner and a couple of other things I'm kind of tinkering around with.
Published on: 11 August 2015, Questions by Sam Mee