Sónar 2014: The Return of Plastikman [Interview]
Sónar 2014 was many things: An all-night music festival, a riveting technology conference, a techno and electronica onslaught, but most excitingly of all, the official return of Plastikman.
Richie Hawtin is a name held sacred in the dance music sphere. Having helped usher in the second wave of techno in the 90’s, the British-born Canadian transplant has been an iconic dance music figure for over 20 years. Nowadays, Hawtin commands his own reputable label, M-nus, on top of hosting one of Ibiza’s premier residencies at Space. Though his personal namesake has come to dominate his notoriety more recently, at his core, Richie Hawtin is Plastikman. Ten years since the alter ego’s previous album, Closer, Hawtin has returned as Plastikman with Ex, and Sónar Festival got the exclusive first performance.
As the first day of Sónar drove to a close at Fira de Barcelona, a teeming crowd populated the central outdoor stage, circling an ominous LED tower. Coinciding with the setting of the sun, Richie Hawtin materialized within the crowd atop a raised table, not twenty feet away from the giant structure. Moments later, the curious emanations of Ex poured forth as the obelisk was illuminated with ethereal green tendrils. The audience stood captivated by the sight, not sure whether to watch Hawtin or the towering visual structure. As I took in the spectacle before me, it felt as though Plastikman had created a mythology. Later, in an interview with him, Richie confirmed the idea: “This is really a visual representation of my struggle for the last 25 years. It’s man versus machine; it’s David and Goliath; it’s how far technology can take us as human beings, how it helps and expands us, how it can also hinder us.” Having just listened to Ex a day prior, the album was fresh in my mind. While the psychoacoustic soundscapes had enraptured my imagination in the home setting, experiencing the album firsthand was an altogether profound experience. After a ten year gap, I asked Richie what made now the appropriate time for the return of Plastikman. He gave me three important reasons, the first, his recent ENTER. residency at Space: “By curating the lineup [for ENTER.], it opened up more time in my schedule to listen to a wider variety of music. It reintroduced me to some old friends. It gave me a chance to enjoy different artists. I was really inspired by some of the things I heard.” With acts like Maya Jane Coles, Loco Dice, and Maceo Plex playing on the regular, it’s no surprise that Richie felt a burst of creative energy from his talented peers. At the same time, however, Hawtin felt emotionally conflicted: “I was a bit depressed,” he says. “I was like, man, I should be also making music again. In the last two years, I was like I’ve lost something and I need to bring it into balance.”
Richie’s third reason was perhaps his most poignant. As he paused for a moment, he eyes lit up and he said, “This explosion of electronic music around the world. It’s an incredible time for electronic music. As more people have come into our scene, and have started to enjoy our culture, I feel that perhaps not all of them really understand the depths and diversity and how beautiful our culture is. It’s not just about superstar DJs.” As though catalyzed into action by the oversaturation of commercial EDM, Hawtin appeared a man on a mission. He went on: “It’s not just about Skrillex or Deadmau5. It’s also about Basic Channel and Jeff Mills. It’s about EDC but also Sónar Festival. And I want to help promote that. And remind my old fans about what’s happening now but also introduce my new fans to some of the things that I know about because I’ve been in the scene so long, and to do that, properly, I had to re-balance myself and show people that I’m not only DJ Richie Hawitn, but the producer and artist not presently known as Plastikman.”
As his experimental set drove on into the night, we were all reminded of the mystique of Plastikman. Having both a Hawtin set and a Plastikman set at the festival afforded the producer the opportunity to truly polarize the two performances, and Hawtin wasn’t afraid to challenge the listeners of Sónar with the more whimsical stylings of Ex. As I stood amid the crowd, I felt as though I was absorbed in a pack of stargazers, quietly observing a celestial phenomenon. The obelisk illuminated with various colors — first green, then black and white, then red – all swarming over the giant tower with intriguing curiosity. The music was incredibly immersive. Saw wave pads descended over the crowd like an ocean while an intermittent beat pervaded the lengthy intervals of abstract synth work. There were moments when the music would swell to anxious heights, only to regress back to silence, leaving the audience perplexed and agitated. It was as though Hawtin was playing with our preconceived notions of electronic music, forcing us to feel something rather than succumb to our expectations. Rich recently noted that the album took him only a few days to complete. I asked him about his highly productive studio sessions in which he achieved a sort of Zen state, if you will: “All my albums were recorded in a very small amount of time with a lot of space in between,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t record for nine years or two years, but during that non-recording moment, there’s still creativity going. You’re listening, you’re being inspired, you’re taking down notes. It’s about getting those ideas and having the tools ready so that when that urge comes it comes out as effortlessly as possible.” He went on to speak about where Ex fits in relation to the rest of his work: “I want to create immersive albums. I want there to be like a book or a chapter in a series of Plastikman novels which has continuity and take you on a trip, perhaps through the same world each time but always exploring a different continent, a different village, a different ocean.” With Richie’s performance in mind, I couldn’t help but smile over the vision he laid out. The set was distinctly Plastikman, yet modernized and emboldened by new technology.
Ultimately, Hawtin related the performance to the album’s inauguration at the Guggenheim: “It allowed me to play in a context that was as far away from the dance floor as possible. I still could have beats but I didn’t need that. I had the freedom to break things down.” At the close of our interview, Richie offered some sage reflections. Speaking on his performance at the Guggenheim, he said: “It was a huge honor… to put electronic music in there was really important for me as an artist and for the scene, especially in the whole EDM world. It was like, the EDM world doesn’t just reside in EDC Vegas — it’s actually also in the Guggenheim New York. That statement needed to be said at this time.” With his new album Ex and his recent headlining performance at Sónar, there’s another statement that needs to be said: Plastikman has returned, and we couldn’t be more grateful.