Some Thoughts of a Certain Sound: Too Much Talent, Not Enough Time

For electronic music fans in San Francisco, especially those interested in underground techno and house music, the last weekend in September means making some difficult decisions. It's all because Seattle's Decibel Festival — one of the largest electronic music festivals in North America, now in its 11th iteration, which brings some of the globe's biggest and freshest talent to the Pacific Northwest — also serves as a feeding frenzy for the Bay Area, giving promoters access to DJs and musicians who rarely make it to the West Coast. The end result is a one-weekend-only plethora of options, which is both a blessing and a curse.

My weekend began on Thursday, when Marcel Dettmann made a rare appearance at Public Works. Marcel Dettmann is a resident DJ at Berghain in Berlin and is one of Europe's most popular touring DJs, so for anyone who's gone clubbing in Europe, a Dettmann DJ set isn't such a big deal; however, he rarely travels to the United States, and even more rarely makes it outside New York, so this evening was something I've been waiting for. True to form, he knocked it out of the park, delivering a perfect set of machine-made techno, with occasional bursts of noise and industrial furor; and, on more than one occasion, he mixed in vocal-heavy tech-house tunes — we are in San Francisco, after all.

[jump] The real surprise of the night for me, though, was Matrixxman — one of San Francisco's own, he's produced numerous very-well-received records and recently embarked on a European tour. I haven't seen him DJ since I caught him playing rap and hip-hop at Edinburgh Castle several years ago, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. As it turns out, he's not only a superb producer but a killer DJ to boot, flawlessly mixing different flavors of avant-garde techno (with the occasional funky disco intermission) for his opening set. When he dropped his own tune, “Protocol,” the crowd went wild, arms in the air, flailing, screaming and dancing. Judging by the way he looked up on stage throughout his set — simultaneously very pleased and completely at ease — I think it's safe to say that Matrixxman will soon be making serious waves well beyond San Francisco's shores.

The next night is where things got messy. On Friday night, there were nearly enough artists performing simultaneously for San Francisco to host a mini-festival of its own — Demdike Stare, Andy Stott, Recondite, Ten Walls, Daniel Wang, Tin Man, Basic Soul Unit, and Avalon Emerson with the Icee Hot gang were all booked at different venues on one night. New York City could easily support a spread of talent like this, but San Francisco is a small town, and having too many choices on your plate means no one party is going to achieve the critical-crowd-mass necessary to make it go off.

I ended up at 1015 Folsom to catch the Modern Love showcase with Demdike Stare, Andy Stott, and their collaborative project, Millie + Andrea. I arrived mid-way through Demdike Stare's set: the pair were elevated high on stage behind an array of gear and laptops while moody visuals played on a (relatively small) projector screen behind them. The music was excellent; Demdike was all swells of noisy ambience broken up by the techno/hardcore beat-experiments they've been releasing in their “Testpressing” series. Andy Stott was even better — his new material is much more technoid than his previous work, more melodic and accessible. Millie + Andrea (a.k.a. Miles from Demdike and Andy Stott working together) was by far the highlight of the night, smashing together drum&bass, jungle, and techno in a way that felt new, innovative, and fresh. 

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the music, the crowd at 1015 Folsom remains one of the worst in the city. Throughout the evening, more than one wasted-drunk man-child deemed it fit to touch and crowd women on the dancefloor, even a woman dancing directly in front of another person (the author, in this case). I know harassment is a very real issue for women at clubs, but I've never witnessed such a blatant display as I did Friday night. (Sadly — and unacceptably — experiences like these probably aren't out of the ordinary for most female club-goers.) Most of the crowd was perfectly well-behaved (especially those clad in black), but it took only a couple morons to ruin the night.

Thankfully, things turned around on Saturday night, when Atom™ (a.k.a. Uwe Schmidt) performed two superb sets at Gray Area's nascent performance space on Mission St. The first, “HD/AV,” was comprised of bits and pieces from Schmidt's back catalog, like “Stop (Imperialist Pop),” whose live visuals were a brilliant take on Kraftwerk's “Radioactivity,” and an extended chopped-and-screwed live edit of “Präzision” from his stellar album as The Stereonerds. The space itself was perfectly suited to the performance — spacious and equipped with a full-frequency, body-load soundsystem, it sounded and looked excellent, despite the venue's not-quite-finished state. Cullen Miller, a local producer, provided an interstitial set of soothing ambient and dub techno — a perfect lead-up to Schmidt's second set, “Ground Loop,” full-on clubfloor techno of the highest order, expertly composed and sequenced. The music ended just before 2 a.m. with a repeating, hypnotic synthesizer loop, the dancefloor equivalent of a locked groove, and I proceeded to stumble home, worn, weary, and happy. 

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