“Real creativity is forever diminishing”
It must be said that there is a fine line between reviving a sound that belongs to a certain decade, such as 90s house, and endlessly mining a popular stylistic framework like dubstep, but ultimately the outcome for listeners is often the same: boredom. Undoubtedly at the forefront of the New Jersey house revival are Bicep. The Northern Irish duo were some of the first to turn collective attentions back to labels like King Street: we had no problem with that and the world lapped it up, but because of the lazy plagiarism by many in their wake, the sound has now been spoilt for all.
“It’s the same with each popularity shift or flavour of the year,” they reckon. “When minimal techno became popular again around eight years ago the first releases of that genre were amazing. Eventually every kid jumped on board and we were left with 1,000 tracks with bleepy rims and white noise build-up. Exactly the same for the disco edit scene a few years ago. The best tracks usually come before everyone starts doing it.”
Bristol’s Eats Everything echoes this sentiment: “The cycle for a new sub-genre – or whatever you wanna call them – is so short nowadays because everyone has the capability to replicate it, sometimes in a sub-standard way, so it dies in a matter of months. Because of the internet and software and stuff, up and coming producers of the day can almost perfectly replicate what their heroes are making, and so real creativity is forever diminishing. It’s easy to become a producer these days, but I think it takes years to become an artist.”
The cycle for a new sub-genre is so short nowadays because everyone has the capability to replicate it.
“They see our success and try to recreate it without putting the work in”
How do the originators feel that their music’s being used as a jumping-off point for younger artists’ careers? Is it somehow less authentic or less valuable? Pierre believes that revivalism is encouraged by the nature of the modern scene, where plays, chart positions and a vague notion of ‘being popular’ are held in higher regard than originality, sonic invention and, frankly, musical braveness. “I just think people lack the faith in themselves to just create,” he says. “I think they see our success and try to recreate it without putting the work in or even finding out who they are as artists.”
Heard continues in a similar vein: “For me, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in making something from scratch as opposed to taking elements from one song and another song and another song. Those people you admire – they did it all from scratch.”
Archer also points out another difference between the first days of dance and the modern world. “I kept an Altern8 scrapbook ‘cos I thought it could all end any time. When I release a record, having it in my hand is nice; I don’t want anything else really. That’s how the scene has changed: that innocence has been lost. I think the younger generation has been brought up thinking if you want fame this is how you do it, boom, boom, and everyone seems to strive to be famous rather than being an artist.”
He makes a vital and all too forgotten point: music is an art and, even with the functionality of dance music in mind, those creating it should strive to break borders, ask questions and even challenge us as listeners. One of the success stories of the last year or so has been aforementioned production, live and DJ collective Pittsburgh Track Authority. One of the members, Thomas Cox, is a vocal figure on internet forums and social media and someone who clearly has a deep understanding of, and untold appreciation for, many forms of dance and the early pin-ups who created it. You can hear an explicit reverence for 70s disco and 80s house in the music PTA make, but importantly so far, they never sound derivative.
“There are so many things to take from a great track if it’s done well,” offers Cox. “You can take a feeling, you can take an arrangement or mixing trick, you can take an effects routing. Unfortunately it seems like more and more are content to take everything and just try to make something that is impossible to discern from the old track. I honestly can’t tell what the intent is for some of these producers whose sound is basically a homage to someone else’s, but it definitely lacks creativity.”
More than just creativity, it’s a matter of integrity for Moeller: “I wanna be a musician that leaves a signature and a mark and can justify calling myself a musician. I want to feel good about it and not just that I was a laptop producer.” This sentiment again, if indirectly, touches on the subject of fame and financial gain as being a driving force amongst the youth of today who can see clear routes to the top given the near daily arrival of the next big thing, all off the back of copying the sound of yesterday’s next big thing. The blame doesn’t solely lay with the producers, though. Promoters, labels and even punters can also help make a change in this regard.
“Unconsciously it happens to people where they see what it takes to get into a big venue or work a big crowd,” Moeller says. “It’s certainly not experimentalism and fresh ideas. I often hear DJs complaining that they have to go play and can’t just do what they like. In a way it’s all just our own fault for giving the punters in these clubs the simplicity and lowest common denominator sound. Now it’s at the point where promoters are playing it super safe. I’ve been asked a number of times, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Can you play some tech house?’ Promoters are not afraid to do that. I’ve heard DJs of significant power being told what to do and this doesn’t help [engender creativity].”
It’s all just our own fault for giving the punters in these clubs the simplicity and lowest common denominator sound.
Technology also has a lot to answer for depending on whom you ask. Pierre famously invented acid by mistake when arsing around with his 303, but happy accidents like that are less likely to happen on modern day, prescriptive software tools which, despite their endless options, can often leave producers feeling drowned by possibility if not totally lost at sea.
“We’ve recently moved across to a completely analogue set up, whereas previously it had been a mixture. It’s been amazing,” beam Bicep. “Restricting yourself to a few pieces of kit and their own limitations pushes you much more. It also helps develop more of a signature sound due to the fact the pieces of kit themselves have their own personality.”
Of course you can always go one further and do as Larry did back in the 80s, programming his own keyboards, writing his own patches and generally never using anything straight out of the box. “You can find great tutorials by great producers showing you tips and tricks, and that’s great – as long as you don’t morph into people,” he states. “Nobody needs duplicate copies. We don’t need duplicates of Prince or Louie Vega ‘cos we already have a Louie Vega that we like. Someone else coming along, it’s like, ‘Where do you fit in? Why should we just abandon the one we’ve been living with for a long time just ‘cos you showed up?'”
“Music is a social art form,” Heard reminds us. “From the time that I came up to now, it’s evolved into it being single individuals sitting in front of computer screens. For me that’s what’s drastically different. Back then it was a group effort with human beings, and now maybe it’s one human with three or four computers. You had people to bounce things off, you had camaraderie, friendly competition trying to outdo each other even in the same band.”
We know that retromania is rife in all walks of life, but electronic music is always championed as forward looking, futuristic and otherworldly, so you have to wonder if the two can coexist in peaceful harmony; if being a revivalist excludes you from artistic merit. Heard muses on the subject: “We always say things like ‘electronic music should look forward’, but for the public, producers and labels, there’s still an emotional attachment to things we enjoy from the past. In Chicago we had the Music Box and years later here comes a new Music Box, then another version after that… It’s more of an emotional attachment – an area of comfort, something we already know and like, something reliable in a way.”
Cox, for one, believes it is still possible to conjure up those feelings at the same time as innovating: “When done well, I think that old music is the lifeblood of new innovation. Ron Hardy is widely credited as being one of the originators of house music, and a huge number of the records he was playing were anywhere from five to fifteen years old. He was mixing them with new releases and bedroom productions to create a new context. Many genres and sub-genres have been birthed in this manner.”