Paul Swetz is a consummate raconteur. In the dimness of Ohio City's Touch Supper Club, he shifts smoothly from discussing techno-as-Zen to mock-praising big tobacco's marketing tactics. "Get 'em while they're young," he says, between pulls of Belgian ale. "Get 'em while they're young."
As the founder of Tek-Know? -- a local cabal of producers, DJs, and promoters, who worship at the altar of underground techno -- Swetz incessantly dreams up schemes to sell obscure, uncompromising sounds to fellow Clevelanders. Swetz is, in a way, the Rust Belt's Tony Wilson.
Wilson, a maverick impresario who died of cancer on August 10, was integral in the rise of post-punk and rave culture. He co-founded the mythical Hacienda, a now-defunct discotheque, as well as Factory Records, home to Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays. In the process, he helped transform Manchester, England, into a global center for electronic dance music.
Swetz echoes Mr. Manchester's dogged devotion to his hometown. Don't tell this guy that Cleveland's DJs aren't on par with Berlin's or Detroit's: He won't have it. "I love Germans," he says, "but I'm all about regional talent."
As a teenager in the mid-'90s, Swetz fell in love with techno and immersed himself in Northeast Ohio's thriving rave scene. By 1998, he found himself swimming in 3,000-person shows at Berea Road's now-defunct U4IA club.
After graduating from Kent State, Swetz returned to Cleveland. But the software-engineer-by-day didn't like what he saw. Raves were pretty much dead, while the commercial trance of Paul van Dyk and John Digweed dominated the Warehouse District.
"The only place you could go to hear what I wanted to hear -- pure underground techno -- was at house parties," the 27-year-old explains. "I saw an amazing amount of talent and absolutely horrible productions or lack thereof. And that bothered me a lot."
So in 2006, Swetz -- who spins under the moniker Random(seed) -- united a group of equally alienated DJs and producers. Among them: Andy James, 1 Auxy, Chad Dolis, Dwrek, and the Canton duo of Half Adder and Jeremy Bible (who also maintain Experimedia, an internationally renowned record label). Christening itself Tek-Know?, Swetz's "artist management" group started playing and promoting gigs throughout the area.
It's now responsible for Re(Vision), a weekly residence at the recently renovated Annabell's, in Akron, and it has staged a handful of one-off events at Touch and downtown's View.
"We're about raw spaces, raw systems, and raw jocks," Swetz says. That was clear at a gig this month featuring the 3 Channels, who performed in Touch's claustrophobic basement. Serious techno heads -- as intense about their music as café jazzbos in the '50s -- packed the brick cavern not to booze and fuck, but to soak up one of Europe's more successful DJ/production teams.
For Tek-Know?, this was a major coup: 3 Channels typically restricts American dates to the coasts. But the Polish duo wasn't even the best act of the night. That was Truckstop Tourist, the Akron duo of Andy James and 1 Auxy, who hopped about the decks while hot-wiring gnarled rhythms and dropping flashes of deafening white noise.
Tek-Know?'s gigs speak to a small group of locals, and that might never change. Swetz freely admits this. Hell, this isn't Europe, after all. But he's no elitist. Although Swetz believes commercial interests should never compromise the music, he dreams of a day when all of Northeast Ohio mainlines "pure underground techno" 24/7.
"One of the things we want to do is bring Cleveland and Akron together," he explains. "It really needs to happen, because of all the talent in both towns. What could happen? I can't even imagine. I'm not the ultimate artist, but somebody has to motivate, somebody has to drive, somebody has to push them together."
Around here, he's that somebody. Tony Wilson would be proud.
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