"In a fantasy world -- which probably won't happen -- I'd like to take minimal techno and make pop out of it, the same way Depeche Mode and New Order did, 15 to 20 years ago." So says Matthew Dear, the most gleaming in a long line of Detroit techno stars.
Although he's doubtful about his stripped-down, glitchy techno wowing the masses (and oh, how those masses need his brand of wowing), Dear may do just that with "Dog Days," the amazing first single off his instant-classic debut album, Leave Luck to Heaven (Spectral/ Ghostly International).
We could focus this whole feature on "Dog Days" and not exhaust its charms, but we'll restrain ourselves. Unsurprisingly, this song is already destroying clubs in Europe, thanks to renowned DJ Richie Hawtin caning it in every set during his recent tour there. (Hawtin's Plus 8 label also released an excellent CD collection of Dear's more experimental techno, under the False moniker.) Heads everywhere have been converted to this track's greatness after one listen. It's easy to understand why: Dear transposes what could be a Stevie Wonder clavinet riff from 1972 (it's actually a bass synth "run through a crazy phaser") to a deeply sensuous microhouse groove and adds a subtle African trance lilt to its tempo while dropping dozy, mush-mouthed vocals that seduce against all odds. The song's as addictive as crack, but much better for you.
In the worlds of techno, house, and their quirky, stripped-down progeny, microhouse, it's basically wheel-reinventing time. Most producers can only subtly embellish said wheel with shinier rims, better-gripping treads, or fancier spokes. But what this 24-year-old wunderkind is doing to these heretofore underground styles is giving them a legitimate chance for the charts. We bet Radiohead's members are already bumpin' Heaven in their iPods.
But it's not just music-industry illuminati who are big-upping Dear's music. Earlier this year, the increasingly mainstream URB magazine included Dear in its annual "Next 100" feature of promising artists, and even Rolling Stone chimed in with a four-star review of Heaven. Further fueling the fire, college radio stations in places like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are charting the disc alongside such platinum-sellers as OutKast and Missy Elliott.
Dear's rise to the experimental-tech-house elite has its roots in his older brother's record collection. While living 150 miles south of San Antonio, Texas, the elder Dear offspring somehow obtained coveted 12-inches by artists such as Depeche Mode, Yaz, New Order, Book of Love, Ministry, et al. Hearing these "weird, twisted synthpop" records, Dear realized he "loved anything electronic-sounding. I've always considered Depeche Mode to be in the same league as the Beatles, in terms of pop structure and hit-writing potential."
Dear's own potential was recognized by chance at an Ann Arbor house party five years ago (Dear moved to the college town to study art). There, Sam Valenti IV, a fellow University of Michigan student who went on to found Ghostly International Records, caught Dear's live set. Turns out, Valenti was the only one at the party who dug Dear's music. The budding entrepreneur told Dear about his plans to start a label, and a year later, Dear released his -- and Ghostly's -- debut 12-inch, Hands Up for Detroit.
Dear credits Valenti for giving his artists "an open-ended canvas to work with." The Ghostly mogul served as Dear's co-editor as they whittled down a stockpile of 40 tracks to the 12 polished gems found on Heaven, which sounds cohesive in the way few electronic full-lengths do. "He's so open-minded; it's great to have someone like that, who can appreciate what you're trying to do experimentally," Dear says. "Sam's the first person I go to when I complete a track."
And Dear's been completing a helluva lot of tracks. "I produce like a fuckin' bunny rabbit," he quips. "I'm always making music. I've always joked, 'I almost have my second album ready before my first one's even come out.' There's a latency period. A lot of the shit on the album I did a year ago. That's just the way it goes.
"It's so free-form -- I can go any way with my production. [My technique involves] a lot of rehashing and reusing of samples -- just creating this huge mix of my own material. It's a very stripped-down approach, but at the same time, it's very mashed-up, collage-like."
It's this aesthetic that has endeared Dear to Germany's pace-setting tech-house imprint, Perlon. Recording as Jabberjaw for that company, Dear dropped the zig-zaggin', booty-bumpin' glitch-house 12-inch, Girlfriend, and landed a track on the awesome Superlongevity 3 compilation. Dear cites producers on this label -- including Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos, and Pantytec -- as being tremendously inspirational to him.
"Like them, I like to push the edge sonically," Dear says. "But at the same time, I add vocals and pop structure on top of it."
That's what really distinguishes Heaven in the oft-anonymous techno world: Dear's vocals. He sounds like he's paying slack-jawed homage to Smog's Bill Callahan. It takes guts for a techno producer to sing on his own tracks; hardly anyone does this. "Friends say, 'Why didn't you get other people to [sing]? I say, 'I don't know,'" he recalls, laughing. "I think it's a one-man show. This is my art."
Continuing on the subject, Dear explains, "I like to leave a lot of hiss in my vocals, so people can hear everything around the words, as well. It's good to hear your syllables come in from the air; it's so granular and textured. I think 'Dog Days' is really dirty and grainy. That's what I like about it. I appreciate old music that has that dirty, analog feel. It makes it sound warm and more human, not so synthetic."
Dear only moved to Detroit in August, mostly to escape Ann Arbor's exorbitant rents, but the Motor City has already affected his mindset. "I drove around today to sightsee; I got enamored of the whole erosion of the infrastructure and how things are so fucked," he says. "I think it has a definite spin on my music. It adds motivation to life, if you see all this decay and social wrong that's happened."
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