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First Floor #99 – EDM, Triumphant Robots and the Teachers Left Behind: Daft Punk's Complicated Legacy
a.k.a. An interview with writer Gabriel Szatan, plus an update on the drama at DFA Records and a complete round-up of the week in electronic music.
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, interviews, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. This is the free edition of the newsletter; access to all First Floor content (including the complete archive) requires a paid subscription. If you haven’t done so already, please consider signing up for a subscription (paid or unpaid) by clicking the button below. Alternately, you can also support the newsletter by making a one-time donation here.
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE BETWEEN EDM AND THE UNDERGROUND… WITH DAFT PUNK’S HELP
I don’t like EDM. If you’re reading this, you most likely don’t either, and you’re not alone. Over the past decade or so, an entire swath of “real” electronic music fans have battled against the EDM behemoth, decrying its shallowness, inauthenticity, overtly commercial orientation and largely ahistorical approach to what was once an “underground” music phenomenon.
It’s a natural response. Whenever a niche scene, community or cultural movement moves towards the mainstream, there’s going to be a backlash from the folks who were already involved. If you feel like you helped to build something special, and likely centered your whole identity around that effort, newcomers often aren’t to be trusted, especially when they’ve been led through the gates by some crass or diluted version of the thing you love. Punk, indie, hip-hop, emo, goth, ska, even swing music—so many genres have fought this fight over the years, and during the ’90s and 2000s, the conflict was seemingly constant as the mainstream hoovered up one subculture after the next.
In most cases, however, some sort of equilibrium was eventually reached. Stubborn diehards would of course continue to stand their ground, but the larger community usually accepted some sort of new status quo, acknowledging a genre’s roots without entirely excluding the newcomers from the conversation.
With EDM, that bargain was never struck. Despite its massive impact—not just on electronic music, but on the pop sphere and the entire global music industry—EDM continues to be shunned by the true believers of the electronic underground. Even amongst music journalists, whose job literally revolves around storytelling and analysis, EDM has rarely been treated as something more than a target for scorn and ridicule.
Again, I’m admittedly part of the problem, and a pivot to EDM-centric storytelling likely isn’t in my future. At the same time, it does seem odd that there’s been so little critical engagement with that world, especially now that we’re living through the heyday of poptimist journalism. Most serious electronic music writers have basically spent the past decade ignoring EDM, and while mainstream journalists and publications have occasionally attempted to pick up some of the slack, few of them (especially in the US) have the tools or knowledge to approach the electronic sphere with any real depth. (Of course, this only worsens the disconnect between EDM and the music / communities that spawned it in the first place.)
Enter Gabriel Szatan. Many First Floor readers are likely familiar with his work already, but the London-based writer is easily one of today’s most prominent electronic music scribes. Operating in a genre that’s often overly serious, Szatan is someone who brings quite a lot of humor and lightheartedness to the table, both in his work and especially when it comes to his public persona. That might rankle some of electronic music’s grouchier contingents, but it’s also part of what makes his writing such a pleasure to read.
Despite being only 30 years old, his resume already includes contributions to places like The Guardian, Pitchfork, Resident Advisor, DJ Mag, Crack, Dazed and The Economist. He was previously part of the team at Red Bull Music Academy (full disclosure: he and I worked together there for a time, albeit in separate departments) and notably spent a number of years doing editorial at Boiler Room, where he memorably (and somewhat goofily) hosted countless broadcasts.
Last week, Szatan announced the forthcoming release of his first book, After Daft, which is slated for a 2023 release. As the title implies, the book will focus on Daft Punk and their legacy, tracing the group’s influences back to Chicago and Detroit and charting their gradual path to global superstardom, a journey which helped rearrange electronic music—and arguably the entire music industry—as we know it. EDM is obviously part of that story, as are the robot costumes, the mind-melting Alive tour and the “Teachers” Daft Punk famously shouted out on Homework, many of whom haven’t experienced anything close to a similar level of success.
We have a ways to go before the book comes out (although it can be preordered here), but I figured that Szatan would still be able to provide a window into how he’s approaching the Daft Punk story. During a long conversation last week, we dug deep into the group’s history, legacy and influence, while also discussing Szatan’s own journey (both professional and personal), the current state of music journalism and the undeniable chasm that still exists between electronic music and EDM.
To read the complete interview, please click here.
PLEASE NOTE: The full interview was originally published yesterday and shared with paid subscribers, but the paywall has been temporarily removed for the next 24 hours. If you’d like exclusive first access to long-form First Floor pieces—and unlimited views of all newsletter content—then please sign up for a paid subscription.
ANOTHER THING I WROTE
Sending music files is something that most musicians and music industry professionals do every day, but are you doing it correctly? Does the person you’re sending files to really want WAVs? Maybe they only need a streaming link? How do they feel about watermarked files and different file-delivery platforms? The possibilities (and potential frustrations) are endless, and yet there’s rarely much discussion about these kinds of everyday, nuts-and-bolts issues within the music world.
As I mentioned last week, that’s why Byta—a platform devoted to “fast and secure audio sharing”—commissioned me to put together a three-part series of articles called Digital Blues: The Day-to-Day Challenges of Music Sharing. Last Thursday, the second chapter was published, and it specifically focused on the issue of sending digital files.
Aside from some of my own thoughts and analysis, the article also includes input from a number of different people from across the music industry, including artists like Dre Skull, Nina Las Vegas and Parris, journalists Philip Sherburne and Isabela Raygoza, radio programmer Miles Anzaldo (the current Music Director at KROQ in Los Angeles), publicist Terra Lopez, sound engineer Sam John (of Precise Mastering) and music supervisor Alison Moses.
A round-up of of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to interviews, mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Two weeks ago, I published a wide-ranging interview with DFA Records co-founder Jonathan Galkin here in the newsletter, in which he explained that he’d been unceremoniously ousted from the label last year. He also detailed his history with the label, reflected on DFA’s legacy and described what it was like working with James Murphy. Yesterday, Pitchfork dug deeper into the situation with a full-blown news story, which included extensive quotes from the LCD Soundystem frontman, along with Galkin’s rebuttal to Murphy’s assertions about what went down.
Journalist / analyst Cherie Hu practically has a reserved parking space at First Floor, and her latest Extended Play article for Water & Music is another gem, taking a detailed look at what seems like a very simple question: Just how difficult is it to make a sustainable living from streaming? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “extremely difficult,” and it’s getter harder every day.
Pressing vinyl continues to be a headache for independent artists and labels around the globe, and the latest dissection of the problem has been done by Will Pritchard for DJ Mag. Speaking to a variety of label representatives, he examines what is essentially a multi-pronged issue that’s been affected by COVID, rising postal costs, increased consumer demand, Brexit and more.
Following the death of Richard H. Kirk last week, Crack compiled remembrances from 17 different artists—including Surgeon, Daniel Miller, Regis, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and others—who shared their experiences with the former Cabaret Voltaire frontman and described how his music had impacted their lives.
Artists’ promotional photos have long been one of the more ridiculous aspects of DJ culture, but discussion of them rarely goes beyond a quick piss take. In this new column for Attack, however, Harold Heath takes a closer look, tracking how these (frequently ridiculous) photos have changed over the years.
Just days after John Talabot announced the launch of Mùsica Máquina, a new reissue label he’ll be running alongside Domestica Records’ Jordi Serrano, Bandcamp Daily published a feature (written by Phil E. Bloomfield) about Toni Parera (a.k.a. Idee du Femelle), the Catalan artist whose ambient creations from the 1980s inspired the formation of the new imprint in the first place.
With UK garage on the upswinging throughout 2021, Beatportal tapped Kristan Caryl to put together a detailed look at both the bubbly genre’s up-and-down history and the artists at the center of its current hot streak.
Fresh off the release of his Afrotek EP, Scratcha DVA got on the phone with South African producer Mxshi Mo (one of his collaborators on the record) for a conversation that’s now been published by The Ransom Note (with an intro by Rosie Cain). The two artists compare creative notes, discuss the musical relationship between the UK and South Africa, and unpack the latter country’s rich dance music history.
Krust is a drum & bass pioneer, but as he demonstrates in the latest edition of The Quietus’ Baker’s Dozen series (penned by Neil Kulkarni), the Bristol artist’s influences and listening habits go well beyond the genre he’s most associated with.
In the wake of recent new albums from RP Boo, DJ Manny and Jana Rush, footwork is feeling especially vibrant at the moment. Bandcamp Daily’s Lewis Gordon enlisted all three artists to share some of what they see as the genre’s most important tracks, which he then compiled into a collective “guide to footwork.”
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Jacques Greene, who discussed his first (and to date only) NFT experiment in an interview with First Floor earlier this year, will soon be revisiting some of his past work with ANTH01, a collection of tunes from the Montreal producer’s early (and out-of-print) 12”s. It’s set for release on October 22 via LuckyMe, but several tracks can already be heard here.
JASSS has linked up with Ostgut Ton, who will be releasing her new full-length, A World of Service. The LP is described as a meditation on the “human and technological barriers to interconnectivity,” and if its moody, vocal-driven title track is any indication, the album seems to be a significant stylistic turn from the Berlin-based Spanish artist. Ahead of the record’s official release on November 26, you can watch JASSS in the trippy video for “A World of Service.”
Jersey club queen UNiiQU3 shared details of the forthcoming Heartbeats EP, her debut outing for the Local Action label. Exploring themes of “self-love, heartbreak, intimacy and lust,” it’s scheduled to arrive on October 8, and two of its tracks, “Microdosing” and “Unavailable,” have already been shared here.
UK duo Overmono continue to romp through 2021, lining up a new 12”—their third of the year—for the XL label. Diamond Cut / Bby won’t surface until November 19, but the b-side has already been made available here.
Headed up by Heathered Pearls and Norik, NYC label Mechanical has been on a tear in recent months, basically offering up a new single every week, and now the best of them have been collected onto a new compilation. Entitled Reverse Engineering Business Hours, it’s adorned with art that ’90s emo fans will recognize as a cheeky reference to Jawbreaker’s famous “salt girl” t-shirt. (And yes, Mechanical has put the design on some new shirts of their own.)
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. Head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
Thank you HTRK for this release. I’ve had their new album Rhinestones on repeat for the past week and I honestly can’t pick a favourite song. There are basically three elements on this record: Nigel Yang’s reverby guitar, Jonnine Standish’s haunting voice (tinged with a hint of heartache and dare I say maybe a bit of Sade) and an 808 for support. This track is actually inspired by the time when Standish and Yang both lived in London and would see Gilbert and George in the window of a Turkish restaurant every night. It’s a cute story—one of many in their recent interview with Tone Glow—and Standish wound up asking them to sign a book for HTRK’s tour manager (and later bought a copy for herself as well). Apparently a lot of lyrics on the album come from their bookshelves.
NEW THIS WEEK
The following is a selection of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week or so. The ones in the ‘Big Three’ section are the songs I especially want to highlight (and therefore have longer write-ups), but the tracks in the ‘Best of the Rest’ section are also very much worth your time. In both sections, you can click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
THE BIG THREE
With the pandemic keeping dancefloors shut for much of the year, electronic music hasn’t been caught up in many hyped new trends during 2021, but amapiano—a sound that’s actually been bubbling up in South Africa for quite some time—is one style that’s gained a lot of traction. Known for its relaxed pace (around 110 bpm) and loping, soulful grooves, amapiano brings together elements of house with native South African dance styles like kwaito and gqom. In its native country, the music has found audiences in both commercial and underground settings, and while many of its biggest hits are vocally driven tunes, there is a group of artists more focused on the instrumental side of the equation.
Native Soul fall into that camp, and despite their young age (one member is 19, the other is 20), the duo have just delivered their debut album, Teenage Dreams. All 12 of its tracks share a certain crooked rhythmic sensibility—with its laid-back bounce, amapiano is perfect for those prefer to calmly bob and weave on the dancefloor—but the synth-string riffs and chunky, gqom-like basslines of “Ambassador” make it a clear standout. LP closer “End of Time” is another highlight, its cracking drum hits offset by a little flute riff, hints of piano and a bevy of stealthily zooming synths.
“Higher” is loaded with nostalgia, and features all the usual nods to ’90s rave that we’ve come to expect. Energetic, hardcore-referencing breakbeats? Check. Cartoonishly pitch-shifted, chipmunk-style diva vocals? Yup. Euphoric piano riffs? Absolutely. “Higher” isn’t winning many points for originality, but the song still landed here in the “Big Three” section of the newsletter. Why? Because it’s a banger, and it sounds really fucking good.
Mani Festo has quietly been on a major hot streak over the past year or so, dropping tunes on labels like Hooversound, Sneaker Social Club, E-Beamz and RuptureLDN. Higher is the debut release EP on the UK producer’s own, newly formed Flightpath imprint, and its title track offers a gleeful injection of classic rave energy. Yes, you’ve likely heard these notes before, but the cues they take from the past are more spiritual than technical, as “Higher” thankfully doesn’t sound like a purposely lo-fi retread. There’s a welcome looseness to its construction, but it’s been tuned to do damage on modern soundsystems—and will likely do so while putting big smiles on dancers’ faces.
The ambient sphere is awfully crowded these days, but Dylan Henner nevertheless continues to shine incredibly bright. Even after releasing a rewardingly strange album on AD 93 last year, the UK artist remains relatively slept on, but perhaps the gorgeous sounds of the new Amtracks EP will garner him a bit more attention. Inspired by a train journey he once took through rural Pennsylvania, the record is lush and meditative, its fluttering melodies mirroring the way the mind often wanders as you look out the window of a moving vehicle and watch the world drift by. “Harrisburg” heightens that sensation by folding in field recordings of an overhead passenger announcement and the gentle undulations of a train moving along the tracks, but it’s the song’s delicately dancing, bell-like melodies that are truly spellbinding, conjuring images of a wondrous landscape on a clear and crisp autumn day.
BEST OF THE REST
This one is heavy. Taken from Walton’s new 6TRAX EP, “Dread III” isn’t much of a club track, but its intermittent eruptions—each one sounding like some sort of devastating space lazer being fired from orbit—are strong enough to make your eyeballs rattle in their sockets. Beyond that, the Manchester producer has added to the song’s looming sense of unease with some ominously click-clacking percussion and what sounds like a manipulated (and genuinely unnerving) vocal sample from the Star Wars universe.
Originally released in 1997, Porter Ricks’ self-titled second album has been newly reissued, and documents the German dub-techno duo’s surprising turn toward a disco-influenced sound. The subaquatic fuzz is still present of course—after all, these guys were only a year removed from their initial releases on Chain Reaction—but “Spoiled” has a distinctly funky groove, almost sounding like a piece of filter house with the treble turned all the way down, or what a rocking warehouse party sounds like when you’re walking up to the venue and finding a place in line.
With contributions from Eris Drew, Ben Frost, Kara-Lis Coverdale, KMRU, Nailah Hunter, Colin Self and others, Lyra Pramuk’s Delta is easily one of the most talented-filled remix albums of 2021. Here, Hudson Mohawke takes on “Tendril,” and while his use of Pramuk’s vocals definitely echoes his previous brilliant work with Anohni, the music itself gravitates toward the dancefloor, its steady kick, glittering synths and big melodic swings sounding like a slightly reined in (and more house-leaning) version of the boisterous club tracks he’s best known for.
The ascendance of DJ Stingray in recent years has been a beautiful thing to watch, and now the Detroit native has relaunched his own Micron Audio imprint, kicking things off with Molecular Level Solutions. “Enzymatic Detergents” closes out the EP and showcases Stingray at the height of his electro powers, its taut rhythms flanked by sci-fi crunch and thundering, industrial-grade low end.
FRKTL’s work has long displayed a talent for sound design and a keen attention to detail, and now the British-Egyptian experimental artist (who currently resides in Riga, Latvia) has applied those skills to السَّمْت Azimuth, a mind-bending short film for which she created both the music and all of the 3-D animation. The score is worth hearing as one continuous piece, but “Scene V: Aphercotropism” is perhaps its most compelling fragment, a scuttling suite of angelic vocal snippets, ocean waves and shuddering sonics that burrow beneath the skin.
Melodic serenity meets percussive fury on “(U Are) Beautiful,” an obvious standout from Galtier’s new Pulchra Es Elementis LP. In many ways, it feels like two different songs, as the UK producer opens with more than three minutes of lilting, new age-style melodies. Once he rolls out the drums though, “(U Are) Beautiful” quickly becomes an upfront, reggaeton-flavored roller, its punchy rhythms confidently puncturing the song’s previous tranquility, even as its gentle melodies continue to gallivant atop the proceedings.
Even as much of the techno universe seems to be gravitating toward nosebleed territory, Monty Luke has gone the opposite direction on “Vibe the Feel,” the aptly named title track of the Berlin-based American’s latest EP. Warm and soulful, there’s a slightly psychedelic, West Coast vibe at work on this no-frills number, which seems tailor-made for laid-back sunset sessions.
With tracks from pretty much the entire Livity Sound roster, the new Molten Mirrors compilation—which was put together to celebrate the label’s 10-year anniversary—is overflowing with quality selections, but “Just Getting on with It” provides an intriguingly fresh spin on the imprint’s usual percussive acrobatics. It’s not that the off-kilter rhythms aren’t present; they’re here, but Bruce cleverly keeps them at a relative simmer as he builds tension and eases the song’s whirring sonics into the forefront, gradually unleashing something that feels almost claustrophobic.
Outside of Your Lifetime is the latest LP from Danish composer Astrid Sonne, and “Stuck in Pause” is one of the album’s many introspective gems. Built atop long-form tones and a restrained, guitar-like synth loop, the track has a spacious, almost no wave-esque sensibility, and while Sonne never delves into that genre’s trademark atonal vocal quips or sonic squall, “Stuck in Pause” nonetheless charts a course that’s far more engaging than the average synth meditation.
Dark Fidelity Hi Fi is a prolific fellow—the newly released Migration of the Meaning is his second full-length of 2021—but he doesn’t appear to be hurting for ideas, as LP standout “Soft Light for Re-Entry” offers a bucolic, wide-eyed tune that pleasurably mines both IDM and ’90s ambient house. It’s mellow enough to put on in the background when you have some people over to the house, but interesting enough that your friends who read The Quietus won’t roll their eyes when it comes on.
Hiro Kone’s A Fossil Begins to Bray was one of 2019’s best electronic albums, and on her new Silvercoat the Throng LP, the New York synthesist has taken her music even further afield. Razor-sharp sound design still drives the record, but Hiro Kone also ventures into the muck, which lends the dark churn of “Mundus Patet” a somewhat more organic feel. Dense and decidedly murky, the slow-boiling song occasionally feels like a haunting techno cut that’s had its kick drums removed, but even without hammering percussion, it remains engrossingly dramatic.
Despite being an unabashed fan of all things Suzanne Ciani, I must admit that I’d never previously listened to one of her synth compositions and thought, “You know what this needs? Some pedal-steel guitar.” Well, clearly my mind wasn’t open wide enough, because Milan—a new collaborative LP between Ciani, producer Alister Fawnwoda and pedal-steel player Greg Leisz—is gorgeous, particularly on “Snow Ritual,” where Leisz’s woozy melodies lazily intermingle with the song’s gauzy pads and twinkling synth tones.
Speaking of my sometimes unabashed fandom, KMRU has been the toast of the newsletter (and several other press outlets) during the past year. Many people in his shoes would be content to simply soak up that attention, but the Kenyan artist has instead elected to pay it forward and spotlight his compatriots back home by curating the new Place: Nairobi compilation. Its 14 tracks dip into a variety of styles, but perhaps it’s not surprising that its strongest selections tread in the same ambient waters as KMRU himself. Both “A Lifetime” and “2021” are airy, melody-driven tracks, but while the former relies on relaxed elegance, the latter has been finely chopped, edited, and stitched back together, ultimately following a glitchier route toward bliss.
Just a few years ago, Christoph de Babalon was widely regarded as something of a curio, a refugee from the ’90s digital hardcore circuit who’d suddenly re-emerged after more than decade of silence. Following a string of potent new releases, however, that sense of novelty has all but disappeared, and the moody “Cool Priest,” a highlight of the German producer’s new 044 (Hilf Dir Selbst!) EP, sounds like a rowdy bunch of busted Amen breaks being dumped into the soundtrack of a low-budget horror flick.
You know those terrifying Boston Dynamics dog robots? If one of them went out of control and started chasing you, “Portal” would be a perfectly nightmarish soundtrack. This menacing half-step rumbler is the title track of a new collaborative EP from Brazilian producer Dunk and the UK’s Teej, and its digital crunch and low-end wobble is bound to keep you up at night.
Dark Entries has reissued all sorts of post-punk, goth, industrial, EBM and more from around the globe, but Back Up: Mexican Tecno Pop 1980-1989 is the San Francisco outpost’s first venture into Mexico. An expanded re-release of a collection that first came out in 2005, Back Up tours through a number of synth-driven cuts from ’80s Mexico—many off them punky and rough around the edges—but Artefacto’s “Mundo Sin Viento” has a bit more dancefloor polish, sounding like a Spanish-language take on the gothy synth-pop that groups like Depeche Mode, The Church and Clan of Xymox were delivering during those years.
“Green Machine” is a new song, but it may as well have been transported to 2021 via a time machine, because it sounds like it’s straight out of a velvet-rope ’80s disco. The closing number on Demi Riquísimo’s new Divine Reality EP, the Italo-flavored track takes copious notes from Giorgio Moroder’s playbook, with glamorously gleaming synths that might as well be playful outtakes from the Scarface soundtrack. The nostalgia factor is high, but “Green Machine” is bright, colorful and a whole lot of fun.
Plenty of artists move between the dancefloor and more experimental zones, but Call Super is someone who’s figured out how to successfully tap into both at the same time. The new Cherry Drops I EP—just FYI, Cherry Drops II is set to drop next month—is loosely rooted in club rhythms, and “Cherry Drops” itself is built around a shambling sort of broken, quasi-techno rhythm, but even with its insistently jabbing bassline, the song feels more like a relaxed, free-form exploration than a proper rave-up. That’s not a complaint, and while the song’s unusual constitution may make its intended function hard to decipher, it’s alluring enough that wherever “Cherry Drops” is located, you’ll likely want to find your way there and stay awhile.
With its deep, dubby grooves, Hverfisgata is the sort of techno album that lots of listeners—especially those with short attention spans—are bound to overlook, but the debut LP from Icelandic producer NonniMal is a sumptuously lush effort. The title track opens the full-length, and while its sturdy kick keeps the whole thing afloat, the beauty of the song resides in its layers of textured static and the relaxed drift of its warm pads. Think of it as the techno equivalent of a blanket—you’ll likely want to wrap yourself up in it.
And with that, we’ve come to the end of another newsletter. Thank you so much for reading First Floor, and I do hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list, and if you like them, please buy them.)
Have a good week,