SXSW 2013: Hawtin, Deadmau5 see cracks in EDM's rise

AUSTIN, Texas -- Richie Hawtin and Joel Thomas Zimmerman, better known by his stage name Deadmau5, allowed a packed hall to eavesdrop on their conversation Tuesday at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. They geeked out about gear, cracked jokes, and alternately gushed about and lamented the evolution of electronic dance music. As a sort of "State of the EDM movement" summit, it was tough to top -- a fascinating glimpse into the minds of two self-described "tech nerds" who helped bring machine-driven music out of basements and underground clubs into arenas.

That ascension hasn't come without a price. When Hawtin emerged out of Windsor, Ontario, about 1990, he built on the innovations of Detroit techno pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. He taught himself the intricacies of a Korg keyboard and a Roland 303 bass synthesizer, and essentially invented a style of minimalist techno that remains relevant to this day. Deadmau5 surfaced about a decade later out of Toronto, combining his intricate electronic compositions with an increasingly elaborate visual presentation, featuring a giant mouse head. At times he referred to his stage persona in the third person, a character that now must appeal to the "Yo Bros" who come to electronic concerts looking for quick bursts of adrenaline and couldn't care less about the intricacies of the music.

But the two artists' largely self-taught, independent origins led to distinctive vocabularies of tones and rhythms that weren't specifically designed for mass appeal. In 1990, Hawtin says, "no major labels cared about electronic music." Now, there is a frenzy of activity both in concert promotion and record-label signings to latch on to an unprecedented wave of EDM artistst in North America. Both artists see a legion of copy-cats trying to capitalize, thanks to the ease of acquiring programming software and recycling beats.

"There is a lot of cookie-cutter stuff," Deadmau5 said. "I'm actually shocked that guys who sign these (electronic artists) aren't just going home and making this music themselves, just cut out the middle man." He was especially critical of the way many mixes of current electronic tracks lack dynamic range, tailored more for commercial imperatives than the club experience.

"Electronic music has a manual now," Hawtin added. "I never actually 'learned' how to work a 303, I just made stuff up.... Everything now is accessible, instantaneous, and it's a double-edge sword. It's taking the life out of it. Maybe the reason EDM is so big is because it's homogenized."

As dour as the griping sometimes got, both maintained a sense of humor about themselves and their style of music. For all their love of technology, they put a greater stock in being original than in keeping up with the latest innovations. When asked what piece of gear he'd miss the most if it disappeared, Deadmau5 had a quick answer: "My microwave."

greg@gregkot.com
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