From his beginnings in Ohio during the nascent period of electronic music’s evolution to the current day based in Berlin, Dan Curtin has been crafting deep, innovative rhythms that have captured people’s imaginations. From the very start, Dan set out to innovate rather than emulate, and decades on, music fans and the artists he’s influenced attest to his success in that goal. Releasing on a plethora of labels from Strictly Rhythm to Mobilee to his own Metamorphic Recordings which he founded in 1992 and is still going strong to this day, Dan has produced in a wide range of styles but always retains a unique inimitable voice. I spoke with Dan about his approach to the craft for 5 Mag.
photo by Katja Ruge
Do you have any advice for fledgling producers?
The most productive goal I ever had was to make your own style. That’s so, so important. That was one of the things when I first started, I said, okay, I’m going to do my own thing. If I ever do something that sounds like it’s another artist, I need to stop it instantly and just go on to something else. That was a really important goal of mine, and now I can’t get out of that goal. I’m stuck in that. That’s so ingrained into my process.
Artists on my label – let’s say Titonton, I released his first record. I released the first record from Morgan Geist. These producers had their own style and that was their best asset. That’s why they got booked, that’s why they got requests, that’s the main thing you can do is to be original. Don’t try to be like anybody else, because it’s not going to do anything for you. Make your own style. When you make your own style, people will want it. They’ll request you. That’s your strongest asset.
When I first started I said, I’m going to do my own thing. If I ever do something that sounds like another artist, I need to stop. That was a really important goal of mine. Now I can’t get out of that goal. That’s so ingrained into my process.
You started out in Ohio, how did you discover electronic music while you were living there?
As a kid coming up, electronic music was also coming up, trying to make itself known in the world. That’s what appealed to me. The first sound that really appealed to me was hip-hop. There was this guy called Mr. Magic from New York City, who was a famous hip-hop DJ in New York from the ’80s. The local radio station where I lived would simulcast his radio show, Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, which was the most cutting-edge hip-hop show on the planet at that time. Which is lucky, given Ohio. So, I would turn on the radio and that’s what I got. That was the first exposure to that kind of music that I ever had. It was mostly hip-hop, also electro, and then also Kraftwerk was in there as well, so that’s where I got the first exposure.
I would tape shows, bring them to school, play them for my friends. Then I met some other kids who were feeling that kind of music. Eventually, it became an obsession. I started feeling that I needed to make music as well because it wasn’t enough just to listen to it. So I got together with other like-minded kids and we formed a crew, I was a DJ and I had an emcee. We started doing shows in school because we were too young to play out for anybody. School shows, talent shows, that kind of stuff. We had formed this hip-hop community in suburban Ohio.
When I was in college, I was exposed to another realm of the world, kids from all over the world were coming to university and I started getting into other kinds of music like Depeche Mode and Ministry and The Cure and stuff like this. Then I joined a new wave band for a while because that was interesting to me. We started making music and we had a couple of releases out, we were playing a lot of shows. It was around ’88 when I heard house music for the first time, I was like, “Oh shit!” This for me was like the perfect music…
What was that “oh shit” moment?
A friend of mine brought back this compilation on Wax Trax, I think it was called The House Side of Chicago. He brought it over to my house. This was the summer of ’88. He played Adonis – “No Way Back” was the track – and that just changed my life at that moment. So he played that track, we were smoking some weed, I was listening to this track, I heard it and was like, “Holy shit, that’s it, that’s it! That’s what I’m doing for the rest of my life.” I knew it at that moment, it hit me so hard that day. I never went back to hip-hop, I never went back to punk or new wave or anything like that, it was just house and techno, that was it from that moment on. I knew it wasn’t enough to just listen, I had to make it. I had been making music all along, just for fun, but that’s when I had to get serious about it.
So take me to 1992, how did you get those first techno releases, that first album?
In that time between ’88 and ’92, I started learning how this music was made. I had been fucking around up until then, doing a little bit of this, little bit of that, never really knowing what I wanted to do. Then I had a concrete goal. So I had to find out what made this sound, when I heard these acid sounds I was like, “What is that?” I would go around to music stores where they sold equipment and I would play the music. I’m like, “What is this sound? What does this?” Because I didn’t actually know what the 808 was doing, I would play it for people and they’d be like, “Oh yeah, that’s that, that’s that.” So, that’s how I deduced what equipment I needed to get.
So then I acquired an 808, a 303, 909, that kind of stuff. I started sitting down with it, trying to make something that was presentable to the world. That was the goal. Finally I got some tracks together that I thought, “Okay, these are good enough, I’m gonna send these out to some labels.” I sent them to some Detroit labels because, also in this time between ’88 and ’92 I was trying to figure out what was house music, what was techno music, and what was the difference between this kind of stuff.
By chance, a friend of mine from Cleveland went to London with his family, and he taped some of the pirate radio stations, like Kiss FM when it was still a pirate station. Colin Dale, Colin Faver – these were the DJs that were playing at that time, and I heard this music and I was like, “Holy shit, what the fuck is this?” This was like, Octave One, Carl Craig, people like this. At that moment I thought, these people are from England, I thought this was some European stuff. Then I found out, no, this is Detroit and they play two hours away. I couldn’t believe that they were all from the Midwest, all from where I was from.
That was hugely influential. So then I tried to track some of these labels down. I sent out demo tapes to Kelli Hand. I sent demo tapes to 430 West, I sent demos to Carl Craig when he had Retroactive, before it was Planet E, and a couple other labels. They all called back and offered me something. Which is amazing, I had no idea what to expect. For some reason, I don’t know why, the one I went with was Carl Craig.
I remember the phone call. Damon, who was Carl Craig’s partner at the time, called me. I didn’t actually know who Carl Craig was, so he’s like, “I’m Damon Booker and I’m from Retroactive Records, the label from me and Carl Craig.” And I’m like, “Mm-hmm, who?!” They invited me to come and record at the studio in Detroit. I recorded my first record there, in a really nice studio. I just had a little, small bedroom studio at home.
Just after I recorded this record, those guys broke up, Retroactive was gone. That record never came out, and still to this day has never come out. In the meantime, I started my own label, because I thought everyone had their own label. Thankfully, Carl Craig, even though I didn’t release on his label, distributed my label through his label. He introduced me to all the distributors in the industry. His help was pretty huge. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to make these contacts.
Because of these releases I started getting all these requests to play everywhere and I was turning them all down at first because I didn’t know how to DJ. I picked up turntables and I started practicing ’cause I really wanted to be able to attempt these requests.
The first time I played internationally was in London for “Lost,” a party with Big Bill and Luke Fader. I think it was pretty bad, actually. I had just been practicing for three weeks so I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a massive party in London, and people were very nice but I don’t think I did a great job.
The next show I played was in Tokyo where I played live, and then took some time to practice DJing.
When you say you played live, does that mean live PA with gear?
I forgot to mention that – in this time between ’88 and ’92 when I was exploring all types of things, I was only playing live. That meant at that time – and I actually have this stuff on video – it meant bringing my entire studio to the club, then re-doing what I did in the studio in the club. Now when I play live it’s a lot different. It’s a streamlined, smaller set and I just bring a few things with me. But back then I had to bring everything with me. These live sets I played locally in Cleveland were my whole studio, when I played in Tokyo for the first time I had to bring basically my whole studio over and re-set it up on stage. It was basically doing what I do in the studio just facing a ton of people. Those were the first live shows.
I used the stuff you would expect – the Roland stuff, the 909s, the Juno stuff, that kind of equipment. Now my live set is much smaller, I can bring it in one suitcase. Over the years I used a computer here and there, but now I don’t use a computer anymore onstage, that’s totally out.
What’s your reasoning behind not using a computer onstage?
I never wanted to use a computer and then I tried it, here in Berlin at Panorama Bar, four years ago. I saw myself staring at the screen the whole time during the show and it didn’t feel like I was connecting with the people. I felt like the screen was somehow a barrier between myself and the people. Since then, I have never had a laptop onstage again.
Now I just do hardware. There’s a general kind of outline of what I’m gonna do but otherwise, it’s completely live and spontaneous so I can react to the people. It’s kind of like a DJ set in a way. With a computer, everything is laid out and you’re stuck into a certain kind of way of progressing through your set. I want to be able to react to the people, to have some spontaneity.
“Green Girl” is one of my favorite songs that you made early on, there’s something that’s really unique about your percussion. Can you speak to what influences that?
I had the hip-hop mentality, which is that you have to make your own beats and you have to have an original style. That’s a really important part of the early stuff that I was doing. I didn’t know any other way to approach it except from a hip-hop way. You have to be original, you can’t bite someone else’s style, you have to do your own thing, you have to create your own sound. I had a little bit of influence from jazz, a little bit of influence from drum and bass, and hip-hop, and house and techno. I was trying to bring influences from all that stuff together. For beats I was using several drum machines plus sample drums. I was just trying to make beats that I didn’t hear elsewhere, you know? In my track “Green Girl” I tried to bring in elements from acid house, Detroit techno, then the percussive elements that I mentioned before. I was trying to bring that all into its own kind of style.
You’ve commented before on how the scene has changed. What are your thoughts on how the internet has changed the culture?
It’s good and bad. Conceivably you have a wider audience, and you can expose your music to a wider audience, through Spotify and things like that, but it’s true you get paid less per play, or per download, per stream. The only thing that I feel negatively about is that it’s kind of homogenized the music scene. It’s kind of taken away local scenes that have given the spice of life to the music, where you would have a Paris sound, an East London sound, and all this kind of stuff. It seems like somehow that’s going away a little bit. One kind of generic sound is emerging. That’s the scourge of tech house. Tech house was kind of this generic electronic music. It’s something like house music, it’s something like techno music, but it’s not any of those things because it doesn’t have the emotional content of any of that stuff.
Part of the scene has turned into that, but at the same time, there’s a backlash against all of it. There’s a lot of really interesting underground electronic music that’s happening because people are tired of this shit. They’re going out and they’re seeking their own stuff. The great thing about now is that there’s so much interesting hardware that’s available to make music. All these little companies are making their own synths or drum machines or whatever. There’s so much individualistic equipment available now, way more than was ever available before. You can get everything for cheap, and it sounds really great. I think a lot of people are taking advantage of that. It’s a perfect response to this generic tech house bullshit that I thought was ruining the scene in a way.
One of the most awesome things ever is when I’m going out here in Berlin, going to some little club, and there’s a young DJ, maybe 19 or something, playing with vinyl and feeling the passion, feeling the originality, and going after this. I don’t know if you see this in many other cities. Maybe you do sometimes, but in Berlin it’s so often where you see really young DJs, new ones, who are just coming into the scene, who are doing what we used to do, who are going to record stores, finding the sound that they like, just because they like it, not because anyone told them that they’re supposed to like it.
Are there any records you have coming up that you’re excited about?
Coming up is a record I’m doing for a label called Dolly, from Steffi, who’s the resident DJ at Panorama Bar. This is kind of a broken beat record, like techno, broken beat, reminiscent of that “Green Girl” record you mentioned. Like that, but in a way that you would do today. I’m super psyched about that. I think actually that is the next one, or the next one is a reissue of my third record on Metamorphic called Origins EP, which has been remastered, and coming out again on my label.
Then I have a thing I’m super psyched about, which is a record under the alias called Purveyors of Fine Funk, which is this aggressive house alias. This is coming out on the UK label called Vessel, and I have a remix from Ben Sims on this. I’ve been a super Ben Sims fan for a long time, so I’m super excited about this. Then, on my label, is the 20th anniversary of a record from Titonton Duvante. It came out on my label, so I’m doing the 20th anniversary reissue of this, which is coming out in November. Originally it came out in 98. A lot of exciting stuff coming up, it’s a busy end of 2018.