Our dance music residencies are – at least as far as this city goes – somewhere between “threatened” and “vulnerable” on the endangered species list. The nightclub churn and closings have made several of them virtual nomads, wandering from place to place or living in a state of suspended animation.
So a ten year standing residency means something. It probably means more than it ever did.
Jeff Derringer began OKTAVE in New York, but the last eight years have seen his residency holding down the fort for techno in Chicago. This Saturday October 5 he’ll be celebrating that very rare ten year anniversary of OKTAVE at Smartbar with special guest Carl Craig.
A few years back, I interviewed Jeff Derringer about OKTAVE and one thing he said always stood out to me. “I think a residency has a civic commitment,” he said. “I don’t know if a lot of people think like that anymore but I do. I’m trying to do something for Chicago. I believe in Chicago and want this music to get over in Chicago.”
No, not a lot of people think like that anymore. We should be very glad that at least one guy still does.
I spoke with Jeff Derringer again this week about what goes into a ten year residency and the state of techno in Chicago and worldwide.
Jeff Derringer photo by Kalin Haydon.
Congratulations on 10 years of Oktave! How are you feeling a week before the anniversary show?
Thanks! I’m excited for the show, of course. I’ve invited some of my students – I hope they have good fake IDs so they can come see it.
Has Carl Craig played Oktave before? You did one anniversary show which was just you open to close.
Carl Craig has never played for Oktave before, and I’m really happy to have him on the 10th anniversary show. Carl’s music really inspired me early in my techno journey – I actually came to him initially through the DFA label. His remix of Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom’s “Relevee” blew my mind, and helped me to understand what techno actually WAS. It’s an honor to have him in the Oktave booth for this show.
Oktave has never been about stacking names on a flyer, but you’ve had so many amazing DJs play for your dancefloor. Who hasn’t played for you that you’d really like to hear?
A big name that stands out for me in this department is Robert Hood. I had him booked once and he cancelled at the last minute – it was for an anniversary show, and that’s when I played all night as you mentioned above. When an artist cancels on me it really turns me off, which in this case is a shame because I love Robert Hood. He’s definitely one of my favorites and I have a ton of respect for him. But I can’t imagine booking him again because I can’t trust that he’ll show.
Another similar story is Shifted. I love Guy’s work and he played for Oktave and Blank Code in Detroit for Movement, but he cancelled on me at Smartbar, again for an anniversary show, again at the last minute. Two of my favorite producers and performers – two people I wouldn’t be comfortable taking a risk on again.
How do you keep it fresh? I mean really, I’m working on 5 Mag Issue 177 now and longevity has its own challenges. I might get bored and subconsciously feel like I’m creating conflicts and challenges just to liven it up. Do you ever feel that or is there too much responsibility on your shoulders?
Interesting that you put it that way. To be honest, the main I reason I keep going is because I do feel some responsibility to bring the type of sound that I bring to Chicago, because I’ve been doing it for so long and because I host the types of artists that not a lot of other people host.
The social media landscape and Instagramming of underground culture has been hugely negative for the scene. At this point, the underground needs an underground.
It isn’t always fresh. Even after ten years, when I host an artist I believe in and people don’t turn up, I take it personally. It hurts me as much as it hurt me the first time it happened. I’ve had tons of shows where Chicago didn’t turn out, and it never gets any easier. It always feels like a gut punch. That part of the game is exhausting.
Then again, there’s always good moments and shows that refresh my commitment. It’s not always about attendance either. A really surprising or solid set from someone I’ve booked will reinvigorate me and refocus my resolve. It’s a process, I suppose.
We last spoke for the record 3 years ago, and I’m feeling the urge to ask the same questions all over again but this time ask what’s changed. But it feels to me like the scene renews itself (or degenerates, depending on how you view it) every few years. What are the biggest shifts in the local scene in the last few years?
Chicago has seen a shift away from larger, “mainstream” undergrounds from the likes of Paradigm Presents and what not, to the more home-made, traditional undergrounds that are happening today, i.e. Obscure, Format etc. I think generally that’s a good thing for the scene, and I’m happy to see some promoters bringing in more left-field techno talent.
As I’ve said, I think generally Chicago does not like techno that much, at least not as much as house music. There’s only so many techno customers in this city, and you can’t overwhelm them. I don’t really feel like Chicago is an every-weekend techno town, and I almost wish there would be less events so the relatively few techno fans would be able to come out en masse more often. When there’s two to four shows a weekend, you dilute the audience.
What about turning the microscope around and taking a look at the broader scene, both the style of techno that Oktave and you yourself embody and “techno” in the broadest sense. What are your thoughts on the state of the broader underground techno scene?
As far as the international techno scene goes, I have very little positive to say about what I see in 2019. Part of that comes from being a producer. The idea that you cannot make money making tracks or releasing music anymore is so demoralizing. The fact that DJs go out and bang my tracks and make five figures while I work two jobs to make ends meet is infuriating – there’s no other word for it. It’s also incredibly bad for the health of the scene. When the party is everything and the music itself has no real value, you’re in trouble.
Personally, I believe the social media landscape and Instagramming of underground culture has been hugely negative for the scene. At this point, the underground needs an underground. The techno and house scenes are making all the same mistakes that were made in the rock and alternative scenes, and Resident Advisor, Boiler Room, Red Bull etc are all too happy to harness that energy and profit off it. Sadly, it looks like artists and DJs are scrambling to help them as fast as possible, one selfie at a time. I have to say it’s been a little traumatic to watch, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel alienated from the scene for the first time.
About a year ago I heard the term “business techno” for the first time and I couldn’t stop laughing at how appropriate it is. We now have some places charging $40 to $50 for a single night with a single headliner. As far as I can tell, that’s a new high (or low) for Chicago, at least for the underground, and I’m not sure what it means in a broader context (other than broke, young and marginalized people are gonna be skipping it, and maybe skipping nightclubs altogether.)
To be honest, I don’t really know what the term “business techno” means. I hear it all the time, but I think it means different things for different people. Some people say “business techno” every time they see an artist trying to make money and make a living on their music. In that case, I think it’s really unfair. I meet so many younger people who believe that music should be “free.” These are people who aren’t currently paying rent or their own bills, and they have a very skewed vision of how the world works. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an artist or a performer trying to make money, being concerned about money, and trying to maximize their slice of the pie.
Some people say “business techno” to define the culture I was describing above – corporatize everything, hype everything, squeeze every dollar out of the scene. That’s a different story and a really bad one. And as I said, when the music takes a back seat – to money, to drugs, to the party, to the narcissism of being seen, the culture is going to devolve.
Gunnar Haslam wrote this post earlier this year:
2019 is the year i think we see a large but quiet exodus of artists we care about from "the scene". it's increasingly hard to scrape by as an artist, especially with no health care, rising rents, lowering gig fees, and basically no one buying music
— gunnar haslam (@gunnarhaslam) March 4, 2019
As an artist, DJ, promoter and label owner, what are your thoughts? Accurate? Alarmist?
Sad but true, I think. I know that the current environment has demoralized me personally, so I can only imagine others are feeling the same.
You’ve been open about your health. I do not wish to breach your privacy but I think people who have seen our past coverage would be interested to know how you are right now.
I’m happy to answer questions about my health. I’m doing ok. Still standing. Essentially I’m on a quarterly schedule at this point. I see my doctors every quarter, and they tell me if I’m ok to go. As time goes by, I’ll have these tests and visits less. When I’m five years away from treatment, I’ll be able to exhale a little more. For the moment, I try to live day to day and not think about what could happen to me the next time I go to the doctor. That’s not always easy.
Where do you go from here?
Honestly, it’s difficult for me to make plans right now. Because of my health, I have to be careful – my focus must be about trying to stay alive, at least in the near term. This fact, coupled with trends in the scene, makes me unsure of what my future looks like in the underground.
For the moment, my career as a traveling performer is on hold. I don’t feel healthy enough to travel, particularly overseas. It’s taxing. In 2018 I had just gotten through recovery and I was committed to showing myself I could still travel. So I took on a lot of travel gigs, including Berghain and Bassiani, and I got through them. But by September, I was utterly exhausted. I’ve only traveled once since – partially because I stopped seeking out the bookings, and partly because I fit less and less with what’s going on internationally.
That said, I love to teach and my classes at Columbia College are still very important to me. I think it’s likely that as I age, I’m transitioning from my “artist” phase to my “mentor” phase, for a mix of reasons and motivations. That would not be a bad thing at all – it feels like a natural progression. But Oktave continues, as does my relationship with Smartbar, and I don’t really have a timetable for any of that. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.