For those of you who were partying in the ’90s, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Mark Almaria (soundcloud, discogs). He was a celebrated fixture not only in the rave scene but also at Chicago clubs such as Crobar, Karma, Metro, Rednofive, Shelter, at loft parties and at venues all across the US. Flawless mixing, live editing and an original mix of disco-house and garage tunes made him a favorite all across the board. Then out of nowhere he stopped. No one heard from him and it was almost like he ceased to exist.
One Sunday this past summer I ran into him at his brother Karl Almaria’s monthly Brunchlox party, and we got to talking. The account of his hearing loss, the termination of his DJing career, and the tragedy that brought him back to a career in music makes this one of my favorite inspiring stories.
Out of the hundreds of cassette mix tapes I had from all those parties in the early to mid-’90s, yours was definitely one of the few that stood out in my memory, and one of the last ones to go when I transitioned to CDS. They were flawless! How many of those do you think you have out?
Thank you! Before I started playing parties regularly I released a few mixtapes. Sol and Luna were on the very deep and jazzy end of house. Chunks, Lunks, and Let Yourself Go were the ones that really helped me break into the rave scene.
The most well known of my mixes were the colored tape series. Each one was a different color starting with yellow: from there was red, blue, orange, green, and finally white. There was a clear purple tape (Live @ Samsara 2), a clear blue cassette I did with Paul Anthony, and one I made for Sole Unlimited/Dust Traxx entitled Abstract Beating System, making a total of fourteen. Most of these mixes were disco house with a bit of garage scattered in, two sounds I still love to this day.
Rees Urban told me that it would take you months to make a mix because you were such a perfectionist!
Haha, this is true! Mixtapes are a representation of yourself as a DJ, so I allowed myself no mistakes: if you liked the music or not, I always wanted the blends to be tight. I would also wait for the perfect record to cross my path to work into the mix. If it didn’t fit in, I was back to the drawing board. I was tough on myself only because I wanted to improve as a DJ and to maintain the quality of my mixes. It makes me happy to know that they were well received!
Both you and your brother Karl spin. Who began DJing first and how was the working relationship between the two of you during those early years?
Karl started DJing first. Back in the mid-’80s, he spun using a pair of belt drive Technics and a Realistic mixer. After a short while, they were packed up and stored in my parents’ basement. I stumbled upon them about ten years later and tried my hand at DJing just for kicks. I told Karl about how much fun I was having with his old decks, and soon after he started again too.
Karl and I have always helped each other out with DJing. Without his old equipment, I probably wouldn’t have started. In turn, he may not have had his interest sparked to give it a try again. After I broke into the rave scene and was playing out regularly, I helped Karl get in too. He is an excellent DJ and we had very different mixing styles: Karl had no problem making a name for himself. When I took my break from DJing out, Karl was still at it and going strong. That is a big reason I’m back at it today. He has kept me in the loop with monthly Brunchlox gatherings and weekly radio shows, and with that I have reconnected with many old friends within the House community. DJing has definitely kept our bond as brothers strong.
Even though I cringe at the thought of having attended so many raves (or shall we say “parties”), during their heydey in the early ’90s those were truly nothing short of amazing and revolutionary. So much talent and musical styles were cultivated during that period. What was your experience of that era?
I had a great experience in the rave scene, as a party goer and DJ. Since day one, it was all about the music for me. Attending parties in ’92 to dance to Hyperactive and Terry Mullan, falling in love with House Music at a 1355 N. Milwaukee, to DJing some of the best events in the Midwest, I have a ton of fond memories from throughout the years. Daft Punk DJing at Route 66, Paul Johnson closing out Ripe events with ghetto tracks and early Relief Records, it’s been amazing to watch House Music’s icons blow up from such humble beginnings.
Not many people know why you suddenly disappeared from the scene and stopped DJing. Can you tell us exactly what happened?
The main reason I dropped out of the scene was because of my hearing. A few years ago, I had a really bad cold. As most people do, I took some medicine and went to sleep. When I woke up and tried to stand, I was dizzy and could not find my balance. Brushing it off, I thought I was just groggy from resting for such a long time. I noticed later in the day I was having a hard time hearing when I was on the phone, but I thought my ear was clogged because of my cold. I waited, but my ear would not pop.
A few days later, I went to the doctor to have it checked out. It turns out that I was struck by Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) in my right ear. In my case the SSHL was the result of a viral ear infection stemming from my cold, and I lost my hearing overnight.
On the right I can only hear bass: absolutely no high notes with limited mid-range, less than half of what I can hear on the other side. The frequencies that I can no longer sense were replaced by Tinnitus, constant ringing in my ear. As a DJ that cues up records on the right (in the headphones), I was having a really hard time mixing after this happened. It was frustrating not to hear the music the way I used to, and I went through a period where I wasn’t listening to much of anything at all.
A few months after this happened, I got an offer to play up in Milwaukee. I figured I would give Djing another chance and took the gig. That night I had a really tough time beat matching and hearing what was going on. After that gig I decided to call it quits with DJing. There was no way I was going to go out because I fell off.
So tell us what made you come back and conquer this hearing condition? And what exactly do you do to compensate for it on a technical basis?
In October of last year my best friend, Lindsay Stout, passed away. She is a wonderful person who was an icon within the House community: The Girl With The Big Red Hair. A group of her friends decided to throw a memorial party for her at Smartbar (her favorite spot), and asked me to DJ the event. Lindsay was my closest friend and I could not say no.
I was pretty freaked out about DJing again, so I asked for support from Karl to do a tag team set of late ’90s House. At the event, I asked Karl to kick the set off. When it was my turn, I threw that first record on and it just hit me… I was DJing again. Hearing those old tracks again made me snap back into it. All of the movements from before felt natural: cuing the records, matching the beats, and working the faders. I can’t really explain exactly what happened, but I am glad we played that night. Lindsay would have been proud.
I think that the break that I took from DJing allowed me to adjust a little to my hearing loss. I changed how I beat match records by sometimes using both sides of the headphones while playing. Since I can hear the full spectrum of sound on the left, I can “trick” myself into hearing highs and mids on the right too. I also keep the volumes as low as possible in the headphones and booth so I don’t get confused because it’s too loud. I find that it takes me a bit longer to get warmed up in a set, but after that I am alright.
You’ve made quite a number of tracks, am I correct in saying your last one was the 2012 EP in 2008? Are you planning to get back into producing?
Yes, that’s the last one. That track was produced almost two years prior to the release. I don’t have any plans as of yet to start making tracks again. Production was never my strong point, I was always more comfortable behind the decks. I am very glad that I did put some tracks out though. My releases on Carizma (a Tokyo based label) enabled me to play in Japan in 2007. I had no idea that my productions were so popular there, and they were the highlights of my set. I could not communicate by talking with people there – yet they understood what I did in the studio and on the decks? The concept blew me away! It was easily the greatest gig I have ever had. Here or on the other side of the world, music speaks without words.
Any final words? Anything you’d like us to look for?
All love goes to my family and true friends: you know who you are. Thanks to each and every one of you who has supported me, and everybody that continues to do so. It’s great to be back in The House!