Pittsburgh’s Shawn Rudiman makes hardware-heavy techno that’s both serious-minded and seriously good. In the years he’s been working a solo artist, after a nearly ten-year stint in the ’90s partnering with friend Ed Vargo in the industrial group T.H.D., he’s built up a discography that takes in ambient, dub techno, electro and more, but is centered around a propulsive, muscular sound, one that’s tough as nails yet dripping with emotion.
His music exists outside of time: His early EPs, like 1999’s Blue Empire, could have been made last week, while his more recent work, such as the recent …The Next Planet Over, are filled with the exploratory spirit of the late ’80s. He’s so proficient, with such a massive backlog of ready-to-rock cuts, that he could probably make a career out of putting out nothing but unreleased material, as he did with 2017’s Timespan LP. And his improvisational live sets, hugely dynamic affairs crafted with joyful abandon, have become the stuff of legend.
Yet despite all that, Rudiman, 46, flies under the radar far enough that he’s found it necessary to hold on to his day job crafting custom furniture and cabinetry. He’s not exactly unknown – he’s hugely respected by his peers, and his fanbase is big enough to allow him to make occasional stops at festivals like Movement and Dekmantel – but there are plenty of artists who have a fraction of Rudiman’s skills with a lot more to show for it. That’s partially his own doing: He doesn’t do much in way of social media – the “About” section on his Facebook fan page, for instance, has no breathless bio, no contact info for PR, booking, press or up-to-date contact info. He ticks off all the boxes of the “enigmatic artist” – except he’s really not being mysterious at all. It’s just that he has little interest in playing the game. Rudiman’s focus lies elsewhere – specifically, in his synth-and-sampler-packed studio, which is where he’s sitting when we ring him up for a chat.
Do you remember when you first started getting into music?
In the early ’80s, I would listen to the radio a lot. That was actually a great time for radio, because you would hear new wave, freestyle, punk-rockish stuff… all kinds of stuff. I really liked anything that had a drum machine – not that I knew what a drum machine was. I used to think that they were robots, something that looked like a human but with eight arms, sitting behind a drum kit.
Can you remember any specific drum-machine tracks that grabbed you back then?
Yeah – Paul Hardcastle, “19.” I was completely smitten. I was in love with it.
Electronic music always sounded like the future to me.
What was it about electronic music that appealed to you?
I grew up with a serious sci-fi parent – Doctor Who, Space 1999, Star Trek and everything else – and I kind of grew up hearing weird synthesizer sounds, so electronic music always sounded like the future to me. It made me think that I should be listening to it on a spaceship, and that really appealed to me.
How did that love of electronic music lead you towards actually making that music?
I had an uncle who had a small rock & roll studio, with the kind of stuff a late-’80s studio would have. There was a four-track reel-to-reel, a drum set, some mikes and delays… and a Korg M1 [synthesizer/workstation]. My uncle didn’t know how to use it all – he was like, “Hey, I have this great new keyboard. I don’t know what it does, but it does all kinds of stuff.”
Me and my friend Ed, who I eventually ended up doing T.H.D. with, would go down there on Tuesday nights and fool around. Eventually we figured out what MIDI was and how to sequence. Ed was like an early super-nerd, and he got this great programming job, so we were able to go out and get some of our own studio stuff. We bought a 12-channel mixer and a used [Ensonig] EPS 16+ [sampler/workstation], and I got my own first synth for Christmas that year.
What was it?
A prosumer Yamaha machine called the Yamaha B200. It was a super-stripped-down FM synth, with eight tracks of sequencing. It was barely a work station, but I thought it was the best thing since fish grew legs.
Do you still have it?
Absolutely. There’s no way I could ever let that thing go.
You and Ed officially formed T.H.D. soon after that, right?
I think our first release was in ’91, and we went till around ’97. We did three full albums, an EP and a whole pile of remixes over that time, which is pretty good considering we never expected anything at all to come from it.
When did T.H.D. end?
The last one with Ed was around 1997. But more recently, I did another T.H.D. by myself [2009’s The Evolution of Our Decay], which came out really well. It has a super-classic industrial feel.
Being in Pittsburgh played a role in your development as a solo artist, right?
Yep. I had been living in the middle of nowhere, around two hours south of Scranton and two and a half hours northwest of Philadelphia, but I moved to Pittsburgh in January of 1998. And unbeknownst to me, Pittsburgh back then was very similar to Detroit – a rundown, downtrodden Rust Belt place, full of grit and grime and unsavory characters. I thought it was great. At least it was something.
Was there much in the way of a music scene?
There actually was a pretty raging rave scene at that point. And I knew I wanted to be involved in music, but I didn’t really have a plan. The plan kind of found me.
There was a record store called HyperVinyl Records. I became friends with the owner and kind of became a part of it. To say it was like High Fidelity is an understatement – some of the wildest days of my life happened because of that record store. We would hang out there, we would sleep there when we needed to… it was our home base. HyperVinyl is long gone – it only lives in the Valhalla of our memory – but that was a really important place for me.
Anyway, when I first moved to Pittsburgh, I didn’t really know how things worked. For instance, I only had the most basic understanding of genres. I didn’t know about acid house, or techno, or trance, or anything like that. But my friend Trevor Combee, who’s the guy who owned HyperVinyl, was a die hard Detroit guy. He was militant as they come: “Fuck all that trance shit, techno is where it’s at!” He’s the only reason I managed to find my way to techno. [Combee, known as the Instigator, passed away in 2013.]
It feels like your initial ignorance of genres still comes through a bit in your productions. Most of your music is pretty “techno,” but you also seem to take wide-angle view of what constitutes techno.
That’s been kind of intentional. I’ve always come at it with an “album” kind of view, and you don’t want have an album where it’s eight of the same song. You maybe want a couple of chill things, a couple of uptempo joints, a couple of really bangin’ ones that’ll tear the roof off. And really, techno’s always been pretty varied anyway.
You’ve pretty exclusively gone at it through the hardware route. What are your reasons for remaining so hardware-oriented over the years?
I can tell you exactly why. In the beginning, there was hardware. Then somewhere around 2001 or 2002, computers came of age. Like, wow, there’s this program called Reason and it’s pretty much a whole studio! I don’t need to have this 808 and this Pro-One anymore!
Well, the problem was that I was super dirt-poor when that evolution happened – like, no-heat-in-my-house poor. Buying a $2000 computer was not in my budget. So I figured, well, I’ve got all this old crap – I might as well keep using it. And I kept using it for so long that the crap I was using went from being thought of as total junk to being, “Holy shit, I can’t believe you actually have one of those things!”
Hardware became cool again.
Yeah, but the main thing was that I’m comfortable with it. Basically, I just really like to play and produce with hardware.
How many pieces of gear do you own?
Oh shit… well, I’m sitting in my studio right now, so let me see [long pause]… well, it’s a lot. It’s a 14 x 21 room, filled wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. I’m pretty creative with how to jam a lot of shit in here. I think synth-wise, it was 45 or something the last time I actually counted. Then maybe 22 samplers, not including MPCs and SP-12s and stuff.
Have you ever gotten rid of hardware?
Oh, yeah – I’m not crazy. I like to try stuff, but I don’t keep everything I buy.
I don’t look at tracks as a painting. It’s more like a Polaroid. You can’t take the same Polaroid twice because life changes around you. It’s catching a feeling and I need to catch that feeling as quick as I can.
What drives you to make music?
I make music because I don’t go to a therapist… and I don’t want to go to jail. Making music is a whole lot cheaper and a whole lot safer. Music is my release. I don’t make it for anybody else. I really don’t care if shit even comes out.
How many finished unreleased tracks, ones that are of release quality, do you have sitting around?
A lot! It’s funny – I’ve had fits where I’ll go back through my files, or even my DAT tapes, and erase them. It’s like, I hate this song, and I’m gonna delete it forever so I don’t have to think about it ever again. But anything that’s survived those storms is probably worth keeping. That’s 20 years of techno. I’ve never stopped writing.
At this point, software’s passed the Turing test. You can’t tell what the fuck is making shit anymore. It makes no difference what the tool is, because the main tool is you. If you’ve got a shitty idea, it makes no difference what tool you’re using.
Does writing come easy to you, or is it an ordeal?
This is going to sound really terrible… but it’s easier than breathing. Early on, I adopted an attitude that music is my pirate ship, and I’m going to sail the seven seas. It’s always been super-fun for me, even when I had to learn things, like teaching myself the basics of electrical engineering so I could build or repair equipment. If was anything but music, I couldn’t have done it – I’d take the F.
When you begin to work on a track, do you have a clear idea of what it’s going to be, or does it reveal itself to you as you go along?
I have no idea what it’s going to be, really. The way it usually starts is I’ll look around the room and see what’s new, or what I’ve just fixed, or just what I have just haven’t used for a while. Like, okay, who needs attention before you break? When they get angry, they break – you’ve got to keep them in the rotation to keep them happy. Then I’ll turn whatever it is on, mess around, then make some sounds or a pattern. Then it’s, okay, I’m making a little sequence. The next thing you know, I’m adding a kick drum or a hi-hat, and then it’s, okay, let me start bussing this out to individual channels, maybe stick a little reverb here… before you know it, you’ve got 12 or 16 channels. You jam around, you get a structure. Then it’s like, shit, it’s been a few hours – I should just record this! Sometimes it’s even just an hour, but it’s usually never longer than two or three days.
Even three days isn’t very long compared to a lot of producers.
I don’t look at tracks as a Picasso painting. It’s more like a Polaroid. You can’t take the same Polaroid twice because life changes around you like a river, and if you’re standing at a river, you never see the same river twice. It’s about catching a feeling. I need to catch that feeling as quick as I can, and whatever happens, it is what it is.
There seems to a lot of emotion embedded to your music, if only obliquely.
Music without emotion is fucking useless, isn’t it? There has to be an emotional seed that will germinate in the song. If that seed grows into a thorny rosebush with one rose, that’s fine. Without the emotion, it’s like looking at a black-and-white Xerox of a rosebush instead of looking at the rosebush itself.
Do you think that software has made it so easy to make music that producers sometimes forget about the emotional aspect?
I’ve adopted a very Zen attitude towards software. I used to be very dead set against it, and working in the box, and all that shit. But now I think that software is amazing. At this point, it’s passed the Turing test. You can’t tell what the fuck is making shit anymore. It makes no difference what the tool is, because the main tool is you. If you’ve got a shitty idea, it makes no difference what tool you’re using.
You’re known for your live sets. How do you approach the improvisational aspect of performing live?
I think of it this way: When you’re in the studio, you have unlimited time to make five minutes of music. When you play live and it’s impromptu, you have five minutes to make five minutes of music. If you look at it as a creative well, every bucket has to be a full bucket when you’re playing live. In the studio, you might not ever bother putting the bucket down, or maybe you’ll just dip a cup in.
A lot of your productions have a kind of timeless feel, in that they seem to steer clear of whatever is trendy at any given time. Is that something you consciously aim for?
That’s not really intentional, but it might be that I learned from the music that I thought really stood out. I learned from listening to the music that moves me.
Red Planet 2, “Star Dancer.” That shit changed my fucking world. I was like, I don’t know who this is, or what this is or where the fuck it’s from, but this is a paradigm shift in my world. So maybe it’s just that was lucky enough to hear good stuff. If you only listen to music that doesn’t feel like its tied to a certain time period, maybe you’ll end up making that kind of music yourself.
That quality is one of the things that’s garnered you so much respect in the techno world, not just from your fans but also from your peers.
I’m not really sure how that happened! But if people like it, that’s great.
Does it ever get frustrating that those accolades don’t always directly lead to fame and fortune?
Um… yeah. A lot. It took me a while to deal with that feeling. There were a couple of years where I was really bitter. But then I just realized that you can’t hold on to that shit. You just let it go. It was like this: When I made my pact with the devil, I wished for the wrong thing. I wished to become a better musician and to write good music. I didn’t wish for fortune and fame, which was my mistake. And once I accepted that, once I let it go, it got better.
Your music is often described as “Midwest techno” – does that term mean anything to you?
Do you think the term refers to a blue-collar view of making music?
That’s exactly what it means. There’s a no-nonsense approach; there’s no pretension to it.
But the other part of it is, Midwest techno attracts people who don’t fit in – freakazoids and misfits of all sorts. It’s like you walk into a bar, and everyone there is rough-looking and kind of scary, but then some stranger buys you a drink and you end up shooting pool with everyone. That’s Midwest techno – it’s like, we’re all weird here and you’re weird too. So welcome to the weird club!
So techno’s also an escape from the blue-collar world?
Yeah. It’s like, my job was really crappy today, and all these normal people are ruining me, so I’m gonna go out all night and dance to alien music all night long.
Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if you hadn’t followed a musical path?
Sure – I’d be a successful and complete human. With money! But really, I don’t know what I would do. I’ll be making music till I die. I get what I need out of making music, and if other people get something out of the work I do… well, that’s really good to know.