Jordan Rothlein - Resident Advisor's Tech Editor
ONE of the aims of Macho Zapp is to attempt to answer questions about dance music and music in general that are rarely asked. Why are we into it? How does it affect us? How and why does it change? Who better to help us find the answers than the music writers. They are in a privileged position to compare the views of hundreds, in some cases thousands, of artists and industry members and their detachment (compared with the artists themselves) offers an objective and wider lens.
We start the series with Resident Advisor’s tech editor and native New Yorker Jordan Rothlein. RA has over recent years become the granddaddy of dance music websites. With its weighty articles, global club and promoter directories, ticketing facility and music reviews, the site is said to have hit two million users per month in 2014.
Jordan began his career writing music reviews in the blog Little White Earbuds which eventually led, after some chance meetings and “a lot of writing", to his becoming full-time editor at RA in 2012 working out of Berlin. His features have been characterised by a keen eye, fierce attention to detail and a depth belying his years.
Did anything surprise you about dance music journalism when you became part of the RA team?
I guess one thing that surprised me or maybe disappointed me a little bit was just how hard PR will lobby for something to be on the site. One of the things I love about RA is that we're fiercely independent. We get a lot of emails asking us to...and it's funny - the tone of these emails is hilarious like: "Hey mate - so you're gonna give me a review of my things, can you give me a date you're gonna write it and can you send me the text in advance?" It's like "Woah! No we don't operate that way". So I was surprised especially coming from the States where this music is deeply deeply underground, even still, to come over to Europe and discover what a business it is and how even pretty small record companies will hire a PR firm to push their music. And then how dogged the PR firms will be about getting you to write about their music.
What do you think of the quality of dance music journalism?
There's some really really good music writing out there. And there are writers that I'm very excited to see that they have something new out and I always want to read their stuff, both in and outside of dance music. In fact I find myself reading a lot of music journalism that's about music I might not listen to all the time. I just love the way that these people write about music. I think that the quality is pretty good.
It's interesting there are some sites that seem to appeal to people who are extremely nerdy about music and those sites - it's almost like a quantity thing, like quantity of information. When I read a site like Juno Plus..when I crack open one of those features I know that I'm going to know everything there is to know about this very obscure artist. And, in a way, I think the quality of the information that's out there can be very very good.
With music writing in general there are a lot of writers out there who kind of use an album or single as a jumping-off point to show-off their own writing skills. So when the quality is low I tend to think that it's the goal of music writing - they've gotten away from it a little bit. The goal of writing is to convey information and sometimes it feels like it's sort of a creative writing assignment.
Do you think dance music is represented well in the general media?
I think there are cases where it's incredibly under-represented and there are cases where it's over-represented. There was an interesting thing that came up in maybe the last year or so - it almost became a trope of mainstream music writing - there were all of the pieces in music specific publications like Rolling Stone, all the way to more general interest and more highbrow publications like the New Yorker, about "We're digging into Berghain. We're all gonna try to get into Berghain and talk about what that's all about."
So this was the case of lots of publications from all across the map suddenly covering a venue that's, despite the fact it's very famous, is, at its heart, one of the main underground music venues here [in Berlin] and the venue works very hard to be fiercely independent and fiercely underground in the way that it books things. And this was a case of one venue getting a whole lot of press when there are five or six other really great venues in Berlin too. So that one almost cuts both ways.
I've found over the last few years, especially since Daft Punk has won a Grammy and even since people like Skrillex have gotten quite popular, dance music is as popular as it's been since I've been following music. At least from my perch as an American that's the way that it seems. It's interesting when I read stuff from more general publications, whether that's a more general music magazine or just any number of other magazines that happen to touch on Berghain or just electronic music in general, I'm surprised that more and more stuff does get mentioned. But I would have a hard time saying whether it is represented as much as it should be. Like I'm not exactly sure how to judge that.
You must have spoken to a lot of DJs and producers during your work - has it brought any insights into the art of creation and what it takes?
In terms of sacrifices made, there a lot of artists I can think of who, especially in house and techno, and this seems to be a little different to maybe how the pop music works, but there are people who spend a decade or something being miserably unsuccessful, and flat-broke and it's like they finally hit on something, they finally get that breakthrough. You can really sense with a lot of these guys that they sense that this is their moment and they really have to seize it - they can't fuck it up again. But also the guys who are doing it are doing it on a level where this is their living, I'm surprised at how excited they are by it, like continually.
I was working on a project this summer I wrote an article about this little music festival in Utrecht, called Stekker and they started a few years ago doing this studio week where a week before the festival a number of artists they had booked they invited them to come out a week early and basically hang out in the studio. They could collaborate with whoever they want. And the studio just happened to have access to an unbelievable collection of synthesisers. I pitched an article where I would just go and hang out at the studio week and watch how everybody worked. And this is the experience of me where I got the best sense of what makes artists tick and I really got to see these guys at their most creative I would say - like this is really situation they want to be in.
And it was so cool because some of these guys are DJs who I've seen perform live or read interviews with, but it's like they walked into the studio and started using this gear and it was like, aside from the fact that they all knew what they were doing, it was like Christmas or something you know - they had wide eyes and it was like the first time they'd ever seen this stuff. I don't know how to explain it. But that's just it - you get the sense that being a DJ or producer full time is really hard because you have to do a lot of soul-sucking travel, you probably have to make some sacrifices to pure art in order to make a career out of it to get DJ gigs and put food on the table and all this stuff. But you feel that, at the end of the day, all these guys really want to do is go into the studio and fool around with synthesisers.
What do you think it is about dance music that makes people want to devote their lives to it?
I don't know. I could speak to what attracts me to it. I come from a rock music background - I played in bands growing up. And when I first started writing about music back in college it was about indie rock for the most part. The first interview I ever did was with the Arcade Fire, and dance music came a little bit later for me.
But what attracted me to it was that there seemed to be very little image associated with it on the surface - sort of the ideal is that you're in a dark club you're not staring at the DJ. You're hearing music and reacting to solely to the music.
I mean this is an extremely naive point of view this sort of ignores the fact that when you go to a club, for the most part, people are staring at the DJ and half the people or more in the room are there for the drugs. But I still think that the main attraction to it is that it's purely music that is about music - it's so elemental. Also when it's presented the right way in a really cool space with good sound and with loud sound it's a fully immersive experience and I find that I usually get transported by it in a way and that still happens no matter how many clubs I go to or festivals I go to I still have experiences like this.
In the future, say in 500 years, do you think dance music will still be around and play a role in society? Is it important?
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean I don't think it will sound the way it does now. It goes back hundreds of years. I've taken music history courses but I know I would stumble over the specifics if I had to go into them now! There will always be dance music and music that is specifically made to get people dancing. There's this quote I really like and I'm completely blanking on who said it but the quote is that "music with drums existed before music without drums".
The whole idea that the beat is an essential feature of music and something that really draws us to it. But yeah man I wish that I would be around in 500 years to know what techno will sound like! I know what techno sounded like 15 years ago and what it sounds like now and it's just what happened during that decade and a half is really exciting to me and I'm sure that even just five years from now there will be some crazy dance sound that we could never have predicted.
I always think there must a limit to how many musical variations you can come up with - but I suppose it's all about context and what's gone before it.
Things do sound fresh but it's tough - the big sounds that I hear when I go out now are techno that draws on old techno and house that draws on old house and there's a cynical part of me that says that in five years people will have just found new influence from 20 years before now that no one had ever heard before - we'll be kind of re-hashing that. But I also think there are always going to be new combinations of things and I tend to be extremely optimistic.
How difficult do you think it is to make a successful hit record?
I don't know. If you set out to do it you can only have so much success. It's interesting. There are people who seemed to have figured out how to do this like Levon Vincent is one example of an artist who seems to have found this magic formula. And he doesn't release a lot of music. But whenever he does it's basically perfect. All of his tracks seem timeless from the moment they come out.
Here in Berlin at least, every week I go out I can rest assured that I will hear at least one Levon Vincent track. So for him he makes it sound easy. There are so many different ways to arrive at it it's really hard to say. I mean there are people who have been trying for years and years to make a big hit and they haven't done it.
Levon Vincent - Woman Is The Devil
I know when I sit down to make a big tune it's pretty tough! I know there are artists who approach making music as sort of a means to an end. like they really like DJing so they're like "Ok I'm gonna make a tune so that I can get more DJ gigs." Sometimes that really works and they make something that's really functional and it really does the trick. Sometimes I think it comes off as a little bit soulless. I think if you set out to make anything other than a tune that really scratches an itch that you have, then it is really hard.
Any crazy stories from your music writing career so far?
Like some rock and roll stories? To be honest I could probably tell you some stories about some pretty fantastic tales of excess but to be honest I'm really lucky to get to travel around the world and write about music and see a lot of music but the thing that makes that exhausting..I could tell you I've stayed up for 30 hours before or something like that but to be honest most of that 30 hours is spent in some kind of heinous travel...like getting some sort of awful series of flight connections to get to Croatia.
I've definitely seen artists that party pretty hard. But I've also seen a lot that really stay away from all that stuff. I find that often those are the guys that do the best work. And the other thing too that I think is worth mentioning is that I'm not immune to all of the rock and roll stuff. That's just sort of a part of my job I guess. But in order to really write well I've found and really reflect on music well and what's going on around me, I'm pretty boring - I have to get a good night's sleep and eat well and not be hungover. Like writing when you're having a heinous comedown of one sort or another is impossible.
Wow. Let me think about that. There have been people who I have really hit it off with. The first interview with a techno guy I ever did - this was in 2009, over five years ago now - was actually Marcel Dettman. And I still didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't really have a great interview strategy then. I was sort of just writing down as many questions as I could think of hoping that there would be a natural way to get to them. And he was extremely accommodating. I was so nervous.
Also I'm not a tall guy - I'm 5’7”. Marcel Dettmann is like six foot, one million! I'm just this nervous kid "Oh my god this is my favourite DJ and now I'm asking him questions and stuff". But he was just so cool and so nice about the whole thing.
I just did an interview with Lucy, who's another techno producer, and this was for the RA exchange, the interview podcast we do that I edit. And I do a lot of interviews for it. And this was a conversation sort of about techno and we ended up delving into his philosophy on life and that was just an interesting interview because it got really far away from itself but sometimes that's great. Sometimes that's what people want to talk about - that's a lot of fun.
Article most proud of?
I wrote this series of articles that ran from last summer until the beginning of this year called Industry Standards. This was the first time that I had come up with an idea for an entire series of articles and had to see the whole thing through. And the basic pitch was that we were going to think of the platonic ideal of the DJ booth and what's in that DJ booth and why are all those things in there?
Because if you go into DJ booths you notice that the same gear is in all of them and you think there must be a reason for that. The natural starting point for the series was to write about the Technics 1200s - the iconic record player that pretty much every DJ uses. It was a really personal article for me because I remember when I was first getting into dance music I sort of had this moment where I was like "I really wanna learn to DJ!" and so I got a pair of 1200s and so, before I knew everything about music, I knew how to use this turntable.
I guess I'm especially proud of it because the response to the article was really really positive. I think a lot of people came out of the woodwork. I think I wrote about it on a very technical level but also on an emotional level about how they fit into the dance music community and I think a lot of people were into that perspective.
And I guess it's a little bit of vanity but if you Google Technics 1200, I think this article is the second thing that comes up after the Wikipedia article. So to have this thing that's basically the most important turntable to any kind of DJ-oriented music style, that maybe I wrote the article that a lot of people are going to read when researching this thing - that means a lot to me.
I also enjoyed your article on the Shure M44-7 needle...
Yeah and you know, interviewing the guy that I cite in that article..he was an interesting interview subject. He's a mastering engineer based here in Berlin. And that was by far the most crazy technical conversation I think I've ever had to have!