Culture, Nonsense

Sleeping in Code

I assume some people might remember the initial post I made almost exactly a year ago regarding the trailer for the film “Speaking In Code”. I will now pause to allow you to go back and rewatch the trailer, read the post and the comments, and then we can get to the heart of the discussion.

After having watched the entire film recently, I have to say that it was not exactly as portrayed in the trailer. That said, nearly every concern I initially had was for good reason!

This film really ends up being about the then-husband of the filmmaker, David Day, and the filmmaker herself, Amy Grill. At the time of filming, David was working at Forced Exposure distribution, throwing parties in Boston, and deejaying techno. In this way, I can certainly see Philip Sherburne’s defense that “it’s as much a film about the director’s own journey as anything.” However, the journey’s starting place and premise was the cause of many meetings between my palm and my face, and was in fact everything I had assumed it would be.

In the very first few minutes of “Speaking in Code”, the narrator (I believe it was Ms. Grill, though as I had to watch it via a Vimeo link I cannot go back to check) says, “a lot of people in the US love to hate techno… we set out to make a film that could break old stereotypes Americans have about electronic music.” I’m not sure which stereotypes they meant to break, but they certainly reinforced many of mine!

In writing about how I thought the film’s premise looked “Questionable”, I was very concerned about how techno culture was going to represented due to the list of artists featured in the film. To me, it appeared that a very Eurocentric viewpoint would be taken, and after having watched it I cannot conclude otherwise. In and of itself, this is pretty problematic for me. Even more annoying, though, was exactly how it ended up: the film’s main characters kept chasing the “techno lifestyle” that they could not live in Boston all over Europe, as though this was the only place it could be found.

If that wasn’t frustrating enough, it was horrible watching everything in their lives become irreparably broken (including their marriage) as this unobtainable dream was pursued at any and all costs. I could have saved them all a whole bunch of time, energy, and money with this advice: if what you want is in Europe, move there. The jet-set, 24 hour techno party lifestyle is available to all if you just get on a plane. This is exactly what featured techno personalities like Richie Hawtin and Philip Sherburne did! Trying to recreate that in a country like the US that is spread out and as different culturally as it is, is just never going to work. When someone in the film (I believe it was David Day, but again I can’t go back to check) says that techno is viewed in the US as “un-American”, can I really be the only person who finds it deeply ironic that the filmmakers’ method of disproving that is to focus completely on non-American artists and deejays?

What goes unspoken in the documentary, and in any of the reviews I have since read of it, is the alternative: actually taking time and energy to build something that is rooted in what exists in reality in the US today. I don’t have to mention this for regular ISM readers, but there are people ALL OVER THE US making techno music. How many of those would benefit from getting gigs in cities like Boston? How many of them rely on bookings in other countries due to people continually looking to Europe when deciding what to book? How many US artists have broken out in the US (on what limited basis that is even possible) only after being forced to go all over the planet for gigs because promoters here are not holding it down properly?!

I know there is some perception of me as being anti-Europe or whatever. That really isn’t the case (as I hope the fact that many of our readers and a bunch of our writers are from across the ocean makes clear!). I get frustrated by the way things are portrayed here in the US due to techno music’s popularity in Europe, and that is because techno culture not only started here but also REMAINS here. One entity this film examines the collective based around the Wighnomy Brothers and their Freude Am Tanzen label, which is something that you just can’t find in the US. Well, except for what goes on at Submerge. But this is exactly the problem! Because what happens in Europe is constantly glamorized over here, actual American techno music and culture is what suffers.

Even if American deejays and producers were exactly equal with Europeans in terms of quality, it’s always going to be a losing situation for them in their own country if people are just going to ignore what they do. It isn’t even just the promoters who are the problem. It’s the journalists who cover the shit (who also move to Europe, of course), the deejays and producers who move to Europe to get paychecks, and every single fan of the music who isn’t looking at what is going on in their own backyard. If you REALLY want to have techno culture be a more prominent subculture in the US and you are doing any of those things, you’re going about it in the exact wrong way.

In the trailer, David Day talks about waiting for the artist to come along to break things out in the US. That artist might have come and gone already, but their music made no impression here because too many people in the “techno scene” ignored that shit until it got sold back to them 10 years down the line.

This film is almost essential if you want to understand the failings of techno to take off here in the United States. It is not explicitly about that, but you can see the attitudes that have caused it throughout in the choices the filmmakers make. I think an examination of the ACTUAL techno culture in the US would make an excellent counterpoint to this film. There are people in the US who live and breathe this shit 24/7. Trust me, though, when I tell you there ain’t much glamor in it! There’s no jet-setting with Sven Vath, there’s no door policies that you have to be careful with just to get in the club, there isn’t even a style of dress associated with the music. But I’ll be damned if there aren’t people who dedicate their lives to this techno shit without any possibility of living that idealized lifestyle. They have that serious obsession. I guess those people just aren’t cool enough to be in a movie.

The fact that my initial worries were almost entirely justified, yet my comments were featured on a blog by the filmmakers filed under the complaint of “Why didn’t you include my favorite artist in the movie?” shows exactly how uncritically this viewpoint is examined by participants in techno culture in the US. Shit, they could have interviewed someone I intensely dislike such as Frankie Bones and it would have had more to do with what I’m talking about than anything that actually ended up in the film.

That said, I found the movie entertaining simply because any films based on/about subcultures (even ones that aren’t about my personal interests) is gonna be more engaging than most. Sure, it’s a bit drawn out and the narrative is kind of sloppy due to the way the film ended up changing the lives of the people making it. To me, this is the most interesting aspect about it, and it would have been interesting no matter the style of music being examined. If you’re looking for something honest about techno culture in the US, however, this is only useful as a manual for how not to go about being part of it.

Don’t sleep!

19 Comments

  1. mkb says:

    I have determined that there is no way in the next 5 years I can watch this movie with an open mind. I heard about it constantly during production (starting in 2005 or 2006!), was invited to fundraisers to get it finished, accidentally ended up in the background of Mike Uzzi’s interview, etc. etc. etc. To me right now it’s all hype which has been pervading my social circle for years and won’t go away, and that much buildup can’t help but be disappointing on a massive scale.

  2. frank says:

    It’s so telling that the producers listed your criticism under the heading “Why didn’t you include my favorite artist in the movie?” Man, talk about missing the point completely.

    On the other hand, many criticisms of Speaking in Code’s subject matter could be interpreted like asking a million techno jokers “why didn’t you make music that doesn’t suck”?

  3. David Day says:

    Thanks for the insights, Thomas. This is a conversation worth continuing for sure. And thanks for taking the time to watch it (you got all the quotes right, btw). I definitely live and breath it here in Boston and agree, glamor is far from where I’m at. Onwards and upwards.

    PS: To frank’s comment, I linked to ISM’s previous criticism of the trailer, of which the point was that we had no American acts in it.

    PSS: and to mkb, thanks for your early support of the film. People kept talking about it and it took us a little too long to get it done, I agree. But I’m glad it’s done, and am really happy, after all the money and time it took. I think it was worth it. It’s a good movie. I hope you have the chance to see it.

  4. frank says:

    Well, David, if you think it’s a conversation worth continuing we’re glad to give you the opportunity. I suggest you take it.

    Specifically, aside from the cop outs “we couldn’t have everybody” or “we put people who presented themselves to us” can you answer the question – why DIDN’T you have any American acts in the flick? More importantly, what do you think we in the states can do to create the mythical techno wonderland you seem to so desire?

    Again, if you read this blog and you read the post you included in your “why isn’t my favorite artist in the flick?” FAQ answer, then you’d know damn well that Tom was using Mad Mike as an example only. If you don’t see that then you STILL don’t get it.

    Finally, Mr. Day, did you buy your tickets for Movement 2010 yet?

    Oh, and boo hoo you spent a lot of money to make the movie. Am I supposed to feel bad for you? It was your choice champ. Pointing it out is the ultimate in weak.

  5. bernardo says:

    While I haven’t seen the film I really enjoyed reading this post… There is so much fantastic techno / house / electro being made in the US but its apparent lack of ‘sexiness’ seems to draw peoples eyes across the pond.

    Its funny b/c before reading this I was checking out on RA what Villalobos played at Fabric last week… 90% US house music: Glenn Underground, Prescription, KMS, 3 Chairs, Fallout – The Morning, Ron Hardy edits, Jamie Principle, Robert Hood as Floorplan etc.
    Its ridiculous that even the #1 DJ in the Euro-scene recognizes what we have / had and yet crowds over here are constantly looking across the pond!

    Anyways, super early bird tickets to DEMF purchased… its looking good this year 😉

  6. frank says:

    Are those records really the kind of thing that Villalobos got famous for playing, or is he playing that kind of stuff now because it is slowly gaining cache’/being re-released?

  7. bernardo says:

    Good point 😉 Even in the mnml days he was dropping a bit of old school house as well.
    My point wasn’t really to give praise to Ricky V moreso to point out that its funny that tons of ‘fans’ in the US are Euro-focused without realizing that many of their favorite jocks are just ‘selling stuff back to them 10 years later’.

  8. kenny says:

    I’ve seen Villalobos a few times and has always played a fairly healthy smattering of quality house music, first time i saw him was maybe 4-5yrs ago, and he was then. His sets aren’t without their flaws, but he’s better than many in that general scene.

  9. pipecock says:

    i’ve gotta say that if i had the opportunity to check him out live, i would do it.

  10. pipecock says:

    we will have to connect again in Detroit this year!

  11. frank says:

    I asked totally honestly, I honestly don’t know what that cat plays out, other than the couple times I’ve heard it referred to as “Bongo House”

  12. David Day says:

    I think there is some confusion over the movie with regard to American artists. As verite film, it was allowed to take its own course. We never said “let’s include ___” or “let’s not include ___.” We never stopped to say: “There aren’t any American artists” or “These are mainly German artists.” We talked to a lot of people and these were the ones that the camera and the plot decided to follow … naturally.

    That might sound pretentious and evasive, but that exactly how verite is made. (I also think the film was shot really well, of course, our DP went on to film commercials for fashion houses, work with Conan O’Brien, etc.). Look for extras with Spinoza in NYC or Juan MacLean (to come) for more American content which didn’t go as deep, but is still interesting to watch.

    And no, I have never been to Detroit. I have also never been to Berlin. I went to Miami when we filmed in 2006 and Montreal later that year but haven’t been back to either. If I do have the chance to see some dance music outside of Boston, I usually end up in Brooklyn.

    As for creating a more suitable space for electronic music in America, festivals sure go a long way. DEMF and WMC for sure, but also very good smaller events like Communikey and Decibel. We even joined the fray this February by starting the New England Electronic Music Festival, called Together (http://www.togetherboston.com). Every major US city should have an electronic music festival.

    On that note, the movie certainly shows me as a failure, in a way, but there is no denying the presence of electronic music in Boston is stronger than it has ever been, for a multitude of different reasons. The Boston part of the movie could have easily been about Soulclap or Tanner Ross or Unlocked Groove or DJ Bruno or Alan Manzi or the hundreds of other people who are a part of the underground here. All working like mad. I could go on and on about this change, but I have to get back to work! Yipes!

    PS: Have you seen the movie Frank?

  13. andrew says:

    he has always played a lot of US house. he’s certainly not doing it because it’s getting repressed at the moment… he might be buying the represses, but they’re replacing his originals. he knows his stuff. (and if you ever make it to a perlon party in berlin, you’d find they primarily play music from detroit and chicago, not ‘minimal’.)

  14. Tom says:

    Yep, Villalobos is undeserving of a lot of the criticism he gets. He didn’t jump on the house trend in Europe, he started it. I don’t like plenty of his own music and what he plays out (especially those trumpet tracks), but I don’t doubt his sincerity when it comes to music. I certainly don’t understand why people consider him the ringleader of bland mnml and nu-deep.

  15. frank says:

    sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your comments David.

    First, cut out the self-deprecation. You did something awesome and special regardless of whether or not we here at ISM are totally down with the finished product. You were involved in the making of a documentary film. Bigups.

    > “As verite film, it was allowed to take its own course.”

    Fair enough, but you _did_ make conscious choices of where to go and who to seek out, it wasn’t total happenstance.

    > And no, I have never been to Detroit. I have also
    > never been to Berlin. I went to Miami when we
    > filmed in 2006 and Montreal later that year but
    > haven’t been back to either.

    You really need to do everything in your power to go to Detroit this Memorial Day.

    What were your impressions of WMC?

    > I usually end up in Brooklyn.

    Let me know next time you’re down this way and maybe I will take the dreaded G train over to the King’s borough.

    > We even joined the fray this February by starting
    > the New England Electronic Music Festival, called
    > Together (http://www.togetherboston.com). Every
    > major US city should have an electronic music
    > festival.

    Hmm. A word of caution at overkill. Let people travel a little bit. I definitely think Boston can support a festival, but I wouldn’t say EVERY major city should have one.

    > The Boston part of the movie could have easily been > about Soulclap or Tanner Ross or Unlocked Groove or > DJ Bruno or Alan Manzi or the hundreds of other
    > people who are a part of the underground here.

    It’s very intersting that you don’t mention Fred Gianelli. I’ve never heard of any of those other cats except Soul Clap. Which do you strongly recommend?

    > Have you seen the movie Frank?

    Unfortunately, not yet. I will as soon as I can get my hands on a copy though. Hopefully Netflix will have it at some point.

  16. jabbar says:

    its good to see that despite any difference of opinions the civility and common desire and drive for music is still very present in the discussions at hand. i thought the documentary was well enough a story about people and not so much about a specific type of music. though the struggles and barriers each artist face differ through out borders and geography its interesting nonetheless to see other perspectives, im sure that in years to come another kid will pick up that documentary and ill say ” wow this is really bogus” id rather see something on the local talents i grew up watching and make one about them. or vice a versa “this is really inspiring ” either way its a win. but maybe im just being utopian.

  17. Seb says:

    Let’s see a documentary solely about Bruno! Haha. That would be good (Bruno is a DJ fixture of Boston and the former proprietor of Bisquithead records). Or even better — NITETRAIN! Nitetrain verite, I can see it already. Fred G would have been a good one. Can’t sleep on the QE2 guys either. There’s a rich and sorely overlooked history of great DJs and record stores in Boston.

  18. ORP says:

    @ pipecock, regarding the choice to interview european vs american djs: to me, i never thought this film set out to speak comprehensively about the entire techno genre and it was upfront about that. it was a slice of life, a view into a slice of life, (whatever the words are the doesn’t offend anyone). and the film interviewed both US and Euro music makers during a specific moment in time, which i believe the film set out to capture -just that-. the dj’s depicted were ones closest to the filmmakers hearts, and if that bothers you, then that is your problem. you could see the positive in that when new comers see this film, they may learn of german dj’s and from there is a launching point where they may likely get inspired to seek out similiar producers in their own town, whether it’s LA, Austin, Philly, Denver, etc. the people who respond to this music they see in the film will make a point to find their local dj’s.

    likewise, i dont think it’s ‘ironic’ that the filmmakers say techno is viewed as un-american and then go interview europeans. to me its obvious that the choice to travel to europe for the film was done as a way to show what the lives of musicians are like there as a point of reference.

    techno to SOME people has an image of being “un-american” and more “euro”. that is true. so……, exactly what is the problem with then showing the european counterparts? i dont see these things as contradictory. the two things are separate. you are blending them, in order to critique, but in that instance, it’s a stretch. SOME americans do view techno as a european phenomenon because that is where historically they have seen crowds, on tv or the internet, piling into concert venues for 40,000 people.

    it doesnt mean that AMERICANS who are highly involved in techno music, (and working day and night to make things happen in the USA) see it as “un-american”. these are two separate issues. dont combine them. both realities are true. it’s not hypocritical to show a view into the european life.

    if we all love tec

  19. ORP says:

    that ending was supposed to say: i dont think its about glamorizing foreigners lifestyles. it’s that this music lends itself to cultural variations, say a cologne born musician vs a chilean vs a chicago musician: they all bring different things to the table. wanting to know and share that shouldnt be called a bad thing.

More like this...

Paris Treantafeles – Anatolé Album

Delivering sixteen cuts of stripped back, often funky tracks, Anatolé, a cassette and digital release by Paris Treantafeles is a great release for the end of summer and the coming fall. Treantafeles, a Queens, NY musician, manages to use a restricted production method to deliver what’s been one of my favorite releases of the recent past….

Read the full post →

Ten Years Lost

The more things change, the more things stay the same. I could just as well leave this post at that. Ten years ago Tom started this site with the basic idea of highlighting music that is overlooked by other outlets. The same frustrations that brought about the blog still stand. It may seem like we…

Read the full post →