IT’S A GOOD DAY, TODAY AND EVERY DAY that one of the best electronic music labels America ever produced kicks up out of a slumber and gets back into the swing of things.
Centered between Detroit, Chicago and New York City, Metamorphic drew upon the influences of all three and something special none of them had – a spectacular but at the time young and mostly unknown talent base in Ohio. Among them: Titonton Duvanté and Morgan Geist, who released his first 12″ on Metamorphic while he was enrolled at Oberlin in 1994. Dan himself released a ton of spectacular records on Metamorphic, but in output this was never a one-man show.
When I heard Dan was relaunching Metamorphic, I was interested. When I heard the first new record – Space Pressure – I was intrigued. But when I talked to him about his plans that I got really excited. “I won’t mind releasing tracks that are chill, or too wild for DJing, or maybe even ambient,” he told me. “As long as it’s honest, original, futuristic, interdimensional and interstellar – and damn good – it’s the right thing for Metamorphic.”
And one other thing:
Metamorphic and Dan Curtin played a massively underrated role in the Midwest scene, historically, and now they will again. Let’s take it from there:
What labels were you inspired by when you started Metamorphic?
I was influenced in one way or another by everything that was going on but specifically, the labels that had the biggest impact were without a doubt Retroactive, Planet-e, 430 West, Acacia, Axis, Underground Resistance, Metroplex, Fragile, Transmat, Dance Mania, Traxx, KMS to name a few. But I’d say that what these labels were doing went beyond inspiration and ended up being life changing.
Did you have a firm idea of the kinds of records you wanted to release – the things that would sort of “define” your sound? Or was it simply wanting to get a record out?
There was definitely a sound that I was going for. Or should I say, a feeling or an atmosphere. You can hear it in the music of Morgan Geist, Titonton, and myself.
There really wasn’t any pressure to get the wax out because there were plenty of opportunities and by the time I had started my label I was already releasing on some really influential and well established labels. But there was some real talent around Ohio, we could never be part of the scenes in Chicago and Detroit simply because we weren’t from there. So the only way to go was to showcase what we had.
But I have to note that Carl Craig really helped to get my first release off the ground by using his influence to bring my label to the attention of all of the distributors. And the first order that I received, from the first distributor Carl contacted on my behalf was for 1000 pieces. I initially only pressed up 1000 – I had no idea that was about to happen.
Was there a small cult label that you had a fancy for back then that’s never gotten it’s due? Back then it felt as if records weren’t so much “released” as they materialized in the record store and often nobody knew where some of these things came from…
It’s true that some just kind of materialized and some were properly released with promotion. But yes, there were some labels that I was super into that remained cult hits, labels like Acacia, Incognito, Happy Records, Eclipse Records, and then other Midwest labels like Sonic Mind, Black Nation, Residual, these never got their due. Who knows why, some are chosen, some are not.
“At the end of the day, either you are a label who can be based purely on hype and go at it from that angle, which is only open to a very small few. Or, you can just be good and honest, and connect with your fans on a personal level and go about it more organically.”
Like you said, you released records on some of the giants of the ’90s – Strictly, Peacefrog – and also labels that people would rank rather high in an estimation of our own time – Mobilee, etc. Is there anything that you took from those folks? Do you consciously try to pick up on what people are doing to promote records these days, or is it a matter of letting the mysterious system that begins on your hard drive and ends with someone playing your record in the suburbs of Thessaloniki work its course?
I mean, for sure, every experience is an opportunity to learn something, usually what not do do. As far as promoting records, that’s constantly changing and I’m using different agencies and trying out different strategies but at the end of the day, either you are a label who can be based purely on hype and go at it from that angle, which is only open to a very small few. Or, you can just be good and honest, and connect with your fans on a personal level and go about it more organically (Also, only possible for a few.) And the latter is the path I’ve settled on, it’s the only way for me and my label. No mass promotion or media saturation – just targeted and sensible promotion to the ones who love the music, and then the key is to make the best music possible.
Despite all of the upheaval and constant change in the ways music is released and promoted things seem to have come full circle. People are really tired of the constant bombardment and shear amount of mediocre and bad music out there. So just give them what they want, and that is something real that they can connect with. Simple!
Coming up in the Midwest, I think there was a certain ethic of DJing and learning how to spin with respect, especially when you had a sightline to Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles in your “neighborhood,” so to speak. So I’m curious to hear your unscripted and uncensored take on the state of the art of DJing. Or is there one anymore?
There is an art of DJing for those who can do it. You are right, I did learn from those DJs, Ron Hardy was before my time so I unfortunately missed out on seeing him. But what I came away with most of all wasn’t the mixing skills. (And by the way, let’s just get this out there since you mentioned him: very few can come close to Derrick May in terms of skills, then or now.) But the art of DJing is the ability to connect to the people on the floor to get an emotional response. At first you think it’s all about the technical aspect, so you try to master that. But that’s secondary.
Whether you do it in the way Jeff Mills does – by giving an introverted performance that still directly connects to the audience in some way – or by throwing your soul out there like Mr. May does, the end result is the same. The people get a real experience. And standing up there with your hands in the air, making hearts and all that shit means you ain’t DJing. If you got time for all that you ain’t workin’, you’re a hollow placeholder name offering an empty experience.
As an artist that makes new music and has always been very much about staying focused on the present, is there ever a conflict between Dan the artist that feels that way, and Dan the owner that has a label with an impressive back catalog? Between capitalizing on the past & investing in the new? Like I’m just gonna put it out there: Titonton’s Embryonic EP and a bunch of other Metamorphic releases get some crazy love on discogs.
Not now. But it did, or at least for a while I thought it did. It’s true that those releases like Embryonic EP are in the past but they were so original and so unique and futuristic that it doesn’t matter. They really stand on their own feet and are timeless – or even still forward looking. People love them for that.
But yeah, capitalizing on the past, investing in the new, experiencing the present, while looking ahead is exactly how it’s done. I do think that trying to get away from the past is a mistake, and anyway it can’t be done when you’ve been in the game so long. Over the course of the journey I tried for a time to be “only now” and I’m not ashamed to admit that it was the wrong move. Live and learn! The past decade was really a tough time for the industry, navigating it was crazy.
The new record plays upon the word “pressure”. Is there a deeper meaning in, say, “Midwest Pressure” or “Work Pressure”?
Yeah, kind of. Making this record was really therapeutic and a sort of reestablishment of my label and of the way that I truly like to work. So not really a deeper meaning but a personal one – it’s about throwing away the pressure of trying to be and just being.
Why did you bring this new one back home to Metamorphic so to speak?
It just had to be that way. Metamorphic was initially founded in part to allow me to do what comes natural and this release is exactly that. The original mission of the label is back on, to release emotional music with no concerns for anything else. And now, in this climate of vinyl appreciation and re-appreciation of the machines that make music, and of true experiences the timing is perfect.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “Detroit and Chicago will always be the influence but Cleveland is where I’m from and there is a lot of talent scattered around Ohio and the Midwest that needs to get out there. Believe me, it’s really hard to make people listen or even notice when you don’t have the backing of an established scene city.” —Dan Curtin [/quote]
You’ve never released so many records that you’re desperate for them, so how do you approach A&R? Do you think in terms of a vibe and an aesthetic that Metamorphic represents? Or is it sort of like what DVS1 said about Mistress – these are the records that are his own secret weapons in his DJ bag.
Definitely a vibe and aesthetic, like I mentioned above, atmosphere and emotion are what it’s about for me. My A&R philosophy was never about DJ secret weapons or even “DJ friendly” tracks to be honest, and now it’s the same way again with the relaunch. With one exception from the original mission, and that is that now the artists on the label will be from the Midwest for the most part. Detroit and Chicago will always be the influence but Cleveland is where I’m from and there is a lot of talent scattered around Ohio and the Midwest that needs to get out there. Believe me, it’s really hard to make people listen or even notice when you don’t have the backing of an established scene city.
I won’t mind releasing tracks that are chill, or too wild for DJing, or maybe even ambient. As long as it’s honest, original, futuristic, interdimensional and interstellar – and damn good – it’s the right thing for Metamorphic.