Words like “genius” get thrown around by bloggers the way teenagers use the word “love.” But words like “genius” absolutely apply to Dave Pezzner. With his third album Title Track, Pezzner has made a claim on being one of the most innovative, most interesting and most versatile producers in electronic music. Humble and unassuming in person, give him a good idea and a few hours in a studio and he’ll make you dance or he’ll make you weep, or maybe he’ll make you do both at the same time.
Every couple of years I interview Pezzner. These are usually wide-ranging and philosophical interviews, dealing with matters of music, commerce and art in general. It’s actually to the point where we even have a name – “the State of Dave” they’re called – for these occasional bulletins.
This then is the State of Dave, circa October 2016.
Photos by Steven Miller. Styling by Christina Pezzner.
Thanks for sitting down to do this. We have about forty-five minutes?
Yeah. I have to pick up my daughter at school. She just started in the last few weeks so we’re trying to get through the new schedule.
Oh wow. How does family impact your touring schedule and everything?
We’re going to find out pretty soon. My first gig since she started is this weekend. I’ll be going Switzerland for one show and then coming back. But in about a month I’ll be going to Asia for three weeks. We’ll see how it goes, but I have a feeling it’ll be easier than it was when she was in daycare in quite a few ways.
That’s kind of the dark side of the industry now, isn’t it? People say, “You’ll make a living through gigs” and that makes sense until for reasons of family or healthy, you can’t.
True. But I’ve been careful not to make gigs be the one thing I depend on. It’s not a safe way to go about this business. With any part of the entertainment business you can be really popular and then things just die off. It’s the natural order of things. It’s the way it happens. So I have my hands in a few other avenues to make a living in music.
Well one of them is not a record label! You’ve done three different albums now with three different labels. Many producers with a label like you have tend to keep big releases like this for themselves.
Yeah, a record label is not exactly the way to make money in this business! If you’re going to try to make a living in House Music, gigs are going to be the bulk of it but even for me that’s not where the bulk comes from. Actually there is no “bulk” of my earnings. I put my music up in various publishing libraries. I have royalty-free music out there – basically short cues designed for sync on television or what not. They’re easily usable and licensable and they get used and licensed. I’m a stickler for registering all of my music with BMI so I do get checks from that. It’s possible to make a living if you spread it out wide enough.
So let’s start with your latest album, Title Track. It was less meditative than you’ve done in the past – more clubby, maybe? How is it different?
There is a little bit of a concept behind it but it originally started out as just talking with the label manager of Get Physical about putting together a single for them. At the time I was submitting music and waiting for a response. It’s just my nature – if I don’t get a response from a record label, I’ll move on and maybe submit something new later. So by the time they finally sat down and looked at what they had, I had submitted all of this music and they decided to take it all for an album. Here I was, trying to put together a dance single for Get Physical, and they ended up interested in the majority of the tracks I sent over to them.
What does the name mean? Or is it telling that there kind of isn’t a name? Just “Title track.”
I was thinking about how the shelf life of music has become so short. I’ve been seeing that there’s become like this generic quality to dance music. In a way Title Track pokes fun at that. If you listen to the songs and you go into my back catalog, you’ll find bits and pieces of my older tracks embedded in this music. I even borrowed pieces of songs from other songs on the album as well. If you listen closely you’ll hear it. There are even two sets of songs built from the same project file, pulling pieces of my older songs into those songs and trying to bring to life something new out of this older material and give it a longer shelf life than dance music songs now seem to have.
I picked up on that a bit. When I saw “Title Track,” I thought for sure you were playing on the old “store brand” generics that you used to see in the ’80s and ’90s. Where a can of tuna would be a can in a plain wrapper that said T U N A on the side. Public Image, Ltd. did that style of art for their album, which they called Album.
Oh I remember those! That would have been interesting.
But then again, Johnny Rotten might have sued… When you mention disposability, though, LPs are almost anachronistic in the digital world, but you’re making these albums that are programmatic and blended and can be continuously played. You’re resisting that.
Yes though I think this particular LP can actually be broken apart as opposed to the last couple which were intended to be played in a certain order. It’s just the nature of how this one was made, as a set of songs that turned into an LP rather than being planned that way.
But I don’t know why I keep trying to get people to buy into the idea that you’re supposed to listen to a whole album and in a certain order. I guess that’s not how people do it anymore. They pick out a song they like and listen to it a few times and move on.
It feels a lot cheaper. The whole of the industry feels vaguely cut-rate and cheap these days. Do more with less and hope technology can fill the holes.
It does feel cheap. I don’t really understand it, because there is so much music out there and so many businesses that need this content to survive, yet everyone wants to hand it to them. I can’t even imagine how a business can support itself to the roots when people will just have to make music and then give it away to everyone.
It’s maybe presumptuous for me to say, but I get the feeling from talking to you that you’d make it whether it was ever released or anybody ever heard it.
Yeah it’s an obsession for me, an addiction. I just can’t stop. I’ll continuously be putting out content. I’ve managed to figure out a way to, at the bare minimum, make a living, even with the fact that music isn’t going to be worth a whole lot. It’s not like I’m running a store and making a bunch of money off of tracks, but I won’t be able to stop making them.
On the other hand, you’ve released records with some labels that actually do seem to be doing well with this new paradigm. Dirtybird seems to have stumbled across some kind of model that works. They’re almost like OM was in the 1990s in terms of launching careers and developing an overall brand.
There aren’t a whole lot doing anything like what they’re doing. It’s impressive to see what they’ve done with their label and how they present the music to the public. It works, because the public wants it and they want to come to these shows.
However they sell it, they’ve found this happy place where it’s not the ridiculousness of EDM but not the seriousness of Berlin Techno, either. It’s somewhere in the middle and it’s a lot of fun. I’m into it. I really respect them.
So tell me about The Hand That Feeds You, your new record with Dirtybird?
The whole thing came together really fast – fastest of any of the singles I’ve done. A few months back Claude von Stroke found a remix I did for Onionz and charted it. I know him and have known him for years and stayed in touch from a distance. When I saw he charted my remix I was flattered and sent him a Dropbox of just a bunch of stuff that was gonna come out and stuff that hadn’t been finished yet. The idea was to send them to him as a DJ – “If you liked that, you might like these, play them out, enjoy.”
A couple of days later I had the label manager on the phone asking about some of the tracks I’d sent over and if they were available. I’d had them sitting in a Dropbox for another label at the time but they hadn’t said anything so why not?
It’s interesting because of all the music I sent them, these were probably the deepest of the tunes. I had some party jams that might have been more typical for Dirtybird but they picked something that was not at all typical for them. They gave me a release date really fast which was pretty impressive too. It would have been even earlier if it weren’t for Title Track. We thought it’d be best to give it a couple of months’ distance between the two. Which is also kind of a sign of the times with the climate of music. A couple of years ago, if I put out an LP neither label would want me to release anything for six months on either side of the release date for the LP. Now it’s more like “Yeah, okay, just give us a couple of months.” That tells me that the attention span is getting shorter than even before.
It seems like it’s a phenomenon that’s touched the wider media industry too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a mistake in a 1-sheet released by a label get re-published without any changes on blogs and music sites.
Yeah, I know sites do this – they take the 1-sheet and they just post it. What that means is that you can write anything you want and people will post it! When I realized this, I had this friend of mine write up a long story for my second release on Hunt & Gather for “The Native Language,” which was a moniker I just made up. It was about this guy I supposedly discovered living out on Shaw Island, Washington. I just doctored up this whole thing and it worked really, really well for the record. Hunt & Gather was then an unheard-of label, with an unheard-of artist, the music is weird as fuck…
Then it made it to BBC Radio One. They came to my release and played like half the song and said, “Okay, listen, I have to read this story because it sounds so far fetched and amazing,” and she read the whole 1-sheet on the air.
Man, I have wanted to do a hoax like this my whole life. I wanted to collaborate with someone that knows their way around 808s and old analog gear and have them put on a costume and pretend to be a “long lost founder of House Music.” I’ve seen the way some of these records get marketed in Europe and I have no question they would buy the whole hoax.
You could say anything you want to. Everyone will repost it and everyone who reads it assumes it’s true.
So we mentioned your label earlier. Tell me about Hunt & Gather then and things other than hoaxes on beleaguered editors.
It’s kind of ironic because Hunt & Gather was intended for me to release only my own records. But eventually I changed up the format a little bit – mainly because Get Physical and Dirtybird really cleaned out my body of work and suddenly I had nothing to put out! Now I’ve partnered up with Carlos Mendoza if you know him…
Doza from Lawnchair Generals?
Yeah exactly, and another guy here in Seattle named Michael Manahan who is owner of a venue called Re-Bar and a production company called Starborne that does a festival called Cascadia. Those two guys are my creative partners. It’s still keeping it in a circle, and everything will be produced by one of us or be a collaboration between us or something along those lines. That’s basically the whole gist of it. Small, DIY.
Do you want to keep it that way?
For the foreseeable future, yeah. There are other sides to running record labels that I’m not particularly interested in dealing with. Like royalties. I feel like if we’re pooling it together collectively then the money that comes into the label goes back into the label without having to worry about accounting for royalties. There’s also the side of it where we’d have to do A&R, scouring the earth looking for the best music and working with artist management and all of that. We have quality control and we can define our sound because it’s our sound specifically.
How do you know Carlos?
Oh Carlos and I have been friends for a really long time, since the early Lawnchair Generals/Jacob London days. We were booked together a lot in Seattle. Carlos is a really dear friend of mine. The House Music scene is really family so everyone knows each other here.
You have a podcast and a residency as well. Are they with the same group?
The podcast is the Hunt & Gather Podcast. Just as easy as that. We bring in a new artist, usually someone who isn’t incredibly huge and popular since we’re trying to expose new artists. I have a producer for the podcast who reaches out and pulls in the most amazing DJs. Each one, I’ll go through their bios and research the artist and talk a little bit in the beginning of the podcast. Each is a little different, but I put a few minutes in and it goes into the mix.
The residency is a monthly and we started it about six months ago. There’s been this tendency that happens in Seattle when promoters will book DJs to play a one hour set each and book four DJs in a night. I think it’s such a stretch from the way it used to be when promoters booked one DJ or there would be one DJ with a resident playing the whole night.
The night is called Epic and we book one DJ to play from the beginning to the end. There are no resident DJs and the “headliner” is the person who plays from open-to-close. We focus on local DJs since it doesn’t make enough to justify bringing in talent that’s going to cost thousands of dollars but it’s really cool to see DJs that rarely get to play longer than an hour drop an entire open-to-close set. It’s at Re-Bar and we transform the room. We have this beautiful art piece that hangs from floor to ceiling that covers the stage, and then we project these kind of crude visuals from behind the screen. It’s really cool.
Is there a specific sound to Epic?
No, it’s based on the DJ. The first night I played and started off with ambient and some beatless tracks and worked it into Tech House. We’ve had Kid Hops who is a local DJ on KEXP and he started off with some Reggae/Dub/Dancehall and eventually moved it into Techno and ended up in Drum’N’Bass. We had Supreme La Rock play the last time which was amazing. He just played all over, from Boogie to Disco to some old classic House Music. Super super cool, and you don’t get a chance to see that. Our next DJ will be Chloe Harris. It’s every first Friday of the month.
It’s something I wanted to see for a very long time. It just seemed like there was a gap in programming in the city, if you will. I had done a couple of parties, and I’m not really a promoter but I had this idea that was sort of burning in the back of my mind. People come out for it – it’s difficult to spread the word since I don’t have five DJs putting it on blast but we’ve been making it work. It’s also a little bit more about what the DJ wants and to see what this person can do and bring to the night as a whole rather than dictating to the DJ: “Oh here’s your place and here’s the music you play because this is the time at which you’re playing.”
Published first in 5 Magazine Issue 138, featuring Dave Pezzner, Jeff Derringer, a tribute to Earl Smith of Acid House pioneers Phuture, mixes and interviews from Boorane, Jay Hill, Tim Zawada & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.