I knew her first as DJ Shiva – a name on a flyer, one of many flyers distributed hand-to-hand in crumbling warehouses around the Midwest at the dawn of the rave scene. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to bend her ear with some of my manic industry rants and refreshed my senses with her sets & scrupulously vetted guests on SUBterror Radio.
But the word to keep in mind is “Noncompliant,” the name of Shiva’s new hardware-based techno project that has attracted ecstatic praise from industry heavyweights and let the world in on what the Midwest has known for the last 20 years.
Another word to focus on here might be “uncompromising.” That’s honestly what comes to mind when I think about Shiva and her music, and what applies to her sets also fits the person. There are few people in this industry that would still make music even if no one ever heard it, who would still play with the same energy & purpose for an audience of one. Or none. Follow these people when you find them – they’re really the only ones that will last & the only ones that matter. They never appear in great abundance, but Shiva is one of them.
From what I remember, you started out listening to punk rock & riot grrl and fell into techno, which I don’t think a huge number of people around our age did. Tell me about when you got started out and how you fell into this?
All of that is true, but even before that I was hugely into Duran Duran and also Depeche Mode. I really loved super synth-based music, or what I could find of it. As you can imagine that wasn’t a hugely popular thing in rural Indiana in the late ’80s/early ’90s. But I found Ministry on college radio and Pailhead on the Santa Cruz: Streets on Fire skate video and that was where those two loves kinda crashed into each other.
I think I still have that video – it was the first time I ever saw Jason Jessee, who is like a weird Buddha of skating now.
Natas Kaupas, man. Holy crap. Blew my mind. And Jason Jessee’s aggro style was pretty nice too.
I think Justin Long was a skater too.
So was Shawn Rudiman. That’s how we bonded. Pailhead, skateboarding nostalgia, and techno. I still watch skate videos on the regular, although they don’t feel as special as they did back then. I skipped school to be one of the first to get H-Street’s Hocus Pocus video when it came out. I NEVER skipped school. Just that day. For that vid. Worth it.
How often did you get a chance to be around electronic music? or was it something you did in your town in garages & shit?
I didn’t get much chance. I couldn’t even get the music back then except for the occasional compilation CD. Mostly we had to go out-of-town to get stuff. So when I found out that one of the folks running our local DIY punk/alternative club was also into it, we bonded over that.
We started throwing “raves” at the club. We had no idea. We played anything from Apotheosis’ “O Fortuna” to Siouxsie to Dead Can Dance. Just whatever we liked. We had nothing to base it on other than we knew people were doing raves. We knew nothing about techno or house.
I started finding things like Moonshine’s Speed Limit series, which got me into the early UK Hardcore sound (later to morph into Jungle & Drum & Bass). That was probably ’91-’92.
Midwest DJs are still the best in the world. We developed a little differently, in the heat of the 1 hour rave set. You only have an hour? You’re gonna fucking PROVE yourself in that hour. We were forged in the battle of the clock.
I think you could make a soundtrack of “music I thought was music they played at raves before I went to a rave” – Dead Can Dance, that one Lords of Acid track…
Hahaha, right? Accurate. But in ’93 I went to a “real rave” in Louisville, Kentucky, called “E-ccentric.” Terry Mullan showed up unannounced and did a super Acid-y House set and that was it. I was hooked.
I started traveling to various raves around the Midwest, while “DJing” with a couple CD players (no pitch control, just playing stuff) and a mixer in my hometown. And then in 1995, I finally bit the bullet and decided to try DJing with vinyl. Mom bought me a couple garage sale turntables with dials for pitch and plastic tonearms, and I played on those for three years. So at home I was playing on these super janky turntables. If I got to play out anywhere on Technics, it was like driving a Pinto around a racetrack and then being handed the keys to a Formula One car. It was great!
I remember when the mixers just had one master EQ section. You didn’t get them per channel. When I got a mixer that had channel EQs? Man, that was heaven!
Indy around that time was a really fun place. Loads of people would go to Indy to take a break from really crooked or jaded Chicago raves, and of course Detroit was plagued by an incredible string of busts around that time…
Yeah, Indy had a pretty pure scene for a while. You had Sin Productions, doing biweekly Nocturna parties at a new venue almost every week. Then occasionally he would find a venue he could stick with for a while.
Those were the super underground things but he was pulling Chicago and Detroit DJs, along with Indy, Louisville, Cincy, and St. Louis folks. It was funny too, how every city kinda had its thing. Chicago was House (obvs), Louisville and St. Louis, House. Cincy went a bit more Drum & Bass. Indy, at least to me, was a techno city.
Were you still in “rave kid mode” then or did you DJ any of these super regional undergrounds? It’s hard to remember now but you had things like the ele_mental parties in Columbus that would have 3 rooms, 3x as many DJs and quite a few DJs on every bill were just starting out.
Yeah, I played all over the place. I moved to Indy in 1996, right when EVERYTHING was kicking off. I played several ele_mental parties, which was… super big in my eyes. I met Mad Mike Banks at the first ele_mental party I played at. And met my (now) best friend there too. Ed Luna (from ele_mental) booked us both to play because he wanted us to meet. His prescience was on point. We’ve been best friends for over 20 years now.
I was pretty much playing these undergrounds right off the bat. I probably played my first out of town gig 6 months after I started on the decks. It was a Nocturna, in Indy, at the Fairgrounds Inn (which no longer exists).
Chicago was always the toughest nut to crack though. It took me a decade before I ever played there. And probably another decade to get to play regularly. Detroit was hard, Chicago was harder. But anytime I came up there for a rave, it got busted anyway, so…
This is a very bland question, but I think maybe it can go to some interesting places. Were you the only female DJ at some of these parties? As far as I remember of the rave scene at the time, there was Heather Heart, Miss Djax, DJ Rap and a few others too but not many others.
Oh yeah, usually. There was a killer party in St Louis (I think) with DRC, Heather Heart, Sista Spinsta and a few other folks in about, I dunno… ’96 or ’97 maybe? But it was so rare. There were various women in the Midwest, but it was honestly pretty rare to be on the same lineup with anyone.
A good DJ can find great records and play them well. A great DJ can find good records and turn them into entirely something else. The latter is the kind of DJ that always got my attention.
That’s one thing I can’t put myself into as a guy – that “Hey there’s no one like you doing this.” Who do you look to as a model or just to pick up on things when there’s no one there?
Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but after spending years in punk rock and skateboarding, I was pretty immune to the whole idea that “girls can’t do that.” Whatever. I did it. I just… never saw a reason why I shouldn’t be able to do something I liked. But it did always frustrate me that I was the rare woman in all of those things. It just seemed silly that it was like that. But I knew why. Because while I was happy to have some lovely guy friends around me who were actually supportive, I ran into the other kind too.
I mostly just threatened to fight them, because I was a hothead who wasn’t going to be intimidated. But… I mean…Who wants to have to do that all the time? That’s why a lot of women didn’t bother, I think.
I’ve brought this up in interviews with festival promoters, and the minute the subject is broached, the mood turns and people get defensive and it never goes anywhere. It feels like a conversation that just can’t be had.
People want to think they’re benevolent. Reality is that we all want to think that, but many times we are doing problematic things without knowing it. That discomfort we feel when confronted with it is normal. The resistance to doing anything to fix the ignorance that got us there is just stubborn bullshit. People expect things to magically change with the passage of time. “It’s 2017, why are they still like that?” Because the passage of time does nothing. People actively working to change, starting with themselves, takes actual, conscious work.
So they think the gender imbalance will just “naturally” right itself. But the imbalance isn’t “natural.” It was intentional. It’s man made. Literally. So any effort to fix it has to be equally as intentional.
But everyone’s got this “But isn’t that affirmative action?” idea in their head. “I don’t book based on gender quotas. I book based on talent.”
People want to think they’re benevolent. Reality is that we all want to think that, but many times we are doing problematic things without knowing it. That discomfort we feel when confronted with it is normal. The resistance to doing anything to fix the ignorance that got us there is just stubborn bullshit.
But we all know that isn’t true. Because if they were, there wouldn’t be 100% male lineups. And you can’t say you don’t book on gender when it’s 100% male. You just think male is the default so you don’t see it as favoritism or imbalanced.
I know a lot of women get bored with questions about gender. They want to talk about what they do. And so do I. But me being able to do what I do is directly impacted by the way gender works in this business. So I have some feelings.
Basically, tl:dr version: this has never been a meritocracy. The only people who really believe that are people who have always been at the top of it. So you either just shrug your shoulders and say “Yeah but we’re not gonna do anything to consciously fix it because that takes work and we just wanna party and listen to music regardless of who is forced out of it” or you fucking get to work and pay attention and listen to people who can show you how to fix it.
And I was having a conversation the other day about how the music media will grab onto controversies (like Ten Walls or the latest debacle with Conforce) and give them a boost to get clicks, but their investment (as a whole, some are better than others at this) in being a part of the change is weak at best.
It’s also been my experience that a female producer’s resumé has to be about five times as long to start getting put in the “notable” box where people remark on new releases and gigs & what not.
That ain’t no lie. Also, as a DJ, you have to be ten times better than the best guy in the room. And even if you are, some jackass is gonna talk about your boobs, or your fat, or your face, or who you fucked to get there, or who wouldn’t fuck you, blah blah blah.
Anyhow, good things are afoot. There are a lot of up and coming women artists right now who are stellar as fuck, and they’re all connecting (yay internet!) and building our own networks and, in the words of Discwoman “amplifying each other” and that’s something that has been there in small doses, but is now becoming even more widespread.
You and I have also talked about vinyl purism. One of the side effects is shutting off access to people who can’t drop a few grand for records & gear & what not because of who they are or where they live or what the have. Or just people like yourself who learned on janky turntables for years but changed. Is someone gonna shame you for not being a vinyl purist in 2017?
I would love to see them try.
But at the same time, there are women coming up now who didn’t have that. And they are no less valid than I am.
I got to meet DJ Rachel from Uganda when she was in the states doing a documentary thing with The Black Madonna. They don’t have access to records there. They don’t even always have internet access. They buy their music from folks who do have internet, who download music and sell the flash drives. And she is teaching women to DJ. She has classes and they all hang out together and learn.
I mean, I didn’t have record stores in my hometown that sold this music. I had to order by phone from 611 or Planet X. And while I was pretty damn poor and couldn’t afford a lot of them, I also lived in the time of cheap gasoline. I could drive to Louisville or St Louis and get them too. But it took years before I ever had two proper Technics turntables of my own. I continued playing on garbage because it’s all I had. If you come up now and you can buy some tunes on Beatport and use Virtual DJ on your laptop that you got from your mom or with your college loans for school… Why would you not?
And that latter thing has opened up DJing and production for a LOT of people who would not have had access before. And while there are those who sometimes cringe at the results, the massive influx of middle-of-the-road music, the flip side of that is hearing more voices, more new artists, more marginalized people who may have been kept out for financial reasons or just intimidated by the need for lots of specialized gear to even start.
Another place in that context is Russia. Their country has been under economic sanctions and the next generation has in some ways turned inward & scraped samples off junk Soviet records nobody wanted. If making house music or techno required a studio or a full ’90s style kit, none of them would have even started.
Yeah, necessity is the mother of invention, but so is poverty. And boredom. And being told you can’t. And figuring out how to do it anyway. Those are always going to be the artists you WANT to listen to anyway – the ones who had to struggle a bit, who knew what it was like to be hungry, literally and figuratively.
I don’t say this because I glorify poverty. I have lived it. It wasn’t good or fun. But it made me much more focused on what I wanted to do, and it made me value everything that makes me able to do it still.
And I think that was part of what made the Midwest so interesting. We are the forgotten land in between the coastal regions. And even though we (thankfully) have two of the epicenters of house and techno (Chicago and Detroit), the rest of the Midwest is just sorta cornfields and manufacturing. But we’re all pretty easily connected by highways. And with the advent of internet and the cheap gas we had then – boom! We just all started doing our thing in every city, and traveling among them.
And what was so fantastic (and still is): Midwest DJs are still the best in the world. We developed a little differently, in the heat of the one hour rave set, where you had to just go out there and be fucking awesome from start to finish. You only have an hour? You’re gonna fucking PROVE yourself in that hour. Forged in the battle of the clock.
That’s a great way to put it. It’s amazing how many local DJs then had a cachet beyond whoever the headliner was.
Yeah, and I mean, when you’re in Chicago or Detroit, your “locals” are the headliners anyway. We used to get folks like Traxx and Twonz down here in Indy. I grew up watching long blends but also tricks.
Yeah. And the lost art of the DJ tool and making something new out of two records in the middle of the set.
Right. There’s a purpose for those. And a lot of people balk at the use of the word “functional” for music but… that serves a purpose. There are songs and then there are tracks. I know the difference and I know what tracks are for and how to use them.
A good DJ can find great records and play them well. A great DJ can find good records and turn them into entirely something else. The latter is the kind of DJ that always got my attention. Selectors are great, and I love when someone has a deep crate with some amazing cuts. That’s super fantastic. But when someone can take a bunch of records I know, and make them sound like music I have never heard before? Yeah. That. That right there.
I remember an outdoor event called Interstellar Outback and Richie played for like three or four hours. This was in the “Decks, EFX & 909” era. At one point, I turned to my friend Adam and said “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SONG?” (I may have been altered.) He looked at me and said, “You have this record, Lisa.” Well, what the fuck is he doing to it?!?!?! That’s what I love. The “third record.” The one that didn’t exist before this mix and won’t exist again after it. And the mix. The mix is everything. It’s not about the two or three or whatever records. It’s about what happens with them in the mix.
So before this goes on too long, let’s get to Noncompliant. I’m sure I’m not going to be the first nor last to ask where the name comes from.
Bitch Planet. It’s a comic about women who refuse to conform to the patriarchal norms being sent to a prison planet. They’re deemed “noncompliant” and sent there to be reprogrammed or die playing sports for the entertainment of the masses.
It’s an idea I had for a project. I started producing with hardware and it kind of altered my sound a smidge, and I wanted to do something new. In the spirit of punk rock, I wanted to do something that had a philosophy behind it. The project is all in some way connected to feminist concepts or just women-centric ones. And I loved the Noncompliant concept in Bitch Planet. I connected with the idea of being noncompliant. I’ve always been noncompliant. I don’t fit into typical gender presentation or roles, I’m queer, I do things that are typically male-dominated, etc.
So it was just a new creative concept I wanted to delve into. Something fresh and highly relevant to me and also to the world in which I find myself right now.
I have the perspective of having done this for 20+ years now. I know I will do this regardless. Being able to make music and DJ AT ALL is a success for me. I have kept it up through the poorest times, when there were no gigs to be had, and it was just me and a set of turntables and a Pentium 2 computer with Reason on it. I’ve already succeeded because at 45, I am still doing something I really love to do.
And everyone loves it! Did you see that coming as part of your plan?
I did not. I’ve been producing for over a decade now but I finally feel like I found my groove and to have people really enjoying the output is a good feeling.
I know better than to ask artists why they think one thing did better than another, but if I’m writing your biography, I’m drawn to the conclusion that maybe everything was preparation or training for this?
I mean, who knows? I listen back and I think a lot of my production output was fairly solid. I’m proud of everything I have done up to this. But I think also I had been doing the SUBterror Radio show for four years, and that caused me to really listen to a lot of different strains of techno. It made me a better DJ, and because I did it so frequently, I did a lot of little things with each show. Things people wouldn’t be aware of, like, “Let’s see if I can layer a bunch of arpeggiated synth lines over each other and make it work,” or “Let’s see if I can go from super minimal to super aggro in an hour and how that arc will play out” or just random little compositional experiments. I was always thinking about things like that in context of the show, and in the larger context of DJing. So I think it just made me really aware of things that worked for me as a DJ. What I liked to hear and to play.
And then when the hardware thing happened, it had that physicality that DJing had: turning knobs and moving sliders, and I could connect the two a bit more directly, I think. So it meant the outcome has a little something extra of me in it that might not have been there before. I dunno.
That’s really interesting. Do you think that the message behind the project gets through?
I mean, a little, sure. But I’m very aware that techno on the dancefloor is not always the same as techno as conceived by the artist. And that’s okay too. It gets recontextualized on the dancefloor in a way that makes it very subjective to the DJ and to the dancer. I think it’s okay to let that happen as well. It’s not a museum piece with a fixed meaning, it’s a dynamic thing.
I think people have connected with it and appreciated the idea behind it. It’s pretty funny that after I did a song called “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” the Hulu version of The Handmaid’s Tale came out and now people can see where that came from. It was always kind of a, “If you know what this means, awesome!” kind of conception, I think. It was creative fodder for me to explore, without really being hugely invested in the idea of anyone “understanding” it as conceived. Specifically because of the fact that it’s techno and I also want people to bump it on soundsystems in the mix. But when people can now connect the story of The Handmaid’s Tale with a tune I did and see what I was alluding to in the process, I think it can connect in that subtle way. Just probably not over a set of Funktion Ones. That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame, really.
But I think what’s more interesting is how it can affect me. I had an ethical dilemma recently, where I had to make a choice that affected me financially, but was necessary. No details. But I remember feeling like it was a dilemma, and then realizing that I titled a song from a quote about integrity. It’s a line from V for Vendetta: “Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us. And in that inch, we are free.”
And once it hit me that I had done that, and what it meant, my decision was no longer a dilemma at all.
Your music has now taken you to cities to play on some of the really marquee dancefloors in the scene, like Panorama Bar and a lot of other places. For most people when they start out, that’s one definition of “success.” What is success for you? Where do you want to be other than where you are?
I mean, I have the perspective of having done this for 20+ years now. I know I will do this regardless. Being able to make music and DJ AT ALL is a success for me. I have kept it up through the poorest times, when there were no gigs to be had, and it was just me and a set of turntables and a Pentium 2 computer with Reason on it. I’ve already succeeded because at 45, I am still doing something I really love to do.
What the recognition and attention feels like is validation. That I was right to keep going because this is what I love and what I should be doing. That I have something to share with people and that there is some meaning to this beyond me just being fucking stubborn. Ha.
But also, to be able to turn 45 the day after playing Panorama Bar for the first time… that was pretty special. I kept telling myself that Henry Miller didn’t get published until he was 42 or 43, so I was still okay. So… 45. Okay.