New York City is where it began, but Chicago is where Oktave caught stride. Jeff Derringer looks back at seven years of a residency that found a home at Smartbar and became the most successful night of its kind in the city.
What can you remember about when you started Oktave?
Oktave started in 2009 in New York. I’m originally from Chicago but I spent 1994 through 2010 in New York. I started Oktave in 2009 on the Lower East Side in a very, very small bar. Derek Plaslaiko and Eric Cloutier were my first guests.
I did about a year of shows bouncing around New York and then I moved back to Chicago in 2010. I continued to do shows in New York as well until about 2012, but Smartbar has always been part of the Oktave equation. The first show at Smartbar was in November of 2010 but I was not a full-blown resident until 2013, I believe. And it’s been there ever since.
Can you tell me the concept behind Oktave? and is it the same as it was at the start?
Well in New York it was a little different than it was in Chicago. I had just kind of started performing in the Techno space in New York. I’ve been in the music business for a long time and I knew that if I was just running around New York saying, “Hey I’m a DJ!” no one was going to book me. There was just no way. So I started my own night, you know, and tailored it to my tastes. The curation of the talent was really important, of course, and as my tastes developed so did the night. If you told me at the time I’d still be doing it seven years later and I’d be a resident at Smartbar in Chicago I’d probably not believe you. That seemed like a big jump. But that’s what happened.
Nobody else in Chicago is really doing this sound. A residency has a civic commitment. I don’t know if a lot of people think like that anymore but I do.
What were some notable highlights and lowlights of the last seven years?
The lowlight, without question, was the fourth or fifth show that we did in New York. It was April 2010 and I was working with another guy who was a good friend of mine but not very experienced in the music business. He was a really good promoter and “people person” which is something I’m less good at. He talked me into doing a show at a much bigger club in New York called “Love” which is no longer there. We booked Claro Intelecto from the UK and Samuli Kemppi from Finland. And we got killed. Nobody came and we lost a fortune.
At that point I was kind of like, Do I really want to do this? One of those dark nights of the soul where you ask, Is this really worth it? Is this going to do what I want it to do? Between us we lost several thousand dollars. But we lived through it.
What did you take from that?
That you don’t on your fifth show come out like that. I already knew this but I kind of humored my partner. You stay really small. I still try to do this – even now when Oktave is something that people in the international Techno community know about, I still try not to overshoot and get like six international DJs on the bill and spend $10 grand on talent and risk a huge loss. The kind of Techno that Oktave is about still doesn’t have a huge audience in the States. Getting people out isn’t guaranteed. It’s very easy to think you’re going to put on an amazing show and blow everybody away. But there’s never as many people blown away as you think there’s gonna be.
That seems like a pretty good rule of thumb no matter what genre you’re in or what town you’re in.
I try to keep the shows reasonable. I’m not putting up my own money at Smartbar, but obviously if I have a bunch of shows that stink, there aren’t going to be too many opportunities after that. I try to keep things stable and that means erring on the side of caution, to be sure.
How about the highlights now?
For me the highlights just keep coming. Things have been getting better for me as a DJ over the last five years with traveling internationally and playing at places like Berghain. Oktave has been very helpful in terms of helping me get my career off the ground. But in terms of an Oktave show, at Smartbar there have been a lot of good shows that I’ve enjoyed. One that sticks out to me is when Ben Sims played in 2014 and that show was really fun.
It’s always interesting to think about the surprises too. I had Black Asteroid last year and it was great. The Regis residency was a surprise too. He’s an idol of mine and we became friends through that. I never thought I’d be able to bring Regis to the States at all. For awhile he was living in Europe and wouldn’t come to the States so I thought I’d never book him. But then he moved to New York and he became available so I was able to set up a three show residency at Smartbar. That was really nice. In terms of Oktave highlights I would put the Regis residency at the top.
Chicago’s a House town. They’re very focused on House Music here. But you make small progress all the time.
What about a record label? you’re a producer as well and I’d think there are opportunities for synergy there.
I don’t release my own music through Oktave though I’d love to. There isn’t enough time or resources for me to be doing the shows at Smartbar, tending to my own music and performances and run a label. But certainly the connections I’ve made through Oktave have helped me meet people who have put out my music. Take Soma, the Glasgow record label. I booked Slam (who started Soma) at Smartbar four years ago. I met them and they asked me to do a podcast for them. Maybe a year after that I had new material and gave it a shot and they really liked it and put it out on Soma, and I’ve ended up putting out more stuff on Soma.
It all kind of ties together. It’s a small business – especially underground, Berlin-style Techno – so everyone kind of knows each other and when you are helping other people I find they’re generally more willing to help you.
I would love to start an Oktave label, especially because the process of submitting my music to labels and having them judge it… For someone that’s been putting out music for awhile, it can get a little tedious, you know? It’s like I don’t need you to tell me if a track’s good or not. Are you going to put it out or not? If not, cool, but the whole submission process is getting old. So I would love to have my own label but it’s a matter of my life changing to have the time and resources to do it right because what I don’t want to do is run a label half-assed.
While we’re on the subject of your personal career and making connections, do you ever feel like a residency ties you down or limits your possibilities?
That’s actually a good question. In some respects no, in some respects yes, if I’m going to be honest. Being a resident at Smartbar is very, very helpful for my personal music career. It’s a famous club, and in my opinion it’s the best club in the States. There’s a lot of cachet to it. It’s nice to be able to say I’m a Smartbar resident. At this point people know Oktave and respect Oktave in this small kind of international Techno community, people know what Oktave is and it’s helped me get gigs.
The flipside of that coin is something I’ve thought about: How long can you be the resident that helps everybody until you get to the point where you want to step out? I’ve had people I book ask me that: “Why are you still doing this? You’ve put out enough records, you’ve been on enough labels, you’ve played in enough cities where you could probably ditch this residency thing and focus entirely on your own music career.” I wrestle with that, because I do think there’s almost a little bit of a stigma for a resident who is constantly booking people and helping people. When is it your turn?
But at the same time I can’t see any harm in continuing to help people! And with Oktave, there’s nobody else in Chicago really doing this sound. I think a residency has a civic commitment, I don’t know if a lot of people think like that anymore but I do. I’m trying to do something for Chicago. I believe in Chicago and want this music to get over in Chicago. Now I’m just about at seven years and it’s going a little slower than I wanted it to go! But Chicago’s a House town and they’re very focused on House Music, but you make small progress all the time.
You know, lot of people have also asked, “Why don’t you move to Berlin? Why don’t you move to London or Amsterdam?” Of course I’ve thought about it, it’s tempting and if Donald Trump wins the presidency I’ll be thinking about it even more. But I feel like if you move to Berlin, you’re just another Techno producer and you’re competing with a lot of people. In Chicago there’s nobody doing what I’m doing and that has value too – being known as the guy to go to if you’re into this kind of sound.
You’re playing all night for the anniversary. Have you done that recently?
I have. I played in Montreal this past June and did six and half hours. This will be seven, so it will be the longest set I’ve ever played but only by a half hour. When I play at Berghain I play four or five hours too. Once you get past three hours it doesn’t really matter anymore. As long as there’s a bathroom nearby, you’re good!
I’ve noticed that you usually only have one or two other DJs playing for Oktave.
In the past I had opportunities to book more than one, but again, I err on the side of caution. I’d rather have a modestly successful show than a big media event that totally fails. You can’t really turn Smartbar into a “festival venue.” It’s just not going to happen. I don’t want to shit the bed. Sometimes you shit the bed regardless of your best intentions. I’ve had shows where I thought the line-up was fantastic and was going to be huge and it wasn’t, and then vice-versa where I don’t think anyone’s coming and the place is packed. There’s no accounting for taste. That’s the cardinal rule of the music business, you know? You can think it’s amazing. Everyone can think it’s amazing. And then a year later… you’re done.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m putting out a record on a small German label in November which is really nice because they do really nice graphics and it’s purple wax and and all of that. I kind of bounce back and forth – I’ll do a release on really big label where more people will hear it and then on a really small label that’s going to do cool artwork and be kind of niche and get into the cooler record stores. So earlier in the summer I put out a record on Soma which checks the first box and then in November a smaller label record. I also have a track on a compilation series from Berlin called Reclaim Your City, which is a cool concept. The records are all named after two cities and this one will be “New York/Chicago.” And it’s two New York producers and two Chicago producers. So on this one it’s Adam X and Mike Parker and then DJ Hyperactive and me.
For shows, I’m playing in New York in November. I’ll be in Columbia for the first time in November in Pereira and Medellin I believe, and possibly Boston and in December in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia.
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.