It's not that local electronic music aficionados Drew Pompa, Soren Kenny, and Walter Wasacz think there's a void in Detroit's music scene, per se. We meet to talk about a showcase of the U.K. electronic label Modern Love that the three have helped organize at MOCAD.
"There's no finger-pointing," Wasacz says. "In this kind of scene, things happen very quickly, and you have to pay attention. Somebody has to go out and listen, and know what's happening, and know what's good, and curate it, and bring it to Detroit audiences."
Wasacz, it should be noted, used to pen Metro Times' electronic music column The Subterraneans from 2004 to 2011, and first met Pompa from writing about him back in 2007. As a result, our talk is periodically interrupted by tangents that reveal the shared, intense musical fandom of the three men. Pompa bemoans that he hasn't managed to save much money this year, but his record collection has increased. "Keep those records," Wasacz says. "You might not have social security. That might be your retirement!"
The three had long been talking about their desire to bring "some more interesting, cutting-edge electronic music artists to Detroit," as Pompa says. "I don't know if you'd refer to them as more of fringe artists, or more experimental. Some of their music isn't really club music or dance floor music," he says. "It's a little more artistic.
"[We have] a mutual interest in finding people who have a strong influence to Detroit music and are doing something very unique on maybe a local, national, and global scale that hasn't necessarily been represented here," Pompa says, and adds that they wanted to appeal to "some sort of crossover between the art crowd and the electronic music scene, or people who are generally curious about music."
To that end, the three have put together a showcase of artists from the U.K.'s Modern Love label — the overtly gothic duo Demdike Stare and the more subtle (but still spooky) Andy Stott. Pompa says that while the artists are different, their influences can be traced back to Detroit techno.
Wasacz says he met Demdike Stare in 2010 at the Mutek electronic music festival in Montreal. "They told us they wanted to come to Detroit then," he says. "They were eager to come here."
Pompa says Miles Whittaker, one half of Demdike Stare, has been immensely inspired by Detroit music. "That's sort of how he got into DJing," he says. "He started DJing in the late '80s, when the U.K. rave scene, the acid scene, and Detroit techno became prevalent in Europe." Shawn Canty, the other half of the duo, came from a totally different sonic background, collecting hip-hop records while his father collected jazz records. Together, the artists incorporate field recordings, as well as Arabic, Turkish, and North African sounds into their music.
"They kind of merged their passions for records, and I think both of their styles kind of complemented each other," Pompa says.
"I think one of the most interesting aspects to us is that these guys have been a little faceless because they've allowed the music to kind of speak for itself," Pompa says. "They have all these occult references, and ancient historical references. Like 'Hashshashin Chant' — naming tracks after ancient Persian assassins during the Crusades. That sort of energizes our spirits when we see artists doing something like that."
The occult imagery and accompanying visuals are a big part of Demdike Stare's performance, and visuals promise to be a large component of all of the artists on the bill. "It's based [on] the same kind of history of black magic and witches, and witches burned at the stake," Wasacz says. (The name "Demdike" comes from the Pendle witches, perhaps England's most famous witch trials).
"The guys are very nice guys, very ordinary guys in a sense ... they're not going to come here and sprinkle magic dust on people," he says with a laugh. "Or maybe they will."
Wasacz notes that the duo clearly draws from myriad influences, but Detroit's "obsession with science fiction music and techno of the '90s is definitely part of that," he says. Wasacz says the duo's music is also very inspired by Berlin techno, which was in turn very inspired by Detroit techno.
"These guys picked up on that for sure," Wasacz says. "You hear it in the music. But then there's also a sort of determined Englishness about it as well. You can't really come to it and say they're very Detroit, or very German. It's so integrated into what they do that it's hardly noticeable unless you're a student of all these subgenres. I think they're best to just be experienced."
Next on the bill is Andy Stott. Wasacz says he's had some success in the past few years with "some records that have pretty much blown up, not in a huge clubby sort of way, but in terms of people who are into arty techno and arty music."
A big moment came in 2012 when Italian Vogue used a compilation of his album Luxury Problems to soundtrack a Kate Upton spot. The resulting video is the complete opposite of Upton's infamously raunchy "Cat Daddy" video, with stark black-and-white footage of Upton strutting around on top of Stott's strange, ethereal music.
"[Stott] has found a lot of success in reinterpreting early dub techno music, going back to (Berlin label) Basic Channel," Pompa says. "He's taking a lot of the early techno influences and taking it and slowing it down and making it kind of smudgy and creating a modern twist that very few artists have been able to do."
Pompa points out that both artists come from the Manchester area, and he thinks it's no coincidence that both post-industrial cities share a kindred spirit.
"That's the home of Factory Records, who produced intensely cutting-edge music for the time," he says. "I feel that Detroiters were highly inspired by that whole entire scene back in the '70s and '80s, just from talking to people. Places like (Detroit's) Music Institute were highly inspired by places like (Factory Records') Haçienda. There's something about English music and Detroit music that I think has a particularly interesting connection."
Rounding out the bill is Christopher McNamara, a Windsor-based artist who's taught film at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies. "He's an academic, and he's also a producer of audio and video," Wasacz says. "He's done installations in Europe and Canada; that's why we wanted to showcase him with these guys."
Pompa says the goal with the showcase, and future showcases, was to strengthen the musical ties Detroit has with other cities. "It's more about connecting the musical dots between maybe somewhat disparate environments or music scenes that have a buzz between Manchester and Detroit, maybe a kindred connection, and trying to develop that relationship with music," he says. "Once you have that, that creates a scenario where you're digging deep enough to find a lot of these traceable influences and people who are inspired by your mutual geographic areas."
The showcase is presented by We Are All Machines and No Spectacle, Pompa and Wasacz's record labels, respectively.
"I think the advantage of being in Detroit is [that] everyone wants to come here," Wasacz says. "It's got so much cred. We don't take advantage of that. A lot of people don't understand that. We're prepared to make that happen, to build those bridges to other places. They already want to come."
"Hopefully, we can get the mayor to realize that," Pompa adds, possibly only partially joking. "There's such a musical heritage here, but places like New Orleans are doing it better than we are. How come we aren't highlighting that? Maybe it's starting to happen, and maybe this is the early stages of that."
Wasacz adds that, in Detroit, art isn't seen as something to be invested in, and, as a result, its musical legacies are more intangible. In places like Berlin and Canada, the arts have more investment from the government, and as a result, Wasacz says, there's empirical data that shows the money it can bring in.
But that's all beside the point. "We're humble and small, but passionate," Wasacz says. "But that's how it starts. These are old tools of artists and creative people." — mt
Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, and Christopher McNamara play at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Ave, Detroit; 313-832-6622; mocadetroit.org; $12 ($15 day of event).