- Star tracks: Dan Curtin's interest in techno was inspired in part by his love of astronomy.
During Dan Curtin's formative years, he spent a lot of time peering through a telescope. He was living in Cleveland at the time, and whenever the sky opened up, he'd race to a nearby field, focus on an area of night, and wonder what it was like there. This was ideal preparation for an aspiring techno producer, especially one stranded in a town unfriendly to techno. Even though the music usually lacks vocals, it often tells a story of isolation, of being trapped in an alien land and yearning for a place where you fit better. It's not surprising that techno came from downsizing-era Detroit, a city that the music's architects were trying to imagine themselves out of.
"A lot of the feelings of Detroit techno were of a better place way down the road, in the future," Curtin explains from Berlin, where he's living with his wife, who attends school there. "Right now, in this time, you're not finding what you want, but you might be able to soon." He says astronomy gave him a similar sensation, and cites it as one of the main early influences on his music. "It inspired me to have a really strong eye for the future and a very open mind for all kinds of sounds."
Curtin remains a true believer in techno's original promise to be progressive always and never retrace its steps -- a promise it's defaulted on frequently over the years. Following the lead of turntable technician Jeff Mills, techno producers and DJs worked only in bare-bones grooves for a while, eschewing melody almost completely. The sound was undeniably effective for getting bodies to move, but the homogeneity of the tracks being produced was stifling, making for DJ mixes that nobody would want to curl up on a couch with. Curtin has taken the opposite approach, composing songs (as opposed to tracks) that juggle two or three melodic lines at once, with each release sounding totally different from the others.
Some techno insiders consider Curtin's innovations a significant turning point away from the music's monotony. "As far as techno goes, he took it in a whole different direction than the Detroit guys," observes Minto George, part owner of the esteemed electronic-music label Down Low Music, which released a 12-inch by Curtin last year titled Distort.archive.desire. "That guy's a living legend, in my opinion."
Curtin himself reaches for words when talk turns to characterizing his sound. "That's the crazy thing, I can't look at my own stuff like that," he explains. "The only thing I definitely have in mind while I work is that whenever I'm writing something that starts sounding like something else, I dump it. Like if I ever make a bass line that sounds like one I've heard, it's gotta go."
The result is 4/4-paced dance music that's brimming with ideas. On "Autonomic Groove," from the aforementioned Down Low release, there's a subtle, watery synthesizer that splashes languidly in the background while a second synth line bounds over it, marking out a catchy, driving riff. It's the drastically different moods of these two parts that's so striking, giving the impression that a mellow song and an uptempo one are fighting to inhabit the same space.
"I try to do that a lot -- have some beautiful, nice melody and then something really funky or hard under it, to carry it along, so it's not just sappy and boring," he says. "Because when you're on the dance floor, it can't only be rhythmic and it can't only be melodic. The Jeff Mills style is strictly for the body, very trancey, just building on basic grooves. But if I have one theme going, it inspires me to go in a totally different direction."
The fact that Curtin's productions are richer and more musical than those of his contemporaries -- that is, his pieces simply contain more notes -- might have something to do with his formal training, five years of classical piano. Many of his songs have sections where he's almost jamming. You can't miss the fact that there's a human being playing an instrument on them, unlike the more stripped-down techno numbers, which can sound like they were composed by a robotic assembly line.
The first music that made Curtin want to start recording his own was hip-hop. He and some friends made a few tapes and did a show or two, although they never considered it something they could pursue professionally. His tastes grew to include new wave and industrial, but it wasn't until hearing techno that he found a music that adequately fulfilled his future-lust, a sound that always looked forward.
"In the late '80s, my friend came back from England with some tapes of pirate radio that had this music that was just amazing," he remembers. Little did he know that he was living only 168 miles from the source of this unusual music. "Most of it was Detroit techno, but I had no idea. I thought it was English."
As a techno addict in Cleveland at the time, he was a stranger in not-so-strange land. Though he could find no other people wanting to make the music, he was determined to make inroads for his newfound love, eventually opening the Deep Records shop in Cleveland Heights.
In 1992, Curtin began producing albums for various small labels "that were basically Detroit techno, except that they weren't from there," he says. He soon got the attention of Britain's blue-chip dance-music label Peacefrog, a minor coup for an unknown from Cleveland, and the exposure it garnered for him led to requests to spin in Europe. As his production style diverged from the techno boilerplate, he found himself playing in Europe monthly. He also started his own label, Metamorphic, which launched the careers of three Ohio-reared artists who are now internationally known: Morgan Geist, Hanna, and Titonton Duvante.
Ironically, Curtin says that moving from the near-vacuum of Cleveland to Berlin, where "the techno scene is almost out of control," hasn't had any tangible effect on the music he's making. (And make it he does -- so far he has seven albums under his belt and more than sixty 12-inches.) With so much techno being played on after-hours radio shows and so many legendary American DJs spinning there every weekend, don't the music's trends seep into his studio work?
"No, no, no," he insists. "I listen to a lot of it, but if any of it creeps in, I just delete it. I want to keep totally separate from what's happening in techno. As a result, my stuff's never been the dance-floor hits, but I don't care, because that's not what I'm going for. It also means that one of my songs isn't the easiest for DJs to mix, because you're going to have a hard time finding another record that matches it. But the creative DJs play it, and that's who I care about."