Brushed by midsummer sunshine and a comforting breeze that finds them in this polite corner at the center of the University of Michigan campus, they affect an erstwhile undergraduate air. Boyish and unfashionable, formal yet streetwise, polished but unpretentious — Dear and Mullinix blend in well with the Ann Arbor ilk. They might live the rock-star life when in Germany or Spain, get written about and photographed for pop culture mags in Japan, but at home Dear and Mullinix are just two guys talking about obscure desires that most people will have a hard time wrapping their heads around.
“For me, it’s about building sound, finding it somewhere in the subconscious, pushing the machines in different directions, always creating something new,” says the 25-year-old Dear, experimental dance music’s Prince of Darkness. “I’m influenced by music that came out of Detroit, Chicago, Berlin … but I’m just as much a product of the Internet, of instant information, of environments that don’t really exist.”
Top that, Mullinix.
“When I make music, I want to hear something that appears alien even to myself. I feel like I’m trying to escape what I know. I’m always looking to find new spaces for this [creative] energy,” says Mullinix, also 25, whose multiple expressions have found a home in distinct musical personalities like Dabrye and James T. Cotton. “I fetishize over this mysterious place where music is born, how producers and DJs get to that place.”
Do these guys sound a tad self-serious? Perhaps. But understand this: They are earnest about what they do. See, Dear and Mullinix are part of a fellowship of sound and graphic artists and art-business people that break bread beneath the umbrella of Ghostly International, the Ann Arbor-based label with a release and touring schedule that now rivals the most aggressive dance labels in Berlin and Cologne. (And the mainstreaming of the aesthetically streamlined company continues — Ghostly is Rolling Stone’s “Hot Label” in that magazine’s “Hot” list, which is on the stands now.) Performers at this diverse enterprise — which has released techno, ambient, Ital Disco, acid, microhouse, nu wave and indie rock records — include Dykehouse, Osborne, Midwest Product, Kill Memory Crash, Lusine and Kiln; one-offs (at least so far) have come from Solvent, Geoff White (as Aeroc), Jeff Samuel, Hieroglyphic Being and Peter Grummich — a grungy, German minimalist whose schizophrenic style interfaces perfectly with the sweaty elegance of Cologne’s Kompakt and Berlin’s hard-charging sickwave imprint, Sender. In other words, a misfit ideally matched for Ghostly.
And it is Matthew Dear — and his aliases False (Minus/Windsor), Jabberjaw (Perlon/Berlin) and Ghostly’s Audion — and Mullinix’s Dabrye and Cotton monikers that are grouped with the best of the best producers and DJs in the new digital cosmos. They employ intensive production schedules, are in demand as club DJs worldwide and get requests to remix thermonuclear electro-freaks such as T. Raumschmiere, a Berlin producer whose Monster Truckdriver EP contained a Dabrye remix.
Dear played Barcelona’s Sonar festival in June before around 8,000 people. It is one of the most coveted spots on earth for an electronic performer. Most of the critical notices were pretty grounded, including this one by Philip Sherburne, techno’s premier investigative poet and critic, who wrote in the Seattle Weekly that he’d heard Dear sound better: “The nuances of his swing-time reveries were lost in the cavernous, hangarlike venue, and he seemed to speed from idea to idea, never curving into the kind of arc the massed ravers seemed to crave.”
Via phone from his San Francisco home, Sherburne elaborated.
“Dear’s live instrumental set followed Ricardo Villolobos and Richie Hawtin’s DJ set at Sonar, not something easy to step into. You could tell he’s was really working it, with hard, minimal, propulsive rhythms,” said Sherburne, who has also reviewed Dear’s music for U.K. mag The Wire. “He has re-crafted himself for more pop appeal with his stage show … [but] there’s a certain murkiness to his music, which collapses on itself, and operates at a different depth entirely.”
Dear is originally from Texas, but moved to Michigan in time to experience high school life in Lake Orion, and then spent four years studying anthropology at U-M. Mullinix spent time in Florida and Michigan as a kid, and graduated from Troy High School.
Mullinix was one of the first of the Ghostly crowd to migrate to Ann Arbor, where an odd record store called Dub Plate Pressure summoned him with its dark treasures.
It was there, enabled by slightly older Ann Arbor tech-heads Todd Osborn and Carlos Souffront (who both manned the Dub Plate counter), that Mullinix got his load on with drum ’n’ bass, breakbeat and the crazy IDM (intelligent dance music) produced by Aphex Twin and Wagon Christ.
As Dabrye, Mullinix recombined and reduced those influences, coming up with an unpredictable, abstract hip-hop style that had few peers (one being Scott Herren, aka Prefuse 73, who released Dabrye’s Instrmntl CD on his Eastern Developments label in 2002). Dabrye originally delivered tight, crispy beatscapes, ornamented by melodic, wordless verses and choruses. On his new Ghostly release, the Game Over EP, Jay Dee and Phat Kat of Slum Village appear as emcees on a decidedly more muscular, but no less freaky, record. More emcees are planned for the forthcoming Dabrye longplayer, Mullinix says, still months away from release.
Mullinix is able to get his Dabrye freak on for the same reason that Dear can transition from producing pointed, clickety-clackety tech-house on a laptop to boldly stepping out in front of his music and performing it like he was Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys: Ghostly wants it no other way.
“Sam allows us to explore all sides of the musical spectrum,” says Dear of Sam Valenti IV, who, you’ll note, founded Ghostly International in 1999. Indeed, Dear’s 2003 gem, Leave Luck to Heaven, was a tipping point of sorts for new American techno. It was a praiseworthy collection of songs — much like contemporaries Superpitcher, Michael Mayer, Heiko Voss and others were crafting at Kompakt — alternately beautiful, twisted, intelligent and funny. Dear’s vocals were prominent on “Dog Days,” a peppy, dance-floor-burner that, a year ago, was a turntable mainstay around the globe.
The only criticism that could be leveled against Dear’s new mini-LP, Backstroke, is that it too much resembles Leave Luck. The songs and the singing might even be better, and Dear has a heightened command of his music. But absent of surprise, the thrill is somewhat diminished; still, it’s a must-listen. (Check “And in the Night,” an ominous, acid-pop groover, one of Dear’s best.)
Dear has learned to handle his critics deftly. He attends to observations made about his choices — whether he’s praised or slammed — and responds, “Maybe they’re right. I’m working it through, for sure. What’s important to me is that I stay true to myself, and let it come from inside. I can’t explain where it comes from, but I just have to trust it.”
Dear will test his trust live this weekend when Ghostly’s North American tour, “Art and Artifice,” hits Detroit.
As you head to the dance floor, heed this warning: Expect to get slapped around a bit by Ghostly’s multi-disciplinary carnival of sight and sound — much of it coming from Dear and Dabrye. All hyperbole and overstatement aside, the fortunate could have their lives changed, at least for the night, if not forever.
Matthew Dear and Dabrye appear at the Magic Stick on Saturday, Aug. 7, with Midwest Product. Also featured will be Sam Valenti IV (as DJ) and visuals by Hardac, Julie Meitz and Kero, with art by Ghostly graphics resident Michael Segal. Call 313-833-9700 for info.Walter Wasacz is a writer and DJ based in Hamtramck. E-mail [email protected]