Ryan’s song

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Ryan Elliott is lying on his couch playing kissy-kissy with Sylvia, his 11-month-old Burmese cat. Neatly arranged on an otherwise empty coffee table to his left are a couple of glossies, Dwell and I-D. His girlfriend Eryn, with whom he shares this house on a leafy block in West Dearborn, is in the kitchen, talking and laughing with a friend. The setting could be called unspoiled suburban hip Americana.

The house’s basement studio, where Elliott last winter recorded a newly released megamix for Ann Arbor’s Spectral Sound label, is immaculate. No visible dust balls on his mixer or turntables, or anywhere. Vinyl is organized in convenient crates, DJ bags are on the floor leaning against his gear, the covers showing such label names as Areal, Klang, Kompakt, Minus, Perlon, Sender and Trapez. Sylvia darts after a rolling cat toy, and plays with it off in a distant corner. The basement scene is quiet, controlled, almost Zen-like, and his day-to-day life is grounded, organized. It’s strange because the records this rising DJ favors are loud, messy and head-bending hallucinatory.

The DJ is at home relaxing after a weekend jaunt to London, where he and Matthew Dear, his mate on Spectral and one of his best friends, performed at Fabric, a venue as big as it gets in electronic dance music.

“We were asked if we wouldn’t mind playing from 10 to 3 [a.m.],” Elliott says. “Matt and I looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah!’ We tagged for five hours in front of 800 people in the world’s best club, with an incredible system. It was so great.”

Elliott is a hot property right now because the records he plays are getting meaner, darker, bigger. His profile has been raised by the 33-track mix packaged with Spectral Sound Vol. 1, a double CD released in June. The mix is filled with elegant little twists and shouts, beginning with Dear’s acid-drenched “Another” and closing with a kaleidoscopic James T. Cotton (another friend, Ann Arbor’s multi-talented Tadd Mullinix) reverie called “A Long Way Down.”

(Also included on the mix are songs by Germany’s Lawrence and Peter Grummich, Sweden’s The Vanisher, Canadian electro-pop icon Solvent, American nomads Jeff Samuel and Geoff White, and edits of tracks by Ghostly/Spectral’s Osborne, Hieroglyphic Being and Audion, Dear’s devilish minimal trance alter ego.)

The boyish, 29-year-old Elliott hardly looks the part of an electro-darkness messenger. He’s a sweet, normal guy with a career — since 1999, he’s worked as a financial analyst at Ford Motor HQ a few miles from his home — who’s learned how to sex-up midnight-to-dawn dance floors. Elliott’s rotation includes some of the strangest, dirtiest left-field mind-body music on the planet.

He’s lean and athletic (a letter-winner in baseball, basketball and golf), with a chiseled face that probably made girls swoon back at Airport High (that’s in Carleton, near the Monroe-Wayne county line). He’s a sharp dresser, though the pressed pants and shirts and the casual club kicks he wears never scream out for attention. Elliott can blend into crowds, almost unnoticed, until he takes over the reins of the party.

“I take the DJ art seriously. It should be fun, but you have to be the conductor of your own party,” Elliott says. “The goal is to amass a collection of records you love, and choose the right records for the crowd and the venue. I’m not the kind of DJ who keeps the same music in his bag each time I play. I don’t want to be another self-indulgent DJ. I think it has to stay fresh and natural.”

Ghostly International/Spectral label head Sam Valenti is an Elliott fan: “Ryan’s approach is critical, approaching the party as an art form. He has an uncanny way of being a leader, without being arrogant or self-conscious. He’s always being part of the moment.”

Elliott sees his life in music as one of constant motion: bin-diving for new releases at least once a week, an increased touring schedule that has included dates on the West and East coasts, the Midwest and Canada, and upcoming shows in Germany next month.

Elliott hosted a three-year Tuesday night listening and dance party at Ann Arbor’s Goodnite Gracie’s with Dear, whose star began rising internationally around the same time. Talking about Elliott as a DJ, Dear says, “he has rare commitment and concentration ... and he just knows how to rock.”

Elliott was a resident at the Shelter’s Untitled weekly series and he played the Underground Stage at 2004’s Movement festival. Elliott now has a program called Vault at downtown’s Oslo on the first Friday of each month.

The more Elliott goes public with music, the more his life must stay in order.

“I think it helps keep my feet on ground to work at Ford. It doesn’t interfere with my DJ-ing, and gives my life a push and pull that I like,” says the man who graduated with a double major in economics and finance from Western Michigan University. “I’m not the guy who sleeps away Monday and Tuesday after partying for three days. I love being a club guy, but I like being an analyst who goes to work every day. Doing both keeps me in balance.”

Occasionally, Elliott the analyst and Elliott the DJ merge their roles, like when he talks about “organizing his set lists on a spread sheet.” He says his evolution from college club kid to DJ mixing some of the world’s craziest records came methodically, almost studiously. He watched DJs perform, curious as to how sounds were blended and beats were matched. No one showed him how it’s done.

Elliott says he absorbed it by just being there and paying attention.

“I used to go to Motor, almost every weekend from 1998 to 2002, to watch the person in control of the party,” Elliott says. “I saw Richie Hawtin, (John) Acquaviva, Mark Farina, tons of people. Then I’d go to (after-hours club) Better Days and experience it again in a more non-traditional setting. I was into house music at first, then I started hearing people like Magda mixing minimal techno sounds. For me, it’s just constantly evolving.”

Elliott says he works at “staying on his game” because everything changes quickly in the techno world; he says, “One actual year is like 10 techno years. You have to keep your edge.”

But not right now. He looks relaxed as he picks up Sylvia and strokes her. They make eyes, sharing the moment in silence. Then Elliott puts her down and walks over to his machines. The DJ is ready to drop his first record of the day.


Ryan Elliott hosts the monthly Vault at Oslo (1456 Woodward Ave.; 313-963-0300), Friday, Aug. 5. Special guest: Spectral’s Osborne, who performs a DJ set. Cover is $5. Doors 10 p.m.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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