It’s late, perhaps too late. A few minutes before you were sitting with her in a booth. You didn’t hear what she said, but you saw the anger flash across her face. You watched her stalk off. And now she is here, moving toward you. Lush, damp ringlets of black hair hang down on that beautiful face, the sleeves of her gauzy blouse passing your eyes in a blur. “I can feel you breathe, I can feel you breathe.” The voice of the singer sounds familiar, yet the Nashville saccharine has been swept away by a deep, dark DJ wave from the heart of Ibiza. You pull the girl close, your hands on her tawny midriff, your hips swaying against hers. You have traveled the world for this moment, a thousand pills, a thousand clubs, a thousand nights staring out at the warm Mediterranean. It doesn’t matter that you’re 38, she’s 34 and everyone around you is 15 years younger and looking toward the DJ as if he is the Messiah. Pay the fools no mind. All doubt is obliterated, all regrets stilled, all desires peaked. The wave never crashes and you, a knight of faith, ride on.
Motor City trance
Electronic music culture thrives on a mind-boggling taxonomy of genres and subgenres. The trainspotting fetishism about gear, DJs and hot tracks at once promotes and obscures the do-it-yourself democratic ethos of punk that makes the minimalism of techno so attractive to fame-hungry youth; if he can do it, so can I. No wonder a career-savvy DJ loudly pledges his or her allegiance to a particular black box or genre to gain brand recognition. A trance DJ has no such luxury; he or she is held to a much higher standard of achievement.
Trance is a five-letter word in this town. Trance is hated. Some bedsit Beethoven, just back from the Love Parade in Berlin, sits down at his iMac and tosses off yet another poppy monstrosity. The big, melodramatic synth riffs, the percolating ostinatos, the vertiginous dropouts, the climatic rush of backbeat and bassline. All of it. Yuck.
Why the negative vibrations? Is it because trance wasn’t born in Hockeytown, where there are no palm trees and the sun doesn’t give us enough hot kisses? Is it because it isn’t “difficult to understand,” that bogus term of exclusivity that is so near and dear to the techno intelligentsia of this city so protective of the emperor’s old clothes? Or is it because in a nation where more than half the population is overweight and the ideals of youth sexuality come from the pornish sway of media and video that we’ve lost touch with our bodies as something other than billboards or carnal proving grounds? Trance, at its most dramatic and powerful, commands the body to move, freely, innocently, beautifully.
“It’s not that there isn’t a trance scene in Detroit,” muses DJ Ken Thomas as he sips a Coke. “It’s that the hundred or so most outspoken proponents of techno convinced everyone that ‘Trance sucks. Trance is dead. Techno’s where it’s at.’ And then me and a small group of DJs who were off on the sidelines suddenly blew up and nobody’s there to really promote it.”
Thomas should know. He was the resident DJ at Motor Lounge on Saturday nights, when the ivory-hued suburbs suited up and descended upon Hamtramck.
In its later years, Motor Lounge was the epicenter for trance in Detroit. Rumors always swirled that the management promoted the music despite their personal loathing for it. Who knows if all the talk was true or they were just covering the part of their ass marked “street cred.” Nonetheless, the biggest names in the genre like Dave Ralph and Paul Oakenfold (“the world’s most successful DJ,” according to the Guinness Book of Records) passed through. Oakenfold, it should be noted, paid homage to the club by putting its distinctive logo in the cover booklet for his smash sophomore effort, Another World.
The Motor’s DJ booth was close to the floor; you could see the star at work. What the sound system lacked in clarity, it made up for in heft. There were nights when the amateurs stayed home and the place filled with nubile, prancing vixens done up in their best Japanese free girl outfits, while reedy geeks twirled glow sticks and shuffled nervously at edge of the floor. Sometimes came a witching hour, when that strange elusive dialogue between the crowd and the main man at the decks began to flow and epiphanies came easily.
But those nights were rare, all too rare. When Motor closed this August, poseurs and denizens alike scattered.
The craven forces of promotion compromise the authenticity of any scene. Visit the Detroit Club Scene Website, and you’ll discover that trance is very much a business now, no matter how late in the game. All the clubs whose ads litter the popular free press are pimped ad nauseam. Photo galleries abound. Ken Thomas is the star of this site — there are many photos of him meeting and greeting fellow trance DJs as he flits into their booths. But don’t call Thomas a company man even if he rather sheepishly praises the crowds in the clubs. “They’re well dressed,” he says, “a little more mature. It’s exciting.”
If only that were true on the Saturday night I recently spent with my moll at Lush. Years ago, when martini lounges were the craze, Lush was a bar to die for — potent elixirs, moody, romantic lighting, lots of capacious divans and mod chairs upon which to practice your best impressions of Hugh Hefner or Dick Cavett. Thomas is now the resident DJ here, and the tonier aspects of the old Saturday night gang from Motor seem to have followed him like the plague.
During a recent outing at the Necto in Ann Arbor, Thomas wasn’t afraid to throw in Plastickman’s “Orange” or “Spastic” to bottom out a sensational peak. And you need only listen to the promotional disc the DJ put out during his residency at Motor to fully appreciate his powers of seduction. First, there are only 10 cuts, including a super-secret remix from a mystery man in Lansing who electroplated an a cappella version of Faith Hill’s ditty “Breathe” to a particularly evil sounding piece of ambient techno by Sven Vath. Thomas carefully selects his tracks and allows the pieces to play out. Only then does the magician step in. “Suburban Train,” a cut by DJ Tiesto that is only slightly less overplayed than his remix of Delerium’s “Silence,” gets a fantastic extended workout by Thomas, building to a second, orgasmic ride into the station that he constructed himself, live, on the decks.
“If you listen to a lot of trance mixes like the Gatecrasher series,” Thomas says, “you have 17, 18 tracks, and the DJ is stepping all over the music. It sounds jumbled and muddy.”
Thomas’ versatility comes through even under the most neutered of circumstances. At Lush, Thomas spins a supple vibe of tribal, acid jazz and progressive house. You can canoodle and shake your tail feathers to great effect in the antechamber off the dance floor.
If Thomas is circumspect about his current exalted status in the mainstream clubs, far more convincing is his attitude toward a new plan of attack.
“I’ve been looking to get into a gay club for the last year and a half,” he explains. “That’s a market that hasn’t been exposed to my music and would like my music. Also I know it’s a great vibe, a great party. The energy in those clubs is incredible. They want it. You don’t have to play the mainstream stuff.”
Thomas made his first foray into the gay dance scene early this fall with a Wednesday night residency at Menjo’s. It was a bust. You could hear the crickets despite the fact that he was playing from his most valued cache of material on the most spectacular sound system in the area. If only he could shift over to Thursdays when the place is heaving and all the boys are in a white heat. Or take over at Backstreet, a club where one could hear more than two years ago Agnelli and Nelson’s “El Niño,” followed by Victor Calderone’s South Beach reconstruction of Madonna’s “Sky Fit’s Heaven.”
One thing is certain. Thomas is ready for new adventures. And his ambition is matched by his mettle. “Before I got into DJ-ing, I was a competitive roller-blader. You wouldn’t believe the things I took from skateboarders. So I’ve already done the star trip. I’ve already been shit on. Nothing fazes me. I love this music and I want to play it.”
Spin on, my son.
Ken Thomas performs Wednesday nights at the Necto (516 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor). Call 734-994-5436. He also plays at X/S (1500 Woodward, Detroit) Friday, Nov. 22. Call 313-963-XSXS.Timothy Dugdale writes about books and culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]