Richie Hawtin On Hardware 30, Fashion, Grimes, The Future & More

9 December 2022 | 7:00 pm | Cyclone Wehner

He asks, "How do you continue to move forward but also stay unique and stay connected to the story you've been telling for so many years – and keep bringing those people who have supported you along the way with you at every step of the way without losing them?"

(Pic by Willy Vanderperre)

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Richie Hawtin lives in a state of flux. The British-Canadian has long been at the forefront of techno as a DJ, producer and entrepreneur – advancing digital technologies. But even a futurist loses track of time.

Hawtin has just flown back to his European base from Miami – where he played the latest edition of his curated Prada Extends party series, covered by Vogue. It's Saint Nicholas Day in Germany, and this interview has been hastily rescheduled from morning to mid-evening. The minimal techno pioneer is typically genial. "I'm just home for two days, and then I'm leaving tomorrow for Australia," he says. Hawtin understands a journalist's mental fog at 6 am. "No problem – I'm at the end of my day 'cause I have early mornings," he laughs. "So we're both in the same boat."

Hawtin will headline Hardware 30: True Faith – Melbourne's Hardware Corporation celebrating its 30th anniversary with an international and intergenerational bill. Hawtin first DJed for Hardware in 1996, but it wasn't his Australian premiere. He played a prior underground gig in Adelaide for the local Juice Records. That led Hawtin to Hardware's Richie McNeill, who gave him a major platform over successive tours. "I was really highlighted as kind of a main stage techno DJ – holding the capacity of thousands of people," he recalls. "Rich really trusted me and really believed in the music and my style." Hawtin notes the symbolism of Adelaide's DJ HMC on the Hardware 30 flyer. "HMC is one of Australia's best DJs – well, world-class DJs," he heralds. "Incredible!"

Hawtin was born in England but transplanted to Windsor, Canada, at nine – his father a robotics technician at General Motors. In high school, the self-described nerd was intrigued by technology and "cool stuff". Inevitably, he learnt about the techno scene across the border in Detroit, embracing its communal spirit – and DIY entrepreneurship. Dropping out of film studies, the DJ/producer became an honorary member of an otherwise predominantly Black intelligentsia.

In 1990 Hawtin launched Plus 8 Records with fellow Canadian John Acquaviva. Three years on, he issued an exploratory debut album, Dimension Intrusion, as F.U.S.E (Futuristic Underground Subsonic Experiments) via Warp. Yet Hawtin captured a cult following with the acid alter ego Plastikman, airing 1993's Sheet One and then Musik – though the non-album Spastik remains his signature track. In 1998 a third Plastikman LP, Consumed, on Hawtin's fledgling M_nus imprint, divided acolytes – the 808 king ushering in surreal minimal techno. While a subversive figure, Hawtin regarded his sonic departure as an evolution rather than a regression. "To me, it made sense," he reasons.

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Today Consumed is deemed a classic. "I think it's absolutely beautiful, but perhaps it was just still too reduced to what people's expectations were after those first two albums – and maybe also after waiting so long," Hawtin ponders. "I was happy with the accolades that the album received on release, but I was also happy with the confusion that the album received on release!" The following year, he appeared at the inaugural Coachella.

In the 2000s, Hawtin embarked on canny business ventures, having invested in Final Scratch, a game-changing digital vinyl system, and Beatport. Indeed, his adopting of Final Scratch generated heated debate about the digitisation of DJ culture – 2001's mix-CD DE9: Closer To The Edit a manifesto. Hawtin relishes any chance to work with other "creative, driven, inspiring people." In the 2010s, he introduced a boutique sake collection, ENTER.Sake. Again, the impetus was purposeful, Hawtin fostering a threatened industry in Japan. "The reason for my passion for sake goes beyond just loving the feeling or the taste of sake. It really was – and is – to help, in my own small way, preserve an incredible culture that needed help on the international distribution front for availability and awareness."

In later years, fashion designers collaborated with electronic music innovators on runway shows – Virgil Abloh booked Juan Atkins, the Godfather of Techno, for a 2020 Louis Vuitton menswear presentation in Paris under his Cybotron guise. And Hawtin has worked extensively in the realm of "high fashion". "I think, from the outside, it probably could look a little strange," he suggests.

In fact, Hawtin's association with Prada came about organically – the DJ befriended Belgian designer Raf Simons, now co-creative director of Prada alongside Miuccia Prada, in the party scene. "Raf is a huge techno music fan since the '90s, and had been coming to my shows since those early, early, early days – '94, '95, '96 – and our relationship, connection, friendship, grew over many, many years," he reveals. "We just kept meeting and crossing paths." Hawtin first liaised with Simons professionally in 2013 when the designer was at DIOR. He performed at New York's Guggenheim Museum as Plastikman, his set immortalised with the live album EX. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawtin soundtracked Prada's virtual shows – "a pretty intense, crazy, prestigious proposition," he stresses.

Ultimately, Hawtin's minimal ethos complements the aesthetics of the avant-garde Italian fashion house. "Techno's come a long way; fashion has changed. Raf has found himself in an incredible position. I think many of us who have been following our own paths for years and years and years really like the opportunity to collaborate with other artistic minds who've also been following their own trajectory. So it's a great collaboration, to be honest. It's a huge company with a real family heart and incredible creative energy that really inspires me."

Recently, Hawtin partnered with the Swiss knitwear company FRENCKENBERGER for a Plastikman capsule clothing collection, produced sustainably in Mongolia – the East Asian nation in economic turmoil because of the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Alas, on social media, fans protested the pricing (and branding), frustrating Hawtin – his intentions were transparent. "If you can bring people objects or clothing, which are created sustainably and with some type of responsibility and can be something that lasts longer than just some of the throwaway products that are made these days, then isn't that similar to the music that I make and stand for, too? You know, we're trying to create and give people some type of experience, some type of joy, and something that lasts longer than a night or a week, that they really cherish and hold with them for hopefully the rest of their lives."

At any rate, Hawtin is still composing music. In late 2020 he circulated Time Warps – publicised as his first club EP since 1999's Minus Orange, but actually more cerebral, manifesting lockdown existentialism. "We even kind of 'sold it', whatever, to the press as 'Rich returns to the club,' because it was fast and it had a four-by-four kickdrum, and it was kind of, yeah, danceable," Hawtin concurs. "Looking back, it wasn't a club record, even though it was four/four – it was really introspective. It was kind of a record that came from clubbing, that came from the dancefloor, but wasn't necessarily made for the dancefloor."

Last year Hawtin unveiled a ravey remix of Grimes' Darkseid. "Claire [Boucher, aka Grimes] and I have known each other for 10 or 12 years, and we were always hoping to collaborate," he shares. "She was super inspired by the Consumed album… And so there's a deep appreciation for each other's work." The pair previously logged a session in the studio, "but," Hawtin says, "we just didn't have time to do anything." As such, he is pleased with the remix, declaring it among his "favourites". "I did my best and really wanted to give some real pummelling techno beats together with her angelic, beautiful voice and create something which I knew we would both love."

Preceding his Coachella dates, Hawtin plugged a reimagining of that Plastikman sleeper Consumed by the idiosyncratic Canadian Chilly Gonzales entitled Consumed In Key. The project happened serendipitously – Gonzales belatedly discovering Consumed and adding spectral piano melodies. Initially unfamiliar with Gonzales, and unsure about the concept, Hawtin was persuaded to listen to the musician's sampler by Tiga, a mutual friend. "I'm not a big fan of piano acoustic electronic albums," he divulges. "I find mostly they somehow fail or feel inconsistent or uncohesive." However, Hawtin was "impressed" by Gonzales' commitment. "I could hear that this potentially could be magic, but I didn't think it was magic when I heard those demos. But there was something in there."

Hawtin's sole stipulation was that he mix Consumed By Key. "That was the only way that I felt I could agree to the project and egotistically think that, at least if I had the last mix on the album, it would be up to me to make sure the magic was there or mix some magic, or be part of the magic," he says. "But that was the only way I was gonna agree to someone having so much control over an album that was so close to my heart."

Above all, Hawtin is disinclined to languish in the past, forever looking forward. Randomly, Vanity Fair just profiled The White Lotus actor Theo James – the header "Theo James is done being put in a box." It's the creative's near-universal lament. Even Hawtin is fighting reductivism.

"I think, once you've been into your own creative mind space and craft for 20 or 30 years, you do find it more difficult to push outside the boundaries you've created – or other people have created for you," he philosophises. "Sometimes I'm trying to find a way and feel like I'm moving forward. But, at the same time, I also appreciate that what I do – in the way I make music or the way I listen to the music, the way I hear music, the way I play or perform music – is really a very individual, special, unique thing. And so, how do you continue to move forward but also stay unique and stay connected to the story you've been telling for so many years – and keep bringing those people who have supported you along the way with you at every step of the way without losing them, you know? 

"It's a fine balance. I really need to at least feel that I am challenging myself. Whether that's with a new sound or with new software or with new gigs or meeting new promoters or going to a new place, it's not one thing or another – it's just different things to keep making you feel excited and inspired to do what you do.

"But, at one point, you are who you are; you do what you do. There is a 'Richie Hawtin box' and, as much as I hope the sides of that box can be pushed through, maybe they're more elastic than brittle, and maybe I'm still pushing within the confines where I feel comfortable or where I find that sound that is Richie Hawtin's. So you're kind of fighting and pushing and pulling with that situation all the time."

Back in 1999, Hawtin collaborated with Carl Craig, another Detroit Second Waver, on the Innerzone Orchestra track Architecture – prompted by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Oddly, Hawtin is yet to score a film. His team are actively pursuing such endeavours – and not only the obvious sci-fi. Hawtin digs Amazon Prime's sci-fi drama Tales From The Loop. "It's all about the near future and real strange things that happen to normal people," he enthuses. "That's the kind of thing that I would be really interested in – one step forward or left of our reality and not so much the 200 years in the future."

Nevertheless, Hawtin is wary about accepting a movie job. "I don't know if that will ever take place; if I want it to or if I don't – it will really be if the right director with the right project comes forth," he says.

Nowadays, Hawtin weighs up both the artistic challenge and practicalities – admittedly a struggle. "I'm being very honest – at my point in life, I'm 52, I have a family to support, and this is how I make my money," he explains. "So it has to be a very interesting balance of where your career is at, what you need to keep going, and how much creativity it's gonna give you and how much control you have.

"There's a lot of things that you can think would be a perfect thing for me to do at this point in my career, but I'm more careful. I still love making my own music, for the music that I wanna make. I love to perform and play records and DJ with the music that I wanna play for the crowd and not dictate to somebody else. So that really is a big part of the gravitational pull to my direction."

Techno romanticises the future with its sense of possibility – and Hawtin exudes an eternal youthfulness and optimism. Does he ever feel creeping anxiety when contemplating temporality? (Hawtin does joke about techno's "old guy gang".)

"Well, it depends on from which angle I look at that question," Hawtin responds. "As a father with a 16-month, year-old daughter, thinking about the future sometimes can get pretty hairy because of all the things I know, and I'm interested in – with technology and AI and environmental concerns. I can be a little bit worried and have some anxiety.

"[But] when I look at it from the perspective of a techno musician, I think it's absolutely incredible what heights techno has reached over the last 30, 35 years, and how many incredible new young musicians are coming into this scene and listening or hearing techno for the first time and making their own path and making their own mission; making their own opinion about techno.

"So I think music is alive, techno is alive – and it's got a whole beautiful future ahead of it, ahead of us, as long as we have a safe, hospitable planet to live on."

Richie Hawtin will perform at Hardware 30: True Faith at Melbourne's Sidney Myer Music Bowl tomorrow night and Brisbane's Fortitude Music Hall on Sunday.