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Detroit’s Techno Epoch: An Interview with Movement’s Sam Fotias

on May 13, 2015, 2:30pm

After two decades of experience working in the electronic music industry, Sam Fotias has maintained the excitement and positivity you’d typically find in someone who only just discovered the scene. While Fotias still discusses the culture with the vigor of a novice, his roots in the scene run much deeper. Over the past 17 years, Fotias has played a pivotal role in the evolution of Detroit’s techno scene as the Operations Director for Paxahau, the force behind Detroit’s highly respected Movement Electronic Music Festival. It was during his time passing out flyers in the early ’90s as part of Detroit’s Voom promotional collective that led to regular encounters with Richie Hawtin and fellow promoters Jason Clark and Jason Huvaere. These connections would eventually help shape his career as well as the broader Detroit techno landscape.

During that time, Fotias has been able to live out most tech heads’ dreams, from vision quests with Hawtin to behind-the-scenes access at Germany’s Time Warp. Rarely does a cynical tone creep into his demeanor. Unlike some vinyl purists who are happy to criticize the next generation of DJs, Fotias embraces change and understands that evolution is necessary for every culture. It’s true that the ongoing commercialization of dance music has had an effect on Paxahau, but Fotias recognizes that every obstacle has the potential to open up new opportunities for his beloved Detroit sounds.

Just weeks ahead of Movement’s 10th installment (taking place May 23rd – 25th in Detroit’s Hart Plaza), Fotias was gracious enough to pause amid the chaos and pick up the phone to chat about all things Paxahau, Movement, and the future of underground culture.

Movement 2015 lineup

With so many big mainstage names based overseas, it seems that too many think of house and dance music as a European phenomenon. As appreciation for dance music grows stateside, I felt it was necessary to add some historical context to the culture. I figured there was no better team to reach out to than Paxahau.  

Thank you as well. I appreciate the opportunity. Paxahau basically came up in the second wave of techno. Ultimately, I think it is a great thing how big the music is getting, but people need to realize that it is an American-bred art form. There is some historical pride that should come into consideration there, because obviously the music has now been shared throughout the entire planet. We are proud about it.

Last year I saw Mad Mike speak during the re-introduced Moogfest, and he really opened my mind to so much of this forgotten Detroit culture. So much of the techno experience is in that after-hours setting, and to bring into a more academic setting felt a bit odd, but it has to be done. Hearing him speak about becoming a baseball coach to install regional pride in young men and using that same mentality to run his record label inspired me personally to discover more about the city’s cultural legacy. 

Mike is an awesome guy. We have had a close relationship with UR for over 20 years. It is really an interesting time when you get to hear the anecdotes that these guys can share

There isn’t a filter there about the past, present, or future of Detroit underground music. I think that is one of the most interesting things about Detroit — there is a city pride, but the ego never surpasses the ability.

In the beginning, the anonymity of the artists was key. The focus was, and still is, the music. It wasn’t about who was onstage performing. The Underground Resistance guys wore masks in the beginning and there weren’t any pictures of them anywhere. It is all about focusing on the music and not the personality, which is kind of the exact opposite of what is going on these days.

UR 1
Mad Mike in support of Trayvon Martin

What are some of your earliest memories coming into the scene, and what led you to take a central role in the underground Detroit community? 

At the time in the late ’80s, if you weren’t old enough to get into clubs, there were still a couple conduits where the music was being featured. The Electrifying Mojo had a broad format show where he was playing everything from Kraftwerk to Prince and Rick James to Cybertron and Derrick May. He was highlighting all the great records coming out of Detroit at the time. You also had the Wizard Jeff Mills with a radio program that was kind of doing the same thing, but actually mixing tracks. Then WDET had a show with Alan Oldham, also known as DJ T-1000, that was called “Fast Forward.” That was a public radio station here, but he was highlighting a lot of the straight-up techno that was coming out of Detroit, as well as the Netherlands, at the moment.

Growing up, my older brother was a club DJ. He played house and early techno, and my original tastes were actually more in the industrial realm: early Ministry and the Revolting Cocks and Front 242. When we would go to the venue that Richie [Hawtin] was playing, or some of the clubs like City Club, they were mixing industrial and alternative with the early electronic stuff. The first wave had happened — Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and the Music Institute had already come and went to perform in Europe and other countries. For the most part it was just house parties that were being thrown.

In the early ’90s, a few friends I knew started a promotional company called Voom, and they were the first ones to start doing underground parties again. There were gay night clubs in the city like Heaven and a few other spots that you could go to, but there wasn’t anything attracting a new young clientele until Voom came along. These weren’t necessarily raves; they were just parties that featured local guys like Derrick, Kevin, Juan [Atkins], Richie, and Mike Huckaby. Then, they would bring in an out-of-towner like Derrick Carter and that really initiated the next new wave of underground partying that we know in the contemporary sense.

movement2014 Detroits Techno Epoch: An Interview with Movements Sam Fotias

Once those parties starting taking hold, Kevin Saunderson, who had been traveling and taking advantage of the music getting bigger overseas, came back and started throwing these bigger events at the Majestic Theater called “Journey Through The Hardcore.” Those were really the first big European-influenced rave events that housed all the Detroit guys. He also brought in Moby and a lot of the bigger acts from New York and overseas. I started flyering with VOOM, and in the course of a couple years, I started working with Richie on some parties.

That was really the explosion. I started doing parties in ’93, and that span from ’93 to ’95 was a huge time for Detroit. Parties across the Midwest had starting exploding, with Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, Dayton, Indianapolis, Columbus, New York, and Pennsylvania all starting to do these massives with funky breaks and house music, but we were really the torch-bearers here in Detroit for techno. If you wanted lasers, projections, and crazy lights, you went somewhere else in the Midwest. If you wanted a dark room with a strobe light, a police beacon, and a ridiculous sound system, you came to Detroit and saw a party we were throwing with Richie.

That time period was really the incubator for everything that we do now. That is when the partners that run Paxahau all met and started loosely working together. All of the principles and history that we learned then really shaped us. We were all best friends and we traveled around together. That was the epoch, I guess you could say.

Kevin Saunderson

What is the name “Paxahau” in reference to?

We were really into inner-exploration back then. The two partners that actually created Paxahau, Jason Clark and Jason Huvaere, went to New Hampshire for a little bit in the mid-’90s when things started getting a little weird, like when cops were busting parties and the scene reverted back to the clubs. They came back here in the spring of 1997 and hit me up and said they had this new idea: They were going to start this company called Paxahau and they wanted me to be involved in it. Paxahau is the combination of two Mayan glyphs, “Pax” and “Ahau”, which is the significance of sound or music within a particular cycle of time. It was the perfect name for what we wanted to do.

Mad Mike has talked about escaping Detroit through different cultures, but also the idea that your generation competed against the mechanization of the auto industry. If you didn’t work faster than the machine, you were out of a job. Combined with the decay that Detroit residents live with every day, there has been more of an earnest approach to electronic music from the Detroit guys. Just as Austin preaches about keeping Austin weird, is there an impulse to keep Detroit underground?

Absolutely. It is an unspoken ethos here that the music is always first. No matter what generation DJ or producer you are, you are always keeping that lineage in mind with everything you do. Not only is it where you came from, but it is the reason you are doing what you are doing. The pride of locale and history is something everyone here in the scene feels consistently in their being. Obviously, it has evolved from what it used to be, just because the scene in general has changed. The push and the desire for more from the outside world has forced Detroit to change a little. It is not necessarily bad; it is just different. Everything must evolve.

Visiting downtown, you can’t miss the broader Detroit evolution. But it’s great to see Movement retaining the local Made In Detroit Stage every year.

That stage is one of the most important facets of the event. In order to sell tickets to a broader scope of people, it is impossible to do a 100% Detroit-focused event on that scale, but having that stage on the property will never fade. It’s only getting more and more attention as the event grows. Of all of the performances we get feedback on, the Detroit Stage always gets the most. And even though the festival is now 15 years old, whenever someone plays that stage, no matter who it is, we hear that it’s one of the best experiences of their life and you can feel that. It’s almost a window into the past purity of the scene. You are seeing true selectors and true performers that have grown up surrounded by the history of this music. This is their time to shine, and whether they are playing midday or in the evening, they give it 1,000 percent. The crowd picks up on this and realizes, “Wow! This is why I love this music. This is the place, this is it!”

MadeinDetroit

That stage is almost insulated from the rest of the festival. When it gets packed, it has to be one of the best experiences of any dance festival. 

That area is definitely a challenge. It is basically a huge concrete chamber of nothing but reflective surfaces. That stage is definitely the most reflective of Detroit’s party history — a dark warehouse space that is just damp and dirty.

Even for someone like me, who listens to new tunes 40 hours a week, there is always something new to discover at Movement. When building the bill, what does Paxauhau see itself as? Incubator, trendsetter, gatekeeper? What is the deeper ethos of curation? 

The curation process goes on all year long. Sometimes, there are acts that are being groomed to play almost a year in advance. There are acts that we always want, and as the festival market gets busier and busier, artist availabilities get more and more difficult. Other events charge three or four times the Movement event price, so it makes it more challenging for us sometimes.

We already have acts for 2016 that we are looking at now. It is a vast process that includes the entire company, a lot of dialogue, a lot of travel, and lots of discussions with agents and artists.

That’s one thing that gets me about criticisms of Movement. These people are paying only $150 to see some of the most amazing talent in the world. Most of the artists on the Beatport stage demand, and are worth, that much money.

That is a struggle that we find particularly interesting. We earnestly feel we are presenting the best possible product for the best possible value. Ticket prices do go up because the cost of doing business never goes down: generators, fuel, port-o-johns, sound systems, talent fees, lighting, video, permits. The hundreds of thousands of things that go into making an event never go down in price. We try our hardest to keep the economy of scale in check so that we are proving a world class event for the best possible value.

Talent is obviously the largest portion of a festival, but we just don’t plug things in based on tickets sales. And as someone that has attended this festival, I assume that when you see this schedule, you notice how it plays on throughout the day on each stage, based on its locale on the property and the vibe that it has. We structure the BPM from the start of the day to where it will end up at the end of the night. Every aspect of it is thought out and we hope the attendees can appreciate why they are having this experience. You are not going to walk to a stage at 2 p.m. and have someone just throwing down 140 BPM stuff. We want it to progress throughout the day so that each stage climaxes as we get to the end of the night.

In regards to curating the event, there are certain genres that we tend to stay away from just because our focus is genres you can draw a connection with to Detroit. So, whether it is the career of somebody or the style of music that was influenced by Detroit — be that funk, hip hop, techno, rap or whatever — those are the direct correlations to Detroit. We see ourselves as ambassadors to our city, focusing on the significant historical impact musically that Detroit has had on the rest of the world.

Movement-2015_Phase-2-Announce_final

We were all born and raised here. We continue to do business here, and we produce the Detroit Jazz Festival in addition to Movement. Jazz Fest is 35 years old and the world’s largest free jazz festival. We have a pride of place here, and we want to share that with people.

I remember a few years ago, you partnered with Electric Forest and had some younger fans showing up to see the likes of Big Gigantic, but they also couldn’t avoid an introduction to Moodymann or DJ Sneak. That sort of discovery isn’t as accessible at other festivals that are so headline-driven. Like in 2011 when Paxahua booked Skrillex, people starting chatting about the festival pushing into commercially successful EDM. Your team responded with guarantees that the festival would always maintain a balance and never allow any one artist to overwhelm ticket demand. With so many festivals only focused on selling out, that statement led to my utmost respect for Paxahau.

Skrillex was actually one of the first artists we booked for Movement 2011. We booked him in September and he was just starting to bubble on his rise — very similar to when we booked deadmau5 in 2008 for the Beatport stage. At that point he was one of the biggest selling artists on Beatport, but obviously he was nowhere near where he is at now.

We are really excited to have Sonny [Moore] back this year as one-half of Dog Blood with Boys Noize. We did a New Year’s show with them a few years back at the Palace where the Pistons play. They had both played independently at that show, but then they played together for a after party, which is one of the main things that led us to have them back this year. There was no dubstep and they tore that place apart. They are both very talented individuals, no matter what any purists have to say. We have no doubts that this is going to be one of the major shows of the weekend. They are both really pumped to do it. They haven’t done a Dog Blood show together in a really long time. I think people are going to have their faces blown off.

Boys Noize is simply incredible, and no matter what has been said about Sonny, he has really opened himself up to so many sounds and mentors. It’s hard to hate on someone that really wants to learn and push the entire industry.

He really is a great guy. If you ever get the opportunity to sit and talk with him, he is actually really humble. He has a sincere desire to do cool things in Detroit. Part of him gets he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if Detroit hadn’t been a catalyst back in the beginning. That New Year’s show was their idea. They came to us wanting to do a New Year’s show in Detroit because they wanted to play Detroit. I don’t think a lot of people understand that a lot of these commercial acts have a lot of reverence for Detroit. Those are things that we as promoters get to see far more than the general public, which probably leads to many bookings that people might not “get” but will click when they see it live. Another perfect example is John Digweed, somebody that has more than paid their fuckin’ dues in the scene. The guy is a pillar of why the scene is what it is today. I mean, the things he and Sasha were doing in the ’90s blew minds.

That was actually one of my first live experiences. It was hard to see that first and not be at least a little bit spoiled. 

Those guys all laid the groundwork for what is happening in the United States now. It only made sense to have John out. We have a really good relationship with the Time Warp [Festival] guys and after they booked him and we got to watch his set, we knew we had to have him here. That was in 2013, and there were crazy rainstorms from here to Chicago. He was in Chicago the night before, his flight got delayed multiple, and he finally made it here 10 minutes before his set was supposed to start. He was so determined to play Detroit at Movement that he didn’t care that it was raining sideways all over his gear. He played the whole set when any other big DJ would have been like, “I am not fucking playing.” He got on the decks and it was almost like the underground rave in The Matrix. It was raining like crazy and these kids were going totally nuts. It made such an impact on us, and he was so gracious to play that we had to invite him back to play the mainstage before Richie last year. That is why we pay attention to some of the bigger names that we bring in. It is not just to sell tickets; it’s that people have a respect for where this music came from. We know they are going to step up to the plate and do a great job.

Even though the artists understand the lineage of the sound, do you think the fans get it? As someone in Detroit, do you care about that recognition? 

Here is my Reader’s Digest theory: Electronic music now is the new pop music. Pop music appeals to a very broad, younger audience; it is very accessible, and it is easy to sing along and party to. As people spend more time listening to it, a vast amount of them stay in that general realm, and then you have other people that explore related, root genres.

Now, you see events like Ultra having their Resistance Stage, Mysteryland having their Verboten and Drumcode stages, and EDC having their Enter Stage. It is an inevitability that all of these big headliner acts will start see their popularity fade and people will start looking for a new thing — that is just evolution. The thing that we do want to stress is that we have been doing this [underground] thing for 20 years. [These massive festivals] are not doing anything new, they’re not trend-setting or creating some new environment, because you aren’t. You are just providing this later in the game than we have been. I don’t know what level of sincerity those events have in presenting those stages. What I can tell you is that we eat, breathe, and sleep Detroit music. Our direction has never wavered — this is our core.

JohnDigweed

I feel that it takes more work to actually stay “underground” these days. For many of those festivals, the term is just a marketing ploy. How many times has Art Department played Movement? Now these larger festivals want to act like they are breaking that true deep house sound. 

To really call yourself “underground” now, you’re looking at Venetian Snares and Autechre — more in that IDM realm. Some festivals are doing stuff like that, like Decibel and Mutek. But I don’t even know if “underground” can even be a proper term anymore with how things have evolved. There almost has to be a new one, like “middleground” or something. Groups like Art Department, Tale of Us, and Dixon were all small a few years ago and now they’re huge. They should obviously be getting the credit they deserve for their accomplishments, but they can’t be called underground if they are playing to 5,000 people or more. I don’t say that in a condescending way. I just feel the term “underground” is becoming obsolete unless you are a noise artist or something.

I have actually heard the term “middlebrow” floating around some social circles. I think it relates back to that notion of eroding boundaries between the glamour of Las Vegas day parties and the grime of Bristol. 

It is an interesting dichotomy. For the most part, you have some guys that have been slugging it out since the ’90s, playing gig after gig, flying all over the place, and brutalizing their ears and bodies to just play in front of people. Now, all of a sudden, they are making a ton of money. I don’t think they understand that when they are taking pics of their private jet and sharing that fame with their fans, they are representing this scene as exactly what it was created to fight. There are huge light shows and huge production teams that follow these DJs around, and this whole DJ scene was created because people didn’t want to deal with that live band scene. Now it has gotten so massive that it has become that exact same thing.

How do you have a dialogue about all of that? It is especially interesting for guys like us, who threw those parties with one strobe light and a police beacon, and now see what attendees expect. It is an interesting transition to be a part of. I don’t particularly feel one way or the other about it, but I can tell you that when you see articles from other promoters talking about being done with these artist guarantees, I feel it is reaching this plateau where we might have to push a reset button.

While the first waves of American dance music was about a love of music and culture, so many people are getting into the scene now for money. Paxahau has been around for decades, and I am sure you have seen a number of competitors come in and then hobble out of the market. Seth Troxler has always been quite vocal about his lack of interest for the massive audience, and I think that is quite reflective of the attitude that the region offered him. 

Like I said, that time in the ’90s really shaped our principles. We have definitely been approached several larger entities in regards to being brand partners or investing in Paxahau, and after further discussion, there weren’t any that we wanted to be associated with. Not necessarily because they were bad, but it wouldn’t allow us to navigate things based on the principles that we have had for 20 years. We have to live here every single day. We have to face our attendees and our crowd whenever we do small club events. A payout doesn’t necessarily make the balance in regards to having to deal with that. We are very content in the way that we do things, and something like that doesn’t make sense to us.

movementreal Detroits Techno Epoch: An Interview with Movements Sam Fotias

Leading into Movement 2015, which artists are still carrying the torch of Detroit techno? 

You have got guys like Luke Hess who is an outstanding individual and producer. He has a partner that he works with on the Beretta Grey stuff, Brian Kage, who is awesome. Kyle Hall is great, and you have rising artists, such as ATAXIA, Kevin Reynolds and Blank Code, who are all doing great stuff. Gabi, one of our resident artists, is an outstanding DJ in her own right. There are quite a few here that are percolating up. You have Mike Huckaby who is the standard bearer, and Carl Craig who is just perpetuating his awesomeness. Kenny Dixon Jr. is also knocking it out of the park. A lot of people are also looking forward to the 30 year Metroplex showcase that Juan Atkins has going on. It is definitely chugging along here and people are doing something new every day. It is great to see what keeps coming out of the city.

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