Like a Buddhist kōan, Luke Hess is a deceptively simple enigma in techno that takes time to unravel. The avowedly Christian, deeply Detroit-rooted dub techno producer essentially does what many people are attempting to do, only with the caveat that he, amongst very few others, gets it exactly right. It’s possible to trainspot his city of origin simply from listening to a few bars of one track, and it’s executed with a sophistication and depth of feeling that underscores its absence from much dancefloor music. It’s something that makes his tracks stand out in sets, and it’s also something that has earned him shouts and respect from the hardest of quarters, his fellow Detroit producers, all of whom work overtime to stay fresh and ahead of the curve. Hess’ biggest supporter has been none other than Alex O. Smith, better known as Omar S, another contemporary figure whose brash, inimitable style spells Detroit to a T but has earned him accolades as the ringleader of a new generation of Motown talent whose importance can’t seriously be questioned while techno has made its homecoming to the United States in the past few years. Famously outspoken and harsh in his judgement of his peers, Omar’s approval is one of the hardest to get, but with three EPs and an album on FXHE, Luke Hess definitely holds this key.
Now with releases on a few of the world’s most respected imprints for his sound, most notably Kontra Musik and Echocord, as well as his own DeepLabs label, Luke shows no signs of letting up, but the exact nature of his music remains as indescribable as ever. Whether it’s his faith propelling the emotions through the beats or the gritty soul of Detroit flowing through his veins and machines, Luke Hess’ sound is something that is better experienced than described, which alone explains the producer’s preference for live sets over his rare but breathtaking DJ gigs. Considering his comparatively low profile, Hess has had a quite stunning string of accomplishments: igniting the main stage at DEMF 2011 with Reference partner Brian Kage, hosting Omar’s live PA debut at the yearly Beretta Music party he co-presents with Brian, traveling the world’s most plucky clubs and parties spreading the gospel, and releasing and remixing tracks by highly regarded names in his area. We’re confident that Luke’s own take on things is going to far outlast many others, and he’s been turning appreciative heads towards turntables since the beginning here in Brooklyn. Fresh off of dropping a new album on Alex’s label, halcyon was happy to have a friendly chat with the otherwise-reserved talent about current events in techno and in Detroit and how he makes the little things count so much as they do…
h: Congratulations for the strong reviews your album received! What have you been up to since it dropped?
Luke Hess: Thanks! I’m happy that the album was well received. It was a concept that grew on me for quite some time, but now that it’s out on paper – I’m excited to move on to these new ideas that are brewing..
I’ve been working on new releases for DeepLabs, in the studio with Omar S, Reference, Select, & writing material for some other artists who I respect that have asked – so things are busy!
h: As a producer who plays mostly live sets, how would you characterize the difference between your live sets and your studio work?
LH: I like to create edits of all my material for my live sets, string together field recordings & loops for transitions, create interesting breaks, etc. – but still keep the format relatively fluid. I’ve seen to many live acts that decompose in concept & lose the crowd trying to create something on the fly that their really not prepared to do. If an artist spends a lot of time in the studio to create something special – many times people like to hear this live or an interpretation of these tracks – so I try to present these fully realized concepts & tracks in a creative way – I’d rather keep people dancing instead of scratching their heads.
h: I remember seeing you DJ only once, and it was at a private party… You were really good though! Why is it we never see you DJing in public?
LH: Actually, I love DJing, collecting music, and playing vinyl and enjoy live sets as well – they both have their place.
I started collecting records in 1996 & bought turntables in 1998. I’ve been DJing for much longer than I’ve been producing or playing live – I started producing in 2007. However, when I started getting booked after “Light in the Dark” I was getting asked to play live, and the trend has continued in this way even with all of the DJ podcasts I’ve put out. Of course I like playing live because I feel like people are experiencing me as an artist more than playing other people’s music. However, I feel like I have more experience as a DJ, and there is so much freedom to create beautiful moments on the dance-floor.
My interests right now are pure vinyl and the vast opportunities that digital DJing provides. I prefer the feel of vinyl, but I also enjoy the creativity that 4 decks in Traktor can give to a music lover.
h: I’ve noticed a harder, grittier sound creeping into your recent tracks as well as some lighter moments – the interludes on the album, for instance. It’s still a very Detroit sound, but I like the higher-impact style. What made you move in this direction?
LH: It’s interesting to come up with melodies & textures and experimental sounds in the studio.
Sometimes it makes sense to strip these sounds down for a listener to enjoy. However, when I’m performing live I want people to dance and have a memorable experience – most of these moments I’ve found happen when the kick drum & the bassline share a smoke.
So, I’ve still been allowing for deep cavernous sound experiments in the lab, but I’ve been making extra room for studio dance jam sessions.
I’m always interested in pushing Detroit influenced music in new directions. I don’t feel that my sound has ever been limited to one specific genre, though I do have my inspirations; I want to explore the depths of what electronic dance music has to offer.
h: You’ve been working a lot with Omar S in his studio on your recent productions, and it seems to have given your music a more raw sound than before. I know you two go pretty far back, but what pushed you to working together and how has it changed things for you?
LH: I’m honored to work with Omar S so closely – it really started after he picked up tracks for the first Dubout EP on FXHE. He’s been a mentor in a lot of ways – It can be done, but only he could do it – but now I can too :-) He’s a great friend & he really pushes me as an artist, and I’m super thankful for this. Omar S showed me the art of a mix, instead of sequencing on the computer. I’ve recently purchased a console of my own and I’m excited to incorporate this mixing style into my new productions.
h: The prospect of a collaboration with you and Omar is definitely exciting, and he debuted his live set last year at Beretta. Any thoughts about something along these lines in the future?
LH: We’ve discussed a few concepts for more collaborations, and we’re currently working on new music together. As these new projects & ideas take shape I think they could easily be incorporated into a live performance. I’d welcome the opportunity.
h: You’ve got as much Detroit integrity as anyone I can think of. Have things changed much in Detroit in the last couple of years since electronic music has been getting attention in the States? As an American producer, are you seeing more interest in your own work as a result of this shift?
LH: The Detroit electronic community has definitely changed over time.
However, there are still devoted Detroit artists creating new and exciting things on a daily basis in and around the city.
Most of the creative energy here is very personal & doesn’t follow trends – Detroit artists are kind of anti-trend.
So, to answer your question, things haven’t changed a whole lot. People are still warm, the city still has a creative edge that cannot be stopped, and no current trends or wax & wane of the popularity of dance music will phase it.
I would like to say that more of my friends in the city are in high demand because of the rise in “EDM” – but I think for Detroit-style musicians – things are staying consistent – I feel this is a good thing.
h: You’re definitely someone I think of with a strong, personal sound, but techno has been changing in the last few years and broadening. As a record buyer, what are some shifts or releases that have caught your attention?
LH:You know, when I purchase a record it has to have a certain feel – it has to take me to another place – it has to send me somewhere, make me think, make me feel, & make me dance.
I’m not interested in new trends, just in the heart & souls of a piece of music. So, I purchase music that’s all over the map as far as genres go – as long as it captures me. Of course when I DJ I like to choose from these resources to build a consistent idea..
I do like the fact that harder & rawer techno & house is making its way into the hearts of new listeners. I think the analog quality of these productions are being appreciated amongst the sea of digital production.
h: We’re happy to see you back in New York! What’s next for you? Do you have upcoming releases you’d like to discuss here?
LH: I’m Happy to be back too… I love New York!!! Yes, the vinyl release of “Keep On” is dropping on FXHE with new edits of the CD Album in January!! Next up is DeepLabs 003 which will be a various artists release with Marko Furstenberg, Joshua Harrison, Regan, & Patrick Gil. I’m doing a mix that will be featured on Omar S’s new album next year, writing music for Richie Hawtin, Echocord, Ornaments, Kontra-Musik & DeepLabs. Working in the studio with Reference & Select….
Keep On Keepin’ On. ;-)