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"Berlin Taught Me Patience And How To Build A Set": An Interview With Techno's Jimmy Edgar

The Detroit heavyweight talks London, Berlin and collaborating with Sophie.
August 4, 2014, 9:29pm

Even at age 16, Jimmy Edgar's releases were super-slick and sharply edited. But what really set his productions apart is how well they hold together to this day. Unlike the material of others who pursued an ultramodern aesthetic, Jimmy's are futurist productions that still glisten well into the future - fifteen years on. By the same token, the records he's putting out today still retain a youthful vitality.

Edgar's career has seen the Detroit futurist traverse a whole variety of backdrops, and yet his distinctive identity has never faltered. After DJing at Detroit raves as a teen, he some became the poster-boy for the mighty Warp Records whilst simultaneously holding down a successful career as fashion photographer, eventually finding his base in Berlin where he is now focusing on his own label, Ultramajic. Not bad for a man barely out of his twenties.

THUMP: As a DJ and producer you achieved a hell of a lot at a very young age. It feels like there was a clear artistic direction from the get go. Was there? Or did it just happen?

Jimmy: I am much more methodical and meticulous these days. In my early days I liked to do things raw, so a lot of my stuff appeared sort of jagged around the edges. I also cared a lot less about what people thought because I was naive. I used vocals more and taboo sounds/ideas. I think I'm much more conscious of what my art, design and music does to people now, so it needs to be perfect and also respectful to the domain that it creates, virtual or otherwise.

Did it ever catch you by surprise at any point, like being signed to Merck at 19 or Warp Records the year after? Was it overwhelming?

Jimmy: It was never overwhelming because I was focused on exactly what I wanted to do and it became real. I don't think I've ever been surprised. This is how I operate. Surprise is something that happens when you aren't paying attention.

You've been at it for some time now and yet you continue to move forward and innovate. How do you stay inspired and at your peak?

Jimmy: I'm passionate about what I do - this is the only way. I'm constantly learning a new craft to express my ideas. I always say that I'm a "student for life", but my most vivid inspirations are also when I'm showing somebody something I've done. If you have a desire to share in a positive way, you can keep this flow. Plus, I'm not always satisfied with my work so I'm continually discovering ways to improve it. I'm focused on moments when I can create something I can listen to or look at for hours straight as if I just entered another reality.

Do you consider it important to keep up with current stuff or are you more interested in exploring inwardly?

Jimmy: Absolutely. I find it disturbing when people say they turn off other influences to work on their own stuff, and granted this can work in mysterious ways too and there have been times that I shut myself off, but ultimately it's earth culture that inspires me. I don't believe you can turn it off, so might as well let it flow. The idea of "I don't want to be inspired by ____" is really backwards. It's best to always follow the inspiration, whatever it may be.

What kind of things are you inspired by at the moment? What records do you keep reaching for?

Jimmy: I'm into really hypnotic techno right now. I've been in the studio with my modular synthesizer. I'm working on some tracks that combine the drum work of acid house with the raw sounds of Berlin techno. Ultramajic, my record label, will be putting out 12" DJ tools all year.

Modular synthesis, eh? We know you've always used a lot of custom-built hardware but are we perhaps to expect some real old school modular shit?

Jimmy: If you put it like that then no, I always use modular synthesis as a sound source. I wouldn't call anything I do old school, but if you mean will the tracks be without the shine of my normal music then that is a possibility. Getting into modular synthesis is interesting because there is so much you can do on it: sometimes I spend a whole night doing one of these tasks… sound design, drum work, polyphonic sequences, sample manipulation.

There was a time when you were putting out glitchy instrumental hip-hop, which was way before its time. Obviously there were already the Dabryes and Prefuses back then but the whole electronic hip-hop thing has really only blown up in the last five years. Not that you're the type to bandwagon but are you ever tempted to re-explore that area?

Jimmy: I do still make music like that from time to time, but I've really moved on from it. I think there is a lack of community around those styles of music. I feel what we are doing with Ultramajic inspires people to get involved and go to the parties and dance. I find instrumental hip-hop pretty boring. I spent years crafting my piano playing for hip-hop, which has the same fundamentals as house music because they both come from the Baptist Churches if you really wanna get technical.

So you don't think much of the whole LA beat scene?

Jimmy: I don't think I know anything about it. If you mean Salva, i'm into it. We're friends and I respect what he does. If you mean trap then hmm, well I get it yes, but it's not for me. I would much rather listen to southern hip-hop. I think the production elements of trap are still cool in some ways but very rarely can someone pull it off without sounding really cheesy - most of it is way overdone and stuck in this time.

A lot of your gigs nowadays see you playing techno and house stages. It's a world you've slotted into quite naturally despite the events you're playing being very different from those you were doing, say, ten years ago, touring with Warp. Do you give much consideration to where youre playing and with whom when planning your set?

Jimmy: Yes, you have to. I'm up there for the people, we're in this together. Yes, I play for myself and from my ego in some kind of way, but ultimately you have the respect the room. This goes back to what I was saying about taking responsibility for the space that I create.

How has moving to Berlin had an effect on your direction?

Jimmy: Berlin taught me about patience and building a DJ set. Where I came from, you didn't have 3-4 hours to build a set.

You're also a photographer and visual artist (you designed some of your album covers yourself). It's clear there is a strong visual style that goes with your work. Do you have a visual in mind when you sit down to make music or do you find the music comes first and informs the look?

Jimmy: Generally it all comes together mysteriously. I've learned to trust these situations and let them live. You start trying to force things and problems arise. I let loose a bit and trust that the ideas will flow together and this works for me. I always walk into a visual situation with a strong idea though, otherwise I don't bother, and part of it is developing the idea. This is why sometimes it can be difficult to collaborate with people because my notes and sketches look like a mess even if I have a clear-cut idea in my head.

Your recent collaboration with Machinedrum as JETS was a meeting of minds and saw you playing as a duo. How did you find playing out with someone else, having been a solo act for most of your career?

Jimmy: It's always a compromise, but a good one. Travis and I are really funny because we're so bent on impressing each other that we were playing new tracks, on stage, so the other person could go "whoa what's this track?" We really channelled some kind of otherworldly inspiration. Travis is my cosmic soul brother. We had a lot fun touring; we're looking at doing another one when we both have time.

Do you have any more collabs lined up? Perhaps with some of you're new Ultramajic artists?

Jimmy: I have a big track with SOPHIE that we are just finishing.

You're Ultramajic label is a house for the music and design as well as otherworldly stuff. Tell us a bit about it.

Jimmy: Yes, it's fundamentally a visual music label. We release music every 6-8 weeks from friends and new artists we've met. Pilar Zeta and I, thus far, have done all the visuals but we plan on expanding. It's where most of my focus is going on these days because now I have a doorway to release the art and music as one entity.

How do you find time to do both? Do you ever stop and chill?

Jimmy: I do what I love cause I love what I do. I always work because it's my breath. I believe that to live as a creator is the key. Sure, I have downtime when I am tired and travelling, but when I'm home I literally walk straight into my studio.

You're touring an awful lot these days. Do you still enjoy it? Do find it tiring or inspiring?

Jimmy: It's up and down, both tiring and inspiring, but I have found my way to make it work. I used to love it and then I started to hate it because I was drinking and smoking a lot. I've been experimenting with sober DJing and eating right, exercising while on tour and actually, I find this very inspiring because I can actually do my work while I travel and not be hungover in the airport. I take what I do very serious, and I love to have fun with it too. I'm on a quest to debunk the myth that the more "fucked up" and hung-over you are, the more fun you had.

This isn't to say I don't drink or smoke, because I do, but I am experimenting with these ideas and giving them a chance to see what's best. In any event, it's good to stay 'open'.

You're playing at London's Egg at the end of August. How do you find playing in London?

Jimmy: I love London. I've been coming and playing for 12 years. It has such a particular vibe and people in London really respect new sounds. There is a stale situation in America, people get all nostalgic and I'm not really into it. London is the exact opposite - they want nothing to do with nostalgia, from what I've found. I'm very excited for this show. The last few were at Fabric!

What's next for Jimmy Edgar?

Jimmy: Focus on Ultramajic, touring. I've just finished loads of artwork that I am really proud of but we're figuring out what to do with it. As I said before, integrity is very important.

More on Jimmy Edgar from THUMP:

Jimmy Edgar is Detroit Techno's New Age Wizard

Check out Ultramajic's Soundcloud page here