Marc Houle is not a DJ. He has never tried beat matching, he wasn't caught in the quicksand of vinyl records, and he won't stand on stage with his hands in the air. Houle is the Canadian-born, Berlin implant devoted to a self-made, multifarious live techno act. Yet even an artist like Houle finds himself surrounded by the wacky-waving-inflatable-tube-men North America often confuses for DJs.
"It's fun to watch DJs on stage act like they made the song they're playing. As if right there and then, they're creating the song on stage. Meanwhile, that guy is just standing behind a CD player," says Houle over the phone. "Do people know that? I want to ask people if they actually know that."
Whether or not it's intentional, Houle combats this dance music forgery by strictly playing his own music. Armed with a custom made Livid controller, a sophisticated Ableton live setup, and an ever-changing wildcard of new gear, Houle's live performances are controlled chaos. "The trouble is sometimes people will say 'You're so serious up there.' Meanwhile I'm counting to 16, moving things, panicking, freaking out," he says. "It's a challenge to be on stage learning something at the same time you're supposed to be entertaining."
Houle was born and raised in Windsor, the puny Canadian city that shares its air pollution with the Motor City, Detroit. Few things synonymous with Windsor incite any sort of excitement, but Richie Hawtin is one of them. In the '90s, Hawtin was the owner of a club in Windsor called 13 Below and it was there that Houle and Hawtin connected.
"It was a place for us all to hang out like normal people. If 'normal' makes sense…those who weren't mainstream," says Houle. On Wednesdays, Houle would set up video game consoles while Hawtin doused the cavern-like club with techno. They called it "Atari Adventures." "It was great because people would come up to you and instead of requesting songs, they'd request games.
In Detroit their amity flourished. Houle was immersed in the raw vivacity of Detroit's '90s techno scene, honing his skills as he went. By 2004, Houle released his debut EP Restore on Minus. "One day Rich asked me to play live in Berlin, but I didn't know how. He gave me an old Korg keyboard, told me to practice, and that he'd see me in a month. I converted my songs into Ableton clips and 10 years later, here I am."
With Hawtin at the helm, Minus grew into an established global brand and the benchmark of minimal techno. But in 2011, Houle, along with fellow Minus artists Magda and Troy Pierce, decided to amicably separate from Minus to develop their label Items & Things. "For years I rode the Minus train as a passenger, looking out the windows not worrying about which direction we were headed. It was a great ride, but you have to do things on your own in order to pave the route of your future." He pauses to laugh. "How can I explain this without a train analogy?"
Actually, the train analogy works.
Through Items & Things, Houle journeys his own route, unrestricted by whether his music sounds "Minus-y" enough. Although not barring off the Minus sound, as his latest Restored (Remix Album) is on the label, it's no longer the only destination. But recently, the Items & Things train has encountered its own delay. "It's a little chaotic right now. Before we were just three people in Berlin working, but as our careers have taken off, the rapport is not as strong as it used to be, so the vision of the label is affected," admits Houle.
The crude reality is that the dance music landscape is changing and everything is subject to the sting. "Five years ago all we had to worry about was making it to the next show without missing our flights," he says. "You can't just worry about music anymore, you have to constantly bombard people, put out press releases about every little thing you do, take photos to stay in everyone's face."
The thought of social media standing on even ground with music is a road less traveled for Houle and his comrades. "Rich pushes a monitor and it hits someone—oh look, a million tweets. But a month before, Rich puts out a Plastikman album and it's not talked about nearly as much," laments Houle.
"Being a musician is 10 percent making music and 90 percent publicity bullshit nowadays. I used to see everyone at an airport and chat, but now you have to pose for a selfie so they can tag you. Like what? It's not what I've been used to for the last 10 years."
Houle's crusade against conventional bullshit is amplified by Hawtin's CNTRL: Beyond EDM tour. The tour spans across college campuses in North America and "explores the deeper side of electronic music" through lectures, workshops, and showcases with the mavens of the underground. Although not the lecturer type, Houle lets out a long, exaggerated sigh when asked why CNTRL is important to him.
"Once upon a time…" he says in a grandpa drawl. For Houle, the person-to-person interaction is what gives him hope for the future of dance music. "Those new to making music are given few options. Here's EDM and if you don't like EDM, here's rap. Rich is trying to show people that they have a third option. I hope that everyone who comes to CNTRL is inspired to make cool music to fight all of the stupid music that's going on in North America."
Houle is tight-lipped on his plans for the near future. There's a Movement Detroit afterparty on the horizon, but don't expect any back-to-back stunts. For now, he's celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Restore with a full Restore (Remix Album), a release he hopes will expose a generation to the sounds they might have missed.
His final words: "Canada!!!"