When I was in Berlin last December, I must have heard around twenty different DJs play in one weekend, including big names like Âme, Modeselektor and Trus'me. But only one of them really stuck with me, and that was Eric Cloutier. His sound was dark but warm, steady but dynamic, techno but still house; original and captivating.
Eric Cloutier has only released a few tracks, but still plays all over the world - meaning that he must be a damn good DJ. When I saw that he was playing in Amsterdam at Trouw recently, I just had to interview him. Eric turned out to be just as interesting as his music. THUMP: How did you become interested in electronic music?
Eric Cloutier: I'm from Detroit, so it was kind of inevitable. I got into it around '96 or '97, during the heyday of the Detroit rave scene. There were so many parties. It was everywhere. And when I got home, I'd watch reruns of the New Dance Show. They played shit like Green Velvet and DBX. My first party was with Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva, and I was immediately hooked. That quickly turned into an obsession. I started spending less and less time on my other hobbies, like skating, snowboarding and graphic design, and almost all of my time and money buying records.
Did the scene get a lot of support in Detroit at the time, or was it more of a marginal thing?
Around the turn of the century, Fox 2 News started a new segment called Rave Busters. You'd be at an illegal rave around 4 am and suddenly a SWAT-team would burst in, followed by a camera crew that caught everyone and everything on tape. When you turned on your TV the next morning, they'd show some clips from the night before with one of those voice-overs going: "Do you know where your children are on a Saturday night?" That period really killed the scene. Afterwards it was a lot harder to throw a party that lasted beyond 2 am.
You moved to New York at some point. What was the scene like there?
I moved to New York seven years ago, and I was immediately drawn to [Bunker] because they played all the music that I really dig. The vibe was similar to the parties I went to in Detroit, so in that sense it wasn't a big change. What I did notice is that the community is a lot more positive there, and not as trapped in its own past. Detroit is a little afraid of change. There's a sense of pride and self-congratulation about all the things they invented, but I feel like they're digging their own grave by holding on to that too tightly. Alright, so you invented something. But maybe you just have to accept that someone else took your invention, put a different spin on it, and actually made it a little better.
So what's it like now in Berlin? Do you feel welcomed and accepted?
I think so. There are a lot of DJs in Berlin and the scene is very competitive, but I think I'm doing pretty good. Of course, I already had a decent reputation before I moved here. I'm not just another guy trying to get a gig at Berghain. But I do still feel like I'm the new kid on the block, and have to keep working hard to make more of a name for myself here.
You do the A&R for the TANSTAAFL label. Where do you find new music and artists?
The label is run by three DJs that do nothing but crate digging. And sometimes we find something on SoundCloud that we love. Then we send it to each other, and decide together if it suits TANSTAAFL. Do you ever release something by an artist if you're not sure they have more than one or two good tracks in them?
That depends. Once the ball starts rolling, I think they usually realize how much further they can take it. And then they just get swept up in it, and it's like a freight train that just keeps on rolling. You can't stop it. So you barely sleep and just go for it. When did that happen for you?
Things just came together for me at some point. I was playing more and more and traveling more and more. Just as my DJ career was taking off, I got fired from my other job. I saw that as a sign that I should just focus on my music. And that paid off. I'm gradually just getting better and better. Of course, there's always room for improvement, but it's really getting there. It all feels more natural than ever, especially when it comes to producing. Is it easier now because you've learned to let things go, or because you're faster at getting the sound just right?
A bit of both, I think. But the letting go part has been especially important. I think it had a lot to do with a certain degree of insecurity. I was under a lot of pressure to produce something awesome, because I've been DJing for 18 years and had never released anything until last year. People already knew me as a DJ, so they expected me to come out with nothing short of a masterpiece. So you basically had writer's block before you even began?
That's really what it was. I shut down completely. I thought everything I made sucked, and I even deleted a few finished tracks. That was just ridiculous, and I regret it now. With the skills I have now, I probably could have turned those tracks into something really good. But if you knew me a little, you would know that's pretty typical for me. I'm a little impulsive, I guess. I think that when I'm DJing, it just comes down to experience and ease. Once I get more practiced as a producer, those tracks will sound as natural and controlled as my sets. Maybe at some point, I'll be able to churn out new tracks with my eyes closed.
What I find interesting about techno nowadays are the vinyl purists. It feels a little regressive.
I'm a vinyl purist too. Not that I only play vinyl, but I always bring at least fifty records. And I'm still digging constantly. But if you're a good DJ, then I don't really care how you do it. If you can blow me away with four synched tracks in Traktor, you're doing your job well. It's about playing something interesting and original. There are so many DJs that are all fishing in the same musical pond. You can always tell when a DJ only sifts through the Beatport Top 100. So many people just rattle off the same sets. It's like people don't know the value of digging anymore. They look at the Hardwax frontpage and then they're done for the day. They want to become megastars, so they just look for the quickest and easiest way to get there. I think that's how the whole EDM thing got so big: it's fast, it's easy, and it works, so people just go for it. Who inspired you then and who inspires you now?
When I was just starting out, it was Derek Plaslaiko. Every time I heard him play I'd think: 'How the fuck does he do that?' And I was blessed enough to see Hawtin play a bunch of times when he was still playing decent techno on turntables and a 909. Mills always blows me away and Daniel Bell is still one of my favorite DJs. Nowadays, Peter van Hoesen, Donato Dozzy and Ben Klock really strike a chord with me. But I always keep my ears open. You never know if the opening act is suddenly going to be better than Ben Klock himself.
You said "when Richie Hawtin was still playing decent techno."
Richie is no fool, he knows what he's doing. He's very good at evolving. For the past twenty years, he's been the front-runner in a lot of new scenes and subgenres. Of course, everyone's taste changes as time goes by –mine, but his too. But I found him a lot more interesting when he was still playing Berghain techno, instead of the loopy, cyclical minimal he's dropping now. It is all so perfectly in synch. Everything has the same cadence; it's really not my thing. How do you see the future of techno in general?
Now that EDM is big in the US, the whole thing has come full circle. First they demonized electronic music, and now they're realizing that they missed a golden opportunity to make a lot of money by embracing it like every other musical genre. Europe really embraced electronic music, while in the States people were like: 'electronic music is for junkies and weirdos'. Now they're trying to catch up, which is both good and bad. It's all getting dumbed down for the masses –like pop, rock and hip-hop- until you're left with a watered-down imitation of what electronic music really is. So would you say that EDM is good or bad for the techno scene?
First of all, I think that term is just poorly chosen. 'Electronic dance music' is like saying 'trumpet jazz' or 'guitar rock'. But in the end, I do think the whole EDM hype will be good for techno, because at some point someone will say something that changes the perception of it. And I'm not talking about smart-ass letters like the one Seth Troxler wrote –which I totally agreed with by the way- but about some EDM kid dropping a few names in an interview that his fans have never heard of, and then those kids will google those and discover new stuff. In that sense, I think that back-to-back set that Richie Hawtin did with dadmau5 was brilliant. Richie realizes that there are millions of deadmau5 fans that have never heard of Richie, and deadmau5 knows that there are millions of Richie fans that have never heard of him. By throwing those two together, in theory they have doubled their fan base. But more importantly, on both sides they've introduced people to something different, something new.
More techno? Yes please: