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You Can Thank Ben Aqua for Keeping Austin Weird

Meet the visual artist, DJ, and label manager who's putting Austin and Texas artists on the map.

Long before the phrase "EDM" emerged to sell stadium techno to norms, dance music was the purview of weirdos: hippies, drag queens, drug addicts, cyber-goths, dummy-sucking man-babies. You know, the kind of people who live in Austin—people like Ben Aqua.

Part-time visual artist, producer, DJ and label manager at #FEELINGS (home of Lotic, Rabit, Ynfynyt Scroll and more), Ben has just released his debut album Virtual Anticipation, an opus that taps everything from footwork and club to seapunk and skweee, and pulls it all together with a post-human outlook. The dude holds it down for an international network of social media-savvy digital natives, and it's not unusual to see friends in any major city wearing his iconic NEVER LOG OFF shirt, or sporting a #F sticker on their laptop. On the week of the #FEELINGS SXSW showcase, I quizzed Aqua about his life, work, and—most importantly—the Illuminati-endorsed "Gaylien Agenda."

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THUMP: Which character from the movie Hackers most closely resembles you? And why?
Ben Aqua: I was the formless, invisible cluster of bug-free binary code subconsciously embedded throughout the film once every 14 nanoseconds.

Something about your work, and in particular your album, makes me think about the melding of man and machine, or the singularity, even. It might be combination of classical elements and up-to-the-minute synth sounds. Is there any kind of a concept behind the album? What is Virtual Anticipation?
Virtual Anticipation is loosely about a sense of anxiety, happiness, fear, alienation and excitement I've felt as a result of years of endlessly analyzing how the Internet and technology are influencing ideas of self-identity, sexuality, privacy, "immortality," and fantasy. Aesthetically, I experimented with a ton of different samples and instruments from various sources, old and new. So if you listen closely, you can hear bits of field recordings from my phone, drum fills ripped from mid-70s cosmic prog/synth vinyl, pitched up and pitched down sounds from random YouTube videos, sampled Nintendo DS noises, bit-crunched iPad soft synths, etc. I wanted the album to sound very loud, detailed, crispy, cute, fresh, somewhat frantic and NOW, but with hints of THEN and ALWAYS and NEVER and FOREVER.

Tell me your own top five personal musical influences.
Frederic Chopin, Wendy Carlos, Electric Light Orchestra, Danny Elfman, Timbaland.

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What is your favourite muscle?
There is a wifi-enabled nanotech transceiver deeply embedded in the left bicep of every giant, hairy, beefy, multi-limbed cyborg that helps transfer reality/experiential data from the "real world" into the virtual realm. I just can't get seem to get enough of it.

Austin's pretty well known for its live music scene, but how is the club scene there? And tell me more about your upcoming #FEELINGS Official SXSW Showcase party—the line-up looks awesome.
The Austin club scene is slowly making a name for itself. In the past few years, bigger names in EDM are regularly stopping in Austin and filling up clubs, which hasn't really consistently been the case since the local rave scene quieted down in the early 2000s. I still think Austin is majorly underrepresented in the scope of the worldwide EDM scene. There are so many super talented and passionate local DJ/producer/promoter crews that are working hard towards reviving our underground club scene, such as 808K, Peligrosa, Wabi Sabi, Elevater Action, Flying Turns, Machine, Learning Secrets, Mad Classy, and Exploded Drawing.

Austin seems like a somewhat temporary place for many people, and I sometimes wonder how that effects the advancement of a cultural scene, musical genre, or dance phenomenon. A lot of people tend to move here, stick around for two or three years, then move on to a bigger city once they can't hold back their craving for a next level, faster-paced lifestyle. In my opinion, scenes likes NYC, Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, or the UK are so successful in carving out well-defined, world-recognized club music scenes partially because people stick around in one locale and actively build upon an aesthetic for 15-plus years. I would love to see Austin up there on the EDM map one day. #GOALS

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The #FEELINGS Official SXSW 2014 Showcase is the first time my label is officially presenting our artists to the SXSW festival fun machine. It's happening on March 14 at Silhouette (upstairs)—718 Congress Ave, Austin. I'm really excited about the lineup: Rabit, Ynfynyt Scroll, Supraman, Poolboy92, Creepside and myself. It's almost all Texas-based artists except for Poolboy92, who's coming in from NJ/NYC.

What was the inspiration for setting up the #FEELINGS label in the first place? How do you choose the releases/artists you put out?}
One of the main reasons I started #FEELINGS was to help put Austin and Texas artists on the map. After releasing our debut EP, Lōtic's More Than Friends EP back in December of 2011, I really got into the idea of a minimal and mysterious promotion method paired with a quality-over-quantity approach to art and music curation. In terms of how I pick the artists I work with, it really comes down to this: am I #feeling it or not? I don't particularly look for big names or hyped/buzzworthy genre waves to ride on. I tend to be drawn to artists that I see as detail-oriented, genre-pushing, humble, focused, passionate and experimental in their creative approach and in their IRL/URL identities. With each release comes a broader community of talented creators to collaborate with from all over the world. It's a truly magical labor of love that's quite intoxicating.

From where I am in the UK, the underground dance scene in the US seems very healthy, with loads of good regional scenes like Jersey or Chicago or Houston. How do you feel about dance music in the US right now? Can we use the phrase "post-EDM" yet?
I am so in love with the current state of US dance music. Increased access to relatively inexpensive, high-quality digital music production and Internet-based publishing platforms have really opened doors to some amazing, experimental American micro-scenes. I especially enjoy the steady stream of trax getting released under seemingly identity-free, mysterious, funny monikers, using made-up crossover genres with Tumblr aesthetics, garbled song titles, etc. It's so fresh, free-form, "fuck everything" and playful. I really hope more of these URL-based acts, and EDM artists in general, start playing out more and getting more interpretive and innovative with their IRL identities as well. There's so much room for EDM producers everywhere to let their freak out IRL, to do something uniquely different, and I really think now is the perfect time to do so. We have amazing tools and literally every recorded piece of information ever published to the internet instantly available at our fingertips, so there's really no excuse not to be totally #NEXTLEV right now, haha. It's a really exciting and forward-thinking time for dance music, though I wouldn't call it "Post-EDM", but maybe it's more of an "EDM Renaissance"?

Tell me about the Gaylien Agenda. Are these gayliens hot? Where can I meet one?
The full details surrounding the The Gaylien Agenda are shrouded in mystery, and I'm sworn to secrecy for the time being, I'm afraid.

You can buy your copy of Virtual Anticipation here and follow Ben at benaqua.org. The Niallistis a UK-based writer and DJ who is obsessed with vogue and ballroom dancing.