The night before I spoke to Matthew Dear he'd been playing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York alongside the Juan Maclean and Robyn. "It was kind of like seeing a really professional pop show on a small stage," he said. "It was so tight." For those of you versed in Dear's work under his own name—where the Texan born, Michigan raised producer hovers somewhere between acoustic intimacy and neurotic, curdled electro-pop—it's a bill that sort of makes sense. If, however, you've spent more time with his 12"s as Jabberjaw, False, or Audion, it's a bit of an eyebrow raiser.
Under those pseudonyms, Dear's been making the kind of propulsive, stark, skeletal house and techno that's custom built for dancefloors stuffed to the brim with lithe bodies—one nation under a groove an' all that. It's arguably Audion that's the best known of the aliases. His mid-00s 12"s under the name became foundational elements of the decade's minimal boom and still sound ludicrously fresh today.
June 10th sees the release of his debut full length as Audion. As you'd expect, Alpha, which drops on !K7, is a tough, taught, and trippy collection of dark-edged techno cuts that'll sit in the record box of any half decent DJ for years to come. We spoke with Dear over Skype to catch up on op-art, the hedonistic impulse inherent to techno, and to try and work out exactly what happened to minimal.
THUMP: Can we start by talking about the artwork of all the Audion releases? It's incredibly striking and, to me at least, feels like an integral part of the project.
Matthew Dear: All the Audion artwork is by a guy called Will Calcutt. The two of us met at a house party back in 2000, that took place in a church that'd been converted into a party spot. We were both DJing that night, and Will was in a frog costume. He was a photographer at the time and always had a nice vision and vibe so we decided to start working together. We've been friends and collaborators since. His work for the Audion releases is very geometric, and colorful and it helps you get into a separate world. With the albums I release on my own name I don't mind having my face on the cover, but with Audion it needs to be a bit more about the music. There's a juxtaposition between the two careers. I can be very personal and write lyrics and play instruments in one guise, but this project lets me be impersonal and non-human. I can balance between the two and not alienate myself too much.
Is that working relationship why people have talked about your work as being a communiqué between art and hedonism?
I share the music with Will and he envisages it, and the result is this kind of op-art thing, and I think the album is a continuation of that. Is it art? Is it hedonistic? Totally. There's a revelry to techno in general, and it's a pretty unabashedly hedonistic scene. Essentially it's music made for people on dancefloors late at night.
Can we talk a little about the minimal boom? How was it being a part of such a world-swallowing scene?
The minimal thing was awesome! There was this big wave of friends doing very similar things. We were all putting out records and throwing parties and enjoying the ride. It felt very energetic, and things were moving and changing very quickly. We were coming out of the stale tech-house and commercial house sound in the late 90s, and then by the early to mid 00s there was this rush of new sounds. It was super exciting.
Then there was the backlash…
As with any genre, originals get copies and played out and people start to mimic things and there's a template and the whole thing gets beaten over the head. So it gets stale, and people start to want new sounds. Things have their time and their moment. Minimal is still there though: it was absorbed into house and other strains of techno. You go to parties or festivals and you'll hear tracks that are pretty much just a kickdrum, a hi-hat, and a bassline. People still dance to it. Do I play it out? Not really, no. I don't think of Alpha as a minimal album. It's not a distinction I'm comfortable with making. I make dance music. You shouldn't be tied down.
Is talking about genre inherently damaging?
It's not damaging to talk about genre, no, but you use it as an umbrella term for a lot of things. There are lots of DJs and parties and crowds and groups and sometimes you need genre to keep things in check. The problem we'll always have is that music is amorphous but you have to package it and sell it. And that's when you get trapped.
Does working under different names help you avoid being pigeonholed?
It gives me an ability to make all sorts of different styles of music and not feel like I have to explain myself or get permission to do that. The aliases fit different moulds and stop me feeling trapped. Using them means I can swing between projects with some freedom, knowing I can come back to things when it feels right.
Artist albums are notoriously tricky to get right. What was the thinking behind doing a full length as Audion?
I spent three years working on this. I never wanted to force it out, but I was working on tracks and it started coming together. Dance music is a medium based on singles, obviously. You've got the single, then the remix, then the hot track on the dancefloor that week. An artist can't make a whole record of dancefloor fire because there'd be no art, no storyline, and the whole thing'd be too maximal. I don't think this record is just a string of bangers. I mean, only four or so of the tracks could be proper techno singles, but they act as pillars that hold the whole thing up and give me the opportunity to slightly more left field things.
Finally, did you ever expect "Mouth to Mouth" to be the absolutely gargantuan, era defining record it became?
I made it in 2005 amongst a slew of other songs, and I remember playing it in it's entirety and thinking it was special. So I slowly gave it out to some friends and it was apparent that something big was happening. In the moment I was just jamming and I felt like I had a good groove going, but you don't know how it's going to resonate with other people. You can't predict that. It's all about translating experience. "Mouth to Mouth" represents how I was thinking and feeling at the time.
Alpha is released by !k7 on June 10th