It's December 30, 2010 and I'm on the the verge of a panic attack. My friends and I are stuck in a snowstorm in some no-name mountain town in Arizona, south of the I-40 corridor that connects New Mexico to California. We're on our way to Los Angeles for a New Year's Eve festival called Together As One. The three-stage event is offering the likes of Rusko, a pre-breakup Pendulum, and my personal favourite, Wolfgang Gartner, the mastermind of "complextro"—a glitchy mashup of rapidly changing synth patches, samples, and heavy bass drops. The snow is starting to come down fast, and it doesn't look likely we'll finish the last 400 miles to the LA Sports Arena in time. If the weather isn't stressful enough, our van happens to be packed with a bunch of illicit shit stashed in the bottom of a tin of cheese puffs.
Well, we fucking made it, but a lot has has changed in the five years since that tense night. I'm much less likely to drive through a blizzard in a hot car to a rave two states away. Wolfgang Gartner, whose early electro singles like "Illmerica" and "Undertaker," catapulted him to international fame, has rightfully matured too. The electronic music scene in 2009 that spawned him and other explosive acts like MSTRKRFT—with synths that felt like guitars erupting with intense energy, has almost entirely faded away. "It's impossible for me to play "Undertaker" in a set in 2016," Gartner says. "It doesn't work sonically with any other new music that is out there."
His sophomore effort, Ten Ways to Steal Home Plate (a subtle nod to Home Run, a baseball-themed album of 90s techno duo Hardfloor), out today (January 29), offers a sound that moves further away from the singles that defined Gartner for much of his career. It will also be an entirely independent venture, released exclusively on his own imprint, Kindergarten, without a major label co-sign of any kind.
If the sudden album announcement earlier this month caught you off guard, well, you're hardly the only one. Besides releasing a few stray singles in the last two years: "Unholy," a soulful electro-house tune with vocals by singer Bobby Saint; "Turn Up," featuring Florida rapper Trina; and "We Are The Computers," which pairs Kraftwerk-esque beeps and bloops with something that sounds like steel drums—Gartner largely disappeared from the public eye. In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago that he abruptly cancelled his last tour, citing health concerns—something he's now ready to talk about.
"I started to get this horrible travel anxiety. I just kinda wore myself out and it became physical to the point where I couldn't travel anymore," he says.
"It's been publicized a bit more recently but people aren't aware of the extremely unhealthy lifestyle that touring is. What you do to your psyche, your stress levels, your anxiety levels, your cortisol, your health."
Gartner's voice adds to a growing chorus of members in the electronic music community who've begun speaking up about the mental health concerns that can accompany being a world-renowned DJ. A few months ago, Benga famously opened up on social media to talk about how drug use and constant touring exacerbated his own schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A month later Idir, one half of the Dutch duo Blasterjaxx, publicly retired from touring due to the onset of panic disorder.
"That's news to me, and my jaw kinda dropped," Gartner tells me, as I relate their stories to him. "That makes so much sense; I'm surprised that it's just starting to happen now." That stress, well it's just built into the business: "everybody is hustling so hard and there is a lot of competition."
An exhausting tour schedule isn't just wearing on the bodies and minds of DJs either—Gartner thinks it's compromising the music itself. "People are saying dance music is stale," he laments. "Everyone is focusing on the touring side so much that it's having this ripple effect and it's creating stale music because people don't have any life left in them." Fortunately, Gartner is well rested, and he's confident that this is the right time for his return. Ten Ways will likely define how a new generation of listeners appreciate his music, and it will most likely be the breakpoint for older fans still hanging on for one more banger. "The comments section of Facebook is going to be people who absolutely hate half the album but love the other half—that's how polarizing I think it could be," he says.
If there's one thing his fans can expect, it's that Gartner's affinity for hip-hop, a genre he tells me he's been listening to more than anything else, will continue to have a presence. His last album, 2011's Weekend In America, featured collaborations with Jim Jones, Cam'ron, and Will i. Am. The new LP will have at least two rap-infused tracks; one with Bay Area legend E-40 and Dam Funk, as well as the aforementioned "Turn Up" with Trina.
'Ten Ways To Steal Home Plate' Album art courtesy of Kindergarten Records
But hip-hop is hardly the only sound on the album; it's named Ten Ways To Steal Home Plate for a reason, and Gartner intends to flex his muscles: "It's a collection of ten songs that I've produced over the last three years; ten facets to me as a producer, ten different sounds." It is a release that capitalizes on Gartner's creativity, independence (both financial and artistic), and curiosity. After so much time, fans expectations will be high, but Gartner, though pensive, remains confident: "I'm feeling really good about it. I just want people to hear it and see if I'm right.
As to whether he'll take the plunge with a full tour to celebrate the release of the new album, he still hasn't made up his mind. He's got a live rehearsal area set up in his home and assures me he hasn't lost his mojo. "If I got back out there again," he says, "I'm going to have fun. I'm going to fly in a day beforehand and chill. I'm not going to play three hundred shows a year. I'm going to wear sandals."
Ten Ways To Steal Home Plate is out today (Jan. 29) on Kindergarten Records. You can purchase it on iTunes here.
Gigen is on Twitter.