Drumcell Gave Los Angeles Techno a Name of Its Own
We chart the Droid Behavior member's course from the San Gabriel Valley to Berghain.
Photo by Dean Paul De Leon
Moe Espinosa is a hometown hero of Angeleno techno. The DJ/producer, better known as Drumcell, rose to prominence at a time when the city's connection to the genre was, at best, limited. "It was close to a dead scene," Espinosa tells THUMP in his San Gabriel Velley studio. At the time, Los Angeles wasn't a touring destination and local purveyors of the sound were few and far between.
However, Espinosa and his friends Vangelis and Vidal Vargas (you might know them as the duo Raíz) weren't deterred. As Droid Behavior, they spent the aughts pushing sounds better associated with Detroit and Berlin through warehouse walls in desolate parts of Los Angeles.
The trio hit the streets, blasted out newsletters, and shared DJ mixes in the name of a scene that grew in their wake. Individually, they dropped tracks that were charted and remixed by international tastemakers. Speedy J and Chris Liebing were early champions. Many amongst the up-and-coming L.A. promoters and producers are their disciples.
These days, it's hard to catch up with Espinosa in his hometown. We met at his studio sometime between Miami Music Week and his departure for a string of dates in Europe and South America. "I try to keep tabs on things as much as possible, but it's so weird when you're traveling a lot," he says. When Espinosa is back in the suburban San Gabriel Valley, there is little time to hit up parties. He has to keep writing and recording to land the gigs that have taken him from Germany to Colombia.
As Espinosa travels the globe to drop his sleek synth gems, he is met by folks who tell him how much they dig "the L.A. techno sound." They mention his partners Raíz and note Silent Servant and Truncate, both of whom have played Droid Behavior parties. "I think that for the first time in decades, people are finally starting to associate techno with Los Angeles," says Espinosa. "A lot of what we were doing with Droid was help establish that and lay the foundation for that. Right now, we're building on top of it."
Despite the energy in the scene, Epinosa isn't convinced that there is a distinct sound emanating from Los Angeles' techno producers. "There are so many producers from L.A. that have various styles and sounds and were all kind of inspired by different things," he says. That's essentially the result of the crowd that those early Droid Behavior parties drew, a mix of industrial kids, electro-heads and other folks from across the local scenes that existed at the time.
For the musician who became Drumcell, though, the story begins with punk band flirtations that ended when then-teenage Espinosa realized how hard it was to find a reliable drummer. He worked on his own, using a reel-to-reel recorder as he multi-tracked guitar, bass and a 707 drum machine. That led to a fascination with electronic music.
While still in high school, Espinosa and a friend started a label and sold their first release, pressed on regrind vinyl, on consignment at L.A. record stores. They moved over 1000 copies, enough to keep Espinosa in the dance music game. Early on, Espinosa's tastes leaned towards hardcore, but his crowd of older friends encouraged him to dig into dance music's history.
Espinosa's latest single as Drumcell, "Departing Comfort," features a remix from Planetary Assault Systems, AKA techno heavy-hitter Luke Slater, amongst others. He is following-up with a decidedly left field release, A Constant Preparation for Loss, from his new project Hypoxia. Inspired by film soundtracks and the textural sounds of artists like Tangerine Dream, Espinosa recorded the work on a remake of a Buchla Music Easel, a travel-friendly synth that was originally made in the early 1970s.
Everything on the release was recorded in one take. "I wanted to make a record that was inspired by that and kind of a tribute to a really important part of my past," says Espinosa. "It's not anything that my current particular fan base in techno would expect from me and it's definitely not dance music oriented or DJ friendly."
It's that drive to just make music, whether or not its marketable, that got Espinosa to where he is now. More than a decade ago, Espinosa pressed 500 copies of the first Droid Recordings release, a compilation EP called Genetix, and passed out the vinyl while taking in the festival scene in Detroit. "I think I was slightly insecure about how it would be perceived by people," he says. That it was techno made in Los Angeles turned some heads, but the music itself has kept them interested far beyond the point novelty.
Liz Ohanesian is on Twitter.