Interview: Erika

06 May 2015 — Taylor Bratches

You could say Erika is an explorer, if not a Renaissance woman. Techno producer and DJ, founder of the long-running Internet radio station Erika.net, member of the Detroit-based electro group Ectomorph, and “co-conspirator” of the Detroit-based label Interdimensional Transmissions, she’s been steadily working – and her music, pulsating like a strange and beautiful nebula – in the Detroit electro/techno scene for over a decade.  Her debut release, Hexagon Cloud – a futurist landscape showcasing her range as an analog producer  – was well-received in the electronic community at home and abroad. After a transportive set at Communikey, the boutique techno festival in Boulder, Colorado, I caught up with Erika about her past and her present, and her experience as a female producer in an endlessly shifting scene.

Read the interview after the break.

You grew up in a household influenced by science and technology. Was the intersection of science and music a natural avenue of exploration for you?

Yeah, it was – though [the synthesis of the two] was something that happened for me later in life. I fell in love with music by listening to radio broadcasts in elementary and middle school. I was also heavily into computer games around that age, too. Those were two of my primary interests: listening to music and using the computer. And that’s pretty much what I do now.

Erika.net, which has been in operation since 1999, defines itself as a freeform internet radio station. How did that start?

I knew one day I wanted to be a radio DJ, and I got my start doing college radio when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for school. That was when I started to get my true music education, because that station has an archive for all kinds of music. I used to go down there for hours and hours – and listen to records and do weird overnight radio shows. I was program director there too. But at some point I wasn’t a student anymore, yet I still wanted that platform, and to listen to music everywhere. And I thought, well, that internet thing exists, I’ll just try that and see what happens.

Hexagon Cloud, your debut album on Interdimensional Transmissions, is impressive in the way it makes the analog sound pliable and ethereal.  What was your process of creation like?  Did you have a clear concept in mind when you set out to make the album?

The process of writing came from the perspective of putting together a live PA. And then I started becoming conceptual – thinking about the Hexagon Cloud: that cloud part of Saturn. I needed some ambient tracks to make it feel like a complete thought, but I started with some individual tunes that began with the idea of a live set, and then used the concept to help fill out the rest.

You’ve been a part of the Michigan and Detroit scene for over a decade. Much of techno’s beginnings were influenced by science fiction. With your science-influenced upbringing, do you feel a part of this tradition? How do you relate to that aesthetic?

I’m a huge lover of science fiction. When I was a kid I basically read the entire adult sci-fi library. That’s what I was into and that’s what I cared about. That sci-fi mentality and ideas of the future are definitely part of who I am and what influences me. When I moved to the Detroit area and heard artists like Rob Hood and Dan Bell – that was mind-blowing; that music really affected me. Those early Detroit underground vibes and artists had a major influence on me musically. I was learning about that stuff around the same time that I was learning about jazz. You could say I was getting a multifaceted, futurist music education on all fronts.

You perform with both analog hardware and with vinyl. Do you have a preference? Can the two inform each other?

Oh yeah, it’s not the medium that makes you a DJ, it’s what you are presenting sonically that really matters. I spend my entire day sitting in front of the computer doing tasks for my job. At the end of the day I don’t want a computer screen blaring in my face when I’m doing creative things. And I DJ with records, mostly. It’s just a personal preference, not a statement or judgment – I’ve seen really amazing laptop DJs and I have respect for all of that.

Do you relate to the music as a dancer?

Oh yeah. I’m a dancer first – at a good party the dance floor is where you’ll find me. If there’s amazing music on a soundsystem, you’ll find me in front of the speaker. 

Does that visceral, physical experience of dance have something to do with your interest in the tactile aspect of DJing?

Yes. That’s what I enjoy about analog – there’s a specific thing that I can reach out and touch and do small or big adjustments on. I really enjoy synthesis and the process of shaping sounds on a synthesizer, but I have a hard time when it’s something that’s trapped in a computer. When I have to use my mouse to get into it, it’s not as interesting, creative, or fun to me.

You are often referred to as an electro artist. How do you relate to that term now? Are you interested in blurring the lines between techno and electro?

I think it’s a super blurred line. When I DJ people say I’m playing all these different genres or types of electro but, in a way, it’s all still techno. And a Detroit DJ is going to play a mixture of what he/she think is awesome – whether it’s techno, house, electro. The term electro has gone through so many changes. I understand why people say I’m an electro artist, because I’m not just using 4/4 beats and because I came into existence as part of Ectomorph, which is a classic Detroit electro project. But it’s just part of who I am;  it’s not where I live. I care about a lot more than just one kind of kick drum pattern. I think it’s also a Midwest thing. I have a background of going to raves in various cities and hearing a lot of different kinds of music. The American aesthetic is very broad-minded. 

How have your collaborative efforts with BMG and Ectomorph shaped you as an artist?

They’ve hugely shaped me. It was through my participation with Ectomorph that I learned how to do live music. I learned how to collaborate with another person, which comes first for me. I got started as someone who was a keyboard tech for Ectomorph live shows, and I learned so much about how a live show feels and works. I just got a lot experience, that I’m really thankful for that. I made every mistake that I could possibly make. I’m so glad I got to do that 15 years ago!

I just saw you perform at Communikey. You were part of a primarily female lineup with Paula Temple from Berlin, Orphx from Canada, and Chicago DJ Christina Chatfield. You also were part of Chicago’s female-centered Daphne series. Can you speak to your experience as a female in the techno community?

To me it’s really similar to my experience as a programmer, or a heavily tech-minded person. It’s the same issue that engineering and math have in the world at large, which is that women get spoken down to, or they’re not believed in – all of the big picture sexist stuff that is a part of our culture, even though it shouldn’t be. In my utopian techno universe this problem doesn’t exist because techno is raceless and sexless and faceless but here we are in a world where there are so few women that hold prominent positions of power, in part simply because there are fewer women participating in things like math, for example. But there is also the issue of women not speaking up and not taking credit, and going with the flow. We get all of this training to be nice and quiet – it’s all over every piece of pop culture in the western world. It’s our job, in a lot of ways, to make sure the next generation of women has better opportunities.

There has been a lot of mention lately surrounding the lack of females in the techno industry, or of subtle and/or overt discrimination against them. Have you yourself faced challenges in relation to this gender disparity?

I’ve never been pushed out; in fact I’ve received a lot of support. Being good at what I do speaks volumes. What you are good at should always take precedence over gender. Back to Ectomorph, when I was traveling with Brendan [BMG] in the 90’s, people would talk to him and not to me, perhaps because of the perception that “she’s just a girl.” I wasn’t upset at the time, but regardless that kind of thing gets really frustrating – when people don’t take you seriously. People will pass judgment about all kinds of things. To a certain degree it’s human nature.

Do you think techno is by nature a masculine sound or is there a feminine power in it as well?

It’s definitely both. When you strip back to techno to what it really is, it’s the heart beat, the life-force. Letting go and dancing is a fundamental human thing that we’ve been doing for thousands of years – seeking a trance state through which to let go. It’s not about being a man or woman, it’s about being an animal trying to have a transcendental experience. Techno seems male heavy because it’s technical – because our society is technical. Frustrating but true. When there’s gender balance, it’s a way better party. When you get that balance and the female perspective, that’s when it’s more whole and more true.

You tour actively in the states, which I think is laudable. Despite techno’s roots in Detroit, more and more American techno artists are moving to Europe. What do you envision for the future of techno in America?

I hope it continues to grow. In the past few years, I’ve seen more and more regional parties, and promoters starting their own small scenes and working with American artists. Yes, there was a Midwest rave scene in the 90’s. But recently – in Columbus, Ohio for example – there are small crews doing really awesome monthly parties. I think we will see more of that in America. Scenes have to be built from the ground up. It takes people willing to be vocal and work in their communities. I hope we see more of it, and we have been seeing more of it.

Certain cities have the benefit of abandoned warehouses, and DIY culture can thrive in those places.  As America’s electronic culture evolves, do you see more people playing in warehouses or in clubs?

The hardest part to deal with, as a promoter, is that you want to have a legit legal venue with an occupancy license because you don’t want to put your artists and sound crew and partygoers at risk. Because ultimately you are throwing a party in an illegal space, which I’ve done myself. But the worst part [of having a party busted] besides losing money, is knowing that everyone has to have this negative experience. In Detroit, now, we are using a place called Tangent gallery and promoters have a 24-hour permit, which keeps it legal and keeps people are dancing until the party is done. The bar laws in America are what make it the toughest, and finding the spaces that exist in that in-between zone – whether it be galleries or art spaces – those are becoming the real places to have a proper underground party.

What’s on your own personal horizon?

I have a few more weekends of traveling and doing gigs – I'll be at No Way Back at Movement, in Detroit.. Then I’m going to stop playing for a couple of months. Because I work a job too, I can’t travel and record at the same time. After doing these next few gigs, I’ll be finishing a new album and a couple EP’s as well. I have so much music I’m sitting on now, but I plan on hopefully getting the album done by the end of the summer so that I can release by early next year.