Local Current Blog

Is Minneapolis techno having a renaissance?

Centrific (Steve Seuling) playing at the Communion closing party (courtesy Dave Eckblad)

If you’re like most people who live in the area, you probably have no idea that the Minneapolis house and techno scene is on fire. Who could blame you? The music has always been an inherently underground art form. The songs don’t lend themselves to airplay. There are no catchy hooks or instant payoffs; each song is more a journey, with elements being added and subtracted over time.

Led by DVS1 (a.k.a. Zak Khutoretsky), who has established himself as one of the world’s best and most in-demand techno DJs, there’s a whole crop of local DJs and producers making waves on the national and international scene. Outside of Minneapolis, local producers have put out tracks and EPs on well-respected labels and with increasing frequency are being flown around the country (around the world, in some cases). Locally, bigger names are starting to come here to DJ, and attendance at house and techno events is on the rise.

Khutoretsky is currently in the midst of a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his event promotion and sound company/record label Hush. The tour has included several stops around Europe and has featured techno heavyweights like Jeff Mills and Ben Sims, but the supporting DJ he had most often on the tour was his “musical soul brother,” Minneapolis house DJ Ghetto (real name Daniel Paul Cortez).

Cortez’s house grooves were the perfect set up for Khutoretsky’s mostly techno sets. “Everything has become really genre specific. I didn’t grow up that way,” Khutoretsky says, adding that “Ghetto, to me, is the epitome of someone who can play anything. He knows the right music to play at the right time. The contrast was just perfect.”

As a sound expert and constant tinkerer, Khutoretsky had a rule for any venue that wanted to a hold one of the Hush 20 tour dates: make it feel different, with additional subwoofers. “These people go out to the same places every week,” says Khutoretsky, “So I want my week to feel a little different than the week before and the week after.”

A Minneapolis stop on the tour was originally scheduled for October but due to scheduling conflicts, had to be postponed indefinitely. Have no fear, says Khutoretsky, “There will be a Hush 20 party in Minneapolis in 2017.”

Khutoretsky lives in Berlin but comes back several times a year to visit and play. The same is true of another Minneapolis DJ: Dustin Zahn. Zahn has put out several EPs in recent years on his own imprint Enemy Records, as well as a full-length album on one of techno’s biggest labels, Drumcode. In addition to his production, he has launched a successful podcast called Train Wrecks, in which he talks to fellow DJs in varying states of inebriation (hence the title).

Back at home, the scene’s flagship party, Communion, celebrated its tenth anniversary and did so with gusto. The summer-only Sunday afternoon/evening party was founded in 2007 by Centrific (a.k.a. Steve Seuling), Zahn, and Jay Tappe and originally took place on Solera’s rooftop. Since the party is outside, mostly during daylight, the musical focus is more on the deep, soulful, and funky side. With the event now at its fifth successive location — the alley at the Pourhouse — Seuling and partner Christian James have the series going as strong as ever with increased attendance in this milestone year.

Seuling attributes the increased turnout to a City Pages feature as well as a more open-minded booking policy. “I think there’s some people involved now that are a little more progressive musically,” he says, “That translates to bringing new crowds of people.” Communion and the scene in general also recently benefitted from Khutoretsky’s addiction (his words) to buying more speakers. To make way for his new haul, he split up his Turbosound rig and passed it down to Seuling and Mike Gervais, the promoter behind the System parties.

The religious name is only kind of a joke. Many attendees aren’t so much dancing to the music as they are worshipping it. Communion mostly highlights local DJs, led by resident DJs Seuling, James, and Ian Lehman (aka Doubt), but there are a few fixtures from elsewhere. One of them is the Detroit duo Chad Parraghi and Nick Bien, who DJ together under the moniker Project 313.

Blank Code: front left is Mike Gervais, front right is Ian Lehman, back center is Andy Fitton, far right is Cesar Acosta (photo by Bobby Kahn)

“Communion is easily one of our favorite US event series,” says Parraghi. “The history and passion behind the event creates a vibe that’s second to none.” He would know. In addition to being a DJ, he’s part of the team that runs the Blank Code record label and promotion team. Between their own parties and booking one of the stages at Detroit’s Movement festival, they have booked more Minneapolis DJs than any other out-of-town promoter in recent years.

They throw parties year round, but their biggest is the annual afterparty they put on during the festival weekend. The party has two indoor rooms plus music outside on the patio. As a nod to Communion, the patio lineup for this year’s party was all Minneapolis DJs: Gervais, Lehman, and César Acosta, who also serves as one of Blank Code’s main graphic designers, “He’s helped us brand and expand the record label across the board,” reports Parraghi.

The music on the patio was supposed to end at 3 a.m., but Gervais played until 5 on what was then technically Memorial Day, putting a stamp on his three and a half hour powerhouse set by closing it with “Controversy.” The dozens of Minneapolitans on the dance floor went crazy, and the many fellow DJs and promoters in the audience took note.

As the sun came up, Gervais and Lehman returned to the decks and traded off song-for-song until the party ended at 7. Thanks to a steady stream of releases over the past few years (including some on Khutoretsky’s label Mistress Recordings), and impressive performances at high-profile gigs like the Blank Code party, both men have been booked to play in other cities with increasing frequency in 2016.

Gervais has been on a tear lately, releasing mostly his own music and throwing parties under the name System. As System approaches its sixth anniversary, he his attributes his new found success to having a more singular focus. “In the past I did more remix work, and tracks for other people,” he says. “Now I’m really focusing on the tight relationships I have and really building System.”

One of those tight relationships is with one of the techno world’s most respected DJs, the Londoner Ben Sims. Sims says that he “first became aware of Mike when I received promos via the labels he’d started releasing on like Blank Code, Mistress, and his own System.” Sims was already a fan when they met at Movement in Detroit in 2015 after Sims’ closing set, in which he dropped two of Gervais’ tracks.

In the 18 months since then, the relationship has grown. “He’s now already released one stunning EP for my label [Symbolism],” says Sims. “He just contributed a new killer track for my forthcoming Symbolism 20 project and I’m about to come out for the second time to spin at System for the sixth anniversary party.” Said party will take place at the Pourhouse tonight. Gervais is going big to mark the occasion, as he has also booked Los Angeles DJ Truncate to play back-to-back (or b2b) with Sims.

The pair have played together before, but never in America. A few years ago Sims had never been to Minneapolis and it would have been unthinkable to have him and Truncate on the same lineup, let alone have Minnesota be the first place in America they played back-to-back. Jeff Mills, one of techno’s pioneering artists, recently came to play a secret, intimate party, a rare treat for anywhere in not just the country but the world. The relationships the Minneapolis artists are building in the world are starting to come back home.

While these developments have led to a stronger scene than Minneapolis has had in years, this is not the high water mark for those that have been around for a while. Woody McBride (aka DJ ESP) put Minneapolis on the map in the mid 90s, thanks to his releases on his own Communique and Milwaukee-based Drop Bass Network and the massive raves he put on around the Twin Cities.

In 1996, he played in a Paris club and a young French duo by the name of Daft Punk opened for him. Months later, he booked them for their first ever American performance, at a small campout festival he put on in rural Wisconsin with Drop Bass Network head Kurt Eckes called Even Furthur. They would find international fame (and drop McBride’s name in their song “Teachers”) months later when they released their debut album Homework.

As the popularity of raves declined, many of the promoters moved on. Khutoretsky carried on, but attendance had diminished. He points to a party he threw in 2001 called Ascension as the end of an era. After that, he says, “the days of counting on attendance in the thousands were over.” Techno enjoyed a brief renaissance in Minneapolis in 2007 when Khutoretsky opened a club called Foundation in the basement of the Lumber Exchange building. However, the club never quite caught on, and shuttered 18 months later. Another dark era ensued.

The recent resurgence has been partly thanks to people like Khutoretsky, Zahn, Seuling, and Gervais who have been at it for a long time, but it is also thanks in large part to a youth movement taking hold. For several years, it was pretty much the same set of DJs and even attendees at most techno events. Khutoretsky regularly checked in with friends back home to ask if there was any good new talent coming up, and the response he got was always “no” — but that changed recently.

27-year-old Jordan Berndt and 26-year-olds Ry Johnson, Matt Harris, and Alex Guy met while attending the University of Minnesota — Duluth in 2009 and bonded over electronic music. All four relocated to Minneapolis within the past few years, and they formed a record label called Kajunga Records. They burst onto the scene last year with an epic warehouse party and a debut EP already pressed to vinyl, featuring four house tracks, one produced by each member.

Kajunga crew, l-r: Johnson, Harris, Guy, Berndt (Tierney Houdek)

They took the scene by storm over the following year and were booked frequently around town. The highlight of their young careers, though, came when someone else was playing. At a local party in September, Khutoretsky played Johnson’s “Vector Slut,” and reports that he has played Berndt’s “Disorientation” at every show he has played since then. The foursome has since released a second EP featuring four songs produced by Harris, for which they will hold a release party at the 7th Street Entry in January.

It also appears that some people are finding their way to techno from the more mainstream EDM music one might hear at the Summer Set Festival or the Skyway Theatre. Slam Academy, an electronic music school in Northeast Minneapolis, buzzes with students most nights, many who come from an EDM background. Several teachers and TAs at the school are also techno DJs, and students tagged along to their gigs.

Andy Fitton, 23, got his start as one of those TAs. Since then he has been helping Gervais with his System events and DJing at some of them. “Andy alone has done a lot to pull in people,” says Gervais, “He came from the EDM culture, and he’s been pulling in friends that are still on that side of the fence.” Next month Fitton will become the latest Minneapolis DJ to make the trip to Detroit for a Blank Code party.

The combination of veterans making big moves, with an abundance of new talent is adding new fuel to the local techno scene’s creative spirit. This coming weekend will be a big one: the System 6 year anniversary party featuring Ben Sims b2b Truncate is at the Pourhouse tonight, and Seuling will take his first stab at an indoor version of Communion with a new event called Black Mass, still on Sunday evenings, but at the Exchange (which is in the same space Foundation was).

Though Khutoretsky warns he has seen an up-and-down cycle several times before, it feels like something special is going on. Blank Code’s Parraghi agrees: “In the past four years I’ve seen the events get larger and stronger each time we’ve come out,” he says. “In my opinion Minneapolis has a top five U.S. techno presence, hands down.”

Bobby Kahn is a writer, cable access television producer, performer, dance class instructor, accountant, and lifelong resident of Minneapolis. He used to be shy and scared of dancing, but since then he was chosen by the funk to serve as one of its ambassadors.