By Karl Meier
Words like “legend” and “genius” are bandied around with increasing frequency these days, too often to describe people who are nothing of the sort. Even the innovators who rightfully earn these labels never set the pace forever, usually embarrassing themselves somewhere in the twilight of their career.
Detroit’s Daniel Bell is the exception to that rule, and his resume speaks for itself: a string of ground-breaking singles on his Accelerate label that fused the “tracky” sound of early Chicago house with the future-shock of Detroit techno (these include the seminal “I’m Losing Control”); early work with Richie Hawtin as Cybersonik; his successful 7th City imprint and distribution company (now defunct); and his universally praised DJing skills, showcased on two excellent mix CDs for the Tresor and Logistic labels. We caught up with Bell, who currently splits his time between Berlin and the U.S., on the eve of three performances here in Chicago.
Producer/DJ Jay Denham once said he wanted his tracks to reflect both Detroit and Chicago influences. His hometown of Kalamazoo is equidistant from both cities, so music from both influenced him equally. Is it fair to say that your music specifically reflects those influences as well? What other kinds of music influenced you growing up?
Yeah, sure… I’ve always loved the tempo and groove of Chicago house, and definitely in Detroit you have more of this P-Funk/Kraftwerk approach to sounds, so both cities have been influences. Growing up, our local library had a big LP collection and I would go through and check out records that had “space” in the title or had pictures of spaceships on the cover. So I stumbled onto things like Sun Ra and Tangerine Dream at around 13 or 14—not really understanding the music totally, but I really liked the idea of music and science fiction being mixed together. And my interest grew from there into things like Kraftwerk, James Brown, (hip-hop producer) Marley Marl and Steve Reich. I really listened to everything I could growing up.
Your sound, in many respects, always had a rawness that was missing from a lot of techno. With more and more producers working with digital production software, is this rawness and warmth absent?
Doing tracks and mixing them down entirely on a computer has its drawbacks I think. A few years ago when it became possible to have this incredible studio setup on a laptop—a lot of producers, myself included, thought it was their solution to everything. But I found it difficult to get a simple, tracky flow out of the computer and make it feel “warm,” as you say. So now I use a combination of computer and hardware and it works much better.
When I saw you play at the Perlon label party at the Berghain in Berlin recently, you played really deep and linear—it was nice to hear dance music both cerebral and physical. There’s a lot of hype surrounding the return to “minimal” music—I think of minimalism and I think of the Finnish Sahko imprint, Steve Reich, Basic Channel, Robert Hood and the like. Do you feel like the cerebral component is missing from a lot of today’s so-called minimalist music?
I like the idea of arrangements evolving slowly over time. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a more cerebral approach but for me it’s the most interesting. There is a pace in a Sahko record, for example, that seems much more progressive than most of the things marketed as being “minimal” recently.
Audiences here seem to appreciate your overall aesthetic and approach to DJing. I wanted to talk a bit about your experiences as a DJ here in the States—are your experiences playing here in Chicago generally different from playing elsewhere in the US?
There are a few places in the US like New York, Minneapolis and San Francisco where I really enjoy DJing. Chicago is always special for me because it’s the birthplace of house, and Chicago house is a big foundation for my style of DJing and producing.
The last time you were here, you played for Meiotic at Tini Martini, and it was one of the best club nights I’ve been to for ages. The crowd was unusually responsive and enthusiastic, and I noticed that it seemed to be a predominantly younger crowd—it must be kind of nice to have your music resonate with a new generation of listeners and clubbers. Do you feel like an “elder statesman” of techno sometimes?
I’m just glad to still be involved in doing what I love. Being involved with a new generation of producers and clubbers has been a great experience and really insightful.
Daniel Bell performs with Marco Carola, Eliot Lipp, Atomly, Josh Werner and Shift at Defender 2 at Vision, 632 North Dearborn, (312)266-1944, on July 29 from 10pm-5am; $20 cover. He also performs with the Meiotic Soundsystem DJs at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203, on July 31 from 6-10pm and then again downstairs for an after-party at Smart Bar from 10pm-4am. Both shows are free.