driving momentum

Inside Richie Hawtin’s hypnotic beat – the pulse of Miuccia and Raf’s Prada
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 4 May 2021
Photography Willy Vanderperre

From the initial beat of Prada’s FW21 menswear show, the pulse was set – an energised, driving momentum that surges from within. From that singular, hypnotic thump, a soundscape evolved across subtle inflections and amorphous frequencies as models walked a faux-fur-lined labyrinth, glitching into sporadic dance moves. It was a soundtrack arranged by renowned electronic musician Richie Hawtin (pseudonym: Plastikman): his second work for Prada having been contacted by longtime friend and collaborator Raf Simons, who joined the Italian house as co-creative director alongside Miuccia Prada the previous season.

Hawtin, a pioneering second-gen Detroit producer is, like Prada, led by cerebral impulse and a desire to rush the consciousness, subtracting and subverting in order to manipulate dimensions. At the core is that rousing pulse – a place of light and dark, contrasts and contradictions, futurism and nostalgia: it’s within these paradoxes that Prada and Hawtin delve.

Alex James Taylor: I know you first met Raf at a festival you were playing in Belgium about ten years ago, can you tell me about that meeting?
Richie Hawtin: It was in Ghent, there’s a very influential event series there called 10 Days of Techno. I was playing for probably five or six hours and… I knew who Raf was but didn’t know his work that much, but what struck me was that someone introduced us briefly whilst I was playing and Raf stayed there until the very end, which was like hours later. He was just kind of sitting quietly in the corner listening and observing. I always remember that because you meet a lot of people when you’re on tour and playing music, people always want to high five you and this and that, but when you see somebody actually listening for that long, I knew he was sharing something. That was very telling and I think why we connected over the years very quickly, we both understood each other’s sensibility. Also around that time I slowly got into fashion, it was actually Prada and Jil Sander in the early 90s that really resonated with me, and I didn’t even know that Raf was responsible for some of the silhouettes that I was so into. So when I started to understand that greater world, it all started to make sense.

“Each person has their specific speciality in their own field, but aesthetic is the way we can communicate to each other, that’s the common language.”

AJT: You both share key ideas of minimalism and crossing mediums, so I imagine you have a lot of similar interests.
RH: Actually Raf and I usually talk about music and art, those are the two big topics, and it’s always a very similar, shared aesthetic across all these different faculties. I think that’s why this relationship has continued and now has this deeper collaboration with Raf and Miuccia at Prada. Once you find like-minded artists, especially from different worlds where the aesthetic is the thread that connects us, those collaborations become really interesting. Each person has their specific speciality in their own field, but aesthetic is the way we can communicate to each other, that’s the common language.

“…it was actually Prada and Jil Sander in the early 90s that really resonated with me, and I didn’t even know that Raf was responsible for some of the silhouettes that I was so into.”

AJT: What has been the process with Prada? Do you get a brief to begin with and then you’re free to explore?
RH: It always starts with a call from Raf where we’ll talk about the ideas and concepts behind the show, that could be in the weeks leading up to the show when things are still changing and in process. Maybe some artists know exactly what they’re doing six months ahead of time, but for me, when I go into the studio I’ve got a sample, frequency, or maybe even a feeling. My creativity is often an exploration, allowing myself to be taken in different directions by equipment and technology. So Raf calls and shows me some of the looks, the architecture of the show, textures, and that all gives me a beginning point. Usually, for me, it’s the overall feeling I get from speaking to Raf that helps the most, and then as we get closer, you really start to see some definitive looks and photos. My creative process is probably one of the last things done, because I’m really responding to their last-minute changes, like, “We’re going to put all the girls in this look,” or, “We’re going to go more in this direction.” That’s when I start to zero in together with Raf and Miuccia on the final sonic frequencies and details.

AJT: Do you enjoy working from a specific starting point provided by someone else? It must be quite different to your usual way of working.
RH: Yes, I think that’s why I like this collaboration and why Raf and I have had successful collaborations over the years. Most of the time I’m by myself – this is what I enjoy and why electronic music empowers me, it allows me to transmit the ideas and frequencies in my head straight to the listener, whether that’s on CD, streaming or at a concert. It’s about me and what I’m trying to do. But with this sort of collaboration, it’s a moment when I’m working with other people and listening and sharing ideas back and forth, so it’s very stimulating, creatively. It’s inspiring but also very challenging because you do have to listen. But that brings me back to your first question. No matter how challenging it gets, I feel there’s a certain reason Raf came to me for the FW21 show and why he and Miuccia agreed I would be the one for these projects. I know that they understand what I’m capable of, what my aesthetic is and that it will combine with theirs. So the starting point gives me a direction but then I still feel very free to experiment. Usually I do a couple of iterations really quickly, all things that could easily become finished Plastikman or Hawtin pieces, that usually gives me a framework and narrows the focus. I’m working on the third show right now and each one starts the same, but from that point to the destination is always a completely different journey.

AJT: I think it’s also important that collaborations have duration, it allows you to develop a relationship and begin to work from instinct.
RH: For sure. Part of the reason to be in this is to be creatively challenged and artistically inspired. If each time wasn’t different, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

AJT: Going back to your childhood, I saw that your dad worked as a car technician in Windsor, Ontario. I’ve always found the connection between Detroit’s automotive history and the pulsating music that has long emerged from the city – whether that’s techno or garage rock – fascinating, it’s almost like it mirrors the machinery. I’m interested to hear if you see that connection?
RH: I don’t know if we draw on those analogies later or if they were really truly there, but I think being this mass-production city focused around technology is the unifying factor of techno music. This belief that we, as humans, can create something that can either automate or make our lives better. That is where techno grew from, especially Detroit techno, and even though mine is kind of splintered from classic Detroit techno, I think it still embodies this kind of exploration into the unknown, into the future. Even when my stuff is a bit weirder or trippy, I still think there’s a positivity built into that. There’s this belief that technology will save the day. I think you can feel where that spirit came from in Detroit, and also in Windsor, with the Big Three: General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Ford. That technologically-infused automotive industry is really something that elevated a whole class of people into a better life. So yeah, that’s the yin and yang of my life, this love of technology and freedom in what it gives you. Having that unlock my creativity, and that exploration and experimentation is always what drives me forward.

AJT: It’s interesting because technology has also been a key conversation in Raf and Miuccia’s Prada work so far.
Richie: Yeah, I loved after the last show seeing them speaking to the students. It’s very personable, really thinking, “OK, how do we communicate right now? How close and direct are the communication pods between creator and audience?” I see that in my own field, my fans are quite often the next DJs and there’s this real cyclical thing happening that’s only accelerating. So they saw that and welcomed it. OK, I was a Prada fan in the 90s and I still am, but I was much more excited when Raf called me about this project because it’s Raf and Miuccia and we’re stepping into a project where we get to share creative freedom. It was about those two and what that conversation was going to be, rather than the brand.

AJT: I think it’s also interesting that the show was livestreamed as a film. In terms of the music and atmosphere, it really ties it all together and presents it as a holistic experience with everything having equal presence, which isn’t always the case with a live runway format.
RH: Honestly, Raf has used some of my work in earlier Raf Simons shows and you know, I won’t say that I wouldn’t have done brand new music for a physical show, but I definitely would’ve thought about it more. Because there you can’t control the environment as much as you can in the way they’re filming and presenting the shows currently. It does allow the music to find an equal balance and footing with everything you’re seeing. That’s important and they understood that, Raf is so into music he understands its power. I think that’s also maybe why he came to me, the type of music I create, whether you call it minimal or subtractive or reductive, it’s quite sensitive and it’s about details. So in this way, capturing it in video or stream, it’s the only way you can really bring that type of music and allow it to have power with the visuals. I just don’t think it would work in a cavernous, real-world fashion collection where people are jumping from one to another.

AJT: Absolutely, sometimes at a physical show the music is taken for granted, it’s almost seen as just a metronome to help the timing of the show.
RH: Exactly. Being inspired by fashion, movies, visual art, in my shows, especially the Plastikman shows, I’ve always believed and understood the power of when you bring visuals and music together to create some type of synchronicity. Where it all makes sense – the visuals aren’t just flashing, the music isn’t just bumping, it’s one and the same. That’s what I’m very proud of with the first two Prada collaborations, you really do feel that they are one. Of course we’re creating a universe, an escape to view the collection, but all these components, the architecture or the space, creates something magical to witness the collection within.

“…Raf is so into music he understands its power.”

AJT: Speaking of films and world-building, I know you’re a big sci-fi fan – can you talk me through some of your favourite sci-fi movies?
RH: [laughs] Of course. Wow this is going to be a really bad one maybe, but I was in the studio last night actually working on a piece for Prada and I was thinking, “Oh it could be really interesting to play with a voice.” Then I did a quick YouTube search for Flash Gordon. Looking back it’s so dated and cheesy [laughs], but the soundtrack was done by Queen and there are some parts in this movie where the soundtrack and the visuals… Actually when you look at it you think, “Oh it’s so cheesy,” but then if you close your eyes and hear the soundtrack, it actually makes the movie better than it looks. It’s so futuristic and sci-fi, and quite campy. It’s not my favourite [laughs] but somehow that resonated with me. I love really early movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, these proto- typical 60s, 70s sci-fi shows where they use some really early synthesisers. I loved those movies before I became a sound artist, so I think it was those unworldly sounds and frequencies I heard while watching those films that really grabbed me. One of my all-time favourites, which I have the poster for here, is Logan’s Run. Where are you?

AJT: I’m in London.
RH: OK, I grew up in Oxfordshire until I was nine years old and I remember as a kid watching this Logan’s Run TV show, which was also kind of camp, but then I saw the movie later on. The movie really resonated with me, the idea of sanctuary and people trying to escape a future that had been built. I actually used it for quite a few samples with my early F.U.S.E. work. Again, it’s that fascination with a future that, even when it’s dystopian, there’s still some kind of positive element in there you can grab onto.

AJT: Have you seen The Prisoner? What you’re saying reminds me of its unsettling architecture.
RH: [laughs] Yeah, I used to watch that too, it’s really good.

AJT: I also read that some of your early inspirations were Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd. What I found interesting about those groups is they all create incredibly layered, textured worlds that evoke a sense of 3D movement around you.
RH: I went through my dad’s records when I was a kid and I found those, then when I was a teenager I finally realised, “OK, that weird painting on the back of my parents’ bedroom was The Dark Side of the Moon cover.” There were all these sounds on even when I wasn’t listening because my dad would have his stereo on, so I was kind of tuned, or retuned into the sound of electronic instrumentation, even when I wasn’t aware of it. Talking about those types of albums, what’s very important is what you said there, there’s layers, momentum, storytelling, narrative. It’s like navigation, like taking a journey. Intentionally or unintentionally that’s what I’m always searching for in a piece of music I make, and especially in my albums. I don’t really like albums that are just a collection of tracks, if you use that format I want to be taken to a place that I couldn’t get to through a three-to-five-minute single. Music is very much about those ups and downs, upheaval, a pulling and tugging within you. In my work especially, which is very subtractive and minimalistic, it’s those small fluctuations that grab people’s attention, they kind of massage them to keep them with you while still feeling like there’s room to breathe.

AJT: I agree, my favourite point of an LP is the end of Side A and beginning of Side B, it’s always fascinating to see how musicians connect the two.
RH: Absolutely. I remember when I was working on my first two albums, the first F.U.S.E. album was kind of a collection of singles that I did for Warp Records and I tried to make it feel as cohesive as possible, but I was still a bit let down by that album. Right after that, I went straight into the studio to create what would be the first Plastikman album, Sheet One, which was pivotal to my success, but that’s because it was really what I trying to do. A single for a club is a single, it makes sense, that’s the format. But to actually go deep into an album, you’ve got to give someone more and take them from beginning to end. If you do it right, grab the listener and take them on that journey, then it’s incredibly rewarding for both sides.

Interview originally published in HERO 25.

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