The Prophets of Midwestern Renegade Party Culture: A Conversation with Dar Embarks
Every now and again contemporary objects that signify a direct relationship to a historical past are discovered in record shop bins in the form of vinyl disks. One type of record that falls into this category is the reissuing of older material, which has become a popular trend in the music market, while the other version is constructed of recently produced music that is held firmly in the grasp of memory. The later being works that are usually informed by specific moments in time that are then translated through creative processes, which then results in a transcription that presents narrative accounts of the artist’s direct experience. These records then serve as transmitters that recount the artist’s subjective narrative of these experiences. Which then charges the vinyl construction with the authority of being an agent of memory.
Dark Entries reissue of Severed Heads’ 1984 cult classic “Dead Eyes Open”
In my own experience as a record shop archeologist, it is not often that I discover many recent releases that fully embody the sonic history of the 90’s Midwestern renegade party scene. During that era a thriving scene existed throughout a network of cities that included Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Columbus, Madison, Grand Rapids, and other various towns that surrounded the area. This was way before the advent of social media, smart phones, MP3 players, and Web 2.0, and in order to gain access to an event’s location, one would be left to the mercy of a voice mail system, that simply left directions to the event usually around 8PM on the night of the show. But what was most compelling about the scene in the Midwest was its unforgiving adoption of each of the cities signature sounds and musical philosophies. Acid House, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, hard paced and brutal Acid Techno and Ghetto House all served as elements that created the core soundscape. Music from other areas around the world were welcomed and played with regularity, but it was the sounds with roots from within the netowrk that dominated the space. And this juxtaposition of sonic traditions led to electronic musical hybrids which were encompassed with distinct characteristics of their time.
The virtual impossibility of reporting the totality of a movement’s importance and constituents within a limited space is a challenge that could mislead and offer only a discounted point of view. But what can be communicated within this space is that important events rooted in dance music culture took place within the Midwest during the era that I am focusing on, and through those happenings particular sounds were generated that influenced artists locally and around the globe. If I had to select a popular band that at one point in their career fell under this influence it would have to be Daft Punk, who had their first American appearance at the Even Further Festival in 1996. A Drop Bass Network production that was a total hedonistic techno experience. The gathering took place in a remote area hours away from Milwaukee somewhere deep in the fields. Attached here is video footage of Thomas Bangalter wearing a satin Starter Gear sports jacket as he plays a concoction of Ghetto House, Jack Trax, Acid House and his own works. When paying close attention to the Homework album (which was released in January 1997) we are confronted with a structure of 909 drums that beat the speakers with the force of a blunt object and recall the programming of early DJ Hyperactive and Dance Mania productions. Also, we cannot ignore the shout out track Teachers that pays homage to the enigmatic Gemini, DJ Rush, Jeff Mills, Boo Williams, Robert Hood and DJ Skull. There is no denying the evident influence.
Not too long ago while visiting one of the local record shops I reached for a double EP that was quietly situated on the Chicago section of the wall. And by “quietly” I mean that it wasn’t dressed in adorned packaging, but was placed within a nondescript white sleeve that was contrasted by its black label, which was absent of text. The only source of information regarding this release was a single sheet of paper that included the artist’s name and a track listing. Out of all of the track titles one of them captured me instantaneously, and I had to wonder if VooDoo 97 produced by Dar Embarks was a signifier which pointed directly to an infamous warehouse party that took place on Western Avenue in September of 1997. A severe curiosity came over me. Are the contents inscribed into the grooves of this record a reporting of a direct experience that happened eighteen years ago? I made my way to the listening station and placed the needle onto the record and my ears were met with a amalgam of Detroit Techno and Chicago House. The track immediately triggered a blurred mental image of thousands of sweaty kids swarming rhythmically in a dark space, while sizable balloons filled with nitrous oxide hovered at arms reach above the crowd. In my mind there had to be a direct relationship with this work and the history of Midwestern rave culture, and I was on a mission to find out if my intuition was correct. Was Voodoo 97 in fact a sonic narrative that was wrapped in experience and memory?
The Fleer EP
Dar Embarks was a name that wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. I heard the moniker echoing around the town from the playbills of shows happening around the city. Events including Smart Bar’s infamous weekly Queen and Beau Wanzer’s HOT ON THE HEELS, which has a strong foundation based on showcasing local talent. But up until this point, I have not had the opportunity of witnessing them in action. The next step was to track down Ken Zawacki and Dan Jugel (who is also a member of Juzer, a project in tandum with Beau Wanzer that has released recently on Dog in the Night, and Anthony Parasole’s The Corner), two Bridgeport Southside of Chicago residents that actively host conversations with their electronic instruments. And once I located them I wasted no time in asking about the intention of Voodoo 97.
Ken, Dan and their machines in conversation at Hugo Ball. (Smart Bar Chicago)
After picking up The Fleer Ep, I first noticed was that one of the tracks was labeled Voodoo 97 and I could not help but wonder if the title was a homage to the legendary warehouse party?
KEN: Yes, we are. Voodoo 97 is an direct homage to that party.
Was there a particular experience that was had at Voodoo that steered your decision to name that specific track after it?
DAN: While our track itself is an homage to Dave Angel, there is one particular track I remember being played that night, It was Dreams by Salt Tank. It sounded so different loud. I always thought of the track as a cheesy Orbital rip-off, but that night it sounded banging. There was lots of good tech-house that night.
It truly was an unforgettable happening. I clearly remember sitting on my record box as Aux 88 was sonically ravishing an atmosphere that was made up of synthetic smoke and the body sweat from thousands of animated rave kids. It was as if the sound system was barking out orders in a militaristic fashion while the promoter of the event was quarreling outside with the authorities in an attempt to keep the party going. Which he surprisingly did for a few hours by arguing that it would be more safe to keep all these bodies inside the building instead of running amuck in the streets. That night was a significant moment in Midwestern rave history.
Your music maintains a strong influence from what I consider 90’s Midwestern techno aesthetics, but simultaneously ventures outside of that space and distinctly seems of this time. It feels rooted within the traditional Chicago sound scape, but is not confined within that vacuum. Can you speak about the creative decisions that are made to provide your output this sense of agency?
KEN & DAN: It starts with gear choices. Dar Embarks uses a hybrid of vintage gear and newer boxes that were directly influenced by those vintage boxes. We most definitely identify closely with Midwest techno/house sound. That’s only because we are from the Midwest. Early on it took us a while to identify that was and is a sound. We also don’t make “throwback tracks”, I don’t think we could if we tried. It’s great when people recognize our sound and can hear the influence, but most of the time when that happens it ends up that we were both at the same parties at some point in the mid to late 1990’s. The twist is that we make tracks spontaneously and what comes out is original.
Elektron Monomachine SFX-6/60 situated above an Analog Rhtm 8-Voice Drum Computer
I have often felt when working on my own projects that when something is continually revisited, adjusted, added and subtracted to, the work can become confused and no longer represents the form that it took during the initial studio session. A work of sound is empowered with specific energies and characteristics that materialize during creation. When a distance of time is incorporated into the equation, a completely different sensibility and influence becomes apparent. This could be a negative or a positive; it all depends on the artist’s intent.
When considering the artist’s toolbox, or arsenal, it is apparent that very specific choices are made as various outcomes derive from a diverse set or combinations of implements. Are there any particular gadgets in your studio set up that you feel is paramount to the Dar Embarks sound? And if so, what is it about this, or those machines that make them consequential to your practice?
KEN: As far as the DE sound goes we try to let the synths and drum machines speak for them selves. We don’t use a lot of pedals or effects. If we do the effect comes from a built in effect. Many of the instruments are recorded dry. If I had to pick one piece of gear that we fall back on a lot its the Roland TB-303. It’s a box for decades we both hated. Now use the TB as a drum. I don’t care how many clones or DAW’s come out emulating the TB-303…there is nothing like it.
DAN: It’s very hard for me to make a beat without a sample of an RZ-1 clap.
Casio RZ-1 drum machine. Championed by the likes of Prince Paul and Stevie Poindexter.
Dan, what is it about the RZ-1 clap that captivates your creative impulses?
DAN: The RZ-1 clap has a certain “whip” to it! I feel it bridges that gap of whatever house and techno is. You can hear that clap in Dan Bell’s Electric Shock to Akilah Bryant’s Arachnophobia. The sound is so slick that it somehow makes faster tempo tracks sound smooth. There is a certain, for a lack of a better term, B-boy quality to the it. It makes me move elbows.
That is a curious statement about “hating” the TB 303 considering it has held a very prominent position in the history of Chicago dance music as well as in the Midwest rave scene. It definitely gives off an exclusive characteristic sound that has yet to be duplicated. What was your original aversion to the machine, and when did your romance with it begin?
KEN: I think the aversion started just due to the share amount of tracks that have used it. Unfortunately, a lot of those tracks used the TB as the “star of the show”. The TB in Dar plays more of a supporting role. It also helps that I got the TB’s operating system updated which has made it easier to use.
Throughout the 90’s it was pretty common for party goers to become curious and want to explore the musical landscapes beyond the confines of the make shift gathering spaces. The scene fell into the linage of the Punk and No Wave movements by embracing a strong DIY ideology. It dissolved the notion of unreachable desires and replaced it with an accessible impression, and with that a surge of personas took to the stage. A great number made their initial leap into the practice by scavenging record store bins and hunting for a working pair of turntables, but you opted to accumulate the peculiar (and occasionally defiant) machines that would become the foundations of your creative dogma. Can you speak about how that decision was reached, and what was your experience when you were seeking out your first electronic instrument?
Suicide live at CBGB’s 1977.
KEN: My first synth was a Moog MG-1. That thing is a graveyard of haunted sounds. It being a Moog automatically triggered memories of video games sounds & images in comics I read. Dan I know had gotten a 202 & 606 a few years earlier and was fortunate to get my hands on those quite early.
Roland TR-606 Drumatix
DAN: Actually, my first piece of gear was the terrible Roland MC-303 “Groovebox”. That’s about all they had at the Guitar Center nearby. After that I started looking at gear on the early days of Sonicstate. I quickly sold the MC-303 and purchased the MC-202 and TR-606 from Rogue Music. It’s funny, when I picked those out I just thought they looked right for me, I imagined that was something Aphex Twin would use. I based that off absolutely nothing,.. later I realized I was sorta right.
I also bought records. Almost never spent that lunch money my mother gave me to eat lunch. I had a pair of barely functioning Gemini DD50’s. I wanted to DJ, but I guess I didn’t want it that bad because anytime I had nearly half the money for 1200’s… I would get gear instead.
What is up next on the horizon for Dar Embarks?
KEN: We have a 12″ being release on CLEAR out of Chicago, titled the “Cypher EP”. Dar will be hitting the studio pretty hard recording new material. We will also be working on a series of video shorts that will be on our YouTube channel. Also, we will start playing outside of Chicago right around when the 12″ comes out (end of the year). If all goes to plan.
Both of us are also excited that people are finally creating a underground scene again and spaces are popping up in Chicago. Things are looking good right now for underground Chicago dance music.
DAN: Basically, I need to get a passport ASAP. Pretty excited about that.