Rithma is focused on family now so God knows if we will ever be graced with another album, but luckily his debut Music Fiction (Om Records, 2002) is a timeless classic. I was lucky enough to be in Chicago at the same time as him in 2004 so introduced myself at a gig and we stayed in touch. He ended up giving me stacks of his unreleased stuff – both electronic and acoustic – as well as the track you see in the old pic below, which quotes my Manchester novella. This Q&A was originally published on worlddj.com.
After early explorations under the Rhythmic Mind moniker and two self-released tracks as Rithma, Etienne Stehelin earned his first official release in 2000 on Fiji Recordings. This was quickly followed by releases on seminal San Franciscan labels Tweekin and Om, and the following year more of his music was unleashed on the world by various imprints. Rithma’s reputation for innovation was finally sealed in ’02 when Om Records released his debut full-length album, Music Fiction. Since then his production has continued from strength to strength and the demand for his party-orientated DJing has steadily increased. We got this Q&A together via email: read it and believe.
» In the cover of Music Fiction, there’s a picture of you playing with a keyboard when you’re about two years old. What are some of your earliest musical memories?
Perhaps that one. My early happy years were spent in one of those double wide motor homes out in the woods of Southern California with my parents. They had a pretty massive record collection (seems every musician says this about their early years and parents) and my music diet was your regular garden variety of classic rock, but with an extra sprinkle of Latin jazz, bop, and 80s etc. My mom the rock singer was performing at nightclubs at the time and when pops would come home from work, she would head out to the gigs. She had a few analog synths she left set up in the house (I think the one in the picture was an old ARP) and I remember warm evenings tweaking knobs and loving that strange sound, many long years before I’d hear my first techno.
» You play the keyboards, guitar, bass, and sing. Did you receive any formal training or just pick it all up?
Mamma’s a piano and voice teacher so, even though I wouldn’t let her shove it down my throat, growing up in a house of music lessons and little singing kids was good for the ear training.
Once I hit 14 I got the guitar itch and after a couple years of rocking in a teenage band called Waffle, I started studying pretty heavy the Music Theory and Latin-jazz-finger-picking thing, and though I don’t really remember shit of the math side of things, the chords and vibe are still there.
» What was your role in the band?
Servicing society by rocking. Or perhaps compensating for my adolescent insecurities. I was the guitar player and half lead-man for the band. There were three of us and we’d hang out after school and steal pot from our parents and write songs and talk about how we really had a chance to go big. Ahhh nostalgia washes over me and I wish I could go back there. It was fun as hell and I think it prepped me for the whole stage thing so the initial shock of DJing in front of people wasn’t so bad.
» When were you first exposed to electronic dance music?
What a can of worms to open up now. It’s the light of my life and the inspiration for all of this and I guess to explain I’ve got to go back a bit, back to being an only child and wishing for family, wishing all through childhood for big groups of non-judgmental people, wishing for accepting smiles and having the world say they’d never come – grasping, reaching almost dying for new music for so long.
All through late childhood and early adolescence I spent more time in my imagination and up in my head than out in the world and then, at fucking last, somebody handed me their headphones in about 10th grade (15 years old, I guess) and it was this amazing breakbeat at the end of a Jesse Brookes tape called “Fresh O Matic”. After pestering the guy (Scott Findley, still a prime partner in crime) he made me a copy, and it was all I listened to for months.
Keep in mind this was pre-rave Rithma, before I’d ever seen a DJ or a warehouse packed with kids or any of that. I would smoke a little pot before bed and put my headphones on and listen to these new tapes (if you want details: “Fresh O Matic” by Jesse Brooks, “Journey Home From Planet E” by DJ Trance, “Too Much Goin On Upstairs Pt 2” by Jason Blakemore, “Audiogasm” by Thomas Michael), and just lie there for most of the night studying that shit, turning it into pictures of a perfect world in my brain, every day desiring it more and more.
I remember this one specific moment – still before I’d ever experienced the rave scene – at a keg party out in suburbia near our high school, and a DJ lived in the basement of the house and had piles and piles of house and techno records and mixtapes. And I remember being a bit drunk and stoned (and still very young) and wondering, with complete curiosity and without any pre-determination, “What if my life was like that? What if I knew all about this insane new music and all these alien DJs and records and that was my life?”
I remember passing it off as if it would never happen, as if it were just an interesting thought, that’s all. But then the rave scene came closer and closer within the orbit of my life – echoing, echoes, rumors of new drugs and things that could really open us up and turn us into real people: deep and freely emotional. It seemed like some secret societal combination of secret music and secret drugs, that nobody out in the stupid jaded-parents-and-TV-news world knew about, that nobody in the stupid high-school-beer-and-titties scene would ever see, something that only real truly special people could fathom or be a part of.
So then I started going out. My first rave, well, the party itself was crap. It was called “Electric Lollypop” (how could we be so lame?) and there weren’t many people there but I came away with such warmth, such vibrations from these people. Like how could people, all our same age, be getting together for our own purpose, just to be with each other? Was this really happening? Were all my dreams just beginning to come true?
Absolutely! The family and friends of my wildest dreams, decked out in all their self-acceptance and wild costumes, were there. Screaming, hugging, calling me in to leave all my problems and judgments at the door.
For the second or third parties, I had to sneak out because my parents were already onto something. One weekend I told my folks I was going to sleep in the woods for a change: I packed my sleeping bag and peanut butter sandwich and book, walked out the door, hiked up to the main highway and called my friend and said, “Lets go!”
And I can’t emphasize how powerful it all was, these mysteries all unfolding, this huge secret world I was swept into, like an answer to every question I ever asked, a response that helped me realize who I should really be: not some confused high school student obsessed with getting laid and watching sports, but a real human being – confident and kind and giving and non-judgmental. PLUR as we used to say – before everything became cliche (though cliches only develop out of truths) – Peace Love Unity Respect. And that’s that. That’s the dream coming true in the early days of Rithma.
» How and where were “Rithma 001” and “Rithma 002” distributed?
“Rithma 001” sucked ass (I tried to squeeze 25 minutes of music onto each side so you could barely hear it) and since there were only 12 of them pressed, I think I distributed it to my parents and friends, and a couple of DJs that were my icons at the time. But they took one listen to it and said “you might want to get this repressed”. So I saved money for another summer and dragged myself with my tail between my legs to the record plant, and did “002”. It was more professionally cut and produced and I think I pressed 400 of them. That was right when people were buying vinyl like cheap pills so I got a couple of distributors to pick it up. I remember I nearly shit my pants when TRC sent me a check for like $150. I was rich!
» DJs are expected to produce their own material nowadays and many of them prove to be competent at it having spent so many years learning what works on the dancefloor, but you got into production first. Do you think that affected your early work?
Yeah. I was producing for a couple years before I started DJing and on one side that’s cool because I experimented a little more but, on the other side, I made really “DJ unfriendly” records for a long time, with really long intros that were hard to mix, so some of my better stuff didn’t get played out so much. I wonder how it would have been had I just slapped 16 bars of bass, drum and hi-hat on every 12″ perhaps it would’ve stunted the growth of the whole goose chase. As far as my tech-folk songs are concerned, and jazz, well, I forgot what I was talking about. Next!
» Your first official release was on Fiji Recordings, which is part of New York’s Under Cover Music Group, but you’re from California. Do you think it’s relevant for people to talk about the East versus West Coast sounds?
It’s hard to say, seeing as labels on both coasts license tracks from people on the other coast and overseas etc. I imagine earlier on when the scenes were first developing it would have been more relevant: when little niches of music were popping up in different towns pre-internet style. Now everybody talks to everybody and people in New York have copies of my new record before I do.
» You initially approached San Francisco’s Naked Music and they directed you to Om Records. How does your relationship with Om work?
Ha. It’s kind of like we’re all buddies now and I sort of send them music when I’ve got something. At first I was so freaked out by the whole thing: I’d slave all night on a track then next-day-air it to SF, and then the day after I’d call them every half hour and be like, “Did you get it? Did you like it? Did you get the track???!!! Do you like it?!” It had to be obnoxious as hell, but I think they liked it at the same time.
» Music Fiction is a very coherent album that embodies the popular notion that good music takes listeners on a journey. Did you specifically create material for the album or was some of it already extant?
Thanks! The “journey” thing was the original idea, and I made most of the songs specifically for the album. I took some Housey jams I already had (Flying Over the City, Personnel, etc) and revamped them for the album, like making them a bit more orchestral and polished. Some people say the album was too polished and refined, but fuck off – I built that thing in a shed. Seriously.
» What upcoming releases can we look forward to?
I just had a twelver come out on Outergaze in Japan, really more on the deep Techy dark side of things, which is good because I’ve put out a lot of the really happy/jazzy stuff lately and I’m starting to get sick of it. Ha ha.
At the moment I’m just starting the construction of my next album and it’s kind of like standing at the foot of a mountain with a fucking spoon and start digging.
In the near future I have a remix coming out on Harmonious Discord (again on the fluid tech house side) and maybe a single with them as well.
Also on the bigger side of things I’ve got a 12″ coming out on Utensil recordings of this track called “We Rock & Roll”. I kind of experimented with throwing a bunch of styles together in one track – classic rock included. It’s still a house track, I think, but it’s very live sounding and that may be a bit of a gamble in these times of chunky house music. But nobody got anywhere without trying something new.
And for the chunkers, we’ve got a Jacob London remix on the flip side! It’s funny, in the first couple of years I was putting out a record every other month then I took a huge break to work on the album and get on the road, and now my hard drive is almost full of music to release again. It’s like a big huge cycle.
» If the demand is there, do you think it’s important for producers to be technically proficient at DJing before they start touring?
Absolutely a good idea, though I sucked ass at first. I only had experience playing in little coffee shops for a long time, so when Om started inviting me to play in between bands for 800 people at 1AM, I was shitting myself.
I was so nervous my hands were shaking so violently that I couldn’t put the needle on the record without bumping it off. But it’s all good times and the super heart-attack nervousness passes after a while and it turns into more of a really exciting, very social job. But producers nowadays should keep some focus on doing a live act – I kind of regret losing sight of that through the thrill fog of DJing – and right now is another turning point in time where people are getting more excited about bands and acts again, so it’s something to keep in mind.
» What live elements do you incorporate into your DJ sets?
I’ve really been loving the singing thing lately, but only if the crowd is into it. If the crowd seems like they want to hear the grimey white guy sing, then I’m all for it. I bring dubs of all my tracks on CD, and a microphone, so I can plug it in and sing over original stuff.
In the beginning I tried scatting over other people’s records – and still do a little – but if I’m going to sing, it might as well be originals. Or remixes of originals.
For a while there I was singing “Everyone’s Sleeping Today” over the remix beats that Jacob London did for the track, and it worked pretty nice.
I’ve never brought a guitar or bass to a gig but that would be fun, except of course the tuning thing because most records – being off their regular pitch for the sake of beat matching – would be out of tune with a guitar.
I really want to get a live act together – I mean that’s like a main dream – but it all seems unfathomable at the moment. Like when you book a live act you have to book three or four or five plane tickets instead of one, plus soundstage and gear etc, and at this point I’m kind of stringing myself along just to finish tracks for everybody. But if I could make a clone of me then it might happen.
» Do you tailor your style to fit a gig or is it just down to how you’re feeling on the night?
It’s usually both, like if I’m going to play for the leather jacket and martini people I tend to bring a bit more of the deep vocal shit; if I’m going to play in the woods for the more frolicking baggy pants type people I’ll let loose more and go with the flow. There are always a couple of records in the bag that tend to get everybody moving, and there are a couple of records that I’ve been playing in every set for like two years: I always wonder if people are going to notice.
» What US cities do you play most often? What are your favorites?
San Francisco and Portland are like home away from home, and I can’t really pick a favorite because every time is something new. There’s nothing better than dropping in on an old group of friends somewhere and spending a couple of intoxicated nights together.
» In a typical month, how many nights are you away from home?
These last couple of months have been completely insane thanks to Mr. Kelsey and his Blue Collar booking agency.
I jumped from Burningman festival in Nevada to Moscow to Lithuania to Chicago to Mexico, with about a day and a half to do the laundry in between each flight. It was, like my old boss used to say, “a clusterfuck”. I couldn’t believe my eyes coming from a desert oasis of open minds to being lost in the streets of eastern Europe – pushing against crowds of people looking at their feet – to throbbing nightclubs where nobody speaks English, to meeting Paul Johnson in Chi-land and watching a Cubs game at Wrigley field, to doing shots of Tequila at 8AM and riding an old horse on the beach in Rosarito.
I didn’t know who I was or where and it felt like heaven. So, in October, I had four days at home. Lately I’ve been sitting on my ass and repairing damaged brain cells with carrot juice and fresh air. Gotta find the balance!
» Any advice to people aspiring to be in your shoes?
Probably the same advice any mega rock star would give you: it’s okay to shampoo every day but conditioning every day will cause buildup. And raw asparagus will make your piss smell much worse than cooked.
Also, stay true to your own form and don’t listen to anyone that it doesn’t feel right to listen to. This includes all aspects of life, especially music making. Do what you feel. This is important. I don’t care if everybody in your world is telling you that trance is gay and nobody is going to love you anymore – if you feel like making gay trance, do it. Fulfillment is not about making a buck on a piece of vinyl. Fulfillment is having that random weird track on your hard drive that sounds like nothing anybody else ever made because you made it when you weren’t concerned with anybody else. And like Flea says: “Whatever you do, just don’t be lame.” Ha ha!