Functions of the Now XI: Air Max ’97

After a heavyweight Functions of the Now entry by Bloom we now shift our gaze back down under, where Air Max ’97 has been hard at work creating new spaces and possibilities for the club. With an open-ended, exploratory process, Air Max’s work hones in on lush texture and rhythmic imbalance, on the dancefloor its felt as confronting, challenging yet undeniably fun and playful. These themes were fully explored in his label-debut “Progress and Memory” on Liminal Sounds, though traces can be found in his earlier self-released material (“Recurse”, a sleepy-eyed wake-n-bake soundtrack, is a personal favourite). On January 26 we’ll be taken deeper down the rabbit hole with his follow-up Liminal EP “Fruit Crush”, 3 tracks of twinkling dancefloor magic in which his unique approach fully crystalises. These dense rhythmachines are instantly recognizable as Air Max’s, they are a Galapagos island of images and iterations. Again we find only a tangential connection to grime, an admiration of its sonic and spatial magic and a knowing respect for its historic and current communities, contexts and localities. The impact of grime is felt as sonic philosophy, as process and possibility.

In partnership with DJs Aspartame and Rap Simons, Air Max 97 runs Melbourne’s club ESC, where a growing community of pluralistic aliens regularly join together to experience their particular brand of ‘oblique club trax’. I made the trip down earlier this year to pray at the alter of Total Freedom, a night that won’t easily be forgotten. What is amazing about club ESC is it is a space of true collective euphoria and embodied resistance, those qualities so often spoken about but so rarely achieved in nightlife. The night’s name references those promises of disembodiment that arises out of both club space and digital existence – at points during the night the audience is blanketed with smoke thick enough to provide a transcendental cocoon, inviting them into nothingness, into total freedom. Air Max 97’s bent noises and utopic club nights both encourage us to move differently, to break two-step hegemony.

As always there’ve been some amazing happenings in the FOTN sphere, the most devastating being the anthemic Gage and Kevin Jz Prodigy collab on Crazylegs. We need barely even mention “Bad Bitch” (read Tayab’s excellent review here), but it perfectly encapsulates what is wonderful and exciting about club music at the moment. Another flowering convergence can be found in DJ J Heat’s remix of M.E.S.H.’s “Scythians”, in which M.E.S.H.’s lush design is reconfigured into a floating Jersey requiem. The rest of the remix EP, with contributions from TT faves Lotic, Logos and Grovestreet, is also essential. Berlin-based Soda Plains issued a deadly single on the excellent Black Ocean, a pair of heavily melodic weapons primed for freaky dancefloors. Elsewhere Imaab’s contribution to Trax Couture’s World Series offers a set of gritty industrial drum trax par excellence, if you need more kicks in your life this is the place to find them. Also highly recommended is OMAAR’s EP (and everything else, really) on Mexico’s NAAFI imprint. For us NAAFI are one of the most exciting crews around at the moment, their mix of high-sheen club vibes and the homegrown rave sounds of Mexico and the surrounding area has added a whole new element to this soundscape. Check out their PIRATA compilation for further evidence of their seam work.

We also caught up with Air Max on Skype for a lengthy chat – check it below. We’ll be back in 2015 and hope you’ve enjoyed 2k14 as much as we have, see you on the other side! We’re so thankful that it’s “Wanna Party” that fittingly takes us out for the year.

Hey Air Max! I’m gonna kick off with a question that Martin Blackdown often starts his interviews with which I think is quite cool: where is your head at, musically speaking, at the moment? “What do you mean exactly, like in terms of my production or what I’m getting into?” I guess both and how they interrelate. Like for me I could tell when, for instance, you had heard DJ Lag and then hearing bits and pieces sprinkled throughout your stuff. “Yeah, I feel indebted to a lot of Gqom stuff at the moment, that’s been super inspiring for me. But it’s funny because I was playing some SA stuff while Lawson Aspartame (of club ESC) was around, and he was like “what’s this new Air Max ‘97 shit?”, haha. So I feel like me becoming aware of that music was really timely because I was already heading into that vibe a bit. Certainly the Nidia Minaj remix has got a strong Gqom feel, but I feel like a lot of that was already present in Nidia’s Tarraxo rhythms. I’ve been chatting a little with some Durban people and I’ve got a few loose plans to collab, we’ll see how that goes. I love that vibe, it’s so dark and percussive. Melody is very restrained and there’s a lot of tension and a very masterful use of a reduced palette.” It feels like its constantly about to explode. “That bpm is really good for me at the moment as well, I find myself playing a lot around 128. I’ve really been getting into lower bpms and playing around with some different vibes, some hypnotic energy rather than straight up 135 aerobics!”

What about the production side? “Production-wise I’ve just been finishing these two EPs. The Liminal Sounds follow up is called “Fruit Crush” and will be out January 26th on vinyl and digital. The title track has been kicking around for a little while, it’s a bit of a monster. “Shape Cut”, which is in the mix, was written more recently. “Armour Form” was written in February when Jon Strict Face was here for club ESC. We hung out in my apartment the next day on no sleep and wrote a tune together in like 4 or 5 hours. Then there’s the other EP for Trax Couture’s World Series, which should be out in March. I just finished mixdowns for that. The Liminal one is quite sonically colourful. I sent all my dubs to Sam and Sara and they made a selection that maybe I wouldn’t have, but then I listened through and went, ‘wait, this is really cool! It really makes sense’. The choices that Rushmore made for the Trax Couture EP are relatively stripped back and a bit darker.”

So did you approach the two EPs differently? Or was it on the shoulders of the people from the label rather than writing for a release? “Yeah, the former. I haven’t worked in that way yet, writing for a release. I just write tunes whenever I can. Some I write one in a single afternoon and some take months. Basically, I write them and then they go into my little collection of dubs and I send them around.” Do they follow on from the first EP or are you feeling out a different vibe? “Ah, well, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing really! The Liminal EP I’m really happy with as a follow up, it occupies a space that follows on from the previous one but it’s a bit more of a tighter zone, it’s like a more specific vibe that’s articulated in three different ways. I also like it because it has quite diverse tempos. The one for Trax Couture was perhaps a moment where I was trying to make more drum tracky stuff, like ‘tool’ style things. I guess I go through little periods where I find myself doing different things. I have a tendency to work towards pop structures but I’m interested in pushing myself to work differently, like for example making a structure more about shifts rather than build-ups. I don’t know; my process is very exploratory. I don’t really sit down and go ‘OK I’m going to make this thing to serve this purpose’, it’ll be an inspiration, whether that’s a little rhythm in my head or a melodic thought, or even just a couple of sounds and then the ideal projects seem to write themselves and I make sense of them afterwards.” Lots of people say that about writing tunes, that the best ones write themselves. “Yeah, it’s so true though! I really appreciate the momentum of writing music and I’m quite wary of erasing that by trying to too carefully fine-tune something. I find often what makes a track really work is just the juicy idea that, if you’re trying to polish up later, you might actually obscure.”

That reminds me of Objekt. He always says in interviews its takes him like 6 months to make a track, and then on the other hand you read about Girl Unit or Ikonika who have said they tend to move on very quickly if it’s not working in the first couple of sittings. But Objekt tunes things so finely that they kinda come back in the other side and you find these weird, fucked grooves in the immense detail. “I have heaps of admiration for an approach like Objekt. I don’t have too much insight into the ways other people produce but I sometimes hear stuff and go, wow, every single instance of every sound has been carefully manipulated, every sonic event is unique, and it’s incredible. I’m super in awe of that and part of me aspires to that but the part of me that vibes off that initial idea outweighs the other. Time constraints, too. But Objekt’s stuff pushes so far that it ends up in this totally different space and you just can’t mess with it, it’s totally sick. But I also don’t have the technical ability, that person seems like a scientist.” Yeah but that’s all just part of this genius myth, like ‘Renegade Snares’ where the breaks are all intricately and individually handcrafted. “Yeah, actually one more thing, I’m an advocate of a good idea and a grimey mixdown. The world is so full of immaculately produced music that I feel like there needs to be a space where the thing doesn’t have to be perfectly realised. There’s no point in having a beautifully produced track if the content isn’t making things move. We exist in a really unique space right now. I did this really nerdy thing when I was in Indonesia recently where I went through Resident Advisor’s top 50 tracks of the year in reverse chronology. If you go back to, say, 2008, already shit sounds fucked! Way less HD, heaps shoddier, heaps less tight. The current production climate is this terabyte era where you can really go super detailed on stuff and that feels really natural to us but it’s actually recent in the history of dance music for stuff to be this precise, sharp, punchy and aggressive.”

The relationship between DJing and producing has been one of the interesting themes to come out of this series, I wonder if you could shed some light on your practice in that respect? “Playing out is really instructive, I tend to play a lot of my own stuff and things in progress to get a sense of how they’re behaving. That’s been hugely instrumental. DJing is a fundamental aspect of my production practice.” How has the context of club ESC played into that specifically? “It’s my favourite context to play. I feel very at home and I can play exactly what I want to play. It’s awesome, club ESC is beautiful. I love it so much. [looks off wistfully into the distance]”

How did the club ESC nights get started? “It’s the usual story of wanting to have more club experiences and wanting to be able to play on a more regular basis. It was obvious that the only way to do that was to do it ourselves. Jona (Rap Simons) and myself had known each other for quite a while and then realised one day while chatting that we had quite similar music tastes. We were making tentative steps on the club night but when I met Lawson, he was really the missing part of the puzzle. Actually it was really cute, I was playing in early 2013 and like, no one was there – it was really early in the night so it was just my partner and Jona sitting down at the back, and then this lone dude dancing. I was played my set and at the end we were all like “Who was that dude!?” and he’d disappeared. About an hour later that person (Lawson) tweeted at me, so I DM’d him and organized to meet up and it became immediately clear that we were very like-minded. So that’s how it started. It works really well, the three of us are organizers and resident deejays. Jona and I handle all the graphics and art direction, with input from Lawson, of course. Lawson is the logistical mastermind. We’re up to number 5 now for this year. It’s basically just a bunch of our friends, it maybe flexes beyond that from night to night, but that’s the core. And that’s super special, that community means so much to us. It’s so fucking humbling to see people come out to every night, I feel a really deep sense of respect and reverence for, and responsibility to them, because you know, club music isn’t shit without dancers.” Yeah, that community thing is something I really noticed. What I found interesting is that there were lots of lights, usually I personally prefer pitch black, but the vibe was obviously popping off. Lawson was saying you guys wanted to create a platform where people can be quite performative, to see and be seen so to speak (but, like, not in a surveilled way), and that played into the way you guys engage with your community. I’m wondering how you go about those kinds of things – lighting, DJ placement and other structural aspects of the night and how those things might help to foster a community? “With the lighting, you make it sound like club ESC is super bright – I think we’re still in the dark end. But a lot of the time our hands are tied with the venue, they need to have a certain amount of light or whatever. We have fun with it, we change the colour or temperature of lighting according to the theme of the night, but I don’t know if keeping it bright so that people are visible is necessarily a conscious decision. Intense darkness can also sometimes make people feel unsafe. One of my favourites was number 4 with Simona Kapitolina, she played a 3 hour techno set and that night we had a really bright projection of time-lapsed flowers opening and closing on loop, and the stage was flooded with pink light illuminating $300 worth of flowers we had all over the DJ table. And that felt really right. Other nights the lights might get cut at some stage and that feels really right too, so it depends. I know you’re really invested in the idea of the invisible DJ but it can also be wonderful to create a platform for our guests to be visible and do their thing, and if audience members aren’t into that they can rave out at the back of the room.”

So with these structural aspects of the club space in mind, how does club ESC relate to queer identity? “Well, I love queer dance floors. Queer dance floors are way better than straight dance floors. Dance floors where people are on E are also definitely my favourite. Although obviously people should do their thing and shine bright as they wish! It’s interesting because it’s not part of the mission of the night as such, it has just ended up that way. It’s something that we’ve talked about a bit, among ourselves and with some of our friends who attend often, figuring out how to maintain that or prioritise the enjoyment of club ESC for the queer people or trans people that turn up. It’s ideal for that space to be accessible and safe for everyone. I identify as queer, but we collectively don’t feel comfortable advertising as a queer night or laying claim or trying to speak for, for instance, the trans community here in Melbourne. Which is structural: that’s not our story to tell, club ESC is really just our beautiful friends that come and party and we try to make sure that it’s as fun and safe as it can be for them. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.”

Your involvement with the art world comes at a cool time because the intersection between contemporary art and dance music is super interesting at the moment, there seems to be a really productive and invigorating relationship forming with digital platforms really opening up music to aesthetics. I hear your music as quite conceptual in that artsy way, I was listening to one of your tracks the other day and had this realization of like ‘damn everything in this track is so wet’ – not realised in that seapunk method of signification but in a more physical and visceral way. It might’ve been damp or moist or dewy but always within that ecosystem. “Haha, that track probably just had too much reverb. But yeah, I definitely identify with that, when I think about writing club music I try to go in with an expanded mindset, I don’t go in to write a house track or a grime track… I’m really not interested in recreating something that already exists. I’m interested in abstraction, in generating cool sounds that can coexist and building relationships between sounds and textures that are affective or interesting. I’m interested in the boundaries. I have this one rule that it needs to work in the club. I want it to be affective. Beyond that one rule, I wanna fuck shit up as much as I can, and I don’t know how successful I am with that. I try and force myself to not use that drum sample but find an instance of the frequency that I want in a completely different sound. I think this has a lot to do with where I fit culturally, I don’t feel I can lay claim to any established genre because that’s not where I’m from.”  

Yeah word, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Australian/outsider cultural identity and it’s really interesting to hear the way your location affects your approach to sound design. I think this context has created some really cool, weird shit, like your stuff. When I interviewed Justin of Victoria Kim he said, you know, ‘we’re all just imitating people but doing it wrong’, which is an interesting perspective and pretty true. On the other hand I definitely feel like your music exists outside of that a little bit, so I’m wondering how your identity plays into your music? “Firstly I do not identify as Australian. Technically I’m Dutch, I was born there but grew up in New Zealand. I’m also politically very suspect of the nation state. So it’s kind of complicated. If I had to choose it would probably be New Zealander. I feel like these issues are super complex especially because of the colonial histories of both of these countries, which I think needs to be addressed as part of this conversation although I’m probably not capable of doing that properly right now. But bringing it back to the musical space we occupy, I think it’s a blessing and a curse really, this southern hemisphere existence. If I was somewhere that had super established protocols or styles or something, I would possibly just be making much more straightforward ‘genre x’. With the lack of mentors or scenes also comes a great deal of freedom. I really appreciate Victoria Kim’s idea of doing stuff wrong, like in the absence of an established protocol or context for creating a specific kind of music, trying some shit and making a bunch of mistakes that sound cool is probably the best thing. I listen to my own tracks and can hear that they sound way off, but it’s good that it doesn’t sound ‘right’. I am very conscious of not concretely copying things from other genres, especially genres that come from very real communities, often minority communities or communities that are socially marginalized. For better or for worse, I’ve kind of been associated with grime, and that’s cool but I don’t actually identify that way because I genuinely feel that I cannot lay claim that to culture at all. The degree to which I identify with grime is maybe this thing that I’ve heard from interviews and some writing about when grime was emerging out of a more polished garage context, and people would say ‘fuck off with that grimey shit’. So like, grimey but not capital G ‘Grime’. It always makes me uneasy if some privileged suburban kid is making tracks with ha crashes when the last track they made was a Jersey club track and the one before that was a footwork track… Yeah, I’ve been having a bit of a crisis lately about negotiating this stuff. This also plays into what you said before about being associated with grime. Like me doing this weird column as a 21 year old cis-whyte-boy from inner-city Sydney… it’s ridiculous, really. But I’m kinda stumped for what to do. “Aw man, I know that feeling exactly. I think it’s important to be able to critically deconstruct that blogger-in-Sydney-situation but also acknowledge that its absurdity is kinda wonderful. Because I definitely struggle with that too: at the end of the day me building my practice and ‘career’ is just another white man taking up cultural space, which is not really what the world needs right now. It’s just about finding some balance between doing the thing but being aware that you’re taking up space and doing so in a self-conscious way. And if that becomes a position of power, just being aware and sensitive to that. I’m interested in owning that as well, like owning the fact that I pass as a man, but trying to be true to kinds of masculinities I identify with that aren’t normative and like smuggling those in along with the pass. Being a bit femme or cute or whatever and just trying to make some noise from within the system.”

Considering the emphasis on the body in recent critical theory and also your emphasis on club functionality and affect, I was wondering if you could delve into the kinds of (dis)embodiments or mindstates you’re interested in producing or that you enjoy when raving? It’s interesting as well that the idea of liminality is obviously closely tied to the Liminal Sounds label, but also Fade To Mind alludes to that certain state of becoming, of the in-between that club space can put you in. “Yeah, the relationship to the word liminal is wild, that’s definitely a concept I’m really fascinated by. It’s very serendipitous or appropriate that I’m releasing with those guys, although we haven’t actually talked about that yet. I’m very interested in the concept of affect, I don’t do so much reading right now but for a moment I was doing some reading around Deleuzian sort of thought that explores ideas of affect and becoming and pre-individuality. These concepts are very hard to discuss because the language we use to discuss them has to operate in a way that marginalises the inbetween or the relationality of the world and of things. And our Western capitalistic framework privileges much more fixed notions of identity. The degree to which one can gesture towards this stuff within music, club space or the dancefloor is  a whole other thing that I don’t know if I’ve put a lot of thought into, but I definitely love those ideas. Then, in terms of specific ‘effects’ or mindstates that I’m interested in inducing, I don’t know, one of the little handholds I have on the concept of affect is that moment when you’re experiencing something and all the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and I get that sometimes with music, so maybe something like that? I’m also just trying to inspire movement. Some tracks that I hear in a club I just can’t help but freak out and move and close my eyes and surrender to. There are really different ways of dancing, like where you’re kind of in control of what you’re doing, consciously maintaining a rhythm, but then there’s also times where, for me I’m just like, freaking out, haha. I’m not interested so much in alienating my audience, which kind of goes back to that threshold of club functionality. I want things to be disorientating or unusual for the dance floor to a degree, but I don’t want that to be something that will make people tune out or feel bad. I wanna be able to hopefully boogie around on that threshold in a way where it can be as much infectious and sexy and like, kinetic as it is alien.”

Cool, let’s finish up with some business – what are your plans for the next few months? “I’m going to be on tour in Europe in May and June, also trying to tour Asia next year. club ESC are in talks about doing a nationwide Air Max ‘97 tour soon and I’ve got gigs coming up in Adelaide and Canberra. Basically club ESC continues as long as the three of us are in Melbourne, so I’ll be working on that as well.”

Tracklist:

Laurel Halo – Wow
Ryoji Ikeda – Headphonics
Alva Noto – m 04
Air Max ’97 – Shape Cut
Sharp Veins – did u think (insecurity)
Mark Fell – Occultation of Mat Steel Extended Remix
Rye Rye Ft. M.I.A. – Bang (Acapella)
Randomer – Ruffa
Taskforce – No Info (Renaissance Man Remix)
DJ Matsawu – Angisabi
Air Max ’97 – Reflex Glamorized (Ft. Divoli S’vere)
Nguzunguzu – Smoke Alarm
Acre – Blue Moon
Patrice Baumel – Posthuman (Air Max ’97 Kickshifter edit)
Rushmore Ft. Air Max ’97 – Air Trax ’97
Holly Herndon – Breathe
Imaabs – Grafito
Air Max ’97 – Task
Future Brown – Wanna Party Remix (Ft. Tink and 3D Na’Tee)

Tobias Shine

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