Interview: Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy is a DJ and producer based in New York. A maverick figure, he blends humour and techno to great effect, donning costumes in his artwork, giving his releases titles like Time Saving Tips For Dj’s ‎and, most recently, releasing an album that’s a compilation made up of his own aliases. It Takes A Village: The Sounds of Physical Therapy was released on his label Allergy Season, a label that similarly mixes visual humour with earnest yet colourful house and techno sounds. Allergy Season has also teamed up with the Discwoman agency to release hefty compilations that raise money for outfits such as Planned Parenthood and Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. He also blew minds and won over hearts at the Honcho Campout festival in Pennsylvania, notably dropping D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” as well as a custom edit of CeCe Peniston over Stenny. Physical Therapy, real name Daniel Fisher, took time out from a busy summer to talk with us about his affinity for breaks (currently in vogue but always in his heart), the New York club scene, remixes of 1990s pop songs and a whole lot else.

How are you? “I’m good. my brain is a little fried. I played on the west coast this weekend and then took a red eye back to New York the other night.” How much down time do you have? “Now, things are more relaxed. I’m gonna go visit my family this weekend, and then next weekend I play in New York, and then I’ll leave again for a little bit.” You’re living in New York, now right? “Yeah.”

Did you know that there’s a guy based in Augusta, Georgia, whose name is Daniel Fisher and he is a qualified physical therapist? “[Laughs] I did not, but that doesn’t surprise me, both the name and the job are very common.”

So, my first proper question. This is a wild one. I take it you like breaks? “Yes. I answered the question.” Would you like to talk about that at all? “Yeah, sure!” How did you get into that particular style of making music? It’s a tool, let’s say. “I think as a producer, the most obvious reason that I’m drawn to them is that so much of my work is based on sampling and not synthesis. And that’s the root of all sample-based dance music. So that was a shortcut – I have an idea for a track that I wanna make, and then I just put the break under it and it’s done [claps]. Not quite so simple, but that’s like a Frankie Bones philosophy of producing. Putting some drums under a sound and you have a dance track. But I think it also has to do with for dancers, the organicness of the breaks can draw people in. Whenever I’m playing to a crowd or party that’s not particularly techno leaning, I’ll always bring in lots of things with breaks, I guess I feel it opens it up, for people who aren’t just there to hear four hours of 909 sounds.”

I remember talking to Savile last year, and he was talking about Chicago dancers and how they want to feel a certain kind of sound that gets them moving, is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? “Yeah, I think there’s a certain perspective in Europe, where there’s an unbroken tradition in dance parties and techno parties, so a lot of people are ready to go out and ready to hear this machine music for a long time, and in the States that tradition died. So, a lot of dancers need a more organic funky sound to draw them in.” That kind of thing where you might start a set with some hip-hop or funk and soul and gradually bring it up to “dance music” tempo. “Yeah, same idea but over the course of a decade in New York.”

People just want to fucking dance. and they want to hear good music, and they want to hear the groove, and jacking is the central theme of your presence there. You came to jack. It’s time to jack. – Savile

It’s funny you mention that, because I was reading back some of your interviews, there was one in Electronic Beats in 2012 and you were talking about the complete death of venues in New York, and how all your friends were trying to put on parties and they couldn’t find anywhere and fast forward to this year, you were interviewed in Paper magazine, and you said “I remember when it was like, you would post your party on Resident Adviser and there would be two events in New York that weekend. Now it’ll be like 50.” What do you think has led to that change, that growth? “I think it’s an organic cycle. The death of the music happened for specific reasons, like politicians, both on a national scale and Rudolph Giuliani shutting down all the clubs, pushing dance music out. And also, on a popular scale, people’s taste shifted more to hip-hop in the States, so when people went to a dance party, that was more the sound they were inclined to want to hear. It didn’t go away, there were parties and DJs continuously doing that here. I can only look at it from the perspective of people of my generation, who were not here for the pre-Giuliani stuff that was going on. So organic things that happened at like Bossa Nova Civic Club, slowly people started to get back into it, and d as the audience grew, that allowed for full-time clubs to open. If you had tried to open, I duno, now there’s half a dozen dance music clubs in New York, if you had tried to do that in 2012 there just wouldn’t have been enough audience. So organic growth from small, little outsider house and techno parties, and then probably some trickle down from Burners and EDM people, and all that combined to make a real dance music scene again.”

Do you think the sound has changed? Or is there more of an appetite for different sounds so there’s room for these different crowds? “The first club was probably Output, and they stuck pretty firmly to techno parties and house parties, it was pretty straightforward, but there have always been warehouse parties with more diverse sounds, and smaller bars, nights, and stuff. But I do think that in New York, people’s tastes have come to a place where they’re pretty open minded. And now you can go out on most nights that are run by local people and you wouldn’t just expect to hear just one sound the whole night.”

And is that because you’ve got different DJs or because you’ve got a small number of DJs, residents, who are varied and capable when it comes to playing different styles? “Both! For me as a DJ, if I’m playing somewhere like a party that I’ve never been to in Europe, and it’s pretty clear to me from who’s on the line-up and who has played before, oh, this is a techno party. I’m not going to stop in the middle and start playing drum and bass. But in New York I almost never have to worry about that, I can do what I want. And I think a lot of people feel more free now. And I think that change is happening in a lot of places, not just New York, but I’m here so I can comment on it more.”

Since you mention playing in Europe, you played Berghain recently. What did you play that night? Was that a straightforward set? Well, straightforward as far as you are concerned? “It’s more straightforward in terms of the tempo range and the swing and all that, but you usually play four hours there, and I’m certainly not playing four hours of the same trippy pads and 909. I still like to play lots of breaks. And when I’m playing a venue like that, my favourite period to draw from is late 90s early 2000s tribal-y stuff from Sweden and the Midwest. Because they were making really banging techno but they would throw a huge, funky, disco bass line on it. Or a completely crazy vocal on top.” I don’t know enough about that era, or those areas that you’re talking about because it sounds fascinating but I can’t think of anything that would fit into that. “You might not believe me, but go back to the first dozen releases on Drumcode. And they’re crazy… to me it’s crazy that it’s translated into this big-room boringness. Anything from Samuel L Sessions. Just try not to look at the artwork. Weird, racist imagery. Even the word tribal itself, but it goes back to the breaks, there’s this organicness to the sound that feels so fun and energetic. So Berghain. I feel like there are ways to keep the energy that people that expect, from the techno that is most popular today, but just have it be a bit more colourful and fun.”

Speaking of colour. Obviously, the music is great, but one of my favourite things about your label Allergy Season, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before, is the artwork. I love it so much. The latest one, the Lady Blacktronika one, I instantly tweeted about it before I pressed play because it’s so good. So, what inspires what product you’re going to ape for what record? “Well that one is a first, because we usually just stick to medicine packing, and that’s technically a dandruff shampoo.” Well dandruff, you might say is a medical issue. “Yeah, but we’ve definitely moved to the cosmetics aisle. She wanted to name the EP Rave Rinse Repeat, so that just worked out. Usually I just kind of go to the pharmacy or google a bit, I have a huge folder of things that I find inspiring, and we try to find one that has a colour and an energy that matches the EP. Usually I’ll present the artist with a few different options.” Who does the design? “The very first designs were with a desginer named Per Tornberg, and he helped copy the pharmaceutical packaging. Then Michael Magnan, who I also make music with as Fatherhood with, he did the next ones, and now we work with an illustrator named Bad Mariah. I thought it would be fun to zoom out a little bit, show them but not try to have it look like a box of medicine. if you keep doing the same thing it gets boring.” You could never be accused of that! “Thank you.”

The artwork for the album. Can you call it an album? Is it a compilation? I suppose that’s a different conversation, we can come back to that. It kind of ties back in to that Safety Net release that was on Hippos in Tanks. Was that deliberate? “Yeah, I think so, because that was significant, that was my first release that I did and I had this very clear vision of wanting it to be this weird epic thing, and move a little bit away from the style that was in vogue at the time, you know like simple minimal design or abstraction. This for me is obviously a significant thing, it feels like almost 10 years later. I wanted to draw it back to that and I also did not want it to be pharmaceutical themed, differentiate it. I do like to present myself and my face when there’s something that I’m really passionate about, but I always like to do a kind of drag in one way or another.” Is that like a layer of, I don’t want to say abstraction – It’s you but it’s not YOU you, it’s a character. A lot of those old images where you had a different kind of costume in each picture. This time it’s a costume but it’s also painting. Is that a way of distancing yourself from the audience? “I like to dress up! Even in my personal style. We’re all doing a costume in one way or another. So, I just like to latch on to things a little more, to an extreme, than some people. But again, it goes back to the boring thing. The only thing more boring than an abstract image of an empty space with some text on it, is an image of a guy in his black t-shirt, close up, in high contrast. To me that’s not so exciting.” Also, I noticed on the back you’re vaping. Are you a vaper? “An occasional vaper. I thought that would be a funny of the moment thing. In 10 years hopefully that will help date it.”

So – is it a compilation? Is that a joke? Obviously, it’s all you but it’s you in different guises. “It’s both. In some ways it’s a cop-out. You say you’re putting out an album, there’s a certain kind of pressure for it to be this like statement with lots of ambient moments of reflection. I didn’t want to do that. But also, Atom™, he released this compilation called Acid Evolution 1988-2003, it was one of my favourite compilations ever, and then I went back and looked and it’s all him. So, I think there is some tradition to doing that. For me, listening to a whole dance music album is a very intense undertaking. But with a compilation, you skip through it. Find the things that you like about it and take them away, and it’s just a little easier for my mind to organise something like that as a listener. If you send me 12 tracks by the same person, my social media-riddled brain would have a hard time differentiating all 12 of those tracks. Even if I threw them all on my usb stick or my phone to listen to. Maybe one or two would be able to cut through that.” I think today was the first time I listened to it from start to finish, because I had been listening, like you say, in bits. “Which is what it’s designed for!” Is it for DJs? Is it for casual fans, is it optimised for streaming, people can take their favourite tracks and put them in playlists? “It’s definitely NOT optimised for streaming, because it’s really hard to listen to the whole album on Spotify apparently! Which is something I need to fix, but I tried to make it for both. All of the tracks certainly have applications for DJs, but I tried to throw in a wide range of tracks and moods so you could listen to it straight through. I didn’t want to put anything in that was a tool.” Because you do make tools. “Yeah. I make tools, I play tools, I think that’s so important in dance music, especially having lived in Berlin for a while, listening to music and DJing there, you see the point of using a bunch of tools to create a seamless experience. There is something really nice about that.” But this album was not that. “But hopefully there’s one or two things there that could still make their way into someone’s seamless set.”

Another thing from the album that I found funny was that you’ve got a track called “Mischief Maker”, is that how you see yourself? “Eh, yeah, sure! I do like to be mischievous, there’s a sample in that track that says “Fuck you, I don’t make techno”. I don’t know, I think people should have a sense of humour. I think people take electronic music a bit too seriously.” I definitely hear you on that one. “Ya Carrying”, is that the only track that’s a collaboration that’s not you solo? “Well, “Green Buddha” I made with a friend, but other than that. There were a couple that were supposed to be on there, like a collaboration with Matrixxman and my project PTA with LA-4A, but the timing didn’t end up working out.” The reason I bring that up – there’s a new Fatherhood release, but you also did that compilation for Nervous last year? “Yeah!” What was that like, was it intimidating or was it a challenge that you really wanted to get excited about – can you tell me how it came about it in the first place? “Well it came about through Michael – he has a big presence for a long time on the New York club scene, so he always knows everyone, especially in the house music world. He had met Andrew (Salsano) from Nervous, who I think came up with the idea, and we had gone back and forth with them about whether it should be something from their archives, should it be modern producers remixing old stuff, and then we all agreed that trying to find all original stuff would be most exciting. It was more a lot of work than it was intimidating, trying to get 10 people to hand in their tracks. But yeah, I was so happy with how it came out, and I thought it was a fun prompt to give people.” Yeah! “I want to put a track by you on Nervous.”

“I think people have an image of the Nervous sound, literally “The Nervous Track” or something, the deep house vibe, , but as a label, they’ve had such an insane range, from putting out all the Wink acid stuff, to Nervous reggae, Nervous hip-hop, Nervous breakbeat, every sound of New York, they had a hand in, and put out, and we also tried to reflect that and our collections from Nervous, which is not just deep house classics.” Cool. I’ve been online friends with Olive for years so it was cool to see her on there. “Yeah. She’s a really amazing DJ and another person who’s a long-term presence on the New York scene. I have a feeling she’s probably produced a lot of great tracks, but we managed to get one from her, so I was very happy. I think it’s harder for people who’ve been DJs for a long time, because they have high standards. I started making music and DJing at the same time, so I had almost no standards for my music. and I definitely sent out a lot of horrendous demos. to me it was just “I’m just sharing what I’m doing as I’m learning it”. But looking back, if I had as much experience DJing now, and I just started producing, I would be terrified.”

I think there is a always a relaxed optimism to all of Daniel’s efforts, and it leads to the sort of good-natured whimsy that pervades his creative work. He’s gentle-hearted, compassionate and easy-going but yet some how driven and focused on a morally-anchored engagement with the music scene and the world, as well as deeply motivated to achieve his own personal best. It seems to result in this person who never sweats the small stuff, but also never gives up. He’s somehow ever-present and never-pressed. In a scene where people are often one of two types: either flaky and unreliable or overbearingly demanding in their thirst for “success” – Daniel is refreshingly neither. He’s reliable and patient, honourable and generous while still being dogged and determined. I think his music often has some recognisable piece of audacious, seemingly unreasonable surprise and it always feels so improbable as to instantly register as genuine and uncontrived. The authenticity one hears in his work seems to come from his deep love for the foundations of the culture as well as his lack of pretense or fiction in his motives. – Kevin McHugh, aka LA-4A/Ambivalent

How did you come into dance music? I had a look at your history but I couldn’t quite get a grasp on it. What was it that brought you into this world? “I think it was moving to New York. I had lived in Chicago for a little amount of time. I was definitely not aware of the great house music tradition (laughs), and the sound and the parties there, at least the ones that I was going to, was definitely hip-hop and indie rock, and then moving to New York – a lot of it goes back to my friend Mykki Blanco, who was my roommate in college and we moved to New York at a similar time and he would take me out to parties in the gay scene and that was exposing me to house music. Then there was a party called Mr Black and in one of the rooms the residents were Telfar, Michael Magnan and Kingdom. Between the three of them that covers a super-broad range of dance music, from hip-hop to house, techno to bass and the UK sound. So, seeing them, that really opened my eyes, and immediately I was smitten with it. And I was really good friends with Shayne [Oliver] from Hood By Air, who also did a party with Telfar called Banjee in the Basement, and he would also do GHE20G0TH1K with Venus [X] and me. And his tastes were insane, he would rip music from YouTube on my computer before his DJ sets sometimes, and occasionally I’ll find a track that I’m really excited about, some ultra-obscure acid, just weird techno track, and I’ll search for it on my iTunes and I’ll realise it’s there from like 2010, that he downloaded on my computer. So, his tastes also introduced me to it. Also blog house.” Of course. “Cause that was the time.”

How did you go from there to making music? “It was just trial and error, experimentation. I was watching people DJ and I knew I wanted to DJ, and I was listening to electronic music and I knew I wanted to make it, so my first tracks were made on Traktor. just using four decks and running four sets of samples.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone doing that before. “It worked out a few times, but it definitely produced more bad things than good. But I think that idea stuck with me, all you need to make a track is a couple samples and just put your own spin on it. Then later I worked with Michael Magnan and this producer who made music as Magic Mountain, who was based in New York, and also Arca, who was based in New York at the time. Just fooling around on Ableton and watching them, I just figured it out.” That’s a pretty stellar apprenticeship you might say! “I remember working with Barron [Machat] from Hippos in Tanks, around that time, and he had this really amazing vision, he really believed that all the weirdos on his label from James Ferraro to Aaron Davis Ross, he believed that all of us had the potential to break through to the pop world. Just keep doing our weird sound and eventually people will catch up, and I think that’s happened for a few people a little bit.”

You know your blog, Rare MP3s. “Yes, which I desperately need to update.” Is that stuff that you’ve come across over the years? A lot of it is 90s stuff so I’m guessing you wouldn’t have heard it at the time. “When I think back to my very first DJ sets, all I was playing – I would find a pop song and then try to find a weird remix with a beat under it. Because at the time I wouldn’t have known who to search for – who makes dance music? Who a techno producer or a house producer was. So even back 10 years ago I was already collecting that stuff. And even as my tastes have shifted, I’ve always found it’s fun to keep an eye out for it. Whenever I make a Discogs order I always go through what they’re selling and see if there’s some weird white label that hints that it might be some kind of exciting bootleg. I bought one the other day, someone’s comment was “oh this is an acid house remix of “Genie In A Bottle” by Christina Aguilera”. So, I was like okay, this has the potential to be so cool. [Beat] It was not. It was certainly not acid house. It was acid trance, and it was very bad. It’s just exciting that there could be some possibility of combining those two things.”

Do you know Mel B from the Spice Girls? Did you know that she had a song with Missy Elliott in 1998? “Yes.” I found that in a charity shop in the weekend, and I did not know – “Is it the one with the MAW remixes?” Yes! I didn’t know they existed! So I saw that and I went I’m buying that. Charity shops are great in Ireland and the UK because people offload all of their old CD singles and you can buy them for a Euro and they have random remixes on them. “So there’s five MAW remixes of that song.” Right, I only got one of them. “Well, number 5 is this super loopy French touchy vibe, and it’s so good. I got really obsessed last year with trying to track down every MAW remix.” That’s a full-time job in itself. “I did not come anywhere near, but I definitely went through a couple of hundred, and that was one of the best! I love that single.”

Speaking of remixes – I saw a tweet from you where you said you were going to download a hard house remix of “Supermodel”, was that Ru Paul? Or something else? “Oh no, I bought a record. It was the Ru Paul track.” Was it good? Was it terrible? “It is good! I don’t know if it was worth the $30 I paid for it. It didn’t end up being hard house. It was more kind of acid house, but it was cool…” Is this because people don’t know how to describe things? “Yeah. it was a compilation from the LA hard house scene, so I would understand why someone would market like that. On the B side there’s a really insane breakbeat hard house remix of “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles that I didn’t realise is on there.” Is that something you would play in Berghain? “Um, I don’t think so. Maybe Panorama Bar.” You know they first made it big in Germany! “It might make sense…”

I love that you put that Chemical Brothers remix of “Song For Shelter” in your Dummy mix. “Thank you!” I absolutely adore that remix, it’s so so good. “That’s one of those songs, I always try to track down things that have that vocal.” Yeah, cause it’s not Fatboy Slim, it’s basically The Chemical Brothers remixing Roland Clark. I love the fact – that line where he says “He takes all the bass out of the song And all you hear is his and it’s like Oh, shit!” but they actually take the bass out and all you hear is his, they do that! and it’s perfect. “Have you heard of Pure Science? Who put out some tech housey but early tech house singles, he would be on early Terry Francis mixes. There was one EP that he put out that’s like an acid house version with the Roland Clark accapella over it, and they do the same thing. Well, they filter out everything just for that moment.” I love just talking about remixes and old songs! “Yeah, it’s more fun than you asking me about myself, I’ll say that.”

What have we got to expect on Rare MP3s? “I’ve had a hard time deciding for the next post, deciding between a DJ Who remix of Alanis Morrissette “You Oughta Know”, he’s from Baltimore but it’s like the Florida breaks, breakbeat style, and then a hard house remix of “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, which I also spent $40 on!” And you’re going to share that with us? “I feel like I have a responsibility to share it. It’s kind of bleepy UK hard house. I’ve just been travelling and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write. I had barely written anything longer than a tweet in a long time, and so starting a blog and doing the longform stuff – it’s like riding a bike, it just flows out of you once you start, but it’s still hard to sit down.” Starting is the problem. “Exactly.”

Do you have a day job, or is music your career? “Music is my career. I do occasionally work gigs in between periods of touring, for over 10 years I’ve worked for a guy who does chandelier installation and cleaning and repair.” That is the most interesting non-music job I’ve heard a music person do. “Well it’s really not interesting to do it!” But it’s interesting that you can do it. “Just stuff like that, or a little manual labour for a friend, occasionally you’ll get some kind of commission for some company.” I’m always interested to find out what people do, because the way the music industry is now – it’s a truism but, you know how it is. “And it is hard to tell looking at people, because with the way that DJ fees and performance fees work, as a travelling musician you tend to make more playing a gig – it would take a whole week of working at minimum wage to make what I might make in one gig. But, if no one has asked me for two months to do that, it doesn’t really matter how much in theory I could make DJing. So, with the album this summer, I have been lucky to play a bunch of shows, and then I have a residency in New York, which helps with things.”

What’s that like? What’s the ethos behind it? “With Nowadays, they kind of let me do what I want, and working with the booker Kristin (Malossi, aka DJ Voices), I’ll present an idea or a dozen ideas and we’ll try to see which one is possible. Or maybe I’ll be like “in 2020 let’s try to get a dubstep legend”. Then we’ll just work on that. I think when they opened, they were like “Friday night will be house music and Saturday will be techno” and then they loosened up on that, and so I’m a Saturday night resident and they pretty much let me do whatever I want. The last party was Total Freedom and DJ Lag, and that worked just as well as any techno night that we’ve had.” Kristin is someone else I’ve become online friends with lately. “She is the best. And she’s such a good DJ, she played my record release party and, everyone who was playing was trying to find out what’s a good vibe to play in a record store that’s kind of dancey but not too intense, and she was the only who nailed it. I was like “I wish I could listen to this all the time”.” How often do you play, or how often is your residency? “My Saturday night residency is bi-monthly, but then they do some other things, like this month I’m playing the Mr Sunday party, and in the winter, they run this thing called Planetarium, which is a super incredible ambient party that they do, and I played that last year. They definitely look out for the residents.”

What sort of ambient stuff are you into? Obviously you don’t like making it for filler tracks on albums, but what would you listen to in that world? “The vision of ambient that I have that I like is a 90s chillout compilation. Or even The KLF, The Chill Out Mixtape. Any music that’s not drum heavy, that’s meant for more reflective moments, to me that’s ambient. I don’t seek out ambient drones. I like spoken word, I like chillout, I like guitar music and world folk and stuff like that.” Like those 90s and early 00s compilations where you’ll have dusty trip-hop stuff and then you’d have Brian Eno and some kind of synthy stuff and Moby. It’s not just synths and washy sounds. “Even the records that Moby and the trip-hop guys were sampling, I also like those and I’d be happy to play them.” Even better. Go to the source. Could we ever expect a Physical Therapy ambient mix? “Well, there’s a few recordings of sets that I’ve done, so maybe I’ll record the next one I do. Maybe there’ll be an album from Car Culture.” Well, what I have written down for Car Culture is “absolutely dreamy!” “Thank you! There is more stuff that I’ve made, I’m just trying to figure out what to do with it. I actually made it all in like two weeks. One day I just was like; I want to make electroacoustic ambient vibes. So, if I can remember that inspirational spark and finish the album, I’ll put it out.”

It Takes A Village: The Sounds Of Physical Therapy is out now. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...