In Conversation with… Stacey Pullen
An innovator from the Second Wave of Detroit Techno, Stacey Pullen is innately an artist, and reputably one of the world’s most in-demand DJs today. Maybe it’s his atmospheric production style or the characteristic of staying true to his hometown sound (Detroit Hustles Harder!), but then again fans do also enjoy the mysteriousness of the man. More than two decades of successes yet every tone and tempo to date are delivered with novelty and passion, always unpredictable, always unparalleled. From his earliest breaths to the current hours Stacey Pullen has stayed true to his one goal: to become and to always be an Innovator.
We had the pleasure of catching up with the Detroit legend before making his way back to Brooklyn for a highly anticipated show Schimanski this Saturday, December 16th.
You grew up during the Detroit techno movement. Can you tell us about your first encounter with techno music?
It was 1985, I was a sophomore in High School so it was basically right at the beginning stages of techno being born in Detroit. My thing was, when record shops were open back in the day, every week or so me and my friends would go down and listen to the latest Detroit techno releases that were coming out at the time. But at that time we didn’t even know about Detroit techno, it was just music that was coming from Detroit, ya know. We would go down to the record stores every weekend to see what were the latest things that were coming out. But also, I was listening to The Electrify Mojo. He would clue us in on guys like Kevin and Derrick and Juan coming down to the studio, playing their demos and playing their latest releases on the radio, as well. I kind of got into it from a DJ’s perspective first, then years on down the line is when I started meeting those guys and hanging out with them, and them taking me under their wing. That was probably about five years later from that point.
Before Detroit techno came to life, what were you listening to? What music would really move you when you were growing up?
In my family we have a strong R&B foundation. My dad, my aunts, we all grew up listening to 70s and 80s R&B and soul. Groups like Earth Wind & Fire, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and the Four Tops which is the Motown sound. My dad is an ex-local Motown artist so he was always singing around with his sister and everything. It was always those groups. Earth Wind & Fire for me, when I listen to their music it instantly takes me back to my childhood days. Listening to the lyrics now versus knowing what they were saying then, but listening to and understanding them now — it’s just timeless lyrics, timeless messages. The music and the whole theory behind what they were doing, it really captures my childhood essence.
Well, that’s a solid foundation of feel-good classics. It’s a different experience listening to music as an adult, ya know, something that you fell in love with as a child. You discover a deeper meaning and appreciation for the music. That ties into our next question… Musicality runs in your family. As you mentioned, your father was part of a Motown group while you were growing up. Can you share about your experience in growing up in a musician’s home and how that influenced your relationship with music?
I remember going to rehearsal with my dad and the band that he was in at the time. This was the late 70s, early 80s. He was sort of like the lead guy that orchestrated the moves of the band at that time. Going down to rehearsal with him and him just giving me a tambourine or a shaker, or something to sort of help, or kind of just vibe with them. Not just me standing there, but kind chiming in where I thought the shaker could go or the tambourine could go. I just remember five or six guys down there, just jamming. Doing their routines that they were going to do for the weekend shows coming up. That right there played an important part, but also my uncle. He was a session drummer for a lot of local musicians here in Detroit. I remember going to the studio with him and sitting in on sessions. I couldn’t really do too much because these were professionally recorded sessions, ya know. They were basically going to wax and releasing these, so I was just in the control room looking at the big keyboards and all the sound-engineering aspects of music. So I sorta kinda got an early start, but, especially now… my dad was more of a vocal guy and here I am making more computer-based music. Most people would have thought that I automatically wanted to be a singer of some sort, but for me, I was always intrigued by the tonality of instruments and wanting to make sounds with keyboards and drum machines versus the more vocal aspect of music.
Some people were saying, “Yeah, I don’t know what he was doing. What was he thinking? We like it dark and dirty in Detroit.”
That’s a very special introduction into the lifestyle and the industry. You took the information that you were exposed to and made it your own.
I’ve always been involved in music. I started playing the flute when I was in third grade, I started taking classes in school when school still offered “arts.” From the flute I started playing the snare drum. I got involved with marching band and stuff like that and started learning the drums from that aspect. And then the DJ kicked in from me hanging around guys that were in the band with me. We sort of picked up music from the band and we just kind of carried it on.
You transitioned from the flute to the drums in High School… you actually taught yourself how to play the drums. What was it about percussive instruments that motivated your self-teaching?
Yeah haha to be honest, I always knew how to play the drums. What it was was that I wanted to play the flute because it was something different. When you’re young and growing up your mom, or your parents are asking you what you want to do, what instrument you want to play. I automatically knew that the first things that little boys attach to would be the drums, or the trumpet, or the saxophone, more of the so-called “instruments that boys would pick”. I chose the flute because I felt that no guys would choose the flute. So when I got to high school I saw how cool the drummers were, the drummers were the cool cats. All the girls liked them because they used to do these crazy routines, they had a disciplined look. It was always a challenging experience when I would see them. I liked the way the way they were on point and really disciplined, always together as one. For my ninth grade year I played my flute and then that summer is when I started getting serious about transitioning to the drums. I had the older guys who were seniors and juniors teach me things that I kind of already naturally knew, but they helped me fine-tune them. And that next year, my tenth-grade year is when I switched from flute to snare drum. It gave me that sense of rhythm that I always knew I had, but now I knew I really had it. Not many flute players or people from any other instruments would switch in a matter of months and be able to catch on so easily.
It’s difficult not to get lost in the detail of a skillful drummer, some look as though they barely touch the drum-tops yet produce such powerful sounds.
Exactly, especially from the marching band. The drummers were the heartbeat of the band so everything revolved around the sound of the drum, and it was powerful. We had about thirty-six members in the drum section of the marching band so it was a full-fledged sound. We used to call ourselves “The Blue-Thunder Crew” (laughs) — it was a good time.
That’s a suave name. We heard that you used to be into lighting and ambiance quite a bit, more specifically designing your own lighting for venues. You brought your own lighting blueprint to Oslo (the first techno club in Detroit, and by extension, the world). Can you elaborate on this?
Detroit is always known for dark, dirty, underground clubs and venues which is good and great and all, but I think from a visual perspective, a good lighting guy who is working in tune with the music and the DJ is also important. It creates ambiance, it creates atmosphere, it gives the room a new vibe depending on how the light is. I took the initiative to buy some lights and hang them up along the walls of Oslo to kind of give it a new feel; it was my night so I was experimenting. I kind of made it easy on myself because these were lights that were censored by the beat, so I didn’t need a light jockey. So if I turned the sound down, the lower the lights would go; and the louder the sound would go, the beat frequencies would basically activate the lights. It was kind of a technically inclined light experiment just to see how it would go. It went well, but then I remember reading some message boards and some people weren’t feeling it. Sometimes, you know you get the guy who is always going to knock you down when you try to do something different. Some people were saying, “Yeah, I don’t know what he was doing. What was he thinking? We like it dark and dirty in Detroit.” From my experience in travelling to different clubs and venues, playing different countries, I got a chance to experience different things so I wanted to bring something different along with my night when I did it at Oslo. It worked, but it was also a lot of work because at the time I was just starting out with these nights. We would have to put the lights up at the beginning of the night and then take them down the next day or right after the gig. It wasn’t an easy task, but it worked out (laughs).
You had a feeling in your gut that you wanted to explore so you tried something different. Do you still take an active hand in the design, lighting, and projected ambiance of your parties?
Yeah, I have to be able to have a lighting guy. I feel that it’s important to be able to communicate with that guy and he’s gotta know the music, he’s gotta be on point. I mean, I’ve played at the best clubs in the world, the most sophisticated clubs in the world and I see how hand-in-hand it goes with having a light jockey. It’s really important. So whenever I do my gigs I try to make sure we have a nice ambiance set up – that can be part of a good night out clubbing or hearing my music. If it’s one way the whole night, there’s no energy. We need energy, not only from the music but the atmosphere as well. It’s good when all of a sudden you’re dancing and a blue light comes on, and then a red light comes on (I’m just generically speaking), but it makes for a good ambiance. It’s good when you can have a strobe with some smoke and fog it out, ya know, all of the above. It’s important because that’s how I started out clubbing. Sweat-box, fog, a strobe light, and one or two lights.
“Techno is short for technology so the music will always keep pushing forward into the future. That’s the basis of our music: THE FUTURE. We make this music not knowing anything but wanting to be innovative.”
Absolutely…with the amount of technology at our fingertips it’s good to get experimental. When the music and the ambiance are in sync it adds to the experience, for both the artist and the listener.
That’s right. And we can’t forget about the disco ball, that’s a must.
You CANNOT go without the disco ball or a plethora of disco balls in many sizes. So Stacey, you’ve experienced techno through its birth and its rise. How does this niche remain singular amassed an industry striving for constant mass production?
Techno is short for technology, so the music will always keep pushing forward into the future. That’s the basis of our music: THE FUTURE. We make this music not knowing anything but wanting to be innovative. I believe technology has enabled us to take music to the next level, but also touching many more people than we anticipated, globally. I’m doing remixes for artists that I’ve only met few times, some I have never met. But I’m able to do that, I’m able to communicate with them via the internet. Sending files through, then ten minutes later I’m doing a collaboration, then I can send files back to them. We are virtually communicating with one another which is fascinating. Years ago you had to FedEx the tapes and FedEx the dat machines, ya know. UPS or FedEx could take a couple of days, whereas now it takes a couple of seconds to communicate with one another. Technology has also enabled people who had no prior experience in making me. Now you have a “DJ in a Box” or a “Studio in a Box” that they can buy and sort of clamor in and try their hand on music. My neighbor, for instance, told me that last year he bought Native Instrument’s Maschine. I’m saying to myself, “Okay, hmm… he’s a marketing/advertising guy for different companies here in Detroit and he’s telling me that he bought a Native Instruments Machine.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m making beats.” haha you gotta laugh, but at the same time this is technology – able to influence what we do and it falls into people’s hands who you least expect because it’s no longer just buying a guitar, or buying a drum set, or buying acoustic instruments. Now people want to sit in front of the computer screen; they press enter and they have a slew of ideas that they can capture through technology, through the internet, or create new sounds with the touch of buttons. There are new inspirations that come in. I think that as long as this music is able to reformat itself it will still stay at the top of the game because we have younger generations of kids who are still interested. Now techno is cool, versus then, it wasn’t even trying to be cool. It was just making music that was innovative for the DJ’s pretty much.
We can appreciate that technology can sometimes bring out the unexpected in people. For others, just a toy or hobby if not so musically innate. When we speak of the future we must first look to the past. You were mentored by Detroit’s legendary Belleville three: Derrick May, Juan Atkin, and Kevin Saunderson. Now you are in the position of mentoring others – are there any new-school producers that have caught your ear, or perhaps remind you of yourself when you were starting out?
That’s a good question… now it’s a different aspect. There’s different inspiration here in Detroit now. Years ago we all had a sort of central meeting place that we would go to to get inspired. We had Metroplex which was Juan, KMS which was Kevin, and Transmat which was Derrick, and they all had their studios in one building. They had three separate quarters of the building that were just pumping out music continuously, three-sixty-five through twenty-four. We always went down to those studios and slept down there; didn’t come out for days and then came out with new creations. Now, it’s a new time. There’s so much information, so much music out there and the urban landscape is different than what we were inspired by back then. A lot of the guys there now are inspired by what’s going on elsewhere, outside of Detroit. There are a few guys that make music inspired by Detroit, but still, they’re doing their own thing. Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel are a few of them. Sometimes I sort of listen to what these guys do and remember back to me being young and trying to make sure that I was on the right path. Some people, they leave Detroit because they want to experience different things, but for the few that have stayed, they’ve been able to understand the history and the struggle behind the music. In general, not too many, with the exception of the two guys mentioned, and Ataxia. Those guys as well, I like the way they still believe in Detroit and put Detroit on the map because they know the history and they’re dedicated guys when it comes to keeping the Detroit name afloat. Then you have these guys Golf Clap as well…it’s not really my style of music, but I respect what they’re doing. They’ve got their own niche and it’s different. It may not be the Detroit techno classic sound that we’ve all grown to love. It’s a different ballgame now and I like their approach to what they’re trying to do as far as marketing and their musically-inclined taste.
Ataxia played one of our favorite sets during this year’s Movement Festival. Definitely one of the more innovative acts we saw and respect for paying homage to their hometown.
Yeah and I respect that. Just because you say you’re from Detroit doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get put on. You have to bring something to the table other than just saying that you’re putting out a record. It’s different nowadays. Years ago when I first started, it was such a good feeling to go down and get your own records pressed, and getting pre-orders from the distributors and sending them out UPS. Doing all that label hardware work, you felt an accomplishment, ya know. It’s a different ballgame now, but to keep the name of Detroit still in peoples minds and lips is really important.
There is a lot of likenesses nowadays so it’s important for artists to find their individual voice. In the age of information overload, what inspires you to keep making music?
DJing (laughs) — DJing inspires me to keep making music, ya know, listening to other DJ’s. I’m real critical when it comes to what I like to listen to. I know my style of play and I know that’s going to be inspired. For me to hear music and DJs play something that I’m not necessarily familiar with, but all of a sudden I can say, “WOW this is bomb shit.” For me, that’s inspiring. I was just down at Art Basel this past weekend, I just came back yesterday. I played a party and there were a couple of DJ’s, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the names of the DJs, BUT I heard them and I was like, “Whoa! They are playing some fire tracks.” I said to myself, “This is what I need right here,” ya know. Most of the time I’ll do my gig — it’s either, I’m the last DJ so then everyone goes home, or I’m playing and once I finish with my set I’m done because I gotta catch a flight. It’s rare that I get a chance to hear a DJ without being rushed out, or just be able to enjoy myself. I came back and I said to myself, “Alright I’m ready to get back in the studio, ready to warm up the speakers, get my computer out and start creating and finishing some tracks.” And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this moment, I’m standing in my studio getting ready to get inspired by my weekend gig. When I search for music I always seem to be void of music that I’m not really crazy over. I go through so much music… most of the music I listen to is good to play, but as far as inspiration, it’s very rare. That’s where I have to fill that void; if I don’t hear anything that’s really inspiring other than just DJing, then I have to create it. That, in a nutshell, tells me that I like some of the music, but when I REALLY do hear the tracks or hear a good DJ in the club, that’s when I really get inspired.
There’s listening to music, and then there’s listening to live music that really moves you.
Absolutely! You got the sound-system that’s really good and you’re hearing these tracks and how the crowd responds to it. You get a different perspective than just me being behind the decks all the time, or going through tracks all the time. That’s basically how it was for me this weekend.
Catch Stacey Pullen along with Christian Smith and Max Exkuche this Saturday at Schimanski in Brooklyn! TICKETS