Spotlight On: John Norman & Exhale
With a strong understanding of Detroit techno, John Norman was set on showcasing the varieties of the genre’s style. That’s what led the Canadian producer to pick Detroit native Nickolas Turk (professionaly known as Exhale) to do one of the remixes of his recent remix package of “Republic.” The two have different approaches to their sound but they both know how to make fire on the dancefloor. We caught up with John and Nick at Movement festival to discuss Detroit’s influence on their music, recent releases, the psychology behind DJing and much more!
RP: Nick, how did growing up in Detroit influence your sound?
E: Detroit has influenced me greatly because I grew up here. I’ve always been into visceral noise and a lot of the real-life elements here translate really well into music. For example, a strong work ethic is like a hard, driving sound and that’s the spirit of Detroit. Freedom and fun is the melody in the song and the soul of Detroit; that’s what I try and inject into the music. Detroit is a really hard-working city but they really like to have fun. This is home so that’s what I try to put into the music.
What about you, John?
JN: Coming as an outsider who is not from Detroit, I listened to a lot of Midwest techno, which was heavily influenced by Detroit techno. I think when I listen to Detroit techno I hear the soul in it. When I listen to European techno, sometimes it can get pretty droney, but when people play techno from Detroit, you can hear the soul in it but also the aggression is there, too. The slogan, “Detroit Hustles Harder,” you can hear that in the music.
You describe your sound as “Detroit techno with a Canadian twist,” so tell us about that “twist” part.
JN: Growing up in the central prairies in Canada, I didn’t have access to a lot of different things. In Detroit you have access to NY, Chicago, Toronto etc. and all of these places are physically close so they all influenced each other. Growing up in the prairies you’re inspired mostly by what you hear, so growing up I was into hard dance/hard house/early 90s dance stuff from the UK because that’s what we got. Big Fun by Innercity was one of them along with Crystal Waters and stuff like that. The Canadian twist is elements of Midwest techno, Detroit techno, and European techno all mashed into this global sound.
And Canada is kind of a mix of those places, too.
JN: Yeah it is because a lot of Canadians go to Europe, Detroit, NY, LA, Miami and they come back and have a conglomeration of everything they hear and it becomes unique in and of itself. It’s not just Detroit techno or Berlin techno, it’s a hybrid. When you’re from the prairies with limited access, you use your surroundings – what you know – to build your tracks. And when I started to travel, I started to meet people with like minds like Nick [Exhale] and Kevin Saunderson etc.
So both of you guys have a connection to KMS Records. Nick, how did you get involved with the label?
E: KMS was the beginning of everything for me – my first signing, first contract etc. I couldn’t have asked for a better label to be part of especially because I grew up on Kevin’s music.
I got connected to Kevin during Richie Hawtin’s CNTRL tour when it came through Detroit. I went to the lecture and afterwards I met with Richie, Loco Dice, Kevin, Damarii and Danitez. The questions I asked were very specific and production-related, so they could tell I was more than a casual fan. I was able to introduce myself to Kevin’s sons and I sent them some music I was working on. My latest track, “Lost World” was just released on KMS Records and Kevin actually dropped the track at the Origins after party. Song is now available on Beatport.
What was the concept behind “Lost World?”
E: Honestly was getting back “this” (Movement festival etc.) we wait all year to get back to this moment and it’s a special thing that resonates all around the world. Movement festival has become an actual movement – a global force. So Lost World describes what this place (Detroit) feels like…every time I come home, it feels as if some sort of lost world- it’s like an island paradise but only for this specific set of time and you got to be there to experience this feeling- so I try to capture that in the song.
John, you have a podcast called “An Obsession with Sound” – tell us about it. What made you want to start a podcast and what makes it different from others?
JN: It started about 2.5 years ago. I’ve got an obsession with audio quality but I also wanted to showcase artists that are not as big as they should be or that are breaking at the moment. And also bringing people on my record label – UNT records – which stands for “Unite, Nurture and Transcend” – that is the idea behind the obsession with sound. So they’re very closely linked. At first “an obsession with sound” was the tagline for my record label and then it became a podcast and the brand title because it’s something quite important to me.
Any upcoming releases/tour dates?
JN: The Republic remixes package was just released in May. When I first met up with Nick, we would always talk about maybe working together. I had a track called Republic I had released – I decided I wanted to do a remix package for it and I chose 2 guys from Detroit. I feel they each brought a unique view of the city, especially since they’re both natives. Nick’s is darker and more aggressive and Antwon Faulkner’s remix was funkier and more melodic. They are both elements of techno from Detroit and they both brought two completely different views. One could be played at nighttime and the other during a daytime party – you can play them anywhere.
So Nick, after you get sent “Republic,” what was your next step? What’s your approach to a remix?
E: When I first heard the track there was this tube amplified sound I really liked and I just wanted to mess around with it and see where it could go. I also really liked the original song, which definitely helps when remixing. I’ve never been privy to doing remixes so when I do one, I nurture it and make it my own. So when I got the stems, it’s like a premonition or something, but in my mind I already know what I want to do with them. It happens very quickly, it’s very aggressive and my production process is like that. When the creativity hits, it’s boom! Like lightning. Just banging it out. I’m really happy how the track worked out- it took some back and forth in terms of getting dynamics right, which is a good discussion to have especially to see what will work in different spaces. It takes the song from good to great.
John, we got a chance to hear you DJ at the Robotic Peacock BBQ. You’ve become a legend to my friends. They can’t stop talking about your epic set at the party. Tell us about your DJ style and what makes it unique.
JN: I don’t know if it’s anything special, but the way I approach a DJ mix is much like the way I approach a track. There are DJs out there that will play records – play one record to the other record to the next etc. I look at it as I’m building a new song and that song has peaks and valleys in it – it’s not just full-on techno. When I started DJing, I began before I ever went to my first club or rave. I often went to the club on the weekends with my brother and we’d listen to crappiest pop music ever. I didn’t enjoy that music too much but I always found it interesting how the dancefloor worked, how the club worked and how the DJ worked within the club. There’s always an unwritten rule between bartenders and the DJ, “ If the bar is getting light, give a signal to the DJ and they’ll put something a little lighter to empty the dancefloor a bit.” I always found that really cool and before I even knew that I was thinking, “Man this DJ has so much control over the crowd… what’s going on? Why are they leaving the dancefloor and what is making them come back to it?” When I learned about the unwritten rule I was amazed when I realized the DJs had that much control over a crowd. And that’s when I started to think, “Ok this is really what I want to do.” Not necessarily to have so much control over people but the feeling you get when you’re able to do that. When you play to a big enough crowd you’re able to see the effect the sound has on the audience – that when you a drop a certain track everyone’s hands go up and you play another track and you can tell everyone is getting calm and then you can build it back up again – so that’s where the peaks and valleys thing came from and to me that’s essential in a good mix. You can hear the different tracks coming in when you want them to hear the different tracks coming in.
I tend to play 3 decks so I try to always have a deck available to blend over the other tracks – if I don’t want to deal with a breakdown, I can have another track ready to go so I can just do 15-20 min of banging and drop it into something really spacey and then create a whole new dynamic and then draw them back in again. I’ll play a track, get it built up and then I’ll hit ’em with minimal and then a thick kick and then I’ll bring it back again. It changes the mindset of what’s happening on the dancefloor. You get them calm thinking nothing is gonna happen and then BOOM! you hit ’em and it really creates an explosive energy. Every DJ should think psychologically about those things. It’s important to be able to see the changes happening to the crowd- otherwise if you play 3 hours of aggressive techno, as soon as the crowd figures out they’re tired, they’re done and you don’t want that. So it’s very psychological to DJ.
So what can our readers look forward to in 2016?
JN: Keep an eye out on UNT records we’ve got lots of stuff coming out. “DGT” by Rafa Ortega is out July 25 and we’ve just signed Noah Southard who’s only 18 – he’s got a banging track coming out with UNT and it’ll be his very first release!
E: 2016 is massive year already – having the UNT release was huge and KMS release just came out – follow me on my social pages for future announcements!