Interview: Adam X on Industrial, EBM and Rhythmic Noise

Lauren Martin talks to the American techno artist about his love affair with darker sounds

Marie Staggat

In 1989, Adam Mitchell was on the New York Police Department’s watch-list for being one of the most prolific graffiti writers in the city. His love for the intricate train system led him to the best platforms and hideaways: first for painting, then for throwing parties with his brother. In the same year, his brother had gone to England to DJ at a rave, and saw 25,000 people dance to his own music. Adam Mitchell soon became Adam X to match his brother’s Frankie Bones, and started handing out tapes of early Detroit and UK techno music to the cruising cars under the elevated train at 86th street: waxing lyrical about the power of the rave that few in Brooklyn had seen, but were soon to be educated in; by Adam and Frankie, with their dark and powerful Storm Rave parties.

Over 20 years later, Adam X is one of American rave culture’s most iconic figures. As a producer, DJ, record label and store owner, his feverish enthusiasm for underground techno led him from New York to Berlin in the mid-’00s, chasing the dream of the perfect dancefloor. In recent years he’s been working under his ADMX-71 project, which sees him take a more downtempo slant on an industrial techno sound that’s become immensely popular again in recent years, but one he feels a long-time allegiance to. Here, we talk about his lengthy journey of discovery with industrial, EBM and rhythmic noise music, and how his new ADMX-71 LP for L.I.E.S. is another of his experiments along the way.

What many people think of as “industrial” in regards to techno is of a very live, bombastic, bleak, hardware-based style of music. Have you come up against any conversations where people are saying, “Well, if you’re not using analogue, can you really be in-tune with the mood of industrial music?”

Industrial is many things. Originally, industrial could be groups like Test Department playing on garbage barrels or making sounds with machines that weren’t synths. They were recording live instruments and also making objects into instruments. Anybody who says, “industrial is analogue” – well, you can’t really say that.

Chris & Cosey - Heartbeat (1981)

When I say “industrial,” in my music a lot of times I mean the drum style. I have more of a background in electronic body music (EBM), which is synth-based music in the vein of groups like Front 242, Klinik, Nitzer Ebb, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. Chris & Cosey would be a good example, actually. Even though they weren’t really called EBM, coming from the Industrial scene they started to get into using synth's in their productions. If you listen to Chris & Cosey’s “Heartbeat,” from ‘81, that’s a proto-techno album (in a weird way).

When you see that tension between what people consider industrial and EBM, what kind of motifs do you hear come up?

There’s a big fight within the industrial scene regarding EBM – “Oh, well, EBM isn’t really industrial,” and vice-versa – and you hear the same kind of arguments in techno, like with electro or whatever. In EBM the basslines are staccato 16th notes playing at various octaves. It's prevalent in almost every EBM record. The arguments I was reading were a bit stupid. People saying that Industrial music has no melody but in the same time saying bands like Skinny Puppy who use synths were Industrial. I think there’s definitely a combination of industrial elements within original EBM music.

Absolute Body Control - So Obvious

I asked a friend of mine, Eric Van Wonterghem – one of the original members of Absolute Body Control with Dirk Ivens from Dive and Klinik, and who now records as Monolith releases on my label Sonic Groove – “When you guys were in Belgium in the early ‘80s, what did you call this music that you were making?” He said that they were calling it “elektro.” Not the style that they were calling “electro” in New York at the time, like “Planet Rock” and the more breakdance stuff like Man Parrish. They weren’t even aware of it. They were listening to all this stuff that was coming out of Britain (early Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Portion Control)

If you’re bringing together elements of industrial and EBM into the history of techno, where do you see these crossovers? And how do you work within those parameters yourself?

When I first started doing it, it was just like a whole new world that hardly any artists were tapping into. I was releasing records in this vein on Sonic Groove in around 2004 – at a time when almost no one was making or playing this kind of music in the techno scene other than Terence Fixmer and Thomas Heckmann. Mixing EBM and industrial with techno was an open frontier. That element came through into my music when I started to really listen to industrial in 1999-2000. What appealed to me were the drum rhythms. I thought, “I’ve been listening to and producing techno for ten years. Why does everything have to have a 909 hard-hat or an 808 hi-hat?” A lot of early industrial music is rigid. It doesn’t have this swing that the 909 and 808 have in techno.

What do you think techno was doing at the time that was such a remove from industrial and EBM?

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, techno got redundant for me. The loop based techno that was going on for some years became stuck in a loop. Then came genres like electroclash and minimal techno. The minimal techno with slower BPMs made it strictly after-party music rather than prime-time dance floor material. Harder techno music seriously fell out of fashion. I think out of the people making music in the techno scene, the only artists that hung on for a long time were Surgeon and Regis. They never sold out to minimal at a time when so many jumped the ship. I was surprised that that music lasted that many years – I mean, minimal lasted for almost a decade!

Caustic Window - The Garden Of Linmiri

I stayed in the industrial scene during this time. In the mid to late ‘90s a genre in Industrial music called Rhythmic Noise came to fruition. Some of which has a similar vibe to the early the Aphex Twin singles on R&S and Rephlex. The primary labels in this scene are Ant-Zen and Hands who have published hundreds of albums from many artists. I was very intrigued with this side of things because it was like techno’s twin brother but it did not crossover much into the techno scene.

So throughout the 2000s, I was also into old school EBM stuff from the’80s. The scene wasn’t very lucrative on a monetary level. I did not take things for granted because people in this scene are really doing that for the love of the music. It was not big business like the techno scene. Most people in that scene have a day job. So for me it was based on pure passion for the music.

In terms of the structure of how this kind of techno became an industry around the time that minimal rose, were you put off by like a mixture of how the music was developing, but also how the culture of techno parties were developing?

Yeah, I felt minimal was just easy-going music for people that normally were not into techno music before. Techno can be very abrasive, and it’s not for everybody. I found that the people that were going to the parties were more like yeah, “Let’s go do some lines of cocaine!” They were not there for the music itself. There was nothing of that scene for me.

Around the time of the birth of the candy raver in New York, I remember stories of very extreme partying…

Yeah, a lot of people were coming to raves and doing ketamine, lying in piles on the dance floor. They weren’t really there for the music. I always had a problem with that in the rave scene in America. That was outside what were doing, because we educated people when we were throwing parties in the early 90s. We didn’t have ketamine back then, so we didn’t have this negative energy of a drug in our parties.

The industrial and EBM scene in America hated techno ravers.

When you moved into a more enclosed space with the industrial and EBM crowd in the 2000’s, you’d been “Adam X of Storm Rave” for quite some years. Did you feel quite welcomed overall into the industrial and EBM scenes? Or were people like, “What’s this big techno guy doing here?”

That’s a good question. When I first started showing up at those industrial and EBM parties I had a MasterMix CD that came out on Wax Trax! in the States which was the most known label in the industrial scene in the USA, so a lot industrial people knew my name from seeing or hearing this CD. Some of them knew about the raves, but there was also many in the industrial and EBM scene in America: that hated techno ravers. The EBM and industrial scenes in America are a bit more mixed. There’s often not enough people to go around to fill a big club of one style of music, so many clubs would have a goth room, a synth pop/new wave & EBM and Industrial rooms.

Even in the beginning, some of the DJs knew a bit of who I was. Some were also getting jealous because most of them didn't know how to beat mix. If you have a guy that comes in who actually knows how to mix technically, that’s a threat. When I first came into industrial and EBM parties in New York, around 2001-2002, I felt some bad vibes with a few people who DJing at these parties . At the time the main club in New York was called The Batcave, but there was another club out near Newark called QXT’s (which is actually still there).

In the early ’90s, I had EBM records, but I just didn’t think of them as possibly being related to techno.

Did they see you as indulging in a sort of musical tourism in a scene that’s notoriously tight-knit (because you saw your own scene as dying, and wanted to find something with a more devoted crowd)?

They didn’t know what was going with techno at all, but I definitely felt a bit of disdain. I had a friend that got me a gig and the other people that were DJing were trying to not have me play. There was already a lot of drama in the scene amongst themselves and so, when this new guy comes, they really felt like I was trying to step into their space. After awhile I made enough friends and the disdain died out. After I started putting out albums on industrial labels in the mid-’00s I think quite a few realized my heart was in the right place.

Marie Staggat

How did the trance sound move into the EBM scene?

Trance really comes from EBM. In the beginning, in England, I had recorded a few releases on a label called Fabulous Records. The guy who owned that label was a guy who was always in Goa, India. He was very connected with Man With No Name, The Infinity Project and all the original guys that started the psychedelic trance scene in the UK. Some of them were producing and engineering in the studio working on psy- trance records when I was working there, in 1991. Those guys all were into a lot of the EBM coming out of Frankfurt from the early 90s. They would play a lot of this sound at those parties back in ‘91, before the psychedelic trance sound really took off on its own direction.

Then coming from Germany was a new trance music sound. Which came out through people like Talla 2XLC, who ran Music Research and Dorian Gray, the techno club in the Frankfurt Airport. If you looked at the history of the records that he was involved with as executive producer – records that he backed up, or even records that he was involved in production – it’s some of the best EBM music that ever came out. Talla went on to be on the biggest trance DJs in Germany. All that trance stuff came more from the Frankfurt EBM sound than it comes from techno.

Clock DVA - The Act

I owe it to chance that I got interested in industrial later into the ‘90s. A woman who was a tour manager for Einstürzende Neubauten came into Sonic Groove with a record collection. Reade was like, “You should really listen to some of this stuff. This shit is good.” The record from that collection that did it for me was Clock DVA’s “The Act.” I was amazed. The strange thing is that, in the early ‘90s, I had bought records in my collection that were EBM , but I did not know anything of the genre at the time and thought these records were German techno. One of them happens to be from the guys behind Perlon Records that did one of the biggest EBM projects in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, called “Bigod 20.”

Going from those parties that you were talking about in Newark and New York to when you go over to Berlin in around 2005-2006. You’re talking about these parties in Germany, meeting these German labels and discovering these strong roots for EBM and industrial over there. Did you feel that there was a stronger correlation between techno and EBM once you got to Germany?

I did a bit more but the Industrial/EBM scene was also very small in Berlin. When I moved to Berlin I didn’t actually come at the best time, because minimal techno was massive and not my thing. My friend Nadia who I stayed with for several months did the largest Industrial events called “Schlagstrom” in Berlin. I had connected with her when I came here to play techno parties on a previous visit through Eric from Monolith.

Once I settled into Berlin. I had a vision to do a party that would mix the industrial and techno audiences, so I convinced my friend Ben who owned the Maria Club to let Nadia and I organize a techno/Industrial event. We booked Thomas Heckmann to play his Welt In Scherben, EBM Techno project, The Horrorist and myself to play live – in addition we had a second room for the Schlagstrom Rhythmic Noise DJs. Several hundred people came out. We called the party Crossing The Parallel, and we really did cross the parallel with these parties and several more we threw later.

When you started doing these parties and bringing these people together, when did you start concentrating more on these particular sounds with ADMX-71?

Adam X - Sounds at the Siding

I had to figure a way out to diversify what I was doing. I also wanted to do a more downtempo sound, and I didn’t want to mix it up too much with my Adam X material. I had downtempo tracks on my State of Limbo LP from 2008, but I felt that some people became confused as to what I was trying to do, and didn’t know what sound I was going to play when they booked me. Within downtempo I felt like I had a lot to say – and with techno, it’s hard to experiment in the same way. You’re trying to make people dance, so you’re working in a limited structure of rhythm that you can use. I want to be able to do concerts at a music or art festival, where they’re playing experimental music, and people are not there to dance necessarily. They just want to zone into this sound – maybe even sit down.

ADMX-71 - Phenomenalist

What do you feel that this new album, Coherent Abstractions, particularly does, that you feel you hadn’t done before with previous ADMX-71 stuff?

I’ve used some vocals from my girlfriend on one track of the album, and I did some vocals on another. This was something I wanted to delve into a little more, because I didn’t really do it on the other the previous ADMX-71 albums. If you listen to some of the Adam X stuff from the mid ’00s, I actually did quite a bit of vocals on some tracks. I wanted to bring a bit of the vocal element into the downtempo style.

You’ve said in the past that you hate vocal tracks. What’s changed your mind?

It took a while for me to change my mind, actually. When I first started listening to EBM and industrial I had to let vocals grow on me. But once they did I was on it. The vocal in a record can be a harmony, a melody, a sound... a layer.

When I got introduced to industrial and EBM music, I must have bought 1,000 records in, like, two years. It was like an addiction.

There has been an interesting resurgence of interest in industrial and EBM music in contemporary techno. What about industrial and EBM do you think might appeal to a straight-up techno crowd?

I’m not quite sure of that. It’s a good question, though. What I will say is that a lot of the newcomers to the techno scene aren’t necessarily delving deep into the industrial scene, and so aren’t learning the history of how these styles relate. That can make new, harder techno music sound redundant in my opinion. People are naming this music “industrial techno” when it’s not got much of an industrial element at all.

I think artists like Perc is great, and definitely mixes elements of techno, industrial, EBM and noise. And I love what Ancient Methods does, too. But with a lot of the other artists that claim to be industrial techno, there’s definitely some industrial elements missing to me.

What do you feel that you’ve learned about the relationship between techno and industrial music in doing the ADMX-71 project, and getting really involved in this particular style?

When I got introduced to industrial and EBM music, I must have bought 1,000 records in, like, two years. I was so into wanting to find out more. It was like an addiction. By the time that I was making this music, I had already so much insight on what I wanted to do, and what I could draw from. Now that harder techno has come back into fashion, I’ve been able to utilize more of my techno background: mix it more up into the industrial, that acidic feeling, and create fusions that I’d never have been able to do otherwise. That’s what I really want to keep doing with ADMX-71: try something that I’ve never done before. I mean – maybe I’ll make them dance or maybe not, I just want to go wherever I want to go with it.

By Lauren Martin on September 24, 2015

On a different note