Born in Brooklyn, Dave Sumner was drawn to electronic music at an early age. Though his young ears initially favoured the sounds of 80s new wave and electro, Sumner fell in love with techno after witnessing Jeff Mills’ early 90s residency at NYC’s infamous Limelight. Within a few years, he began producing as Function, issuing early 12"s on Damon Wild’s Synewave label and his own Infrastructure New York imprint.
He also began collaborating with Regis, aka Karl O’Connor, as Portion Reform, resulting in an album and several EPs, most of which were released via O’Connor’s Downwards label. This partnership would continue to bear fruit in the years that followed, particularly once Sumner joined O’Connor’s Sandwell District collective and relocated to Berlin. Together with Juan Mendez, aka Silent Servant, Sumner and O’Connor turned out harsh, industrial-infused techno sounds while taking an increasingly principled stand against what they viewed as celebrity-like DJ culture. Although Sandwell District ultimately announced its own “glorious death” in 2012, its influence on the international techno scene is hard to overstate, and the collective continues to maintain a certain cult status.
Nevertheless, Sumner hasn’t stopped working; in 2013, he released his debut solo full-length, Incubation, via Ostgut Ton, and followed it up the next year with another LP, this one a collaborative effort alongside noise-techno maven Vatican Shadow. He’s also relaunched the Infrastructure New York label and has become a resident at Berghain.
In this condensed and edited excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio’s Aaron Gonsher, Sumner spoke about all of the above and more.
When I started hearing synthesized rhythms and synthesizer lines, specifically the 303, I needed to know what it was.
Do you remember what kind of music your parents introduced you to?
My parents introduced me to music that doesn’t really reflect the music that I’m about. My dad is a product of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and I grew up listening to a lot of big band stuff. My dad’s favorite artist was Bing Crosby, he listened to a lot of Jack Benny and the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. It somehow influenced me now that I look back at it. I remember thinking it was music for old timers when I was growing up, but I’ve definitely grown to appreciate it over the years.
When you were younger, do you think that you might have pursued music like techno because it was such a rejection of that music that you’re hearing in the house or did that not that factor in to your motivations?
I was just heavily inspired by the sounds of electronic music because when I was growing up, I was so familiar with the sounds of big bands. When I started hearing synthesizers and synthesized music, it really took me by surprise because I couldn’t place where the sounds were coming from. I was familiar with the sound of a saxophone or a violin, and then when I started hearing synthesized rhythms and synthesizer lines, specifically the 303, I needed to know what it was.
Was it your siblings or someone specific that you can highlight as being your first entrée into that world?
I would say it was the environment that I lived in. I’m talking about this magical moment that I had growing up, which was in Canarsie, Brooklyn. I lived on this really busy road, on East 80th Street, and it was across the street from this outdoor members-only swim club, something like you would see in the ’50s. We were members, but on weekends there were dance parties that I was too young to enter.
There was this music radiating from across the street and it was everything from Kraftwerk to Soft Cell “Tainted Love” and Human League “Don’t You Want Me” and Strafe “Set It Off.” It was just Brooklyn block party music. I’d say that’s what influenced me the most.
You used to work at a synthesizer shop. How did you get that job?
I used to work at Rogue Music, but at first I worked at Sam Ash in Edison, New Jersey. I was about 19 or 20. I was in college at Brookdale Community College, and I was studying music. What I was looking to learn wasn’t what they were teaching. It wasn’t really about synthesizers and drum machines. I had to take it upon myself to learn these things.
Between Sam Ash and on my own through buy-and-sell magazines I was able to buy my whole studio for really cheap, and then buy and sell gear to fund not only my studio, but moving out of my parents’ house. When I first worked at Rogue Music I was commuting from New Jersey from my parents’ house, and then I sold this ARP 2500 and had enough money to move out of the house into an apartment that was above Rogue Music.
When you were seeing people coming in with 303s and 909s for example, were there specific songs that you already associated with those machines?
Absolutely. I was so obsessed with synthesizers at this point that I knew the characteristics of all of them. The ARP 2600 is what did the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now. It is also responsible for creating R2D2. I knew this when I got it. I absolutely knew just from taking books out of the library and reading about synthesizers. I was so fascinated by the synthesized sounds that I just immersed myself in it.
When I first started, I was amazed when I met somebody like Damon Wild, who ran Synewave and put out my first record. When I first started hanging out with him, he would hear a record and he’d be like, “That’s an 808,” or “That’s hi-hats from an 808.” At first, I was blown away. But it didn’t take much to eventually know what a Linn 9000 sounds like.
Can you talk a bit about your time at Limelight?
Limelight was pure hedonism, in a lot of ways similar to Berghain, but also in a lot of ways different. It was something that, in a sense, never happened before, so it was sort of breaking new ground. I remember specifically standing around at that time and thinking, “This is a bit extreme. This is going too far. This is not going to end on a light note.” But on the other hand what always amazes me about Berghain is that similar things happened in Berlin, and at Berghain, but within the confines of the law.
What I saw in the early ‘90s in New York was just very seedy, because they were trying to enforce these laws and then everybody was just trying to do these things illegally. It got a bit raw, and then it had to stop. People started dying.
What do you think the musical influence of Limelight has been, if any, to this day? When people talk about it, they talk a lot about the culture of the party: what people are wearing, the club kids, but I feel like there’s not really a Limelight sound the same way people would claim for a lot of other clubs from that same period.
Limelight was open every day except for Monday, I think. Tuesday was Communion, that was the industrial/goth night. Wednesday was Michael Alig’s Disco 2000. Thursday was always sort of changing. That’s where I had my residency. That was the slowest night. Friday was Lord Michael’s Future Shock and Saturdays was Sister Dimension, which was like a bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Sundays was Rock and Roll Church, that was the rock night.
Limelight was really about Disco 2000 and Lord Michael’s Future Shock because of the flamboyant club kids. Wednesdays was Disco 2000 and that was fashion. The music was Friday nights at Lord Michael’s Future Shock and that’s where Jeff Mills used to be a resident. It’s funny that you asked this question because I’ve always found that a lot of people from that era didn’t even know who Jeff Mills was. They remember Repete because that was Lord Michael’s friend from Staten Island. There absolutely was a sound, which was rave. But the fashion presence, the club kid presence, was so strong that it kind of overshadowed a lot of things.
I think a lot of people have this preconceived notion that every mix has to be tight. It’s not true. You can be sloppy and still blow people’s minds.
You said in a prior interview that “Jeff Mills is my teacher.” What did he teach you seeing him there?
He was the first DJ that blew my mind. I grew up listening to a lot of really super tight DJs that were really into mixing pristine smooth mixes, and this was the first DJ I saw that threw caution to the wind. He would DJ without headphones on three turntables. He would just throw the record in, and sometimes it would be a trainwreck. But if he made a mistake in one second, he’d make up for it tenfold in the next second. When he got it right, it was like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and that’s why he’s my favorite DJ and he’s a lot of people’s favorite DJ. You don’t have to be perfect in order to be a great DJ. I think a lot of people have this preconceived notion that every mix has to be tight. It’s not true. You can be sloppy and still blow people’s minds.
I knew in my heart that promoting events and organizing events weren’t the reasons why I got into this.
Was there a specific experience that triggered your move to Berlin?
I was at a pretty much do-or-die crossroads in my life, where I had not pushed things to the point where I needed to really just get on with my life. I procrastinated a lot. I don’t regret that. If I hadn’t done any of that stuff, I wouldn’t be who I am today. That’s a difficult thing to explain to ex-girlfriends or parents that are expecting a lot of you.
Before I moved to Berlin, I lost sight of myself as an artist for a little while because I started getting deeply involved in throwing parties and organizing events. I was doing that to bring in talent and culture that I felt wasn’t being brought in otherwise. After a while, I got so caught up in the scene and doing parties that I lost sight of myself as an artist.
I was also coming out of a five year relationship and it was a confusing time of my life. From the time that that relationship ended until I moved to Berlin was about one year. In that one year, I was thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. If I stayed in New York, I was already starting to plan a festival because New York at the time needed a festival. I was even looking at places like Randall’s Island and was talking to people about working with Clear Channel, things that other people wound up doing. These are ideas that I was starting to have, but I knew in my heart that promoting events and organizing events weren’t the reasons why I got into this. The reason I got into this in the first place is because I had incredible urges to share music, play music and create music.
A few months before I moved, right around this time eight years ago, I came to visit for two weeks, played a few gigs around Europe, played at Tresor in Berlin and was checking the city out to see if I wanted to live here. During that two weeks, I was working with Regis and I was showing some tracks that I worked on and that was my first EP on Sandwell District. I went back to New York, closed up everything, packed my things, moved over to Berlin. As that was happening, the record was being mastered and put in production and literally the day that I landed in Berlin, the record came out and got DJ Mag’s 12-inch of the Month. For me, I knew it was going to work. I knew that I wasn’t going to be moving back to New York.
How different is your production routine now versus when you were first putting out records with Synewave or Infrastructure?
My production techniques are completely different. I was never really a computer savvy person. When I first started, it wasn’t really mandatory to use a computer. I would use a computer to sync everything up, but my techniques in the early days were a string of hardware, drum machines, sequencers all synced together and then all the outputs of the gear up on a mixing board and doing live takes to tape and then editing the tape.
I still use hardware and I still use some of the old techniques because I like them. I like the way that they feel, but it’s all tied together more inside of a computer. It’s arranged and mixed inside the computer but sometimes the sequences aren’t created in the computer. I’ll create things with hardware and record them into Ableton. I’m actually not even a huge fan of Ableton Live, but for me it’s a means to an end. It’s the software that I’ve clicked the most with. I still feel like it’s not the best sounding software available, but I don’t like Cubase, I don’t like Logic, I don’t like Reason.
I’ve developed a system with Ableton that’s conducive to completing things efficiently. Ableton has this unique way of being able to drag full channels from other tracks into your tracks. It helps you create your sound. You don’t have to start from the ground up every time you’re starting a new track. Sandwell District was largely based on this sort of trading of parts and sounds. It exponentially increases into a sound. I’ve always said Feed-Forward was a mysterious record to us. It somehow made itself. There were three of us involved in making it, but some tracks, like “Falling the Same Way”… I remember sitting in the studio with Karl and it sort of just appeared. I was playing some stuff on the keyboard, we recorded it, but it was effortless.
Maybe we were the techno boy band. Maybe that’s why it had to end.
Do you think you’ll ever play live as Sandwell District together again?
We did in Detroit last year on a whim. I can’t answer that question because that’s not something I’m thinking about. I don’t think that’s something any of us are thinking about at the moment. I still speak to Juan all the time. I speak to Karl here and there. I think there is no love lost between all of us. We just went our separate ways.
I think what’s difficult is that with techno and electronic music, it’s singular-based. Being a DJ is best with one person. You look back at the history of music. From the ’60s and the ’70s, there were always musicians saying, “In the future, I can see it’s just going to be one guy with a bunch of gear.” We’re at that place now. I think each of us are most happy just working individually.
Good thing there’s not a techno boy band.
Maybe we were the techno boy band. Maybe that’s why it had to end.
I’d like to talk about Infrastructure. Was there a specific set of experiences that led to you relaunching the label?
I was planning the relaunch of Infrastructure while Sandwell District was going. I knew that I wanted to resurrect it. After Sandwell District dissolved and I started recording for Ostgut, I started accumulating some music and developing some new artists. My girlfriend found Campbell Irvine, who fits a very specific aspect of the label which is outside of the dance floor. It’s more listening and ritualistic, hypnotic music, very Middle Eastern-influenced, influenced by Muslimgauze and really industrial.
How different were your motivations for what you’re wanting to achieve in Infrastructure upon relaunch versus when you first started it?
In the beginning, it was just an outlet for me to express myself with my own music. Coming out of Sandwell District, I wanted to start with something new and focus on developing new artists. I like taking on the role of A&Ring music. It’s not something that I’ve put so much emphasis on in the past. I’ve put a lot of energy into that in the last year and a half or so, so much so that I haven’t been recording. Since Incubation I’ve been on hiatus and been doing other things other than being a producer – going back to DJing, touring as a DJ, recording the Berghain mix, and then relaunching the label and running the label and developing artists. I wanted to get these things out of the way. Now that these things have been accomplished, I’ve actually started recording the first track of my new album and, in 2016, there will be a new album.
I always hear people talk about this as a game. I’m not in competition with anyone. I’m just expressing myself.
My last question relates to new artists like Campbell Irvine or Post Scriptum. In the age of digital omnipresence, what is the definition of underground? Do you think there still is such a type of music that can be called “underground” in this age of digital omnipresence?
The underground doesn’t exist anymore because Mark Zuckerberg ruined that. It’s really a difficult thing. I’m 41 years old, so am at this age that’s caught in between pre-Internet and current internet. When I was in the second grade and I was in computer class, we were drawing a fucking box on the screen.
I think it’s really disappointing that people feel the need to be such media whores. Some artists and DJs, the energy that they put into Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that they could be spending making records... it’s so narcissistic. Everybody’s just posting photos of themselves. “Look at me here, look at me there.” I’m actually a much more private person. I can’t exploit myself. I would never exploit my family. Actually, I just put up two photos of my dogs for the first time.
There’s this balancing act that I’m working with at the moment. I have confidence in myself and the way that I come across that I don’t need these things. I don’t like being told that I need to do something. This album that I did with Vatican Shadow, the name of the album is called Games Have Rules. Dominic and I were having this conversation and I said, “People try to say that there are rules but there are no rules. Games have rules.” I don’t think this is a game. I always hear people talk about this as a game. I’m not in competition with anyone. I’m just expressing myself. I think that people have completely lost sight of this. To me, it’s shocking. It’s shocking, but it’s also not surprising. Everybody wants to be a darling. Everybody wants to be liked.
I hate to throw around the word art, but you can’t forget about fucking art. Nothing else really matters. That’s been the problem I’ve had in my whole life. Everybody around me has always tried to convince me otherwise and I just wouldn’t have it, I wouldn’t listen and I eventually, knock wood, made it work for myself. I have the confidence that it will continue.