As co-founder and record selector of parties Haceteria and Warm Leatherette, DJ Nihar is known for throwing underground events which explore the history of techno, house, and rave music. Launching his DJ career as an avid record collector asked to play hip-hop at house parties, he soon felt compelled to throw events of his own to allow himself a showcase for the genres he was most passionate about. Teaming up with DJ/producer Jason P., he decided to launch post-punk/minimal wave party Warm Leatherette, which was soon followed by the launch of Haceteria, a party that focuses on music from the late '80s early '90s. We talked to Nihar about his new music production duo Bruse, the history of his parties, and his exclusive all-vinyl mix for All Shook Down. He plays Friday at SUB/Mission for Warm Leatherette's Three-year Anniversary, and Saturday at Deco Lounge for Haceteria with C.Faith and DJ Nujack.
What inspired your fascination with record collecting?
I think it came in part from being an alienated and emotional teenager. This meant that a lot of the time I spent with music was private and it affected me really intensely. I was broke so I didn't collect a lot of records, but I would tape tons of stuff off of the radio. If I stayed over at someone's house I would tape their collections, and their sister's collections. I remember on weekend nights one of the local radio stations used to play these long dance mixes that combined techno, house, hip-hop, and whatever. I used to turn off the lights in my room, listen to them on my headphones and just sort of let it stimulate my imagination. Whenever I was angry or upset, music could help me unleash those emotions in a productive way, and I think that drew me to it. When I got older it just became a matter of feeling like there must be so much more out there than what I'm likely to come across without putting some work in, so record collecting and digging became a regular part of my life.
You started out playing hip-hop sets, but soon moved to synth wave, techno, and more. What prompted this move?
I wanted to play music that felt fresh to me and that filled a gap in the SF scene. Jason P and I were inspired by the "Weird" nights in New York City, blogs like Systems of Romance, Mutant Sounds, A Viable Commercial and labels such as Minimal Wave and Dark Entries Records to put on our first Warm Leatherette party which blended minimal electronics, post-punk and other "outsider" electronic music genres. I think that the music spoke to me because of its accessible take on the avant-garde and the emotional range of the songs.
Many of the lesser-known bands produced this music within very small scenes, often cutting them to cassette tapes with very limited runs. This gives the music the unusual signature of a specific time and place and a willingness to take chances, which is missing in music that was produced for a broader audience. There are a lot of newer bands that have picked up the torch and are producing new music in the same vein that sound fantastic. We play a lot of newer bands at Warm Leatherette these days, and we have started to put on live performances of some of them. At our three-year anniversary this weekend we will have live performances by Death Day and the KVB for instance.
You launched your underground party Warm Leatherette when you felt S.F. was missing something unique. Do you think S.F. is missing any types of parties now?
I think less these days about genres that are missing and more about the character of parties. Any music scene is stronger when there is a variety of relatively cheap "street level" dance parties where people can come and dance or check out music without the pressure of a high cover and some intense out of town headliner. I also hate the idea of a division between performance and audience and whenever possible try to do without a stage or a DJ booth or anything that places the performance above the rest. If a stage is necessary I'd rather be pushed to the back, obscured in fog or something. I mean, I don't think everything needs to be anonymous, and there is nothing wrong with building a profile or a rep or having a visual performance that really should be seen by everyone, but a lot of the elevation of performers that happens today is totally unnecessary. Some of the worst elements of rock and DJ culture are those that are centered on ego and performance. In general, half of the people attending are involved in their own projects that are just as good if not better than whatever is going on onstage, so why pretend it's otherwise?
I also think that there is a tendency in the DJ scene to develop into a bit of a boy's club. There are some really talented female performers and DJs in the city such as Doc Sleep, Holly Herndon, Group Rhoda and others. I think SF's dance scene could do more to help widen this circle and promote the work they are doing.
You also launched Haceteria. How did you go about differentiating this party from Warm Leatherette?
As Warm Leatherette developed I found myself increasingly sneaking in acid house and techno tracks that seemed appropriate and that I thought had a sort of punk feel to them. There is no mistaking the undeniable D.I.Y. feeling that accompanies the early days of electronic dance music in Chicago and Detroit. I think DJ Tristes Tropiques (Josh Widmann) and I were on similar trajectories where we were interested in getting our hands dirty exploring the history of house and techno. The Deco Lounge has always been one of my favorite places to dance. The sound system is fantastic but the dance floor is still intimate. It has a loft party feel even though it is in a bar environment.
Since we began Jason P and SMAC have joined us as residents. Haceteria keeps evolving as our tastes change and I think we have developed a very fun combination of sounds. Sometimes we lean harder on acid, sometimes on industrial techno and rave, and sometimes our sets are full of jacking house tracks. Lately I've been sneaking a bunch of mid-nineties trance records into the mix. The most important thing is that we keep changing things up. While it's true that many of the tracks we play are centered on the early to mid nineties, we definitely try to layer on new sounds as well.
Where is some place in S.F. that you would like to play, or envision your next underground event?
San Francisco's underground, off the grid and non-traditional venues have been under constant attack as rents and real estate in this city become increasingly insane. These have always been my favorite places to DJ but it comes with a constant sense of paranoia that someone is going to raid you or shut you down and fine you for the crime of trying to make something special and unscripted happen. I think any city that wants to grow and evolve needs to spend money to set aside space for informal, unlicensed gatherings (not to mention cheap, affordable housing), but I don't think the property owners of S.F. will give that to us any time soon without a fight. At some point it's going to be necessary for people to occupy buildings and take back everything that is being stolen from us right now. I'd like to press play on a record during an event like that.
You and co-founder Josh Widmann started a group called Bruse this year. Tell us about what you're trying to accomplish with Bruse.
Bruse aims to Build Rhythmic Unifying Sonic Environments. The high concept has a lot to do with collective hallucination, mind and body elevation and artificial life. Josh and my work together as DJs has grown into a productive collaboration around songwriting and live hardware performance. I think Josh has some crazy instincts about how to combine dissonance with some of the dance grooves that we come up with together.
With all the synths, drums, and effects in your music, what piece of hardware do you enjoy using the most?
For my part, I do a lot of my writing these days on a Dave Smith Instruments Tempest. It's an analogue drum machine and poly synth groove box that came out last year and I just love the interface that it offers for live performance and composition. The machine has a ton of range so it definitely takes some work to build the right sound, but when you do it's amazing where you can go with it.
A lot of your sets feature obscure tracks that people wouldn't even know where or how to start looking for them. How do you go about finding these gems?
I don't know if there is much music that can be described as obscure any more. When we use obscure these days to describe what we play it's more of a way of indicating that we aren't going to focus on the established cannon of hits. Like a lot of other people I grew up reading magazines and having to rely on word of mouth to find out what was hot. Now there are endless amounts of music available on the Internet and crawling through Discogs or YouTube are really productive avenues. Every now and then I have time to go crate digging for something really special, but in reality I am surrounded by a community of record nerds who never fail to keep me abreast of new or rare things on a daily basis. For classic dance music a lot of those records are still pretty cheap, which is fortunate. For post-punk and minimal electronics the prices have really skyrocketed in the past few years, so I have become increasingly dependent on the growing number of reissue labels that are putting things out. Luckily, those labels have done an excellent job of locating and distributing these records, so there is always a steady stream.
You're also sharing with us a new all vinyl-mix. Share with us the message of this mix.
It might seem silly to some, but I actually wanted to tell a story with this mix. I was thinking of the city I was born in, Mumbai, India. The three acts of this story are set in Mumbai in my mind, but it could really take place in any number of cities across the world. The first half is the life of a city from morning to morning. If there as a film set to it we would watch the city coming to life light by light, car by car, shop by shop. We would then move into the machine of the city where workers go to their jobs, and merchants hit the streets peddling everything. Factories, restaurants, offices and all of the other sectors of the economy are churning. Eventually things deteriorate into the delirium and dance of the night.
Act two involves the centers of power in the city. The bankers, industrialists and politicians in the skyscrapers, the decision makers and masters of this complex organism, We move through the world they inhabit, the artificial bubble they construct for themselves to live in which moves them away from humanity in any meaningful sense of the word since the people who feel the consequences of their actions couldn't be farther than them. I tried to represent this strata with tracks that have slick production with a tinge of euro flavor. Finally, the last part of the mix takes us into the lower city, into the slums, the tent cities, the mass of humanity that struggles to get by and finds ways to live life with dignity under the gun of a police state and declining public supports. I wanted the music in this third act to represent the volatility and explosive potential of making so many people live this way.
The tracks in this mix span from 1989 to 2011. Do you always like to incorporate a sense of music continuity in your mixes?
Musical continuity is really important to me. The first time I realized the many threads and connections between synth pop and house music I felt like a very special secret about the world had been shared with me. In this mix I gravitated towards the darker side of a lot of early to mid nineties dance music. There is something really inviting about tracks from that period for me. I also wanted to highlight some of the outstanding music that has been coming out over the past few years, especially from European techno labels. I was inspired by my sometimes residency at the Body/Current after hours parties that started this past year which have been pretty great at bringing a lot of this music to light. These tracks are only enhanced when it is placed in the context of its lineage.
You've said you're inspired by "various generations' interpretations of dystopian futurism." Where do you see the future of music heading, and how your music style is changing?
In the early '80s there were a plethora of musicians looking to the future and predicting decay and instability. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal and others were just the tip of the iceberg and it fueled their aesthetic in a really direct way. In the early' 90s a lot of techno, especially the Belgium, Sheffield and Detroit variety were caught up in a similar dynamic as the vision of authors like William Gibson filled the roll that J.G. Ballard and Phillip K. Dick played for the earlier generation. In terms of what's next, I think that you can't separate the future of music from the future of the society it's produced in.
I work for the University of California, which has been facing a constant barrage of budget cuts and tuition hikes, along side all of the other institutions of higher education in this state. This is the hollowing out of our society, where a decent education and quality of life are out of reach for the majority, and where the reality of joblessness or precarious employment is the only option for more and more people. The alienated synthesists of the early '80s, and the cyberpunks of the early '90s saw a future where advances in technology would create an even greater concentration of wealth and power, and where we would be drawn towards ever-complex technological commodities to distract us from, or to navigate, the pain of that reality. It's not hard to see how a lot of this is increasingly coming to fruition. If it's sometimes hard to grasp the full picture of this from our vantage here in San Francisco then it's easy to see from the streets of mega-cities like Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Shanghai or Mumbai.
It's hard to say what the actual future will sound like, but one of the exciting things is that more people than ever are getting involved in producing and releasing their own music. People say it's harder to make an impact in this overcrowded scene but I think we should try to get back to the mentality of those D.I.Y cassette culture bands I mentioned earlier who used the opportunity to take chances and advance things, even in small ways.