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Smooth Landing 

After more than a decade as San Francisco's signature house DJ, Mark Farina delivers his long-awaited debut album

Wednesday, Oct 8 2003
There are literally thousands of house-music DJs in the world, and it seems like a quarter of them live in San Francisco. So what sets Mark Farina apart? How come so many other DJs study his mix tapes and show up at his gigs? (Up-and-coming local DJ Masao of the Brown Hornet crew says that he makes sure to catch Farina manning the decks as often as he can, even going out of his way to see him play while vacationing in London.) Why do people still drop their Sunday afternoon football-watching whenever Farina plays a boat party, even after he's been spinning here for over 10 years?

It's because he hates the same things about house that you do. You've got a beef with house, and he's got the steak sauce. "House all sounds the same," you gripe. In response, Farina plays some weird and refreshingly silly downtempo songs. "House DJs play crap tunes all night just so they can save two or three good records for a peak," you moan. Farina is known for keeping the pace churning throughout his entire set, and spins CDs in addition to vinyl (particularly unreleased CD-Rs by upstart bedroom producers), making for diverse set lists. "House is full of tired- ass divas singing some feel-good bullshit," you might point out. He feels your pain there, too. "Yeah, I'm very wary about playing vocal tracks," he explains over the phone from his San Francisco apartment, "especially any big vocal gospel anthems. Really can't stand those."

Frustrated, you unload your final, sneakiest stereotype: "Well, I'm sick of all these dweebs standing behind turntables pretending they're actually making music." Now, this comment might once have been a legitimate dis on Farina (well, besides the dweeb part). He was known for years as the DJ who spun much (as often as 300 times a year at his most active) but produced little.

This week Farina ends the drought by releasing his first artist album, Air Farina (OM Records), with 13 original tracks. The challenge wasn't just the personal one of tearing himself away from his greatest addiction, the DJ booth. He also had to face the much larger curse put on the music by God himself: Thou shalt not put out a good house full-length. Most great house music comes as seven-minute songs released as singles, which DJs assemble into great house sets. What Farina wanted to do was build an entire record out of mostly one aesthetic -- the quirky hybrid of hip hop and underground deep house he plays as a DJ -- an approach that typically appeals only to the already converted electronic music audience. But Farina has bigger plans: "I'm always trying to figure out how to rope in the general listener, the kid who listens to rock."

If Farina can pull off spooning out unsweetened dollops of house music to the uninitiated masses, it will definitely be a coup. House, which like Farina came of age in Chicago in the mid-1980s, has been the most conservative, least changing form of dance music. With its chunky, straightforward rhythms, the genre has splintered into a few offshoots -- deep (the closest to black soul music), progressive (more driving and synthetic), and ambient (swirly and spacious) -- but it's still a tightknit family. Farina eschews the ready-made crowd-pleasers for deeper, more sophisticated tracks.

The first impulse for an untested house producer putting together an album might be to prove his musicianship by gathering tracks from all over the house spectrum. No one wants to hear only minor variations on the same theme for an hour, so the artist could offer the songs as free-standing pieces. But then the assemblage might be disjointed, eliminating half the fun of the house listening experience -- the fluid slide of one track into the next.

So Farina decided to do both, putting continuously mixed sets and individual standouts on the same CD. First he came up with a unifying theme -- air travel -- and then he used interludes of cockpit banter to section the album off into two separate DJ mixes, one inspired by departures and the other by arrivals. He produced the tracks in the studio with drum machines, samples of live musicians, and the lightest touches of synthesized melody, then loaded them into his CD decks and blended them seamlessly together. Each series of songs is filled with workhorse tracks that DJs will appreciate (and that, as such, are being released unmixed on vinyl). No single song is particularly noteworthy, but the mix is something special, with the same soul-jazz flavor, extended instrumental breakdowns, and vocal snippets that first defined S.F. house.

Isolated from the two mini mixed sets are the oddities of the album, four tracks memorable as individual songs; they show that Farina knows where to put a chorus. The undeniable best of these is "Dream Machine," the only cut that stands some chance of having a life outside clubland. Over a rustic-sounding, acoustic guitar­driven instrumental, San Francisco lounge denizen and singer/ songwriter Sean Hayes channels a disco-fied James Taylor to croon a melancholic ode to a "rattlesnake charmer out on the dance floor." The result is an endearing curiosity, an anthem suitable for both swaying in front of a stack of speakers and bouncing down a dusty country road in a Chevy pickup.

Also notable is "Love Make's," with its sturdy, precise beat that doesn't quite fit into any of the going dance music categories. With the song, Farina wanted to make something "just odd, but still with a little funk in there as well -- something I'd have played back in the 'Mushroom Jazz' days," he says, referring to the famously eclectic local club night he ran in the early '90s. The other two self-standing cuts might have fit at that party as well: "Travel" is a clinically clean high-tech hip hop track with area rappers People Under the Stairs, and "Radio" is a chilled-out remix of Farina's best-known previous foray into production.

Despite the lackluster theme that ties the record together -- naming the cockpit interludes "Layover 1" and "Layover 2" is a case of truth in advertising -- Air Farina is solid. So why has it taken so long for San Francisco's most popular house DJ to release it? Back in 1992 Farina had a recording deal with KMS and a hot single. While still living in his hometown of Chicago, he and fellow house bigwig Derrick Carter had produced what some considered the first ambient techno track, "Mood," under the alias Symbols in Instruments.

But then KMS filed for bankruptcy, and Farina didn't release any original material until 1998. "When I worked with Derrick, he handled a lot of the equipment," he says. So after they parted ways, Farina threw himself into "engineering." He explains, "I really wanted to make sure I knew the gear before I made any more music." So he tinkered with drum machines and synthesizers in his free time.

In the competitive Windy City scene, Farina's signature became extra-long, almost imperceptible segues between songs. When Chicago's overabundance of DJs brought him to San Francisco in the early '90s, he found a city hungry for dance music but unaccustomed to his hometown's heavy mixing proficiency. He quickly rose to the top of the local scene, and then started touring globally.

While many local jocks have described DJing as a time bandit that keeps them out of the studio, Farina reveled in the globe-trotting lifestyle. "I always thought of it vice versa," he says, "that the studio would take me away from DJing." And he enjoyed the lack of pressure to produce: "I kinda got into being on the minority side of party DJs, where you're not known for much production at all, but just [for] rocking parties. Rocking parties has always been fun in itself for me."

Despite the new album, Farina doesn't see himself hanging up his frequent-flyer card anytime soon. "I'm sure as I get older there will be some travel schedules that I won't be able to keep up," he observes. "Staying up all night, just taking periodic naps -- the road lifestyle, I'm sure, has its limits. But I still really love DJing. I want to have a family someday, so I'm trying to play out as much as I can now."

The reason Farina continues to get gigs when so many of his colleagues report sagging performance schedules is that he's able to see house as outsiders do. As a DJ, he has treated house as a convention that needs to be fucked with regularly. Now, with Air Farina, he gets to prove his ideas.

"I figure I'm not going to get radio play, and I don't have a video," he explains. "So I had to find other avenues to get into larger markets. I had to do something other than the systematic, chorus-heavy anthem route. House is still my main love, but there are so many different aspects to it, it'd be a shame to give only one view."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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