Jeff Derringer is a producer and performer, or better yet a musician, based in Chicago where he also created and curates the Oktave event series and teaches music production. We caught up with him before his set at Movement Detroit 2015, and unlike many of our other interviews, this one digs more into the use of technology as Jeff talked about making the switch from a drummer in a band to a techno producer using a computer. He also talks about the grind of building a scene around a particular sound, the importance of getting involved in the club to help understand making successful music, and his thoughts on the way music is delivered. We geeked out a bit…
Describe your sound with three words.
►Drums, drums, drums.
You run the Oktave event series at Smart Bar in Chicago, while at the same time, you’re growing yourself as an artist. Is it difficult to wear both hats?
►It’s out of necessity more than anything. It’s a grind in any scene in America if you want to build up a techno scene, especially the kind I’m doing which is more of the newer and experimental stuff people haven’t heard much. It’s a lot of work and you have to be committed to it. If I was just focusing on music, production, and gigging, I would probably be doing more of that instead of doing the production and promotion of Oktave, but Oktave is more necessary than me putting out records. I’ll always be doing music and putting out records, but I’ll sacrifice the time to build Chicago’s techno scene.
Does all your time go toward the events and your own music?
►I’m also a professor at Columbia College in Chicago where I teach music production.
It sounds like you do everything.
►In music today, it’s all about having as many revenue streams as you can. Music is not a huge money-making endeavor until you’re in the top percent. That’s another reason Oktave is important; it doesn’t just book artists and put on shows, but it’s trying to build an economy around a sound.
Do you think it’s easier for one to learn to DJ before producing, or vice versa?
►I don’t think it really matters, but that answer will change depending who you talk to. I thik DJs who start as DJs then move on to production are much more likely to tell you it is important to [DJ] first, than someone who starts with music and moves to DJ’ing. I’m a musician who performs by DJ’ing. I definitely was not brought up as a DJ… I was brought up as a drummer. I played drums forever until I switched over to the computer, so of course I’m going to tell you it’s not important to be a DJ before you make dance music. It is vital, however, if you want to make dance music, you go into dance environments. You have to go see shows. You have to understand the way club sound systems work. You have to understand what makes audiences respond. It’s pretty vital to be active in your community and getting the ideas and energy off the people around you who like the same things you do. I know a lot of people who like to produce and think they can have a production career just by making music in their bedrooms and sending out demos to labels. Not gonna happen. You have to be active, going out to shows, and experiencing music at that level to understand how to make the music that’s going to be successful.
Were you in a band before you got into this stage of your music career?
►I was in bands all over the place. Drums is a good way to come into dance music. Techno is a lot of drums and has always been my favorite thing. I’ve was playing the drums since I was 12 until about 35, then I sold the drums to buy a computer and totally switched over.
What inspired you to switch?
►I’ve always liked electronic music and I’ve always liked the way programming sounds. I love drum machines, and I loved and had drum machines as a kid, especially with drum sets. In 2002 or 2003, I was actually doing a commercial score in New York; I was invited to go into a studio and make music to audition for an Adidas commercial, where the engineers were recording me into a computer. I was like, “What are you doing?” and they showed me early Pro Tools. I was into graphic design at the time so I was all about Mac and understood computers. My head just exploded when I saw what they were doing, and was like, “So I can have a recording studio in my apartment?” They said yeah, and that was it. I was very active in a band that was doing very well at the time, and I didn’t get that commercial but I got the next one. Those things pay pretty well, so I took the money and bought everything those guys had and started making electronic music demos in my apartment. Six months later, I quit the band and just wanted to be a producer.
Do you have a mentor?
►I’ve never been much of a mentor guy. I work alone a lot and I’m a pretty solitary writer. But in terms of using technology, yes. When I first started with Pro Tools, I made an album and had an engineer work with me who became a really good friend and helped me get really good at Pro Tools. Then I decided I wanted to make techno, and I signed up for Dubspot, where they showed me Ableton. I took as many classes as I could and became very friendly with them. I was in the first wave of students at Dubspot and would do graphic design projects for them in return for a class, and took in everything I could.
What’s your live setup?
►It involves a lot. I like gear and I like stuff, so I’m constantly selling and buying stuff to make my arrangement. It only feels good for a while and then I change it up. Right now, I’m using Ableton, which I’ve been using for a long time, along with a Livid Ds1 controller, which is the controller Livid developed with Dubspot. It’s built really solidly. For a long time I performed with Maschine, which I use in my production rig a lot , but I recently switched to a Korg Electribe. I like having the analog signal and it does a lot of the same and different things than Maschine. It’s nice to have an analog signal up there and have live control of a synth, and Electribe is solid and easy to travel with. You can buy stuff for portable DJ’ing that’s complete garbage, but I’m happy with this.
What goals do you have for your live performances?
►Tomorrow [at Movement] I’m going to play a lot of my own material. But it’s not a live set, it’s kind of – everybody makes fun of this – a hybrid set. I’ll be DJ’ing other people’s tracks with my own and running some loops and samples and using the Electribe and layering things. I would call it kind of like playing live in the studio. I am, though, working on a straight up live set. I feel like I’m at a point now where I’ve done enough production and have enough tracks where I can do an hour-long live set. I’m hoping by the fall or end of the year to have two different things I can do: the hybrid set that can go as long as I want, and then an hour-long actual live set.
That sounds like it will be really cool to watch, too. Surely there are the people in crowd watching what you do like a hawk, and then there are some who have no idea, or even paying attention to what you’re doing.
►There’s the conversation not even worth getting into about the way people perform, whether it be vinyl, CDJs, laptops, or controllers. I just find that conversation so ridiculous. I understand people’s desire for authenticity, and those who think if it’s not on vinyl, or it’s not spun with beat matching, it’s not performing. They’re really wrong about that. If you want to say that’s not DJ’ing, that’s fine. If you want to tell me I’m not a DJ, that’s also fine. But don’t tell me it’s not performing. There are amazing vinyl DJs; I love them and I’m surrounded by them. But personally, I would get bored just beat matching and tweaking the mixer. I like to do more. There’s definitely a huge art to beat matching and finding the right mix, but I find that monotonous. I want to be triggering and sampling and creating an environment. You’ll hear in my productions and sets I use a lot of the same sounds, and I want there to be a sound associated with me. It’s much harder to achieve that with a bunch of records than with a portable production studio at your fingertips.
Would you prefer to be called a performer?
►I prefer to be called a musician. That’s how I came up. How [the music] is delivered is of virtually no importance to me. At Smart Bar a few weeks ago, we had Andy Stott. He pays a live set and I’ve seen photos of his live rig with a bunch of stuff on it. But when he was at Smart Bar, he had a laptop and a Tempest, but he barely touched the Tempest. He was literally launching clips on the track pad the whole show, and usually I’m not into that and would like to see someone doing more, but he was so good and the set was so good and so intelligent, and I was like, “Alright.” I loved it. I was really energized and excited, so who cares how it’s delivered? The next week, Moritz von Oswald came and did the exact thing with no Tempest, just his finger on the track pad, and he did awesome. Would I like to see more of a performance? Sure. But both of these guys have earned their stripes, first of all. And second, the music and experiecne they were delivering to the dance floor was fanatstic. So why does it matter?