Techno Trailblazer Avalon Emerson Celebrates the Globalization of Dance Music Culture

This past Thursday, WHRB spoke with Avalon Emerson before her show at Mmmmaven’s Make it New. Much to our delight, Avalon’s “ooo”-inciting technical prowess is underscored by analytically grounded yet boundless optimism. Rather than hostaging club-fronting exclusivity, Avalon celebrates modern electronic music’s globalization and the opportunities it provides in heightening relatedness for all parties involved in its summatory collective experience.

Read our chat with Avalon below, and scroll further to see live dates for Avalon’s fantastically collagic DJ-set.

WHRB: I’m wondering if we could actually start things off with Boston? You’ve been to the scene several times now, and it’s often easier to notice change within a place when you’re visiting it intermittently versus experiencing it over a longer period of time. What do you notice about the Boston scene now and how it’s progressed?

AE: I’ve played with the Make it New guys several times. The last time I was here was Together Festival, and I always have a great time here. It’s been about 3 years that I’ve been coming out here, [each time] spaced out about 8-9 months to a year, so I have these snapshot viewpoints of what the city is like. It definitely seems like it’s growing [which is] happening across the US.

After the 90s dance music thing that I obviously wasn’t around for, America became so much of a rock town. The infrastructure and the venues are set up to service that better, so it’s kind of a feedback loop - the liquor laws, how things close at 2am, 1am, or even 4am in New York… it’s just not as fertile as an agar dish for club culture to flourish as much as the band paradigm, where they come in, play a bar-ish venue all the way up to a stadium, and have a performance that’s an hour or an hour and a half at the longest, and then people go home. Whereas, with dance music, it’s not really a performance, but an atmosphere. It’s a little bit of a different thing, which is why I think Europe has been more of a bed for the [latter] kind of thing. But in saying that, it seems that EDM has been able to take what works in America with guitar music, where it’s a lot of spectacles, it’s a performance, and it happens on college campuses and smaller towns, in a similar way to the rock band.

But having it fundamentally be electronic music, people are now growing out of this EDM thing and finding cool stuff in underground dance music. [We’re] definitely seeing that whole transformation happening across America now, and I think Boston is no exception. Particularly, you have that the over-a-year change with the flushing out of students, such that it’s less of a static thing - new people come in and out so quickly that the scene can change really quickly and evolve in a positive way. It’s definitely changed, but I’d say it’s progressing more towards liking electronic music, techno, whatever you want to call it.

WHRB: Oh man, you touched on so many juicy topics I want to sink my teeth into! Something that I think about a lot, and that’s very pertinent with regards to the style and the space of rock performance and that definitely ties into EDM, is the focus on marketability, or colloquially, Snapchattability, where you can Snapchat 10 seconds of a rock or EDM performance and capture its essence, whereas this soundbite mechanism doesn’t work so well with longform electronic sets.

AE: I mean, I think all art is seeing that sort of stuff rise to the top, where even in museums they’re like, “Better make sure your exhibition fits within the frame of an iPhone lens.” Honestly, not even knocking on it - that’s how people consume everything now. [People have the ability to] consume things more so on the long tail and the global stage, not just in the actual room.

WHRB: Sure. The focal point of club culture is actually really interesting when considering this shift in the way that we experience, with its basis in a multimodal marathonic experience as opposed to being founded in a single drop or hook. Could you describe a couple moments and/or spaces when you truly felt swept away by this multisensory in-the-momentness?

AE: If you’re talking about getting into the flow… When I play festivals in the summer, I’ve learned to see that it’s a completely different thing. I make music in the studio, I'll DJ in Panorama Bar for 8 hours, I’ll DJ in Panorama Bar for 4 hours, and I’ll also do a festival set for one hour at 8pm to three thousand people. It’s a completely different thing than other parts of how I interact with my medium, dance music. So in realizing the dichotomy of those two different types of performances, shows, or sets, I feel like I plan out more of the shorter, bigger festival things. That doesn’t mean that I play all of these big-room tunes all of the time, which is sometimes a weird halfway point that a lot of other DJs find themselves doing when they get to that level. [Rather,] I construct huge remixes of all the stuff that I like, including my own music.

The way that I use CDJs now is by having a bunch of really small samples, where I’ll have many of them going on at the same time, and it creates this sort of collage that I can have a lot of control over, and raise and lower the emotion - or on a lower level, speed, genre, tempo - and deliver more of a performance, a show kind of thing, where it’s a different thing than when I’m really paying attention to details of the vibe, the atmosphere, the time, and the people, and everyone’s mood if I’m doing a longer set at Panorama Bar, De School, or some other club that is more about the atmosphere or the mood, and taking people on a longer journey. It’s been interesting finding ways to do both of those things that are related, yet totally different. . .

WHRB: Do you notice yourself code-switching among your producer self, your short-set performative DJ self, and your 8-hour-set experimental DJ self?

AE: I think that they’re just different ways of interacting with this medium. I started off making music on the computer, and learned that I also love DJ-ing - that it’s related, but it’s not really the same thing, and then splitting that off into two different sides to a spectrum of what I do when I play in front of people. I mean, honestly, I feel like that’s why I haven’t been having a lot of extra time or more specifically creative energy to devote towards producing music in my studio because I’ve been putting so much time into figuring out how to DJ the way that I do, which is a little bit different than how other people do. There’s no right or wrong way to do anything, and I think that the only wrong way is to just try and copy someone else, or to try and imagine what should be done here.

WHRB: During this sort of exploratory process that you take to be intrinsic to artistry, how do you think the shift from SF to Berlin has implicitly influenced your artistic direction?

AE: I think that things are more globally connected than they ever have been, and I think that there are more similarities - just the nature of the internet, and how quickly things migrate around, are shared, and that DJs travel around so much… everything is super connected, so I don’t think there’s that big of a difference between the two cities, as much as there’s a difference between how things were in 2009 versus right now. That’s a much bigger difference, so it’s not necessarily me being in SF during that time, but it’s just the generation, the micro-waves that happen so quickly nowadays. For me, living in Berlin, I quit my day job in May 2016, and that’s when I started DJ-ing around for my job full-time, so I feel like my relationship with Berlin is spoked around Berghain Panorama Bar. I go there all the time, I went there before I was a professional DJ when I first moved to Berlin. I love playing there, it’s probably still my favorite place to play, and I think it’s still just straight-up one of the best.

WHRB: Considering these clubs’ emphasis on environment, almost parallelling Larry Levan’s notoriety founded on creating a space rather than technical prestige, what do you find special about these places like Panorama Bar and De School?

AE: I think that in taking either the Paradise Garage or all of these places from the honestly, far past… you can’t compare them. You cannot compare anything like that, they’re such apples and oranges that you really have to abstract hard to find the root similarities - but I think they’re the same, [deriving from] escapism. Its “for whom” and “from what” change, but its roots are essentially the same.

To say that Berghain/Panorama Bar is an escape for marginalized people is not true, but it’s a bit of an escape as this semi-autonomous zone outside of normal society, where you can be naked, and do drugs, and drink, and listen to music for ****ing 10 hours…it’s this weird place outside of society where there’s a different set of rules, and that is also true of what basically all clubs were. It’s the same kind of need that it still fills, and that’s why club culture is still a thing. It’s a spectrum of the mainstreamness of clientele, but yeah, I think it’s extremely important to remember where things come from, the things that they fulfilled back then, and what they’re fulfilling now. It’s easier to be very positive. We don’t really know what it was like to be in the Paradise Garage, but I definitely think that in 20 years people will be talking about places like Berghain or Trouw or De School like they do about the Paradise Garage.

WHRB: It’s bringing me back to that ol’ psych mechanism, the Positivity Effect, where we place a lot of emphasis on the good things that have happened and tend to somewhat forget about the bad things that have transpired.

AE: Yeah.

WHRB: I just have one more thing to ask to tie things off. You’ve been talking a lot about what academia sometimes refers to as the transnationalism of the electronic music scene. What opportunities does this transnationalism create for the contemporary producer, DJ, and/or event organizer that you in particular are excited about?

AE: I think that we’re definitely hurtling towards a consolidation of a global community - something that is inherently trendy, like art or music, has always been. Like you said, there were these geographical and physical barriers to what you could consume on a record label via distribution and a physical label - press into record stores, radio - juxtaposed with nowadays, Four Tet makes a song and gives it to ten DJs, and it’s on that Identification of Music Group and it gets 600 likes, and everyone sees it instantly. Not only does everyone hear this unreleased record, but they have videos of it, and it’s this viral thing. I actually think it’s really exciting and cool. That’s what fans do nowadays.

Some DJs are super anti- (as a specific example) this Identification of Music Group. It’s this Facebook group that has over 70,000 people in it where people record videos of DJs playing a song and upload it to this group like “What is this??” because Shazam doesn’t work all the time. It’s absolutely insane. It’s this big analog Shazam neural network in real-time, and I think it’s really cool!

It’s like this squid tendril of consolidation of globalization of dance music culture, and it’s pretty interesting and unique, definitely [with respect to] our time and the last couple years that some DJs hate and that it freaks out. You can tell that it ignites this a kind of insecurity or vulnerability, that “if people just know what I’m going to play, then they’re undermining my value as a performer and as a DJ so **** this ID group” or that people recording 5 seconds of their set means that they’re not enjoying the set, and that they should put their phones down. I understand this to an extent, but this is how music fans consume **** nowadays. We all consume everything through our phones, whether you want to talk about how bad it is or not, this is just how it is. The people up front at your set recording it might upload it to this Facebook group, but that’s your core fan group, and I don’t think you should alienate them.

I also think it’s really cool that you’re able to make .001 version of a new song, play it out, and see the reaction in real time. You play a show and leave, and there’s two videos of someone recording and uploading this new song because they’ve never heard it before because you just made it in Ableton, and can go further down that route of finishing that track. It’s an aspect of DJ culture that I find really interesting and I’m excited to see where it leads.

WHRB: It democratizes the scene as well, where it makes the DJ less of a Wizard of Oz, like “hey, I am a real person too, with a creative process that doesn’t go 0-100.” It brings the audience in, as a group of artistically minded people who can provide really helpful feedback.

AE: It’s more like opening it up to having it being slightly more of a two-way street, where you’re not just there to clap at my DJ set. You interact with it in a different way. Social media [brings forth] another way that people can interact with your art and your DJ ****. I think it’s pretty cool.

Oodles of thank you’s to Avalon and Rosalie of Tailored Communication for taking the time to carry out this interview! Check out Avalon Emerson’s DJ set at some extremely pond-hop-worthy live dates:

12.22.2017 - TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht

12.31.2017 - Nottingham, United Kingdom

1.01.2018 - London, United Kingdom

1.18.2018 - Berlin, Germany

2.02.2018 - Stockholm, Sweden

2.03.2018 - AT Delft, Netherlands

2.08.2018 - Bath, United Kingdom

2.09.2018 - Manchester, United Kingdom

2.10.2018 - Napoli, Italy

2.16.2018 - Edinburgh, United Kingdom

6.07.2018 - Wales, United Kingdom

6.27.2018 - Tisno, Croatia

Lana Harris DJs/writes/beyond for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday night 10pm-6am and Sunday night 10pm-5am.