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Cover Story

Move over

The Motor City unfurls its oil-stained carpet for the ninth-annual DEMF

Kevin Saunderson
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Published 5/21/2008

Greetings techno lovers and haters; whiners and quibblers; ecstatic dancers and third millennium hippies; club crawlers and starry-eyed house heads; chin-scratching aesthetes and purists; assorted suburban high-school nerds; punkettes and furry ravers with angel wings and bunny ears. And hello to all our local media friends, fans and musicians as well as visitors from New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and anywhere else on the planet where "Detroit music" remains synonymous with "the future."

Detroit is once again opening up its ashtray heart to bring progressive music lovers the ninth edition of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (aka DEMF, of course) — previously known to the world as Movement (2003-04), Fuse-In (just one year — 2005 — thank God), and now Movement: Detroit's Electronic Music Festival (since 2006). Around these parts, though, we just call it "the festival," which certainly trumps that mouthful of previous mushy qualifiers. It's a three-day, five-night (if you count the pre-parties that begin tomorrow) bountiful mess of activity dedicated to dancing or just drifting to music made with synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, computer software and anything else vaguely electronic.

Now in the able hands of full-time programmers Paxahau Promotions following a string of noble failed experiments by Detroit techno gentry (including Carl Craig, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson) to keep the festival a free event, a music-filled weekend at Hart Plaza now costs $40 to experience more than 70 performers do their supersonic thing — and get paid a reasonable fee (plus expenses, in some cases) to do it. We advocated it; we got it; we like it.

On top of that are the aforementioned after-parties (see sidebar for our top picks) — some "official," others not ... but all of them altering the phrase living in the moment to living in the madness. Which, we all hope, is only temporary.

Over the past eight years, good times have occasionally given way to bad, beginning with the removal in 2001 of the illustrious Mr. Craig as creative director, a move that drove divisions into an already fractured local scene. But it got even worse when the money began to run out for the "free" part of the fest. Distinguished elder Mr. May begging for donations from the stage in 2004 was an infamous low point, as were the quiet and largely off-the-record complaints that same year from European artists when plane tickets for their return home were especially slow in arriving. Thankfully, the event was saved from extinction the following year, when Saunderson took over executive leadership. But bickering among other local groups put in charge of stages and concessions that same year nearly doomed the damn thing for good.

Paxahau has run the festival since 2006, using the same business model the group has used for its own parties since 1998: They connect with artists and fans here and abroad, buy the talent and secure a place to showcase it. They then charge the audience money to experience it and thus pay the artists. And it has worked. It was now possible for fans gathered here to see a rare live appearance by the Orb, as well as first-time-ever-in-Detroit appearances by Kompakt label artists Klimek, Markus Guentner and Mikkel Metal in 2006. The following year's highlights included a live band performance by reclusive Detroiter Kenny Dixon Jr., a DJ set by Jeff Mills and more live brilliance from reclusive Finnish producer Vladislav Delay. There was also a scorching but tuneful live performance by Brazilian Gui Boratto and a six-hour DJ/live set by Berlin digital dubmasters Rhythm & Sound (with guest vocalists Lloyd Barnes and Willi Williams).

OK, that's great. Sounds like lotsa fun in the past. But that was then. What about now?

First some important news: The Underground Stage — some people love the sound of bass bouncing off the concrete floors and walls, others despise it — is back after a year's absence. And its imperfections can be used to an advantage. It works as a connecting point between the Main Stage and those closer to the waterfront. It comes in handy if it rains or it gets cold. And, yep, some memorable shows have been held down there as well. Acufen and Pole ruled that miserable pit a few years ago, as did Luciano, in possibly his best festival appearance. On the other hand, when Autechre made its only DEMF appearance in 2001 on the Underground Stage, it proved a near-disaster. Thousands of people crammed into the space; hundreds more couldn't get near it. The result was only a few fans way up front could actually see Rob Brown and Sean Booth do their abstract, IDMish thing.

This year, the stage is filled with locals, including both the house and techno persuasion. Headliners are Kenny Larkin, Stacey Pullen and Saunderson — but the rest of the impressive list includes Minx, Mike Grant, Terrence Parker, Michael Geiger, Derek Plaslaiko, Twonz, Aaron-Carl (featuring vocalist Veronique and DJ E Dubb), T Linder, Drew Pompa, Josh Dahlberg, Darkcube and Punisher.

The Red Bull Music Academy Stage features a mix of Detroit and national performers. Potential highlights jump out, including the Egyptian Lover and Peanut Butter Wolf (both from Los Angeles), Montreal's Kid Koala, Pittsburgh's Girl Talk and locals Carlos Souffront, Patrick Russell, Jared Wilson, Ectomorph and Soundmurderer.

On the Pioneer Pro DJ and Pacha New York VIP Lounge Stage, Italy's Benny Benassi and the UK's James Zabiela head the lineup, which also features locals John Johr, Ronin Selecta, Justin Kruse and former member of the Detroit Grand Pubahs, Andy Toth.

The Beatport Stage is where the de facto 10th anniversary of Richie Hawtin's Minus imprint will be celebrated (in fact, the company is celebrating all over the world throughout 2008). Founded in Windsor as the reductive monochromatic extension of Plus 8, Hawtin's Technicolor Acid Techno project, the label is now mostly based in Berlin with an accounting office still located across the river.

Hawtin is one of the headliners, natch, and fellow travelers Magda, Heartthrob, Konrad Black, Paco Osuna, Josh Wink, Dubfire, Alex Under and Matthew Hawtin (some part of the hardcore Minus posse, others infrequent contributors) will all be performing throughout the weekend. Other artists to look out for on the Beatport platform include Alex Smoke, Deadmau5, Tycho, Joris Voorn, Mathias Kaden and Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts, the latter another Canadian (from Montreal) who recently decamped for the Berlin high — or, depending on how one looks at it, perhaps low — life.

On the Main Stage, expect surprises big and small. Big comes in the form of a headlining DJ set from bespectacled vegan evangelical leftie mega-star Moby, who's likely to play anything from punk rock to hip hop to gospel house music. Other headliners are Speedy J (along with visual accompaniment by Scott Pagano) and Carl Craig — whose output has remained unshakably innovative in a career now approaching 20 years — each of them playing a live set.

Those are the biggies, but some quirky newcomers and festival vets are also worth seeking out in the plaza's biggest stage.

Daniel Bell, once a member of the Windsor-based group Cybersonik (with Hawtin and John Acquaviva), brings his DBX live project to the Main Stage, as will Detroit deep house DJs Alton Miller and Keith Worthy. Expect more house music from Seattle's Lawnchair Generals and warm house-techno hybrid grooves from Berliner Cassy.

Deepchord Presents Echospace, a dubby techno duo made up of Port Huron's Rod Modell and Chicago's Steve Hitchell, makes its Movement debut on the heels of one of 2007's most celebrated releases, The Coldest Season. Also playing Detroit for the first time is Half Hawaii (although its individual members, Berlin-based Bruno Pronsato and Sammy Dee, have played solo shows here before). Expect the beats to be micro minimal, man.

Also on the Main Stage: Berlin DJ Zip, Vancouver trio Cobblestone Jazz and Sweden's Pär Grindvik (both performing live sets) and nospectacle, a Detroit-based laptop band/DJ-hybrid that features sound and film producer Chris McNamara of Thinkbox (which played the festival in 2003), Jennifer A. Paull and one Walter Wasacz (yes, fully disclosed here as your faithful festival reporter).

As for quibbles? Hey, what quibbles? Sure, it would be nice if Depeche Mode, Yaz or Erasure from the U.K.; or the remnants of what's left of Can, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Faust, Harmonia, Ash Ra Tempel and Neu! from Germany could be lured over here to play one of these Memorial Day weekends.

From our desk, though, we'd prefer, if any luring was actually to be done, that Kompakt maestro Wolfgang Voigt be seduced into performing under his GAS moniker, perfect timing with his remastered four-disc box of material that reset the tone of techno from 1996 to 2000, which is due for release early next month. But he wouldn't ever. Or would he?

Nice thoughts all, but not this year, folks. Nevertheless, the 2008 festival program is on overall solid ground. The lineup is filled with trailblazers past and present. It honors the greats who brought a global scene together in the 1980s and 1990s and is not afraid to take risks on the great pretenders and mad geniuses trying to carve out a niche decades later. Welcome to the future remains the message. Let the games begin.

Memorial Day weekend, Saturday-Monday, May 24-26 at Hart Plaza (Jefferson at the foot of Woodward, Detroit). For more information, go to myspace.com/detroitmusicfest.

For complete daily reports, gossip and photos from all Movement fronts and parties, see metrotimes.com and click on the Music Blahg.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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