Longtime residents of Los Angeles who have a penchant for techno warehouse parties have surely experienced an event thrown by local legend Drumcell. Moe Espinosa has solidified his status as an experimental electronic connoisseur through his own productions under both his Drumcell and Hypoxia aliases, the success of his label Droid Recordings, and none other than his well-curated and strictly top-notch events over the years. He’s coming through to Soft Leather in downtown LA this Saturday night (RSVP here), and we realized it’s been quite a few years since Drumcell has publicly spoken about the state of the scene.
In recent months, he and his friends have started up a new event series called Observe (thrown by the same crew as Droid) along with a slew of new developments in the Drumcell world. I sat down with him in his studio to talk about what he’s been up to these days, but more importantly, I wanted to hear what he had to say about the current state of LA’s techno scene.
What’s up, Moe. In your interview with XLR8R back in 2016, you spoke about the switch to CDJs and mentioned that “it’s something I’ll try to adopt in the future for sure.” I gotta know, what’s the status on that?
I haven’t done it yet. [Laughs]
What’s the reason?
Time, more than anything. I tested it out a few times. I met up with some guys from Pioneer who let me use some CDJs for a bit, and I still wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do when I perform. Still wasn’t capable of running as many loops and do as many edits and remixes live on the road as I wanted to. That’s not saying I don’t want to do it still, it’s something that’s been in my head, I just haven’t had a chance to make it happen.
So for your set this weekend at Soft Leather, is the CDJ setup just not what you prefer to perform with?
No, it’s my usual setup which I tour and play live with. It’s still a drum machine and a computer and effects processor. I guess what you can call a hybrid set these days, it’s like half-live, half-DJing.
Cool! Can you tell me about your event Observe? For those unaware, where did the idea to start up a new event come from?
Well, we had been doing Droid for the last 15 years and it came to an unfortunate end. It seems like everybody in our crew wanted to continue to do what we’ve always been doing. I think when we started Droid, we made a pact between all of us that if it wasn’t all of us involved then it would not ever be Droid again. So since all of us are not intact anymore, we put Droid to the side and just decided to come up with a new concept and continue to move forward with it.
What are your goals with the event? I saw it’s coming to Miami soon.
We’re trying to take it around the States for now, trying to do US shows, San Francisco, we have Detroit in the works, Miami’s coming up, Chicago’s on the calendar, New York, as well, by the end of the year. And then hopefully if things go well then we’ll do it overseas eventually.
So, I know you’ve talked about your favorite synthesizers and drum machines before, but I’d love to know what your current obsessions are.
I have been heavily into this Nord Drum 3 and these Nord synths. They’re not necessarily new, but between that and this new Nord Modular, it’s just kind of captivated me recently. Really more than anything, it’s more inspiring to write music with.
Can you talk about those improvised ambient Hypoxia pieces you put out last year?
To be frankly honest with you, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an “ambient” thing. I think the purpose of that particular project was to pick one synthesizer and isolate it outside of the studio and use it and only use that one instrument. So that’s why it tends to become ambient. I don’t have another drum machine or a computer to produce anything on top of it. And sometimes just finding the limitations of an instrument and working within those limitations and try to exploit something interesting out of it is what I was doing. It’s kind of a lighthearted thing as well. It’s not something that I take very seriously, which to be frankly honest with you has been one of the most inspiring things, to not feel outside pressure of the industry to have to release something that’s better than what I’ve done before. It’s just like, I don’t give a shit. I’m going to take the synthesizer, I’m going to go here, I’m going to make this music. And I like it. I’m going to press it. And if people like it or not, it really doesn’t fucking matter to me. And that’s been…
Freeing, I bet.
Absolutely. It’s been good. So, I think that the style of music is very much inspired by science fiction films and early 1970s film scores, John Carpenter movies, something that you would hear in the background of your favorite horror film or something like that, which tends to kind of go by unnoticed most of the time. I mean, yeah, it works to enhance the film a little bit, but the music standing on its own tends to never really be centered and focused. And for me, I drew inspiration from that and it’s a little bit more of a hypnotic kind of meditative music. Then I’ll just kind of listen to it and just lay back in bed. I have hundreds of these recordings and I still sit down in bed and just listen when I go to sleep. But it’s definitely not something you want to dance to. And it’s not for a nightclub. It’s got it’s time and place.
Yeah. How would you recommend that listeners who are maybe more of a fan of the dance-floor friendly stuff listen to these projects?
Well, for instance, since I started doing the project, it got a fair amount of traction and a lot of people started really getting interested in the record. It sold fairly well and I started getting a lot of gig requests. Like, “Oh, can you do Hypoxia at this club?” And I’m just like, no, because why? It makes no sense. Like, who the hell wants to listen to this music? I mean, it has to be the right environment and the right setting and you have to know where your music exists and where it doesn’t. And in the nightclub it definitely doesn’t. Even if it’s opening in the middle of the night. I would prefer if I were to do it where I would just play in a completely dark black room and people could just lay down and just stare at the ceiling and just go to sleep.
Like a sound bath.
I did one at FORM Arcosanti and I was genuinely confused. I was like, I can’t get into this. I don’t know why. Well then, talking about film scores, have you scored a film?
I’ve done one short film. I didn’t actually score to the film, but I wrote a couple of pieces of music and the music was licensed for the movie and I am about to start scoring my first debut film.
Oh, that’s exciting. Can you talk about it?
I cannot say the name of the movie yet. I can say that it’s a documentary and it’s a highly controversial documentary and it’s very emotionally driven, which is perfect for the stuff that I want to do right now because, I think it plays well. But as soon as I can say the name, I definitely will.
Absolutely. Wow, congratulations! That’s awesome. So, you played all over the world last year. I’d love to know which cities are your favorite to visit when you come to play and some of the biggest differences between techno scenes all around the world and here in LA.
Number one favorite country in the entire world to go to will always and forever be Japan, just Tokyo in general. I dunno what the fuck it is about that place, but I just love it. I think I was meant to be there.
You’re playing on the 29th, right?
Yeah! [Laughs] You’re very well-informed. That came together very last minute, but yeah, it’s absolutely my favorite city in the world to play. Then I have Berlin, for instance, is another favorite, but that’s such an obvious answer for most people and I’ve been going back and forth to Berlin since 2006 and it feels like a second home to me. I don’t live there, but I have a flat that my partner owns and I stay there and I’ve been staying in that flat for the last, I dunno, a couple of decades or something. It just feels like a second home to me. Yeah. So, that’s one place… and there’s so many incredible places.
I do wonder how the techno scene is in Tokyo.
Every time I’ve played there, I’ve had a different experience. I’ve found one of the most consistent things is people tend to be a little bit more timid, maybe. It’s not as much of an outrageously wild party as much as it would be anywhere else in Europe or something like that. But there is something about the Japanese, I mean, when the drinks start flowing and the drugs get going, they do let loose. [Laughs] But for the most part, it is a little bit more timid.
That’s interesting. I’ve never been, but you make me want to now. So, you celebrated 10 years of BL_KNOISE — I think that show was in January, congratulations! With 10 years to reflect on, what can you say about how it’s aged over the years?
I think it’s been pretty awesome. Anytime I can throw a show with a bunch of experimental artists who just make noise for a couple of hours and we can sell as many tickets as we have and people appreciate it. I mean, shit, you couldn’t ask for anything better. We wanna ramp it up, though. That’s the one thing that we’ve been wanting to do. We’ve been doing it once a year only. We did a Berghain showcase one time in Berlin and maybe a few of them in Detroit every once in a while when requested. But we wanted to do maybe two, three, maybe even four nights a year in Los Angeles and kind of wrap it up. One of the things that we’d like more than anything is to spread our wings and have different artists play. ‘Cause I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s usually a lot of the same lineups because it just tends to be our friends and our circle of dudes that we just like to do shit with.
That can be kind of self-absorbed and selfish in a lot of ways. [Laughs] Like I said, it’s another lighthearted endeavor with the BL_KNOISE thing. You know, it’s not the same kind of mindset when throwing events where you’re like, “Oh, we’re going to book this headliner and we’re going to sell this many tickets to these people and we’re going to market this to this particular group of people.” It’s just like, these are our friends and nobody ever books is to play this kind of music, so we’re just going to do it ourselves. And if you want to come, like, sweet, but if not, oh well. But yeah, there’s so many talented musicians that are coming up and are doing rad shit and we’d love to showcase them and do it properly. I think the only way it would be able to do that is to do it multiple times a year.
I was going to ask if there’s anything you would’ve done differently with starting the label, but it seems like it’s worked out quite well.
Yeah. You know, the thing is, I’ve been through the wringer so much with other record labels that I’ve done. There’s all these expectations and social pressures and everything that’s so cliche that you hear artists fold about over time. You know, distributors want a bigger and better battery release. Resident Advisor writes a shitty review about your last record because it wasn’t as good as the one you did before and all this shit. And I mean, I’ve been through every individual dynamic you can possibly think of when it comes to that shit. And it’s crippling because as a musician, as an artist, you shouldn’t — I mean, I guess if you’re one of those people just doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone says about you, then that’s fine. But not everyone has the luxury being that some of us and most musicians, no matter how much they play off being the cool dude, are usually the most insecure and fragile people you will ever meet inside, whether they show it or not. And I think all that shit’s crippling when it comes to writing music and it hinders your creativity and it tends to cater your music to please other people instead of pleasing yourself.
I’ve been through those emotions — I’ve been writing and releasing records since I was 17, 16 years old and I’ve been immature. And at certain times when I was young and I’ve grown a lot and I’ve learned a lot about things. And the one thing that I’ve realized now is that not paying attention to the rest of the world and just doing whatever the fuck you want is really the only way to find any peace in your art. You know what I mean? And BL_KNOISE and Hypoxia and these projects are kind of a result of that. That’s kind of me saying, “Oh, fuck this techno thing.” I mean, I love techno, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t want to give a shit about what other people want or what my booking agent says I need to do to get more gigs or what the next distribution company says is going to sell more records. I’m just going to do this and we’re going to put it on a record and we’re going to release it and if only my 15 friends buy it, then that’s cool. I’m totally happy with that. And if nobody likes it, then you know, whatever. I don’t give a shit.
I feel like that energy also just draws the right audience to begin with. Because it’s coming from the heart instead of you caring about what everybody expects.
Yeah, that’s true.
I looked through your Twitter and I saw that you sent a tweet that said, “If I said I liked Van Halen, do I lose techno cred?”
You don’t. But what are some other acts that you love that might make you lose techno cred?
Oh, shit. [Laughs] I grew up listening to Van Halen when I was a kid because my older brother was like prime in that ’80s era of just being the hairspray rocker dude. I just listened to everything that he did and honestly, I think watching Van Halen play guitar and doing solos and shit was what made me want to be a guitar player and be a musician. But other bands…
If you’re willing to admit.
Dude, I would totally admit. I’m trying to think of something but my musical taste is just that perfect. [Laughs]
I’m kidding. I’m like, looking around at my records… like Misfits, but I mean everybody likes Misfits? No, not everybody, but, yeah, I don’t know.
The techno cred stays then!
Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I listened to a lot of rock music and a lot of industrial music. I don’t listen to techno at home. I never do. I used to, maybe like a long time ago, but I don’t know. I guess it works well in the club. I don’t need to sit at home, listen to fucking techno 24/7. I mostly check out a lot of indie rock bands and industrial records and stuff like that.
In preparation for your set at Soft Leather, who or what is currently moving the needle in techno? I mean, what are you into when you’re digging for tracks to play out for a set like this?
I’ve really been into Phase Fatale recently. His records have inspired me, although they tend to just kind of rehash and tap out old EBM records and recycle it into modern techno, which is cool.
It sounds cool.
It’s not the most innovative thing, but I do enjoy it. To be frankly honest with you, I don’t follow anybody’s music anymore.
I mean, I personally have never seen you play before, so that’s why I’m curious. First time, really stoked.
Techno… let’s see…
What do you like to play? Who do you like to play? Is it normally some deeper cuts, older stuff? Your own stuff, obviously.
I’ve been playing a lot of I wouldn’t say older cuts, but maybe stuff from the past four or five years because I think techno has such an incredibly short shelf life. Like, people put out a record and then you just don’t care about it a month later, you know? Everything just gets recycled. And in the last five years, I think so many great records were released and then a lot of people just don’t care about them and they just kind of vanished. But I mean, everything that Silent Servant’s been doing on Jealous God has been great. Terence Fixmer’s incredible. Broken English Club, British Murder Boys. Your run-of-the-mill, I guess, but all that stuff just falls right back into my playlist. A lot of techno producers from Spain: Tensal, Oscar Mulero. I really like the more hypnotic and druggier sound. I think that’s what I’m looking for. Whenever I play music, I tend to bend a little bit more to the cerebral side of music, stuff that’s a lot more heady and weird and just out there.
Okay, you’ll really like playing at Soft Leather, then.
Yeah, it’s my favorite party. I go every Saturday and the music’s always on point.
I’ve heard a lot about it. Everyone’s been telling me great things. I have not been yet, but Johnny [Love] had asked me to play for him a long time ago. I remember back in 2004 or something like that…
You guys have known each other that long?
Yeah. Oddly enough, back in 2004, I was doing records with this industrial label out of Chicago. It was kind of Wax Trax-influenced stuff called Kompute Records, but I did quite a few releases for them. I remember my friend Matt Nee who ran the label was good friends with Johnny and I think it was, like, Johnny’s 18th birthday or 21st birthday, but they invited me to go down there and he’s just a kid and it was, like, literally a party in the kitchen of someone’s house. And I was like, the fuck are we doing here? But everybody was wildin’ out. That was the first time we kind of met and he moved to LA, saw him around a few times, every once in a while. Don’t know each other incredibly well, but definitely know each other.
That’s a hell of a meeting story.
[Laughs] He hit me up recently. I didn’t know he was the one doing Soft Leather, so somebody from Soft Leather hit me up and was like, “Would you come out and play a show?” I was like, oh yeah. They’re like, “Do you remember me? You came and played in my kitchen back in late 2003.” And I was like, ah, fuck. It’s Johnny Love. [Laughs]
Johnny stories are my favorite thing. You should see his piece for our MySpace Chronicles series where he shared photos from that era, seriously the best commentary.
Of course. He always had his finger on the pulse of the social media stuff.
So, finally — this is probably going to be a long one — what do you think of the current state of the techno scene in Los Angeles? I mean, you helped build the underground here.
Oh, I’ve got a lot to say to this.
I knew you would and that’s why I saved it for last. [Laughs]
I’ll probably get a lot of grief for this from a lot of people, but I’m just going to be as honest as I can be. When we started doing parties, obviously nobody was doing shit and we did it. I never wanted to be a promoter. That was never, ever my thing. I think it’s a thankless job. I think it’s a shitload of work. I think the reward is definitely not financial. The reward is for me, at least, for all the parties I’ve done, is feeling like you’ve changed people’s lives somehow with what we’ve done. And that was always my goal with Interface parties, was not to just throw a party where people showed up and did drugs and then left and went home. I wanted to create an experience for people and I think people who went to a lot of the original Interface parties would agree that we achieved that. I dunno, when I reached the point where we couldn’t do them as often as we could and I felt a social responsibility to continue to do it because I wanted the techno scene to thrive, I was relieved to see that there was a new younger generation of people that were pulling up and doing stuff because then I was like, perfect. It’s time for me to hand over the torch and let other people run the scene and do a dope job. And for the most part, I think everyone’s done a pretty good job of it.
But I will say in the last three or four years, my only issue with it is that it’s become incredibly oversaturated. Everybody’s doing it. And a warehouse party is not special anymore. A warehouse party is just another club night for people. And that is what bums me out because people take things for granted and it tends to just be like, “Oh yeah, whatever, there’s this party going on and these awesome European DJs are there but I’m not going to go ’cause I’m just going to go next weekend ’cause somebody else is playing next weekend.” And that is the element that I believe is the beginning of the destruction of any kind of music scene. Maybe it’s not anytime soon and maybe there’s a younger generation that will get into it, but it is the beginning of people to stop caring and putting as much emotional weight in something as I feel like it should be.
When we did our parties, and I think for the largest majority of underground people who did parties when we were doing things, everything had this sense of feeling of being a special occasion. It was like, “Holy fuck, Speedy J’s in town and he’s playing at this warehouse party in downtown LA next month.” Everyone’s anticipating it, everyone’s waiting to go there. And there’s an energy that you bring to that party and you show up and it’s electric and people are just so excited. And those are the kind of life-changing experiences that I’ve always been searching for. And now it’s turned into kind of almost this cookie-cutter McDonald’s thing where it’s like, you go to the warehouse, they set up a couple speakers, two lights are set up on each side, and then every run-of-the-mill popular Resident Advisor techno DJs are booked to play every weekend. And they’re all incredible DJs! These lineups are curated well, these promoters are booking the right people and that’s what I’m excited about.
BUT, the impact tends to fall on deaf ears because it’s not as special as it should be. And I mean, I guess this is kind of normal because things in Europe are every weekend too and every nightclub books the same people every weekend but it tends to end up becoming mundane and recycled over time. And I want something different for my own city. I think once people remove the concept of turning this into a business and a profit and they turned it into something that’s more about the love of music, then it doesn’t have to be every weekend. And it doesn’t have to be about meeting certain goals or making a certain amount of money by the end of the month so you can make rent. It’s about pushing the music to the right people and having the right experience behind it.
I mean, maybe I’m just the old dude that says shit, but, you know, whatever. That’s how I feel.
Yeah. I mean, I went to my first rave I was 13, back when they had all-ages raves. I grew up in San Diego and it was this rave called Scream and it was at the World Beat Center. It was once a month. I remember waiting a month for the next event and I’m, like, making kandi and finding new music ’cause I wanna make sure I know what bloghouse tracks are going to be playing at the next one — I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t know the songs. The anticipation and then the energy when you finally get there, thinking “I want this night to last forever.”
Yeah, exactly. That’s what I miss about things. I’ve always cared about the fine details and I think that’s the thing about Observe because we get hit up all the time like, “Why isn’t there more of them?” And it’s like, why should there be? Like, fuck, there’s thousands of other parties you can go to. I don’t need to throw one for you, but when I do, you better be there. You know what I mean? If you’ve seen the videos of the parties or anything like that, we try to set up an environment that makes the music more impactful. You know, whether it’s using smoke and mirror techniques, minimal lighting. The production doesn’t have to be like EDC with flamethrowers and shit, but it’s minimalistic and it sets the mood and sets the right environment for the music to thrive and make a bigger impact. I think that’s why people tend to come to our techno parties and take away from it more than they do with other ones. Other parties they just go and they buy a few beers and they get drunk and they’re like, “Alright, let’s go home,” and then you go home and then it’s over. But I don’t want that. I want people to come to our events and be like, “Holy fuck, Observe Number 2 or Interface 23 or Interface 32” or “I went to Interface at this warehouse and I’ll never forget this experience.” And that is constantly what I’m trying to thrive for. And I wish other people thrived for the same thing.