American born and Berlin based DJ/producer Eric Cloutier on his breakthrough Detroit and NYC days, political oppression on the dance floor, and his musical influences.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties for any kid around the world must of been a very exciting time, and growing up in the US in places like Detroit, Chicago and New York must of been a wildly different experience. The few people who enjoyed being present in those days all claim that those specific places were the breeding grounds for the house and techno sounds that are now dominating the world, and that those early days were the best in rave history.
Today we hear DJs who were greatly affected by these distant memories. They portray this in their sets and productions, they show the same character, continuously experimenting with new methods that result in trailblazing sounds - without forfeiting on that original and essential vibe. Eric Cloutier's sets are a one of a kind phenomenon. As a fan and aspiring DJ in Detroit during the 90s, his earliest influences included the likes of Richie Hawtin, but also Daniel Bell, Claude Young and Derek Plaslaiko. Even today it seems that what attracts him is uniqueness in sound, citing exceptional acts like Donaty Dozzy and Peter Van Hoesen aside from the sets of DJ Nobu and Jane Fitz.
During his days between Detroit and NYC, his sound started gaining momentum, amassing a fan base over seas. Traveling frequently soon led to his move to Berlin. His life there is a lot more streamlined, telling us that Berlin "is an absolute vacuum and bubble." Before heading towards Europe he witnessed how rave was politically persecuted, and how that led to the fall of the then vibrant Detroit scene - much like what we have been seeing in our region lately, with clubs being shut down and raves being busted. He shares insights into his life and work ethic, one that got him signed to labels like Sistrum, Wolfskuil and Bunker NY, and saw him play his music at over 30 countries around the world.Where are you right now as you answer this interview? Can you describe to us how your day has been going so far?
Currently it’s morning in my flat in Berlin doing a few things to get ready for the day - just finished walking my dog and having a coffee, but I’m about to hopefully finish this remix for Shingo Suwa and prepare for my set this weekend at Globus above Tresor with Deepchord. Standard Thursday, for the most part.
Your career as an underground DJ has been as illustrious as they come, for our readers who haven't been following you since the start. How did you get your first break?
I think my first real break came when I moved to NYC and got involved with The Bunker. That really gave me a platform to play for a broader audience more regularly, since the Detroit scene in 2007, when I left, was pretty quiet, and if you weren’t one of the heavy hitters, you were playing the local circuit, so it was really hard to get noticed there. I started receiving global attention after my MNML SSGS mix, and when I played The Labyrinth in Japan in 2009. I didn’t even own a passport before that request came in and that’s when things went to the next level.
How long did it take you from the moment you first started till you were able to make a living off this?
Quite a while! Hahah. I had a weird confluence of events that happened at the same time - starting to travel and play more as well as losing my day job during the financial crisis in the States - so I took it as a sign to focus on what I do like doing and stick with music.
Your days in Detroit saw your induction into the rave movement. In a previous interview you mentioned that you dropped all your other hobbies like snowboarding and graphics design, amongst others. It seems like you did so at the time to spend your money on collecting records. Have you been able to revisit some of those hobbies? What are your current hobbies that you practice regularly?
I haven’t touched a snowboard in probably 14 years, and I definitely have no idea how to use Photoshop anymore - so those are things of the past. These days I lead a structured life which allows me the most time and focus on music. I’m an early riser, I’m at the gym by 6:30 in the morning and then later in my day I read to keep myself mentally active on something that isn’t digging for vinyl or staring at my laptop. I’m also a horror movie aficionado when I get the chance to dig in to those.
What was your favourite place to play this summer?
Funny enough, Detroit for an afterparty during the Movement Festival. Though I’m from there, I’ve not been to the festival in about six years, and I’ve not played anything festival or afterparty related during that weekend in about ten, so going home for that was super refreshing and nice. But I also quite enjoyed my time in China this summer. It was my first time there, and all four of the gigs were super enjoyable and a killer time - especially Elevator in Shanghai and this amazing rooftop extended set I did in Chengu.
Eric Cloutier live @ Strawberry Fields, Image by Duncographic
What's your educational background? Did you receive any musical education that played part in your career?
I went to school for broadcast arts, namely radio and television production, but ended up getting a lot of specialized training in Avid Media Composer for film and video editing, which is the path that I was going to focus on. That, however, didn’t end up being the case because I had a hard time justifying going to Los Angeles and basically apprenticing for free for years and years to have absolutely no guarantee of a career so I went on to other random things like car modeling for Toyota and working at Turntable.Lab in Brooklyn. As for musical education, I’ve self-taught myself everything I know, from playing the drums for years to Ableton and some music theory.
Who do you cite as the most influential to your sound?
It seems cliche, but being from Detroit it’s impossible to not to claim that in some way Richie Hawtin didn’t have an impact. He, more than probably anyone, absolutely did. His sound in the late 90s, with “Decks, Efx + 909” (still being the best mix CD I’ve ever heard) changed my life. But there are plenty others that affected me massively at that time, such as Daniel Bell, Claude Young and Derek Plaslaiko. But I definitely was shaped early on by Mark Broom, Steve Bicknell and James Ruskin, amongst countless others, but more recently it’s the likes of Peter Van Hoesen and Donato Dozzy, as well as the DJing of DJ Nobu and Jane Fitz.
What in your opinion causes authoritarian governments to fear sub-cultures like rave and clubbing? And do you think the type of freedom and liberation we experience on the dance floor can have a political Influence on society? In other words do you really think these regimes have reason to be scared of dance music?
Historically speaking, places catering to a sub or counter culture are always the breeding grounds for new ideas, thoughts, and movements, and by design are anti-authoritative so the authorities in effect are going to want to control that. Anyone that’s too comfortable in their castle is going to be afraid of what they don’t understand and with what could be going on without their knowledge. They’ll spin it to their advantage, such as the massive fear mongering in the States around drugs at raves and how it’s making their children all brainwashed sheep, and they’ll find ways to strike fear in even more people that haven’t even bothered to take a second of their time to understand or investigate the reality of a situation, which happens to be the opposite - a freeing from the oppression. What we see is the dance floor becoming more of a political platform, and whether you agree with it or not, there is power in that.
Since you moved to Berlin, can you tell us a bit about what excites you the most in Detroit that is not part of your lifestyle in your new home town?
I’d say in general I miss the differences in cultures that I had in Detroit and NYC that I don’t really have in Berlin. As diverse as Berlin is it's still an absolute vacuum and bubble when it comes to world cultures being outwardly present. I miss my Puerto Rican and Dominican neighbours, getting a different perspective from the Rastafarian guy that has the same schedule at the laundromat that I do, or being able to go to different ethnic neighbourhoods and feel like you’ve just gone through a wormhole to another side of the planet because the entire place is like living in that areas old, long distant homes. That and I really miss a real taco. (Laughs) The Bunker NY is your home label and one of your favourite places to play, you still play there regularly? Do you think they have been able to preserve the vibe they started with? What has been the decisive factor in doing so?
The Bunker will definitely always be my main musical home back in the States. I go back to play about twice a year at this point. And in general the musical landscape in New York has changed but I find that The Bunker has kept its vision and message all while growing in popularity and creativity. Bryan Kasenic, Bunker’s founder, has been able to follow his heart on everything with the party and, more recently, the label, and it really shows the passion and dedication he has for both. It’s still one of the more forward-thinking but Bryan and The Bunker have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to music.
Any recommendations as to who you may think is really developing an edgy sound separate from the pack?
Its honestly impossible to really say at this point. Styles, sounds and names are changing so incredibly fast it’s borderline impossible to keep up and focus on just one artist anymore. With the amount of promos that I receive, plus the shopping I do, plus Soundcloud links literally everything, plus all the websites doing reviews and announcements, sometimes I look at my collection or in my Rekordbox and I don’t even remember what is what anymore. Things go in and out of popularly at alarming rates these days that I struggle to keep up and remember them all.
What I am seeing is a laziness and a predictability from a lot of record labels, with them all taking an easy answer to things and selecting very accessible music for their releases, where as I am choosing a different approach and selecting unknown talent for my label, Palinoia, to be presented to the world. Basically every artist on my label has no history so can’t do anything but listen with a 100% clear mind, and I think that’s what people need these days.
You drop a lot of different styles in one set, acid house to dub techno and within that context you manage to keep a distinctly hypnotic vibe. Your sound evolved several times, and another mutation it seems may not be far off. Where do you see yourself going next with your sonic persona? Any genre - if genres don't do it for you, you can describe the sound in regular words - or sound that you see yourself migrating to in the near future?
Though I’m not that massive of a producer, even I am getting tired of a lot of the musical tropes within techno and house and I’m finding myself, when in the studio, leaning more towards some more experimental and ambient related concepts. However, my moods with music switch regularly and often, so one day I might be super into some deep, dubby house sounds and the next I’m back to finding face-melting techno. I have no idea what’s on the horizon, but the more I think about this album that I want to write the more I realize it’s definitely not going to fall in one category and I’m extremely excited about that, albeit a little scared.
We know you gigged in Israel. Any other Middle Eastern locations that we don't know about?
No others besides Israel, actually! It’s a part of the planet that I’ve not really broken through to just yet, but I’m quite curious to see how the scenes are all over this planet, and there is definitely one of them.
Please describe what dance music means to you in a few words.
Music is both my life and my reality, but also what I use to escape my life and reality. It’s a vehicle of personal expression and a way for me, without words, to tell my story to an audience. I honestly have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t involved with music - it literally is part of every second of my day in some way, shape or form, and I’m so glad that I can use what I love as my job and that there is an audience that I can share it with. Thanks to all of those who support. See you on the dance floor!
*Main image by @BeccaCrawford