Name: Dan Curtin
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: Planetary’s Origins EP is being re-issued via Dan Curtin’s Metamorphic at the end of October. Listen/pre-order to the release here.
Recommendations: Rendezvous with Rama series by Arthur C Clark – totally mind expanding series of novels exploring the limits of AI and the creation of life in the universe.
All of the early works of Carl Craig – Everything he did is excellent but his works from 1991 to around 2000 are groundbreaking music like no other artist in house or techno has achieved. A paradigm shift in music creation.
Kraftwerk – Everything from Autobahn to Electric Cafe. It's the foundation that our whole world of electronic music is based on, my favorite band of all time, and another paradigm shift in the understanding of music.
J Dilla – My favorite producer of all time and to me, the best producer of any style of music, ever. He was an alien, there's no words for it, to this day there are no producers in any kind of league with him. Nobody comes close.
Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener /David Toop
If you enjoyed this interview with Dan Curtin, keep up with his work on Facebook, Soundcloud and Resident Advisor.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started producing music with the intent of releasing music around 1991 but I had been doing it as a hobby for several years before that while I was in high school. First as a DJ in a hip hop crew doing shows at school parties and talent shows and stuff like that that. We also dabbled in recording some music but nothing beyond bedroom studio type stuff. Then the turntables led to drum machines, some little samplers, a keyboard and then some further experimentation with various types of electronic music. But the early influences came from the exploding NYC hip hop scene, artists like T La Rock, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Spyder-D, Roxanne Shante, Marley Marl especially. Plus Kraftwerk. And this came at first from a NYC radio show called Mr. Magic's Rap Attack that was simulcast in Cleveland, so I could get it as it was broadcast in NYC.
These episodes here and here would definitely have kept me glued to the radio on Saturday nights. This is where it all started for me. I would record these broadcasts and take them to the record shops and try to find the music that way – there was no other way!
Hard to describe what about that music appealed to me as a white kid in the suburbs of Ohio so far removed from any of that music – all I can say is that it was “me” and it felt exactly right. Still does to this day, look on my phone and you will find 100% underground hip hop on there.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
That all seems natural and I think it applies to me as well to some degree. But when we were doing our first hip hop stuff I can't remember ever consciously trying to sound like this or that. We had the music we liked, and I do think that subconsciously we were influenced by it, but I always preferred to look at it as being inspired by the artists I liked rather than being influenced by them. Coming from a hip hop mentality meant that originality was the key, “biting” was about the worst thing you could do, it was all about having your own style. Working within this frame of mind encouraged finding your own voice and I definitely carried this over into my techno and house productions once I started doing that. So I can say that I never copied, rather I set a rule for myself before I had any records released and that rule was that if what I was working on started to sound like something that I had heard before it would be deleted. And that rule became so ingrained in my process that now I can't NOT work like that. It would be harder for me to copy another artist than to come up with something purely original.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I started to make dance music with a purpose it was all a challenge. Every step was a learning process but also opportunity. I always tried to master each piece of gear and max out the options in each piece. But the main challenges were of course money and being able to properly record the music. My first few records were recorded at commercial studios because I simply had no way to record at home. This was before I had a dedicated studio. And now the main challenge is to find new ways to use the gear that I have, to continue to push myself into new avenues of expression, to become a better engineer, and to keep a fresh frame of mind while writing despite 20+ years in the business.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your setup evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studios were bedroom studios, so just gear set up where it could be set up. But they were functioning studios apart from not having any means of recording. At first it was all the standard Roland gear, 909, 808, 303, 202, 101, all synched together with no sequencer of any kind and relying heavy on the “trigger out” functions of the various drum machines to trigger the synths. First synths were Moog Source and Casio CZ-1000. Then I started to incorporate a sequencer, the first one was the Roland MC 50 (still collecting dust in my studio to this day) and I didn't incorporate a Mac in my studio until 1999, very late in the game but I was fine with the hardware before that. And as the studio grew over time, I started using a sampler (Akai s3000 that I still have) and as soon as I got the computer I started incorporating software instruments. From that point on the studio became a mixture of hard and software. Still is today although hardware is where I do most of the work.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I try to make the machines come alive, I've always looked at it like this, thinking that there is some element of proto-life in the machines that needs to be coaxed out. Hence my first album title, The Silicon Dawn. Like proteins are the building blocks of organic life, the synths and drum machines might be the building blocks of a different sort of life. Artificial Emotion rather than Artificial Intelligence, because the intelligence comes from the interaction with the human, so in some way, the studio with the producer is a sort of hybrid being. The end result has to be music with emotion and soul, this is just the bare minimum of a track. When I hear lifeless music it doesn't even register to me as music. It doesn't sound like anything to me.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I think I partially answered this in the above question, but as far as the compositional environment of the studio I am using external machines as the main tools these days. The hands on connection between myself and the equipment seems to remove the barrier between soul and gear and back to soul again. Once I have the track more or less completed using the gear I will start to record the analog audio back into Logic Pro and begin to add in some software instruments and effects when needed. At the end, everything is mixed down in Logic. It's important to have total recall of the track in case remixes are needed for example, and the gear can at times be touchy, so best to record the audio into the DAW.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I don't do many collaborations but when I do I prefer file sharing. What I like to do is to start a track and get a main concept finished and then send it to the artist I am working with and let them take it from there, they might finish it completely, or send me what the've added, and then I'll add something else and through bouncing back and forth we get a truly half/half result.