By David Rolland
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Berlin is a fascinating, postindustrial landscape of architectural reconstruction and musical deconstruction. With a Tetris-like, physically shifting backdrop, the city offers all manner of spacious cavities to inspire composers. Among those so inspired is American expat Troy Pierce, a rising star on the roster of the ultimate techno label, Minus. And in his case, that Tetris reference is particularly apt.
"I've never had a gang hanging around with me in the studio to offer inspiration," Pierce says by phone during a recent songwriting sabbatical in Hawaii. "So I've approached music like a videogame, where to win I would need to make a track at least as good as the other stuff I was playing [as a DJ]. And at different times, it's been either a puzzle game or like Super Mario Bros., with hidden chutes and ladders you only find after you've played a lot."
Pierce might not have a gang with him in the studio, but as part of the Minus stable, he certainly has noteworthy contemporaries. Originally a Midwestern metalhead from the Indiana farmlands, Pierce admits his upbringing wasn't conducive to aha electronic music moments. "I read the interviews where someone says they heard Kraftwerk at [age] 12, but I never had it as a reference point," he recalls.
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The closest he initially came was a girlfriend into KMFDM, Depeche Mode, and the like, and it just wasn't his bag. But that same girl eventually introduced him to Vapourspace and Plus8 Records, the original label of techno torchbearer Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), now the head of Minus.
And it was on a cramped New York dance floor in the mid- to late '90s, listening to a DJ set by Hawtin, when Pierce had the epiphany that super-stripped-down and super-fucked-up sounds could be synonymous. A series of friendships began — including those with DJ/producers Magda, Marc Houle, and Hawtin — and led Pierce to the DJ ranks. In turn, that led him to Berlin around 2003 to hone his focus as his gigs expanded from crowds of 50 people to 5,000.
"In New York, it's easy to get distracted," Pierce says, "but in Berlin, I was there to just do music. Also, in New York, there's just this competitive attitude, regardless of profession, but in Berlin, it's more encouraging and not about keeping trade secrets or one-upping each other."
That let's-talk-gear-over-dinner attitude helped Pierce assemble a studio rig and transition his well-respected career as a DJ into that of a producer. He has steadily become a prolific remixer (even reinventing a Depeche Mode track), as well as a committed creator of cavernous tech-house and artfully disintegrating gothic minimal.
Recently, Pierce has been working alongside wonky melody maestro Heartthrob (AKA Jesse Siminski) using Ableton Live, plus Native Instruments' digital composition programs, to develop intricate, idiosyncratic percussion. Pierce says he's going after the swing and skronk of improv jazz but on a steady clip, and he thinks he has found a new signature sound to put atop his dusky, rolling bass lines. While this likely won't grow Pierce a raccoon tail or allow him to shoot fireballs, Super Mario should still be proud.