Richie Hawtin and Testpilot Embrace the Canadian Techno Ties That Bind

Richie Hawtin
Richie Hawtin
Photo by Willy Vanderperre
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Techno, eh? The genre was born in Detroit, but two of its most ardent disciples hail from Ontario. Minimal master Richie Hawtin is set to take the stage at Club Space's Terrace this Thursday, December 5, where he'll be joined by prog-house bad boy deadmau5 under his techno-oriented moniker, Testpilot. The night — or more accurately the entire day, because Space's website lists the event as taking place from 11 p.m. Thursday till 5 p.m. Friday — is shaping up to be the must-attend Miami Art Week showcase for one of the most punishing strains of dance music.

While the younger EDM set knows deadmau5's Joel Zimmerman for his glowing mask, festival main-stage spectacles, and online flights of fancy, Testpilot offers the rather serious musician a chance to break out of his Cube. Hawtin, a reigning elder of the techno scene, has long supported Zimmerman's project. Though the artists have traveled different roads to stardom, their stories are more intertwined than one might believe.

In the late 1970s, when Hawtin was only 9 years old, his family moved from Oxfordshire, England, to Windsor, Canada. A ferry ride across the Detroit River took him to techno's breeding ground, and the technology-fixated youngster soon began experimenting with his own synthesizers and drum machines. By the age of 17, he was DJ'ing in the city's clubs, and at 19, he founded the label Plus 8 to release his and others' tunes.

A decade later, he had developed his alias Plastikman; launched a second label, M-nus; and dived deeper into the oppressive moods and mechanical beats that have come to define his career. Hawtin's distinctive style is readily apparent on his 1999 mix Decks, EFX & 909, which was entirely composed — per its cheeky name — on two turntables, an effects box, and a Roland 909 drum machine. That mix became a sort of bible to 19-year-old Zimmerman, who was in Niagara Falls building his own computers and experimenting with 8-bit music and sound compression.

Zimmerman's sound expanded, as did his technological bent, and by 2009, deadmau5 had gained international fame via the fat-synth electro-house hit "Ghosts 'n' Stuff" and the Kaskade trance collab "I Remember." He quickly became one of the poster children of the early-2010s commercial craze surrounding EDM, but as a skillful sound designer and proud nerd, he soon lambasted the cookie-cutter sound and shortcut techniques used by producers within the so-called genre.

In 2013, Zimmerman and Hawtin discussed the changing scene and their kindred geekdom during the South by Southwest seminar Talk. Techno. Technology.

“Probably how we first bonded was we’re two kids — or we were two kids — who found a love of technology and communicating through technology," Hawtin said of his new friend. "That took us to a place where we never imagined we’d be today. It’s probably because we’re both geeks. We feel pretty cool with computers rather than people sometimes.”

Later that night, they performed their first back-to-back live set as Hawtin and Testpilot at the famous Austin food joint and music venue Stubb's BBQ.

“Not to blow smoke up your ass, but if someone had told me 10 years ago that I was gonna DJ with Richie Hawtin... well, whatever: I’m honored,"  Zimmerman reportedly said during the SXSW chat. "I’ve always aspired to be a little more underground. I listen to techno; I listen to the really dubby old stuff and all of your old stuff. And I like it.”

A year later, Hawtin revived Plus 8 to release Testpilot's original tune "Sunspot (White Space Conflict)." In the track's press release, Hawtin remarked, "It’s been nearly two years since the last Plus 8 record, but it seemed fitting that this record in particular, made by another skinny white kid from Canada, became part of the label’s collection and history."

Since then, the friends have only grown closer — co-headlining music festivals around the world, including Detroit's techno mecca, Movement. The Space show isn't being promoted as a back-to-back experience, but considering their relationship, one never knows who might be inspired to jump on and off the decks.

Testpilot might play techno remixes of familiar deadmau5 songs, such as the "I Remember" vocal sample he dropped in that Stubb's BBQ set, but don't hold your breath for any original drops. Thursday night will be a steady thump of dark and brooding industrial noise, elevated to surreal artistic heights by the complementing fashion of Art Basel attendees. If hypnotic builds and spine-tingling releases of tension are your thing, it doesn't get much better than this.

Richie Hawtin and Testpilot. With an unannounced special guest. 11 p.m. Thursday, December 5, at Club Space, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 786-357-6456; clubspace.com. Tickets cost $22.50 to $67.50 via residentadvisor.net.

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