Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Interview With Daniel Mnookin
Back after a wonderful week in south-west France. Off again for a week on Monday. Just time to squeeze a little bit in.
I sent Siteholder's Dan Mnookin a few quessies before my trip. Got them back the other day, so here they are.
What first got you interested in music and what inspired you to start a label?
I think what first interested me in music was playing instruments. Around the age of 12 I taught myself guitar with the goal being learning to play the entirety of Guns ‘n Roses’s “Use Your Illusion 1 & 2.” Throughout high school and college I was in bands, until I spent a year abroad in London, living downstairs from a DJ who let me tag along with him everywhere he went clubbing around the city. It was a life-changing experience from a musical tastes standpoint, and the rest is history.
In regards to starting a label, Billy (Dalessandro) had mentioned the idea to me a couple of times – this was probably late-‘05/early-’06. One morning I was taking a shower before work (a time and place where all of my best and worst ideas tend to take shape), and thought, “Why not?”
At the time I was DJing 40 or so gigs a year and traveling quite a bit. I figured that starting a label would not only be an exciting challenge given everything I’d heard about the label side of things in the music industry, but would eventually lead to more DJ gigs in new and exciting places.
The former has definitely come true, the latter not so much. I found myself spending so much of my free time on the label (which has now become four labels) that I didn’t have much time to invest in DJing. Regardless, it’s been a life experience I’m proud of, given the success of our labels especially in these times.
Coming from Chicago, when did you start to become aware of it as being the birthplace of house?
To be honest with you, not until I returned home to Chicago from London in the summer of 1999. Throughout high school and my pre-London college days I didn’t listen to much electronic music outside of bigger acts such as Air, Chemical Brothers, and The Prodigy. I had friends who went to raves, but the whole thing sounded scary and a bit silly to me. I was like, “Furry suits, pacifiers, glow sticks and Vicks vapor rub, are you kidding me?”
I really feel like the electronic music side of me was born in London, and matured in Chicago.
Do you have any contact with any Chicago house legends, DJ Sneak, Derrick Carter, Diz, etc? Do you send these guys your stuff and do they play it?
Unfortunately, not really. I see many of the DJs from Chicago’s early era out pretty regularly (except Sneak, who lives in Toronto now), but I’d doubt they even knew who we were or about Siteholder. I am pretty friendly with Justin Long and Mazi, who are Chicago legends in their own rights and have been recently blowing it up as Wasted Chicago Youth. The other day I was checking out Richie Hawtin’s latest set list on Twitter (shame on me, I know), and it said he’d dropped like 4-5 of their tracks along with a couple of Siteholder jams at his latest gig. Clearly, the modern day Chitown sound is a force to be reckoned with! I’ve tried getting Derrick Carter music a bunch of times, as I think there’s some cuts (especially off of the Nymphotech album) that he would really dig…but so far, no success. Billy and I used to discuss getting Carter on board for a remix, so who knows? Maybe one of these days…
What is "house"?
That’s obviously a very difficult question to answer. I guess when I think of house in its purest form, flutes, horns, congas, and diva vocals come to mind. However, in today’s age house can mean a million different things. I suppose the only thing I can say about “house” with any particular certainty is that it’s constantly changing and what it means one year can be quite different than what it means the next.
Why set up a record label, and why still press vinyl?
First, it’s a constant challenge. The four of us all have day jobs, and therefore a very professional work ethic. However, in this industry you’re faced with all types of shady practices and unprofessional people attempting to run businesses that you are forced to interact with. Rather than just say, “F-off, I’m not going to deal with this,” we opt to try and bring some positive things to the electronic music record industry – such as paying our artists what we agreed to pay them, when we agreed to pay it.
It’s also a great way to get our sound and our own music out to the public. Most of the releases on Siteholder have been produced by us or our close-knit group of friends, so in that respect we’ve been able to put loads of good music out there that might have otherwise gone unheard.
In respect to vinyl, it’s pretty simple: pressing vinyl lends credibility to a label. That’s not to say there aren’t any solid digital-only labels out there, but when you’re pressing vinyl these days, you’ve got balls. You’re putting your money where your mouth is. And if you can be successful pressing vinyl, you’re obviously doing something right. Digital is definitely a big aspect to running a label, because for us it significantly helps pay the bills, pay the artists, and hopefully have something left over for ourselves. But I’ve always felt that if we were to stop pressing vinyl, we might as well call it quits.
Where do you shop for music, and is there still a thriving "record shop culture" in Chicago?
Believe it or not, Gramaphone Records in Lakeview still stands tall and proud. Other than that, there’s a thriving record shop culture but I’m not sure that much of it relates to house and/or techno. Sadly, I haven’t been to Gramaphone in ages. I’m kind of feeling motivated to ride over there and do some shopping as I type this – maybe I will!
As for me personally, I don’t buy a whole lot of vinyl anymore. Running our group of labels, that alone gives me a ton of tunes to play. We also get sent plenty of promos. Sometimes you’ll find gems and for whatever reason you’re not able to sign them – that doesn’t mean I’m not going to play them. This guy from France named Acumen sent us a ton of tunes that I really dig. Unfortunately I didn’t get the unanimous vote we require to sign something, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to jam these tracks out at gigs.
I also occasionally shop on Beatport and still dig through my large collection of vinyl, as I have a lot of old music that sounds as relevant today as it did when I bought it years ago.
No matter who records on Siteholder, I think the output has a recognizably "American" sound. Do you think that house particularly, but also techno, is easily distinguished from that made elsewhere?
People constantly tell us that we have this distinctly Chicago element to our labels. Personally, I try not to judge our own music as I think that sometimes when you’re involved it can cloud your judgment. That being said, I obviously like what we release, but in terms of it sounding unique or unoriginal, American or European…I’ll leave that up to the masses. As for house music in general being geographically distinguishable, there are so many people living in places other than where they were born, I think it’s impossible to say. For example, Agnes is Swiss - but if I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t doubt he was living in Chicago based upon his recent output. And you have a bunch of Americans living in Berlin that make very European sounding underground music.
You lived in the UK for a time. What did you get up to when you were over here and who did you get to know?
I definitely got immersed in electronic music. I lived downstairs from a DJ named Eric who I believe lives in San Francisco these days. Since back then pubs closed at 11pm and lounges weren’t really around, I’d go clubbing if I wanted to stay out late. Eric would let me tag along with him, and fortunately he had good taste in music. This was pre-Fabric era, but we still had The End, Bar Rhumba, and Digweed’s night at Heaven to keep us occupied. Those were some great, innocent times, and I can’t wait for the next artistic thing to hit me as hard as being introduced to electronic music via London nightlife did.
It's been said that UK audiences, and European ones generally, are more knowledgeable than those in the US. This is obviously a generalization but what's your take on this?
I believe that overall electronic music is much more immersed in European culture than it is in America. That being said, if you’re at the right place with the right people in the right city, America can represent just as well as anywhere else.
Where's your favorite place to play and what type of venue do you prefer?
Without a doubt, Smart Bar. They don’t have a whole lot of techno-oriented shows there these days, but I’ve been fortunate enough to get to spin there on a regular basis when they do. It’s one of the few venues in Chicago where they don’t cram three or four opening DJs around an out-of-town headliner, so when you’re opening you get to play a solid 3+ hour set. And when Smart Bar is going off it’s as good as any venue out there, in my opinion. It’s a pretty ideal venue for me, 300-400 people coming out just for the sake of getting down.
What's your opinion on mp3 blogs and how much of the average artists earnings are they sucking up?
Personally I don’t have much of an opinion on mp3 blogs. I don’t think they affect our label all that much, but then again I don’t read very many of them either. What affects our label the most is that what Beatport is selling is essentially available to anyone with an Internet connection and a clear conscience for free. With the ailing economy, we’ve definitely noticed a decrease in our digital sales…and sad as it is, it makes sense. When people are low on money, a vast majority of them will do what they need to do. If that means downloading music for free, or buying it at ridiculously reduced prices on illegal Eastern European music sites, they’ll do it.
Brian (Ffar) and I always joke whenever a new release of ours hits on Beatport. The very first purchase, made shortly after it goes on sale, is always for the EP or LP’s full release. Whereas most purchases thereafter will be for a cut or two, the first purchase is always for the whole package. We’ll always jokingly say something like, “Thank you for your support illegal Russian download site!”
So while mp3 blogs don’t bother me so much, these illegal sites selling music cheaply certainly do. But in the end there’s only so much time you can spend on this, time and energy are much better spent on releasing quality music and running a respectable label.
What's the motivation behind Facet?
Facet was mainly Billy’s idea. He had just gotten home from a 3-month European Tour and I think he was a little burnt out. He went on an extended hiatus from house and techno, and proposed Facet to us. We have a good group of people that love making non-club beats, and what better way to get them out there than Facet? We gave the first release away for free on our website (you can still get it at HYPERLINK "http://www.siteholder.net" www.siteholder.net) and it received thousands of downloads. Facet’s second release is currently available on our website as well, but we’re really waiting to finalize getting our music on iTunes to fully commit to the label, as we think this is going to be the best outlet for Facet.
On a related note, Billy has fortunately gotten over his aversion to house and techno ; p
Techno seems to be able to cross-pollinate with other genres easier than house. Do you think that the genre has anything new to say?
I believe techno (and house, for that matter) will always be evolving, changing, and remaining relevant. Other genres are so limited from the moment they are created, that I think it’s hard for them to evolve. That’s not to say the music is bad, but I think few genres have been able to mean so many different things as house and techno. So in answer to your question, I think techno still has plenty to say and will be saying it for years to come.
Who would you pay good money to see spin, past and present?
Ricardo Villalobos at Fabric, end of story.
How long can you see yourself doing this for and when will DJing cease to be relevant?
In respect to your first question, it’s really hard to say. On one hand, I can see myself calling it quits before the end of this year. Billy just moved to Montreal, Paul (Brown) accepted a new job with a very prestigious organization and it’s going to be taking up plenty of his time. Outside of label endeavors, Brian has two daughters, a full time job, and is pursuing his MBA. I’m getting married in October and recently made a career change as well. In other words, we’re all really, really busy. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if two years from now we are celebrating our labels’ Fifth Anniversary at Fogo de Chao (our anniversary celebration restaurant of choice) in Chicago. Until then, I’ve got DJ gigs scheduled and our labels have a full calendar of releases coming up. So who knows? In regards to DJing and its relevancy, I think it’ll always be a part of the global music culture, even though what it means to be a DJ will constantly evolve.
EPs and Singles:
Brian Ffar and Daniel Mnookin – Plinko – Beat Code Records (2004)
Slutbox – No Chasers – Siteholder Records (2006)
Slutbox – Nitrogen 2 Oxygen 1 EP – Siteholder Records (2007)
Daniel Mnookin – Spotted Cow EP – Siteholder UnCut (2007)
The Shocker - She Never Knew - Siteholder UnCut (2007)
Slutbox - Backseat Driver EP - Siteholder Records (2008)
Slutbox - Filthy Fibber EP - Siteholder UnCut (2008)
Daniel Mnookin - Spotted Cow - Siteholder UnCut Ltd. (2008)
The Shocker - She Never Knew - Siteholder UnCut Ltd. (2008)
Slutbox - Filthy Fibber - Siteholder UnCut Ltd. (2008)
Slutbox - Wet Food EP - Siteholder Records (TBA)
Punktooth – Stompenstein (Brian Ffar & Daniel Mnookin Remix) – RV Digital (2006)
Billy Dalessandro – Don’t Sleep (Slutbox Remix) – Siteholder Records (2006)
DimDJ – Dead By Night (Slutbox Remix) – Siteholder UnCut (2007)
Galuszka - Dirty Snitch (Slutbox feat. Slim Pichens Remix) - Siteholder UnCut (2008)
Donk Boys - Hold Me Tight (Slutbox "Let Me Go" Remix) - Siteholder UnCut (2009)
Brian Ffar and Daniel Mnookin – Bucktown Business LP – Proton Music (2006)
Various Artists – Sub Culture pres. Electronic Clubtunes Vol. 3 – ZYX Germany (2007)
Rui da Silva – DJDomain pres. Rui Da Silva Vol. 1 – DJDomain.com (2007)
Various Artists – Minimal House 2 – ZYX Germany (2007)
Here's a link to an old mix by Dan.