AN IMPASSIONED DISCUSSION WITH THE DETROIT ICON
Theo Parrish is a music producer and selector based in Detroit.
Were you looking for Crack Magazine’s Big Thoughts On Theo? Tough. Such thoughts as there are might only reinforce the preconceptions you might have; and the last thing he wants is a(nother) music journalist describing his music as ‘raw’. Read his comments below, listen to his music, and go to his shows – then you’ll see why he’s one of the most widely-respected artists out there.
We thought we’d start by talking about how where you grew up affects the music you make.
For me it’s really elementary. Any person is going to be influenced by where they came from and the trajectory of their experience here on planet Earth. It’s an always-shifting thing. I wouldn’t say mine is very remarkable. Pretty average life for a black guy coming up in the ‘80s; except that, in the States, any African American dude who isn’t hooked on drugs or in jail or is taking care of his kids was like an … ancient relic [laughs]. So that’s the ‘remarkable’ part – everything else was pretty standard.
You attended Kansas City Art Institute. How has that experience affected your music?
Well I look at it all as the same thing. When you do anything creative, you hone in on what those [products’] particular properties are. Other than the materials you use and the mastery of specific materials, you’re essentially talking about very similar things. When you’re dealing with 3D work, you’re dealing with volume, height and density. With sound, you’re dealing with almost the same things except you’re dealing with a time element too.
That might lead us onto how the music press often like to describe your ‘sound’…
The music press … I’m going to be very candid here. Aside from four or five places, I’d say the music press is suffering; it almost doesn’t exist. And I think that largely comes down to there being an assault on the creative gifts, writing being one of them. Now, here’s my bug with that: with the advent of technology, everyone has the ‘right’ to have a blog. That’s effectively cheapened writing in and of itself, across the board. So you’ll have a situation where there’ll be a popular perception about an artist, or subject or something, and as opposed to asking that artist about something directly, there’ll be a referential point offered based on that popular perception, and then all the answers the artist could give will be framed in the question; they’d have to refer to the journalist’s point of view. That typical stance is something that needs to dissipate, and I think that the mere fact that this is appearing in print really says a lot [laughs].
I’m very, very hard on anyone claiming to be a music journalist. One of the cardinal sins of interviews is when they start the statement with “you”. That puts a guy like me in a place where I’m gonna doubt the beginning of each of those statements, because I don’t believe, or rather, I don’t have proof that their point of view is the ‘ultimate’ point of view. So the best thing to do is throw out a subject, and I could go in. But you were saying: “with music journalists, you’re often referred to as …”?
… having a ‘raw sound’.
Right, I’ve heard that over and over again. I could cite a bunch of songs where I’m not raw, a bunch where I am raw. Music moves in such a way you can’t really talk about an artist using one set of adjectives, because that would mean you’ve listened to all of their works; that would mean you’d come to a consensus about what that artist’s work does. But the whole point of an artist is that they are who they are, and that’s separate from their body of work; their body of work is transcendent and speaks to each individual a little bit differently. So I would challenge that tendency. Although “Theo Parrish has a raw sound” may be said, I don’t think that describes me — or anyone else — very accurately. If they have a limited scope then I’m sure they could come up with that, but I’ve been called ‘raw’, I’ve been called ‘complex’, I’ve been called ‘mean’, I’ve been called ‘nice’, y’know … I think this labelling happens because everyone and their mama has access to a million and one adjectives.
You’re booked to play a few dates in the UK, including Eastern Electrics. How do you find the transition of going from smaller venues to bigger ones like EE?
It really doesn’t work in terms of ‘the venue’; there’s about six or seven different elements that depend on whether there’s a ‘shift’. The biggest thing is the sound, the attention to detail. The second biggest is the attitude of the people: whether or not they’re there to ‘show up’; to have a party; to see a show; what percentage [of each] that is; what time of night it is; how much they paid to get in; was it difficult to get in; was there rain; was there something going in the political structure of things; how’s the economy … all these different things play into how a crowd behaves and how I react to the crowd, but all of it’s intuitive. All of it has to do with the moment.
Do you have anywhere in London where you like to buy vinyl while you’re on tour?
Ah man, yes. There’s no favourite, I try to go to as many and as often as possible. I go anywhere from Honest Jons, to If Music, Phonica, Souljazz to Black Market … any place they sell records I’ll pop my head. HMV even — if I can’t find what I’m looking for on vinyl, I’ll go search it out on CD if it’s something that cold …
Did you know HMV’s going into administration? They might shut down.
What?! Oh. Hey man, they should have never fucked with iTunes! [laughs] That’s what happens! I think that’s the biggest thing that’s under assault right now, the fact that people, young people — not all young people, but, like, 12 year olds — have abandoned the idea of collecting anything. Everything’s transient. The only thing that’s valuable is their collection of files. I’m of the generation where if you had something you took care of it. There was responsibility. And responsibility informed your collection, and your collecting of things, and those things would inform your life and give you definition. There’s a whole mentality change going on that I think is more significant than the whole ‘digital vs analogue’ thing; it’s really about the mentality of it.
Vinyl sales have been increasing for the past few years or so. Do you think that people are valuing or appreciating music more these days? Or is it just a trend?
I don’t know what it means for the people at home, but I do know that there seems to be more of an appreciation for it than, let’s say, over the past five years than ten years ago, when people were saying “oh, vinyl’s dead, blah blah blah”, wearing t-shirts and all that bullshit. But people come back to the centre. I don’t know how many DJs out there are mad they let go of their records because they thought they’d show up and not be able to play gigs any more. And then I don’t know how many DJs there are right now who won’t bring their records out because they’re feeling like they’re too fucking precious. Are you selector or a collector? I think it’s more to do with how people are experiencing the music. Are they really sitting down and listening to it, I mean, really listening to it? Are they demanding that when they go hear an artist, or a DJ, or a musician, that they do more than just the average? What makes them unique? What makes them worth your time – not your money – but worth your time to go check out? Are they really bringing more than what you could experience on iTunes?
The music is telling a story. Those pieces of vinyl, they signify effort. And the same with the written word. Art. All arts. If it’s existing in the physical universe, it seems as if you care. That used to not be the case. I remember that if you did something in the physical universe, that wasn’t enough to validate it being ‘art’. It had to meet a qualitative standard. But now, now that technology has cheapened the creative gifts that mankind has been endowed with, we have to give it value just because it exists in the three dimensional world. And that’s a very strange place to be. That kind of dumbs down things. It’s like, “Okay, he put it on record –” “Well, at least he put it on record”. At a certain point, just because you put it on record didn’t mean shit. It had to be good. Now if it’s just on record it at least makes it from a ‘D’ to a ‘C’ [laughs].
About that ‘collector vs selector’ comment: physical copies of your music can fetch extremely high prices on the second hand market, and it seems like some people buy your music only to sell it on.
It’s starting to become like comic book collecting or something. The point is being totally missed. Yeah, OK, I like the idea that something’s rare and ‘unobtainable’, and that’s all fine and good and all that shit. But I’m not making this music for the records to sit on the shelf; they’re meant to be heard and shared with other people, they’re meant to be danced to, to be played so much they get worn out and you gotta buy another copy; that’s why I re-press! [laughs]
I’m hoping people will be saying, “Alright, that’s enough, mine is all beat up, I gotta get another”, or they give it to somebody cause they know they will appreciate it. It needs to be in currency, it need to be in motion. And that’s independent music. We know what commercial music is; we know what three note ringtone music is. Haven’t we done enough damage to our ears with that stuff? I’ve had enough of it. I’m ready to start hearing new sounds. I’m ready to hear an emotional investment in music – and that’s all musics.
That’s the problem with dance music. It’s become so easy to make that it’s become cool to make something that has no soul in it. No soul. And I don’t mean a vocal. I don’t mean ‘soul’ in terms of the genrefied idea of what ‘soul’ is supposed to be; what I mean is someone caring about what they’re putting down. Be it instrumental, ambient, whatever – it should be an honest reflection of the human condition. But there’s a tendency to make everything slick and pristine and take our human part out of it. That’s because dance music has been put in places that it really didn’t start from.
This was rebel music to begin with. It’s gone from basements in the South Side [of Chicago], full of struggle, with gunshots outside, to … Starbucks! [laughs] That means that somewhere along the way the message got missed, it got co-opted. But that’s part of the beauty of it — it’s the most recognisable sound out there. Anyone on the planet can relate to it. The problem is that not everyone knows where it came from – or cares. And being a person that cares, I have to accept that there’s plenty of people that just don’t care; they getting in and they getting on it. And I’m upset. But if someone comes tapping on my shoulder after an endorsement for something that’s half-baked they’re gonna get an honest opinion. They may not like it, because that’s something that’s also scary today: everybody’s scared to critique everybody’s shit. I love it. Tell me my shit is garbage, I’ll go back and do it again and do something better.
It’s a weird time for artists because everybody’s afraid to offend one another. No. We can’t be afraid. We gotta be stronger than that, and realise the art itself is bigger than the egos that make it. Never mind my personality; it’s not that interesting. What I’m hoping is the most interesting thing is what’s being recorded and what’s being played.
Last May you played on London-based radio station NTS. Your name started trending on Twitter, so people who might’ve never heard you saw your name pop up on their computer screens. How do you feel about the way we’re engaging with social media?
I can’t give technology that much credit. It’s based on the music. It’s based on the decision for NTS to exist; the decision for people to find that avenue that they’re presenting relevant. What they do afterwards, how they communicate about it, is different. The point is that all those people checked it out at that moment. Now if, after checking it out, they then told other people to check it out, that’s cool, but that’s still a little bit artificial. The technology that man is gonna be armed with to communicate with other men is always gonna amplify and circulate and make things happen a lot quicker.
I would say that it still comes down to the individuals who know what’s there, and care about it enough to listen. Social media and technology is rarely the problem with man. It’s the laziness of the men, and the women; it’s us, mankind, what we do. How we deal with what we’re given and what we create and how we (supposedly) make our lives easier, and then it ends up biting us in the ass because … well, social media may be great, but I can’t stand it when I’m playing a set and somebody wants to hold up their phone to try to communicate with me – that’s the other side of social media. There’s something about instantaneous communication that means we’re missing out on our lives.
I dare everyone, for a whole week, to turn their phone off. I dare them. I doubt anyone could do that. And that’s where social media makes you addicted to the devices. You’re not addicted to going out and hanging with your friends anymore, you’re addicted to the information you get from hanging out with them. What happens is you miss the whole experience of your life. Pretty soon, humans are just gonna be two big-ass thumbs and a brain.
What about people who use it for professional reasons, music journalists for example?
Even for professional reasons … who’s out of a job now? PR people. It used to be somebody’s job, who knew who to talk to, and why, and you could pay them to do so, and you could get tangible results. Social media just cut out the middle man. It made everyone a PR person and now it’s just a sea of mess. But you know, these are the signs of the times. This is something we have to live through, and we’ll see more benefits from it, we’ll see more crazy shit … who knows what’s gonna happen.
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Words: Robert Bates
Photo: Violette Esmerald