It’s hard to imagine a local music artist who had a better 2017 than DJ Lisa Smith. It was the year she transitioned from an underground Midwest techno legend to a rising star in the global electronic music scene and swapped her longtime moniker DJ Shiva for the new handle Noncompliant.
The change in name has brought about a change in fortune for Smith. Over the last year she’s performed at some of the most prestigious electronic music venues in the world, including Berlin’s legendary Berghain club, and recorded a live mix for Boiler Room at Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival. She was also named one of the Top 20 Breakthrough DJs of 2017 by Mixmag, while DJ Mag featured her in a lengthy and glowing write-up.
At 45, Smith is no overnight success, however. She’s been grinding hard in the Indiana scene since buying her first set of turntables at a garage sale in 1995. Slowly but surely, her devotion to techno attracted notice. So too has her dedication to social justice.
Through the years Smith has been one of the loudest critics of gender inequality in electronic music, and her career reads like a fable where the moral is a lesson about staying true to your convictions. There were times in the past when Smith’s pulverizing beats and strident stance on equality hurt her ability to land gigs. Today these are the very characteristics for which she is celebrated.
2018 is shaping up to be another huge year for Smith, with a European tour, a Los Angeles DJ residency, and multiple vinyl releases already on deck. I recently caught up with Smith to discuss her early years in Evansville, her long history in the Indianapolis electronic music scene, and how Mayor Bart Peterson nearly brought her DJ career to an end.
Kyle Long: What was it like for you growing up in Evansville?
Lisa Smith: Evansville is a much smaller, and less urban Indianapolis. It sucked, but it was cool because we kind of had to make our own way; so I went to punk shows. When I got into electronic music, I had to do it all by myself, because there was nobody else to do it. That’s kind of where my whole D.I.Y. mentality comes from.
Kyle: How did you transition from punk rock to electronic music?
Lisa: Duran Duran and Depeche Mode were formative in my pre-teen and teenage years. So I liked synthesizers. Then I got into Britpop, which led me to punk rock, which led me to Ministry.
We had a really good college radio station in Evansville, WUEV. That’s where I heard Ministry, Bad Religion, Lords of Acid, and Ani Difranco.
I think “Stigmata” was the first Ministry track I heard. It sounded like nothing organic at all. It was very aggressive, and I really dug that. From there I got into Prodigy and Orbital. Stuff like that would trickle down there. But I didn’t know anything about where this music came from. I didn’t know anything about Detroit techno or Chicago house.
Kyle: You moved to Indianapolis in 1996, about a year after buying your first set of turntables. What brought you to Indy? Were you just trying to get out of Evansville?
Lisa: Yeah, I’d played in Indianapolis a few times. There used to be a roaming party called Nocturna that was in a new venue generally every couple of weeks. I’d come up to Indianapolis a few times for raves and stuff.
I had a band in Evansville called Violets For Iris. I played bass and we were actually pretty good. I was into punk rock, but the stuff we played was more like Veruca Salt, melodic pop-punk. Basically when I realized the people in my band weren’t interested in touring or ever leaving Evansville, I was like, “Ok, bye!” [laughs] Because I was not staying there.
So, I moved to Indianapolis with everything I could fit in my car, and 50 bucks.
Kyle: Describe the state of the electronic music scene in Indianapolis when you arrived.
Lisa: It was fantastic. When I first moved here, for about a year I was playing Wednesday through Sunday every week. There was so much going on. It was massive, and if there wasn’t something happening in Indy, there would be Louisville, or Cincinnati, or Dayton, or St. Louis.
At the place I lived, we called it the Rave Cave, if there wasn’t a party somewhere that night, there’d be people on the turntables at the house. UFO! from San Francisco, who was very influential in the American drum and bass scene, he lived in Indy for awhile at that house. There was a rising culture here in Indy and we were also bringing in people from all over the place.
Kyle: Unfortunately, this golden period for electronic music in Indianapolis would be short lived. In the early-2000s there was an organized effort from the city to dismantle the scene.
Lisa: It was a party called Disco Mojo, and I think it was June 6, 2001. I was actually out of town when the bust happened, but these promoters had all their permits and the cops came in and busted it anyway.
A lot of what we were doing at that time was un-permitted. There were definitely times when stuff was not legal. Some of that was by necessity, because we didn’t have an option to do it in a legitimate space. Some of it was actually just the way of the culture. But this one was actually a legitimate space that had been legitimately rented with all the permits.
There was so much media hype at the time about the “drug dens of rave culture” and all that shit. So they busted the party.
Mayor Peterson gave a press conference the next day, and it was that whole Democratic mayor thing where they’re accused of being soft on crime, so they do dumb shit and fuck with kids having parties. We were called rave kids, but most of us were old enough that we were doing legitimate stuff. He talked about dens of inequity hiding in the dark, and blah, blah, blah.
The IPD was saying stuff like, ‘These things are so secretive that nobody even knows where they are until they call the hotline.’ But at the time most promoters in the city had been hiring off-duty cops to work security. So we were like, ‘Well, your cops know where we are. How is that illegitimate?’
At that point a decree was handed down that said no off-duty officers could work our events. We were basically denied the ability to be legitimate, which I found particularly insulting and probably unconstitutional.
It had a very chilling effect. This was around the time Congress passed the RAVE Act [note: An acronym for Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, the RAVE Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in April of 2003]. The DEA was giving funds to local police departments basically to bust parties. They had a financial incentive from the federal government to do this shit.
Kyle: You said the crackdown had a “chilling effect” on the scene. What did it do to you personally and your ability to work?
Lisa: It was over. It sucked.
I wasn’t a super high-level DJ, but I’d been doing OK. I could work a part-time job and play DJ gigs on the weekend. I was still poor, but I could live, and I was happy doing music, and I got to travel a little bit. Even if it was just through the Midwest, it was a fun circuit to play. But everything just dried up. It was bad. They picked us apart city by city until there was nothing.
After that, for years the way we really kept Indy going was house parties. It was a ruinous time for a lot of people. Some people just stopped DJing altogether because there was just no place to play.
Kyle: What was your response as an artist? Did you quit at any point?
Lisa: I never quit. I would play anywhere I could. At that point I figured this was just a very expensive hobby and nothing more would come out of it.
While the years following the rave busts in Indianapolis were lean ones for Smith, she made great use of the downtime. Among other things, Smith began refining her production skills. Smith’s first vinyl release Finality came in 2005 on Internal Error Records. Subsequent vinyl releases followed, helping to spread Smith’s work beyond the Midwest scene.
Despite her growing reputation as a topnotch techno producer and DJ, Smith found it difficult to score gigs in her hometown. That frustration led Smith to start the bi-weekly internet mix show SUBterror Radio in 2012.
“I started that show because quite frankly I couldn’t get a gig to save my life in Indianapolis,” Smith says. The show had a strong four-year run online, and Smith credits the hundred-plus mixes she created for SUBterror for helping to fine-tune her DJ skills to their current world class precision. Smith ended SUBterror Radio in 2016 as she renewed her focus on production. That shift led to her transition from DJ Shiva to Noncompliant. I’ll let Smith pick the story up from there.
Kyle: After performing as DJ Shiva for over 20 years, you recently changed your artistic handle to Noncompliant. Was this simply a name change, or were you trying to reconstruct your identity as an artist in some broader way?
Lisa: It was a confluence of events. A few years ago my buddy Adam Jay crowdfunded a drum machine for my birthday. He’s like my little brother basically, and a huge musical influence. He was getting into hardware, synths and drum machines. So he crowdfunded a drum machine for me and that got me hooked on using hardware for production, as opposed to just using a computer.
I started really having fun making music again. I work on computers during my day job, so it was nice to not have to stare at a computer to make music.
The music I started making changed a little. Not drastically, but if you have a different methodology, it changes your approach and it can change your sound. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a pseudonym project?” A lot of producers have multiple names they produce under. Sometimes the pseudonyms are anonymous, and that was my original intent.
From there I started building on the idea of doing a bit more of an explicitly feminist project. Which was actually a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to a lot of people. The conversation is happening a lot more now about how marginalized women are in pretty much any industry. But you have women producers who have been making music for years. There are Queer women, Black women, who have been churning out great music for years but are just now starting to get recognition, and that’s a fucking shame. So this was a fuck you to everybody who just ignored women.
There are several other reasons why I decided to change the name. One of them being that Noncompliant sounds fucking techno! [laughs] I also always had to contend with there being other people who’ve used the name DJ Shiva. Sometimes that gets a little confusing. So I was like, “Fuck it, I’m making new sounds. Let’s try a new name.”
Then I went to Berlin. It was a really cool gig for women, Queer people, and people of color called Room 4 Resistance. Out of that I ended up with a booking agent, and the first gig she got me was a very big one. So I was like, “If I’m going to change my name, this would be the time to do it.”
It’s actually been kind of refreshing. Instead of torpedoing 20 years of work I’d done as DJ Shiva, which is what I thought would happen, it ended up being a refreshing restart.
Kyle: When I heard you’d started working under the name Noncompliant, I thought that was the perfect word to describe you. When I think of you, I think of a person who is unwaveringly opposed to compromising your integrity as an artist and human being.
Lisa: Yeah, I like it and that’s the best compliment I could ever get. [laughs]
It comes from the Bitch Planet comic. The whole premise of the comic revolves around The Handmaid’s Tale level patriarchal culture, and any women who don’t conform to the norms, whether they’re outspoken, Queer, fat, or don’t want to get married and have kids, whatever it is, they deem you noncompliant, slap a big “nc” on your jumpsuit and stick you on a prison planet. It’s a killer comic and it became this thing where women were identifying with this so much that they were getting “nc” tattoos.
The name went along with what I was trying to do conceptually with my music. Not every song title I’ve used is explicitly feminist, but they’re all woman-centric, and very intentionally so. I also felt that was something missing from techno. There are women doing music, but I wanted to be really direct about addressing this idea.
Kyle: Tell us about the moment you’re having right now with your music.
Lisa: I feel like all the work is paying off. That’s really the coolest part about it. I would be DJing and making music no matter what, because that’s what I do. It’s not that I don’t know how to do anything else, because I do. But I don’t want to do anything else. Activism and music, that’s pretty much my jam right there.
For years I was doing mixes and making music and it was just not getting heard. So to know people are hearing what I do, and enjoying it is very validating. It inspires me to do more, and to keep doing it better.
Kyle: You played some important gigs in 2017 and your work was featured on huge platforms like Boiler Room. Are there any particular highlights that stick out in your mind?
Lisa: Boiler Room was one of them. You can’t tell from the video, but holy crap that place was hot! It was super hot, and super sweaty. But you know what? That’s a good fucking party.
Playing Berghain was definitely a highlight. It’s a long-running club in Berlin that can be a little exclusive, but it’s actually pretty amazing. There are several different floors that feature different styles of music. They start on Friday and go until Monday morning. Berghain is a techno institution. It’s sort of the Holy Grail if you’re a techno DJ.
That whole tour was cool. I got to go to places I’d never dreamed of going in my life. I had never been out of the country before I played in Berlin. Since then, I’ve been to Helsinki, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.
Kyle: You mentioned that both music and activism are important to you. I frequently ask musicians about the relationship between art and social justice, and I think that’s a particularly interesting question for you because the music you make is largely instrumental. How do these ideas come together in your work?
Lisa: Sometimes it’s the samples you use. Sometimes it’s the whole concept of the piece. I think it’s really critical to understand that I’m aware of the fact that those things don’t necessarily come across on a dance-floor, and that’s ok.
Music gets somewhat re-contextualized when it’s played over a giant system in a dark warehouse and it’s pounding your fucking body. It’s a very different context. I don’t necessarily believe the music I make has to remain static. There is no static definition of what it means, or has to mean. Which is kind of what I like about instrumental music. When you take the words out it gives you more freedom to feel whatever you want to feel.
But I like playing with song titles, I think it’s really fun. I did an EP called She / Her, which is not only stating my pronouns, but every song is named after a Queer fictional character that I like on TV. Because I love Queer ladies on my TV.
I did a song titled “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum”, which is a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale that is essentially Latin slang for “never let the bastards grind you down”. There’s a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where Offred finds this scratched into a closet, and it’s the thing that keeps her going throughout all she has to deal with. It’s a mantra for never giving up.
So sometimes the concepts are a little weightier, and sometime they’re not. I’m just having a lot of fun making them very specifically female.
Kyle: What does it mean to you to be an artist and activist in America during the era of Donald Trump?
Lisa: You have to have the on the ground stuff. Whether it’s giving money to organizations, or fundraising for organizations, or canvassing, or registering voters, or protests, or whatever it is. All that is a grind, but one thing I’ve always noticed about activists is that they tend to party as hard as they work. So you have to have that release too. You have to find some joy in the midst of this, especially now.
I don’t think people realize what a dark time we’re in. People can argue with me all they want on this, and they’re wrong. We’re watching fascism slowly creep, and not really that slowly. But as much as it’s important to resist, it’s really important to live. That’s actually a title from one of my songs, “More Than Surviving.” There has to be more to life than surviving. You fight, but you’ve also got to dance a little bit.
Kyle: I know you’ve been grinding hard for over 20 years, and as you said that work is finally starting to pay off for you. Any words of wisdom you’d share with artists that are stuck in that grinding phase?
Lisa: It all goes back to never let the bastards grind you down, doesn’t it? Find what you love and do it. It’s not always going to pay off. I did this for a long time thinking this is always going to be a really expensive hobby. That’s not to say that I ever stopped hoping, or wanting it to be more than that.
I’ll be really honest, I’ve always wanted to be able to travel the world and play music. That was always something I’d hoped was the endgame. Whether I actually believed it would happen is a totally different thing. Since moving to Indy, I was very, very, very poor for a good long time. To this day most of my computers and gear have been bought used. So it was a grind.
But I’m a book nerd too, and I kept reminding myself that Henry Miller didn’t publish his first novel until he was in his forties. But I have to say, I did not expect that things would start picking up for me at age 45. If all this had never happened, I’d be 70-years-old and still doing it. I’d probably still have a day job and all that shit, but if it’s what you’re meant to do, you do it.
Kyle: Any final thoughts you want to share about your contribution to the electronic music scene in Indianapolis?
Lisa: I think I’ve done my best. I loved the music and I wanted to be a part of what was going on here. I tried to contribute in a positive way. We may never have another heyday here like it was before the bust, but we did it. We had an awesome thing going for a really long time and we’ve still got people here who make incredible music, and we still have great DJs. It’s a shame that for whatever reason, none of them get any recognition here.
Even though this city and state frustrate the hell out of me, it’s still kind of rad to be able to go play somewhere like Berlin or Paris and say, “I’m from Indianapolis — and there are people here who make techno, and they’ve been doing it for a very long time. Not everything is Chicago, New York, or Detroit.”
I take pride that I’m from Indiana and I was still able to find this music, and find other people who also love it here.