After creating more than 50 12-inch vinyl recordings, and over 100 digital releases within the techno genre, I’d imagine some of Adam Jay’s longtime fans were surprised to find his 2016 long player Corpora comprised solely of electro beats. Jay was so engrossed by his experimentation with the genre that he composed a second round of electro beats for a new LP titled Maxia Zeta, available now on the Detroit Underground label.
I caught up with Jay to discuss his roots in the Indianapolis electronic music scene, and his recent foray into producing electro sounds.
Kyle: Did you grow up here in Indy?
Adam: I did, I was born and raised here. I mostly spent my childhood on the south side, with a little bit of time on the east side too. Later I moved downtown, and I've been in Irvington for the last 17 years. I’ve had the fortune to travel, but I have always called Indianapolis home.
Kyle: I think you and I are roughly the same age. I came of age in Indianapolis during the ‘90s, and electronic music wasn't always terribly accessible here during that period of time. So I'm curious how you first encountered electronic music?
Adam: Through the journalism department at my high school. I was the photo editor, and photographer for both the newspaper and yearbook at Southport High School. The students there were a year or two above me, and they were going to raves, and listening to a lot of really interesting music that I had never heard before.
On top of that, my sister was a DJ at Earlham College around the same time. She was exposing me to a lot of industrial music. I could kind of hear the similarities, and it just sounded like nothing else I had ever heard. I became really interested in the fact that a lot of these people who were making this music were doing it alone. I’d been in bands playing bass guitar, and in the symphony orchestra in high school. So being part of an ensemble was everything that I knew about how to make music. So hearing this music and how unique it was, and then coming to learn that all these people were doing it on their own. It was like, “Wow!” That was a real eye opening experience.
Kyle: Do you remember some of the first artists that you gravitated towards as a young electronic music fan?
Adam: For sure, like Dan Morgan, who was an artist on this label in New York called Synewave. He did a record called Flower Child, and he actually didn't do too many records, but it was a sound that was so futuristic to me that it really kind of resonated. I think with electronic music, the reason there's so many different sub-genres is that people have this sound that they're striving for, or they have a sound that they have really connect to, and they look through everything that's out there and try to find more of that. There's just so many derivatives of everything. So hearing him really kind of gave me direction. I kind of just took it from there.
When a recent health issue landed Indianapolis techno producer Adam Jay in the hospital, he used the experience as a source of musical inspiration. Recording the beeps and buzzes of the life-sustaining machines for future use as compositional elements in his music production.
Kyle: What was your favorite genre at that point?
Adam: So the thing with genres in electronic music is that in the underground, it's very different to what’s in the mainstream, in terms of labeling. So techno has always been my genre. But in the mainstream techno is kind of this umbrella term that replaces electronic music, or is used in place of electronic music. But in the underground techno is just this pure stream of consciousness music that originated in Detroit, and parts of Chicago. So techno is my answer, but I understand what that means to different people is going to be a little different.
Kyle: You mentioned the rave scene here in Indianapolis, which I think is worth stopping for a minute and talking about. I remember going to some raves in Indianapolis during the ‘90s. They would be in these massive halls at places like the State Fairgrounds, with hundreds, if not thousands of attendees. Were you attending raves as a teenager?
Adam: I was attending raves, not quite at the age where I was discovering this music, but a couple of years later, you know sixteen, or seventeen-years-old. I did have some friends that moved to Indiana University while I was still in high school, and we would work on benefit shows down in Bloomington together. That's kind of how I became a DJ. It was like, “OK we've got these shows and we need some more DJs. I better figure this out.” It started very early for me, I'll admit. But it's kind of crazy to think back now that I've been DJing for more than 21 years, you know? Because I don't really feel that old. [laughs]
Kyle: Did the DJing come before you got into production? What was the timeline?
Adam: Yeah, I think for most electronic music artists DJing is where you begin. There was definitely a period in the ‘90s and early 2000s where if you wanted to be able to DJ outside of your hometown, you kind of had to take on production. Because that was the only way people in other markets were going to hear you. I'm not going to get booked on the West Coast unless there's a DJ out there that is buying a record that I produced. They're just not going to find out about me otherwise. So for me, it definitely started with DJing, and it actually started in the basement of my mom's house with an old broken record player, and a warped Dead Milkmen record, and a little radio shack mixer. The record player was broken, the power cable was cut so I couldn't plug it in. It was just an old belt drive table, and I would put that record on, hook it up to the mixer, hook my headphones in, and then I would just manually spin the record with my finger on the label, just to kind of get a feel of how the physical motion creates speed and slows, and the relationship with tempo on a physical level.
When I was actually able to get a hold of proper equipment, I had a more fundamental understanding that allowed me to really hit the ground running. I was able to instantly pick up on beat-matching and a lot of these technical things that were crucial before CDJs and Serato,and all the digital ways that DJs perform now. Being able to beat match was crucial. So it definitely started with me there, and I really didn't start producing music until I was like eighteen, or 19 years old. That was a lot of hours, going through lots of different gear, and it was years before I was able to put anything together that was worth hearing.
Kyle: Could you talk a bit about the audience for electronic music in Indiana during the ’90s. What kind of crowds were you playing to, and what kind of interest was there for electronic music at that time?
Adam: This was was before the big law enforcement crack down on the rave scene. So you had a lot of, I'd say eighteen, nineteen, up through thirty-year-olds going to all night parties. One thing that was interesting with the music at these parties, and it's something that's really unique to the Midwest, is that you would have all these different genres of electronic music. You'd have jungle, and house, and techno. What that did was bring together lots of different people. So you had break dancers that were coming for the jungle, and you'd have a lot of club kids, and people in the queer community coming for the house music, and then you have a lot of nerds and sci-fi geeks coming for the techno. So it was very varied in terms of the people that were coming out. It was great to see how everybody got along. Even if you weren't into drum and bass, you're getting exposed to it in a way that you got to see the people who really loved this music experience it. That helps you understand it on a different level than if you just heard it out of context. I think it was a very rich thing that the Midwest scene had going for it. Once I traveled outside of the Midwest, I’d see parties that would have nothing but techno DJs, or nothing but house DJs, especially in Europe. It would be twelve hours of just a bunch of techno DJs that are all very similar. It’s great if you're into that, but that has its own caveats, and I think one of the things that made the scene so rich in Indianapolis, and Louisville, and Cincinnati, and St. Louis was that diversity.
Kyle: You've released music on dozens of labels around the world. After you got into production, and started making music you wanted to share with people, how did you start getting your music out to an audience outside of Indianapolis?
Adam: Well, one thing that Indianapolis will always have going for it is the DIY attitude. You know, kind of having this this identity of being in a small city that wants to be larger means that the people that come up here are always going to be more prone to do it themselves, and start something rather than wait on someone else. It's a phenomenon that is very unique to Indianapolis.
On that thread, starting my own label was something that even before I was producing music, seemed like a good thing to do. I just wanted to put out a record. I wanted to go through the the process of getting the tracks, and getting them to the mastering engineer, and get into the pressing plant, and then talking to distributors. This was all just stuff that you just kind of figured out through asking questions, and finding people who had a label, and kind of picking their brain. There was a lot of trial and error.
The second release I put out was a compilation that was called the T4 Project. This was a benefit release for AIDS research. So I was able to put out one of my own tracks with some other tracks from other artists that I really respected.
After that I was able to continue to hone my craft, and then there's just this moment that every artist has when they're beginning, where you see the climb isn't so steep, and things start to smooth out, and you start to gain more muscle memory with the tools you’re using. You start to figure out a few new tricks, and how you can manipulate them, and capitalize on them. So I was writing better tracks all of a sudden.
One thing that a lot of techno producers would do, especially with their own labels, was they would they would put a fax number on the label. This was during the ‘90s, so they put a fax number on so that if you had any questions, you could send a fax, and submit your questions that way.
So what I would do is look at the labels of records that had the tracks that I liked the most, and I would start getting in contact with those label heads. That's that's kind of how it started.
I remember getting in contact with this guy Johan Bacto in Sweden who had like five or six different techno labels that were really interesting. One of them was called Zync, and I really wanted to be on Zync. So I got his info, and I sent through the post a CD that had my tracks on it. I spent like twenty dollars sending a CD to Sweden, and then he called me back and it was a really expensive phone call. He's like, “Hey, I really like these tracks. I want to put them on this label.” It wasn't Zync though, It was Placktown Sounds. I'm like, “That's cool. I’m happy to have my music on any label that's not my own, let alone a Swedish label that's got a huge back catalogue. But I really want to be on Zync,” Johan was like, “Send me more tracks.” So I had a mandate. I went back to the studio and I hammered on my MPC and I came up with this EP called Intimate Voyeur Machine, and he loved every single track that I made for it, and he put that out on Zync. Then all of a sudden huge DJs were playing tracks off that record. From there it just kind of ballooned.
Kyle: I want to move on your your new release Maxia Zeta, which is a fantastic album. The press release for the record frames the work as electro music, and as I was listening to the record I was thinking of the legendary Juan Atkins, one of the originators of techno music in Detroit. In addition to his role as a techno pioneer, Atkins also made some brilliant electro records that attracted fans from other musical genres like hip-hop. I wondered if you could talk a bit about the relationship between techno and electro music?
Adam: Sure, they're both genres of electronic music, and I think among electric music genres they are two of the most closely knit, mostly because they philosophically look into the future. A buddy of mine who was a local producer and DJ who went by the name Locutus, he gave me a great lesson when I was really young about Futurism. Really true Futurism is a concept that whether it's a painting, or a piece of music, when you listen to it, it sounds like it's from twenty or thirty years in the future. What makes it truly futuristic, is if in twenty or thirty years in the future, it still sounds like it's twenty or thirty years in the future - that’s Futurism. Techno and electro both have that in common. They're striving to paint a picture of the future. Sometimes that can be a utopian vision, sometimes it can be a dystopian vision.
So they have that in common, and the tools and instruments that are used in either genre are very similar. Where they kind of splinter off is electro comes more from a hip-hop b-boy background. So electro has a lot of breakbeats, and 808s. Techno is coming from that Detroit electronic soul origin. There's a lot of overlap philosophically, but sonically, at least to people who are really attuned to underground electronic music, the differences are huge.
Electro is something that I've always been listening to. Around the same time that I discovered techno I was discovering this Detroit label Interdimensional Transmissions, and I was buying electro records. They were good openers and closers for my techno sets. It was something that a lot of friends had told me, “You should try to produce electro sometime.” But I just never felt like I had anything to say on the subject of electro. That changed last year.
Kyle: What changed?
Adam: Well, Maxia Zeta is my second electro album. My first electro album was also on the label Detroit Underground; it was called Corpora. That was last year. What really happened was I got this synthesizer, this Swedish portable synthesizer called the OP-1 by a company called Teenage Engineering. In true futuristic fashion this synthesizer had been a design project for like fifteen years before it was even released. It’s portable, it has a lithium battery, and it's made from CNC machined aluminum. It’s very playful, and it makes sounds that once I got it, it seemed like I was trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make techno with it. All the sounds that I would make with it made me think, “Man, these are great sounds for electro!” So it really inspired me.
So this tool, it had a different workflow. It had this kind of low-fi sound, mixed with a futuristic sound, which fit electro perfectly. Because so much electro was made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So it's this sort of retro-futurism.
I thought, “Well, if I keep trying to turn these sounds into what I'm used to, I'm just I'm just banging my head up against the wall.” So I was like, "Let's just go with the flow and make some electro with this." That's what I did, and it came out really well. I was surprised at the stuff I was making. I made the whole Corpora album in a month, because it was a joy, and a challenge, and after making just like three tracks, I was like, “I’m going to make a full album and see where this goes.” Every couple of days I would knock a track out.
At the same time, I had other synthesizers that I was using to make techno, also Swedish synthesizers by a company called Elektron. So after Corpora came out, I continued to write electro, but not using the OP-1. The OP-1 was sort of like a gateway tool for me that showed me after decades of feeling like I didn't have anything to say on the subject of electro, I actually do have something to say. So I took the tools that I had been making techno with: the drum machines, the samplers, and the synthesizers, and I applied some of these new concepts that I had been thinking about on the subject of Futurism and how to interweave them with the production techniques that I've used, and honed, and uncovered for decades to try to say something new. I think as a techno producer, producing electro puts a new unique kind of tint to the music. Also just having a new genre to work in, we don't realize how much we box ourselves in creatively the longer we work on a craft or a genre. Being able to step outside of my comfort zone, I felt like I had so much freedom. Instead of having this goal of a specific sound that I was working to create, I could explore sounds more.
So that's how Maxia Zeta happened. It's all about exploration. It's about getting outside of your comfort zone, and going further out into the universe. There's a lot of sci-fi references to it, part of that is because of the concept of Futurism, and part of it is because I'm out of ideas when it comes to track names. [laughs] So fortunately there's a Star Trek Wikipedia, and through all of the different shows and episodes, there are so many planets and universes. I went back and watched some of them, and I thought, “You know, this kind of applies to some of these tracks.” So it works.
Kyle: To coincide with the release of Maxia Zeta you uploaded a few videos to Youtube capturing the process by which you create and record your music. Tell us about these videos.
Adam: The videos were recorded in real time on my synthesizers and drum machines. “Scanner” was done on just one drum machine/sampler, so that’s a fun one to watch. Since they're real time compositions, the arrangements and the way that the track evolves, that's all made up on the spot. Those decisions are made instantly. This is a technique that I've always used. I've never used an arranger, or song mode on any equipment, mostly because as a live performer I've always felt like I shouldn't make changes to the sound when it feels right, and maybe it feels right because I can see a crowd reacting in a certain way, or not reacting in a certain way. I've kind of taken that into the studio. I've always worked in this real time fashion. So I put a few of these tracks are on YouTube so you can see the arrangements, and the decisions that are made with the sounds in real time.