Erika co-run’s a party, No Way Back, that is lauded globally as being one of the most intensely brilliant in existence. Their “313: Return To The Source” three day party at Movement Festival, Detroit will this year bring together three titans of our scene : Tresor, Interdimensional Transmissions and The Bunker NY. Check out their incredible webspace here.
She is also the co-founder of Interdimensional Transmissions, one of the all time essential Detroit record labels and a pillar of consistently high quality electro and techno releases. She is one half of the pioneering production duo Ectomorph alongside Brendan M. Gillen, having replaced the Drexciyan creator Gerald Donald in 1997.
She is also, most notably, Erika Sherman, one of the most incredible DJ’s, producers and live shows in the world in her own right, with breathtaking pedigree, incredible ability and few equals. Ahead of her upcoming gigs at The Pickle Factory London on May 11th and Hope Works Sheffield on May 12th, I got to ask her some questions.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Erika for taking the time out of her hectic touring schedule to speak with me, she has inspired my own and no doubt many other’s musical journey greatly and it is a real honour to host this feature with one of the most authentic, dedicated and exciting artists in electronic music today.
How have you noticed No Way Back change over the years, with this growing popularity, & how do you protect what makes it so special?
The party has grown organically over time, and while more and more people come, the same core audience is still there. The party’s larger size means we have to take greater care in planning and staffing to ensure that it continues to be safe and fun. Every year we review how it went and figure out where we can make it better next time.
I think we are helped tremendously by the fact that there are tons of other parties in Detroit on the same night. We don’t bring in “headliners” (except for how every resident has grown into being one) — we let other parties do that, so people who want that “big name DJ” kind of experience have plenty of other places to go. In that regard the crowd is self-selecting, we don’t really get people coming through that are sad about the lack of VIP zone, or if they do show up they wind up leaving.
We don’t have a specific door policy, we believe in being open and allowing people to join us in this experience. Of course if someone causes a problem they will get ejected, but we hope that if someone from outside this culture bothers to wait in line, pay and enter the party, they will be touched, have a new experience, and maybe even learn something.
“The musical conversations that go on between the DJs during No Way Back are really special. I’m not gonna say that I know how to decode it, because I don’t, but I do know that the DJs are not only speaking to the audience with their music selection, but are also joking or talking with each other through the music.” (Erika to RBMA). When curating the lineups, in order to make it so seamless, do you devise it as a group and speak with each artist or does each rise to the challenge they are given?
We take the approach of “DJing the DJs” — putting people in an order that makes sense, but always taking input and ideas from each artist. Last year Carlos wanted to play in the Outer Space room, so of course we honoured that request. We make sure that everyone knows the running order ahead of time so that they can, indeed, “rise to the challenge”
Having the DJ’s on the same level as the audience and having the two rooms, one ambient and one more dance-focused, have been your suggestions previously as being important in preserving a great party. What other practical tips would you give to people wanting to throw life- affirming party experiences?
Create a unique environment, with attention to lighting, decoration, space use and traffic flow. The little things make all the difference, and it’s amazing how much an environmental transformation can affect the vibe of the party and feeling of the crowd.
Have a sound engineer on hand all night who is excited to keep the floor sounding its best as the crowd comes and goes, and as the music changes.
Keep the artists happy. Things like clean, working DJ equipment, good monitoring and bottled water will help people deliver the best performances.
Cultivate a loving staff who care about the event, the venue and the dancers. Make sure they understand the culture, and are committed to keeping your party safe.
Be patient. If you want to build something that will have a lasting impact, try it once. Learn from it. Do it again, only better. And keep doing it over and over again…
You emphasise the need for it to be a “safe experience”. We recently held a panel discussion with Room 4 resistance, Siren, Saoirse and other local leaders on gender & racial issues aimed at improving the safety of club spaces for all. What have you found to be effective with No Way Back or other parties at ensuring it is a safe space, especially for LGBTQ+, women, marginalised people and ethnic minorities? Or has it been a more natural process?
Yes, these gender and racial issues addressed by safe space policies are part of safety, but only one part. This aspect of safety for us has been a more natural process. We have attracted a fairly diverse and experienced crowd from the beginning, since the party has grown out of the culture it celebrates. We were never in a club. Once the party got to a certain size, we brought on security staff to help manage the crowd. We connected with the Midwest Fresh crew, who throw an amazing party in Columbus, Ohio and really understand this culture, and how to handle situations with grace, calm and strength.
Environmental safety is critical for us. It’s important for fire exits to be easy and accessible. We prefer buildings built with concrete or stone, with doors on multiple sides. We won’t throw a party in an overly dusty or moldy environment, or in an industrial space that is victim of pollution.
Traffic flow is also important, making sure the party is set up to avoid choke points or places where people could be pushed too tightly together. We don’t oversell the events, even if that means leaving people outside in line at peak times. Amber takes great care in how she sets up the decoration to provide comfort zones, places where people can escape the crowd or take a moment to breathe. We like to integrate the outdoors when possible, so that people can go outside and get some fresh air without going through the hassle of exiting and re-entering the party.
I sometimes wonder if their is a gap in knowledge of the foundations and early beginnings of techno with some regular rave goers these days. I know there was (& still is) with my own knowledge, before I consciously learnt all that I could (& am still learning). Do you think it is important people know the history and if so, why?
Yes it’s very important for people to get some of this bigger picture, that is so easy to ignore if you are just consuming an average club night at face value. Some huge part of this culture has transformed from an alternative, a form of resistance, to a giant economic machine, and that machine just wants to grow and grow, unchecked, feeding on its parents and siblings to become larger. To keep the true spirit and meaning of this culture alive, we have to check this machine. Preserving and spreading knowledge, and remaining grounded in history, are key to this.
“No Way Back is an immersive experience for dancing. It’s a safe experience where you can go and dance, lose yourself, have individualism and express yourself in a room full of hundreds of people that are also doing their own thing and having their own unique experience in a group. The true No Way Back parties only happen in Detroit.”. Why do you think this need to “lose yourself” is so important to humankind? Both to you personally and to the millions of dancers around the world?
It’s primal. Each of us is a mammal, a biological creature, underneath all of this thinking and rules and structure. Watch animals, they all have forms of celebration in the form of physical expression. Humans have been dancing from the very beginning, it’s a part of our selves, a behaviour seated deep in our genetic memories.
“Brendan M Gillen founded Interdimensional Transmissions in late 1994 when he heard far too many ancient voices in his head. Positive that dimensions were colliding and that he could literally feel the deepest will of some mystic past, he decided not to ignore these voices but to contemplate their input, and thus Interdimensional Transmissions came to fruition and the idea-based project Ectomorph found a true home.” Your partner in crime, BMG, recounts on your website how he founded Interdimensional Transmissions. He also spoke to Resident Advisor about how he realised “don’t become a professor, you need to create sounds.’ You know, that kinda shit.” . Have you ever experienced a similarly profound moment of realisation when you knew you were going to dedicate your life to this music and culture?
I was in high school, obsessed with the radio, and I knew I wanted to be a radio DJ even though I’d never even been in a radio studio and had no idea what it meant or how to do it. I followed this instinct to the dusty basement of WCBN-FM, the student radio station where I attended university, and from there firmly embedded myself in music.
At the same time, I was programmed by society to be part of the economic machine. America is not supportive of the arts. I always had to work, to pay my bills, and could not allow myself to take music super seriously, it was supposed to be a hobby or something. Even though music has always compelled me on a very deep level, and I participated in many ways, I put everything else first.
It took many years of organic growth and discovery before I finally admitted to myself, that, actually, music is the primary, and everything else is just survival…
“She’s got the hard-hitting floor-working part down pat, but she’s also got a taste for the ethereal and spacey.” (Resident Advisor). Your mix for Resident Advisor was my favourite of last year alongside Saoirse’s mix, thank you for your contribution. Do you find it difficult translating your club energy into a podcast or is this an accurate representation of what you like to do to a floor? How do you prepare for a podcast and how do you prepare for an upcoming club set?
Podcasts and club sets are incredibly different things for me.
For a DJ set, I bring a very wide selection of music and let the mood and vibe of the party drive me from track to track, I don’t plan anything out in advance. Now that I’m playing off CDJs rather than being limited by what’s packed in a vinyl crate, I feel much more free.. I prepare by collecting and organizing music in ways that I can find it, so that if I have an idea or feeling for a certain track or type of track I can quickly get there. Techno, electro, acid, industrial, bass, whatever, it’s all available, just depends on how the night feels how I put it together and how it comes out.
Podcasts are difficult to create, because there’s not an audience or a vibe helping me to construct a mood or manifest a moment. It’s just me, the houseplants and the machines. So I don’t even try to translate club energy into a podcast, I don’t think it’s a thing that’s really possible for me when there’s no club energy present. Instead I collect a bunch of music that I want to hear right now, around a concept or idea, and play through it until something gels and sounds right.
“I’ll confess something I struggle with: Do you give people what they want, or do you do what you want to do?” (Jane Fitz to Thump). These were the words of Jane Fitz, a DJ i admire hugely who has also helped me greatly. Is this something you also find when walking into a club you have never visited before, to play in front of apparent strangers? What experiences do you draw on to rise to the challenge?
I don’t know what people want specifically, and if I stop to try and think about it I get dizzy, because I think that mostly people don’t know what they want, but it’s my job to give it to them regardless. I just go into these situations and play music, see how people react and what the vibe is, and use that feedback to plot a course through the set.
What do you have upcoming that you are particularly excited for? I personally wish I was there for your b2b with Noncompliant at Concrete, that is some expert curation from them!
I am so excited for this! She and I have been friends for years and have never played together in public before. She has great energy and knowledge, and her love of techno basically crushes audiences, so it is going to be incredibly fun!
Ectomorph has been in the studio, and we are about to start manufacturing our first album, due on Interdimensional Transmissions later this year. Very excited for this to see the light of day, and to celebrate we will be bringing an all-new live performance to the Movement festival in May.
And of course I’m really looking forward to our Return to the Source weekend at Tangent Gallery, including Tresor.313, No Way Back and 15 Years of The Bunker!
There seems to be a theme where we in Europe are a bit slow to catch up on some of you truly great American DJs, but when we do, it is quite an open arm embrace. Noncompliant, Patrick Russell, Eris Drew, Mike Servito & yourself plus many others. This must at times be frustrating for the DJ’s concerned, but may perhaps also come with some advantages. What positives can you pull out from this phenomenon of delayed European interest in the Midwest’s most respected DJ’s?
Well that thing that happens to 20 year olds when they become famous too fast and lose track of reality, us old folk aren’t quite as susceptible to that… we’re a bit more grounded!
Which other DJ’s from your homeland do you hope to see getting the attention they rightly deserve overseas in the near future? Any “ravehood friends” as you described them to Resident Advisor, you want to give us a tip-off about?
Justin Aulis Long is a founder of the best party at Smartbar, Hugo Ball. His technical skills are top notch, and he manages to put together sets that fuse the history of dance music with cutting-edge techno while maintaining a super intense, but smooth psychedelic feeling.
Scott Zacharias is one of our No Way Back residents, and maybe the most insane crate-digging kind of guy I know. He is always playing tunes I’ve never heard before and you can really feel his love of music oozing out of his sets, he brings a special kind of magic to the dance floor.
Jordan Zawideh is both a DJ and a producer, with his debut 12″ coming as the next installment of the Acid Series on Interdimensional Transmissions. His sets show the connection between Detroit and Chicago, presenting a unique perspective on the past and present.
Antenes is beginning to tour more and get her due, she is an incredible techno DJ and also is making her own instruments, that she uses for productions (as Antenes and Antemeridian) and live sets.
Do you have a preference for playing live or DJing?
Playing live and DJing are super different experiences. It’s a lot easier, technically speaking, to DJ — I can show up with some thumb drives and headphones, and play music for any number of hours with no real plan, just a feeling and vibe. It’s incredibly fun to do this, and I love it!
My live set is much more complex, with 4 synths, 3 effects units, a drum machine and a hardware sequencer. I organize patterns and sequences ahead of time, so that I can create an improvisational performance on the spot. It’s riskier and it’s more work than a DJ set, so many things can go wrong, and I have to do a setup, sound check and tear down. But it’s more special than a DJ set. Chances are, nobody has heard the majority of what I’m playing, because I’m always writing new material. And nothing is more fun than playing gear on a sound system: it’s more raw and pure than music that’s been recorded, bit reduced and mastered.
What have been some of your playing highlights of the last year or so?
My favorite DJ sets recently have been in smaller places. Garden Underground club in Pereria, Colombia is truly special, it has an incredible spirit, this is a club that is alive for all the right reasons, with great curation and a crowd that stays with you beginning to end. Vurt in Seoul, South Korea is another small place with a crowd that wants to go on a journey, and the club has an absolutely perfect layout, with a wood floor to boot.
Do you ever permit yourself to stay around much after your set and enjoy the other artists?
Permit myself? more like the opposite — do I permit myself to take a nap ever? haha. Yes absolutely, I really enjoy listening to other artists, especially when it’s a good environment, and I’m done playing and can relax!
Any particular standout or inspirational sets from others you can recall?
I just watched Eris Drew close the Buttons party at about://blank a couple weeks ago, and wow, she is so fierce, and so incredibly skilled on a technical level, she is so gentle with records and yet so strong and powerful, mixing the unexpected and changing tempo and styles, while keeping a steady groove.
What labels or artists are you “buying on sight” or trusting with every release at the moment?
None 🙂 I listen to everything first! right now I’m always listening to Dasha Rush, Antenes, Cassegrain (and related projects — Rhyw, Magna Pia, etc), Sonic Groove, Livity Sound, Kanding Ray, Orphx (and Christina Sealey and Rich Oddie’s solo work), Wata Igarashi, Spectrum Spools, Avian, Marco Shuttle & Eerie Records, Neel, Donato Dozzy, Mike Parker, Peter van Hoesen, Mark Ernestus, Atom™…… etc ad infinitum 🙂 there is no shortage of amazing music, we are in an truly special time, there is always something to listen to.