Updated: May 16, 2019
From Hardcore to Electro, passing through Techno and Experimental music, legendary veteran producer John Selway has been in all the fights! As a true pioneer and prolific artist, author of a solid discography with hundreds of releases either on his own or with collaborations, he appeared on the most prestigious imprints including Ultra Records, CSM, Don't Panic Records, Tronic or Industrial Strenght just to name but a few.
With the recent re-launch of Serotonin, the label he runs along with his long-time partner Jason "BPMF" Szostek, we took some time to sit down with John to recall his long and very busy musical career that started 25 years ago.
Let's go deep into the electronic vision of an authentic musician!
Chris Nexus 6: First of all, and this is a regular question on Electric Kingdom, could you please tell us more about you? As far as you remember, how did you get into Electronic Music? Before electronic, what were your main musical influences as a kid? Who are your masters in Electro music for instance?
John Selway: I come from a musical family. Both my parents are musicians and music teachers, so there was always music around from the time of my birth. For many years I studied violin, starting at the age of 4, and also piano when I was a bit older. As a young child I mostly heard classical or traditional music, but of course I also heard Pop and Rock, etc, and was always intrigued by electronic sounds. In the 70’s I had a toy synthesizer called a Mego Muson, which had a very simple sequencer and modular-like plugs to rearrange to create different melodies. The sounds of video games, and sounds from Sci-Fi movies or cartoons on TV were always exciting.
I spent a lot of time listening to the radio and searching through all the stations to discover new music, although when I was young I didn’t really pay attention to the artists. There were two great stations in the Washington DC area, near where I grew up in Northern Virginia - WHFS which was alternative, and WPGC which was Urban/Soul/R&B, etc., and had very eclectic dance mixes at night on the weekends. Those mix shows were where I heard Electro-Funk, early Hip Hop and different kinds of post-Disco club music for the first time.
In my pre-teen years I became interested in composing my own music, and by High School was much more aware of different artists, bands, producers and record labels. I learned about multi-track recording and got my first 4-track recorder, microphones, a bass guitar and effects pedals, a TR-626 drum machine and my first synth, a Juno 106.
In Washington DC there was a very strong Alternative/Punk music scene and I went to see many shows and played in bands myself. I read magazines and books and tried to learn as much as I could about music. I got into Punk and Hardcore, New Wave, Goth and Industrial, Ska/Reggae and Dub, Funk, Soul, Hip Hop and a local style of music in Washington DC called Gogo. Actually, I love all kinds of music when it comes down to it. Regardless of style, I can appreciate anything that I perceive as good, in the right context.
But when it comes to Electro, of course I cannot ignore the obvious - Kraftwerk. At this point it’s such a cliche to be an electronic music artist and reference them. But I remember hearing “Computer World” as background music on a TV news story about personal computers when I was about 8 years old. A couple of years later at my friend’s house, I found that album and I was hooked. And of course there were so many other electronic-based artists and bands, of those I can count New Order as a great influence. I also got into Cabaret Voltaire, from their earlier more Punk sounds to later Synth Pop and dance music. But just as importantly, I think Electro needs to have Funk, and I’ve always loved the heavy Funk synth bass sounds of Funkadelic, Zapp and other similar groups. And also a great influence on my productions in the beginning was been the earlier work of Adrian Sherwood, especially how he combined so many different styles, fusing dub mixing, industrial drums and noise or punk guitars with reggae and other genres.
So it seems like your ears have been educated by numerous musical styles. According to you, what does Electro (and Techno) have that other styles of music don’t own?
I don’t have an easy answer for that. Something about the sounds and the feeling. The futuristic aesthetic. Or the juxtaposition of machine noise with organic, human expression. Something I’ve discussed with my students is how Techno and Electro can be very simple in terms of music theory but at the same time incredibly complex in the textures of the sounds, and how that can be a very potent formula for expressing energy and emotion.
How did you hook up with Raves parties? How was the Rave era back in the days in US when it all started? How were you involved and stocked to it? Were you considering yourself as a pioneer at that time? Not so many people making beats during that period.
My first exposure to Rave culture came from two directions. On the one side, the alternative and indie rock scene in DC was heavily UK influenced and we heard about the Manchester scene and it’s connection to early Rave culture, and also London of course. And along with that we also heard about the explosion of House and Acid House in the UK and Europe. Another friend of mine had traveled in Europe in 1987 and came back with tapes he recorded from radio DJ mix shows, that would’ve been the first time I was aware of Acid House. I started searching for House, Acid House and what I eventually learned was Techno.
I found that a lot of my favorite tracks were actually from Detroit and Chicago and New York. It was a revelation to realize that so much of the music was coming from the USA and that it was something accessible that I could plug into and be a part of. I made it a mission to learn about how to make my own tracks, to discover the instruments and techniques. DJ Mag used to be called Jocks, and there was an article about Chicago House producers such as DJ Pierre, and that was where I learned about the Roland TB-303. I remembered I’d seen a 303 at the music shop down the road for $200. I ran there and put down a deposit on it, and saved up until I could pay the balance.
At the same time I was going to Punk and indie band shows, I also started going to dance clubs. Mostly it was more commercial or Pop dance stuff, but some nights were more alternative and you would hear a mix of styles from New Wave, Goth, Industrial and EBM, some Electro etc. But also there were some underground warehouse parties and early Raves, and the music got heavier. In addition to Chicago and Detroit, I got into the early Warp/Sheffield etc bleep Techno and Breaks, and discovered more Techno and Rave music from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, darker and heavier stuff. In addition to learning how to compose and record my own music, I also started to learn how to DJ. While in High School, I started getting my first DJ gigs and by the time I was in my freshman year of university, I already had made my first releases and started my career as a producer and DJ.
So with that in mind, how did you learn to make your own tracks specifically? I mean, there was no internet, no tutorials at all. Thinking about it now, it’s crazy...
Listening to music and trying to emulate what I heard. Reading books and magazines, meeting other musicians, collaborating, going to music gear shops and trying all the instruments. Absorbing as much information as I could get access to. Sure there was no easy access to a universe of information like on the internet, but there were still plenty of places to look into and learn from.
How did your current city, New York, and it's surroundings influence your musical choices?
Being in New York in the early 90’s is what fully opened the doors for me. The growing Rave scene, Techno music in the nightclubs, meeting people from all over the world and making connections with other producer and DJs, record labels, etc. It really enabled so many possibilities. Many of those opportunities came about while I was working at a record shop called Satellite, which was a really important hub for dance music in NYC throughout that time. I got to hear music from all over the world working there, and found the most inspiration from underground Techno and Electro labels of the time. I did some of the buying for the shop and visited the local distributors and also would get on the phone with people like Dan Bell when he was doing vinyl distribution for labels in Detroit.
If the music we release on Serotonin makes us happy, if it has the feeling that fits Serotonin, then that’s what we’ll go with...
Working at the Satellite shop, I’m sure you put aside numerous vinyl jewels :)
Certainly, I do have some rarities from my record shop days. When I first went to Watts Distribution to pick up records for the shop, it was unreal what was hiding on their shelves in the mid-90’s. But I’m sure as many cool records that I dug out back then, there were so many more that I missed.
How was life, and what did it look like before Serotonin? Back in 1995, what motivated you to launch a label and release music?
As I mentioned, the dance music we were into was getting heavier, ravier, crazier. Big pounding kick drums, etc. But I was always into making other styles. Serotonin was a way to have an outlet for more eclectic or experimental or syncopated music. We were just as into Electro and early IDM and Ambient, etc, as we were into the heavier Rave stuff, and this was a place for us to release whatever it was that we liked, with little restriction - only to avoid 4/4 kicks, and to always have an element of Funk in the rhythm somehow.
How would you describe the artistic line of Serotonin, its concept and philosophy? Were you and are you still on a mission?
I think our concept and philosophy is generally the same as the beginning...although I think nowadays I’m a bit more careful about what I would release personally. There’s so much music and so many labels, and sometimes I wonder where we fit. But overall, if the music we release on Serotonin makes us happy, if it has the feeling that fits Serotonin, then that’s what we’ll go with.
Which labels and artists would you mention as pioneers in Serotonin's existence? What do they represent for you? Why?
I find it difficult to choose, as there are so many possibilities. I think it would have to be things that Jason and I were both equally inspired by. Just a few random examples: Yellow Magic Orchestra and Ryuichi Sakamoto, the productions of Trevor Horn (the groups Art Of Noise or Propaganda in particular). The Industrial Funk of Tackhead, as produced by Adrian Sherwood. Jason had a connection to the bassist from that band, Doug Wimbish, and we’re both fans of his work. Music like that, combined with everything your readers already know about the history of Electro, Techno, House, etc. Detroit Funk, Chicago Jack, Experimental noise, Ambient...all of the above!
So in fact, as long as you like it, whatever it is, Detroit Funk, Chicago Jack, Experimental Noise or Ambient, you would sign it to Serotonin?
I think it’s safe to say almost anything that’s a little out there or unusual is fair game - except if there’s a heavy 4/4 kick.
If you had to choose one EP or one LP from the last 30 years that is the most representative of the Serotonin sound, which one would it be and why?
I think Synapse “Get The Freaks And Get Some” would be a good example. But really anything by Synapse is a strong example of the label vibe, as it’s what Jason and I produce together, and has our balance of influences.
Let’s talk about the artists you signed on Serotonin. How did you meet them? Did they come to you or did you contact them first? How do you choose them?
A variety of ways, really. For example, I met Bill Youngman through a mutual friend at the university. Bill played some of his tracks and we decided to release a record. He had a unique sound, he was a great guy and we went with it. For our Loops compilations, we reached out to anyone we could get in contact with, or ran into at parties etc. I made some connections to artists we released from my position working at Satellite. Sometimes we would get demos.
Nowadays of course we can also make connections through social media. Jason has done much of the reaching out lately. He’s in touch with new artists and looking for new material, and anyone can send us a message on Facebook or wherever if they have a demo. But in an ideal world I’d prefer to always have direct personal contact with artists that we release on Serotonin.
After a long break, you decided to re-launch the label in 2017. What pushed you to do that, furthermore on wax? What happened to Serotonin between 2008 and 2017?
After we released Fischerspooner in 2000, we kind of let go. We were focused on other things, I was doing a lot production with Christian Smith for example. Jason was less involved with music for a while. Around the mid 2000s we had the idea to give control of the label to Bill Youngman, who was living in Berlin and hustling to make things happen. But life got in the way and for whatever reasons, it didn’t work out. By 2008 I stepped back in, around the same time I was getting my other label CSM off the ground again. At that point we had our distribution with Intergroove, which went bankrupt shortly after we released SER018 and we let it drop again until recently.
I guess restarting again happened because we felt it was the right time to do it. Jason is very much back into producing and is a driving force. He has a lot of energy and motivation to do it, whereas I tend to think about things a lot and hold back a bit. We have gotten together to go through old unreleased tracks, complete unfinished projects and of course make new ones. We have a live set that we’re developing, and have done a couple of shows locally. Promoting ourselves as Synapse goes hand in hand with promoting Serotonin Records.
Electro is having a cultural moment again and it’s fun to be a part of that in our own unique way. I wouldn’t say we are a purely Electro label, but I think we fit along with that world. Connecting to listeners who are interested in our old releases, presenting our new sounds and releasing other artists that understand the Serotonin vibe are all motivators.
How long have you and Jason known each other? Is loyalty the key to success in the music industry?
I met Jason at the same time I started working at Satellite in the 90’s. The owners of the record shop were also involved in running a magazine called Net, where Jason was working as well. We had a studio set up in the magazine office (later moved to the Satellite basement) and that was where some of our first tracks for Serotonin were produced.
Is loyalty the key to success? Not the only one, but certainly maintaining good creative and working relationships in any business can’t hurt. I can say I prefer to work with people I get along with well and have a good connection to.
As an artist, you are involved in numerous musical projects including Disintegrator, Rancho Relaxo Allstars or Koenig Cylinders just to name a few. You released many EP's on your own on Serotonin, many of them classics, with the most recent being the "Cosmic Freak Gas Bubble EP" as Synapse, along with your long-time partner in crime Jason Szostek.
How would you describe your sound as Synapse? What inspires you? How is your music different to the one you sign under your real name John Selway?
Synapse is what happens when Jason and I make music together. It’s Electro, it’s Funk, it’s often melodic, it’s sometimes noisy. Occasionally very chill or hypnotic. It can be a bit nerdy or kind of out there. It’s music that we both enjoy. That’s how it is with collaborations, it’s different than each individual would do alone and things can develop easily when there is a good working relationship. Lately for my solo productions I tend towards introspection, with some moodiness or coldness in feeling. Synapse is more fun and light hearted.
Your next EP is called “Light Language” and is an absolute stormer! Could you introduce it a bit?
I’m very glad you like it, thanks. I’m inspired lately by a lot of tracks I’m hearing that explore boundaries of genres with syncopated rhythms, whether it’s Electro, Breaks, Bass or whatever. This release contains four tracks that span several years of ideas, where I was also exploring those boundaries. I’m not claiming it’s groundbreaking, only that it’s music I enjoy and it’s very Serotonin. It’s a balance or contrast to the “business Techno” I get up to with Christian Smith. It’s not pure Electro, or pure Breaks, but can fit in either direction. And I hope that it is equally effective for a DJ, as it is just to listen and enjoy. My favorite track on the release is “We Are Ready”. I didn’t intend that to be a dancefloor track originally, but I tested it out in a DJ set once to hear the mix, and it was super powerful and got a surprisingly good reaction. Crossing my fingers that others will pick up on what I’m feeling.
What’s your musical process? I mean, how do you work when it comes to writing a track? Do you start form a beat, perhaps a melody? Maybe an idea or a theme?
In the last few years, a lot of times what inspires the start of a track is the synthesis and sound design. This has come about as I’ve been teaching music production classes and private lessons. Sometimes a lesson in synthesis will turn into a musical idea that I take to the studio and complete. When I’m teaching, I’m sometimes less concerned about style and outcome and really just making what sounds good in the moment, and the musical idea can come through.
Wow, did you ever think about launching an online music teaching platform? Would love to get lessons from a teacher like you :)
It has crossed my mind to create my own education platform, but so far I’ve found it best to work with others who are dedicated to the business side of running a school, so I can concentrate on the creative side. Currently I’m teaching courses and occasional one-off workshops for 343 Labs here in NYC. Separately, I also have private students who meet with me online. They send me work and then we’ll meet online using Google Hangouts, where I can share my screen and demonstrate, etc.
In a digital era, how hard it is to manage a mainly vinyl imprint? Which advice would you give to someone who wants to launch a vinyl label? Is running a label a labor of love? What are the risks when starting a 100% vinyl label?
We do vinyl because we like vinyl, and it’s part of the identity of the label from the beginning. Also, we like being able to cut locked grooves for endless loops. Very little on Serotonin is exclusively digital. It’s not an easy thing, it’s expensive and difficult to break even on the cost, let alone make a profit. I think anyone considering doing vinyl releases likely already has a love for the format, and knows that it’s a real commitment. Anyone can throw a digital release out there, practically for free. With physical media, you should be certain about the music and that you are willing to make that investment.
Since we are on the topic, what are your thoughts on the so-called “Digital Revolution”? Does it feel as if it has opened doors for many, or perhaps closed on some which should have always been left open?
I’m glad that digital music distribution is so accessible, although there are downsides of such a flood of music being available, and so cheaply. It’s so difficult to make a living as a musician, especially if performing is not an option. Streaming music pays such an unfair share to the song writer/composer and copyright owners, especially the small and independent. We are fighting for scraps. But at the same time we can potentially reach everyone, everywhere. The hardest game is getting people to pay attention and listen. Right now the ones who win at that game are those who master social media, regardless of the quality of their creative output. But quality is subjective, and I admire those social skills rather than resent them. I could probably stand to up my social media game a little, but it doesn’t come to me naturally.
What about MP3? How did you adapt to digital? Can we still oppose digital to vinyl?
As a DJ I switched to digital fairly early, technical problems and all. I was trying to use CD's, but it never really fit for me, and I jumped on using vinyl timecode to control digital audio. My first gig at Berghain, when I wanted to use Final Scratch/Traktor, they were skeptical and made me come in early to do a sound check, to make sure my setup would have no problems. Thankfully all the bugs are worked out, and now of course we have the industry standard Pioneer decks, Rekordbox, etc. I still play vinyl when appropriate, and I appreciate the sound and aesthetic, but the practicality of digital formats wins out in the end. What really matters is the music and the performance, not the tools.
As a label, I don’t see a need to be exclusively vinyl. Perhaps a few more vinyl purists would buy our records if we were to eschew digital. But ultimately I prefer that more people have access to our music then less.
The internet has dramatically changed the way not just artists interact with their fans, but also how label owners themselves interact with their supporters and regular customers. What do you think of the Internet influence on the music market, from music platforms such as Mixcloud and Soundcloud, to Social Media like Facebook? Please explain us the way you use them.
It’s undeniably important and mostly unavoidable. I mentioned earlier that my social media game is not great, but I think maintaining at least a bare minimum of visibility is beneficial. We post previews on Soundcloud, we do premieres with blogs. I know there are labels and artists that don’t play that game, they maintain some kind of mystery or underground aesthetic that works for them. We’ve never been like that, we always want to reach out and communicate. It’s honest, our hearts are on our sleeves, so that’s how we present on social media.
Lots of new artists are emerging. How do you judge the current Electro/Techno scene? How do you judge the state of Electronic Music in general today? How do you see its evolution, does our music progress, or regress?
I’ve often wondered if the flood of new music out there, of all genres, means that there is more “bad” music relative to the “good”, but I tend towards the positive. More than ever, people have better access to the tools and information that allows ever greater potential for exciting new music. Yes there’s a lot of generic or mediocre stuff out there, Electro or otherwise, but perhaps those artists and producers and labels will learn and progress from there.
Musicians learn by copying what they’ve heard before, even the most unique sounds are influenced by something else at some point. Regardless, the overall trend is progress. Occasionally we dip into nostalgia. Much new Electro still sounds like 20-30 years ago with modern production. That may always be the case, because we all love it. Along side of that, new styles and ways of expressing musical ideas will develop. Seeing the evolution takes a wide or long view.
What are the forthcoming musical projects on Serotonin if they are not top secret? And on a personal side, what are your forthcoming musical projects?
I’m currently working on getting remixes done for some early Serotonin tracks, discussing with some notable Electro names, both new and some veterans. Jason and I have a boatload of tracks for Synapse that we are in progress with. We are in touch with artists we released in the past about possibly coming back with new material. Aside from that, we need to stay on the ball and keep searching for new artists and the future sound of Serotonin.
A word to all the Electro community and your fans?
Thanks for your support, and remember that Serotonin is what we live for!
Thank you very much for your time, John!