Artist of the Month: Seth Troxler is Starting Over,
and Building His Legacy
Artist of the Month: Seth Troxler is Starting Over,
February 8, 2021
and Building His Legacy
Seth Troxler made some stunning life changes in 2020. Chandler Shortlidge hears how last year’s upheaval pushed Troxler to focus on his legacy, his life’s meaning, and protecting the past and future of house music.
When we finally connect, Seth Troxler comes beaming over Zoom from a hotel room bed in Bali. He’s wearing an orange and black animal print camp collar shirt and sitting up against two big white pillows. And occasionally he twists and teases his hair as his animated hands guide his rapid conversation along, as it is when he apologizes for missing our first call. “That was my fault. I thought it was at six, and then…,” he trails off.
It’s fine, of course. Seth’s reputation as one of dance music’s most genuine characters isn’t without merit. He’s immediately warm and friendly, and readily opines on any topic discussed; though today, existentialism and introspection hold court over most all else.
Given what the world has been through in the last year, it’s unsurprising. Many people found themselves reprioritizing certain aspects of their lives, and that impulse didn’t pass Seth by. He suddenly found himself nearly broke — the fault of “old management stuff,” which left him searching for answers, but also for opportunity. “I’m like, what the fuck happened? But it also hit this point where it’s like, oh, it’s like a real start over, you know?”
Start over he did. Like a feather-light atom bomb, Seth oh-so-casually drops a doozy: since July, he met a woman, got engaged, and is expecting a child. “My whole life changed,” he says, remaining so nonchalant that I can’t help but do a double-take. Just since July?
“Fucking nuts!” he laughs, clearly reveling in my disbelief. “But, like, I’m sober. I’m like a whole new person and I’ve made probably 40 new songs.”
It certainly is a long way from the party-loving DJ who took the scene by storm as a teenager. As most fans know by now, Troxler’s star rocketed upward after a debut gig at Berlin’s Panorama Bar when he was just 19 years old. But the Detroit native’s story has always been intertwined with his personality. Gifted as he is with music — and he is undoubtedly a hugely talented DJ and producer — his reputation as one of the scene’s most recognizable faces is owed in large part to his off-the-decks antics and outspoken nature. He’s never been afraid to be divisive, and often wore his party-heavy lifestyle on his sleeve.
“I used to be a very polarizing figure,” he says, as we discuss what Troxler calls “the gentrification of techno.” Though he’s still ready to ceaselessly defend what he sees as the true roots of house and techno, which he sees as existing separately from that “gentrified,” “business techno” world he’s discussing, he also no longer feels the need to disparage anyone who makes or plays that music, or any music, for that matter. He even became friends with Diplo last year. “Through COVID, I really realized I’m happy for everyone. Everyone’s got their own position and are doing their thing and being their own artists. And that’s really cool.”
These are the type of ideas one often associates with a spiritual awakening. And soon we’re discussing mortality, and the realization that accepting your own death is one of the most important things a person can do. More than once Seth mentions Charlie Kaufman, a film director known for his deeply introspective, borderline neurotic films about the human condition. “I mean, I’m a generally introspective guy, but I’ve gotten Charlie Kaufman introspective, looking at, what is life and reality? What is the life I want to live? And what is it that I really want to share with the world?”
With only a handful of small, socially distanced shows to keep him occupied last year, Seth stepped off the “hamster wheel” cycle of airport-gig-airport that fully consumes any successful DJ’s life. “I’ve always wanted a holiday, I just didn’t expect it to last two years,” he says. “But at the same time, it was this moment of deep self-reflection and trying to figure out my life, like everyone.”
One consequence of becoming internationally successful as a teenager is a life spent missing out on so many of the things that so-called normal people take for granted. Like raising a family. It’s not that Seth is ungrateful or unhappy with how he spent the last few decades of his life, it’s that he’s now acutely aware that, for himself at least, it was time for a change.
“I think there was a hedonistic idea of our culture. [And] I still truly believe in that — I’m not trying to tell people to go down my path — but I think after 20 years of doing this, being a hedonist, now I’m more into the idea of being a conceptual hedonist.”
Seth, a daily weed smoker since he was 12 or 13 years old, feels like he’s expanded his mind as far as it can go with chemicals. “Like a couple trips away from schizophrenia!” he says with an excited laugh. Wanting to be a good partner to his pregnant fiance, he gave it up, and came to the realization that he didn’t need weed or anything else to be creative.
“For so long, I believed that smoking weed with producing music and doing that stuff was part of the process — that I had to be in this really mental head zone. Then I just realized that I’m actually just crazy in general.”
Seth’s “conceptual hedonism” is the general creative force behind his Lost Souls of Saturn project with Phil Moffa. Troxler is an art school graduate, and although he admits he’s a natural showman, his heart has always belonged to creation, and thinking deeply and sincerely about how to move house and techno culture forward. He gets most excited during our conversation when describing LSOS’s futuristic, holographic take on the album format, which he says is an “augmented reality comic that we wrote and soundtracked.”
Lost Souls of Saturn and Pepe Bradock’s ‘Cycloned’ EP drops on February 12th via Holoverse Research Labs. Listen and pre-order here.
“So it’s like a film, but in a comic that uses this app,” he continues. Presented as a paperback comic with illustrations by Rob Shields, the comic’s full potential will be unlocked with an app, which “makes the static images come alive,” Seth says, complete with movement and sound effects. The previous LSOS album was presented as a film installation for the Saatchi Gallery in London. But Seth feels like augmented reality will allow him to pursue a much more advanced and interactive form of storytelling. There’s even an element of gameplay. “You have to collect things throughout the comic,” he says. Such concepts are partly a nod to futurism, but they also deal with the realities of being a modern musician. With touring cancelled, and fears about the blockchain one day making copyright ownership obsolete, Seth believes that pushing the boundaries of conceptual art is one way to make sure his music will have lasting value to fans.
Which is to say that Seth is now thinking about his legacy. “I’m wanting to work on how people will remember me, and what I can present to the culture that evolves the thing that I spent my whole life doing, rather than trying to play Instagram fame guy, or trying to keep up with the young kids and posting a selfie every day,” he says. With LSOS, he does this by channeling the mind-bending, high-minded concepts of early ‘80s Detroit techno pioneers like Cybotron (Juan Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis) and Jeff Mills, who drew upon science fiction to map out what their sounds meant to themselves and the world.
“I think electronic music has always been a catalyst to allowing us to dream,” he says. And we need to go back to the futurist idea of, how far can we dream up these ideas in something that actually has no boundaries?”
The electronic music that sprang up in studios and clubs in early 1980s Detroit and Chicago — originally written and played primarily by Black musicians and DJs — was the catalyst behind the world’s last great youth movement. In the 40 years since that Black artform swept beyond the shores of America, electronic music became the world’s third most popular form of music — an industry worth billions annually — and is now a dominant cultural force, played in bars, clubs, restaurants, and festivals around the globe.
This will likely remain the case until some yet-undiscovered form of music usurps it, just like dance and hip hop culture did to rock & roll. And while Seth doesn’t see anything supplanting dance culture for quite some time, he views this moment as an urgent one nonetheless, likening our era to the early 1970s, when rock became the established pop artform. By then, rock was already far removed from its Black roots in the ‘40s and ‘50s, replaced by the white hippie counterculture movement of the late 1960s. But through his work with the American intellectual Dr. Cornel West, Seth feels like has the chance to preserve and protect electronic music’s pioneering artists and artforms in a way that mid-20th century rock culture never did.
Seth first met Dr. West last year, after the famed American philosopher, political activist, social critic, and author contacted Seth for help with his new label, House of West. Even if Dr. West isn’t widely known within dance music circles, his pull in America is high reaching — he counts Bernie Sanders amongst his biggest supporters. Seth’s shock at being contacted by such a towering American figure is still visible over Zoom.
“He was like a fan of my music, which was the most far out thing I had ever heard,” he says, laughing. “But I’d done a remix for Brandon Lucas, who’s been in a partnership with Dr. West for some time, helping with the record label. He’s really talented, out of LA — brilliant, brilliant — used to be an R&B singer. Their whole thing is about the protection and non-gentrification of house music, and being about the funk and soul of the music, and of keeping that as our tradition within the community of people of color.”
Work like this isn’t without precedent in dance music, and 2020 saw important discussions happening, especially in underground techno circles, around preserving or reclaiming the genre as a distinctly Black artform. But Dr. West’s involvement gives that broader mission a huge cultural boost.
To those who already understand the history of dance music, this mission may sound redundant, even frivolous. But 35-year-old Troxler worries that the next generation is so focused on the present that the past remains unexamined, even forgotten.
“When I was coming up, a big part of electronic music culture was reading about or hearing stories about the history, and having these conversations with people who told you how it used to be. And I think a lot of Millennial and Gen Z or X — I don’t know what the fuck next generation is called — but so much of their idealism is not looking at the past at all and just claiming everything as their own, and not really wanting to know about the past or the history of things. I think that’s a huge generational change, where before we had to really dig . Now that everything is so accessible, people dig even less to understand the roots of the culture.”
For his Beatport Residency, which takes place this February on Twitch, Seth will focus heavily on bringing the history of house music alive. The month-long streaming series begins with a roundtable discussion with Dr. West, and will feature conversations and music from house innovators like Tony Humphries, Ron Trent, Al Ester, Stacey Hotwaxx Hale, and Paul Johnson.
“Stacy and Al inspired me so deeply when I was a kid listening to them on the radio,” Troxler says. “Then Ron and Tony, I mean, you don’t really have to say much about that. I met Ron Trent for the first time when I was 16 or 17, and his music has always been a huge inspiration to me. And Tony Humphries is like, my favorite all time. He did this essentials compilation back in the day. I was a teenager when I first heard it but so many songs off of it I still play today.”
But protecting the roots of house music also means ensuring its legacy is carried into the future. As Troxler himself pointed out, there was a time when, in the years after he rose to fame, worryingly few young Black DJs existed on the international stage. “Until there was Kyle Hall I was like, wow, are there going to be any people after me?” he says.
So his focus is also pointed towards encouraging young American minorities, who may not have the same influences as their European counterparts, to embrace and evolve a genre that is their rightful legacy.
Seth first met 29-year-old American rapper, singer and producer Channel Tres in Los Angeles, and the two hit it off immediately. Tres’ music often hews much closer to hip hop and R&B than it does to house — Tyler, The Creator even featured on Tres’ recent album i can’t go outside. But Seth sees a vision of the future in his sound, one with crossover appeal and the potential to penetrate audiences well beyond those found at Euro-centric clubs and festivals.
“I was like, this guy [Channel Tres] is fresh. This is the real crossover future of what house music can be, and what Black house music can be, representing R&B and urban culture and urban influences, and creating that as a new take on what house music and techno is in today’s society.”
In Seth’s ideal future, the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards would feature a house music category, and “Black house music is played on the radio, on urban stations rather than pop radio,” he says. “I’d like to see Snoop Dog working with people like Channel Tres instead of Calvin Harris — nothing against Calvin, I like Calvin, but you know what I’m saying?”
Seth also recently sparked a close friendship with DJ Holographic, “which is really great, she’s such an incredible artist and person,” he says warmly. Before the pandemic, DJ Holographic — also a Detroit native — regularly spun a mixture of house, R&B, and nu-disco at underground Detroit havens like The Grenadier, Tangent Gallery, Grasshopper Underground, and The Whiskey Parlor, with gigs at New York’s Elsewhere and CRSSD Festival happening in early 2020, just before gigs vanished. She also played at Junction 2’s virtual event, and will be joining Seth, Channel Tres, and Life on Planets for the final Beatport Residency livestream on Monday, March 1st. Complete with a roundtable discussion and four-plus hours of music, it will fully embrace the future’s potential.
Even if the world had never heard of the novel coronavirus, it’s easy to imagine Seth’s priorities changing anyway. In earlier interviews, he’s hinted at winding down his hedonistic lifestyle. And he’s always been political, as well as protective over house music culture, and has combined these passions into projects like Tuskegee Records, which he launched in 2014 with The Martinez Brothers. The label was built to give artists of color a platform, which despite being initially controversial (Seth says he was accused of “racism” despite the fact that many labels often feature all-white rosters), now feels incredibly precinct.
But Seth is keenly aware of just how much impact that random, blind chance can have on one’s life. The only reason he’s engaged to be married and expecting a child is that last summer, he decided to head to a nightclub a few hours before his set time. He normally never does this, but the excitement at being at a club for the first time in months was overpowering. Before he even made it inside, however, he “made a bee-line” towards a woman who caught his eye and stuck up a conversation.
“We ended up getting a kebab afterwards and then making a plan to go to a museum the next day. That was in July, and now it’s January and I’m getting married and having a child, just from the one choice of coming to the club. Had I not done that, my whole life would be different.”
It’s an idea that briefly sends us both into an existential tailspin. When any choice or action could potentially drastically alter the course of one’s life irrevocably, how does one moor oneself to any kind of concrete version of reality?
It’s a question that philosophers — especially existentialists like Albert Camus — have been grappling with for decades, often longer. And Seth’s answer seems rooted in his sincere commitment to his principles. But he’s also open to new ideas, born of a desire to more deeply understand the world around him and his place in it, and he brings with him a sense of openness, optimism, and flexibility toward accepting new ways of being.
But maybe this is it. Maybe all we can do in the face of an indifferent, random world is try our best to build a better one in its place, mistakes or pushback be damned. In the vast stretches of time, it probably won’t matter much. But while we’re still here together, sharing a planet that often feels crazier by the day, it just might be the only way to say sane.
Seth Troxler’s Beatport Residency is happening during the month of February. Find out more here. And Seth Troxler & The Martinez Brothers Play In The Dark EP will be released via Crosstown Rebels on February 19th, 2021.
Chandler Shortlidge is the Editor of Beatportal. Connect with him on Twitter.