Cover Story: Lauren Flax
Cover Story: Lauren FlaxSeptember 20, 2021
Michael Lawson traces the roots of Lauren Flax, the multifaceted New York artist who is eschewing genre boundaries to create a sound all of her own.
Lauren Flax has just returned from playing in Las Vegas. From a musical perspective, it’s a city more commonly associated with circus-like, pyrotechnic-laden EDM shows than underground dance music, but she insists that it was a surprisingly pleasant experience.
“A couple of people came up to me afterwards and were like, ‘I can’t believe there’s proper house and techno in Vegas,’” she recalls. “But it was really fun. The promoters were down-to-earth and it was a cool little club.”
A New York-based DJ and producer, Flax has been an underground staple for the best part of 25 years — a shapeshifting, genre-transcending stalwart who has continued to stay relevant across a storied career. Her tale begins in Detroit, the birthplace of techno itself, where an angsty teenager with a penchant for industrial music found solace in the sounds of Big Sonic Heaven on 96.3 radio. Hosted by Darren Revell every Sunday night, the show was a gateway to My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive and countless others. “I’d been playing instruments from quite a young age and ended up going to the Recording Institute of Detroit, but Big Sonic Heaven was my first obsession, long before I discovered raves,” she enthuses. “I’d always call in and request songs to the point where I became friends with the host. In fact we still are to this day.”
The first of many formative experiences, listening to Big Sonic Heaven lit the fuse and convinced Flax to lead a life dictated by her love for music. It preceded stints at two of the city’s record stores during her teens, Record Time and Detroit Threads, which in turn led to her discovering house, techno, electro and, most prominently at the time, jungle. “There was definitely a stage where I considered myself to be a junglist. I was obsessed with this pitch-snare-ragga crazy jungle music, and that’s basically how I got my start with DJing.”
Unsurprisingly, exposure to these exciting electronic sounds provided a gateway to the fabled Midwest rave scene. Providing both a form of escapism and a space where she could be her true self, it quickly became a home away from home. “When I discovered the rave community, it felt like I’d discovered my own personal community as a queer person. I was in the closet all through high school, right up until I graduated, and this was the first time I’d ever felt a sense of belonging.”
However she soon became weighed down by a decaying city and its lack of infrastructure — “Detroit wasn’t a functioning, safe place at that time, she says” — and Flax found herself seeking new pastures. First came a short stint in neighbouring Midwest dance music haven Chicago, before she moved to New York in 2002. A sense of genuine belonging has kept her there ever since. “Fuck man, it’ll be 20 years soon!” she exclaims with a sudden realisation. “But I honestly wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world.”
A few years into living in NYC, Flax formed CREƎP with Lauren Dillard, a fellow Brooklyn-based artist she first met on long-defunct social media platform Friendster. Crafting an idiosyncratic sound that drew on trip-hop, dark electronica and the short-lived microgenre known as witch house, what started out as an experimental side project soon blossomed into Flax’s biggest flirtation with the musical mainstream. Echoes, the duo’s solitary album release, is characterised by its long list of notable collaborators, which includes trip-hop visionary Tricky, Romy Madley Croft of The xx, and even chart-topping pop icon Sia.
“CREƎP just kind of emerged as this passion project,” she recalls. “Trip-hop is in my blood, it’s something that I’m always going to love, and I started writing it with my best friend. It wasn’t really meant to be a main project but it soon became my full-time situation for the next few years.”
Either side of the CREƎP years, she continued to DJ and release music under her own name. While she has never been one to stick to a singular style or genre, the overarching flavour of her dance floor-oriented output is a jackin’ house sound that she insists is a byproduct of her Midwest roots. “My hometown fundamentally shaped me,” she proudly states. “Even 25 years later I find myself writing Detroit music.” Flax’s tracks have found their way onto a host of suitably esteemed electronic imprints, including Unknown to the Unknown, Dance System and the iconic Nervous Records. But perhaps the defining Lauren Flax record came via the label wing of The Bunker New York. Playfully titled One Man’s House Is Another Woman’s Techno, the raw, percussion-heavy three-tracker captures the essence of house and techno in their purest forms. It’s no coincidence that some of the artists affiliated with The Bunker, such as Derek Plaslaiko, Jason Kendig and Mike Servito, are also Detroiters who have migrated to The Big Apple. That reason, amongst many others, is why Flax feels real synergy with the collective.
“Being asked to be a part of it [The Bunker] was a wonderful thing for me,” she says. “I don’t wanna use the word ‘intimidating’, but to me these people are the best of the best. To have been trusted enough to be a part of this group felt so good.”
As if The Bunker crew hadn’t been influential enough, she also notes that founding member Bryan Kasenic was instrumental in convincing Flax to focus her energy on her live show, an aspect of her multifaceted music career that she suggests might be the most important of all. “It’s a very scary thing, but I think that part of my career matters the most,” she reiterates. “To me, playing live is the realest of the real — being able to go to the club and show people this very intimate side of you, which they can either love and embrace or reject.”
More recently she linked up with UK rave veterans Jerome Hill and Posthuman, putting out suitably club-ready fare on their respective Super Rhythm Trax and Balkan Vinyl labels. But in true Lauren Flax form, she has also found the time to release a record that sits at the opposite end of the electronic spectrum.
“I go through phases where I make a certain style of music, and then I’ll try and expand my horizon and do another thing,” she explains. “After CREƎP, I decided to go deep underground, learning new methods of how to produce and slowly picking up new gear here and there to build my studio. But now I’m on the precipice of entering a different phase.”
This new creative phase has been ushered in by the release of Out Of Reality, Flax’s new EP, and perhaps her most ambitious release to date. A deeply personal collection of synth explorations, the record draws on the myriad styles and genres that she has drawn inspiration from across her career; a finely-stitched tapestry connecting everything that has contributed to her versatile sonic identity. But even more important are the complex whirlwind of emotions that it communicates across its six tracks.
“It’s an amalgamation of all of my musical influences,” she says. “It’s underground, it’s acid, it’s ethereal, it’s trip-hop, it’s all of these things. It’s like I’ve taken the last 15 years of my life and combined it to create this new sound. That said, I was pretty nervous releasing it due to it being very different from anything else I’ve ever put out.”
The record came out on 2MR, the label run by East Coast underground favourite Mike Simonetti, and Flax talks glowingly about the current state of the scene in her adopted hometown. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe over the years but I’ve gotta say I wouldn’t be anywhere else [than New York] at the moment,” she enthuses.
It’s a scene that she has helped cultivate over the past two decades, not only in terms of immersing herself in the music, but also through her unapologetic embrace of dance music’s politically-charged roots and desire to speak up on the issues that affect her community the most.
“It’s interesting when people think you have to keep politics out of music,” she says with an air of disillusionment. “It’s literally where music comes from — particularly when it comes to techno — but what I’m part of in New York definitely runs deeper than just music. It’s about our bodies, it’s about safety, it’s about community, it’s about activism, it’s about standing up for one another. I always wanna turn up for the community in ways that our government doesn’t — that’s the most important thing to me. If music doesn’t embody that, then I don’t really want much to do with it.”
Right now, her activism is dedicated to making the scene safer in the most fundamental of ways. “It became clear to me in 2019 that we needed to start fighting the opioid crisis on a local level,” she explained in a recent press release. To do so, she has founded Last Night a Deejay Saved My Life, a collective attempting to tackle addiction in local nightlife and making it a safer environment for all.
Working alongside Danielle Pickering, a registered nurse at the LGBTQ-focused Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and Dr. Julius Johnson of the National Black Nurses Association, Flax and the organisation have hosted invaluable harm reduction classes and overdose response training. Now, their latest initiative is aiming to train and provide club staff with Narcan, a lifesaving drug that combats the effects of an overdose, which they have an unlimited supply of through their medical contacts. With fentanyl becoming something of a ubiquitous presence across the country of late, and a recent report suggesting American drug overdose deaths shot up by nearly 30% in 2020, the work of Last Night a Deejay Saved My Life couldn’t be more timely.
“I just want my friends to rave safely,” Flax suggests modestly. “The drug experience is a normal experience and people die from drug overdoses by ingesting things they don’t intend to ingest. I wanna help people and give them the tools so that they can partake in these things in a safer way. But at the same time it’s a really fine line for clubs to advocate for safety without promoting drug use and promoting something that’s illegal.”
Having already successfully laid the foundations, the next step is to grow this localised project into something on a far greater scale. “Basically, I wanna grow the organisation and the website to become a global resource for harm reduction worldwide. The concept is to think locally in order to make big global change. If we have enough people thinking locally then we can make a big positive change. I mean, even if we just save one life then it’d all be worth it.”
Her relationship with drugs, and how they interlink with rave culture and music in general, is something she has spoken candidly about in the past — most recently as part of an in-depth DJ Mag feature exploring the healing power of psychedelics. In particular, the conversation centred around her use of ayahuasca, the psychoactive brew originating from South America, and its ability to heal emotional trauma. It’s something she has experienced first-hand, after travelling to Upstate New York in 2013 to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. Eight years on, Flax remains no less enthusiastic about the encounter.
“First off, I have to say that there are a thousand paths to the same destination,” she says, preceding the discussion with something resembling a disclaimer. “So when people read this, they should know that they don’t necessarily have to get there by doing exactly what I did. But if it’s something that resonates with them then perhaps it’s a positive thing to explore.”
So profound and life-changing was the first experience, it quickly became a biannual ritual — prompting her to reevaluate what matters most in life and even convincing her to give up alcohol. “It was something I spent a long time preparing for,” she continues. “The aim was to heal some childhood trauma, and the ceremony basically gave me my heart back. I was just crying over this realisation that I was finally whole again for the first time since I was a child. But yes, if I’d just taken ayahuasca once, it changed the course of my life forever. I also fell in love not too long after that so it was a beautiful experience all round.”
Looking ahead, Flax cites scoring films and perfecting her live show as primary goals, but for her own sanity, will make sure to balance this with her enduring passion: DJing. While she discusses the need to continue to grow, both as an artist and a human being, she simultaneously displays the mind-set of a seasoned artist who has been around long enough to realise that putting herself first is what matters the most.
“For me DJing is the icing on the cake — it’s so easy, it’s so fun and it gives me that balance,” she says lovingly. “The ongoing pandemic has made my long-term aspirations feel rather small and insignificant, and right now it’s not necessarily about moving the needle for me. It’s more staying true to what I do and who I am.”
Michael Lawson is a Scottish freelance music journalist based out of London. Find him on Instagram.