Q&A: Mike Servito - XLR8R

Q&A: Mike Servito

With nary a production to his name—and a date at Dekmantel right around the corner—the Bunker resident is ready for the world.
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Photo: Seze Devres

Photo: Seze Devres

In academia, the term "publish or perish" refers to the pressure that professors are under to to get their research, discourse or literary output into journals, books or anywhere; it's a near-necessity if you want to attain tenure, or even just keep your job. Substitute produce for publish, and you have a pretty good approximation of what the modern DJ faces. This wasn't always the case. Many, if not most, of the foundational DJs barely released any sonic product beyond the occasional recording of a club set, and even those that did produce to some extent—Larry Levan, for instance—are remembered more for their nights behind the decks than their days in the studio. But for a myriad of reasons, productions have become de rigueur for the modern jock.

There are exceptions: Veterans like DJ Harvey and Craig Richards, for instance, spend far more time standing in the booth than they do sitting behind the mixing desk, and yet manage to score major-league gigs. But old-schoolers like them tend to come with a built-in rep; for non-producing younger jocks without a release to serve as a calling card, life is tougher. Happily, there are some who manage to buck the trend, managing to build a career from skills, selections, and sheer force of personality alone—and one of the best is Mike Servito. Nurtured by Detroit—where, among other things, he served as one of Ghostly International's go-to DJs—and based in NYC, Servito currently serves as resident of the Bunker, the venerable, trailblazing shindig helmed by Bryan Kasenic. (Coincidentally, two other Bunker residents, Derek Plaslaiko and Eric Cloutier, have also managed to forge DJ careers without heavily relying on recorded output.) He's long been considered of clubland's semi-hidden secrets, serving up neck-cracking, body-jacking sets that draw from classic forms of house, acid and techno, but that transcend genre to become beastly creatures ready to ravage the dancefloor. The secret is out, though, and the past few years have seen the world catching on to Servito's appeal: He's been plying his no-holds-barred trade everywhere from San Francisco to Berlin and beyond, and on July 31, he'll be on the decks, record box at his side, at Amsterdam's Dekmantel festival.

It seems that DJs from the Detroit area always seem to know their shit, both in their selections and their technique. Do you think that's true? And if so, why do you think that is?
I think when you come from a city like Detroit, music automatically becomes an integral part of your life. I think it was all in our subconscious, doing the work and looking into the history and learning about what we were getting into. It was a fun hobby, and an exciting one, to find any material we could on an artist or band or producer, pre-Internet—learning about underground Detroit and DJ mixes, listening and embedding mixes into our brains, reading magazines, reading liner notes and thank-yous and connecting artists. It always felt very communal in Detroit. You could connect any Detroit DJ-producer to another. Rick Wade to Mike Huckaby; Theo Parrish to Kenny Dixon; Jeff Mills to Mike Banks; and so on. I think my generation kept dibs on it all…the labels, the artists, the accolades. There is a strong sense of pride and music appreciation, because to some of us, it's really all we had. It was a means to dream and escape for me.

Are there any Detroit DJs who you would consider to be particular role models?
Mike Huckaby and John Williams, a.k.a. Bileebob. Those two were the first ones that made me take notice of the technical aspects of DJing. The blending and the EQing were new and super fascinating to me. I already had the concept of mixing music, courtesy of the Electrifying Mojo and the Wizard, Jeff Mills, but only in the context of radio. To see it in the clubs and watch these guys play records was complete magic to me. The Derricks were hugely influential. Derrick May and Derrick Carter were like the end all be all for me, as far as DJs go. They took risks, and were daring, and messed with my head—a lot! I think getting to hear Theo Parrish as much as I did...that was something special.
I felt inspired by all of them, honestly, but I never aspired to be like any of them. Everyone was pretty original and had their own techniques and secret weapons, and they stood out. It was a very individual thing compared to today. Everyone had their own way of doing things, and it was acknowledged.

You've been an official Bunker resident since 2012. What role do you feel the Bunker has played in your current success? Do you feel it’s important for a DJ to have a home base like that?
The Bunker rebooted my DJ career, single-handedly. Bryan Kasenic backed me 100 percent; it's like he almost had no qualms about bringing me on board. He brought me out of this weird techno limbo that can happen to DJs. He took a risk and invested in me and believed in my abilities. Bryan and Seze [Devres] were always pushing me and supporting me and booking me for their parties for years and years. I always appreciated that, even when I wasn't feeling my own DJ self. Things started to evolve literally the day I became me one of their residents. It was a turning point and an affirmation for me.
I don't think it's necessarily a prerequisite to get a DJ residency, but it's nice to belong to something and have that support and structure and a sense of family behind you. It's nice to have some consistency and someone looking out for your best interest. I really lucked out with the Bunker. It's been nothing but positives.

"I always want the sound to be dynamic and give me goosebumps and make me think, "Wow, I cant deal!" because the music is so good, you know?"

Your sets generally seems to be pretty jacking, with a lot of old tunes—both classic and obscurities—tossed into the mix. Do you consider yourself to have a "sound?" And if so, how did that sound develop?
I don't know that I ever really had a sound. I just played what I played and blew all my money on records I liked. Of course, it's become more refined and I do favor a more jacking sound. I just like things at 110-percent full-party mode. I want people to feel it. I don't have time for dull moments. I always want the sound to be dynamic and give me goosebumps and make me think, "Wow, I cant deal!" because the music is so good, you know?
I was always into everything! Jeff Mills was doing his Wizard shows in the late '80s, and would play all of it. Detroit techno, Miami bass, Chicago acid and hip-house, New York house and disco, and even U.K. bleep— all these sounds, all at once, really had some impact on my young mind. I always said I was one part Detroit and one part Chicago.The first twelve-inch record I ever bought was Wee Papa Girl Rappers' "Heat It Up," which had an Adonis mix and a Kevin Saunderson mix. That record made me excited about dance music and about acid house and about Detroit and Chicago. I'm showing my age, but I bought that record when it came out in 1988. It's a very special record from a very special era for me. I'm always giving a nod to the past. '88, '89 was magical in regards to house music and techno, and it was a big part of my youth. I guess that excitement never went away.

Photo: Seze Devres

Photo: Seze Devres

The past couple of years have been great ones for you, traveling the world and playing some of the world's best clubs and festivals, with gigs at places like Berghain and the Dekmantel fest. Do you feel that puts pressure on you in any way, or do you welcome the challenge?
I am definitely feeling the pressure—but I'm rolling with the punches. It's a lot of self-analyzing, but I try not to give too much thought and just take it on as it comes. It's a weird position to put yourself in when all eyes are on you and you just want to play this music, and everyone has some sort of expectation and idea of what you do and who you are. It's a very strange thing, to put yourself out there. I grew up very shy as a kid. A small part of that shyness still exists in me, but once I'm behind those decks, I know what I need to do. There is comfort in realizing your own talents and embracing that. It took a long time for me to get there.

Do you find yourself changing your set at all when you’re playing a large-scale event like Dekmantel, as opposed to, say, playing at Trans-Pecos for a Bunker Limited party? Or do you just do what you do and let the chips fall where they may?
Honestly, it just kind of happens. My whole thought process planning for gigs is a bit crazy, and borderline mental at times. I generally look for something new, or I'll hear something new in an old track. I get fixated on a certain sound and just build it in my head from there, pulling records and kind of piecing it together. But it's never planned—until I'm behind the turntables doing my thing. I guess I think about it more thoroughly when I am traveling. Sometimes, there is a point of procrastination, and then I am left to scramble last minute and fill my bag with too many records.

"The art of combining sounds and extending mixes to make something cohesive always fascinated me and fucked with me."

You’re probably sick of talking about this topic, but how much more difficult do you think it is for a non-producer to make it as a DJ then it is for one who does produce?
I think it's all in the timing. There are still only a few that are getting by on just DJing alone, but I definitely see that changing. It was always easier for the producers to get the gigs. Having a record out just kind of automatically gave people credit. You get on a somewhat respectable label. You get some press. There's a buzz about you. Skilled or not, you have a record out and you are going to get the "DJ" gigs based on your affiliations—and not necessarily your DJ talents. That's the sad truth. It's a slap in the face when I hear the phrase "everyone can DJ." It perpetuates that myth—the myth that all producers can DJ, and all DJ's are producers. That's how it always was, and that always irked me a bit. It's changing though. The appreciation and respect for the DJ has grown, and people are getting bookings based on our DJ talents alone.

Having said all that, any plans to produce in the short- or long-term?
I'm thinking it is inevitable. I don't know when that time will come for me, but I definitely don't rule it out; I think it can happen for me one day If I choose to take that route. I feel like it would be strange for me to not make a contribution. I'm really happy with DJing as a musical outlet, and I don't think I would ever stop. I get a lot of requests to do remixes and collaborations. It kills me to turn it away, but I'm still growing and I don't think it's ever too late to learn something new.

Finally, what is it about playing music for other people to dance and party to that you find so appealing?
Part of it is about escape and letting go, and another part of it is just fucking with the mind a little bit. Music messes with me, and time signatures mess with me, and mixing music and blending all these sounds...I was always riveted to the DJ mix as long as I can remember. The art of combining sounds and extending mixes to make something cohesive always fascinated me and fucked with me. So a lot of it is just that—messing with the mind and moving the body.