The role of talent buyer at Chicago’s smartbar is one of the American clubbing circuit’s most revered positions, and rightly so—the club has been bringing DJs from far and wide through to the Windy City since the early ‘80s. The job’s most recent alumna, Marea Stamper (a.k.a. The Black Madonna), was pushed to leave the post last year due to burgeoning international touring commitments. Enter Jason Garden.
Kansas-raised, Chicago-educated Garden (better known as Olin) had already been involved in smartbar for a number of years, organizing regular party Slack and DJing as a resident. Since his appointment as the club's booker, the spotlight has swung in his direction. Deservedly, the ante continues to step up for Garden, as his international schedule blossoms: over November 2016, you can catch him spinning in Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg and Groningen.
Through it all, he has released a steady trickle of records through the likes of Argot, God Particle and Detour. As a selector his taste is renowned for being highly eclectic and equally his back-catalog of productions is framed by no genre boundaries, covering everything from house, through italo and electro, to some more techno numbers. As well as a recent edits EP on Giegling, earlier this year Garden launched his own imprint, Boundary Monument, with Conne—a record that exposed some of his clearest, freshest ideas to date.
Ahead of this week’s podcast, we caught up with the man himself:
Growing up in Kansas, can you describe your upbringing? Do you come from a particularly musical family?
I had a very middle-class upbringing, honestly. I never lived on a farm or anything like that, and while we weren’t wealthy, I never wanted for anything. My dad played guitar a little bit but I wouldn’t say I had a musical upbringing, per se. I started playing guitar at age 11 or 12, though, and my family always supported that.
Can you identify an exact moment or piece of music that inspired you to pursue DJing and production?
Strangely, pretty much. In fifth grade my friend and I really went through a disco phase—that I never came out of, coincidentally. At the time, I’m not sure if it was genuine interest or just a convenient way to be rebels (it’s kinda strange to think that being into disco was a form of rebellion to us then, but it definitely felt like it). Either way, if it wasn’t genuine at first, it certainly evolved into a genuine love pretty quickly. I’ve told this story before, so I’ll keep it brief, but I bought a cheeky compilation of commercial disco from a gas station that had some real jams on it like “Le Freak”, “Don’t Rock the Boat”, and “Boogie Nights”, to name a few that stick out. It also had “Play That Funky Music” on it, to give you an idea of the median level of sophistication.
Anyway, I remember listening to that so much in my room on my little AIWA boom box and dancing around thinking about how this is music my Mom used to listen to—which seemed strange to me at the time. My friend and I would also record “radio shows” to tape of us playing our favorite disco tracks with this very “elaborate” setup that allowed us to record from two separate boom boxes to a little tape recorder. I also remember listening to the same friend’s copy of “Thriller” a lot because we were really into the dance moves in the video. The whole while, I think both of us were a bit hesitant to admit that we weren’t just goofing around and actually deep down enjoyed everything we were hearing—or maybe it was just me. Looking back, it took me a while to admit to myself that I genuinely loved music you could dance to, which is as much a sad example of the general latent homophobia that permeated small town America as anything else.
That was my introduction to music that was specifically made to dance to, which was a pretty novel thing for me at the time, since where I grew up was definitely closer to Footloose than it was to Studio 54.
So were raves or dance events happening at this time in the area? How did you find your way to your first one?
There my have been raves happening in Kansas City or something, but I surely wasn’t aware of them. My first “real” club/rave experience was when I took a weekend trip to London from Cambridge when I was studying there in 2007 to go to Fabric. I’ll spare the gory details, but it was a revelation for me. To think that there were hundreds of other people who were just as into the music as me dancing all around me was a totally alien but welcome experience. I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that from that moment on.
How long after this did you get your first set of turntables?
I got my first Technics1200 in 2007 pretty much immediately following that trip and found a another used 1210 that had clearly seen its fair share of raves maybe a year after that when I finally came up with enough money for a second deck. They’re actually the literal decks I used to record this mix!
And when did you begin producing?
As far as production, about the same time I downloaded a pirated copy of Fruity Loops after my friend showed me his very faithful recreation of “Carry On My Wayward Son” using that program, and tried really hard to make something that sounded like Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” for, like, a year straight. It was incredibly futile at that point—YouTube tutorials hadn’t quite taken off, yet—since I had not even the slightest idea what I was doing, but it helped me get a very basic idea of how a DAW worked and some idea of how to leverage basic synthesis. Even though I wasn’t ever really very good, it was still fun for me to mess around and just make sounds without any real agenda or direction—something I kinda wish I could do more often, these days.
How long after this did you start to properly produce tracks? Has it been a gradual progression?
It was definitely a gradual thing. Just like most things in life, you start to develop confidence as you find a little bit of success and things snowball from there. It becomes more fun as you hone in on your ability to create the types of sounds you want to hear, which makes you want to do it more.
What's your current production setup?
I’m 100% “in the box” for the most part. I use a combination of Logic, Ableton, and a little Audacity to do pretty much everything I put out.
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about the American 'underground?'
That’s a tough question, because there are lots of different underground scenes in America, each with their own quirks and nuances, and I don’t want to assert myself as any sort of authority on the subject across the board. However, If I had to give a blanket answer that seems to be more true of the American underground than other places—at least in my limited experience—it’s that, because most Americans have little serious interest in non-EDM dance music, the people that do have an interest in it have to try a little harder to find that good party, which often makes the payoff all the more sweet. I know that is certainly true for me.
When I moved to Chicago and first went to a party where DJs were playing music I enjoyed and people freaking out to that music, I felt a really special sense of elation and belonging that I had rarely, if ever, felt before. People like to pay a lot of lip service to community in electronic music, but when things fall just the right way, you can really feel that in the American underground.
It’s a funny thing: I’m a straight white dude, but I’ve been called “faggot” in such a vast and varied number of ways, apparently because I looked or acted the part in the eyes of the caller, that it’s kind of astounding when I think about it. So, while I certainly don’t pretend to know the struggle of my queer brothers and sisters, and would never try and equate their experience with mine, I do have a vague idea of how it feels to seek out that safe space—to find sanctuary and solidarity at the rave. I think many folks who grew up in non-metropolitan America can likely relate to that feeling on some very basic level, and because of that, people just go a little bit harder and really dance their asses off when they find their own special dancefloor.
Similarly, I think that many people in the US still recognize dance music as an inherently political art form, and see parties—especially the underground ones—as a sort of gallery for the types of expression that help advance the politics of the community. They haven’t lost sight of the fact that it was originally—and therefore always will be, to some extent—a medium of catharsis and sanctuary and solidarity for mostly queer people of color, and that attitude of the club or party being a place where you can be free and safe and really, truly whoever you want to be, runs very deep in the culture, here. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t that feeling in Europe, but I think it’s felt more acutely here, both because of the direct lineage that the parties of today and the past share, but also because of how acutely many of the dancers still experience the shit that made folks turn to the party for refuge in the first place.
If you’ve ever been to an underground party in a smaller US city like Columbus, Pittsburgh, Seattle, or a host of other cities across the US, you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard not to appreciate something just a little bit more when the only way it is going to exist is if you make it exist yourself. That’s something that is very American, in my experience, and something I really treasure when I experience it, first hand.
As far as my least favorite thing: like many underground scenes, it can be a bit competitive (in a bad) way and that sometimes leads to factionalism that isn’t necessarily music-based (which I think is fine—you like what you like). The scene in most cities not named New York City isn’t huge, really, so sometimes that scarcity can weigh on promoters and clubs to the point where it can breed negativity.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to seeking out new music? Do you usually find yourself going to the same place or do you simply wing it?
I would say I get my music one of three main ways:
For newer stuff, I frequent a techno/house thread that’s part of a larger message board, and have for a decade now. The people who post there have pretty reliably diverse and awesome taste. I’ve found tons of things I’ve come to really love through recommendations I’ve gotten from the people who post there. It’s actually really cool to be a part of a corner of the internet where people are generally supportive and enthusiastic instead of jaded and mean-spirited.
I also go to Gramaphone Records here in Chicago at least a couple times a month. I’ve been going there for damn near a decade, and the staff are all really amazing and helpful. Many good friends have put in their time behind the counter there, and the owner is the great Michael Serafini, so you know when you step in the door that you’ll be greeted by one of a glut of friendly, knowledgeable folks. They do a really great job of keeping the shop stocked with interesting new releases as well as constantly buying up collections from around the city—which in a city like Chicago, is a very good thing.
Maybe a year ago, a super fantastic DJ by the name of Josh Werner sold most of his excellent collection of techno and house to Gramaphone, and for probably six months straight I bought 10+ records of his from them a month—you could tell by the little marks he would make on the records. I found so many records that I would now count among my very favorite in his collection. I think it’s really cool that someone spent decades amassing this amazing collection—in that very shop, none the less— and little old me can grab them up now and give them new life in 2016.
Finally, Discogs mining. This is kind of where it all started for me, since I didn’t have a ton of guidance when I started getting serious about dance music and collecting records. I’m sure most folks will know this feeling: you get an alert for a NM copy of a record you’ve wanted for ages, but the shipping is like $20 for up to five plates. So, naturally, you spend two or three hours going through the seller’s entire collection so you can maximize you record-to-shipping-cost potential. Or how about this one: you find a record on a label you’ve never heard of and go through the entire catalog of the label trying to find more things like it. Truly, Discogs is such an incredible tool for finding new music.
Regardless of how I get the record, I always go home and listen to each new thing I bought start-to-finish and add it to my Discogs collection (usually while watching basketball or baseball on mute). That final bit is one of my favorite things on God’s green earth.
How would you then prepare these tracks for use in your DJ sets? Do you have specific ways you organize your USB folders, and alternatively, how often would you swap out records from your record bag?
As far as physical records, I try very hard to pack different bag for every trip. I actually don’t have a HUGE collection relative to many other DJs because I constantly rip and sell records that are functional but haven’t landed with me on an emotional level. So, that actually makes it easier to sort and pick records before gigs.
I usually just pull records and sort them in piles on the floor based on genres or time of night and then put them in my bag accordingly so I have a rough idea where things are. I usually go from deeper, early-night stuff in the front of my case to harder or more aggressive sounds in the back of my bag.
The USB situation is still something I’m kinda trying to perfect. My digital collection is pretty meticulously organized based on several variables, but it’s hard to properly utilize those variables (or at least more than one at once) on CDJs. I organize things in iTunes playlists that are labeled by time of night I would play them or general feelings or descriptors like “melodic” or “rawer” or “EBM-y” or whatever other semi-arbitrary descriptors that make sense to me in the moment. I also try to make a playlist on my drive for each gig individually, as it helps me hone in on a feeling or particular style of music I want to emphasize based on the atmosphere I anticipate. It’s a lot of work, honestly, but it’s pretty gratifying at the end of the day when you walk into a gig feeling very prepared.
You’ve spent most of your DJ career in the US but recently you traveled to Germany in May to play at Klubnacht. How does the experience of playing at Berghain compare to the countless gigs you’ve played in the US?
It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said about that crazy, special place, but as one would expect, it was a really amazing experience. I always love being in that building for basically any reason. Aside from the usual things folks talk about all the time—the incredible sound, the openness, the fucking)—they’re just so damn professional as an organization, which is something that might go unnoticed by many.
As a person who runs a nightclub, I know how hard it is to manage such a vast amount of patrons and staff, and they do an exceptional job of it. When I played there, it was a complete joy from start to finish in terms of how I was treated as an artist, and my experience on both sides of the booth. That baseline level of polite and frank German efficiency is something that I’ve never encountered in a US club or party, to be perfectly honest. They really make it as fun for the DJs as it is for the patrons, which is really saying something.
Speaking in terms of the actual experience of playing there, it was up there with the most surreal things I’ve ever done, that’s for sure. It’s just such a unique atmosphere relative to most parties I’ve played in the US. Having been there several times, I wanted to do right by the crowd and fit in with the ethos of the room, but also be true to my style and taste and maybe go a little outside of the box that folks typically associate with that space. Really, the only rule I set for myself, and this was some good advice I received from a friend, actually, was to only play music I could imagine fucking to on the dance floor. It was actually a helpful heuristic, because I would never want to deny someone the opportunity to get theirs in that building by virtue of a less-than-accommodating soundtrack. It’s good to set boundaries for yourself, ya know? I’m like the Jack White of techno DJs… or something.
The crowd was receptive to all the semi-strange places I went, which doesn’t always happen in the US, and I actually got one of the most flattering compliments I’ve ever received from a woman immediately following my set—which also doesn’t always happen in the US. People in Europe are much more keen for the types of techno that you typically hear in Berghian, which is part of the reason it’s so fun to play there. It seems like very few people are completely uninitiated in the dark arts of techno, and that’s a big difference between the scene there and many parties here in America. I actually enjoy having to read and react to a crowd, but there you kind of know what you’re getting from minute one, which is, in a way, liberating.
Anyway, I actually borrowed a few memorable moments from that set and recreated them in this mix. I’m not sure if people were angry or delighted with me when I played "Silent Shout," but I wasn’t about to NOT hear one of my favorite songs of all time on that system.
I was so lucky because a lot of my closest friends took this as an excuse to come from all across the globe to hit the Berg’, so even though I was really nervous by the time I started, I could look out and see a grip of friendly smiling faces cheering me on, which is really kinda what this whole party thing is about, right?
Are you itching to get booked in any particular countries or cities that you have not visited before?
I mean, I’m still such a baby when it comes to the international touring thing, so I’m so grateful for any chance I get to see the world and share music with people who want to hear it.
However, I’ve always had a completely unsubstantiated desire to visit Lisbon in Portugal. It really just checks all the boxes of places I want to be: warm, coastal, delicious food, deceptively rich dance music history. Lux Fragil looks like a really incredible place and I’ve heard nothing to dissuade me from thinking as much.
Another place I’ve heard nothing but good things about is Tsbili, Georgia. The Giegling crew did a big trip there fairly recently and every single one of them gushed about the experience when I asked about it. I’ve also heard the more “serious” techno scene is really going off there, and clubs like Bassiani are really pushing that sound to great success.
I’ve also never been to Asia but would be so thrilled to be able to make it there in the future. It’s such a different world, culturally, and I would love to experience it. Asia also has some awesome festivals that I would do unspeakable things to attend.
What do you find to be your most vital tools and skills while working as a Talent Buyer at Smartbar?
I think for me, personally, it has been having a pretty broad taste and being open to new things that I might not normally drop on my turntable at home. As much as folks seem to like to make it a direct reflection of me as a person, booking a club is only so much about what I like as an individual. However, liking, or at least being adequately familiar with, the types of things you’re looking to put in the club makes the job much easier and more enjoyable, for sure.
In the “band” world, there are a lot more venues and a lot more empirical data to use to determine how an event might do in your room. You can look at numbers from past plays in the market and get a pretty good idea how an act will translate to your venue in advance. I don’t really have that luxury, since there are only a handful of venues in the city doing even remotely similar stuff. I can look at all the “metrics” the internet provides, such as followers on various socials and manner of press—and don’t get me wrong, these things are helpful bits of information)—but the real question I have to ask myself is, “will this work in our room with our crowd?” Or sometimes I ask, “Will this get some new faces in the club that will respond to and hopefully contribute what we’ve already got going on?” And the easiest way to answer both of those questions is with an open mind and a depth of knowledge in the areas of music you’re looking to tap into.
I’m sure that probably seems really common sense, but it’s something that is also more difficult that it might seem at first blush, I would guess—and I’m certainly not always successful, if that’s any indication. Chicago is first and foremost a house city, and I’m probably a bit more of a techno guy at this stage in my life—a fact that is liable to change at any moment, though—which is something I have to be mindful of when I’m filling out the calendar. I try and keep my DJ/listener shoes in a different mental closet than my booker shoes, for the most part.
More generally, I—and anyone else in my position—would be pretty screwed if I weren’t very organized and fairly decisive. To put it in perspective, smartbar is open on average about four days a week, which means I have to program 208+ shows a year—in addition to special events and off-site things. Each of those dates usually starts out with multiple holds from multiple agents/artists and then gets whittled down to the best options for everyone. From there, you have to get the show contracted, promoted, advanced, and so on. There’s a lot that goes on between the first steps and the last, and thankfully I have a ton of help from my dude Sev (a.k.a Sevron of Hugo Ball, who is also an exceptional DJ, for those who don’t know), so it’s not quite as overwhelming as it could be.
I think it has also helped me to be on the other side of the club-faring aisle frequently as a performer. You really get perspective on how much some of the little things matter to a dead tired artist coming off a long night and flight, and I hope that artists who play the club notice that we try and make sure they have as pleasant of experience as our patrons. Happy DJs usually make for happy dancers.
Can you tell us a bit about Boundary Monument? How did you form your imprint’s name? Do you have a particular visual aesthetic you are going for? What are your future plans for the label?
Boundary Monument is a very on-the-nose metaphor, actually. It is a surveying term that is used to describe an object that delineates some sort of intersection or, wait for it, boundary between two or more things.
So, the idea is that the music on the label is a direct result of the point where all my various moods, tastes, and influences met at the point in time when the tracks were made. I like a lot of different styles of music, and don’t generally have much of a plan when I sit down to work on a track, so I really wanted to start a label so I could eliminate some of the roadblocks of working with on someone else’s label—like having no real plan or sound, for example.
Once I get rolling on a track, though, a plan or sound pretty quickly forms in my head, and I’m a bit stubborn about changing it to conform to the needs or desires of another person’s vision—in this instance, a label owner). I know that probably sounds really bratty, but it’s really important to me to be able to curate the sounds and ideas I want to present to the world in an unaltered form, as opposed to having to meet someone in the middle to get it on wax. Production isn’t my first love by any stretch, so easing some of the stress and barriers to entry for me was a really ideal situation—although I’ve already learned that many new, exciting stressors have popped up in the old one’s places. However, the folks at Diamonds and Pearls, as well as my dawgs, Studio Casual—who have coached me through this very patiently—have made this so much less of a headache than it could have been. I’ve genuinely enjoyed learning the process and I’m so grateful for those two entities in particular for believing in what I’m trying to do.
As far as the visual aesthetic, I actually outsourced that to an artist whose work in generative design I had always enjoyed: Yancy Way. The general idea is that the label art would have a very vaguely cartographic aesthetic. He did a really great job and I’m thankful for his help, because I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to that kind of stuff.
The first release is out now with the second on the way in early 2017.
You recently release an EP on Giegling's sub-label. How did this come about? Do you have intentions to returning to the label?
I know the Giegling folks through booking Kettenkarussell to play a little private camp-out some friends do every year back in 2013. We had originally wanted to book them in Chicago but our venue fell through and they were gracious enough to roll with that punch and switch things up a little bit. We had a really magical time in the woods and Konstantin had asked me to put together a little care package of originals and edits I had done for him. Maybe a year or so later, I got an email from him asking to put “People” and “From Iceland” out, which I thought was kind of funny because they are both just edits I did for myself never intending to release them. Over the next year of playing various events and label showcases with them, I met Dustin and many of the other folks who are involved with the label and felt a really good connection with them as people and artists. So, when the record finally came out, I felt so grateful to be a associated with such a unique little family of artists.
As far as the future, I’d be delighted to do another release with them, but we don’t have anything planned for right now. Turns out you have to have tracks to release before you can put out a record (go figure), and most of what I have done right now is ear-marked for Boundary Monument or other labels.
Can you give us some insight into the mix you have provided for us?
Sure! I recorded this just a few days after returning my last stint in Europe. I actually just used mostly the same bag of records, so the mix ended up functioning a bit like an epitaph for the whole adventure. It features some tracks I really enjoyed playing or that went over really well, as well as some tracks that I wished I had the chance to play, but just never quite got to them. It’s a bit more techno leaning, but really cuts across the kinds of sounds I really find myself drawn to within the world of techno: some super deep, minimal loopy stuff; some steppy, break-influenced tracks; some stomping, fuck dungeon bangers; some trippy, Berghain-friendly, more modern-sounding tracks; some jacky older sounds; probably my literal favorite song of all time. As far as the technical side, I recorded it like I do all my mixes: at home with my turntables, little xone:23, and my records. No real editing or splicing to speak of because I’m lazy and proud in equal measure.
How does it compare to a regular club set?
I know this is a bit of a cop out answer, but I would say I try not to have a “regular” club set, to so speak, inasmuch as I hope that no two sets are all that similar. Additionally, it’s only an hour and I definitely prefer longer sets so I can cover a bit more ground.
However, just in terms of what I have been playing lately, it’s pretty close to what one could expect, on balance. The first bit is maybe a bit more challenging than I would reach for unless I was very confident that it was a place the floor would follow me, and I don’t alway get to the kinds of harder, more industrial techno that I hit on later in the mix, but I’ve definitely been playing a bit more techno-leaning, this year. However, I kind of already feel that balance swinging back toward jackin’ 90s house a bit, as we round the corner into 2017.
What's next on your agenda?
Well, other than constant hand-wringing about whether or not anyone will buy the records I’m trying to sell, just playing more gigs around the US and hopefully getting to Europe at least three times in 2017 (that’s the plan for now, at least) with potentially some Central and South American jaunts in there. That, and of course my work at smartbar, should keep me very busy in 2017.