Mark Farina on Chicago house, Mushroom Jazz and what's new for him in 2011
Chicago house heavyweight and acid-jazz/downtempo darling Mark Farina has already made two trips to Denver this year -- but for his third, a set at the Gothic Theatre this Friday night, he's promoting the release of the seventh Mushroom Jazz album, just as laid-back and groovy as the previous six, but with brand-spanking-new tunes. We caught up with Farina to ask him about his career trajectory, his now-legendary radio show with Derrick Carter, how changing technology has changed his life and much more:
Photo by Sandlin Gaither
Westword: Tell us about how you first became interested in electronic music.
Mark Farina: I was living in Chicago, that's where I grew up. In high school -- which was a while back -- I'd go to teen clubs when I was like a sophomore, '86, '85. They were under-18-only clubs, teen dance party things, and they'd have like one room where the music was like industrial/New Wave, and the other room would be house.
So industrial/New wave was my stuff of choice early, like Front 242, Ministry, Severed Heads, Yello, Kraftwerk. So there was a club in Chicago back then called Medusas that was a pretty innovative nightclub for the time -- even still now, it was really just a great club. They'd do a teen dance and a late-night thing, and they didn't serve alcohol, and it would be open till 7 or 8 in the morning, and they played industrial/New Wave, and the label Wax Trax! from Chicago, a lot of their acts would perform there, just come on unannounced at like four in the morning.
Then, like I mentioned, too, the clubs had a house mix, as well, and there were always house mixes on the radio. And from the industrial sound, I got into Detroit techno, Mayday and Model 500, stuff like that, and a lot of Chicago Acid Trax, played in some of the industrial clubs and crossover. And I got more into mixing in the late-'80s period; I figured out where to get house mixes and recorded mixes onto cassette from the radio.
There'd be like a lunch mix and the mix at 6, and Friday and Saturday would have nighttime mixes all night. So I'd sit there with my tape recorder and get a lot of stuff. I always had vinyl, but I got like a really cheap Radio Shack mixer and used that and my turntable at the time to mix. [Technics] 1200s, they were kind of the Holy Grail at the time. I was like, "Someday, I'm gonna get 1200s." Then I sort of bridged into house music, from Detroit techno to house.
What were you doing with the cassette tapes of mixes?
You could find stuff out. I would listen to stuff and record. I didn't like a lot of disco-y stuff in that early time; if it was too vocal I'd hit pause. You could take it to the record store, and they would decipher. Later, I worked at Gramaphone in Chicago, and you almost didn't want to answer the phone, because you knew somebody would be playing you a song over the phone via their headphones.
I'd ask a couple of people, record them, and try to find the tracks that I liked, which was kind of a quest at the time to even find the record stores that held that stuff; Gramaphone was one I eventually worked at. Hot Jams on the south side and Imports, Etc. was downtown in the loop, so that's where all that early Chicago house was available. A lot of the producers would just bring trunks full of music to the record stores.
How did you start playing for audiences?
My first big main club gig in Chicago was a club called Shelter; the main room was really good size, and I had a Richard Long sound system, this infamous East Coast speaker designer, a certain style of sound system, certain cabinets and stuff, a really excellent sound system. DJs would do all night back then.
Thursday in the main room was your night, and usually we'd have one DJ work for that one night. So you had tryouts, and it turned out to be a good night at Shelter, I played Thursdays in the main room, as it was called, that was kind of my first big regular club gig where every Thursday I'd play house music, a staple in Chicago.
Is that how you met Derrick Carter?
Right before I got the Shelter gig, we met at Imports, Etc. He was working there, which was right near where I went to university at Columbia College in Chicago. He was one of the people I went into the record store and got the courage to ask about tunes, as opposed to just being anonymous in the store, that was '89-ish or thereabouts, I was a freshman in college.
And how did your radio show come together?
It was Derrick's connect, I believe, he had a shoo-in, Dirk V, who ran the Street Beat show on WNUR, the Northwestern radio station in Evanston. Derrick had a slot for a guest mix on Friday or Saturday, and we recorded a mix together, switching it off, and it turned into a regular gig for a couple of years. We'd mix it at my house and drive it over -- this was still cassette days, pre-CD recordings. We'd usually end up bringing it in kind of right on time when we started it off. Friday had the longest-running show.
So we'd bring it in right at 10:30 and bring it to Dirk, and that was entertaining. Then we'd park by the lake and listen to the mix off the radio, which is always exciting to hear your own mix through the radio waves. Pre-traveling, we were just all geeks playing in Chicago. Then people like Keoki, Jon Williams and Doc Martin started coming to play in Chicago. Chicago never really had guest DJs because there were so many good DJs there, and we'd kind of never heard of it, and we were like, that sounds interesting. We should try to play some other cities.
So that's how you started traveling?
The traveling started around 1990, thereabouts, '91. I started just more local Midwest, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, go to Iowa, things like that, and it expanded out from there. Just giving out mix tapes, selling mix tapes. It was just kind of the start of guest DJs touring around, still a relatively new concept, pre-rave days, when things really got bigger.
How did things change when the rave scene hit?
Coming from where we would do all-nights, it was strange. We were like, "You guys only want me to play two hours when I flew to another city?" The West Coast at that time, there was the start of the rave scene, there really wasn't much of a rave scene in Chicago, just clubs and a loft part was the only thing rave-y in any way. We played a couple of raves on the West Coast, in L.A., and the concept of having multiple headliners in one room was a different concept to the whole club night thing that we were used to.
We had to change into shortening your set. When you have eight hours it's a different dynamic than fitting everything in two hours. The first one was like an hour and a half, you had to prove yourself a little bit before you could be worthy of two hours at one of the bigger parties. Transitioning from the long set standpoint as opposed to doing a two-hour set is a little different than opening at 9 p.m. closing at 4 a.m. than fitting it in two hours. I was like, "How am I going to do that?"
And how did you do that?
I've always been spontaneous, so it was just realizing you can't play everything in two hours. Over mixing can be just as bad as screwing up your blends; you don't want to make everything too busy, as well. So it was just sort of pacing yourself, and in the vinyl days, you'd have to bring four or five crates -- at least three, and you can't really travel with three crates -- just into a shoulderbag, which was still hard, but it's still more than enough music. But that's always a problem you get at the end of the night -- "I forgot to play that!"