When Steven Warwick, a.k.a. Heatsick, invited me to interview him at his Bella Sky hotel room, I bolted. Arriving in Copenhagen two years ago, I stayed for two weeks at the Danhostel Amager in the shadow of Bella Centre’s strangely askew towers. Rarely since have I had the occasion to revisit this chillingly bland monument to international wealth, tucked away in the back of an island built on the city’s overgrown former floating trash dump. The hotel’s uniquely vertical nature always stuck out in my mind while journeying through Copenhagen’s flat horizontal cityscape.
‘I have a perverse fascination with it,’ Steve said as he donned a maroon silk athletic zip-up and poured me a glass of water. ‘That’s why I invited you here. I mean it’s why you came here as well. We want to see over it, don’t we? We want to see it [the view from up here].’
‘It kind of reminds me of this – not that I’m comparing myself to him, but it made me think of this BBC3 documentary with J.G. Ballard, recorded at Heathrow Airport in suburban London. He’s a sci-fi writer. British guy. He did this book called Crash, which got made into a film by David Cronenberg. Ballard did another called High Rise, which I just read is about to get filmed as well. To be honest, I find Ballard’s books kind of hard to film. There’s that really weird bit [in Crash] where she’s putting her breast on the – what do you call it? The dashboard. It’s kind of pertinent, because it’s totally over the top. I mean, how do you film that? What’s the perfect way to do it?’
Before settling onto the couch, Steve made the obvious psychoanalysis crack. ‘I’m into the Lacanian method myself.’
We chatted for over an hour before his scheduled headlining set at Distortion Festival’s outdoor Havefest, which turned out to be a rollicking psychedelic slow burn Casio jam, inspiring one dancer to take a dip in the venue’s canal.
Steve hugged a pillow as the sun set slowly on our little glass box in the sky. Our friendly game of dream tennis started gently, with his commentary on the self-congratulatory evil of eco-tourism and Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of a Man Under Capitalism. We talked until we noticed my voice recorder had run out of memory. Then Steve made instant coffee, and we kept on talking about why people are so afraid to talk.
‘Maybe some people don’t want to look vulnerable. They don’t want to stick out. It’s almost like this invisible remainder. That’s actually what we should be really looking at, is people’s fear to talk about these things.’
Afterward, I received e-mails from Steve about the ‘singularity’ from Samuel R. Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and videos of starling flock formations. Trust me, both well worth a Google. He worried he was too cautious in our interview. ‘I am hopeful of collective experience.’
In this strange world of magic coincidences, it turns out that even though we grew up thousands of miles apart, in a way everything started for us both in the same unlikely place, on the frozen, windswept plains of my hometown, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As young men with too much time to read and wonder literally and figuratively, ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ we both discovered the Dreammachine of Brion Gysin.
‘I grew up in Spalding. Just knowing your parents are from London or somewhere a bit more exotic. You’re encouraged to play with yourself. Not play with yourself. You’re encouraged to play on your own. I used to go to the library a lot. That seemed like a good way to escape.’ Long before moving off to Berlin to make kinky dance music, Steve stumbled onto Gysin through his reading of William S. Burroughs. Gysin spent his childhood in Edmonton the same way I had, before he moved on to create the cut-up collage, a pit stop on his endless quest through occult and mystical realms.
‘You could mince over something for a long, long time or you could just go for something, or you could just stumble upon across something with serendipity.’ Bingo.
A pinholed metal cylinder built to spin around a standard light bulb at the exact frequency of an alpha wave, bringing on a trance in its observers through flickering light, Gysin hoped the Dreammachine would one day replace TV and make him finally rich. For Steve, Gysin’s ideas were a wormhole into a lifetime of theorizing that helped shape his own cyclical, trance inducing music.
‘You just discover him, you’re like, let’s cut to the chase. I think Berghain needs a Dreammachine.’
‘I guess I fixated on that. I’ve had that experience of being in a car while nodding off and the lights going on. I don’t really take drugs. The idea that just through playing around through the senses you can change perception, you can create different states.’
‘I read this book by Catherine Malibou called What Should We Do With Our Brain? It was all about neuro-plasticity. It was looking at this idea about remolding language reception cognition, also making this comparison between neo-Liberalism as well. I thought the conclusions were a bit so-so. I mean it’s only like an 80 or 100-page book, but I thought just reading it was influential for me. It’s something I felt was vital.’
‘I think that’s something I’m really probing in my current work that hasn’t been released yet.’ Steve’s new album, Reengineering, is due out this fall. It’s focused on, ‘this idea of some kind of identity, a concept emerging and then it becomes crystallized. Then as soon as you define something you have this double bind. It becomes quite problematic actually, so then maybe the way around that is to continue to play with that. Maybe chameleon like or maybe just to try and remold it as some attempt at some kind of evasion.’ For Warwick, emergent possibility is an opportunity for playful reconstruction. ‘[If you see it as elastic] it’s like putty or something.’
‘I was looking at emergence of identity, emerging markets, countries, ecologies. Something like Déviation is a reference to diversion, actually. Obviously not everyone knows how to use the ‘é’ accent. I was actually quite happy for it to get mixed up. There’s definitely humour there.’
‘What I thought was really funny, though, is that when Lee Gamble put out his record a few months later his was called Diversions 1994-1996 [on Bill Kouligas’ Berlin based PAN label, which also released Heatsick’s INTERSEX and Déviation]. He told me his comes from détournement, like détourner. Detours. I thought that was really interesting because we sort of cross-referenced each other. Bill Kouligas is the master of NLP [Non-linguistic programming], right?’
‘I liked that was playing around with situationism without really having to explicitly reference it. I thought it was so interesting. I was interested in this link between disco and Musique concrète, in that the extended disco edit is this prolonging of some emotion or response, which is a bit similar to the GRM group of people who would take a sound and then alter it via magnetic tape to alter consciousness or reality. You know, if you listen to a disco track, that’s very much about the prolongment of some ecstatic moment, and when you have a drum ‘n’ bass part, him existing in this fluid parts in between where you’ve got a kind of anticipation, that really prolongs it as well. So in a way I thought it was a perverse disco record.’
‘With music, people have a very immediate reaction to it, so I was wondering if you could make a record that was just about extending this anticipation for as long as possible, which is almost like this ever long climactic release, just to see what that would do to someone.’ A thought realized through Warwick’s live performances.
Seeing the sub-dermal threads through dance music tradition allows Warwick to re-imagine their contours through a circular call and response.
‘I’m really interested in the etymologies of these musics. I guess I really like to keep going back and back. That sample on ‘No Fixed Address’ is from a jazz record. ‘Soon’ by Sonny Sharrock, so that’s Linda Sharrock’s voice. I wanted to sample a jazz record, but then mask it so it sounded like a Todd Terje record. So on the surface, ‘No Fixed Address’ might function like some kind of late-80’s classic house vocal cut up, but if you know what it is it actually kind of alters it a little bit.’
‘I don’t know if you know that track, but it’s basically the thing that Yoko Ono rips off a lot, and definitely William Bennett from Whitehouse, which is to just kind of yell.’
’It’s really important to know what codes you’re playing with, because it makes the game a lot more – ten times more fun.’
The works of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld inspired the title of INTERSEX. Much of the discussion around the album focused on Warwick’s own sexual identity, which he did not shy away from. Instead, he used the opportunity as a chance to comment on the ghettoization of ‘gay music’.
In addition to pioneering work cataloging the varieties of human sexuality and advocating for the rights of those with diverse sexual preferences, Hirschfeld also wrote a book called Racism, causing right wing reactionaries to decry him as the man responsible for the concept. Hirschfeld was not only openly gay but Jewish, and persecuted by the Nazi regime for both. Warwick acknowledges that this intertextual link between racism and sexual discrimination is conscious comment on the double bind of marginalization for all kinds of people.
‘Well, in Germany, they still call it ‘black music’.’
Warwick chooses his words more carefully. ‘Something I find interesting about West African music is that it’s very circular. It’s had a big influence on my music and that’s quite conscious. Maybe it was a bit of revelation for me, but also an affirmation. It relaxed me, actually, because I do feel quite outside of things even now.’
On the connection between mind and body, and the relation of his hyper-intellectual thoughts with his hyper-physical music, Warwick sees no contradiction. ‘I wouldn’t really say I’ve got a prescribed apparatus around it, but on the new record I’m quite curious about how people respond to stimuli. I’ve been analyzing how opinions are molded or tastes or made or markets emerge or prejudices build. In a way, that’s quite self-conscious. At the same time, with the relationship between my practice and my theory, I find that it all overlaps with each other.’
‘Sometimes I’ll sit at home on my own all day reading, and then I’ll go out, and maybe I’ll get drunk, and I’ll talk all these ideas, and then I’ll be in a club or something. Maybe you’re kind of dancing, but you’ll be with someone and you want to talk about it, or you’ll be in a loud bar and one of your friends has been doing the same thing. It’s maybe semi-conscious, but I’ve never felt that they were in conflict.’
‘I’d like people to think. I think that’s important. That’s something I’d really like people to do.’
Warwick is quick to criticize a certain kind of reactive and reductive attitude toward intellectual music and culture. ‘I do have that conversation several times, when people will be like, ‘it’s instant or real or just for the body, it’s not about brain music and stuff.’ I was like, ‘yeah, well, is that just you reacting to the term IDM or something? Or smart phone? Or slow food?’’
‘It’s really interesting in terms of acceleration, actually. You think about DJ Screw. Then you think about that in relation to what it can get used for. Slow tourism. It’s scary, you know. [The appropriation of DJ Screw] into lifestyle marketing.’
Warwick sees the possibility both to escape and create social bonds through dance. Yet he worries some dance experiences are totally individual, even solipsistic, if not considered through the proper self-critical lens.
‘I think dance music and music that you can dance to, it could be quite emancipating or collective or liberating. These are words that are quite taboo these days. They’re very loaded. You also have to remember, it’s because so much power has been invested to smash a collective response. You are making yourself very vulnerable by attempting to change something. It could be a slightly idealized view or maybe slightly naive, but I think when you position yourself against that or realize that, then you can not be so scared of trying to do something to change something you’re not really happy with.’
‘With dance music, I think it is quite a collective experience. Even if I have my worries about it being solipsistic, I shouldn’t worry about it, because people do like coming together, and they do like to share an experience. When you’re at a concert, and it’s a certain time, you’re more of a spectator. When I started going to clubs, it’s like the dance floor turns back on itself. It’s more about what’s happening on the dance floor and how people are interrelating with each other. I feel there’s a lot more potential there.’
‘I would even say I see energy there. It’s a possible inspiration. I think that’s worth pursuing.’
‘But I feel a potentiality there between humans, between anything really, there’s some kind of link that could be explored and should be. I feel it gets deterred.’
‘I just feel that having some kind of sideward glance on something that could disorient it might make you more open to approaching it, because the guard is down.’
For Warwick, dance and sensation have a language all their own outside of the bounds of words and concepts, but also with the power to change the way we use them both. ‘Spirituality is a taboo, yet I feel people could use that term in regard to my work. I equally feel that there are sensations that can exist outside that language associated with spirituality. There is some sort of energy or feeling of anticipation or potential. I want to lower people’s guards to create those sensations and explore that potential.’
Heatsick – No Fixed Address