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March 26-April 1, 2009Context cues
Brooklyn-based DJ Olive lends KGNU his danceable decor
by Elliott Johnston
In various settings around the globe, Gregor Asch, better known as DJ Olive, uses his laptop, stuffed with snippets of pre-recorded sounds, to make people dance. Along with helping to found the taste-making electronic label The Agriculture, he has collaborated with and collected sounds from a colossal array of musicians. The list — which includes Medeski, Martin & Wood, Sonic Youth, John Zorn, Mike Watt, Jim O’Rourke, Charlie Hunter and more — can perk up a wide swath of adventurous ears, bridging a mess of genre divides. Olive’s dance parties are enveloping bass-orgies packed with impressionistic dub, soul, funk and world musics marinating in found sounds, an inviting sonic collage aimed at luxuriating amongst the omnipresent clangy-clacky city-noise of his Brooklyn home.
In addition to the senses-forward, instant gratification of dance music, Asch uses his art to put people to sleep. On purpose. He’s created a series of “sleeping pills,” which are beat-less ambient pieces designed to get the party snoozing. Last year, at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial in NYC, Asch contributed an installation and held a slumber party designed to promote stress-relief and unity (can you imagine a setting, outside of pre-school, where you felt comfy enough to doze off with strangers?).
Asch’s compelling time-and-place aesthetic philosophy, which argues that music’s success and failure rests with the environment in which it is played, springs from his formative years in the early ’90s Williamsburg scene, a brief pre-Giuliani time window when rents were dirt-cheap, no one was looking, and Asch and his friends started building their own culture at illegal warehouse parties.
“People were rejecting a mainstream way of presenting yourself,” he says. “And the Brooklyn scene was kind of revolting against that self-entrepreneurial, savvy sense of selling yourself which was happening in Manhattan. We were re-contextualizing what they were doing, so taking art out of the gallery, taking music off the stage and taking food out of the restaurant, and mixing it all up and making it more underground.”
When Giuliani and the mid-’90s hit, their homegrown scene died quick. Asch joined two friends and formed the electronic band We, a group that became known under a new genre banner illbient, which married hip-hop beats with more mellowed textures. Asch says that DJ Spooky, aka journalist and filmmaker Paul D. Miller, had a lot to do with arguing the genre and ’90s-era intellectualized DJ culture into the mainstream. The popularization of the sound, in addition to the demise of the warehouse scene, meant We had to think about playing touring gigs, which for Asch meant cutting loose a huge part of his aesthetic: controlling the environment.
Somewhere around this time, he fell into DJing.
“I never really set out to be a DJ,” he says. “I was doing installations in Williamsburg, and we started We and DJing was really for me,
like, having fun. Initially DJ Olive was a joke that stuck on me.”
Now, he sees his DJ role as an enjoyable way to fund trans-Atlantic flights, installation projects and the less glamorous day-to-day.
“I’m kind of like a musical whore,” he says. “You know, so, someone calls me with a project, a remix, I’ll listen to them, as long as they treat me OK. If you don’t beat me, it’s OK. If you treat me bad, I’m not gonna do the work, or if it’s just total shit, I won’t do it. But often if I feel I can add a little something to it, and that person feels the same, then OK, I get some money.
“But I don’t think that DJing in a club is really any cutting edge kind of thing.”
Still, in spite of his lukewarm enthusiasm about DJing in traditional settings, Asch can’t help but think about an evening in a club like he would in a makeshift art space. He’s still intent on playing off of the surrounds. If it’s a dance party — as Saturday night at the b.side Lounge will be — he designs his set, which is improvised on the spot on his laptop, to fit the moment.
“Everything shines in its certain context,” he says. “And a lot of that context, I feel, is the environment. Where it’s situated. What kind of venue? What kind of experience do you have getting in and out of the venue? What kind of cultural references does the venue have? Are you sitting? Are standing? Are you lying down? Is it daytime? Is it nighttime? Who plays before? Who plays after? These things all help contextualize what is the right sound for that environment. That’s also key to DJing: playing the right records at the right time.”
When considering DJ Olive’s music, Asch says that it’s important not to think too hard. It’s easy to get swept up in the highbrow aspects of his bio — the installations at world-renowned modern art galleries, his collaborations with some of the avant-garde musical elite, his against-the-grain art-school arguments. Really, whether he’s presenting music to make you dance or to drool on a pillow, he’s seeking a spontaneous body reaction, not a smartypants cocktail conversation.
The prime reason why Asch is suspicious of the average, stage-performer-audience setting, as opposed more creative set-ups, is because he is placed on a pedestal, and out of habit, the audience both expects and, in a way, depends on a performance.
“I think that’s why in the early ’90s, you had a lot of people who were starting to do that more electro approach [begin to incorporate entertaining costumes and routines] because they were suddenly onstage with a laptop and everyone was staring at them. They had to get back to doing a performance, because otherwise people would think they were checking their e-mail or something.
“So I think the problem is not really in the music itself, it’s how it’s contextualized. If the context is that you are stuck on a stage with your laptop and there are lights going at you, people start to say, ‘What the fuck is this? This isn’t a performance.’ But if you take yourself off the stage and you put the audience on the stage, then all of a sudden the music becomes alive in its correct context. And that’s how dance music always was. It’s not meant to be thought about or stared at. Its use is to be danced to. You are just not going to get it if you don’t shake your booty.”
On the Bill
DJ Olive performs with DJ Ivy, Spaceflight Orchestra and Mr. Anonymous at 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, at the b.side Lounge, 2017 13th St., Boulder, 303-473-9463. The event will be broadcast live on KGNU and all proceeds will benefit the
station. DJ Olive will also be a guest on the KGNU show Dub Palace at 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 29.