Marc Houle has travelled a long way from his 1997 residency at Richie Hawtin’s club “13 Below” in Detroit, to being asked to join the legendary Minus label, releasing his first track in 1999 and going to all those Detroit techno and Chicago house parties. Everything you want to know about Marc houle and more...
You say in interviews that you’ve been playing live 6 to 8 years, so what were you doing before that?
When I was little, I had a Casio keyboard, and played the drums. Later on, I was drumming in a rock band for around ten years. Eventually I started collecting more synths and drum machines because I was finding the electronic music way more interesting than the drumming world. I started recording loads of new wave and techno music in my house, which lead me to eventually doing it professionally.
When you were playing at Richie Hawtin’s club in Windsor, were you playing live or were you DJing?
The only time in my life that I ever DJed was at Rich’s club. It was called 13 Below and the night was called “Atari Adventures,” which I ran together with my friend Scott Souilliere. I played there for three years electro and new wave to compliment the video games we had all around the small club—some Ataris, Coleco Vision, Intelevision. People would come and sit down and play these games and we played the music to go along with it.
When did you learn how to DJ in order to play those nights or did you pick it up on the go?
That kind of DJ was more like radio DJ where the song fades out at the end and the next song fades in. It wasn’t beat matching or dance DJing that you hear now at a club where it’s just one continuous mix. Track / fade out / track / fade out. Different tempos and stuff. It didn’t take any skill, just needed to know what music to play. Then the club closed because the city took over the whole block to build a giant high rise, so I stopped DJing.
I didn’t really care about who the DJs were; often I didn’t even know who they were. We’d just go there and party.
How and when did you meet Magda?
Magda was also playing at the club at the same time, she had a residency at 13 Below and we had mutual friends so we’d see each other all the time. Windsor’s not a big place and when we’d go to Detroit to party, it was the same people. So we got to know each other and she eventually moved into my house in Windsor. She saw my studio and was like “wow!” since she was interested in electronic music as well. She listened to all the stuff I was making, and past all the new wave synth lines there were a lot of cool baselines and drumbeats going on that she could use to DJ.
So you were making new wave music back then?
Yeah I was making like a hybrid electro techno some kind of big blur, with a lot of layers of synths going on. She [Magda] said, “Hey if you strip down these songs then I can use them to play out”. So that’s what I did, I made two versions, one for me and one for her to play out... mine obviously had more synths on it. She played them out in her DJ sets, and at the same time she was starting to tour with Rich. He heard these songs “What is all this stuff?” “Oh it’s Marc Houle.” “Ah we gotta release it!” Right about this time, Rich was starting his label Minus, so all the pieces kind of fell together. I put out a release on Minus and it led to another release to another release. Then I started touring.
What year did you start touring?
My first release was in 1999, but that was just a track. First record came out 2004, and shortly after I played my first show in Detroit and my second show at Happy Ending in New York. After that I played Europe, and then after a couple shows in Europe they said, “hey if you want to stay in Europe you can get more shows.” So I ended up staying, quitting my jobs in North America.
They paid the cops off and it went on for a while but then it got more popular across America. At some point the news was like, ARE YOUR KIDS DOING ECSTASY? TUNE IN AT ELEVEN OCLOCK TO FIND OUT and it started getting crazier and people started realizing they could make money from parties.
The parties in Detroit, how were they back then compared to now?
Back then we used to go out every weekend to Detroit for these underground warehouse techno parties. There were different venues big and small and different crews around the city. A lot of times Rich would put some really cool parties on but we didn’t really realize how crazy it was …now I look back and realize how lucky we were to have all these parties going on, playing Detroit techno and Chicago house every weekend at some really cool broken building locations. There were all these DJs from Detroit and Chicago and we used to go there every weekend. I didn’t really care about who the DJs were; often I didn’t even know who they were. We’d just go there and party.
How come nowadays there isn’t that sort of thing? Why have we moved so far away from that?
In the early ‘90s this whole techno rave scene was kind of unknown. Now everyone knows about raves and parties, but back then it was kinda off the radar. They paid the cops off and it went on for a while but then it got more popular across America. At some point the news was like, “ARE YOUR KIDS DOING ECSTASY? TUNE IN AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK TO FIND OUT” and it started getting crazier and people started realizing they could make money from parties. Then the Russian mafia would come in and they would start to run parties. Everyone was starting to run parties and the police were like, “ok this is out of control, we gotta stop it all.” Then it slowly shut down to the point where now it’s pretty much nonexistent in Detroit.
You said you started playing instruments at a very early age. How was your family involved in your music development?
My whole family does music, me and my brothers grew up singing around the house making up stupid songs... not like singing in a choir but stupid joke songs. My sister was a classically trained pianist, so I grew up with a piano in the house. When I was four my parents bought me drums, so I always had drums. My brother played the trumpet and my other brother plays guitar in bands. Music has always been around in my family and I always liked picking up new instruments and learning them on my own... so that’s how I learned playing drums, guitar, bass guitar and piano.
How old were you when you bought your first analogue gear?
In the mid ‘80s, when I was 14 (1986) Casio came out with this keyboard with hexagon drums on it. So with one hand you could play drum sounds and with your left hand you could play the keyboard. Instead of having a drum kit, I could record drums. I’d just record for years, it’s kinda how I learned about scales and what sounds I liked, what moods I liked, what combinations worked for me. It built my sound and from there I wanted something better, so that’s when I bought a Roland JX3P. Then I bought more. I was 19 when I bought that.
I heard you were a graphic designer. How long were you at doing that?
I quit university early to start a web design company in 1992 called “Outputs.” We were one of the first web design companies around. Both of my brothers are designers too. My brother Dave Houle later did the artwork for most of my
releases—Undercover, Bay of Figs, and also did artwork for the last three years of Minus releases, the paint stroke ones, lot of posters for events… he worked heavily for Minus. We did basic graphic design and album covers for local bands and rock flyers and posters. Around 1997 I started with FutureSplash, which was an animation program. I started getting really good with that but at that time Macromedia bought them out and turned them into Flash. Because I was one of the only people in the Detroit area who knew how to do FutureSplash, a lot of auto companies started hiring me to do stuff, so I used to do a lot of animations for Ford, GM, Chrysler… and that was my money. Music I would do for fun, or sometimes I’d combine them, e.g., if I was doing something for GM and they needed some electronic music for a commercial or ad campaigns or for kiosks at the car show. When the music took over I quit that world.
When did you move to Berlin?
Eventually, in 2008.
Tell me about Run Stop Restore.
My first release in 1999 was on a flipside of a Detroit Grand Pubahs album, a cover of The Door’s “Light My Fire.” The name I used for that was Run Stop Restore, because that was the name I called my electronic music project when I was making all this video game music at my house in Windsor. It comes from a Commodore64, there is a certain key press you would do to reset something: hold down the run/stop key and hit the restore key—Run Stop Restore. When I met Magda and Troy and we started producing music together, we were trying to think of a name… so I said you know what, I’m already using Run Stop Restore and I like that name so let’s use that. That’s when it stopped being my personal name and started being the name of our collective. After that I had my first release without them in it, called “Restore.”
For you having so many monikers, do you like that or do you think it distracts from people being able to find your music?
There is Run Stop Restore which is me, Magda, and Troy, but we only had one EP released. And there’s Marc Houle. My other project names have to be different because it’s different music, like Raid Over Moscow is more synthy electro and 2VM is more minimal synth.
What inspired you to move away from the synth music to making techno?
Musically, when I’m at home, I don’t listen to techno ever. I listen to new wave or rock music. I like the drums of the Police, like on a plane I might listen to a Police album. Or I might listen to Depeche Mode. Growing up I was into all these different bands. I had my Black Sabbath life, Ozzy Ozbourne stuff, but I also liked Depeche Mode because of the synthesizers. So that world was always going on. But when I started going into Detroit to all these dance parties, the whole techno stuff and Chicago house sunk into me too. It wasn’t one replacing the other, it was all sort of complementing each other.
If you don’t like to listen to techno at home, now being one of the owners of the label Items & Things, don’t you have to curate a lot of music that’s sent it?
Well luckily for our collective, it’s me, Magda and Troy running the label. They’re both DJs, so they have to seek out new music and invest their time into doing that stuff. I don’t, since I am a live act. I have no clue what other labels or artist names are, I’m pretty clueless about the techno scene name wise—although I always listen intently to the music when I’m at a club.
Anything new in your set up we should know about?
For my live shows I use this custom-made controller that I developed with the company Livid in Texas. Minus just released a slightly different version as the Minus CNTRL:R. I’ve always had a clear idea of what my controller should look like, so I made a design in Photoshop and they sent me a couple of prototypes which I loved. But the rest of the Minus crew didn’t like as many buttons on it so they had a shrunken version made which is the one that got released. They’re almost the same but different amount of buttons. I used to use the Monome before so I was used to the 8x8 button configuration. Now I use a microphone on stage and a synth to make things more special and unique.
You recently released a Remiix App? How did you get approached about that?
Remiix is being developed and released by the Liine guys who have their office within the Minus office, so I would see them all the time and we’re friends. I noticed they did one for Ali (Dubfire) and a Minus one. After I gave them some tracks for the Minus one, I said, “Hey why don’t we do a Marc Houle one?” They were into that so that’s how we came up with the App. And there will be a large update in the next weeks with new artwork, 28 new basslines and 32 new drum loops.