The Perfectionist – In Praise of Luke Hess

Raised in the dystopian Techno environment that was the city of Detroit’s most significant contribution to the world of music, Luke Hess carries with him a tradition of music that stretches back to the origins of the genre. Alongside the musical history of the city, is a penchant towards a side of music that seems an entire world away from the soundscape of the motor city. Dub, a style of music that has it’s roots in the warm Caribbean, extenuating the resigned pace of island living should have no place in the technologically-inspired, sci-fi referencing music we’ve come to know as Techno. And yet it is there, informing some of the progressive nature of Hess’ music – something the artist sees as a definite part of his musical temperament, but one that doesn’t define him, as he explains in an interview with RA. “I’m not sure why I was labelled a dub techno producer. I think it helps people sleep well at night when they can push an artist into a certain genre and leave them there. Sure, it has elements of ‘dub’, but it’s mainly based on my influences from artists in Detroit, not from dub Techno.” Luke Hess and his distinctive brand of Techno is familiar for its inclination to loiter in the repetitive and restrained aspects of this loop-based music, often meandering around progressive elements that need time and patience to gestate within the listener. If you give Luke Hess the opportunity, his music opens up to a synthetic landscape that assimilates the history of Techno in Detroit in a language that determines its future.

“Detroit always contributes to my productions in some way. I’m in and around the city almost every day. The city’s hardships as well as its positive aspects are affecting everyone here in some way, whether its work related, or life related. The people of this city are affected in many ways by what is left of the city and what is slowly growing out of its rough past, whether it’s our ability to commute from one area to another, where we have the freedom to eat and live, it effects how we choose to express our creative ideas, and where and how we choose to spend our time.” But like most of Detroit’s legacy in Techno, Luke’s history doesn’t originate spontaneously with the music, but like so much of his peers, has its roots in the synthesiser music of European acts like Depeche Mode. Originally the influence of his parents this music would have a profound effect on Luke Hess – like it did Jeff Mills and the Belleville Three before him – and when the teenager was old enough to start attending the warehouse parties in- and around Detroit, it filtered into an individual taste in music, inspired by the scene around him. “There were so many great DJ’s in Detroit in the mid‐90’s” Luke tells Richard Fearless in an interview for the Ransom Note. “I think I was very spoiled. Heckle & Jeckle, Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, Daniel Bell, Rolando, Richie Hawin etc….

However, I think one of the longest and most technical sets I’ve ever seen was Richie Hawtin Decks, FX & 909 show at The Works at a show called 1. I think Rich played for about 10 hours with 2 decks, vinyl, fx and a 909. The front room was a chill out room and there was a large screen that had a camera on the Vestax mixer from the main room Rich was playing in. When it became too packed in the back room, I’d just sit up front and watch the screen and his hands on the mixer. It was a very inspiring night.” It seems to be a seminal moment in the career path of Luke Hess, and one that acts as a catalyst from which a career spawned. “I started collecting records in 1997” says Luke in that same conversation. “Between 1997 and 2005 I DJ’ed vinyl at local events around the city, but I wasn’t part of any crew, so it was difficult to play out often. I started producing music in 2006, mostly with software at that time, taking lessons from my good friend Brian Kage. We were all feeding off technical ideas from each other including Seth Troxler, Ryan Crosson, Lee Curtiss, Brian Kage, Joshua Mathews, Keith Kemp etc. I then bought my first synthesizer at the end of 2006 – the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and was given the RE‐201 from some friends who found it cleaning out someone’s basement. With these two pieces of gear I formed a 5-track demo that I sent to some European labels with no response. So, I just continued to make music. In the mean time, I was still shopping for records, sometimes at Melodies and Memories on the East side of Detroit (9 mile and Gratiot). At the time Seth Troxler worked at that record store. He would pull records for me and call me when new 12” arrived. One day we were sitting in the back room listening to records together and I told him about this demo that I made. He told me to bring it into the store and we listened to it. He then asked if he could keep the demo and I agreed. The next day Omar S. called me and asked if he could meet me and put out some of the tracks on the CD. This was Dubout #1 on FXHE records. He said, ‘Don’t give my number to nobody, you don’t know it!’ I figured he meant business. Haha! Since then Alex and I have become great friends and he has been a huge mentor for my music career.”

An EP followed on FXHE boasting the EP1 catalogue number  and introduced the world to a sound of Techno that lies further on the progressive spectrum than it ever did before. It’s a sound that also caught the attention of Danish label Echocord, whose own philosophy ran perpendicular to Hess’ inclinations to dubbier and warmer end of dance music and Techno. A few EP’s naturally followed, which eventually culminated in the decisive mark in Hess’ discography, his debut album Light in the Dark. Like the EP’s before it, the music did away with the shackles of obvious common denominators in music, and played in dub moments as much as it played in the sci-fi world of Detroit Techno. There has always been a very surreal spirituality in Luke’s music in which it unwinds rather than unravels easing the listener into some heightened consciousness as it travels through the progression. It’s something that’s been marked in his DJ sets too with the word perfectionist often thrown around in association with Luke in that context. “As a DJ I think it’s important to stand out and tell your own story – not blend in to secure gigs or (please the crowd)”, says Luke in another interview for 160g. “Underground music is the perfect platform to tell a story and open up people’s minds. A DJ performance should take people somewhere unique and push boundaries.” This sentiment can be experienced as a natural extension of his work in the studio, but also what you’d expect from a live show with Luke Hess. He is a perfectionist through and through, and even when we got in touch with him with some questions for an interview, he tried to oblige, but couldn’t let the music suffer as a result. “I’m so sorry” he says in a reply email. “I won’t have time tonight after all do complete the questions. (I’m) prepping music for the show and it’s taking longer than I thought! But better the music be right than the interview”.

It’s this kind of professionalism that’s hard to ignore in Luke’s music, his sets and his live shows. It’s the same reason he graces the presence of labels like FXHE and Echocord, and remained friends with both Kenneth Christiansen and Omar S after the fact. They certainly recognised something in his talent, enough so to keep releasing his music and invite him to their parties. We might not have been afforded the opportunity to interview Luke Hess, but at least we know that the music will be there, at the end, doing all the talking, and all that’s left for us to do is sit back, listen, and enjoy the show.