Theo Parrish: "Bring Your Open Mind and Your Need to Get Down"
Theo Parrish is a producer's producer. The Detroit techno veteran's experimental flair puts him as much in the realm of avant-garde sound art as that of electronic dance music.
After all, Parrish was creating sound sculptures and installations as a student at the Kansas City Art Institute before he was dropping beats at the club. And these days, fellow Motor City residents can often catch him roaming the streets with a microphone in hand, searching for quirky new samples to record and bring into the studio.
Of course, the world knows Theo Parrish first and foremost as a consummate purveyor of techno grooves and the boss of Signature Sound, a bastion of cutting-edge electronic dance music.
Next week, he will host a headlining show at the Electric Pickle in Miami. So we here at Crossfade caught up with the DJ, producer, and label head to chat about his Detroit influences, studio wizardry, and the "need to get down."
Crossfade: How would you say Detroit shaped you as an artist? Is Theo Parrish -- his sound, ethos and work ethic -- categorically a product of Detroit?
Theo Parrish: I would say Detroit has changed me in every way, except for my core operating system and code. I'm a product of what this world has shown me, like everybody. However, I rarely entertain categorical discussions when talking about creativity -- it's too limiting. And Detroit, as well as every city, has creativity in the ghetto. It's how that creative energy gets channeled -- that's what determines whether a generation will witness quality thought.
What keeps you living and working in Detroit after all these years? Is there a sense for you that by staying there, you can continue tapping into local energies and soaking up the elements which feed your creativity?
You presume a bit. I'm a Midwest resident -- no matter where I go, that's who I am. People in that part of the world don't refer to themselves in the third person, unless they're an angry pimp or something: "I said get in the car! Silky's not havin' it tonight!" So it's a different ethic there. People aren't impressed very easily, and simply absorbing like a mosquito really doesn't work. People have tried to come in and soak up some of Detroit's Seven Mile and Ryan dust, put it after their name on some flyers, and moved to Europe. You can try that, but you still won't have immersed yourself in what this place does for you, and to you. You'd still be a tourist. I've been here 17 years and still feel like a tourist sometimes.
You attended the Kansas City Art Institute in your youth, where you concentrated on sound sculptures. Could you tell us a little about what those projects were all about?
The only thing an educational center teaches is skill. Not drive, not passion, not obsession, not interest -- just skills. So a natural application became evident through the work. It challenged a few people. This was the '90s -- racial tension was high, dance music was semi-street at the time. I saw galleries as spaces for parties, appreciated art on a visceral level. The established coda of what art is and what art isn't and who gets to make millions in art is a very cold and calculated environment. That environment is about objects.
I had fun. Empty a gallery, set up a piano, mics, run a turntable, a reel-to-reel, some bee buzzers, a cellist, a subwoofer. Arrange the noises into rhythmic coherency. Blindfold people. Let 'em in and let 'em out 10 minutes later. The hard part was getting the concept airtight enough to withstand the teacher's critique. That one worked. Real life was waiting to see if doing that could pay back my school loans.