There is really nothing to add to Chris' monumental post describing Labyrinth in 2010. So what I decided to do was tell you all how I got there, and how I felt when I arrived, and how that is connected to mnml ssgs and everything else. Bear with me, this story takes some telling. For my part, I'll do my best to make it worth your while.
I entered the labyrinth sometime around the middle of January 2000, when I walked into a small shop on one of the top floors of Harajuku’s Laforet Building. Single, barely twenty, first time in Tokyo, I was looking for flyers for techno parties, still riding the fantasy of actually seeing Jeff Mills live at the Liquid Room, and maybe meeting some really cool, hot girl who ‘totally got me’. Most of the flyers were for shitty cyber trance parties, but there was one that stood out precisely because of the absence of eye-popping fonts and laser beam colours. I was, of course, totally clueless, but I was mad keen for a way in, and now I had the way in my hand: a small, square, unobtrusive flyer for a club called Maniac Love. I didn’t know shit about it beyond what I’d read in the Lonely Planet: it was a dedicated techno club, where Jeff Mills himself had played. Maybe he’d be there that night! On the spot I convinced my friend Dave to come along with me. All we had to do now was figure out where the fuck Minami Aoyama was.
On the night in question we found ourselves wandering around Aoyama, at the location of the club as indicated by the map on the flyer. It was deserted, and the last train was ten minutes off (if we could even find our way to the station). We were just two Australian backpacker schmucks standing with nothing in our hands but a tiny, square flyer on a featureless residential back street. There was a long moment where we were about to concede defeat, and run to find that train. Then I spied a foreigner.
‘Maniac Love? You’re standing right on top of it, mate!’ So said a fairly geezerish English guy, before leading us down a tiled staircase to an unadorned door. We had found a way in! In weird contrast to the empty, silent street upstairs, the club was more than half full – had the locals and the DJ come in through another, tinier, even more secret entrance? It was dark, the sound system was massive, and the techno was remorselessly intense. Perfect.
We danced until about 4am, then retired to the mezzanine bar overlooking the floor. That’s where we met Tsutomu: not a girl, and not really that cool – but hey, he definitely ‘got me’. Six months later, and Tsutomu was living in my friend’s shed in Kensington, making Denki Groove compilations for unsuspecting Melbourne friends, practicing Bob Marley songs on a purloined acoustic guitar, smoking weed, and feeling paranoid and depressed about losing his kanji and his social capital in a city that couldn’t give a shit what Todai was. Now Tsutomu works for Sumitomo Bank, and lives in Setagaya with a wife he bitches about to anonymous bartenders, or anyone else who’ll listen. His first role at Sumitomo was selling agribusiness chemicals to Jamaica.
Forward to March or April 2002, and I’m lying on a futon on Tsutomu’s living room floor, in a rickety first floor 1LDK in Higashi Jujo not far (enough) from the local rubbish incinerator, feeling totally pleased with myself. I’d made my first dream come true: now I was living in Tokyo, with a cool, hot girl I’d brought with me from Melbourne who ‘totally got me’ (some things do work out just like you planned, without you deserving or earning it). I was living it: now there would be ample time to make it to the Liquid Room, and see Jeff Mills, finally. ‘Hey guys, what took you so long?’ he would say. ‘Hey Jeff, wazzup!’
Beside the futon was a massive set of Ikea cases, filled with records. And on top of the cases was another, fresher fantasy of mine: a pair of decks (actually, and very irritatingly, one CDJ and one Technics turntable) and a battle mixer. On my chest, a collection of short stories by Patrick White, open at a passage that had made me pause and drift and, you know, think about, like, where I was, and how cool that was, ’n stuff. I ‘just knew’ I was gonna totally make it, either as world’s coolest DJ (taken very seriously by smart people who knew about these things to the point of writing for the Wire), or as a Very Important Literary Author. Probably I would follow Patrick and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hell, I would show them all and DJ all night at the wild afterparty that would surely follow my memorable acceptance speech! The fact I couldn’t even beatmatch, that I hadn’t so much as written a chapter, didn’t matter, not at all: my self belief was as monumentally unshakeable as my stupendous, stupid inability to understand what becoming either of those two dreamy people might actually involve in terms of hours, tears, pain, sacrifice. I was far from all that.
A month later, and things were really bad at Tsutomu’s place. We’d had too much duty-free vodka, and a falling out over Detroit techno (why is it always Detroit techno?) that involved me mocking his fetishisation of a particular Kevin Saunderson record by licking it, and him throwing a full can of Asahi Red right at said record. What was I doing staying at his place for nearly six weeks? Why did I think that it wouldn’t all end in tears? That’s how I was: I ‘just knew’ things would work out, because, shucks, I was a lucky guy. That’s how little I thought things through back then. I navigated everything on passionate intuition, buoyant optimism and force of personality. I might as well have been America.
Despite coming to Japan without a job, without contacts, without so much as a suit or a CV, I had miraculously scored a job in Shibuya, not five minutes walk from Cisco’s House and Techno stores, which a still-friendly Tsutomu had introduced me to. Now I had money for a place of my own, records, and soon: turntables. My worries were over! In the penultimate discussion before Kevin’s groove met Tsutomu’s can, Tsutomu leveled with me: you will never be a DJ if you keep buying classic records: ‘You should find contemporary techno, push new sounds.’ I listened to that, at least. In fact, he’s still right. On the next visit to Cisco, with Tsutomu’s words in mind, I decided to stop buying stuff that had already been, and start browsing for the future. Which seemed to be from Berlin, not Detroit. So I spent over an hour scouring the boxes, and came home with two recordings that, little that I knew it at the time, would change my life, enable the possibility of mnml ssgs, and lead me (and maybe even Chris) to labyrinth in 2010.
The two recordings were Pantytec’s Elastobabe, and DJ Highfish’s Nighteffect. I’ll come back to the Pantytec later: first, Nighteffect. I bought this one for the amazing cover, the intimation of an impossibly cool Berlin nightlife at this WMF place (that some German had told me I HAD to go to, along with Robert Johnson), and the fact that I thought I was buying a mix CD by a DJ who had managed to string Chicks on Speed, Zombie Nation, Steve Bug, Farben and Pole into a mix. Wow, Berlin was so cool! It turned out to be a mere compilation, but, with burgeoning Berlin dreams in my head, I wore the sucker out on my commutes to and from my new job teaching English, which didn't yet seem like the life sucking, soul-destroying monster it quickly became.
Nighteffect wasn’t the best compilation ever (actually, it’s worth tracking down for the amazingly cool track with Ben Klock doing electro and the classic ‘Die Discofibel’ by Mitte Karaoke), but it was good enough to get me to DJ Highfish’s gig a couple of months later – about June 2002. It was him and David Caretta, who pumped out a beyond-lame electro set in a cape and lycra… maybe there were even sequins? Anyway, while Caretta flopped it out for about an hour or, I met Highfish, who was very personable, told me to come to Berlin, and even gave me his email address, which was on the back of a WMF business card (the same font and colours as the compilation! OMG!). After the social success of my Highfish high I was ready to meet and greet anyone and everyone. It was at this precise mood and moment that I busted up and introduced myself to Cam Eeles, who longtime readers would know as one of the founding SSGs.
Cam and I became close friends. For the first time in my life, I had someone to go to electronic music gigs with. In my formative years transitioning out of noise rock and post rock, I had to bribe people with ‘incentives’ in order to get them to join me in late night escapades. Because of this, my approach to electronic music was inseparable from a certain alienation: going solo to nightclubs, putting on CDs that everyone else hated, cultivating a passion that few of my friends cared about our understood. Like Tsutomu, Cam did really ‘get me’. Unlike Tsutomu, Cam was not (is not) crazy. This is a conspicuous advantage for the formation and maintenance of friendships.
I don’t want to diminish the independent value of my friendship with Cam, but his invaluable role as a link in the chain bears mentioning: Cam was how I met Chris. No Cam, no Chris. No Highfish gig, no Cam. No Highfish CD, no Highfish gig. No Tsutomu, no Highfish CD. No Maniac Love, no Tsutomu. No Tokyo, no Maniac Love. No Jeff Mills, no Tokyo. Of course, any of those links were possible independently, they might have happened. But it’s a long shot, a crap shoot, a dice throw. The point is, that’s what did happen, and that’s why things are the way they are.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far gets you to mnml ssgs, or at least, the conditions that enabled it to be. Of course, in the interim, Chris and I managed to stay alive, stay in contact, stay friends, stay passionate about music, and even develop our passion through our (dis)agreements with one other. Given the amount of people who’ve dropped off in one way or another, that by itself is no mean feat. But that doesn’t get us to labyrinth. Back to Pantytec.
I knew Tsutomu was right about techno: there really was no point playing old classics. Mourn the past, then turn and face the strange. Anything else is just pretending that change isn’t happening, that change is what happens to other people. In a way, Tsutomu just gave me the confidence to carry the inkling of the new I got through hearing Herbert’s Let’s All Make Mistakes mix (about which a long post forthcoming). Let’s All Make Mistakes might have reinforced my unfortunate tendency to be socially sloppily exuberant, but the other important message it gave me was Playhouse and Perlon… ‘This was the way in,’ I thought. Herbert may be a (talented) douchebag, but I have to thank him, and Tsutomu. I owe them a lot. That’s life: you walk around bumping into things and people, accumulating debts and lumps.
So, Perlon: when I heard ‘Elastobabe’, I thought my head would cave in. It didn’t sound like house, it didn’t sound like techno, it sounded like magma. ‘This shit is from space,’ I thought. I was an instant, deep, categorical Perlon convert, and bought every one of their new records on sight as they arrived at Cisco, throughout 2003–4. I even defended Narcotic Syntax’ ‘Calculated Extravagant Licentiousness’ to an unconvinced Scott ‘Deadbeat’ Montieth in Yellow. I think Narcotic Syntax won that one.
During this time, Cam and I (and, after a while, Janet) were going out to gigs almost every weekend, treating Kompakt, 12k, Raster Noton and Alter Ego with equal passion. Then, in early 2004 (I think), at a Superpitcher gig at another tiny club in Minami Aoyama called Loop, I met an obnoxious but friendly New Zealander named Jeremy. Neither of us were that taken with Superpitcher’s set (who could be?), but we quickly discovered that both of us had a lot of musical ground in common, so we ended up making a long night of it, detouring via his house in Shimokitazawa. If memory serves, we then shlepped back to Maniac Love, which by 2004 had become a pretty nasty recovery joint full of big drag queens (why is it the nastier the recovery club, the bigger the drag queens?). By this stage, Tsutomu was wearing a suit on a plane to Kingston.
Little more than a year later, and my Tokyo dream was over. It all happened with a weird combination of bangs and whimpers: some of it imploded, some of it decayed, some of it just faded away. But I could beatmatch (sort of), and I had written half of the first draft of a mediocre novel… Oh, and I had met Jeff Mills, though not at Maniac Love or the Shinjuku Liquid Room, which had closed the year before. He was like a fey little tiger, very well dressed and softly spoken, and he dealt with my fandom as quickly and smoothly as a crossfade out of a fluffed mix.
So we’d done it, and we were done, and it was all over. Now we were on our way to Europe, first for my lady’s dream (Paris), then for mine (Berlin). I even got to go to a temporary club the WMF had set up that summer. But the place that people were really buzzing about was this joint called the Panoramabar that had opened only a year before. It had a real Wolfgang Tillmans original on the wall, it never closed on the weekend, and if you were really hardcore, there were all these dungeons that smelt of shit and amyl nitrate where you could make your fantasies come true… or so I’d heard… I indulged my tame fantasies by staying upstairs for the Perlon night, keeping myself awake by drinking long glasses of wheat beer, and smugly telling people how much better the clubs were in Tokyo.
In September 2005, I returned to Tokyo on my way back to Melbourne: penniless, rudderless, emptied out, sobered up, but well aware of where I actually was. All I had to do was go home, face life in the wrong hemisphere, nurse the tender scars of budding adult ‘reality’, and figure out what the fuck I was actually going to do with whatever time I had left. Honestly, it felt like that. From the psychological safety of 2010, the poignancy seems delicious, especially given the ridiculous pretenses and delusions I’d entertained circa Tsutomu’s futon. But in 2005 I thought the world was ending; I was too bummed to taste anything, least of all the filter coffee, bananas, white rice and natto I was living on. I did all I thought I was capable of at that low ebb: I slept in and hung out at my friend Ryan’s apartment in Itabashi, watching documentaries and browsing online and in Shibuya for drum machines I couldn't afford but did anyway. Ryan’s place was on the 13th floor. In the evenings I stood on the balcony and watched the Saikyo line spit commuters into and out of the belly of the beast, and nurtured the cut-price comfort of a cheap, shoddily constructed, self-indulgent melancholy. Some days the sunset over Akabane was so beautiful I even forgot to feel sorry for myself, just for a few fading orange minutes.
A few days further in to that wannabe downward spiral holding pattern and I got an email from Jeremy, about some outdoor party called ‘the Labyrinth’ that I’d vaguely heard of. I have a deep and abiding suspicion of hippies, and I hate psytrance. And I was broke. But: I was bored. Shit, I was even getting bored of feeling sorry for myself. So I called him to let him convince me. ‘Who’s playing?’ I asked. If he said Tsuyoshi Suzuki, Ree K or Infected Mushroom, the answer was gonna be an unconditional NO. ‘Mathew Jonson,’ he replied. I instantly thought to myself: ‘Typerope’. And besides, he’d released on Perlon. ‘Okay,’ I said.
Labyrinth 2005 was amazing; it pulled me out of my stupid funk, and showed me how incredible electronic music can be when its shared in the company of warm, friendly people on a proper sound system (which shouldn’t be that tough or rare a combo to crack, but is). Not even the psytrance hippies bothered me. Actually, I liked them. Most of them. Not the yakuza ones, they were a bit scary. And even though there were some stinky trance acts and a few fairly forgettable sets by Minilogue and some dude associated with Border Community, Mathew Jonson totally owned it. It was one of those pivotal moments, where you look around and notice everyone going ‘Oh’. In fact, what Jonson proved that day was the extent to which the techno kids and the hippies need each other. This is still true. In fact, Labyrinth has been proving this year after year ever since. All you have to do is let the techno kids, with their tight, maniacal geek intensity, take care of the music. But put them in front of a group of people who won’t let ‘away toilet situations’ and any kind of weather get in the way of getting loose, and freaking out, all night and all day (hint: those are the hippies). Then, just install and tune the best sound system known to mankind… and keep the techno kids away from the cactus.
Labyrinth 2005 re-opened a gig imagination that had become torpid, jaded, and full of stupid prejudices (that was me, in case you didn’t guess). It also turned me off nightclubs forever, and made the conditions in most Melbourne nightclubs unbearable. But again, my being there was a total dice throw. No Cam, no Superpitcher gig. No Superpitcher gig, no Jeremy. No Jeremy, no Labyrinth 2005 – just me staring at an Akabane sunset with a can of Yebisu in one hand, wondering where it all went wrong. Actually, SSGs– and maybe even Labyrinth – owe Jeremy more than that. After all, he was the one who sent Chris and me the first Dozzy set we’d ever heard, on Mental Groove’s old website in 2006.
There are further weird connections, once you add in Lado, Cam’s old English teaching school, and the way that connects Cam to Tami, Tami to Chris, Tami to Jeremy, Cam, Chris and me to Jeff, Tami and Jeremy to RA, and even Tami and Jeremy’s adventure at RA to Todd Burns’ current stewardship of the website. Again, any of these connections may have been made otherwise: the point was, they weren’t – what I’ve told you is actually what happened, and as far as I’m concerned, those are the only reasons why anyone is at any gig anywhere. Thank you, contingency. And stupidity: in some cases, none of these connections would have happened without my gauche, indomitable enthusiasm. And thank you sociability: in all cases, these connections were a matter of flesh-and-blood people busting up to and introducing themselves. I have to remember how much my life was changed by these meetings, and be a bit less standoffish, like I used to be back then. You should too.
In 2010, almost everything else about electronic music has become ambivalently entangled with information, promo, piracy, and jet lag – all of which there is too much of, and which has destroyed many of the possibilities that existed ten years ago (while opening up other possibilities, like stealing music, podcasts, iPods, and mnml ssgs). But all that will change, or be destroyed. The only thing that matters is passion for the music, friendship, and transformation – for as long as we remember.
All of the above blurred through my brain the moment that Scuba dropped AFX’s ‘Tha’ on the first night of Labyrinth 2010. That track was like a memory bomb that detonated – I know I wasn’t the only person on the floor who felt that. I thought (in the voice of David Byrne), ‘My God, how did I get here?’ Like most great moments, it had that exquisite bittersweetness: lost worlds, faded friendships, broken dreams, disillusionment – goodbye Liquid Room, goodbye Maniac Love, goodbye Cisco. And maybe (with the open possibility of a future hello): goodbye Cam, goodbye Janet, goodbye Jeremy. But it also opened a whole horizon of expectation, laying out a new experience, and a new set of connections, that I’m still very much processing. Gimme another decade on that one. Then, on the following night, Sam Shackleton – there’s Perlon again, they’re not lying about the superlongevity thing – ripped me a new one, guaranteeing that I’ll still be here, or there, or anyway in the labyrinth, with my friends, for another ten years and more. I’m already saving. Be careful: this shit will change your life. No, take care – it already has.