I have met Juana in 2017, when she came to my studio in Amsterdam. Back then I was just a photographer who was slowly developing a passion for electronic music and an addiction for vinyls. I felt incredibly honoured that she found some space in her schedule during her stay in Europe to meet me to do this interview as she was not feeling very well at the time and the same day she had her long flight back to the US. Yet, she did not cancel and being a journalist and a musician herself, she supported my idea of running an electronic music blog that aims to focus on the underground scene.
After a couple of minutes into our conversation, I asked for her permission to record the entire interview with my phone as the way she was telling her story was so compelling that I didn’t feel like taking notes; I just wanted to sit there and listen – with full dedication. The samples taken that day were sleeping on my hard drive for almost two years. Juana stayed patient throughout these past two years. She fully understood my personal struggles with the blog and my own life, supported the name change of the blog and the website and never ever asked if this interview will ever see the day of light. On the contrary, when she got the chance to play at De School Amsterdam during her visit in 2018, she put me on her guest list without any hesitation, which really showed what a sweet and caring person she is. End of February 2019, the news broke about Juana and another fellow Discwoman of hers, Akua playing in the upcoming BOILER ROOM on tour edition in Utrecht (NL) organised by club WAS. Therefore I couldn’t be more delighted to finally be able to pen down her story.
The minute Juana walked through the door, she came across as an energetic, vibrant personality and she never stopped smiling! We took some photos afterwards and although I know by now that she is not a fan of having press photos taken, she was very easy-going about them. I chose to feature the one in this blog post which I hope she liked the most and which in my opinion, the best reflects her character – an unstoppable energy bomb, full of positivity and with her own words: “princesa de oscuridad, party animal, chicagoan, discwoman “.
Let’s start to roll out the thread by starting with the last two: Chicagoan. Discwoman.
“Discwoman is a New York-based platform, collective, and booking agency founded by Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (I’d recommend to listen to her RA Exchange interview), Emma Burgess-Olson (also known as Umfang) and Christine McCharen-Tran. Discwoman’s aim is to showcase and represent talents in the New York area electronic music scene. Started as a two-day festival in September 2014 at Bossa Nova Civic Club, Discwoman has since produced and curated events in more than 20 cities and is working with over 200 DJs and producers to-date.”
Maybe some of you can relate and some of you can not, but even though as a millennial I am blessed with fast speed internet access to the world wide web, things that happen overseas in different time zones, often stay a grey area and go unnoticed by. I only realised, how little I knew about the current scene overseas, when some years ago, I dug up some cool electro stuff in a Berlin record shop which was from a young, contemporary American artist. That was when I decided that it was time for me to explore what was happening outside Europe, particularly in the underground scene. Since this scene is standing on the shoulders of giants, I decided to briefly enumerate the most important North-American electronic music pioneers, also to give a better understanding of the background Juana comes from.
Electronic music pioneers of the USA
When one looks deeper into the origins of electronic music, one stumbles upon many-many American artists. While to Europeans, names like Daphne Oram (UK) (optical synthesiser), Delia Derbyshire (UK), Dick Raaijmakers (NL) (aka Kid Baltan) or Tom Dissevelt (NL) from the Philips Laboratories (Natlab) might sound most familiar, there are many-many American pioneers who deserve to be known for their groundbreaking inventions.
I would definitely differentiate between first and second generation of electronic music pioneers. I would count to the first generation of pioneers the American Louis en Bebe Barron who are credited with writing the first electronic music for magnetic tape. Then I would definitely mention Clara Rockmore and Robert Moog, the pioneers of a very unusual electronic musical instrument, controlled without physical contact, the Theremin. The instrument (which was originally known as the etherphone) was invented in 1920 and it was named after its inventor, the Russian Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known in the West as Léon Theremin). After a lengthy tour in Europe, Termen moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928.
Clara Rockmore was one of the most famous ‘thereminist’ touring around the USA. “After the Second World War, the theremin fell into disuse as newer electronic instruments were introduced that were easier to play. However, a niche interest in the theremin persisted. Robert Moog, who began building theremins in the 1950s, while he was a high-school student, stayed enthusiastic about the instrument and he credited the theremin experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog.
Wendy Carlos, best known for her electronic music and film scores in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, was one of those overseeing the development of the Moog synthesizer. Once the Moog was there, the experimenting had begun. The first person who tried to combine her own voice with one of the first Moog synthesizers in the late 1960s was artist Annette Peacock.
The Chicago-born Laurie Spiegel, who worked for the Bell Laboratories in computer graphics, is known primarily for her electronic-music compositions and her algorithmic composition software called Music Mouse.
Another internationally acclaimed American composer, performer and humanitarian who has explored sound for four entire decades was Pauline Oliveros – forging new ground for herself and others through improvisation, and combining electronic music with rituals, teaching and meditation.”
Outside Europe, the roots of techno and electro lead us to the second generation of electronic music pioneers of Chicago and Detroit. The two major collectives of American artists who are the most closely associated with the birth of Detroit techno as a genre: the movement of the musical collective of the Underground Resistance, founded by Jeff Mills and Mike Banks in 1989, later joined by Robert Hood (and supported by many associated acts like Drexciya, Milton Baldwin also known as DJ Skurge or James Pennington also known as Suburban Knight , another crucial figure on the outskirts of Detroit techno since the mid ’80s and who became a mentor for Mike Banks and the Underground Resistance crew with the rise of Detroit’s second wave in the early ’90s).
Jeff was definitely a key figure to the Detroit scene as it was known that he would often drive as far as Toronto or Chicago in order to purchase newly released music for his sets that took place in empty, suburban warehouses around Detroit. He also had a nightly radio show called The Wizard at WDRQ (hence his alias), where he would highlight local techno artists, giving light to the so called Belleville Three: Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. These three individuals were high-school friends who started producing electronic music in their basements. Just like Mills, the Belleville trio, too, “often made trips to Chicago to investigate the house music scene which was a natural progression from the disco music genre.”
Their style was reflecting “a synthesis of the type of dance music they have encountered in Chicago, combined with the mechanical sounds of groups like the above already mentioned Kraftwerk, with elements of political and social commentary on the economic recession of the post-Reagan era, “producing uncompromising music geared toward promoting awareness and facilitating political change. UR wanted to establish a means of identification beyond traditional lines of race and ethnicity.”
Princesa de oscuridad and party animal
Juana was born into a family full of musicians. Her father was a guitarist who studied classical and blues guitar at school and he was in a band with some of her uncles and an aunt, which had several different names, but she recalls her favourite which was ‘Mother Souls’ Children’. Being born she always felt like she had a call for doing something with music, she was just not sure what exactly that was. Her mother made her play the piano which she enjoyed for a while, however it never really took off with her, but it proved to be a great aid at a later stage as she learned a lot about musical principles. She discovered dj-ing and started collecting vinyls in her late teens and early twenties. She started picking up mainly disco, classic rock and jazz records.
It all started with a house-party she and her roommate organised. Juana by then owned quite a few records in different genres. She took over the turntables around 3am, starting with spinning some deep disco, funky jazz and break tracks. People welcomed her choice of records and got super energised, and so she went on playing deep house and techno till the break of day.
LC: So you started with classic rock, jazz, break, disco and house. How did you got to techno? Do you remember which tracks were the transitioning tracks that took you from disco to house, from house to deep house and techno?
Juana: I think house & deep house was always part of my life, because I am from Chicago and in Chicago there is no lines between genres like there are in some scenes, so like you can transition from a Mr. Fingers acid track to a jazz-funk track like Roy Ayers’ Love will bring us back together to a Lonnie Liston Smith track and it does not really make a difference as long as the groove is there. So to me when I am playing different styles, it does not feel like a harsh transition, it just feels like the continuum.
LC: I remember that not so long ago, a well-known female dj tried to mix up different styles within her set at a certain festival in Europe and some people were so upset that they demanded their money back. She even wrote a long explanation on her social media profile, explaining her choice of records. Do you think that when it comes to mixing different styles, a European audience reacts differently than an American one?
Juana: That’s what I’ve heard, but I haven’t had the chance to play that much in Europe yet. In fact, I haven’t experienced it, but it is something that I’ve heard about and in addition to mixing things up which I think all dj’s like to do from time to time, you also want to allow yourself room to grow and not get bored and do it in such a way that you can continue to nurture your love for music.
LC: Do you think that the expectations can limit / restrain artistic freedom?
Juana: Everybody is not gonna like everything. People are always going to either appreciate you or not appreciate you. So I think, if you are a creative person and a dj, you should continue to do what makes you happy, because if you are trying to fulfil expectations all the time, I think you are going to drive yourself crazy.
LC: Music is indeed perceived differently by everyone, also depending on their current mood which can be influenced by so many factors – therefore it is very subjective.
Juana: Music is a personal experience… and just to go back to your previous point about expectations, I think that there are certain circumstances when you know what the expectations are – when you are playing in a certain club or booked by a certain promoter, you know what those expectations are. It doesn’t really make sense to go too far out of left-field, but I think that where you have the flexibility and the latitude, I think that one should absolutely explore and have fun with it, but I understand that it is a bouncing act between expectations and expression.
LC: Are you a full-time dj / producer at the moment or do you see yourself doing it full-time in the near future?
Juana: Currently, I have a day job… It pays the bills. I work in publishing that keeps me busy all day, but it is not so demanding that I can not have a life outside that. If I had the chance, of course, I would choose for music, but I am in a good place now. I am just allowing things to unfold and not forcing or rushing anything. I am living at the moment in Washington D.C. I have moved there 13 years ago. I have played in some of the smaller clubs, f.e. Dr. Clock’s Nowhere Bar is a great place where I’ve met lots of great people who were into techno and that is where I met my crew with who I throw parties with at Sequence or Sequence D.C. We’ve been doing a series of parties for about a year now. Also, we’ve played at Flash in Washington D.C. That is kind of as big as it gets, because D.C. is very small. It does have some of the bigger clubs, but I guess my sound is not appropriate for it.
LC: Why did you decide to move from Chicago to D.C.?
Juana: There were a lot of things that I wanted to do in D.C. and I was just kind of, a little tired of Chicago and I could get a better job in D.C. I just wanted to get away from home as I have always been living there. I wanted to explore some place different and I got acquainted with the house music scene and I made a lot of connections that way. People like Sandburns were really inspirational and were really helping me out a lot. Due to these new connections, recently I have started playing in Brooklyn. Damon Bradley has been awesome in kind of connecting the Brooklyn techno scene with the D.C. techno scene, so I got to play at Bossa Nova Civic club a few times and some other cool places. Bossa Nova is a particularly great place and I had some really nice experience while playing there.
LC: What makes this club so special? Is it the building / the space, is it the sound system, or the audience?
Juana: The venue itself is fine, but the music is that makes that place really special and the artists that they bring and the loyal, amazing crowd that always gathers. It’s really cool. In a couple of days, I will play in Smartbar in Chicago which is huge. It’s kind of a home-coming thing for me. I will be playing with people I’ve never played with before, but I feel very comfortable just because it’s home.
LC: Have you been going there often before you moved to Washington D.C.?
Juana: When I lived in Chicago, I went there all the time! So now I get to experience it from the other side. I am very excited!
LC: Who were your favourite artists from these clubs you were visiting regularly? Who inspired you the most?
Juana: Ahm, let’s see… Well, in that period when I was going out in Chicago, I was influenced by a lots of DJs and at underground parties and at the clubs. In the late 90’s there were so many great talents in house music. Obviously, people like Derrick Carter, Ron Trent (LC: also known as Ronald Trent who co-owned the house / deep house label Prescription with Chez Damier) or Roy Davis Jr and Peven Everett – I was really into their sound at the time. Especially Roy Davis Jr.’s very early stuff. It was very sort of edgy and weird, and sort of disco-infused house music that also felt kind of experimental, so I was really-really moved by that sound in that period and I definitely saw all of those guys to play at places like Smartbar, Red No.5 and just countless other little bars and restaurants, like Buddha Lounge, Red Dog etc. There were some really neat little clubs back then and I went out a lot! (*laughing*).
The house music pioneers of Chicago
Derrick L. Carter was one of the pioneers of Chicago house in the 1990s, who used to work in the famous Gramophone Records store in Chicago and who until today is considered as one of the best house music DJs in the world. Carter’s sets are firmly rooted in Afro-American music of the 1970s with hints to old-school disco, soul and jazz. “In 1989, together with Mark Farina and Chris Nazuka as the group Symbols & Instruments, they released the Mood EP which had a strong influence on the flourishing ambient techno movement in England. Even though the record wasn’t a big commercial success, it established Derrick as an international artist in the underground house scene. In 2006, according to a survey by a free weekly newspaper, Newcity, Carter was named #53 in the 100 Most Famous Chicagoans. (Other house music figures on the list included Felix da Housecat (#21) and Frankie Knuckles (#41).
Before setting up his own record label, Undaground Therapy Muzik and becoming an A&R scout for the Strictly Rhythm imprint in NYC, Roy Davis Jr got known in the house scene after joining the Chicago-based acid house group called Phuture (founded in 1985 by Nathaniel Pierre Jones aka DJ Pierre, Earl Smith Jr. also known as Spank Spank and Herbert Jackson). Davis rose to fame when he teamed up with Peven Everett and together they produced the single Gabriel. The single sold over 200,000 copies and was played in nightclubs all around the world.”
Acid House as a sub-genre
“Acid house (also simply known as “acid“) is a subgenre of house music developed around the mid-1980s by DJs from Chicago. Acid house’s minimalist production aesthetic (due to its synthetic strings and stabs) combined house music’s ubiquitous programmed four-on-the-floor 4/4 beat with the deep bass-lines and “squelching” sounds of the Roland TB-303 electronic synthesizer – sequencer by constantly modulating its frequency and resonance controls to create movement in otherwise simple bass patterns. Acid house brought house music to a worldwide audience when it spread to the United Kingdom and continental Europe. English acid house and rave fans used the yellow smiley face symbol simply as an emblem of the music and the scene that portrayed the “simplest and gentlest of the Eighties’ youth manifestations” that was non-aggressive, “except in terms of decibels”. Acid house had an influence on many styles of the electronic dance music including Trance, Jungle, Techno, Trip hop etc.”
LC: Which artists / record labels do you find the most inspiring these days, from the US and from Europe?
Juana: I think that there is a lot of inspiration coming from both places and I guess I don’t really think of it in terms of, you know, these are great American artist and these are great European artist…
LC: But do you think that European techno is different than US?
Juana: Yes, I think that European techno has pushed boundaries on a different way. I am a big fan of Peter van Hoesen, or the Monnom Black imprint (LC: which is the label of Dax J) – it’s dark and industrial – it’s just really wicked. Then I also listen to a lot of releases from L.I.E.S. records and Ostgut Ton. These are two big, prolific, well-known labels that have artists who are boundary pushing in different ways. I like to see the different directions that European artists go as oppose to US artists. What I think most important is that we don’t get distracted by the differences, but continue to build our own sounds out of all of these different pieces. I think it is really boring to listen to a whole set of music that’s kind of often one direction. It’s not interesting to me, because there is just so much good music out there that if you can put together different sounds and different influences and things that are funky and very distinctly different ways, you can tell a really cool story at a party, or within a mix or a podcast or whatever you are doing. I think that is where the real skill comes in, being able to thread together desperate sounds and prospectives and to create something that feels whole and true, but also having fun while doing it. It’s very important to have fun and to enjoy it!
LC: Do you mostly play vinyl sets or do you prefer CDJs?
Juana: Sometimes I play vinyl. I still collect records, but sometimes, if I am just going to play some place by myself, I bring USB sticks with me, but if the event happens locally or I know that I have time to stretch things out, I always bring vinyl.
LC: Did you also dive into producing or have you already released something? Do you find time to do it, next to your job and dj-ing?
Juana: I am still looking at labels… it has taken me a long time to get here… Everything I do is kind of slow and careful, and I am still busy with my work and day-to-day finding time to hunt for music and to create as much music as I’d like to is sometimes difficult, but when I do make time to create things, I am always willing to sort of, put them out there. I am not afraid of hearing opinions or getting feedback.
LC: Do you have specific people who you ask for a first opinion, before you show any of your new creations to the world?
Juana: Not really, I mean, I do belong to some groups where we share our creations with each other and just listen to group opinions. I also started participating at some monthly events where they broadcast our tracks at a club, at Flash in D.C. and that is really cool. It is inspiring to see people put themselves out on such a public way… You can even find the event on Facebook and it’s actually at the club, so you go there and they are actually playing your track at a Funktion-One sound system. It’s pretty cool. It’s just make you wanna keep doing it. There is definitely a community of music creators that isn’t bashful of sharing with each other their stuff – not just sharing music, but also tips and ideas, you know, everything really. I feel grateful to be in proximity to a community like that.
LC: Do you think that in other cities (within or outside the USA), there are similar communities to yours where people are helping each other? (F.e. if I look around myself, as a female producer, I wouldn’t know, where to go to ask for help or advices…)
Juana: I would hope so and I am sure there are in different ways, because you know, that is how you cultivate your scene… by sharing and being open with each other and if not, then people should definitely start them, because again, I think it’s vital to the health of any music scene – to be able to share together communally.
LC: What would you consider as a next mile pile in your music career? Releasing some music? Releasing on vinyl?
Juana: I would love to release on vinyl, because all of my friends are heavy vinyl collectors, so I would wanna be able to give them some copies, even if it is very limited, so I would love to release on vinyl, absolutely! It would definitely be a great next step. My music career has been short, but long… I have been doing this since 2000 and there is still so much that I have yet to do… some people just kind of like, take off, but for me, it’s been a marathon. Signing with Discwoman has really moved the meter in a lot of important ways, but I know that I still have a lot of things to do to get where I wanna be. I definitely see releasing music is not more important than doing dj gigs, I think they are natural partners, but I think releasing music and creating your own label eventually, maybe would be great next steps. Right now I don’t really see that happening for me, but there are so many things that I did not see a year ago that are now completely possible. I guess I like to keep certain aspects of this open-ended and just enjoy it, when it comes and don’t fight it and just do my best.
Juana: It’s the same, he is just amazing. He is so consistent and I think that one of the things that I like about him is his ability to sort of transition on an exciting way and build energy and use different sort of styles – what you were saying earlier – to kind of create intensity or intention and kind of set of a bomb. He is just so good at that and he probably influenced my style regarding that. I think it’s coming from sort of mid-Western rave background.
LC: I started respecting him even more after I watched the Origins documentary about him. It is amazing, how committed he was, and how committed he stayed even when he had loss at all the parties he organised, yet he never quit…
Juana: DVS1 is a great example of somebody who had worked so hard and so long and just never quit and it paid off. I think a lot of people take off, when they are very young and our society, in the US anyways, really values youth and so there aren’t really that many examples of people who worked for a really long-time and not much happened and then suddenly everything happens. I think that is just as inspiring as people who are very young and very adapt and create their own successes as well. I think that those are both very important perspectives.
LC: You mentioned you had a story you’d wanted to tell about your name…
Juana: So, my childhood nickname was “Bird” – for whatever reason. So when I started playing deep house, my dj name was “Birdhouse” which is really kind of corny now… it was probably corny back then, too! (*laughs*) After I kind of took a break from dj-ing and I just kind of felt like burned down, because I wasn’t really able to expand my sound the way I wanted to, I ditched that name and I adopted my first name… It was kind of almost like an experiment to see if I used my real name and not an alias, if something more sincere would be generated and if I could actually draw into my life some better experiences and some good luck by just kind of being myself and hopefully, that’s what just happened. I liked being “Birdhouse”, but I like to be Juana more.
We write now 2019 and sure many things have changed since we've discussed in 2017.