Interview by Parisa Eshrati
After his set at the 10th annual Gem and Jam festival, I sat down with legendary Chicago house DJ Mark Farina and asked him about the highly anticipated Mushroom Jazz 8 mix. We talked about creating themes with vocal samples, the unique sounds of the upcoming mix, and additionally discussed the cycles and trends he's noticed in electronic music.
I know you’ve record shopped all around the world and that gives you a taste for the local flavor and culture. Since we're chatting here at Gem and Jam in Tucson I gotta ask, what kind of impressions do you get when you’re record shopping in the Southwest?
I actually have a history here in Tucson that goes way further back than just record shopping and playing shows. I went to University here back in 1987/88 and worked at a club called Fine Line. I had already been DJing in Chicago and then came here for University and found that club. I didn’t bring my own record collection, ‘cause in the vinyl days a lot of clubs would have their own record collection to pick from. I got really familiar with their records and I’d play there two nights a week. It was deep in the industrial period since we’re talking ’87, so I’d always find records from the likes of Ministry, The Cure and early Depeche Mode. I even saw Depeche Mode when they played their first Arizona gig!
Anyways, I’m always looking at Yelp now for new record stores in the Southwest and Tucson area. I always like digging in different city. I like to collect weird things, not just music vinyl but even spoken word material, sports records, kids records, and really anything. I’ll always come across some classic rock album that I never bought on vinyl and buy that, or a newer edition of something I already have. It’s not abnormal for me to have two or three copies of a record that I really like. I have a bad vinyl habit [laughs].
The highly anticipated Mushroom Jazz 8 mix will be releasing this year. What are some of the samples that you’ve chosen for this mix, and how does it differ from the previous mixes so far?
I’ve tried to pick a lot of artists that I liked from previous compilations and reach out to some new guys as well. I’m always searching on SoundCloud for some new artists and interesting material. This time I think it’s leaning more towards an instrumental hip hop mix. In the past I’ve featured various rap songs and more vocals, but this one is turning more abstract in terms of the instrumental composure. It has more jazzy and styled beats. It's not to say it's entirely instrumental, there will be some vocal samples played over it,
Mushroom Jazz 8 is generally going to be in the same vein as the others in terms of pacing...same tempo, about 100 bpm or something of that vibe. I’d say this one might be more dubby and jazzy with a strong hip hop beat. Some familiar people will be featured in there, some new people - all mixed up. I’m excited, it’s gonna be bumping. Overall, it’s coming along really well!
It always seems that the various vocal samples create an underlying theme for each mix. Is that an intentional process of sourcing speeches or spoken word to create a theme, or is it more just whatever you’re feeling at the moment gets mixed in there?
Yes, I've always liked themes. Even separate from mushroom jazz, when I’m doing house mixes I like to have a little story interlude that I’ll tell through the whole mix and keep a consistent theme. With the last mushroom mix, I found all these odd samples with people talking about mushrooms and mushroom people. This time I’m going to go for something a little more spacey and feature older samples from a bunch of different places. I just take those words and add them here and there over the instrumental beats. The overall theme has yet to be determined, really, but I think there’ll be a variety of themes. It might be more introspective and nature-based, with a variety of little thoughtful comments.
I love collecting spoken word records, and it not only helps develop themes in my music but also create a sense of tempo. Instead of starting a mix and going straight into a 4/4 beat, I like to gradually ease the listener into the mix by telling a little story. That helps drop the theme of the mix right in the beginning, and I’ll name the mix from there. You can find some examples on my SoundCloud. There’s a ton, but one example is when I found an interview record from the movie Animal House where they’re just talking to all the characters, and I used those samples to drive the theme of the mix.
The endings of the mixes are just as important to me. If you’re playing live at a venue, it’s good to bring the crowd back down instead of just cutting the music. That was never my style. I like to have a message waiting at the end that brings the music back together.
I also just wanna give a nod to your April Fool’s Day prank where you showed the tracklist for Mushroom Jazz 8 including Skrillex and other dubstep artists.
The funny thing is that I might actually do a track with Kaskade for a Mushroom Jazz mix. Ryan [Raddon] and I are old friends and he showed interest in working together. He actually has a deep, jazzy house background. The prank became a reality!
Having been in the music industry for over twenty years, what are some styles that you see coming back in current music? Are there cycles and trends you notice rehashing throughout the years?
Coming from Chicago and the Midwest, I’ve just noticed that everything comes back to the original house and techno sound. All these new subgenres come about, but everything circles back to house music. Now there’s this new “deep house” scene that takes elements of a lot of house influence and mixes it up a bit. There’s also the DirtyBird sound which takes the weirder side of track-y house but then brings this extra bass element to it that people really love. It’s technically still house but it’s got a different edge to it.
I tend to stick with deep house or acid-jazzy hip hop and disco, so I’m not sure how to define all these other subgenres...but a lot of them have themes that carry over to different tempos and styles of electronic music. People start off in all different genres of electronica, and even though I'm not totally into a lot of the new EDM stuff, it still brings new listeners to electronic music. I think that as a lot of these younger listeners come of age, they’ll come back to house music as has happened with every generation of electronica since the early rave scene and Chicago house days.
I know you always keep your sets live and don’t use laptops, so I’m curious if you’ve gone as far as having a live jazz band improvise with you on stage. If not, is it something you’d consider doing?
I’d like to do that more. I’ve generally done it with only one or two musicians because after you get more than two musicians involved it takes a lot more practice and you really have to hone in on your skills. An example of someone who does that really well is my friend George Evelyn aka Nightmares on Wax. He’ll have a great percussionist, another drummer, a rapper, and he’ll be up there mixing everything live. I haven’t gotten to that level yet 'cause I want to make sure I balance things correctly. You don’t want to over-do everything.
At some point I’d like to move towards an even more live experience. I’m doing some tour dates with Chuck Love this summer who’s from Minneapolis. He’ll be playing over my stuff and he plays with a variety of instruments that works really well with my material.
But yeah, incorporating more musicians takes time. Back in the Chicago days, we used to play with this great jazz drummer who would play over us. I'd have to adjust my beats back and the musician has to know when to play less or more, it’s a give and take.
And, well, I don’t want to disrespect anyone but you know there’d always be the one random dude who’d bring his congas to the club and he would start jamming out and it’d be like...“C’mon dude, you’re killing me here!” You’re about to play a nice melodic break and suddenly there’s this loud, hectic drum beat coming from the audience. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who’s come out to a show and done that, but it just goes to show that it can be a mess sometimes if you’re not on top of all the live elements.
What are some things we can look forward to from you for the rest of the year? Any projects coming out on your label?
Mushroom jazz 8 is coming in April and it will be coming out on vinyl, CD and a digital format. Great Lakes Audio is my house label and there’s a lot of great stuff coming out on there. There’s an LP coming out from these guys from Spain – Iban Montoro and Jazzman Wax. It’s their first album and they have a great house sound. There’s another guy Demuir from Toronto who’s kicking up a storm in the underground house scene. His new EP Derrick Does Disco is coming out soon which is inspired by him going to Smart Bar in Chicago and listening to Derrick Carter do his disco thing. So yes, lots of stuff coming up this year and I'm excited to share it!
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Check out our blog Psilocybin Experiences on Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz for an introspective journey through Mark Farina's music!
And for more Gem and Jam coverage, check out our photo gallery and other artist interviews.
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.