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DVS1: The techno purist rages against the machine

DVS1 is a true icon. He may have reached the top of the techno tree by a somewhat circuitous route — involving time spent in prison on drugs charges and half a lifetime of ‘anti-star’ behaviour — but his rep is now second to none. DJ Mag joins him as he prepares for one of his immense Wall Of Sound shows, to find a highly-principled man fully in tune with his place in the world...

As brutal techno echoes around Amsterdam’s Warehouse Elementenstraat, DVS1 stands on the DJ booth looking perplexed, rotating the subs that line the railing high above his head. It’s the second day of Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), and he’s been perusing over an iPad with the venue’s sound engineer for the last hour. Disgruntled, he hits stop on the turntable and the music lurches to a halt.

“It’s just not workable right now,” he shouts to the back of the room. Fortunately, it’s eight hours until doors open for the third showcase of his DVS1 Wall Of Sound concept. The system, which takes over the entire wall where the venue’s DJ booth usually stands, is so powerful it drowns out the giant monitors in the temporary booth placed at the opposite end of the room, creating an enormous delay that currently makes the space unplayable. 

“Remind me why I put my own parties on again,” he quickly follows up with a wry smile as he turns to the sound engineer, immediately lifting the mood. Once the additional monitors have been put in place to challenge the delay, he leans over the mixer with a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth as an unreleased DJ Hell remix plays, before standing back with his eyes closed between the monitors. He breaks into a huge grin before giving an OK sign to the sound engineer. It’s taken them almost three hours to get there, but the sound in the room is so powerful you’d be forgiven for ducking for cover whenever the hi-hats come in.

“It’s a flashback to how I first experienced sound, when the DJ wasn’t the centre of everything,” DVS1 — real name Zak Khutoretsky — explains of the Wall Of Sound backstage at Warehouse Elementenstraat shortly after sound-check. “The soundsystem was the headliner,” he enthuses.

A concept they didn’t make public before the event, the DJs are set to perform at the opposite end of the room to the main rig, submerged in darkness. “There’s been too much focus on DJs being rock stars lately,” DVS1 says. “They’ve become God-like, and it’s getting worse. Instead of the sound being the focus, the DJs are.”

Russian-born US-raised Khutoretsky, much softer in person than his on-stage demeanour suggests, becomes highly animated when talking about the electronic music scene he’s been a part of since the early ‘90s. Wearing a dark grey shirt, loose-fitting grey trousers and black trainers, he’s a ball of energy through both the sound-check, and — as he regularly launches out of his seat when talking to DJ Mag — through a clear passion for dance music topics close to his heart.

“We’re experimenting with taking the DJ back out of the equation,” he explains. “Enhancing the idea that the DJ shouldn’t be the focus. By doing parties like this, we’re taking risks to remind people to not just go for recorded footage. For me, the lights need to be off, the glamour needs to go away and we need to give people a safe space to let go and completely lose themselves. Heads down, eyes closed and go for it.

“Mad Mike Banks said if you put your face in front of the music, you’re putting your ego in front of it. We don’t want anyone to be paying attention to our ego, we want everyone to be paying attention to the music and the experience. We shouldn’t be on stage,” he continues. “We’re not a band. We’re a vessel for music. Get us out of the way, get rid of all that extra clutter and fill it with speakers!”

The Wall Of Sound is a party that doesn’t happen very often. And it’s easy to see why, with the amount of time required to get it right. Before the showcase in Amsterdam, as DVS1 — pronounced ‘devious one’ — Khutoretsky has presented two previous Wall Of Sound shows at Maassilo in Rotterdam, which have welcomed Jeff Mills, Serge and Dasha Rush.

“I’m just trying to show people what I was brought up on when we didn’t have the extra shit that dilutes things,” he explains. “I’m chasing the experience of looking at the energy and the music coming out of the speakers, and trying to present it to a generation that has never seen that.” Khutoretsky says the blurring of the line between DJs as artists and entertainers is something he struggles with.

“I could not do any of this,” he explains. “But the reality is that I have an opportunity to pitch more than just me DJing. I can pitch a concept, and people are interested in the experiment and willing to give me the chance. By definition, DJs entertain. But it’s the role of creative DJs to view this as art. A lot of DJs are falling into the entertainer role now, and they’re forgetting about being artists.

“I’ve built in a way that’s sustainable for my happiness and my freedom,” he continues. “But not everybody does. Some are chasing more, more, more, as that’s what we’re taught as human beings. I know people that aren’t happy. So why the fuck do you do this to yourself? They get addicted to the money. It’s grown into such an industry that a lot of people just become a product of it.”

Earlier that afternoon, Khutoretsky sits alongside Oscar Mulero on a panel on The Role Of The DJ, where the pair discuss a range of issues including a phenomenon he calls the “festival affect” to huge cheers from the audience. It’s something he’s keen to expand on when he meets DJ Mag later.

“Club culture and festival culture are not the same,” he says. “But they’re starting to be intertwined in ways that are destroying club culture. The new generation doesn’t see the value in paying for one DJ when they can see 50. But at festivals they’re only seeing 90-minute sets, and DJs just don’t feel safe to take risks in that time.

“Back when the festival season was three months, it wasn’t a big deal, but now it’s half the year. DJs get out of the habit of taking risks, so the curation part of being a DJ is getting lost. I don’t think we should underestimate how much that’s going to impact us.

“If DJs love festivals because they’re easy — easy money, easy transportation and they’re in bed by midnight — then great. You be a festival DJ and leave the clubs to us. Let’s separate, as what are you really adding to the culture at that point?”

Earlier in the day, in the taxi to the venue from the panel, Khutoretsky strikes up a conversation with the driver. “I’m a tourist,” he smiles, when asked why he’s in town. “This must be a busy weekend for you? A good opportunity to hustle and make some money.”

It’s the hustle that Khutoretsky says he’s built his entire career on. Born in St Petersburg, Russia, in the mid ’70s, his parents moved to Minneapolis when he was two years old. “We came over with nothing and built something,” he explains. “We were never starving, but I learned to hustle by watching my parents. It’s built in. By the time my family was comfortable, I was old enough to know what it’s like not to be.”

A few years after moving to the U.S., his parents divorced and his father moved to New York, meaning Khutoretsky spent his time between the two cities. “I learnt the street-smart of New York but still had the Minnesota nice,” he says, explaining how he’d see the electronic scene of both at the end of their “golden era”, with crews like Park Rave Madness in New York and the free party scene in Minneapolis where he first experienced the Wall Of Sound concept.

He got involved by volunteering with one of the local soundsystems, before an opportunity came up to buy his own after he started running his own raves, which he’d funded largely by selling LSD on the side. Shortly before his first soundsystem was delivered though, his house was raided by police and Khutoretsky charged for possession of a class A substance with intent to supply — a crime that could have placed him behind bars for a large part of his adult life.

“The judge saw that I was a good kid that made a mistake,” he explains. “And had the chance to not ruin my life because of one stupid thing I did.” Khutoretsky ended up spending one year in a correctional facility, with 30 years probation. “She gave me a taste so I’d learn my lesson,” he continues. “And I needed it, as I made a conscious decision when I was in there to take my shit seriously when I got out.”

Seven years after coming out of jail Khutoretsky was released from probation, a time during which he started HUSH Productions to throw parties in the city. HUSH Sound and HUSH Studios — a 30-studio space that he sold last year — followed shortly after. By the time he hit 30, Khutoretsky had designs on opening a club. The venue, which would go on to be called Foundation, hit a number of stumbling blocks including losing a space in the basement of Minneapolis’ The Foshay Tower, as well as another below The Bolt, a gay club in the city. It would eventually open on the former site of The Rogue — the first house and techno club in Minneapolis. After initial success, they ran into issues with the city in terms of closing times and numbers started to dwindle, with the venue eventually closing after only 18 months in business.

Following the sound-check for the ADE event we move to The Hoxton Hotel, where Khutoretsky orders a pair of steak dinners on room service. As he eats his food, he reflects on the panel earlier in the day, as well as the Point Blank Masterclass he did at IMS Ibiza earlier in the summer. By coming through as such a fiercely independent artist, he’s carved himself a niche as the mouthpiece for an entire generation of techno DJs and fans.

“I enjoy it,” he beams. “Not everybody has the personality to speak, but I can be honest, I can be blunt. I feel like I have a voice that is a representation of a community of artists that are parallel in my thoughts.”

In 2014, he penned his Enjoy Right Now open letter on the changing atmosphere inside nightclubs, largely down to the use of camera phones. “It spread like a virus,” he recalls. “It’s like when I talked about festival culture earlier and half the crowd was applauding. Bam! I know I’m not the only one thinking it.”

Enjoy Right Now was a sentiment long shared by Berghain, the club that he says had a huge impact on his career when he started playing there in 2009. “I’d never been in an environment where I felt that free,” he smiles. “It was definitely the spark for me to gain a certain notoriety.”

For all the hustle throughout his career, the other biggest turning point came more by accident than design, when Ben Klock came to see Khutoretsky play a rare live set after his own gig in Minneapolis. Impressed by what he’d seen, Klock asked for the tracks with a mind to releasing them on Klockworks. But none of the material was complete, so Khutoretsky set to work in the studio crafting them into full tracks. The result was the ‘Klockworks 05’ EP, which introduced the signature DVS1 sound, with a hypnotic focus on groove and rhythm.

“That was the kick-off,” he says of the boom in his career as a global DJ that followed, whilst perched on the room’s windowsill smoking, continually apologising for going off topic. “I never had designs on this. I was destined to become a local legend and was content with that. But Ben opened up a lot of doors for me.”

Releases followed on Enemy Records and Derrick May’s Transmat, the latter someone he says was another mentor in the early days of his production, something that lead to ‘Black Russian’, his most recognisable track, after May heard an early working of it. When it was finished, he called May to get some feedback. “He told me, ‘There it is! That’s my black Russian’,” he enthuses. “I knew immediately what it was going to be called. I’m Russian and it has soul. I’m honoured it’s become iconic, but I won’t play it. I thrive on creating a moment on the dancefloor with music nobody knows. Otherwise it’s too easy.”

The formation of HUSH Records followed in 2011, a vehicle to put out his own music, before Mistress started two years later to release a versatile range of less techno-focused artists. It’s this wide-ranging taste in music that allows Khutoretsky to regularly play Panorama Bar, as well as his recent electro set alongside Helena Hauff at the DVS1 Invites night at Goa Club in Rome.

Later, DJ Mag arrives at Warehouse Elementenstraat and spots DVS1 hiding between two of the stacks at the front of the dance oor. “It works!” he beams, as the whole room stands in unison looking towards the system rolling out Karenn’s industrial-tinged techno.

He later follows Hauff on a line-up that includes Oscar Mulero and upcoming Berliner, Chem. Labelling Jeff Mills and DJ Traxx as influential in terms of DJing, his three-deck mixing style is hands on, tweaking the EQs to push certain parts of a track to the fore or pull another back, constantly working and honing. “I grew up on the school of DJs that change, manipulate and sculpt as they go,” he enthuses after he steps off stage.

“That’s the art of mixing. I’m playing beat and rhythm music, so on its own it might be boring, but put three tracks together and you get movement that makes it sound crazy. I’m not letting the music play, I’m playing the music. Because of that you’ll never see my hands free — except to light a cigarette,” he laughs.

Khutoretsky has stopped doing live streams and podcasts, as he believes so strongly in the live experience. A phrase he continually refers to is ‘body music’. “This is the next experiment in pushing you into a physical experience,” he says of the Wall Of Sound. “The kick-drum is the spine of techno, and to be in a dark room hypnotised by that physical presence is what makes some of those spaces magical.”

As soon as you step into Warehouse Elementenstraat, it makes perfect sense. “It isn’t about volume. It’s about physicality,” he continues. “You have to move, as you just can’t stand still with that much pressure.” His knowledge of sound comes from seeing the scene go from grass roots raves to the multi-million-pound industry it is today.

“I didn’t land success at this level until it had become as blown out of proportion as it is now,” he explains. “When I started, we were fighting for legitimacy. Now we’ve got it, a part of me always feels like an asshole complaining, but the negative side is that it’s a machine now.”

At 40-years-old, 2017 has seen Khutoretsky solidify his place as an icon within our industry. Celebrating HUSH’s 20th anniversary with the driving ‘HUSH20’ EP, he was also invited to deliver a rare mix on ‘Fabric 96’ — a four-month process that he says became an “obsession”. It starts with part of Charlie Chaplin’s rousing speech from The Great Dictator film and is made up of unreleased music by artists including Steffi, Dustin Zahn and Mike Gervais, much of which is set to see release on Mistress. “I was honoured,” he smiles. “To have Fabric acknowledge my existence means I get to go down in a piece of history.”

He says it’s also a year he’s finally managed to call Berlin home. Having a second apartment there for a number of years, following the divorce from his wife in 2015, Khutoretsky found himself spending longer periods in Europe. “Before, I was struggling as I worked in two studios that sounded totally different,” he explains. “I could never catch a vibe.”

So Khutoretsky decided to build a new space in Berlin that would be his sole studio, while maintaining the same stripped-back elements that resulted in his loopy signature sound. “Keeping a maximum of seven channels suits me best,” he explains. “As the stripped-down music has the most impact when you put it on a big system.” He says his bookings are bigger than ever before too, with this year seeing him continue to play regularly at Berghain, start his DVS1 Invites series with The Hydra, and become part of the Circoloco family in Ibiza.

Despite all this activity in Europe, he maintains his Future Classic space in Minneapolis, the 350-capacity members-only location he started almost 10 years ago. There he hosts a small number of parties each year, where he plays alongside a local DJ. Recently, he’s opened this up to artists he considers to be legends, like Jeff Mills and Danny Tenaglia. “I tell them you can’t write, post or talk about it,” he smiles. “It’s strictly off the record. My place to play when I’m home.”

And he says he continues to do it as it’s part of his identity as an artist. “I don’t know how to fucking give it up,” he laughs. “Being exhausted and trying to deliver a vibe keeps me on my toes. And when I play around Europe it means I don’t just see from the perspective of the DJ booth. There’s something about a little bit of struggle that builds character, so until I physically can’t do it any more, this is all part of the whole equation.”

Spending time with him, it’s clear Khutoretsky takes his role as an ambassador for the scene seriously, and wants to achieve positive change for it through his actions.

“We’re at a turning point in electronic music,” he concludes. “Where you can still witness some of the original guys at the end of their careers — the likes of Derrick May, Jeff Mills. When they go, there’s a generation that will have disappeared. Looking up to those guys, I hope I have a pinky’s worth of their motivation when I hit 55, and can create magic the way they do.” What he perhaps doesn’t realise is that to many in the next generation, he is their Derrick May. Their Jeff Mills.