Ahead of the latest edition of his Psychic Driving rave featuring DJs from the Giegling Label, venerable DJ and techno maven Paul Trafford sat down with us for an unforgettable discussion on music, spirituality and everything in between.
Imagine, an elderly woman sits quietly, cradling an unfinished sweater atop her lap while gently swaying back and forth in her rocking chair. Her knitting needles clip each other at the tips at regular intervals; their sharp clicks accent the squeaks and squeals from the cracked floorboards below, imbuing the otherwise muted room with life. With great ease, she weaves two strands of yarn together, looping one over the other ad nauseam. Engrossed by her craft, her thoughts become lost to the perpetual motion of her tools.
"Perhaps, on the surface, she doesn't understand what techno is… but deep down, she is exploring the same thing that we are exploring," Paul contemplates, sitting on the floor of his sun-lit apartment. "She is caught up in rhythm and in trance."
Paul Trafford is tall and lean, articulate but reserved. He moved to Montreal in 2009 to study political science and philosophy at Concordia University, but has since caught the techno bug.
As an adolescent in Ottawa, Paul spent much of his time listening to music at his computer. Stumbling upon the works of Susumu Yokota, Jeff Mills, Basic Channel and Chain Reaction would precisely shape the rest of his life. In an attempt to fully appreciate this foreign but powerful sound, he scoured the internet, scavenging for bits and pieces of techno lore. "When you first listen to these crazy tracks from the early nineties, and you are aware that this music was made for people to listen to in a really intense collective setting, your imagination starts to run wild!" Paul exclaims. "Listening to this music on your laptop speakers alone - you aren't going to get it."
To this day, Paul's imagination runs rampant with vivid dreams that illustrate an infinite potential for techno music. "We can load up one of our Hercules cargo jets, with a pair of Funktion One speakers, turntables and two hundred people. Have a rave above the clouds. Picture that. It sounds amazing," he says, grinning gleefully. While he indulges in these fantastical ideals only within his mind, they also embody his most surreal experiences. Clearly, techno music has etched itself into the very fabric of his existence; intertwined with mind and soul. He explains, "Techno parties allow us to let go of reality and immerse ourselves in this other world, which is enlightening."
His foray into techno began in earnest with composing chip tunes on a music sequencer for Gameboy. "It's a cartridge called Nanoloop," Paul says while reaching for the handheld console resting on a side table. Dusty and largely unused, the same Nanoloop cartridge is still lodged into the back. Eventually, he acquired a pair of turntables and has not looked back since. "There's a certain level of freedom with vinyl that feels right. When a DJ takes a record out of a sleeve and puts it onto a table, people understand that, and there's an emotional connection," he says. To demonstrate, he turns to the computer at his side, his back towards his guests, and jabs erratically at the laptop keyboard - "This feels weird," he contorts his face into one of confusion while scrolling aimlessly through a sea of track names and empty menus. “Instead, I noticed early on this kind of flow that I get into when I go through my records, where I'm not really thinking,” he elaborates.
"I've sort of lost interest in house music," Paul admits. Although he grasps the intricacies of the genre, techno is his true calling. To showcase his taste, he eagerly jumps at his laptop, and carefully selects a track produced by Steve Bicknell. Suddenly, the once quiet room comes to life with roaring music and a pulsating bass that resonates from two tall, wood-clad speakers standing at his sides. Immediately, the driving percussion jumps to the forefront, repetitive and slow to evolve, generating a bottled-up atmosphere. “The tension builds in a really mystical way, and it never really resolves. But eventually, you stop worrying,” he explains. With tracks like this in mind, he constructs mixes to transport crowds to higher states/planes of awareness/being, breaking down barriers between space and time.
Although Paul's interests are deeply rooted within techno, he incorporates diverse ideas from a wide spectrum of fields into his own vocation. Pointing to a mesmerizing, but cryptic monochrome drawing taking up most of one of the living room walls, he explains, “This was done by my roommate (Lara Vallance); very nice stuff.” Fortunately, Paul maintains a close rapport with a diverse group of artists; a bricolage of creative types. “We would just have deep, intricate conversations about music all the time," he says, alluding to the Booma Collective crew, who are close friends of his. In spite of their varying tastes, Paul often likes to integrate their music into his own sets. "I love listening to their stuff,” he declares.
Not limiting himself, he also draws upon the sciences to further his understanding of techno music. "Several of my friends study neuroscience, altered states of consciousness at McGill," he says. They often exchange ideas, finding common ground in unexpected places. "I feel really happy to have been able to bring techno into their lives, and it's awesome that they are super down with it," he says. While integrating their interests with his own, he grapples with the ability of techno music to grant access to the subconscious mind.
A central component of techno that fascinates Paul is repetition. To the uninitiated, this defining characteristic may sound monotonous and taxing to the ear. However, Paul believes he has uncovered its purpose. He casually leans back, casts a gaze around his living room, and instructs in hushed tones, "Look at all these repetitive patterns around us." There on the sofa beneath the window, an intricate pattern of colours and textures. In the next room, a display of books, alternating in shapes and sizes. “Staring at these patterns, I am overcome with a feeling of other-worldliness," he confesses.
"I'm a spiritual person," Paul says. He has reached an understanding that humans are a beautiful and fundamental part of the cosmos, with the unique ability to travel through time using imagination and creative expression. "When we go back to these repetitive rhythms, we can see who we really are, as these rhythms exist in a realm beyond words," he says, with astonishment. His awareness of the metaphysical realm also allows him a greater scope to study techno music and thus, connect with it. "I realized that the hypnotic higher state while listening to techno, it gives a glimpse of this fourth dimension," he asserts.
"I believe that techno is sacred music," he emphatically declares. Paul has come face to face with techno's mystical properties several times these past two years, once in the middle of a mix. “I felt like all the individual sounds in a track were speaking to me, and I could understand them, but could not put it into words,” he remembers. Similar experiences are shared by others who attend raves, where the combination of music, people and dance form emotions that transcend life.
“I encourage them to have these conversations about why techno feels so magical and powerful, and how you can do this power justice to think without limitations,” he offers, when asked what advice he has for fellow DJs.
“When you are in a club that's dark, with other people experiencing the same thing as you, you feel a sense of community," Paul explains. He incorporates and draws attention to communal values at the events which he hosts. "I encourage people to realize that when they come to a party, everyone is a brother and a sister," he declares. At the same time, he believes that Montreal possesses a large group of ravers who are open minded and appreciate music. "As long as there is a solid communal foundation, this music will never die. I believe Montreal has this," he says with force. "We just don't have the proper space anymore," he says sullenly, referring to the abrupt closure of La Brique, his former home and a notorious underground music venue, a year ago.
An appropriate setting is crucial to experiencing music and dance, since architecture is able to alter and shape behaviour. Paul says, "If a party was thrown at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, people would enter and lose their breath. They would be humbled, have insights that I wish for people to have on the dance floor." His use of religious imagery to depict techno culture relates to the omnipotent qualities of the DJ - revered for their ability to assert complete control over an audience. "The DJ is the shaman of the twenty-first century," he declares. Furthermore, he toys with the concept of a standardized religion for techno purists; a techno bible of sorts. Within it, a set of concrete beliefs and principles by which to host parties to ensure that all ravers are spiritually fulfilled.
In a world stricken by social and economic turmoil, Paul finds solace in music. "I believe that raves can be catalysts for massive changes within society," he surmises. Music, in the proper context, can provide fundamental answers that society and its institutions just do not touch upon. By weaving his knowledge of philosophy, science and art with his own experiences as a DJ and raver, he edges ever nearer to the precipice of a complete personal manifesto on techno. "When someone comes out to a party and discovers something so real and raw, and allows themselves to be permeated by this music, it can be an eye opening experience that can change their entire worldview," he finishes, finally giving his listeners, rapt with intrigue, a chance to dissect and digest his far reaching introspections.
Catch Paul Trafford next on September 27, 2014 when he plays alongside techno pioneer Robert Hood, hosted by La Bacchanale Montreal.
Preview some of Paul's latest productions here:
Author: Anh Nguyen
Research: May Nguyen