Close your eyes and picture a DJ and tell me, what do you see? Maybe it starts with the scene of an oversized stage, complete with tiered scaffolding and LCD screens. The camera whisks over a throbbing crowd of 21-year-old juniors from Arizona State, all mushed together into a sea of neon, glistening with distilled testosterone. You’re flung toward the front, where all eyes and body parts face an individual donning a crisp white tee and sunglasses more expensive than your rent. In one hand he grips a microphone, the other a sweaty Red Bull undoubtedly topped off with the warmest Jägermeister the stagehands could find. He glances at his CD-Js and sees the “ON” light is still lit. “That’s good,” he thinks, “on means the track keeps playing.” He spreads his arms into the pose mimicking a religious idol; he’s probably just being ironic, but there’s a thought in the back of your mind that he might not know what “ironic” means. The woozy synths swell and the drums’ pace quickens. At the moment of climax, he takes a moment to ask everyone how they’re doing. It gets loud. Then it gets real loud. Rinse. Repeat.
Sound familiar? As dance music has grinded its way into the mainstream, its widespread and ubiquitous position has led to a general misunderstanding that the often watered down, repetitive sounds and sights of EDM are the ultimate definition of electronic music. However, here in Indianapolis, one group of brave and gifted souls are trying to bring dance music back to its rightful home of dark rooms and dancefloors, while following it into its weirdest and most intriguing permutations. Obtuse, a crew of forward-thinking DJs and producers, have begun making a name for themselves by way of a weekly Thursday night dance party at Pioneer in Fountain Square. A Wu-Tang sized collective, Obtuse includes defacto leaders duchess and dilettante, DJ Littletown, DJ Modest, DJ Shawshank, Filternetwork, Process My Office, Equestrian, and David Peck, just to name a few. On the cusp of a monumental show March 11 with buzzed-about guest star v1984 and John Stamps at Pioneer, I sat down with Alex Knight (Dutchess), Sam Ganser (dilettante), and Will Shaw (DJ Shawshank) to talk more about the crew’s genesis, the impact of alternative dance music on the local scene, and, of course, the joy of Alliyah edits.
Natty Morrison: How did you all get into dance and electronic music?
Alex Knight: I got into dance music actually through some buddies from high school. We grew up in the hardcore/grindcore scene; we were really into breakdowns. But they were listening to a lot of stuff off Hyperdub. The first electronic album I really dug was Kode9’s Memories of the Future. I remember listening to the 30-second preview on iTunes and being like, “I need more of this.”
Sam Ganser: I met Alex sophomore year in high school, so we had a similar experience. It’s weird being in Indy because you hear and read all about this club culture, but you’re stuck in this bubble where you don’t actually get to go out and listen to any of it. So it’s just a bunch of dudes getting high and listening to records and driving around.
AK: But I think the closest we ever came to it was seeing Hessle Audio takeover SmartBar. At least for me, that was life-changing as far as the DJ aspect goes. Like, “Okay, this is how everything sounds in a Big Room. We need to make this happen.”
Will Shaw: My name’s Will Shaw, DJ Shawshank. My story’s a little different; I’m a hip-hop head, through and through. Like in elementary school I was reciting Redman lines on the playground – I was actually a fraud, I would tell kids I was freestyling. So, I was a fraudulent emcee to start off my career. And I was hip-hop, and everything that came along with that: soul, funk, jazz, reggae. I kind of did a bit of reverse engineering. I’ve been DJing since eighth grade, but it wasn’t until 2010 when I moved to Chicago that I really broke into the house and dance music scene. I thought, originally, that house music was kind of corny, because the house I’d heard was, like, “Night at the Roxbury.” [laughs] From there, I got into footwork music, and immediately I was like “What is this bugged out shit?”
NM: Can you give me a brief history of Obtuse?
AK: It’s been three or four years in the making. We used to go to Broken Tuesdays, which were these free, monthly events at the Melody Inn. They asked us to play a couple times, and that’s how we met David Peck. We just geeked out talking to him, because [in this scene} it’s very rare to meet people who knew what we were talking about. The Obtuse crew started out of the demise of our first project, which is Darkmans. That was kind of a collective/free record label. That kind of fizzled out, but I had been wanting to start a tape label. At that time, tapes were really en vogue, and I was obsessed with kind of shitty, lo-fi recordings. And I still listen to a lot of punk and hardcore, so that’s how I came up with the name “Obtuse” because I wanted it to be eclectic. If I wanted a punk band to release on there, I was going to release a punk band; if I wanted an experimental, avant-garde, ambient drone record, I was going to put it out. But I was also going to put out dance music. That never really happened, but I kept the name Obtuse to myself. We came back with some house parties at my place in Broad Ripple, and those went off pretty good. We had Sedcairn Archives play, we had David Peck play, kids from Absolute Tracks, but even that died off. Eventually we met Jess (DJ Littletown) and started throwing shows at Hi-Fi.
WS: I came in at the end of it. I had done a film for a tag crew, and we had a release party at State Street Pub. I was supposed to DJ it, but my laptop died. Instead, I grabbed a copy of DJ Rashad’s Double Cup [a two disc vinyl] and literally just mixed it together for 20 minutes. Jess ran up, very excited, and said she wanted to link up. We had a couple mix sessions and hangs, and it was a couple weeks later during a group meeting you first dropped the name “Obtuse.”
SG: It was kind of a way of trying to get all these heads together that are into underground, or just different dance music. How do we get everyone in one place and make something happen?
I want to give a quick shout out to Pioneer. Who else in the city would have taken the risk?
AK: They really...blindly gave us a shot. We had an after party for a benefit show [for the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre] that we organized with Jackson VanHorn that…
SG: Went terribly?[all laugh]
WS: At least people had fun.
AK: From our side we thought it could have gone better. But we talked to the general manager, and he liked what we were doing. So, yeah, huge shout out to them for trusting in us, and letting it sound immaculate as fuck, because that system is incredible.
NM: DJs may be known for collabs and remixes, but through and through tend to be a bit more individualistic. How do you all benefit from the group dynamic of a crew?
WS: I like the dynamic a lot because we all have different approaches and styles. We all dabble in DJing and producing, and we all discuss different styles.
AK: In the traditional sense, yes, we are a crew. But at the same time, we’re close homies. We share records, share shows, and we all produce music on the side and share that with each other. We’re really in talks every day.
WS: We can only get better at our craft with our group.
SG: We all fit together in this weird bubble of electronic music, but there are still dynamics, and still differences between all of us.
AK: That’s one of the reasons we try and make every Obtuse night a little bit different. If you’re coming to our night, you’re not going to get burnt out. You’ll come to expect a very wide variety of sounds: If it’s Dutchess b2b [back to back] Dillatante, or if Will’s playing, oh shit, I know I’m going to get some footwork, some hip-hop, or some classic house; if Jess is playing, I have literally no idea what I’m about to hear (laughs).
NM: What’s your take on Indy’s dance music scene, and what is Obtuse doing differently than other venues and weekly shows?
AK: I really respect what the other DJs are doing in the city. I think it’s really cool – and I’m really trying to not sound pretentious as fuck saying this – but it’s just not our thing. We kind of just want to show people that there’s this other side of dance music that’s not your typical EDM, with epic build-ups; there can be build-ups in our music but it doesn’t have to be predictable.
SG: And not that Top 40 shit isn’t cool, but you can go to any city in the country and see Top 40 DJs spin trap or whatever’s popular at the time. And especially Indy, it feels like we should have something else. And we want to get some of the people who are going to sets like that and have them come over to an Obtuse night. They might be into it without even knowing. It’s not that we’re into this because it’s different and cool; we want to share.
WS: And I come from the Top 40 scene, that’s how I make my money. Top 40 does have its place. But the cool thing about Obtuse is that it’s a breath of fresh air. I can cue up a Dizzee Rascal track and not worry about the crowd.
AK: If you play one of our nights we want you to be loose and comfy, and not have to be worried about having to drop a certain style of music or song.
SG: It’s not that much different from a Top 40 night. It’s a place where you can come, have fun, forget about your shitty day job, whatever you have going on in your life and just have fun.
AK: We’re trying to challenge our listeners a little bit, and kind of make them think.
NM: On a final note, what do you see for the future of Obtuse?
AK: I’m really excited about the v1984 show. I’ve been trying to work on hitting up people that I admire in our circle of what we listen to. I want to show people that we can be put on the map, we can bring really good talent - really good foreign talent at that - and keep it flowing.
SG: It’s the first time in Indy that we’re going to have anyone like that here.
WS: It’s so wild.
AK: I’m trying to be a realist about everything. There’s a chance things could take off, but there’s also a chance that things could fail. But with the growing success, and the Obtuse regulars who come out…I don’t know, I foresee really big things happening. I think there’s a huge possibility that Obtuse could be the next big dance night in Indy, something along the lines of Real Talk or Night Train. I just hope to show people that the Midwest is more than just Chicago and Detroit for electronic music.
We’re keeping it DIY, punk as fuck, and doing what we love. That’s what it comes down to, and that’s one thing that separates us from other DJs in the city: I don’t give a shit if I get paid. Watching someone freak out over, like, an Alliyah edit? I’d rather get paid in that than get handed a bunch of cash.
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