In its earliest inceptions, Detroit’s techno pioneers used music to criticize the ways in which cities are designed, used, and mitigated. Records such as Cybotron’s "Cosmic Cars" (1982) and Robert Hood’s Internal Empire (1994) recreated sounds of passing cars, whirring machines, and buildings under construction; combined with driving rhythms and sequenced samples, it was a way of envisioning a different future, and a new terrain. Detroit legend Jeff Mills arguably extended this idea the furthest in his 2000 soundtrack for the 1927 silent film, Metropolis, a film that also served as an inspiration for the Kraftwerk song of the same name. Metropolis opens with plutocrats resting in high-rise towers, constructed and powered by a marginalized majority working class: like all science fictions, Fritz’s film is grounded in an anxiety of the present.
The complexities of the city is at the core of Galcher Lustwerk and Alvin Aronson’s Scenes 2012-2015, a collaborative album of atmospheric, lush techno released under their newly formed Studio OST moniker. The two DJs and producers met while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, and started releasing music through White Material Records, a label founded by fellow classmates DJ Richard and Young Male.
Lustwerk and Aronson have both individually explored ideas of the metropolis in their own music—the former on tracks such as “Abuse These Streets” under his Road Hog alias, and the latter on his first EP for White Material, City EP—but Scenes 2012-2015 is a record that has its eyes fixed on one city in particular: New York. The duo moved to N.Y.C. around 2012 and began recording music at various makeshift studio setups in their respective homes. Over the course of the titular three years, they both lived in a variety of apartments, and the constant changing of locations affected the duo’s outlook on the city, as well as the music they were making. Although it was not initially planned as a full-length album release, the individual sessions began to take on a cohesive sound, one deserving of a fully formed statement.
Although White Material has gained notoriety for club-ready tracks over the past three years, Lustwerk and Aronson’s Studio OST debut is not a record made for a club environment, or a reaction to what’s happening in nightlife. It’s an electronic album that feels more suited for a lazy afternoon, daydreaming about what it would be like to stand eye-to-eye with a skyscraper. In a way, Scenes 2012-2015 is a soundtrack to transience; an ode to New York’s inhabitants who, because of a multitude of housing factors, are forced over time to occupy many different vantage points in the same city.
For a portion of the time when Lustwerk and Aronson were recording Scenes 2012-2015, they were both living near the downtown Brooklyn area, watching the number of high-rises slowly start to take over the skyline. On the record, that experience manifests in the sounds of cities and places constructing themselves. While Mills sought to critique the ways in which urban centers have been designed and created for us, Galcher and Alvin are using techno, under the influence of science fiction, to consider the possibilities of what a city might become. With atmospheric synthesizers and puttering drum patterns, they evoke a changing urban environment. Fritz Lang envisioned the metropolis as an urban dystopia; Galcher tells me their album’s intention is to “allow you to transcend the city’s harshness.”
I caught up with Lustwerk and Aronson over the phone in early 2016 after the two had each spent some time away from New York; Lustwerk had just returned from playing a few shows in Europe, and Aronson recently moved to Los Angeles for work. Picking up the phone, I immediately recognized Lustwerk’s voice, as he frequently MCs over his solo work with a vocal register that sounds like it’s been lifted from a DJ Screw track. Conversationally, however, his voice is less staccato and idiosyncratic. Aronson broke from his quiet demeanor when the conversation shifted to talking about the cinematic quality of early techno records, and how that vision was a driving force behind the duo’s own music.
The theme of the metropolis comes up in the music you both make. How did the city of New York affect how this collaboration sounds?
Alvin Aronson: We were both living in New York at the time we recorded this record, and there was an element of creating a soundtracking for our urban environment. The idea of scenic music is a big part of this record.
Galcher Lustwerk: I came to New York for work, and I found living in Brooklyn abrasive. Music and studio time was both a form of escape, and also an attempt to connect with my environment in a different way. There’s something in this record that allows you to float above the harshness of the city, and paint an impressionistic illustration of the city. When we were making the record, we were listening to a lot of anime soundtracks and thinking about the underlying utopian narratives for these films; science fiction was a huge inspiration. I feel like we’re finally living in the future that was prophesied in a lot of older science fiction films.
Alvin, I know you’re living in Los Angeles now, and Galcher, you said you had just gotten back from Berlin. Has being in a different city for some time given you a different perspective on that metropolis idea?
Lustwerk: My relationship with New York kind of changes with every part of the city I live in; I’ve had to move three or four times, and my state of mind has shifted with each of those moves. For about half of the recording process for this record, both of us were living near downtown Brooklyn and at that time, all these high-rises were shooting up, and I would say that definitely had an affect on the way the record sounded.
Aronson: Since I moved to L.A. about six months ago, I have a bit of a different perspective on New York because when I’m there, I’m sort of a tourist again. When you don’t live in a place for a while, you don’t smell things and see things in the same way. It’s kind of a new city for me when I go back there.
“I feel like we’re finally living in the future that was prophesied in a lot of older science fiction films.”—Galcher Lustwerk
Over the three years of making the record, what was going on in the New York electronic scene?
Lustwerk: I’ve struggled to answer this before because a lot of what’s happened in the scene we’ve benefitted from, but I don’t go out too often. For me, it coincided with White Material starting to become popular. Alvin and I started off on the sidelines, and I think the enthusiastic response to the DJ Richard and Young Male records inspired us to work on our music. We started to get excited about the possibility of people hearing our music, as opposed to just listening to it on our own.
When I’m working on music in a studio, I’m not really thinking about a club, it isn’t a thing that’s in my head at the time. Parties like The Bunker had an inspiration on me musically, but the New York scene isn’t an inspiration. This record is more of a meditation, this zen mind state, where you’re just floating in the clouds above the cityscape.
What are some of the scenes or cityscapes you were trying to paint or visualize when you were making this record?
Lustwerk: The films of Masamune Shirow, who did Ghost in the Shell, and the Patlabor series were really influential. There are a few scenes in those movies that have inspired us cinematically, and stylistically.
Aronson: There’s an element of realism in those films that resonates with both of us. Even though it’s this fictional world, there’s something very realistic [about it], and I think that’s something that comes up in both of our music.
Lustwerk: There’s a Stanley Kubrick quote: “Don’t photograph reality, you photograph a photograph of reality.”
Aronson: I think there’s something interesting that happens musically when it’s not the actual sound of what’s being mimicked, but there’s a failure in the technology to reproduce what’s being created.
Lustwerk: We’re both visually minded people. It’s sort of like painting an imaginary soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist.
Aronson: You see this idea in a lot of hip-hop music from the '90s, being in the lab and synthesizing a fictional universe.
“What really appealed to me was the science fiction of techno. The idea that the music was a kind of sonic speculation of a possible future, or a re-synthesis of the present post-industrial city.”—Alvin Aronson
Galcher, I’ve read that you started making hip-hop records before working your way into more electronic oriented music. Alvin, was it a similar process for you?
Lustwerk: Actually, I’ve always made electronic music. A lot of people have written that I started off making hip-hop, but it’s not true. I was always doing electronic stuff. I’ve dabbled in hip-hop but it’s not my natural thing to do. I always want to turn the tempo up.
Aronson: Like a lot of kids in America, I grew up listening to a huge range of music, and hip-hop was definitely a big part of it. But when I first heard Juan Atkins, it was incredible to me, because it had these elements of cinematic music, but at the same time, there was this functional dimension to it that fascinated me. And that was when I was starting to go out to clubs and stuff like that, and it started to click. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by electronic dance music.
What appealed to you guys about those techno records?
Aronson: What really appealed to me was the science fiction of the music. The idea that the music was a kind of sonic speculation of a possible future of the city, or a re-synthesis of the present post-industrial city. What drew me in wasn't so much the idea of teaching the machines some soul, but the reduction of elements that felt made by a human.
Lustwerk: Like Alvin, I connect with techno way more than house. I find it frustrating people call me a house artist because I think my music in general is more in the tradition of techno. House is celebratory and extroverted. I don't connect with that sentiment.
Do you think your fans are aware of the deeper substance to the music?
Lustwerk: I’m not sure what people are aware of. I hope they enjoy it though. For me, the music that resonates the most is one with a vision. I think that’s what separates artists from entertainers. There are a lot of DJs and producers that make entertaining tracks that are effective in the club. They may make you feel nostalgic, or they may make you feel happy, or anxious or whatever—that can be entertaining, useful, and functional but there could be no vision.
Aronson: I think that plays into the fact that we wanted to do an LP with this record. It’s in the right format to get those ideas across, rather than a single. They’re not club tracks. Having the larger vision for a project is what gives music a lifespan. I think that people who listen to our music will figure it out. We’ve dropped enough hints about the ideas of the music with track titles, etc. There are definitely clues to further construct this world for the listener. It’s there for them if they want to dig deeper.