The first time I was at a Void party was almost two years ago, I went to Logo with my friend Hannah and we found out that there was this party with amazing music played by a mysterious, covered DJ playing some hard techno I never heard before around Shanghai. It was terrific music to listen and dance to. We were happily impressed and danced all night. I met one of the guys there (Nat) and he told me his group was called Void and that they were making parties every Thursday. He invited us to come and join every week. From then on, Hannah and I were always keeping an eye out for Void parties, trying to not miss them. The music was constantly good and the production began to get improve.
My last big Void party was the one at the warehouse, which I hope does not need bigger description to you, because if you lost it, then you just missed one of the best parties ever in Shanghai. When I came into the warehouse, my jaw dropped. The warehouse was huge, the lights were amazingly done, and the sound was from another world. The colossal place was a an empty cube, but on that night it became filled with music, sound waves perfectly flowing freely all over, with just a big black board emblazoning the white letters of Void hanging on the very top of the wall confronting the entrance. VOID. It was imposing, overwhelming for Shanghai. It was all so victoriously massive. Truly powerful music.
Void are Nat Alexander and Cammy Wilson, aka Shanghai Ultra, both from the UK, who have been living in Shanghai for a long time. Nat is the guy I first met at Logo and Cammy is the mysterious DJ that finally I met the night at the warehouse. These two techno nerds met and immediately connected their musical minds to make a reality of their vision of Shanghai as a techno city. Each of them was already beginning to spread their sound around some parties and clubs in Shanghai, soon after they met the ideas took form and the Void body was created, since then they have been producing parties and bringing DJs of the size of Surgeon, Juan Atkins, and Robert Hood. After two years of successful operations, Void is celebrating their anniversary with a home-made party, including special live sets already cooked by the two resident Djs, plus MHP (who’s the third Dj lurking in the shadows of Void), Fish, and B6 who will be playing with Void for the first time, although it’s not their first time collaborating (check “Day of the Weird Beginning” a B6 track remixed by Shanghai Ultra”).
After a long time I finally got the chance to interview these guys to learn more about what they are doing and dig some of their stories. As much as I tried to get some information out of them about the whispered gossip of a new party at the warehouse, that was the only thing I didn’t get an answer for, but I’m beginning to feel confident we’ll have a second chance to experience another of those parties again.
Mache: How did Void begin?
Nat: We bumped into each other at a party, Cammy was wearing a UR t-shirt, I was new to Shanghai and looking for musically like-minded people so I went up to him. We got chatting about music and arranged to meet the next week – Cammy had already been here a while then, so he could tell me what the scene (or lack thereof – a void if you like) was like.
Cammy: Yep, and at the time I met Nat, I had been in Shanghai about two years and DJd quite regularly with the Antidote crew and got to know MHP quite well.
Nat: Along with another guy (James Westwood), we hatched a plan to start a small night playing real underground house and techno. We did our first parties at Logo on Thursday nights, for about seven months. And then the Shelter came along – we were actually doing parties at Logo and Shelter at the same time, though how we found the energy for it is beyond me. I had come here in 2004 and brought a few records with me – I managed to score a couple of gigs at Rojam and Guandi, so even at that point I don’t think the scene was as polarized as when Cammy came back.
Cammy: Yeah. I think the thing which is relevant when talking about how Void started is to put things into perspective of the Shanghai scene in general. I was living near Shanghai from 2000-2001, I visited Shanghai quite a few times and went to a few random parties, and everything seemed very fresh and raw then. I went back to the UK in July 2001, then came back to SH in 2005. in the back of my mind I always wanted to start an event dedicated to “proper techno” if you will. When I came back in 2005, Shanghai was a disaster, most clubs didn’t even have a dance floor, never mind some kind of non-commercial music. Antidote started doing underground parties, but they focused on all kinds of weird music- not specifically techno or house. Then by the end of 2005, we had Micro (minimal music) Uprooted Sunshine (reggae, dub, dancehall, etc.), and Phreaktion (drum ‘n bass). All these crews did great events and really laid the foundation for the alternative music scene in Shanghai as we know it, but we still didn’t have a regular underground house and techno event, and in a city as big and international and significant as Shanghai, that was a huge gap…. there was a VOID as it were. And the original Detroit techno/electro is the root of so many styles of electronic music we hear in Shanghai.
Nat: And Chicago house.
Cammy: Yes. Chicago house, also, for sure. So it was kind of ironic that the city didn’t have a night more closely related to this kind of pioneering music. Every other big international city has such kind of events, so I had it in my mind to start such an event, but I just couldn’t find a venue at first, or any other like-minded people to work with. Then I met Nat in around February, 2007, and we immediately started hatching a plan to put Shanghai on the international electronic underground map. So, that’s the background, I think.
Mache: Let’s stay on the past a bit more. What were you doing before Void? Were you both DJing, or organizing parties before you were in Shanghai?
Nat: I bought records since I was 15 or so, have messed round with turntables since I was 18, but never organized any proper events in London – it’s very hard to break into the scene there. The only parties I ever played at were friend’s ones and clubs at university, but that doesn’t really count!
Cammy: To be honest, I had never DJd before I came to Shanghai. I had electronic music published on labels when I was a teenager, and had produced electronic music for years. It was only when I came to Shanghai that I started DJing with Antidote, and developed my skills from there. Actually I never owned decks, I just slowly learned to fudge together a few tracks on CD decks.
Nat: I did lots of my clubbing when I was living in Oxford, we used to get the coach to London and stay out all night at club nights. Those clubs that I was going to, like the ones where Cammy went to, were just good clubs at the time, but they have turned out to be seminal clubs, really important ones for the development of the dance scene in the UK. Club UK, Eurobeat 2000, Lost, The End – all of these were really important for bringing unheard US and European artists over to the UK. But these clubs weren’t setting out to be big significant clubs, they just were run by guys bringing the artists they liked over. They were pushing artists that were not the mainstream. Mainstream clubs in the UK were all glam house in the mid-90’s
Mache: What is the thing you have with Detroit techno?
Cammy: It’s hard to know where to start with Detroit techno, just such a seminal and influential form of music, very complex and unique.
Nat: Actually, I found the first Detroit techno I listened to a little weird.
Cammy: Me too- that’s why I liked it.
Nat: I was listening to early German trance and acid, all at about 140+ BPM, but I started listening to some other records. One that springs to mind is DBX- Losing Control- which is now a really famous track, but when I got it, it was just a new release. I couldn’t work out why it was so slow. I had this thing where I could set my record player with the speed in between 33 and 45 and that was the speed where it made sense to me. I think it was about +10%! At the same time DJs that I liked were playing this stuff and as the years progressed and I picked up some older stuff, I realized that some of my favorite tracks from mixes were D tracks.
Mache: What is Detroit techno?
Cammy: it’s very difficult to explain. It is from Detroit, first and foremost. I always find it quite difficult to verbalize musical characteristics, I just run out of words. I’d say there are two basic types of techno, I mean, two basic types of Detroit techno, and this is a huge generalization. First Wave- soulful, melodic, spacey, futuristic stuff, from the likes of Juan Atkins (model 500) and Derrick May under his rhythym, or r-tyme name. Second Wave- hard, but very funky and groovy, from the likes of Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance early stuff, Rob Hood. That’s a very basic template to understand what is Detroit techno
Nat: I’m not sure it’s very helpful to get hung up on defining Detroit techno, perhaps we’d be better off looking at techno in general. Obviously, as the first exponents of techno, the Detroit guys are key to that definition, but after them techno became so much more international. Techno is electronic music with foundations in funk, disco, Kraftwerk, italo disco, electro, and new wave. From the original Detroit guys as Cammy has outlined, it then went to Europe where a whole load of guys were producing in parallel with the Second Wave.
Cammy: For a lot of the artists’ stuff, it has a grim, bleak and hard feel (similar) to industrial. Nat has a good point though, there is more to techno than Detroit, good though Detroit is.
Nat: And I think for the European guys, Detroit techno, and Chicago house, as well as 80’s synth music were their influences.
Cammy: Also the influence of Chicago house can’t be ignored.
Mache: And what’s with Chicago house?
Nat: It’s the first house music
Cammy : Nat is Void’s resident house expert. I’ll leave it to him for this one, but, well, let’s put it this way: Chicago is to house what Detroit is to techno
Nat: Ok, so in Chicago in the early 80’s, music was predominantly disco. There were two big dj’s there – Frankie Knuckles (who was from New York) and Ron Hardy. These two were basically playing disco, but guys in Chicago started buying old synthesizers and making very simple rhythm tracks, kind of extensions of the drum breaks in disco. Over time, these tracks and the uses that these guys put their synths to got more and more developed. They started sampling the disco tracks and putting in vocals, making entirely new sounds. Actually, you know on my warehouse mix – there’s a track near the start that has lots of disco samples in it- “oh baby baby/ aw shucks” and stuff like that – that is a real proto-chicago house track, but then they started making acid tracks and using the synths to make noises that had never really been used in that way.
Cammy: Detroit techno and Chicago house are the foundation for most electronic music which you hear today.
Mache: This is the music that turns you guys on, and the music you want to play for Shanghai?
Nat: Yes, for sure. We play a mix of old and new stuff. There is lots of good new music, but there is just so much old stuff that hardly any people know. By definition, underground music only reaches a small audience at the time of its release.
Mache: How has Void’s audience developed since you began? Has there been an evolution?
Cammy: Well, this is a topic Nat and I often chat about. I’d say we have built up a small cult following and, beyond that, I think a lot of people who go out in Shanghai know Void’s name. There is also the Chinese element and Western element to Void. The Western element knows more about house and techno, what it’s about, who the DJs are, etc. Chinese haven’t had the chance to get exposed to much quality electronic music and this is something Void has been trying to make up for. The Chinese/Western audience issue is similar for all event organizers.
Mache: What is the feedback you have gotten during these years from your audience?
Cammy: A lot of people have approached us in person, or on line, and given us some really flattering praise. That is what really makes it worth it for us. It’s not an awfully big number of people who take the time to do that, but that doesn’t matter.
Mache: So, the void is slowly disappearing with Void?
Cammy: Ha ha…Void is filling itself. We do what we can to try to spread quality music and encourage people to take an interest in the music and where it came from, but at the end of the day, we can only do that if we put on a good show, which means people letting their hair down, lots of dancing, and quality underground house and techno.
Nat: Actually from a pure party perspective, without patting ourselves on the back, my favorite party was the warehouse one. No guests, but I was blown away by the response to that.
Cammy: Yes, I totally agree with that.
Mache: How has been the experience of booking artists that you really dig? How tough or easy has that been?
Cammy: That’s been really fantastic, bringing our musical heroes to Shanghai.
Nat: They have all been a pleasure to host and from a music nerd perspective, it is really great to hang out with guys who I have been listening to years.
Cammy: If you told me two years ago, I’d soon be playing alongside Rob Hood and Juan Atkins, I would have laughed that suggestion off without hesitation.
Mache: What is their reaction after they play here?
Cammy: China, and Shanghai, is unexplored territory for them. The reaction of every guest, bar none, has been positive.
Nat: Cammy, correct me if you think it’s improper, but we have at times been disappointed with the turnout that some of our guests have got.
Cammy: No, I fully agree.
Mache: In what way?
Nat: It seems like far less significant artists get good turnouts due to less competing events on the night, better weather, more hype from promoters.
Cammy: We aVOID hype.
Nat: There are so many factors that can affect turnout, but it’s a pity more people don’t see some of these guys. I’m not sure that people get just the level of artist that we are bringing over. These guys are massive in the international techno scene.The Shelter is known for bringing in various types of dance music artists, and these are guys at different levels, sometimes they are really new producers, barely known outside a very niche scene, sometimes they are massive, but as they are all in The Shelter and the price is only ever 50 or 60 kuai, I don’t think people realize that some of these are people who will headline festivals in any other country, they will fill 2000 capacity clubs.
Cammy: Yes. To be blunt, the caliber of the guys we bring over is seldom matched in Shanghai. You might think, “Well, they would say that,” but their musical bios and history speak for themselves in many cases.
Nat: It may be that, in the future, some of these unknown guys are as respected as, for example, Surgeon, but a lot of them won’t be. But how do we articulate this to people? This is the question we are always asking.
Cammy: Yeah – there is certainly nothing wrong at all with bringing in unknowns. In fact, an unknown artist could be a star in waiting, but….too many mediocre acts come to Shanghai and get big crowds because the artists get HYPED up in the promotion.
Nat: Another thing, I don’t think people know what techno is, how varied it is. This has been a concern from the start. A lot of people don’t know, and think techno is all bang bang bang.
Cammy: Yeah, banging techno is just one flavour, we offer a full 12-course king’s feast of underground delights.
Nat: It would be nice to get a big turnout for all of our events, but, as I said, there are so many factors that can affect it. Actually I’ve stopped worrying about it- just enjoy the night. That’s another reason for doing resident nights. As well as giving us room to develop, it allows us to save a bit of cash and bankroll the other guests. Regardless, most of the music scenes in Shanghai are pretty niche. You go to London even and sure, clubs like Fabric and Matter are full, but that’s only 1 or 2 thousand people. The techno scene is pretty small anywhere. The reason why there is no big techno scene anywhere is because what happens to techno when it becomes mainstream is that it becomes derivative, it stagnates, it becomes all the sub-genres that have their year or four of popularity and die. Real techno carries on in the underground, followed and promoted by only a small minority of clubbers. It always strikes me as funny that if you look at the genres on Juno, techno is one small slot, but you will find stuff that was once techno is loads of the other genres.
Mache: What is your strategy to get through these challenges and conquer more space for Void?
Cammy: Our strategy is just to follow our own direction and not be swayed by bullshit magazine-driven trends or write hyped-up bollocks on our flyers. No matter what though, the Shanghai scene in general has improved a lot. But I think this year the alternative party thing has reached saturation point.
Mache: What do you think about the fact that the underground scene is lead by groups of Western people?
Cammy: It’s not strange when you think about it. It’s just music spreading itself geographically. I mean, when you think about back in the UK, you can find a lot of people who have no idea what techno is, so imagine what it’s like in China. The difference is that China is developing fast and in the right direction in terms of culture, so I think in time we will see more indigenous involvement in the electronic music scene, and then we can start to feel more of China’s take on electronic music because it’s a country with a lot of great things to give in all cultural fields.
Nat: It’s unfortunate that more Chinese people don’t participate in promotion andDJing, but I’m not sure it’s that surprising. This (underground music scene) is such a young culture.
Cammy: Yeah, it will take time.
Nat: Us Westerners exist in the context of post-60s popular and underground culture. Chinese exist in the context of post-80’s popular and underground culture. That’s a big head start.
Cammy: That brings us back to the Shanghai party scene and the saturation point. All these parties are organized by foreigners. I think all these parties are great, but at the end of the day, unfortunately I think there just isn’t the numbers of people to support all these parties. This kind of “Shanghai is a city of 20 million” idea we hear so often is misleading. It just doesn’t work like that.
Nat: I’m sure there will be another influx, another burst of enthusiastic newcomers later this year and they’ll hear about the Shelter, Logo, all these other venues, but if they go and it’s not music they like, some of them won’t even give it a second chance. There is always a big burst in September and February, but it’s maintaining that enthusiasm that’s tough.
Mache: That’s a big victory for Void and the other groups producing music events, I believe.
Cammy: Yeah, and what sets Void apart is our ability to bring in top quality big-name underground DJs. That kind of anchors things for us, keeps momentum going, and helps us build our name.
Nat: We think quite carefully about the programming of our guests, try to present as broad a spectrum of music over all our guests. We don’t want to present the same style over and over, both for the audience and for ourselves.
Cammy: Yeah, we are always open to new styles and artists if the quality is good.
Mache: So, guys: Let’s do a summary of these two years. Best night?
Nat: Turnout-wise, Juan Atkins. Personally, my favorite music, Surgeon/Hood, but that is really tough to say. DJing-wise, DJ Bone. That man is incredible.
Cammy: My favourite music, Hood and Surgeon, also.
Mache: The most difficult moment?
Nat: Rain, rain, rain, our worst enemy! I hate watching the weather forecast in the run up to events.
Cammy: HAHAHAHA, me too.
Mache: What about the happiest moment?
Cammy: Happiest moment, probably the warehouse party on Dragon Boat holiday, it felt like Void had come of age, even if a lot of people didn’t consciously know it was a Void party ‘cos that’s how Void works.
Nat: Yes, I was so impressed with how that turned out- the sound, the lights, the atmosphere.
Mache: What about the things you’ve learned during these 2 years?
Nat: You can’t trust the weather. (laughs) I have learned a lot about DJing. I was reading an interview recently with Andy Weatheral and he was talking about the role of the support DJ (which is what we do most of the time). This is what I have learned and improved on. Getting a crowd ready or continuing on from them (the headliner) is really important for the guest and the night in general. We have learned the importance of sticking to your principles, building a strong brand, and communicating a strong image. It’s all very well messing ’round in your room, or letting your ego run wild, but really, working a crowd is something else.
Cammy: To sum up what I’ve learned: One, Shanghai is a very quirky place… foreigners only leave the French Concession for special occasions. Two, most people just want to go to a good party and aren’t that bothered about the music. Three, MP3s burned onto CD really suck. Four, take a shit BEFORE you arrive at Shelter (laughs). Actually, maybe you shouldn’t print that, don’t want to spread that kind of rep. (Ed. note- Oops!) Finally, number five: good techno music can make people who thought they hated it dance all night.
Nat: Another thing: touching just one or two people with music is a great feeling. Having those people who come up and say that they love the music, that they haven’t heard anything like it before, is so great.
Cammy: In the right environment, there is no better music for body reaction, well, for dancing, anyways.
Nat: And for needing a shit? Sorry. (laughs)
Mache: Hey, guys: Are you planning to take Void out of Shanghai eventually?
Nat: It’s a nice idea, but I think that would be more about our ego than anything.
Cammy: Yeah, the thing is, Void needs to be in the right venue for it to work.
Nat: It would be more about us being the city-hopping, jet-setting night than because it is actually appropriate. We still have lots of work to do in Shanghai!
Cammy: I just don’t think there are that many appropriate spots in China to do a Void-type night. We cant go doing warehouse parties in other cities. Logistics are too much to handle.
Nat: Yes, playing at the Shelter is great because we will have a responsive crowd, but we have had some bad experiences playing at other nights. That’s why you don’t see us playing at other parties much. Plus the logistics take a lot of time.
Mache: What about for this Saturday? How’s the party planning?
Nat: We’re excited about this!
Cammy: Saturday is going to be a really fun time for everyone.
Nat: Fish is opening, then B6. They will do a great job warming up for the early crowd, then I am playing. I am thinking of a two part set, lighter to start and then a big change half-way through, but we’ll see how the night feels. Then Cammy and MHP are going to tear shit up with their live set.
Nat: B6 will prepare something a little different, first time playing at Void. I wouldn’t expect to hear the same as at Micro or Antidote. He said he wants to develop his style away from the minimal sound.
Cammy: B6 debut at Void, I think that’s going to be cool. And wait till you hear the intro of the live set, it has a sample of “Techno City” by Cybotron (Juan Atkins). The live set will have some very “live” aspects to it. It will feature 909 drum beats and 101-basslines that come out of my head on the night. The way we have it set up is really exciting. Well, for techno geeks like myself, anyway.
Nat: Shanghai – Techno City – you can’t avoid it