As an original member of Ectomorph, Brendan M. Gillen a.k.a BMG is one of Detroit’s standout techno and electro producers. As the founder and label head of Interdimensional Transmissions alongside Ectomorph partner Erika Sherman, he has provided a platform for local acts and like minded creatives to explore experimental club sounds since 1994.
By surrounding himself with vast libraries of music – from the 20,000 strong collection at student radio WCBN or as import buyer for Record Time Dance Room, one of Detroit’s most-loved record stores – he’s amassed a vast collection that chronicles the history of Detroit techno and a built up a knowledge to appropriately tell its story. His enduring contribution and influence to the city’s music is perhaps best expressed on an expansive new compilation he’s curated, Funkadelic Reworked by the Detroiters, where he’s collected some of the greats to remix the iconic work of George Clinton’s group.
Many diggers grapple just to stay on top of their vast collectors, but Brenden’s struggles go further. Extreme mould and dust allergies means that listening to and buying records becomes a health risk, much realer than the one that buying addicts often joke about. We discuss in depth a life spent collecting records, while his vinyl only mix is themed around tracing the rare funk and soul roots of Detroit techno from 1968 to 1985, presented unmixed in a Detroit freeform radio style.
And for US listeners caught out by Mixclouds five-track rule:
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
Yes, very much so. Also a big influence for me was my mother’s music boxes, which had contemporary songs. Those really fascinated me, you could play them at different speeds by moving them slower. Finding the Velvet Underground & Nico in my father’s collection and peeling the banana. I remember one time after we moved I wanted to find an old record and ended up with a crate of my mom’s records and finding the first Pointer Sisters record and playing ‘Yes We Can Can’ about 10,000 times, hypnotized and transfixed. My parents’ love of music certainly got me started on this journey, and also the kinds of concerts they took me to.
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
I love music and I love art. I was drawn into it from the search for new music. When I was young, vinyl was the format, so that’s what I bought. Then I worked at a radio station for a long time and became the music director and fell into the Twilight Zone episode of the curse of hearing all the new music. This also happened when I was the import buyer for the Record Time Dance Room, where you had to listen to way more music than you wanted too, skipping meals so you can keep listening is not always wise. At WCBN we had a library of 20,000 or more records, like 50 Sun Ra vinyls, or reggae records that were so rare and worth hundreds of dollars, or 7s from the start of different scenes; like the station had a promo copy of the Deep Space pressing of Cybotron’s Alleys of Your Mind / Cosmic Raindajnce or all the Liquid Liquid records when those were impossible to find and not yet reissued. So I guess just being around such significant libraries I thought nothing of amassing different ideas I was thinking of that eventually became a rather large collection. I look at it more like I’m gathering different strains of thoughts and ideas together, and that is what becomes the collection.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
In boxes or on shelves. They need to be covered usually unless they are very new due to my extreme allergies.
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
Hello & People’s in Detroit, so much amazing stuff and such excellent curators. I also really love Hard Wax, that’s probably my favorite store on earth.
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
Wow, that’s a great question, because on this journey you meet so many heads and really strange characters. I’m still in touch with people I sold records to when I worked for the Record Time Dance Room in the mid 90s, that’s how strong these bonds can be. Wade from Hello and Brad from Peoples. But number one is my good friend and number one digger Scott Zacharias. He goes digging everyday and we often share the fruits of our searches. I really appreciate the help of DJ Pete at Hard Wax over the years, and Serge at Clone as shown me some really amazing stuff, or there was this time I bought all my favorite bub records on one day at Rub A Dub thanks to their excellent staff. Pete Boufford turned me on to so much music, the soul of what made Detroit techno tick. Mike Huckaby turned me on to so many good records, or even what a good dance record was. I miss the days of going to these stores on Friday and having this whole music scene with people from every sub genre searching for and playing music at once; the energy and idea exchanges in these moments were so powerful, you looked forward to it every week.
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be illusive over the years?
So many, but some of the records I am searching for are in such small editions that I’m prepared for that. I’ll never have everything I’m looking for. I don’t work directly on amassing a collection, I’m looking for what is magnetically drawn into my orbit.
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
It’s a solitary practice usually, though it can happen accidentally and spontaneously. I need a hazmat suit to go record shopping due to extreme mold and dust allergies, not always a party for me, I’m always changing my latex gloves. I used to live in a house in Detroit that was infected with mold in the walls and I didn’t catch it until it had already transformed my body, changing my immune system. It can be heartbreaking, because I have amassed such a special collection, but now I have to make special preparation and do such a thorough cleaning afterwards that it makes it very hard to even enjoy my collection, let alone find and play my rarest records. It’s kind like of a Greek Tragedy crossed with some dystopian sci-fi and the monkey paw story.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
You always have want lists. I keep those in Notes in my iPhone, so if end up somewhere and am overwhelmed by the volume of selections, I can find a few things I’m always searching for. But, what you need draws you towards it, I find.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
Firstly I’ll say I care about the music first and foremost, and if I’m searching for music, sure I’ve taken copies without covers, or low quality copies just because I wanted to spend time with that music before I find an archivable copy. But yes, art and packaging is really inspiring and a whole second reason or even a primary reason to buy something. Great design helped push me over the edge into always hunting for new (to me) music so many years ago.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
The idea behind it is to share some of my favorite rare Detroit music in a path that I feel adds up to techno. We explore psychedelic and trips soul, weird drum machine 7s that are impossible to find, Motown’s best hypnotic rock music and a strange period of Detroit new wave and proto-techno. There’s strange Detroit variants on boogie, or the MC5’s first 7” coming out of Funkadelic’s closer from Maggot Brain, called ‘Wars of Armageddon’. It follows Rick Davis’ 1978 7” as Methane Sea before he cofounded Cybotron, who’s weird album version of ‘Clear’ is seldom heard. Rick Davis is still obsessed with the apocalypse.
Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?
I love the Chairmen of the Board selections, these are some of the best and weirdest music on the Motown defector label Invictus. ‘Life in Death in G & A’ is a rare Sly Stone song from ’69 as Abaco Dream that helps launch disco in the hands of DJs like Frankie Grosso, on an album named after a song from Sly’s Fresh, and their song ‘Hanging on to a Memory’ is one of my favorite Detroit 7s. Another kind of forgotten or hidden link from Motown to Detroit techno is the Jerry Green ‘I Finally Found the Love I Need’, where Jerry, once a member of the Contour’s (‘Do You Love Me’), sings over a drum machine beat that’s very close to the rhythm style that will become known as electro in 1981. It is in the air, is it in the water? How does this happen at the same time as Cybotron emerges? But every song on here is a gem to me. Like On Xyz, totally stance Detroit band doing some kind of rock, reggae, new wave, African hilife fusion with the help of Griot Galaxy’s Farouk Z Bey or Amp Fiddler’s 1981 7” debut with so much Moog ‘Spaced Outta Place’.
Could you elaborate a little more about how these different musical elements you’ve featured in your mix helped form techno in Detroit?
Derrick May once famously described Detroit Techno as “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with nothing but a sequencer to keep them occupied”, which at least acknowledges techno’s debt to funk. Derrick May also called his music “Hi-Tech Soul”. The funk and soul aspects of techno are forgotten now or hard for people to feel now even though it is built into the music’s DNA. I would say disco comes from psychedelic rock melding with R&B, so that the freeform jam format inherited from improvisational jazz releases the strictly 7” radio single format of 60s R&B to create these longer grooves. This nature of disco is also key to the development of techno. House is like an abstraction of disco and techno is then an abstraction of house. But in Detroit the pre-Derrick May techno developed without disco as a direct influence. Just like Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ sold a million guitars, the keyboard work of fusion jazz artists like Herbie Hancock or Jan Hammer sold a million synths, so did the work of funk keyboardists like Bernie Worrell and Stevie Wonder. The funk keyboardist became the Jimi Hendrix of the 70s in Detroit, the person every kid wanted to be. After ‘Flashlight’, that was it. Basslines now had to be on keyboards. You can’t overestimate this fervor, to have electronics like synths and drum machines replace the core of the rhythm section. That’s brave. That very moment is the dawn of Detroit techno.
Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?
Record Collectors are a strange breed. I once met Daniele Baldelli and he said he kept a whole second house for his record collection. That’s one way to not worry about your collection altering the structure of your house. I once saw a famous record store owner’s collection and it was organized with the dividers with names like you have in a store, and all his records were white label with one sheet, colored vinyl version, black vinyl version for the records he really loved. I always admired that kind of organization.
Aaron Dilloway who runs the label Hanson in Oberlin, OH, and was once in Wolf Eyes has one of the best collections I’ve ever witnessed. It’s full of life and is this fantastic collection of some of the most bizarre records ever made by mankind. Like that French record series where it’s 26 records, one for each letter of the alphabet, with one side of a recording of the person writing that letter, and the other side is an engraving of what they wrote.
Professor Arfwulf Arwulf from Ann Arbor had the most amazing collection of music from the 20th Century. He did this radio show on WCBN where he’d play his 78s from the 20s and 30s, he could do a whole show on Kazoos or other forgotten but fascinating forms of music.
I really love the collection of Carlos Souffront, it’s so much great stuff he’s so passionate about, has such an interesting system of organizations and can actually play his record collection like an instrument, where asking a question in his library could lead to hours of perfectly mixed improvisational musical exploration.
And are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?
Detroit has so many serious heads. Definitely watch out for the Portage Garage Sounds crew. M Gun is also very serious, also young to me just means younger than me, so John Elliot from Outer Space, based in Cleveland and runs Spectrum Spools is super serious. So much rare electronic music, like private press music on crazy Bucvla’s and University modulars, like every INA-GRM record, and over 50 records that were recorded underwater, which is about 49 or more than most collections. One of the best collections I’ve ever seen, simultaneously serious and full of the psychedelic joy of life and of exploring sound.
You curated the expansive new Funkadelic compilation, Reworked by the Detroiters. How did that project come about and how did you go about picking who’d be involved?
One day while discussing edit records, my friend Tom “Thump” Simonian and I dreamed up this idea, where a diverse selection of remixers from today’s generation of Detroit producers and musicians, looking back at the immense legacy of Funkadelic and then re-imagining it for now, with the re-interpreters chosen to prismatically represent the vastness of Funkadelic’s genre-bending music.
To pick the people we asked a dream selection of producers and artists from Detroit from all sorts of genres, but really people that helped to represent the diverse array of innovative musicians from Detroit, in a way to reflect that aspect of Funkadelic’s music – how it has so many styles and forms – and hoping the result of that would get people to think about Funkadelic in another way, as a prime root source of contemporary sound and approaches. It was then up to them to complete the project, which was a great challenge for so many because of how serious these artist take Funkadelic’s legacy.
You’ve also produced a couple remixes on the comp, one as BMG and one as Ectomorph. How did you approach that?
Each piece called for a different approach. With the Ectomorph one, we stripped and dubbed this mislabeled early demo version of a song, focusing on Bernie Worrell’s Moog playing and the heavy rhythms and dubbing out the top end of the funk. So the Ectomorph one is much more bass obsessed. The BMG one was simply done because nobody else did it and it had to be included on the album, this version of the song “Maggot Brain” that included Bernie Worrell on vibraphone, which I then processed until it felt like something written for a Terry Riley or an early minimalist piece. I would say the BMG version focused on making it heady hypnotic psychedelia.
You’ve been running Interdimensional Transitions for over 20 years now. What achievements with the label are you most proud of over that time?
So many years, so many milestones, it’s been such a huge part of my life. The impact of the first Ectomorph records was amazing to witness and feel. Having the From Beyond comps carry this message around the world was really incredible. Having our No Way Back parties reach their 10th anniversary this year and having its cult audience grow so organically as the parties somehow keep surprising us by getting better and better is a crowning achievement. I’ve really loved the consistency of quality in the sleeves, packaging and presentation of these records – the way they feel. I really love that. That this cult thing is still alive and even thriving is a total joy.
Has your approach to how you’ve been running the label changed over that time?
I’ve seen so much technology change over the years, I still feel like we are the beta testing generation. I started before most Detroit labels even considered releasing a CD let alone digital catalogs, from a time period where you had to call shippers, not email them. Then if you wanted to send somebody music, you had to mail it to them. When record sales were much bigger, ultra limited editions were greater than big records now. Those are external changes. I’ve learned by making every single possible mistake there is to make, so I’d like to feel we are better at this now. It’s always been fun, but I enjoy this so much more now.
How are things going with Ectomorph? Any plans for some full solo releases?
Ectomorph has reconvened and are alive and mutating. We have finished recording and are currently mixing a new album. We recently released a song on Dekmantel, have one on an upcoming The Bunker New York compilation. The live shows are full of modulars and mountains of Moogs, so much analog equipment. I just love the feel of analog. I am doing solo BMG shows now as well, working on mastering the modular, with plans for release sometime in 2018 of some new solo work on 12” and a collection of collaborations that I’ve done.
And finally is there anything else coming up on the horizon that’s getting you excited?
Just reaching the horizon or ever moving towards it is exciting. There’s so much coming up in the new year that I’m so excited about, so I can’t wait for 2018; from special parties we are doing to some full length albums from Ectomorph, Erika, BMG and continuations of the Acid Series and Eye Teeth series, and many more surprises.
Funkadelic Reworked by the Detroiters is out now – buy from Ace Records.
Eddie Kendricks – My People … Hold On [Tamla]
Chairmen of the Board – Morning Glory ／ Life & Death Pt. I ／ White Rose (Freedom Flower) ／ Life & Death Pt. II [Invictus]
Funkadelic – I’ll Bet You [Westbound]
Chairman of the Board – Hanging on to a Memory [Invictus]
Funkadelic – I’ll Stay [Westbound]
Power of Zeus – The Sorcere Of Isle (the ritual of the mole) [Rare Earth]
Johnny Walker’s X-1 – Thinking Bout Your Love [Hollywood Detroit]
Kevin McCord – Forever [Presents Records]
Space Cadets – Spaced Outta Place [Parkside Records]
On Xyz – Dread Wave [Solar Sudanese Records]
A Number of Names – Skitso (You’re My Friend) [Quality]
The Kapp Ivory Project – Shock the World [Det Mi Records]
C-Brand – Wired for Games [Detroit International Records]
P-Funk All Stars – Hydrolic Pump III
Jerry Green – I Finally Found the Love I Need
Cybotron – Clear (LP Version) [Fantasy] Methane Sea – Aftermath [Deep Sea] Funkadelic – Wars of Armageddon [Westbound] MC5 – Looking at You [A-Square Records]