This coming Saturday, November 26th, OBSERVE is celebrating 20 years of pushing techno in Los Angeles with a night featuring Chris Liebing‘s return to the warehouse, Rubidium from San Francisco, collective members and Los Angeles techno titans Drumcell and Truncate, as well as OKTAform on visual manipulations.
20 years is a lifetime in techno years. It’s a lifetime from the perspective of a techno fan, even more so from that of an artist but more so for that of an event curator. And yet, that’s how long Moe Espinosa (Drumcell) and the OBSERVE crew have been working to push techno in their home city of Los Angeles, laying the foundations for the thriving techno scene we enjoy in the city today.
Born in the San Gabriel Valley, where he still proudly resides, Moe co-founded Droid Behavior collective in the early 2000s which later lead to the infamous Interface warehouse series and much-lauded techno imprint Droid Recordings. As the curtains closed on the Droid and Interface chapters in 2018, Moe teamed up with David Flores (Truncate) and Greg O’Sullivan (OKTAform) to launch OBSERVE, with the aim of continuing to curate life-changing techno experiences in Los Angeles and beyond, keeping the same ethos and quality that had distinguished its previous iterations but with a new breath of fresh air.
Make no mistake, 6AM’s own endeavors as event curators are deeply inspired by the Interface parties we individually and collectively attended in Los Angeles and Detroit over the years. I can personally point to key experiences at Interface/Scene events in Detroit as some of the key foundations of my love for techno and everything that I have strived to accomplish since.
With the big celebrations coming up, I had the privilege of sitting down with Moe to discuss the last 20 years, the upcoming milestone event and what’s on the horizon for him and the OBSERVE team. As is always the case with him, Moe approached our conversation with full transparency, even when discussing “touchy” subjects that many others would shy away from addressing.
Before I leave you to enjoy our conversation (or at least I hope you do!), I want to extend my personal thanks and congratulations to Moe, David, Greg and everyone in the OBSERVE team for all their efforts thus far and for everything they have contributed and keep contributing to the Los Angeles, California and North American techno scenes.
Moe, thanks for taking the time to talk about Observe and the upcoming 20 Year celebration. That’s pretty nuts to be honest… how many collectives or event series go on for 20 years? Not many!
Absolutely. It’s even a far-fetched idea for me to process.
Did you think it was going to go this distance?
When I started doing this I was 19 or 20. I obviously was a much different person. I had a bigger dream and had this whole idealistic vision in my head. “I am going to do this for the rest of my life” with the pure exuberance of youth. internally day dreaming about taking over the world in some way or another (laughs). Ive always without a doubt knew I was going to be in music for the long run but the years progressed and reality set in, it became unclear how long it would really continue but to my surprise today, we are still going and I’m incredibly grateful to still be able to participate.
How long do you see it going from here? Is there an objective with it now. A lot of things have changed. You’ve probably changed in some ways. The industry has changed. Things have also changed with the brand, as they have gone from Droid as a label and the Interface parties, to what is Observe now. What keeps you going now and where do you see Observe is going now?
There was always a mission statement when we started with Droid. There was a goal to achieve, something we wanted to do… there was a defined vision and a dream. And I would say for the most part those visions and dreams came true, we reached those goals that we were striving for and I’m proud of that.
Of course there’s a lot more goals to achieve but at the same time life changes and sometimes I ask myself the questions. Why are we continuing to do what we are doing? What is the future? What can we contribute to the community? What can we make better? I do believe that over these 20 years there was an area of my personality that took things for granted, and now with hindsight and being older in age, I no longer want to make that same mistake. I have a much more profound and deeper sense of appreciation and respect for the opportunity that we were gifted. it also feels wasteful to not be able to continue to partake in that somehow. To use our platform to be able to continue, to create and build something with every breath we take.
There’s two things that stood out in your answer. The goal is still a work in progress… you personally, and by extension Observe, are going through a transformation and figuring out where you are going, while staying true to its foundations. But also you stated that the objectives you had set for yourself, the collective and the group at the time, as Droid and Interface, were achieved. I am also wondering if perhaps the closed chapter on Droid/Interface was also due to the fact that you had achieved a lot of what you wanted to achieve and hadn’t quite figured out what was next? Is that something that did happen? Was Observe that next step and a search for something more?
‘When we started Droid all of us were incredibly passionate about techno and the sound. We were baffled by the fact that this music was such a global influence on dance music but was non-existent in the city that we lived in. I envisioned needing to build a community from scratch here and use grass roots street tactics to engage people, keep them interested with the intent to build a solid techno scene for LA.
Techno is also not the genre of music that people get instantly, you have to chip away at most of the time and suck them in bit by bit. That was my goal with building the community. To also work the with different sub genres of Techno. Exploring the similarities between house music, IDM, or experimental in our existing scene and instead of blatantly disregarding yourself from techno and alienating yourself from it because you don’t see the likeness, we wanted to show people what we had in common. What parts of experimental electronic music are connected to techno? What are the roots between house, industrial and techno? If you like house, how come you’re not into techno? And trying to blend those lines to bring people together, and it was a difficult task at the beginning, trying to lure people in and get them to fully understand but it felt necessary for the environment we were in at the time.
If you look at our past bookings, they were quite vast stylistically. It was kind of a mix-mash (Still within our swing box) to try to suck people into our world. Eventually over time we earned our communities trust and that was a very key element to completely engulf them with the techno we wanted to push forward.
At some point all of us in our crew were very honest with the fact that we never got into this to be promoters, that was not our goal. We did it because if we didn’t do it, nobody else would. At the same time we were completely confident with the fact that if other crews in the city wanted to rise up and put together techno events, by no means did we ever have the intention to stand in their way or to play some kind of territorial pissing game. It was open and forward, at least from my perspective.
If you’re into techno and you are are putting forth with the best intentions for the cities music scene, how can I help ? How can we support you and what you’re doing to make this bigger so we can establish a foundation, a home, a record label, a platform for us as artists where we can individually create, write music, have a place where we can play Techno. a home base with its own historical value. over time im incredibly proud to say we began to achieve that.
As the scene started building and getting bigger and bigger, I think a lot of our faults as a crew was that we started fractioning off individually and focusing on ourselves artistically as individuals and we didn’t focus as much as a collective, and that started to eat away at the core. And once your personal relationships start to disintegrate, then everything else around it starts falling apart.
I think by the peak of everything, when we were finally in a position where we could tour and travel all over the world, and we were starting to get so busy on an international scale that we were started to neglect, or just had lower capacity to really curate things back at home than we would have liked to. There was already a lot of new blood coming into the industry and doing things and we wanted to continue to support them and make things happen.
You took us back to the beginning of Droid, and we got to the period where Droid ended and Observe was born, and the struggles you faced in this period…
I would say that the end of Droid possibly could have been one of the more emotionally compromising situations I have been in personally. Not only from the demise of Droid alone, but also the industry itself weathered me emotionally on a whole other level. We had been through so many things you can’t even imagine that left us a bit battered and scarred, with a jaded taste in our mouth for what techno was turning into. I had to do a deep evaluation on myself on a personal level as to if I was going to continue doing music and being in this industry, why am I doing it? What are my goals? What are the purposes? Is it to achieve popularity? Is it to become a famous DJ? Or the most popular promoter in the city? I came to the realization on a personal level that none of those things, even if I did achieve them, would bring me personal happiness. None of it would actually fulfill whatever void I was feeling. At that point I said to myself that if I am going to continue to do this, I am going to try to do it with the same kind of naivety as I did when I went into it as a kid. To purely enjoy myself as much as possible and never have to face the consequences of sacrificing my integrity in any way for the sake of business. This was a bit of a launching point for us to start fresh, with a new name, a new brand and identity to work under: OBSERVE.
The industry was changing and evolving and our society as a whole has been changing. We have seen so many of these narcissistic behaviors being inherited by the way we interface with each other through social media. Every individual as a whole is conversing with the world through their phone, and the goal seems to be “look at me, look at me, look what I’m doing” all the time. I felt a distance and a lack of community through that. With Observe, the word in itself was trying to provoke thought that we should observe ourselves internally and our contributions to community and who we are. Whether our peers get it or not is still to be determined, I always assume it just goes right over peoples heads. I put a great deal of thought about what the messages in the videos and trailers that we put out are trying to get across. I hope that on some level, whether or not I can just connect with 2-3 people out of a thousand, those 2-3 people matter and I hope that at some point they feel the social criticism that we are trying to highlight… And I don’t mean “criticism” in a condescending way, like we are judging you, but in a comedic way… “isn’t it funny how fucked up we all are?” (laughs)
By trying to curate that, I hope that when people get it and they come to our events, that we can leave behind some of these things. I know this is an incredibly idealistic way of looking into things but I was hoping that there is some fun in that, some enjoyment in the ability to throw events, to create media, to create images, to blend this cohesive comedic awakening towards our events.
And you don’t feel that you are having success with this approach?
Yes, I certainly think there is. But I think it’s minimal in comparison, you know what I mean? I think the largest majority of people probably don’t see it or more then likely don’t care, but the few that do… that’s what matters to us.
I would definitely agree that if you take the multitude of people that would attend a techno show in LA, of various degrees of techno that is, there’s probably a lot of people who see that message and either don’t get it or don’t even care to get it. But I have definitely seen the response from people that clearly do and that comes from both the seasoned ravers, but also some of the newer crowd that has heard of Interface or had the luck to attend some of those parties and are seeing that message continue but with a different twist.
Yeah, I’d like to think you’re right. We are just trying to enjoy the process and maintain a platform for us to be able to express ourselves creatively on all mediums. Not just music, but visual media, and art. For us personally that’s the only fulfilling element left of what this world has to offer for us. Because I think that’s what techno was to all of us. We lived in a world where we are in Hollywood, we are at the ground floor of seeing how the mainstream music industry works. The old fashion grunge rock band that gets signed to a record label, the label doesn’t see you as art but sees you as cookies and ice cream, how can they market this band and how can they sell them and put them on the shelf. It’s all a product, and that’s what the music industry and its format has been for the last 100 plus years. The anti-culture that came out with techno was inspiring because it was after punk as punk had already been absorbed by that industry format in the 80s / 90s. Even hip-hop had turned mainstream and it kind of felt like electronic music was the last frontier, the last purely free industry that was truly about artistic expression and DIY nature.
Agencies, promoters and the background of our industry are all employing the same business strategies that mainstream music industry have been using and has pulled our culture into that world for profit, how to cut down costs to maximize income, how to promote artists via Instagram and make sure they are a marketable figure. How do we get a ghost producer to create enough music to keep them a consumable and sellable product ? We are starting to see the same business tactics in our world. And for us it’s disheartening so we are doing what we do as a matter of self-preservation, doing everything we can to hold onto what it was that we were romantically involved with techno’s original nature.
That’s a big part of why we are continuing to do what we do with Observe and the goals that we have today.
Are you personally the one in the team making the videos, the flyers?
Yeah (laughs), pretty much although to give credit David also spends allot of time digging for found video and sends me material for consideration often.
Where do you source these clips? Do you already know they exist and you remember or are you hunting for them? How does it work.
(Laughs) About 7-10 years ago David (Truncate) and I had developed this hobby outside of the techno world, an appreciation for vintage throwaway media and found footage. This obscurely strange format from the 70s, 80s and 90s that was so abundant due to the explosion of VHS tapes and television, but that had been completely forgotten yet still taps into our sense of current nostalgia.. There is a whole subculture built around that If you look at independent film theaters like Cinefamily or night owl theatre, Everything is Terrible so on so on.. David and I used to love going to these independent theaters that would edit and put together these compilations of found footage and we were deeply inspired by it. We had realized that a lot of our peers and people around us didn’t get it, “Why the fuck do you guys watch this shit?” We just thought it was hilarious.
Absolutely, they are thought-provoking visually but also through the prompts and messaging that they contain. As someone born in ’86 there is a definite and strong sense of nostalgia when I see them.
Yes, exactly. Even for us, it was funny because we would laugh at the videos and at how stupid they were, but at the same time they were so riveting. when you take a moment of that video and remove it out of context to everything else, what does that small phrase away from its original meaning have to do with our world today? Especially when you can combine that with elements of techno and bring it into this modern world, using it out of context to send a powerful message. We just found it both hysterically funny yet inspiring, it didn’t feel like a meme or just some way to garnish laughs/. Some of it dark, and some of it is overly- contemplative, and we do tend to have a rather a cynical sense of humor sometimes so even though it may come off as dark, frankly it’s hilarious to us.
We sometimes took things overly seriously in the past . We liked to think of ourselves as these techno purists and everything was about maintaining that image, personally, Some of us kind of grow out of that. Techno isn’t that serious. It really doesn’t need to be at end of the day. If you cannot take a step back and enjoy what it is, then you’re kind of missing out on hedonistic an element of it that’s there to be appreciated.
We wanted to create something that took on a comedic approach, but still with the tactic of “less is more” Marketing and promoting events online have become a completely redundant and life draining process. Always trying to chase user engagement so that algorithms don’t bury what you are trying to promote. I was just trying to find a new way to engage with our supporters that was fun, creative, inspired reflection and be provocative. Attached to that, obviously, we are using the word “techno” a lot and in today’s world the word is used in many contexts and is used to mean slightly different things.
Of course we know that techno is not one-dimensional, but when it comes to Observe it’s evident for anyone who has followed the story from Droid and Interface, it tends to be focus on techno under a specific umbrella. What is that umbrella for you guys, for you and the rest of the team, and what is the intention behind the musical programming of the parties?
Well I think I have been in the techno industry long enough to see wave of trends come and go. But there has been one ground that over and over again that has never changed and that is every time techno trends branch out in different directions, sub-genres, different ideas, overly popular and really big, it always crashes, and every time it crashes it always comes back to the root element of what it was at the beginning. And it’s not just techno, it happens with house and so many foundational genres of dance music.. At the same time, individually, it’s difficult when you are constantly trying to reach forward and progress to suddenly move backwards, and especially when you’re moving backwards for the sake of popularity.
For example if you took a moment to go back and listen to any early Drumcell records from the early 2000s it would be hard to find a single EP that was below 143 BPMs. there was a sound at the time that was new, this hard driving, fast techno, that was king of popular specifically during what we call the “prime distribution days” when all these harder grooves really became popular. That sound crashed, and minimal rose in its wake. But now in recent times I am seeing elements of that sound becoming popular again, and on a personal level a lot of DJs, not just David and I, who have been in this industry for years have a difficult time walking backwards, saying “we are going to go back and do things we did 20 years ago because the younger generation just found out about it and this is what they want” . this is not the foundational idea that techno was intended for. It’s supposed to be music of technology, music of the future, and at this point it feels we are always in retrograde. We are always looking backwards and rehashing shit that has been done. And every time that it’s being done again, it’s done with lack of historical context and it changes into something completely different. I’m sure to a younger generation with new ears it might be fresh but if you been in the grind for as long as most of us have, it easily becomes uninspiring.
I get that, especially because you are an artist at the end of the day. There aren’t many things worse than an artist playing sounds they don’t like just because they can make money playing it, or producing it. As artists, and curators, that makes complete sense. But how does that work for you guys in the curation of Observe? I know you guys have built an amazing community over the last 20 years, and a lot of those people are still raving regularly, while some come out of “retirement” just to support and experience these Observe events, but then how and what is your guy’s thought process to get this newer crowd to discover the music, and not just the music, but the experience that Observe provides? And I say experience because I always tell people that they need to experience Observe, because once they do, they will get it. How are you approaching this difficult task of getting this younger generation that only know about this specifically harder, faster sound, some of which is not techno is blended with techno, to dig a little bit deeper and trust and experience what Observe has to offer?
Well, that’s the real trick isn’t it? There are multifaceted things that are attached to it and the approach that you can take to successfully navigate issues like that but I constantly look back to my heroes and people that I look up to who have persevered through tough times and have come out on top. I can give hundreds of examples of people who have done so. It’s nice to live in the clouds and live a dream of an idealistic world, but it’s also important to be grounded, with your ear to the floor and have an understanding of what it takes to survive through all the situations and trends that the music industry tends to throw at us.
For us, I think sticking to our guns and doing exactly what we love even in the face of failure is important. A lot of that comes from understanding that it’s probably not our time, maybe this isn’t our time to be the most revered, or the most famous, or the most popular. We just stick to our guns, try to innovate where we can and curate an environment that is special enough to change people. I think that is an incredibly important part of me because like I said before, I never ever wanted to be a promoter. I never said to myself that it was going to be my dream to throw parties. This has never been my personal goal, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way to anyone else. It’s just not been my thing. Although there is an element to curating events that can be an art form of its own. I have had examples of people that have influenced me the most, where the events that they have curated and what they have put together have changed my life.
We have been to probably more techno events than your average Joe has attended over the last 20 years. there have only been a handful that have stuck out and that’s been mainly due to the curation that went into it… I strive for that. When I think back, in the late 90s and early 2000s when you go back to the early events that Richie Hawtin for instance…
Those JAK Attack parties?
Yeah, those events were not curated in a state of mind of “who do we book? Who is the biggest DJ that we get to sell enough tickets to do this?” All of those were based on a foundation of how do we create an experience for people to change their lives? How do we play with smoke and mirrors? How do we tantalize both visually and audibly? To put them in a thought-provoking situation by teleporting them into a new world to get lost in. I remember going to see Rich play a CNTRL party in Detroit around 2001. He played a 12 hour set and the room was pitch- black for what felt like hours. of course if you are there for a short period of time you want to just say “Hey, it’s a lack of production, it’s just a dark warehouse with one red light.” but no, that was not the case at all. It was about minimalism. Sleight of hand and the art of restraint to eventually make an impact,. He would play these deeply hypnotic tracks until he cut the bass out of the kick-drum and let the mids and highs ride for several minutes. I don’t give a fuck how much you hate break- downs, the crowd was screaming because the sound system was so loud that as soon as the bass was void to the room it felt like you could finally breathe again, and after running for that amount of time he would just drop the kick back in and the room would explode with fireworks,. Spinners. Lights. Everything was going off and everyone was just blown off their feet. When the bass would kick back in it would suck the air out of your chest and there was nothing more riveting and completely absorbent than that experience. The careful planning, art of restraint that went into those events created an unbelievable experience.
And I have seen that not just with Richie, but you see it with Zak, DVS1, who cares so much about the same things. doesn’t want it to be the dude sitting up where everyone is just looking at the DJ on a pedastal the whole time. It’s not about that. Jeff Mills would approach things the same way with his events. Berghain as well I’d assume… (so many more legendary events I’m not naming at the moment but hopefully you get my point), the whole philosophy behind the club is enriched and built around that thought-process of how the environment affects you, how you feel walking into it and how the music moves you in return.
I think situations and elements like that are what change people’s lives, and I am not saying I am good enough to do that all the time, because I fail sometimes, maybe because of lack of resources, but that’s the goal. That’s what I want. That’s what I dream about. That’s what I envision. That’s what I want to achieve when we do things. Sometimes I wish I had more resources to do it better, we have definitely succeed at it and maybe we didn’t. But the fact is that is the only motive for promoting and throwing events: to achieve that. I don’t give a fuck about what genre of music you listen to, whether it’s hard techno, trance, drum & bass or the corniest version of whatever is currently popular. I think when you are put in that situation, and you experience that, your life is changed and you turn from this random person that shows up to parties to what we consider a “lifer” because you will spend the rest of your life chasing that, and that’s what I’m constantly chasing.
That’s what inspires me to put on events. It’s becoming harder and harder and harder these days. But let’s face it, we are in a world where media is more disposable than ever, music is more disposable than ever. People require instant gratification more than ever. There is less reflection. Less emotional involvement. Everything is accumulated in mass and disposed of in mass, so it’s harder to achieve those sorts of vibes. I think in my mind, whether it’s practical or not, I am constantly navigating this minefield of how I can still try to somewhat hold onto remnants of that before I give up on people and say “they just don’t get it anymore.”
I still think people do. And as a curator I feel that there are those who get it and are searching for that. As a raver I have been to a ton of events, and there’s only a few… less than 10, that have had that exact life-changing result for me personally. And I have to be honest, Interface is on that list. Those are the experiences that stick with you forever, and as a curator and attendee, you are right, there is always that constant chasing for that experience.
This is the music we believe in, this is the music we feel has an impact. These are the roots of techno and the foundations and core of it. It’s about trying to ride this fine line of trying to curate events, to do what we do, to try to understand the market, what is popular, what is not, where do we make the sacrifices and which ones can we not afford to make, knowing with hindsight, age and wisdom where trends are going, where trends end, where things come back, and how do we stay ahead of the times. When this sound becomes super popular and it dies, we will be right back in line where we need to be. And when we are there, it’s our time to make our move.
Knowing that, and being ok with that is half the battle. It’s the kind of patience that techno as a genre has also taught us. Going back to the experience you strive to deliver with Observe, it’s a no- brainer then that Greg aka OKTAform is such an integral part of the Observe project. I know he was part of Interface before, but it feels that today he is more involved today with the project as an integral part of what Observe is with what he brings, and how unique it is in creating the Observe experience.
It’s really difficult to find visual artists who have a vision. A lot of VJ culture is kind of based on this idea that you are just a background part of the event. You are just another video loop on the wall, another projector, another LED screen and the image and the video has no truthful, poignant impact. It’s just a part of the lights, you know what I mean? I had this vision of throwing these warehouse parties and I wanted people to walk into a room and be transformed.Viewing the warehouse as a blank canvas to paint an experience for dancers to walk into.We want the visuals and lighting element to be as important to the event as the DJ is.
Greg got involved with Droid in the later half of things and I felt like I finally found the visual artist who could collaboratively help us achieve that experience. With Greg I was like, “I don’t want to just throw you in the back of the room and make you the VJ who’s just the afterthought of the event. I want you to be a part of the show, get you on the stage. I want you to perform with the DJ. I want you to have a synergy as if you you’re going back-to-back with somebody. have whatever the DJ is doing influence you visually, and whatever you’re doing visually to influence the DJ to play in different ways.” And that way it’s a combined effort to create an audio-visual immersive environment. When Droid eventually came to its end and the opportunity came to start Observe, Greg had came to us and said, “Listen, I want to be an integral part of this, I have ideas and I want to achieve what you envision in a better way. I want to contribute on a more core level the whole creative process of it.” And there is nothing that I love more than the feeling of collaboration to achieve a common goal
Obviously with more skin in the game, as a part of Observe, Greg can provide a lot more of what he is so amazing and unique at.
I have one last question… Chris Liebing is the next artist you’re featuring at Observe, which is happening as is tradition on Thanksgiving weekend. You, Chris and David go way back, and you’re really good friends. Earlier we talked about not going back, and I don’t want to talk for Chris but he blew up at the peak of CLR and then he went on to play massive events around the world, including main stage at a lot of festivals, from Movement main stage to playing Coachella. he is now making a return to a proper underground setting. What does that mean for Observe, but also for you personally, and how does that fit in with the sound Observe is known to be a proponent of? What can people expect musically? I think that’s a question many people may have, who are excited to see Chris back at the warehouse!
Yeah, that’s a question I have too! The first times that we had brought Speedy J and Chris Liebing to play in LA were incredibly important. It was a turning point for all of us. It was the cornerstone of when things changed from being some local promoters to participating on a more international scale, doing massive showcases at ADE, hosting label nights at Berghain, so on so on.I fell allot of that trajectory emerged out of Chris and Jochem belief in us, while offering us opportunities we never had before.
Chris came out on a whim and took a chance to play for some kids in LA at a grimy warehouse party, which I assumed was completely lower than his status as an artist. He was were enamored and amazed by the vibe and what they were able to achieve with our events. And when that happened, he got to know us especially as individual artists and producers. There is an element to our success that would have never been possible without them.
Doing this event is on one level an homage to that, and on another level… on a personal level, especially to me, David and the crew, friends and family more than anything. Literally. And we met a lot of shitty people in this industry. Out of all those people we have met in the last 20 years in the techno industry some of the most genuine people have been people like Chris. They have kept it real and have never, ever changed the way they were, how they treated us or their perspective of us based on our popularity of how influential we were, how much money we were making or how much we benefited them in some way or another. That’s important, because when you look at people like Dean (Paul De Leon), David and myself, we have been friends since we were kids and family means everything to us, which could also be a cultural thing as to Latinos in general family means everything. Loyalty means everything. Your loyalty, your bond and your word is above all else.
Chris has been a dear friend first and foremost and what’s more important at a 20 Year Anniversary then to be surrounded by the people you love, the people that support you, the people who looked out for you when nobody was looking out for you? I can’t think of anybody else better than Chris to do this.
And it’s Chris Liebing…