John Acquaviva- The Father Of Techno
Monday, 7 April 2008
John Acquaviva may be one of techno’s most influential players. Nevertheless, he’s released relatively few records, rarely grants interviews, and hates being photographed for magazines.
The DJ acknowledges that he’s a “reluctant icon”. “Everyone wants to be an icon, but I’m an iconoclast – truly,” he says. “I’m not afraid to be different. I have enough experience. I really didn’t care to be the biggest guy on the block.”
In 2008 the Italian-Canadian is no longer the preserve of trainspotters. The wider dance community is catching on to Acquaviva’s formidable talents. He’s even landed in the DJ mag poll, which must amuse a man who expresses scepticism about the machinations of the contemporary dance industry.
Acquaviva is awake early for this interview in anticipation of his return to Australian shores. The DJ hasn’t visited since the ’90s when he accompanied Richie Hawtin. (He bypassed Sydney.) It’s not cool for DJs to be early risers but John isn’t preoccupied with appearances. “I’m not a ‘cool’ DJ so I get away with that. I’m old. I’m not a young guy anymore. I’m just there. I’m like everyone’s father,” he jokes.
The original electro-houser attributes his heightened profile in the 2000s to the young producers inspiring him. “I feed off the people around me,” he says. “Part of my own success is the fact that I’m latching onto the new generation.”
Of course, Acquaviva is best known as Hawtin’s old cohort. The London, Ontario DJ launched the seminal Plus 8 with Hawtin in 1990. But while Hawtin, recast as Plastikman, would be embraced as a countercultural star, Acquaviva kept in the background.
Acquaviva, who studied mathematics, was already a seasoned DJ before he gravitated towards Detroit’s nascent techno. He’s DJed “since the disco days”, scoring his first residency back in 1982. Then, DJs gigged nightly and, spinning extended sets, were expected to carry everything in their boxes.
In the ’80s Acquaviva loved the “electro-pop” of New Order, Gary Numan and Depeche Mode. He earned a respectable income. “Even in the ’80s, when DJing wasn’t cool, I made a lot of money. That’s probably one of the fundamental reasons why I was never motivated to be a super international rock star DJ, ’cause I was always busy. I always make really good money, because I’m talented. I don’t need to market myself, per se.”
Acquaviva, wary of sounding “obnoxious”, breaks off to clarify his point. His is the confidence of experience, not arrogance. But, with a flurry of “funny haircut” DJs now jostling for fame, he admits to struggling to assert himself while staying humble. John is consistently self-effacing.
For Acquaviva, discovering techno – and Detroit – was an epiphany. He’d otherwise “burned out” as a DJ.
In contrast to the “fat cat” Toronto, Detroit was a “have not” city, yet it harboured technological “visionaries”, kids determined to be heard. This energised Acquaviva. Hawtin, too, was caught up in the rapture. Though born in England, he was raised across the US border in Windsor. Legend has it that John connected with the enthusiastic raver at The Shelter, where the latter was DJing. “Rich and I bonded a lot – as two Canadians, we had a lot in common – and we bonded more than the others.”
Plus 8 was initially run out of the basement in which Acquaviva’s father prepared his mozzarella. The new pals collaborated on Elements Of Tone as States Of Mind.
Richie encouraged John to produce. “I thought I was a really good DJ in the ’80s. I talked it – ‘I could do this and that’ – but I never did anything until I met Rich. Rich is like, ‘I’m gonna get a record out by the time I’m 19.’ He had some goals. I’m like, ‘Fuck, man, I should have set some goals! Instead of talking about making records, I should make records’.”
Plus 8 introduced not only Hawtin to the world, but also Kenny Larkin, Dan Bell and Speedy J. Still, the Canadians generated disquiet within Detroit’s primarily black techno fraternity. Some reckoned that, as “white kids”, they were committing cultural theft. The more visible Hawtin copped it the most. However, Acquaviva has stated that he and Richie were supported from the outset by key figures like Derrick May. And, significantly, Underground Resistance’s Mike Banks, who doesn’t suffer fools, let alone pretenders, reached out to them.
It fell to the unassuming Acquaviva, who’d acquired studio equipment in the late ’80s, to engineer Plus 8’s records and, eventually, act as entrepreneur. Because of this, he was slow to kickstart a production career.
Acquaviva and Hawtin decided to wind down Plus 8 at the end of the ’90s. They remain buddies. John refers to Richie, who, bizarrely, might be the auteur of dance music’s funny haircut, as his “young brother”.
“We never once had issues with each other – and we still don’t,” he explains. “We just realised that everything we were doing was no longer 50/50. He became more the face and, really, the heart and soul of techno – and I had my issues with techno. I think I can lay claim that I built it up and he carried the torch and the banner. I’m lower key, anyway. I don’t have a strong image – I don’t really have a strong desire to have a strong image. I’m just trying to age gracefully.
“We just realised nothing was 50/50, so we split up our one company.
“At that time I’m like, ‘Rich, at the end of the day, maybe I’m more the business guy’ – because we had to manage our success. I was older so it was my responsibility. Rich was our main talented artist, so you can’t make your artist work in the office!
“But, after a couple of years of soul-searching, we’re like, ‘This is great, but we gotta move on to bigger and better things’.”
Today Acquaviva is focussed on his electro-oriented Definitive Recordings. If Plus 8 attracted purists and, unwittingly, cultivated a “serious” image, then John has avoided pretence with Definitive. He is inundated by demos but the quality excites him. “I take great pride in my A&Ring.”
Acquaviva frequently records with emerging producers, like protégé Olivier Giacomotto, but is scrupulous about sharing credits. “A lot of big DJs pay young producers off to do studio work. They’re like, ‘Here kid, here’s 500 Euros – fuck off’.” It’s not that John isn’t capable of working solo but, with Richie out of the picture, he appreciates having an ally to spur him on. “I’m too lazy to go to the fuckin’ studio and do it myself. I need someone to hold me up.”
Acquaviva still has a stake in projects with Hawtin. It was John who showed Final Scratch to him. He also co-founded the electronic download site Beatport with Hawtin, among others. Acquaviva’s involvement in Beatport – and digital music – is ironic considering his nostalgia for the picture discs of the ’80s. Yet, like Hawtin, he’s a futurist.
Despite his history as a DJ, Acquaviva favours new music – and a spectrum of electronica. He hates it when DJs have six-month-old tracks in their charts. More than that, he cringes at the idea of trading on his past.
Acquaviva balances his roles as veteran, pioneer and edutainer. “[Before] I felt like I was always the older guy trying to give people a context for the history of music, so I’d play some older records, where everyone’s blazing away with new records,” he says. ”I play all-new records now, but I’m feeding off the whole influence I had from my early electro-pop days.
“I’m keeping it fun, keeping it a bit edgy, but not so underground that no one likes you and not so commercial that it’s cheesy – because a true clubber wants to have that special club that not everyone goes to.”
WHO: John Acquaviva
WHAT: Plays onelove at Tank
WHEN: Friday 18 April