RA - "Breaking Through: Heatsick"
Steven Warwick's experiments in dance music are crossing over to audiences he never thought possible. RA's Darius Sabbaghzadeh explains.
There's a story that Steven Warwick has been telling friends for years. Once, when living in Leeds, he decides to head out to a night club located in the basement of a local shopping center. At the door, he asks the bouncer, "What night is tonight?" Briskly, the bouncer replies, "Oh, it's Gay Night." Inquiring further, Warwick asks, "Well, what's that?" The bouncer replies, "It's music for gays, you know, gay music." "Gay music? What on earth is that?" He then tells the bouncer, "Well, I want to go in," but the bouncer replies, "Oh, it's nearly closing." Irritated yet determined, Warwick says, "Well, if it's closing, I don't mind paying or anything, I just want to have a drink." The bouncer simply says, "Oh, they stopped serving." "Oh, I just want to go in and dance then!" Only then does the bouncer say, "OK," and allow him to pass through.
Ever since that experience, Warwick has been fascinated by the concept. "I was really interested in the socio-cultural aspects of it," he explains. Warwick sees the usage of the term "gay music" as merely a way of containing and defining behavior, and he certainly wants none of that himself. Outlining his solo project, Heatsick, he says, "I want to make visible music/muzak, as it's invisible a lot of the time, just like a lot of gay culture is in general." Heatsick is, in many ways, a continuation of Warwick's musical pursuits—he's recorded as Birds of Prey, Hungover Breakfast and his long-standing project Birds of Delay is a collaboration with Luke Younger—yet his balancing of dance music with experimentation sets this current project apart from anything he has attempted in the past.
Attempting a Google search for "Heatsick" may first involve hurdling over the auto-corrected results for "Heatsink." Speaking of his pseudonym Warwick recalls, "It's like a heatstroke, but onomatopoeically I don't really like heatstroke so Heatsick—the idea of that sick puke—it's a bit dirtier. I just wanted to be like a coarse kind of name in a way." The name appropriately marks the tone of his music, which was first released under Heatsick in 2006 as a series of noisy tape recordings on his self-run label Alcoholic Narcolepsy. At that time, he had just relocated from the UK to Berlin and was living in the northern district of Wedding. "I literally moved with a suitcase, I had nothing so I would just be in my room all day recording. I mean my rent was like 100 euros a month, I actually lived off Heatsick for a while."
The first Heatsick releases were often recorded in one take. Despite their DIY appeal and overall crunchiness, they were nevertheless conceptually ripe. "I hope it makes sense that I think a lot and then I execute an idea," Warwick says, "Essentially you could say it's improvising, but I think it's too thought out beforehand. I mean it has a first take quality, but it's…meditated over." Submerged, the first Heatsick release, featured the kind of improvised and free-form drone that was a trademark of Warwick's recording style. Yet it was his 2008 cassette release of Dubbed Sunshine that marked his shift towards more loop-based and beat oriented production.
"Dubbed Sunshine was definitely the departure point for what I'm doing now. I mean it's funny you know, I've always been influenced by dance music. It's just a bit more explicit now. "Coherent track structure and a fuzzy yet noticeable rhythm were foreign, but interesting, concepts in Warwick's music at that point. "It wasn't like a prescriptive project in a way, I mean I [also] picked Heatsick because for me it has this imagery of kind of in-between states, like a liminal state."
From his first experimentations with tape loops at the age of 14, Warwick's music has exhibited a playful attitude toward song structure where everything lies comfortably meshed together while being left raw and unpolished. "I think it's good to be playful, that's like the emphasis for me," he affirms. Growing up in the countryside outside Peterborough in the east of England, there wasn't much of a local scene. Instead he listened to the radio, especially to John Peel, whose more outlandish selections struck a chord with him. He recalls, "I remember hearing Mosanna and all this Japanese music on John Peel and just being like, 'God, he's not even playing an instrument, this is even more amazing!'"
Electronic works such as Manuel Göttsching's album E2 E4 were around, but it was a Scion performance in Berlin a few years back that turned his head toward the dance floor. "I went to WMF, it's closed now," he says, "And I remember it was three or four in the morning and people were dancing and it was just completely ambient. I remember being quite blown away by it...It wasn't Scion necessarily, but I was more influenced by witnessing something ambient and people were dancing to it. When I saw that I became more like, 'Wow, this is a way more interesting world for me to play around in.'"
Having a background in the concert and live music circuit, his transition to club performances carried a social as well as an intellectual appeal for him. "I got interested in playing in a club setting because people would dance and I'm really fascinated by the psychology of that." Putting the concert and club environments in comparison, he says, "You play a show and it's like a 30 minute set, sound check, finish at 10, whereas when you play a club you play for an hour, you play three or six in the morning...It's way more conducive to a psychedelic experience or just something which you wouldn't normally feel. I think it's great—it's like tape delay, but time delay, just pushing something into the night."
With not much more than an effects pedal and an aging Casio—itself missing keys from years of attrition—Warwick's Heatsick performances are unmistakable. He begins by playing simple loops and gradually layers them upon one another until he breaks each component down and opens up space for new patterns. The end result is a sort of mimicry of early Chicago house mixtapes, where even the mixing itself is imitated. He explains, "I was almost obsessed with mixing, but listening to how the idea of dance music is always remixed and kind of in flux as well. I kind of had this perverse idea for the new Heatsick thing of playing the keyboard, but playing as if I was a DJ, like how a DJ mixes between tracks. I'm really obsessed with imitation."
One Heatsick performance last year in Berlin's Raum18 caught the eye of Achim Brandenburg, AKA Prosumer, and Warwick was set up with a gig at Panorama Bar. Alongside Daniel Wang, DJ Harvey, Prosumer and Cassy, he played a live one-hour set with his Casio. "It was amazing," he says as he remembers the crowd that night, "It was fucking packed, it was six in the morning on a Saturday night and people were going nuts. And I was so into the perversity of, like, 'I've just got this Casio.'
Heatsick also DJs. But rarely in public. Nonetheless, his Entr'acte mix, made for the London-based label and website, is essential listening if you want to learn more about his taste and his humor. It begins with a David Bowie loop and then proceeds through classic disco and dance tracks that are overlaid with recordings of William S. Borroughs and Jack Smith narrating highly homoerotic passages. It's simply another reflection of Warwick's fundamental approach to music, which, as he explains, "is this whole idea of just being in flux or just keeping something loose."
Coming up soon, his links to "conventional" dance music will be further solidified with the release of the Dream Tennis EP on Cocktail d'Amore, the label run by Discodromo and Boris Dolinski. The EP marks the culmination of Heatsick's Casio-styled house recordings he's been experimenting with over the past year. "Dream Tennis," the title track, moves in and out of low-bit renditions of vaguely recognizable house motifs until it crescendos with all of them going at once. The EP includes a disco remix from Prins Thomas as well as a Latin-tinged reworking from the Chilean producer Diegor.
Later in the year Heatsick will also release his INTERSEX LP on Pan Records. He elaborates on the premise, "The title comes from Magnus Hirschfeld, the German sexologist, pioneer of the Zwischenstufe, and I was trying to link it with this idea of fluxus as music and fluxus as sexuality." Rife with references to gay culture, Warwick poignantly features a loop of himself repeating the phrase "gay music" at the end of the second track "Vom Anderen Ufer." It's not that he's trying to define gay music—or claim that his music is made for a gay reception. It's about trying to define himself as a gay artist. He reflects, "It's funny because the idea of 'Do you want to be known as a gay artist or whatever?', and I don't know if it's like that, but you would definitely want to push gay themes into the foreground because it's who you are, it's part of who you are, and I feel that it's very ignored."