When the techno producer, DJ and EDM performance innovator Richie Hawtin returns to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival this week, he'll do so as the rare artist who was also present at the first one in 1999.
Along the way, Hawtin has witnessed the evolution of American festival culture from behind the decks, pushing innovation as electronic dance music ascended to become a multimillion-dollar business. This will be his sixth Coachella appearance.
"The tents were very, very small — more like wedding tents," Hawtin recalled on the phone from his home in Berlin. He added that since then, he's treated Coachella as a canvas for developing new live configurations.
Still, one issue has nagged him for a long time, Hawtin said: "If I came from outer space and I saw a DJ playing, I would actually think that DJs are a strange breed of humans that only have a torso and head."
That's because most electronic artists perform from behind a console outfitted with a mixer, computers and decks. The gear, while necessary, serves to separate DJs from their crowds.
That's a problem, Hawtin said. "How can I bring people closer to what I'm doing? How can I make them feel that they understand how I play my instruments?"
This year he will experiment with a solution when he premieres one of his most extreme innovations. Rather than perform from behind the control station, Hawtin will be untethered, free to roam the stage as he mixes and creates. The desire is that fans get a better understanding of Hawtin's craft, and hopefully disabuse skeptics who consider DJs to be glorified button-pushers.
Called "CLOSE — Spontaneity & Synchronicity," the idea was born at festivals as he pondered the differences between rock and EDM performances.
Rock bands, noted Hawtin, perform without a physical separation between them and their fans. As a result, fans experience musicians interacting with their instruments, not merely as bouncing heads and torsos.
"That human connection between man and woman and machine or instrument is really engaging," Hawtin said.
Since his rise in the early 1990s, Hawtin has become an expert at his craft, so it makes sense that he'd want to showcase it. As a teenager traveling across the border to Detroit from his home in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the musician was exposed to the Detroit beat-makers now known as the Belleville Three who invented techno: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. (The three also performed at the first Coachella and will return this year.)
"Techno from Detroit was very skeletal, very stripped-down and robotic — and beautifully futuristic," Hawtin said. "It was, and continues to be, the more alien frequencies of electronic music."
Hawtin harnessed those frequencies in service of his own sound, which varied from the hardened percussion of his track "Spastik" (released under his Plastikman moniker) to the ambient rumbling of "Consumed," his minimalist masterpiece. Hawtin's most recent studio album, "From My Mind to Yours," draws its inspiration from Detroit's classic techno era.
He's put a hold on producing full tracks for now, though, because he wants to create sounds and interludes for the live show. "I really want 'CLOSE' to be as close as possible to me. As the show develops and as I'm touring, I want to continue making new music, [but] not for release. Only to be part of that moment when we're all together in a live sense."
Hawtin will mix his improvised set while cameras directed at him create abstract representations of his dancing and mixing in real time. The aim is "to bring real, spontaneous visuals and synchronicity to what you're hearing and what you're seeing."
In doing so, Hawtin is hoping to further the evolution of live electronic performance.
"We're still in the early stages of this abstraction, of someone pressing a button and making making a weird, cool electronic sound," he said. "So I'm here to help bring a little bit more transparency to that, and educate — but in a way that is hopefully extremely entertaining."