Mark Farina hates the same things about house that you hate.
"House all sounds the same," you gripe. In response, the San Francisco Bay Area DJ plays some weird and refreshingly silly down-tempo songs.
"House DJs play crap tunes all night just so they can save two or three good records for a peak," you moan. Farina is known for keeping the pace churning throughout his set, and he spins CDs in addition to vinyl (particularly unreleased CD-Rs by upstart bedroom producers), making for diverse set lists.
"House is full of tired-ass divas singing some feel-good bullshit," you might point out. He feels your pain there, too. "I'm very wary about playing vocal tracks," he explains over the phone from his San Francisco apartment, "especially any big vocal gospel anthems. Really can't stand those."
Frustrated, you unload your final, sneakiest stereotype: "I'm sick of all these dweebs standing behind turntables pretending they're actually making music."
Now, this comment might once have been a legitimate diss on Farina. He was known for years as the DJ who spun much -- as often as 300 times a year at his most active -- but produced little.
Last fall, Farina ended the drought by releasing his first artist album, Air Farina (OM Records), with 13 original tracks. The challenge wasn't just the personal one of tearing himself away from his greatest addiction, the DJ booth. He also had to face the longtime curse of full-length house albums: There just aren't any. Most great house music comes in seven-minute songs released as singles, which DJs assemble into great house sets. Farina wanted to build an entire record out of mostly one aesthetic -- the quirky hybrid of hip-hop and underground deep house he plays as a DJ -- an approach that typically appeals to only the converted electronic music audience. But Farina has bigger plans: "I'm always trying to figure out how to rope in the general listener, the kid who listens to rock."
If Farina can spoon out unsweetened dollops of house music to the uninitiated masses, it will definitely be a coup. House, which, like Farina, came of age in Chicago in the mid-1980s, has been the most conservative, least changing form of dance music. With its chunky, straightforward rhythms, the genre has splintered into a few offshoots -- deep (the closest to black soul music), progressive (more driving and synthetic) and ambient (swirly and spacious) -- but it's still a tight-knit family. Farina eschews the ready-made crowd-pleasers for deeper, more sophisticated tracks.
The first impulse for an untested house producer putting together an album might be to prove his musicianship by gathering tracks from all over the house spectrum. No one wants to hear only minor variations on the same theme for an hour, so the artist could offer the songs as freestanding pieces. But then the assemblage might be disjointed, eliminating half the fun of the house listening experience -- the fluid slide of one track into the next.
So Farina decided to do both, putting continuously mixed sets and individual standouts on the same CD. First he came up with a unifying theme -- air travel -- then he used interludes of cockpit banter to section off the album into two separate DJ mixes, one inspired by departures and the other by arrivals. He produced the tracks in the studio with drum machines, samples of live musicians, and the lightest touches of synthesized melody, then loaded them into his CD decks and blended them seamlessly together. Each series of songs is filled with workhorse tracks that DJs will appreciate (and that, as such, are being released unmixed on vinyl). No single song is particularly noteworthy, but the mix is something special, with the same soul-jazz flavor, extended instrumental breakdowns and vocal snippets that first defined SF house.
Despite the lackluster theme that ties the record together -- naming the cockpit interludes "Layover 1" and "Layover 2" is a case of truth in advertising -- Air Farina is solid. So why has it taken so long for San Francisco's most popular house DJ to release it? Back in 1992, Farina had a recording deal with KMS and a hot single. While still living in Chicago, he and fellow house bigwig Derrick Carter had produced what some considered the first ambient techno track, "Mood," under the alias Symbols in Instruments.
But then KMS filed for bankruptcy, and Farina didn't release any original material until 1998. "When I worked with Derrick, he handled a lot of the equipment," he says. "I really wanted to make sure I knew the gear before I made any more music." So he tinkered with drum machines and synthesizers in his free time.
In the competitive Windy City scene, Farina's signature became extralong, almost imperceptible segues between songs. When Chicago's overabundance of DJs brought him to San Francisco in the early '90s, he found a city hungry for dance music but unaccustomed to his hometown's heavy mixing proficiency. He quickly rose to the top of the local scene, then started touring globally.
"I kinda got into being on the minority side of party DJs, where you're not known for much production at all but just [for] rocking parties," he says. "Rocking parties has always been fun in itself for me."
Farina continues to get gigs when so many of his colleagues report sagging performance schedules because he's able to see house as outsiders do. As a DJ, he has treated house as a convention that needs to be fucked with regularly. Now, with Air Farina, he gets to prove his ideas.
"I figure I'm not going to get radio play, and I don't have a video," he explains. "So I had to find other avenues to get into larger markets. I had to do something other than the systematic, chorus-heavy-anthem route. House is still my main love, but there are so many different aspects to it, it'd be a shame to give only one view."
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