Interview: DJ/Promoter Tristan Iseult

DJ Tristan Iseult is the glue that holds the Phoenix dark alternative scene together. He has been a DJ and performer in the Phoenix goth scene since the late 90s. He continues to put together some of the best events that dark Arizona has to offer. He has gone by several other pseudonyms including DJ Noiz.fkr, Notsonoiz.fkr. He is also creative mind behind the experimental projects A0N and Tristan/Iseult.

When he is not DJing and making his own music, he spends his time and energy putting together both local and national live dark alternative shows under the name “Count Orlock Presents”. He has hosted hundreds of events throughout the years, including current nights: Haxan, Melancholia, Factory, Sour Times, Undead Can Dance, and former nights such as Tranzylvania. If you haven’t seen him DJ or perform, then you haven’t been in the goth/alternative scene at all. – Fuchsia Angel

You’ve been a DJ in Phoenix since the 90s. What is your view of the current goth/industrial scene at large? 

Well, that’s kind of a loaded question in the sense that it assumes a cohesive group of people with similar interests (and even goals) that we might call a “scene”. I think there are definitely gathering places both offline and online that cater to people with an affinity towards darkwave and industrial music, as well as those with a penchant for gothic fashion. Though I think there are several clearly defined factions that can be found not only because of differences of taste in fashion and music, but also a noteworthy generation gap between the “old guard” and a more recent wave of interest in all things vaguely occult, macabre and goth. This newer generation definitely finds its grounding in a re-discovering of early 1980s style darkwave music and fashion, which I have to say is preferable in my view to both the overly campy cybergoth “aggrotech” thing and the remains of Victorian-esque LARPer-inspired goth cliques. A lot of the newer darkwave and industrial bands like Cold Cave, Light Asylum, TR/ST, Youth Code, Blush Response, High-Functioning Flesh and Body of Light (to name just a few) are bypassing what had become a rather limited and insular goth/industrial club scene and are finding a more diverse fan base. Unfortunately, within this new fan base there are those who are labeled “hipsters” (though I think ‘scenester’ is a more accurate term) and have only a passing interest in the music and fashion – though that’s not something that’s ever going to change, so hardly worth lamenting. The real unfortunate thing about this view by the “old guard” of the newer generation is a built in assumption that they’re all just a bunch of scenesters/hipsters, which is complete bullshit. It’s easy to tell apart the scenester who goes out “to get their goth on” at club events on the weekend from the amazing new blood who are seeking to push boundaries with underground culture loosely defined in terms of goth and industrial themes. I mean when we say “scene” do we mean a specific subculture? And if so, what counts as membership in that group if we know its defining features are constantly in flux?

How have you seen crowds at clubs and shows in Phoenix change?

The crowds seem to ebb and flow depending on the consistency of events and promoters. So whether we’re talking about Randall at the old Atomic Café bringing in all the 1990s coldwave/industrial acts, or Jeff and Cheryl of Killing Jar fame bringing goth/darkwave bands through, or Dead Soul Productions starting to bring EBM, industrial and future pop bands in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or Sadisco* bringing industrial/rhythmic noise artists through at their monthly events for years, or the many bands featured at Horns and Halos events during their decade or so of promoting, it really comes down to several small groups of motivated people looking to curate events in town. It always helps having both successful club nights happening in town to push the music and get people interested enough to attend live concerts. So many bands in the goth/industrial realm have been introduced to people on a dance floor. So while there are definite changes we might try and pin down, ultimately the atmosphere at shows and clubs is very much determined by those willing to put in the time to make them happen.

Though I think if I could name one very noticeable difference now is the difficulty of running weekly events in Phoenix. I currently run two weekly events: Sour Times at Stacy’s at Melrose (formerly Sanctum) on Wednesdays and The Factory: New Wave at Valley Bar on Friday nights. I think their mutual success is part location and part music related. Both venues have a very unique appeal and both music formats are very distinct. Most events that cater to the goth/industrial “scenes” happen monthly, like Cupcake, B-Side in Tempe, Necrotek, and HÄXAN, a Doomed Disco-Tech for example. So now that I just listed off a bunch of regular events in town — and I should also mention Addiction that happens weekly on Saturdays at The Twisted Peacock — another profound difference now is the amount of events people have to choose from, and the ability of each to flourish in the face of other events going on in town. Ever since I personally started going events, there has been this rather bothersome group of naysayers that complain about how small the “scene” is, and that we can’t have multiple events on the same night. I’d only agree with that if two different promoters were trying to do exactly the same thing, like two new wave/80s nights going head-to-head, or two shows both featuring a line-up of industrial bands. Those obvious conflicts aside, having multiple events going on simply means options based upon tastes in venues, atmosphere, music and crowds.

For a few years, it seemed as though the scene, not just in Phoenix but in North America at large, was struggling to get its footing after some dramatic shifts in trends–in music, fashion, and even ideology. How have you overcome these hurdles and built the strong foundation you now run with Count Orlock Presents?

I think this is something I touched on in my previous response, but I think the foundation of Count Orlok Presents (my promotional moniker) is to offer up music-centric events with unique formats. I’m definitely an elitist when it comes to music. Not in the sense of what music is best, but in terms of how an event is curated around the music. For me, music is first and is used to define the mood and atmosphere of an event. If there is a theme, it is dictated by the music being played. Almost like creating a soundtrack and then figuring out what kind of film would go with it. So for club events, I define certain parameters for the music and then stick to them. This variation of music/mood is also why I work with five different venues in town (Stacy’s at Melrose; Valley Bar; The Rebel Lounge; Monarch Theatre; Crescent Ballroom). All are extremely supportive (unlike the management at Palazzo/Club DwnTwn that I worked with for years) and offer their own atmosphere that work for certain of my events, but not for others. Those named venues (and their staff/owners) are all integral to the strong foundation I have with Count Orlok Presents.

The other thing I do at nights like Sour Times and HÄXAN, a Doomed Disco-Tech, which I don’t really boast about, but sometimes think I should, is play music that no one else in town does. While there are a plethora of throwback new wave/darkwave dance nights in town that don’t really dig deep into their figurative crates, new music that falls under the dark umbrella has very little representation in clubs given the amount of quality artists out there.

How would you describe HÄXAN, a Doomed Disco-Tech to someone who has no understanding of how dark alternative music has progressed in recent years?

I’m always skeptical about people who talk about progress in any field, as it typically leaves out a description of what qualifies as progress. With that said, there is a definite shift in dark alternative music recently towards colder and more sinister sounds that harken back to early industrial roots, which thankfully had no programmatic style yet. But I don’t think even listing out a bunch of the artists or styles that currently exemplify dark alternative music would help me describe HÄXAN. As the music selection there is quite specific to the degree that I might find a certain obscure B-side track by a band that fits with the night, but I might never play anything else from that same band on that specific night. It’s a carefully curated selection of music that definitely draws heavily from many self-produced artists releasing solely on the Internet, though it isn’t limited to only new music, or newer genres like (post) witch house. I’ve found so many overlooked older tracks that mentored many of these newer sounds, either directly or indirectly. It’s actually quite a bit of work to hunt down our (DJ Plastic Disease and myself) musical repertoire for the event, which is why I refuse to post setlists.

If people miss walking into a goth club that feels dark and sinister due to the music and the atmosphere, but also is without the pretentious drama and ghettoized cliques that I think pervaded previous decades in the “scene”, then that for me is HÄXAN. It’s about taking joy in social gatherings, and especially the ritual of dancing, while at the same time embracing the impending darkness of our overall reality. I think I’ve strayed away from the question, but I think that’s because I don’t believe in progress how most people use the word. HÄXAN for me is something rather unique that exemplifies my passion for why I was attracted to goth/industrial club nights in the first place. I didn’t know any of the music, but I loved it and loved how it was arranged by the deejays. I loved that there were clubs filled with people who embraced the darker things in life in varying degrees and yet still wanted to come out and celebrate their lives or escape from the parts of their lives that looked nothing like this. I suppose it sounds like I’m preaching about the night a bit because it has been a lot of work to build it to what it is now as Phoenix’s largest regular goth/industrial event. And to get back to the question, I guess because I didn’t spend the time trying to explain it to the “old guard”, but just let them gravitate to it on their own, I let the event speak for itself. If it’s too crowded or you don’t know the music (and yet everyone is still dancing), well I’m happy to accept those criticisms 100%! Hah!

There seems to be an influx of new faces at the clubs in recent times, especially at HÄXAN. Do you find this to be the case?

There are definitely a lot of new faces and people are constantly telling me that it’s wonderful to see so many out that they don’t know, especially a much younger crowd that are clearly there for the music and atmosphere. I’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to different groups of people, particularly by booking new artists to DJ or perform live at the event (especially now that I’m not limited by the management I had to battle with at Palazzo/Club DwnTwn). And generally, I’ve connected with several amazing people in the greater Phoenix area that share my love for dark and experimental music like Jeremiah Gratza from Stateside Presents, Josh Rodriquez from Select promotions and Jes Aurelius (and crew) from Ascetic House, all of whom are deeply involved in creating local music undergrounds and bringing excellent dark alternative music shows to the city.

Unfortunately, and I’m not the only one to notice this, the goth/industrial scenes have definitely done a good job barricading themselves into insular groupings, not doing as much to discover new music outside their comfort zones or connect with others who just don’t happen to call themselves goths or rivetheads. I’ve always floated between underground scenes, so it’s just natural for me to find others who share my love for underground music to collaborate with.

HÄXAN sounds to be more based on mood than adhering to specific genre templates. How do you pick your musical selections for the night?

That’s actually exactly how I select the music for the night, a very specific mood for dancefloor rituals. There’s definitely very little genre restriction, though the mood itself definitely creates strong restrictions on what would or would not be played. Much of the music played is synth-based and electronic, though we’re definitely the anti-thesis to EDM. Tempo is actually a big determinant for track selection as well. Slow, brooding, broken beats at times and incessant 808 kick drums at others that mimic a slightly elevated heart rate. It all is assembled with a definitive mood and direction in mind as we slowly increase or decrease the tempo throughout the night. The goals being that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just joy in the darkness. Which should come as no surprise since I’m a nihilist. I really just want people to smile because the darkness sounds so beautiful!

Judging by the crowds at nights like HÄXAN, The Factory at Valley Bar, and Sour Times at Stacy’s, people seem more willing to dance to songs they aren’t familiar with than they were in previous years. That’s a trick a lot of DJ’s aspire to but never really succeed at. How do you accomplish this?

There’s been a long-standing debate in the goth/industrial scenes about new (or obscure) music versus staple club tracks and how to integrate those together, especially among deejays. I think first, the most important and probably most often neglected thing in goth/industrial clubs is the art of mixing and set programming. Learning how to mix just takes practice and a bit of basic knowledge about song structure, and a decent ear for rhythm. However, set programming is something different. You could be a great technical mixer (or use the sync button with newer technologies), but pick out tracks that go nowhere or don’t create an atmosphere on the dancefloor. What helps with set programming I’ve found is a clear definition of what music will be played on a given night. At The Factory: New Wave at Valley Bar for instance, I play new wave and classic alternative dance music from the 1980s (and a few outliers from the late 1970s and early 1990s). So there’s no Madonna or Michael Jackson, and thankfully no Journey. But within the various 80s waves, there’s a wonderful treasure trove of minimal wave, French cold wave, early industrial and darkwave. So I make it a point to find, sometimes through requests and sometimes on my own, often overlooked quality dance tracks from that era so we don’t have to be stuck with endless loops of The Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode and The Smiths (all of which I happily play and love, but let’s expand our horizons a bit people!). There are always some amazing suggestions from people who attend my nights, so I’m always expanding my own horizons through the crowd as well. I’m very receptive to my dance floor without boring it to death.

Sour Times and HÄXAN are perhaps better examples of how new or unheard music can dominate setlists and still keep a consistent, in some cases packed, dancefloor. Both nights have definite moods associated with them, which are quite distinct. Maybe 5% of what I play at each of those nights overlaps. It would bore me to death to simply do the same club night in different venues. And given the plethora of music that falls under the dark alternative umbrella, it’s not difficult to program two very different nights with music that caters to the gothic subculture. Portishead would in no way be considered “goth music”, but I don’t know of many goths who don’t like Portishead. And perhaps that’s the key: finding music that appeals to and fits with specifically gothic/darkwave bands to expand the format and also to bring in people who love alternative music but don’t consider themselves goths. And perhaps those people will hear other songs they aren’t normally exposed to if a set is programmed and mixed well.

Though in the end, part of it is just saying fuck it, I’m going to try and put together a night that plays music that no one else is playing and instead of occasionally mixing in new music to keep it fresh, going the opposite route and occasionally mixing in staple music to give reference points for the new music that is dominating the night.

I mean, my first regular promotion in the Phoenix area back in 1999 was an exclusively industrial/rhythmic noise dance night on Sundays at the late Bostons with DJ Apollynon. We didn’t play staples at all, but embraced the momentum created by labels like ant-zen and Hands Productions. The traditional goths hated it, but the night wasn’t for them. So I’m used to putting together formats that trot out predominantly newer music that I’m passionate about and finding others who enjoy attending those events. There are definitely limits to my musical elitism, but I’m not aiming for the status quo, so I’ll take it along as far as it gets me while always remaining completely receptive to people’s feedback about my events. Before I was a deejay or promoter, I loved dancing (and still do). I’d show up at events right when they opened and hit the dancefloor early and typically close places down. I never lose site of the kind of feeling I loved having as a club patron when I put together my events.

How do you view your own musical projects, A0n and Tristian/Iseult, within the context of the new dark music scene?

A0n is my main and long-standing project since about 2002, influenced by bands like Swans, Portishead and Cabaret Voltaire. It has definitely taken an even more personal turn for me as I began integrating vocals into it and expanding my live setup. It’s definitely the more experimental of my two projects that plays around with slow, minimal, broken poly-rhythmic structures, modular synthesis and anxiety-inducing moods. I actually always have a hard time figuring out where it fits musically, but I’ve felt most at home opening for bands like Xiu Xiu, The Soft Moon and Skinny Puppy.

Tristan/Iseult is a more recent project that explores a nihilistic reading of Dante’s Inferno through industrialized techno. The current crossover between techno and industrial music is for me obvious and has been for years, but the music of this project definitely fits in there with artists like Orphx, Lucy, Headless Horseman, SHXCXCHCXSH and Blush Response. I debuted the project at Der Bunker Teknobar, which I share the Monarch Theatre venue with. My good friend who runs Der Bunker and I have long exchanged music over the years, me coming from the industrial side and him coming from the techno/electronic music side. The division for both of us never made any sense. It’s all electronic music that shuns convention.

What, in your view, are the most exciting trends and developments currently happening in the scene?

I think basically just the breaking down of walls between underground scenes and genres. I don’t mean this in the sense of any “unity” or everyone getting along now because we all love music – there are clearly genres I have no patience for that are still considered underground. EDM, for example, holds no relevance to the goth/industrial scenes or to experimental electronic music more generally as far as I’m concerned. But as I mentioned in the previous question, the more publicized crossover between techno and industrial is definitely refreshing, not that this is really anything new. It’s just being receiving by a larger audience on both sides currently. I also really appreciate how many new, younger artists are embracing many of the themes of industrial music and taking them in different directions. My heart ultimately rests with my music projects and developing them, so it’s nice to see there are so many kindred spirits around the world that share my passion for subversive electronic music.

As far as the goth/industrial scene in Phoenix goes, I think it’s nice that we have so many supportive venues to work with, especially within the gay community. Though gay clubs have historically played a very important role in hosting gothic club nights in the U.S. over the years. Though with bands like Cold Cave, TR/ST, Light Asylum, Youth Code and The Soft Moon playing clearly darkwave-influenced music in venues around town, it makes hosting darkwave and industrial music events much easier when the relevance of the music is already clearly established.

What songs are officially banned from any Count Orlock Presents event? 

Hahaha, well nothing officially, though there are plenty of songs that I’d definitely never personally put in my setlists anymore or songs that I am just tired of hearing. I’m sure everyone has a list of songs like that. So in good fun, here’s a list of such songs:

And One – Military Fashion Show
And One – Panzermensch
Icon of Coil – Shelter
Combichrist – This Shit Will Fuck You Up
She Wants Revenge – Tear You Apart
Crystal Castles – Not In Love (feat. Robert Smith)
The Cure – Just Like Heaven
Covenant – Dead Stars

I think it would be nice to retire songs for a year, or at least a couple months. I randomly do this for certain songs so as to keep my setlists more interesting. It also forces you as a deejay to seek out other songs by an artist that you may have overlooked. Almost every decently known dark alternative artist has a respectable discography to choose from. When deejays limit their setlists so much, it also shrinks people’s ideas of what a darkwave/industrial music scene sounds like. Many people go to clubs still to hear new music or hear things that aren’t offered to them by their Pandora music stations. Be better as a deejay than an algorithm!

Thanks so much to PhxGoth.com for the interview!