Nite Trax: Slow Hands drops the BPM

Bonjour, Slow Hands

The singular DJ speaks of slow house, fraud players, and the pop future of dance music

"Oh, the slo-mo thing. I guess I can see how people came to associate me with that." DJ Slow Hands, a.k.a. New York's Ryan Cavanagh, was playing down his status as poster boy for the slow house movement. 

A couple of years ago, some DJs, mainly from the East Coast, started slowing things down to a sultry 100 beats per minute from the standard, boppy 120 BPM. And Slow Hands -- a fast talker, I learned, in wide-ranging phone interview anticipating his appearance this Fri/16 (9 p.m., $15 before midnight, $20 after. Beat Box 314 11th St., SF., and Facebook) -- came to the fore, with a dynamic combination of disco-dubby aesthetics, a willingness to let songs breathe a little, and an impeccable instinct for track selection. Does it hurt things that's he's rather dreamy in the brains and looks department? It certainly does not.

Fabric Exclusive Mix by Slow Hands

Slo-mo was a thrilling development for many of us who enjoyed the disco revival of the late '00s, with its focus on expansive tunes, slow-burning builds, and relaxed pace, but were worried that we were being backed into a retro corner with no way forward. The disco re-edit scene was entering its prime with some great contemporary-sounding rejiggers of classic tunes, yet slo-mo was a more radical approach to extending the disco vibe into more of-the-moment electronic music developments. It also brought with it a crunky, somewhat zonked global-dub mood of its own that felt eerily avant-garde. (In slow house sets, sometimes tracks are physically slowed down, and sometimes lower-tempo songs from outside the usual house canon are incorporated, adding to the mystique). Cavanagh brings his own brand of artfulness to the mix: in his sets I hear echoes of everything from the Orb to classic Cadillac soul

Don't pigeonhole Slow Hands, however. "I don't just stick with one tempo at all," Cavanagh continued. "I aim for what's appropriate, like any other DJ, because at the end of the day people are paying money and we're here to do a job and keep the party going. At least the DJs who aren't complete dicks! I think it's the shittiest thing in the world if another DJ is warming up and someone just comes in and shuts down their track to make an entrance or whatever. 'Oh, look at me! Here I am!' Sure, I sometimes prefer to play a whole set at 90 BPM, but I'm not going to ruin anyone's night. And also, really, who wants to walk into a party at two in the morning and the beats are at 90 BPM?"

Well, a lot of people actually, as indicated by his huge following -- as well as of other, if not as slow beatswise, than similarly deep, slightly warped, and funky-minded compatriots like the Soul Clap, No Regular Play, and Wolf + Lamb duos. (Cavanagh is also part of a duo, Worst Friends, with his best friend John Paul "J.P." Jones. In fact, Cavanagh was calling from LA, where he was hanging out with his amigo for a few weeks before the birth of Jones' baby.)

Still that "go with the flow" ethic explains the unexpected acceleration level of the podcast he provided to the As You Like It party crew to promote his appearance here (listen below): peppy almost, and brimming with neat pop. "Oh yeah, that was I think recorded in Moscow, and the party was in full swing. It's still me, though," he said with a laugh.

Slow Hands AYLI Podcast #6 by As You Like It

A classically trained guitarist (his moniker is taken from a favorite Eric Clapton album, not the Pointer Sisters classic) who originally foresaw a career in jazz, Cavanagh dropped out of music school in the first year. "I went to a gig where there was this guy playing the guitar on stage, really talented, but he was playing the same jazz songs people had played forever. And then I looked around at the handful of other guys in the room, and they just looked so stale, stroking their chins like 'mmm-hmmm.' I hate chinstrokers, by the way and I know they're all over the techno scene, too. Just standing there stroking their chins and thinking they're smart. New York is full of them and it drives me crazy.

"Anyway, I thought the whole jazz thing felt like a trap, hearing and analyzing the same songs and getting paid $50 to go play them somewhere to the same people. If you think about it, jazz innovation stopped with Miles Davis. He invented so many splinter genres that it was the end of jazz, in a way. The music has gone nowhere new since. I thought, 'I've got to get out of here. I'm never going to be able to do what I want, and I'll never make any money at it.' So I became a bartender, ha ha ha, but I also started DJing and really learning the craft."

Some chinstrokers may shudder at his introduction to electronic dance music, but at least it got him here.

"This was all in the '90s and I started hearing those big DJs like Sasha and John Digweed, [Paul] Oakenfold, and my jaw just dropped. I realized that here was this kind of music with the possibilities that I envisioned. And I started digging and found the direction I wanted to take things, in making my own music and playing to crowds -- and now with a live show. "

GhostlyCast #27: Slow Hands - Live From Autobrennt by ghostly

(As for making his own music, an EP, The Formal, came out in April, and a split 10-inch Covers with Benoit and Sergio, on which Slow hands re-interprets Sade's "Sweetest Taboo" came out in July.)

Cavanagh has some interesting words about some of the things going on in DJ culture lately. 

"I was cracking up earlier looking at the Resident Advisor top DJs of 2011 poll that just came out. Like half of those people have jumped on the slow thing, going from 120 BPM to 100, 110. And -- this is going to get me into a lot of trouble, but that's what interviews are for -- some of those DJs are, well, less than genuine. Guys like Soul Clap had to play thousands of gigs to get to the level they're at now, and really their style, and maybe the whole slo-mo thing itself, came from DJing at weddings, learning to play things in a way that people who don't ever listen to house music can get into. The only way you could get away with playing the music you wanted was with edits, or slower tempos, or records that sounded like house but weren't at all. Many of the DJs on the RA list don't have nearly that experience or versatility.  

"And some of them say they're playing live when they're really just syncing two of their tracks in Ableton -- big deal, right, and only two tracks. Literally not doing anything, really half-assed. One of those guys, I actually watched this, was playing 'live' and played someone else's song, the whole eight-minute track, as his own, and he got away with it. Not a remix or anything, just basically cued someone else's song up in Ableton and played it straight. People are getting away with a lot right now because of the technology. What is a 'live' performance in dance music? I think you need to do more than just look down at a laptop if you're going to charge promoters twice as much, and then the audience pays twice as much, for a live performance."

Getting back to slo-mo, though. It's definitely taken off. Any thoughts, Slow Hands, on the hows and whys?

"I don't think BPMs have much to do with anything anymore, insofar as defining a genre of music. I think we've broken through that at this point, that you can play a variety of tempos during a set and have it be satisfying, that that can actually make it feel timeless. We're progressing beyond the usual expectations and audiences are ready for something different. I think people got tired of minimal, they got tired of techy stuff. The slo-mo thing came along and was new and it had a sort of drama that was missing. I think it offered an alternative to harder techno and in-your-face electro and French Touch that just strikes me as angry, nervous music. I definitely think there's a place for that kind of metrical, aggressive style, but it's not what I'd choose to listen to. I'm sorry I wasn't in Windsor when Richie Hawtin was playing for 20 people in a basement or whatever and blowing everybody's mind 20 years ago, but that doesn't mean there isn't room in electronic music now for what I do as well." 

"When it was just me really out there doing it, I had to learn how to construct a set very carefully to get the effects that I wanted, it was a real period of exploration, how far could I take it?  Now there's a lot of people making music that fits into the sound, but still there's not enough for me to DJ three times a week and feel like I'm not repeating myself. I look very hard for tracks. I think that's another reason slo-mo caught on. With so much available through sites like Beatport etc. people want someone to create something unique out of all that, something difficult to replicate, well-curated but still enjoyable and that makes sense on a dance floor. So the slow thing was also viable that way. 

"In any case, I used to over-analyze it, but now I just have fun with it."

Cavanagh will be appearing behind the decks on Friday, but he's pulling back on DJing next year to focus exclusively on his live show which, yes, involves much more than staring at a laptop. Guitar, singing, and keyboards are all part of his one-man band. Here's a recording of him live last August at the Ego club in Hamburg:

(WOLF + LAMB) Slow Hands @ Ego - Hamburg 08.2011 by mingo86

"It's something I visualized since I was a kid, putting together a live show. It's really changed my work flow. I have to actually sit down and make plans for once, and I've never been really good at that. I'm just not good at normal life stuff. There's a lot to figure out, and really when you see me up there you see someone on the verge of pissing his pants. It's not like your laptop melting or anything, you can't blame the equipment if you screw up, it's just you."

From what I've seen and heard of the live show -- a full tour is set to kick off in February --- it's smooth as silk. But it also puts Slow Hands more in a pop context, something that's extending to many of his DJ-turned-vocal-act peers, like Art Department, Matthew Dear, James Blake, Visionquest, and Maceo Plex.

"Definitely," Cavanagh agrees, "I think this kind of music is absolutely moving in a more pop direction, and you're going to see more and more people in the next year doing this type of thing. They put Jamie Lidell from Super Collider's music in a Target commercial! For me there will always be an electronic component, though -- I've heard about a lot of problems some guys are having with full live bands, and it doesn't sound so good."

Does Slow Hands see anything else in the future of dance music?

"We're going to start seeing some big changes in the way DJs play music thanks to some new software and the way people like Subb-An are using it. It's incredible some of the possibilities with some of the software now just becoming available, insane. 

"And yeah, of course a great party on Friday -- I had an awesome time playing San Francisco for the As You Like It crew last year at the underground space, the Compound, great memories from that night. The Bay Area is one place that really gets into what I'm doing."  

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