Maybe dance music is not your deal. Don't sweat it. This is the one weekend you want to fake it. San Francisco DJ Mark Farina, cultivator of Mushroom Jazz and one of the great sustaining forces behind house music, is spinning at World Grotto Saturday night. It's a large deal. Having Mark Farina in the house is like going over to the Y for some lunchtime three-on-three and seeing Michael Jordan lacing up. It's like dropping off the kids for a pre-school playday and finding out that Damien Hirst is helping with arts and crafts. Hear me when I say that come Monday, you're going to want to be the one telling about it, not the one hearing about it.
From San Francisco, Farina says it just seemed to him like the time had come.
"I've been to Tennessee and always have a good time," he says. "I grew up in the Midwest, and it feels very familiar to me. I've played Memphis and Nashville. I figured it was time to come and check out Knoxville."
One of the attractions of clubbing, of course, is that it's a way to travel without traveling. The room doesn't just change from night to night, it changes from minute to minute. And it's the DJ who pushes or pulls it to the next stop. Farina says that when he tours, playing different far-flung rooms every night isn't that big of a deal.
"All places are different," says Farina. "As long as it's comfortably crowded, I'm happy. I just try to cater to whatever's going on. Sometimes what's happening geographically helps determine what I play. I prefer smaller venues, say between 200 and 500 people. You definitely want to see the people you're playing for."
Farina grew up in Chicago, the birthplace of house music. In the late '80s he found himself rubbing elbows—in record stores, on the air, in the DJ booth—with tastemaker Derrick Carter. After observing his elder for more than a year, Farina made a name for himself at the after-hours club Medusa's. Medusa's was the hothouse and proving ground for famous/infamous Wax Trax bands like Ministry and Front 242, bands with rough and chunky rhythm tracks that, at the right volume, could alter your heartbeat. In a burgeoning Chicago scene built around hard, usually synthetic beats, Farina broke out more organic, melodic, jazz-influenced music from the coasts like the Native Tongues. In particular, he developed a rep for breaking beats with tasty spoken word snippets, such as lines from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For segues on Air Farina, his most recent solo record, Farina uses a listen-and-learn-at-home small plane pilot's instructional course.
In Chicago, Farina also worked at Gramophone Records, and from there distributed homemade mix tapes that garnered a reputation for well-matched beats and sounds of all sorts. He called those tapes Mushroom Jazz, and Mushroom Jazz spores have germinated so far and wide that MJ is essentially its own genre now. When Farina migrated west, Mushroom Jazz on Monday nights at the now defunct Jazid Up became a San Francisco fixture. Crowds pushing 1,000 were not uncommon near the end of the run.
"Mushroom Jazz is jazzy, dubby, hip-hop for electronic and non-electronic listeners alike," Farina explains. "It's kind of like a bridge."
What started as a give-away mixtape is now a CD compilation series on Om. Mushroom Jazz Volume 6 was released in October and lives up to Farina's description. Underheard music makers like Brawdcast and King Kooba mix things up nicely. Mushroom Jazz may be to acid jazz what psilocybin is to lysergic acid: ultra groovy, and maybe just a wee bit more body-friendly and seemingly wholesome. The Jazzual Suspects' "This Beat," on MJ6, is as good an example as any. Jack Kerouac reads from "The Beat Generation" under found mass transit sounds and mix-and-match piano trinkles. It's instantly surprising that Kerouac isn't used more often, understating the obvious: "it's the beat to keep," "like galley slaves, rowing to a beat." Like the discs Farina releases under his own name, the MJ mixes are a party in your pocket. Not necessarily something for everyone—but probably something for everyone you'd want hanging around in your kitchen after midnight.
Naturally, getting one's brain around the moniker Mushroom Jazz brings up the subject of all the other dance music subcategories. Acid jazz, industrial, techno, garage house, etc. infinitum. There was a period about 10 years ago when it felt as if you could stare at a party flyer and make the DJ's specialty change while you watched. Is house simply a long-lived genre, still going strong, or a style that only appears to stay due to the shrinking time necessary for a music style to be considered nostalgia or retro?
"All those sub-genres revert back to house," Farina says unequivocally. "It all comes back to Chicago house, which is my background. That style, which tends to be 125 to 130 beats per minute, is very encompassing. There's techno and electronic and deep house, and they all come and go. But that basic tempo is always there, even if it's a click track that only the DJ can hear and play to.
"So a lot of people who think they don't know old house, really know all they need to. I know it's vague. It's like saying hip-hop. It can mean a lot of different things."
Making records in 2008 is typically an exercise in software savvy. When you've got 80 tracks and Pro Tools, you can put lipstick on a pig and sell it as a Pink or whatever. You might imagine that it could be jarring to go back and forth between a studio arsenal that can make your wildest dreams come true, or at least keep them in tune, and plain old tables and mixer. Asked if he ever misses the studio computers when he's in the DJ booth, Farina says, "What studio computers?"
"When I make those mixes I use a lot of the same equipment I use when I DJ," he says. "I'm still a real-time DJ, and don't really like using computers."
The music on Farina's recordings is deeply layered and complex, with too many simultaneous sounds to count. The man is not just juggling plates, he's juggling kitchens. "Dream Machine," on Air Farina, is about as smooth as they come. Sean Hayes oohs and aahs some old school R&B lines about flirting (imagine Macy Gray's little brother's voice) over downtempo percussion and beats and choked guitars from shifting sources. Rising and diving throughout are these three funky banjo notes, bent and buried just enough to pass for sitar. The song on the record is the result of Farina working and cueing all those sounds as they happen and as you hear them.
"I tend to sample subtly," says Farina. "It's like spices with cooking. It's an additive, it's not the main dish. The way you combine things makes it something worth listening to. I always try to add something of my own to a sample. I might play more bootleggy things at parties or in clubs. Sometimes there's a sound you want to pay homage to, or maybe it's popular at the moment and people expect to hear it. But I don't release those things."
Emerging DJ technology, currently, is both a blessing and a frustration. There's a steady stream of new programs and gear that can turn any kid with Internet access into a dancehall iPied Piper.
"I don't think it's a bad thing," Farina says. "If it makes the DJ more excited about playing a tune, then it's fine. I don't like the computer vinyl interfaces, or the CD interfaces for that matter. I can see why some people use them. If you're doing more of a hip-hop thing, or mash-ups, you want to have access to all those tracks. One reason I don't use them is that I really don't like looking at a computer screen when I'm in a club."
"There are much more interesting things to look at in a club."