You're a Woman, I'm a Machine
The one-track mind of Wolfgang Gartner
Two surveillance cameras guard Wolfgang Gartner's white stone abode in suburban South Austin. The first greets visitors at the doorway, peering down from the top left corner of the walkway. The other overlooks his home studio, a modern music laboratory with a six-speaker surround sound system more costly than a second mortgage. The footage from both angles automatically uploads to a secure server online.
"It's a fortress in here," acknowledges Gartner, leaning back in a black leather executive chair, surrounded on all sides by various keyboards.
That's only a fraction of the security team in his corner. Gartner's a superstar DJ signed to Ultra Music, one of the largest electronic music labels in North America. The Grammy-nominated producer has churned out high-profile remixes for Timbaland ("Morning After Dark"), Britney Spears ("3"), and the Black Eyed Peas ("Imma Be"). On this January afternoon, he's taking a break from putting the finishing touches on his upcoming debut album, Illmerica, a bonkers collection of electro-house bangers that will serve as his proper stateside introduction.
"When I'm not on tour, I'm in here working 16, 17 hours a day," says Gartner, who admittedly resembles Finch from American Pie – tall and pale, with a receding hairline that belies his 28 years. A look of frazzled determination in his light-blue eyes verifies the claim.
The Bay Area transplant relocated in 2007 for the relatively low property values and anonymity. By his own count, he has exactly two friends here, spends only five nights a year Downtown, and, with the noted exception of South by Southwest, never gigs locally. Instead, he hibernates in the studio, surviving on a steady diet of pizza delivery, Chinese takeout, and caffeine – Starbucks in the morning, Monster Energy drinks after 5pm.
"Everything I do now has to be something that couldn't have been done a year ago," he stresses. "I'm trying to do something futuristic, pretend that I'm making music that's going to be released in 2015. It forces me to do something that doesn't sound like anything that's out right now.
"I want to advance the art form."
There's another reason Gartner keeps such a close watch. He has a few skeletons preferably left in the closet.
For most of the last decade, Gartner worked under his real name, Joey Youngman, releasing countless records on respected house labels such as Tango Recordings, Om Records, and Naked Music. Relics of the era adorn his vinyl record room, the only other space in his bachelor pad even remotely decorated or furnished. A poster from a Japanese tour hangs on the wall across from some of his earliest recordings, like the self-released 12-inch single "Nightclub" b/w "French Kiss."
"My management has told me not to go into the old stuff," Gartner shrugs in response to a few cursory questions on the subject.
Reared in the golden age of rave culture in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Gartner, the oldest of two, was turned on to dance music early by Inner City's 1988 Detroit techno staple "Good Life." Oblivious to the drug culture involved, he attended his first rave at age 13 – unaccompanied by an adult – and soon began driving out to Los Angeles to attend "massives." The gatherings, which attracted up to 40,000 people, were headlined by some of his prime influences from the Chicago house and disco house scenes, most notably Mark Farina, Derek Carter, DJ Sneak, and Doc Martin.
"We worshipped those people," he acknowledges with a slight smirk.
All the while Gartner made his own bedroom jams, experimenting with a rough setup of a Yamaha keyboard, a four-track recorder with pitch control, two tape players, and a microphone. He studied piano extensively, fusing classical elements, disco samples, and 1990s soul into a lucid hybrid that became his early trademark.
Following the blueprint he picked up from Tango, Gartner started operating three different imprints: Fetish Recordings, Jackin Tracks, and a bootleg label he won't even mention off the record due to copyright concerns. Then he created a handful of production aliases – Mario Fabriani, White Collar Criminals, Frequent Fliers – to round out their respective rosters.
"I put out a record every two weeks for years, and they were selling 3,000 copies," says Gartner. "I probably put out 50 records in two years. Part of that was because I would just make a beat and throw a disco sample on it.
"I was good at what I did, but it was just a game ....
"There was a whole element to my career before this, but I try not to talk about it because it makes Wolfgang less exciting. I'm not this new kid that just burst onto the scene. I'm a veteran producer that crossed over – very suddenly – into a completely different style, and some people might view that negatively."
Superstar DJs exist in an alternate reality from the rest of popular culture. Their net worth's determined roughly by their rankings in DJMag's annual Top 100 list, while the charts on Beatport, the online forum for electronic downloads, carry more clout than Billboard's. Only in this realm of dance music, where image is everything and singles dominate the market, does the distinction between Joey Youngman and Wolfgang Gartner matter.
Yet, when the Black Eyed Peas beam down for the Super Bowl halftime show and Daft Punk scores Disney's Tron: Legacy, it's proof the two worlds are colliding. The same holds true in Austin. While the local rave movement was effectively flatlined by the Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001 (see "The Agony of the Ecstasy," Nov. 16, 2001), the whirlwind success of Ghostland Observatory has opened doors and local airwaves for a new wave of electro-pop. Meanwhile, the 2010 return of the Nocturnal Festival to Rockdale has proven the demand for large-scale events.
"Dance music and this sound is a bigger part of the mainstream than it's ever been before," posits Gartner. "From a business perspective, it's a very lucrative time."
Copping the name from one of his childhood soccer coaches, Gartner created his latest incarnation four years ago, in part to capitalize on the market opportunity but more so to reflect an overall aesthetic change. His work under the Wolfgang Gartner moniker hits better, harder, faster, etc., adding a metallic sheen and terror-alert electronics to house music that has put him in the same league as Deadmau5 and MSTRKRFT, both of whom he's collaborated with.
Gartner started blowing up on Beatport, notching eight No. 1 tracks, including his breakthrough "Wolfgang's 5th Symphony," an electro makeover of Beethoven's greatest hit that was licensed from India to South Africa as well as for the DJ Hero video game. That led to an invitation to Pete Tong's prestigious Essential Mix program on BBC Radio 1 and performances at Coachella and Lollapalooza. In the midst of his jet-setting tour schedule, Gartner was flown in from Brazil just to make beats for the Black Eyed Peas.
"Wolfgang Gartner is an anomaly," praised Will.i.am recently to MTV News. "He's a hater, a lover, a maker, and a creator. And those kinda motherfuckers is odd. ... That's talent. He knows how to play music. Judge music. Create music. Like music. That guy is unique."
Gartner's label debut, Illmerica, should come with a Surgeon General's warning label: Not suitable for pregnant women, children under the age of 12, or those at risk of heart failure. More than two years in the making, the album is Ratatat on Ritalin, rave frenzies for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man."
While there's a distinct formula for house music – an insistent four-to-the-floor rhythm with a clap on two, at somewhere between 137 and 140 beats per minute, according to Gartner – in such confines he operates like a Red Bull in a china shop. He flourishes in nanoseconds, tweaking out and contorting empty spaces with a flurry of octave-shifting blips, drive-by synths, and microsamples.
"It's ADD music," nods Gartner. "If I didn't do all of those crazy breaks in the middle of stuff, it would still work on the dance floor, but those are things that no one else is doing. It just fucks with your head, and when people hear it at shows, they get off on it.
"That's me trying to push the envelope, basically. It's intricate and complex. It takes a long time and a lot of experience and patience to do shit like that. There are literally only a handful of people in the world that are capable of it. That's why I do it."
Illmerica's tentatively scheduled for release later this summer, but the actual date keeps getting pushed back. His team has been searching for the right guest vocalists to put the album over the top. One track Gartner says was created specifically with Missy Elliott in mind, while Will.i.am takes the lead on the first single, "Forever," a tantric jam with serious club appeal that began as an offshoot of Gartner's sessions with the Black Eyed Peas.
In the meantime, a new logo's been developed by Brooklyn's Eric Haze, who has previously worked with the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and a massive stage rig was custom-built in time for a 33-date North American tour.
Gartner interrupts the interview to field a call from his manager. He steps out of the studio into his neighboring office. It's clear the two are discussing another possible cameo in the works, and while he won't confirm the details, clues indicate the subject's R. Kelly.
"Is he still doing that 'Trapped in the Closet' thing?"
Show Me Love
Club Rio in northern San Antonio is the closest thing on Gartner's current tour to a proper homecoming. The nightclub boasts two stories, two ballrooms, and no fewer than five VIP areas, with optional valet despite the fact that the venue shares a parking lot with a bowling alley, a bingo parlor, and a hair salon.
Just past midnight on Sunday, a massive projection screen drops down, blocking the view of the stage. The tireless crowd of about 800 begins to chant "Wolfgang," pumping their collective fists to the inaudible house beat that's already been driven into their subconscious by openers Felix Cartal and Harvard Bass.
The screen rolls back up slowly, revealing Gartner at the helm of an ultramodern vessel. Roughly 16 feet tall and at least 10 feet deep, the stage rig looks like an expensive prop from Transformers, with five layers of LED projection screens coming together in the shape of some sort of alien spider. The setup alone warrants the cost of admission, but that's only half the machinery. Massive clawlike attachments, smoke machines, and the mesh screen backdrop couldn't fit into this particular club. Gartner calls the contraption "Medusa."
From such great heights, the DJ commands his version of P90X, a staggering and relentless hour-and-a-half workout regime that's light-years ahead of his peers in style and stature. The celebratory trance of "Latin Fever" gives way to the hypersonic Moog-funk of his Deadmau5 collaboration "Animal Rights" and a throbbing electro house revision of Robyn's "Show Me Love," the crowd rejoicing throughout in ecstatic tremors.
Halfway through the set, the piano break for "Wolfgang's 5th Symphony" hits harder than a 6am wake-up call. There's something subversive about hearing the classical arrangement warped so far out of context. Gartner seizes the moment, morphing from air traffic controller to mad conductor, director of his own orchestra in circular hand gestures and knob twisting.
This is where he belongs.