Brooklyn resident and long-time New York City DJ Adrian Michna is the latest addition to the Ghostly International roster. His debut album, Magic Monday, came out in October, but Michna, a record-store clerk turned producer, has been hard at work for many years.
Michna is as light-hearted a person as you may ever meet, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a gripe or two about the business of music.
“Paying dues. I don’t even hear that phrase any more," he said. "I remember when that was all that anybody rapped about or talked about in interviews. Now with all these flavor-of-the-week genres, it feels like the music has nothing to do with that.”
“So you feel like people are jumping the line?” I ask him. “I mean, part of the whole evolution of making music primarily with computers is that it leveled the playing field in a way.”
“I just wonder if the people that are buying records now even care about that concept anymore,” he says.
Michna has done more than his fair share of dues paying. On spring and winter breaks during college he used to make music with fellow DJs and friends Matthew Brown and Matt Friedman under the name Secret Frequency Crew. The trio eventually moved into a house in Miami to try to record full time. They put out a well-crafted but underheard EP on Counterflow in 2001 and later an LP on Schematic in 2004.
In between those releases, Michna spent time in Vienna and Berlin before eventually moving to New York.
“I thought I would get into the groove of German life, but instead I just became a hermit and started working on music in my room," he said. "When I moved to New York [in 2003] it was the week of the blackout, and that was the greatest welcoming to me. I remember being really happy, because the only thing to do was to try and make a party.”
Michna was able to pay rent and make valuable connections partly by working at East Village record stores like Etherea and Turntable Lab. “I’m lucky because I usually only work there [TTL] one day a week now, which is perfect. When you’re there four or five days a week you just start getting really sick of music and hating everything. You become numb. Some of the owners will be in there listening to Elliot Smith or Postal Service on repeat. Like, "I just want to listen to Pearl Jam!" But you do get to hear what everybody else is doing. Like, I still think people could use more horns in music. I remember growing up when Mouse on Mars would use a French horn or a trombone and I’d always notice that.
"Sometimes working at a record store you get to see what people aren’t doing, too. But there are a lot of kids that come in and are like, ‘How do I get into DJ-ing?’ or “What is Serrato?’ And it is my job to serve them [Laughs]. There are also the days when Kool Keith will come in hustling his CDs and everybody at the store is thinking, ‘Damn. It’s like that?’ And I’ll buy a copy because I feel bad but I can’t buy ten for the store because I’ll just get yelled at [Laughs].
"But I also feel lucky thinking about the transition from, say, 2004 to 2008. I mean, in 2004 there was no Serrato, so every working DJ, if you worked in a record store, you saw their face because they had no choice. There were records they just had to get. But that culture doesn’t really exist as much anymore.”
Michna gained some early notoriety for his off-the-wall mixtapes that were sold almost exclusively at Turntable Lab and found him showing his surprisingly vast knowledge of genres, from drum ‘n’ bass to heavy metal to Miami bass and booty rap.
Even more infamous are his parties, where he’ll do just about anything to make sure people have a good time. The first time I saw him DJ as Egg Foo Young he was dressed head to toe as a Chinese farmer. Pointy straw hat, black shirt with white buttons, black pants and Chinese slippers. There were less than 20 people there, but I never forgot it. He also hosted Penelope Cruz and David Hasselhoff lookalike parties at Miami’s Winter Music Conference.
"Well, it was a joke, but we figured if twenty girls that looked like Penelope Cruz showed up that couldn’t be bad," he said, laughing. "The Hasselhoff one was more difficult because we had some people that we brought in as kind of unwilling contestants and they were all saying, ‘I don’t look like him!’ So we had to get cute girls to recruit the guys.
“It all started for me when one of the guys in my high school band bought a strobe light," he said. "We couldn’t believe how great it was. It was crazy. This one little light from Radio Shack changed our life. We were like all you have to do is blast techno, or really anything, with that light going and people would go nuts. Instant party. From there it just inspired us to go even further, with smoke machines and disco balls — those were huge for awhile — costumes, anything cheap we could do to create some kind of mood or theme for the party that would get people there and make it more fun.”
Ghostly had initially approached Michna about just doing DJ spots to support the album, but he had other ideas. He plans to tour with a drummer, a saxophone player and plenty of visuals. “A great distraction,” he says. “At the end of the day if you’re asking people to spend money to come see you, I feel like you need to give them something a little more than just you on a computer.”
DJ to Producer…
Michna is a skilled DJ with a deep music collection and a progressive ear, but many people who fit that description have never put out a successful album. Or even worse, they tried and failed. So he took the possibility of putting out a record seriously.
“For me as a listener, I was really into drum ‘n’ bass for a period, but then it became this rat race to find the newest U.K. single, and it just got a little silly. I started buying everything on Warp and Ninja Tune, and I liked that stuff a lot, but I knew there were things out there that were weirder or more challenging.”
Meeting Diplo, another DJ who had recently moved into production, turned out to be a turning point for him.“It was right when Airborn Audio were getting their thing together, and it was them, CX Kidtronix, Diplo and me. The funny thing was that I had heard that he had gotten signed to Ninja Tune or Big Dada, so I just assumed he was going to be the Downtempo Don or Mr. Ninja Tune. So I was trying to make conversation with him about Cold Cut or the Herbalizer, and he just gave me this blank look. But luckily, just by chance, we (Secret Frequency Crew) had just put out this 12-inch called “Miami Eyes” that was really heavy electro with a lot of bass. I gave him a promo and a week or so later he called me and was like, ‘I need you to help me put bass on my album.’”
Michna, inspired by the experience, went on to do remixes for Diplo and Bonde de Role as well as submitting tracks to other releases by Money Studies, Turntable Lab’s label.
I ask him about how he got hooked up with Ghostly, which seems like a very good fit for his blend of horn driven-beats and more intricate electronic textures. “Through a mutual friend I sent Sam [Valenti] a CD of demos, and I didn’t hear anything for like eight months. But I had done a few magic tricks for Sam one time kind of joking around, and I think he remembered me from that. Eventually someone over there contacted me about releasing something. I just kept sending them newer shit so they wouldn’t forget me. Then they had the Ghostly Swim comp and thought that would be a good jumping-off point.”
Michna took a somewhat novel approach for a first time artist. No features, no remixes, just his work in a tight, 12-track format.
“The label was really helpful with that. I gave them 20 tracks that they could narrow to 12, and then as a DJ I could step away from them and then go back to try to make them better, make them work. They even helped with the sequencing.”
I ask him what other input or guidance they contributed, being that this was first full release.
“At one point they mentioned Endtroducing. Not to try and steal from it or anything, but more like if I got lost at some point to try and revert to my copy of Endtroducing. The amazing thing is that 15 years later, you still discover things on that album, and it does hold up really well as an example of how to be creative, especially with collage.
“I’ve been working on this record for a solid three years, and at first I felt like I was missing out on things. But then at a certain point it’s like, How many parties can you go to in New York? You could spend your whole life doing that. So I got better at being at home and staring at the computer. “
Creating a Sound…
Aside from knowing his way around a pair of turntables, Michna also plays the trombone, drums and keyboard. “I try to work with as little samples as possible. Unless it’s sampling myself," he said. "I just like to try and make weird sounds and process them and see how I can use that. A lot of homemade concoctions. I try to treat the computer like it’s a four-track for me to be able to record myself and then record myself on top of recording myself. [Laughs]
"That seems like a fun way to approach a computer, like it’s just a fancy sampler. I feel like it can turn you into a robot. I can tap my finger on a table and press record and that just sounds like tapping on a table, but if I add echo to that, all of a sudden it sounds weird and more interesting. Especially recording claps and snaps into the SP1200, where they get a lot thicker and crunchier. Sometimes people think of an SP12 and think they have to sample a James Brown loop, but there’s a lot of organic sounds you can put into it and get some cool things back out. When you record in your apartment, you might think it’s never going to sound as good because it’s not a professional studio, but I’m here to tell you that you can do some amazing things with a hundred dollar mic.”
Magic Monday has a surprisingly mature sound for a debut. The dense layers of sound on each track testify to time spent and a perfectionist’s touch. As the playful cover artwork by the Miami-based collaborative artists Friends With You hints at, an element of fun runs throughout the album, which is generally missing from most electronic music that isn’t created strictly for dance floors. It’s a record that fits any number of occasions and refuses to be easily identified, moving across a spectrum of what could be called anything from IDM, downtempo, instrumental hip-hop or even ambient, depending on what track you’ve landed on.
It is a promising debut from a talented producer who has a refreshing sense of humor. And it shows that Michna is constantly looking for the next idea that will set himself slightly apart.