LWE Interviews Theo Parrish

Accounts of Theo Parrish gigs often begin with the enigmatic DJ clearing the floor. The jazz, Afrobeat, dub reggae, and soul records he is known to drop tend to startle festivalgoers and dabblers who have come to expect nothing but four-to-the-floor from a dance DJ. Read on, though, and it turns out that just about every Theo Parrish set ends with minds blown and booties shaken, those experimental jazz cuts moving feet as ably as acid house bangers. Once hooked, you may find yourself going out of your way to hear the man spin. It seems likely that Parrish would occupy the role of DJ’s DJ, a selector and mixer whose dedication to the art is matched by few, even if he had never put out a record. But Theo Parrish has put out some records. Since his first release on Kenny Dixon Jr.’s KDJ, Parrish’s own Sound Signature has become a buy-on-sight label for even the most discriminating DJs and fans. Keeping subtle, complex, emotional deep house on the map for the past two decades, he has developed his style while maintaining a singular aesthetic. LWE recently checked in with Theo Parrish, finding him as busy — and as brilliant — as ever.

You recently reached a potentially new audience with your LCD Soundsystem remix, a combination that not many people might have expected. How did that come about? Do you think the prevalence of disco and house-based sounds that labels like DFA have engendered is a positive development for the music?

Theo Parrish: They hit me up and their approach was attractive; they said pick anything you want and sent the full album in parts. I don’t really recognize any current production as genre specific, so I hear a head nod and a wink to disco in their sound, but it’s the ethic — the DIY ethic. That’s where the value is.

You clearly have one of the deepest record collections around. Where are your favorite places to buy records?

I know a lot of people with a whole lot more, but I buy anywhere and everywhere. Some spots, depending on what I find, are my favorite that day after being dry for weeks. Some are account drainers, meaning they are rarely dry. Favorite cities with lotsa diggin’ possibilities for what I like: Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Toronto, Kansas City, Cincinatti, Osaka, Tokyo, London, Manchester, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Just google local stores in those cities and go get your knuckles dusty.

The records you became known for early on were often sample-based and tracky, while you’ve since then experimented with vocals, group improvisation, and other techniques. How has your musical style evolved, in terms of your approach to production and your understanding of your own work?

I get bored very easily. I relied heavily on samples simply for lack of equipment. As I acquired more equipment the creative possibilities grew. I was sampling less and learning to play, and started to get to know some talented live players (like Jerry the Cat, John Douglas, Duminie Deporres). I had to try to keep up with them in the studio — and prerecorded stuff doesn’t change on the fly, you have to program it to — so the idea of being in the moment and learning about the ever-elusive pocket came when I was working with The Rotating Assembly. Those rehearsals had a large impact. It galvanized the theory of dedicated practice to build skill. I then found it limiting to sample larger blocks of music, so individual sounds, little bits, became more of what I would use for my sound pallette, and then less and less. Then I would only sample myself, and get drums from multiple sources: records, keyboards, live kit. Then I got tired of sampling altogether. That went into playing everything realtime and recording it. That was a big step, and don’t really expect to master that, just only improve. It’s currently what I wrestle with now, along with incorporating the methods I have a moderate grasp of already.

Some of your most recent releases have been vocal tracks, from 2008’s Chemistry to the most recent records with Bill Beaver and Danny Banks, and your DJ sets always incorporate soul and disco songs. Do you write words as well as music? How do you collaborate with a vocalist or instrumentalist?

Depends on the vocalist. With Bill Beaver, he comes up with lyrics off of the top of his head. First take. You better catch that first one, too. With Danny Banks, he had a written song, and all I had to do with was work on his phrase spacing. He’s so skilled, he was running all these backgrounds. Some idiot put it out there that there was AutoTune involved: No! No bloodclaat AutoTune in my studio! Blasphemer! Listen to the damn song. Anyway. For Genevieve Maranttette, I wrote “You Forgot,” “Split me Open,” and for Karen Bosco I wrote “Melt.” Lakecia Hughes came off the top for “Summertime Is here.” Monica Blaire, as on “They Say” and “Second Chances,” hears the song, then writes, and an hour later it’s laid down — efficient. Alena Waters offers solid suggestions in arrangement that always make sense to follow, that provides places for her to sing around and with. Very intuitive. As for the instrumentalists I’ve been blessed to work with, particularly John and Duminie, I just tend to give them adjectives. I can trust their taste.

The Leron Carson release on Sound Signature, while widely loved, has been shrouded in mystery. Who is he, and where did the music come from?

Leron is a lifelong friend from Chicago. We came up in the same area. We started making songs at 14 or 15 years old, almost every weekend until I went away to college. The songs I released by him had been on a cassette he gave me and were done in those early years. He’s always been a sorely overlooked talent.

You’ve had a residency at London’s Plastic People, which has been under threat of closure. As the trend moves towards giant superclubs, where have you found that the best parties takes place, and what makes them special?

You can’t judge a party before you get there, so it’s quite random. So many factors affect any given night. The issue with superclubs is the lack of intimacy. Smaller venues solve that, but it’s difficult to find smaller venues with powerful systems. A small club with a powerful soundsystem is always a good foundation. You have the intimacy, and a good system allows a wider range of songs to be presented outside of their percieved setting. The people have a chance to experience a wider range of emotional connection or repulsion.

The Three Chairs compilation CD, Spectrum, gave a lot of listeners a chance to catch up some hard-to-find records. Will there be more releases from the group in the future?

We shall see…

What else can we expect from Sound Signature in 2010?

Sketches. Sketches is a concept I came up with for some unreleased material I mastered without the songs being complete with all the elements. It was an experiment to force myself to get back to some basic production ethics I wanted to reacquaint myself with. It will be available only in Detroit for festival time, and I am only doing 150 copies and four separate pieces of vinyl, each one with a differently painted jacket. The only songs that may reappear on later 12″s this year are “Something About Detroit,” “Thumpasaurus,” and “Kites On Pluto.” I’m playing them out now to see which ones need more or can be released as is. Coming soon is the Sound Signature Sounds Pt. 2 compilation CD including Sound Signatures titles only available on vinyl from the catalog, and Translations, a CD comp of remixes and edits that are no longer available or previously unreleased.

tom/pipecock  on June 30, 2010 at 11:12 AM

i’m really glad i got all 4 of those records now! nice interview!

Steve  on July 6, 2010 at 7:30 PM

Solid interview. Not to be picky, but Theo’s first 12″ was Baby Steps on Elevate. He only had one track on Small Black Church. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Shuja Haider  on July 8, 2010 at 11:59 AM

You’re not wrong, but it says “release” above, and the first Theo Parrish track to be released was “Lake Shore Drive” on that KDJ EP.

Dave  on July 19, 2010 at 4:08 PM

Theo Parrish & Gene Hunt @ Evil Olive on July 28th btw.

Jim Little  on September 11, 2010 at 6:28 PM

I admit I was expecting that whole leftfield floor-clearing thing the first time I saw him in Chicago. Dude comes on with “Flash” by Fix (Voorn) and the place was up for grabs after that!


Theo Parrish Interview « The Hipodrome Of Music  on June 30, 2010 at 10:37 AM

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ONDA SONORA » LWE’s Theo Parrish Interview  on July 1, 2010 at 3:15 AM

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LWE interviews Theo Parrish – FACT magazine: music and art  on July 14, 2010 at 8:13 AM

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LWE interviews Theo Parrish  on July 14, 2010 at 1:49 PM

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bedtimebunnage.com» Blog Archive » Theo Parrish Interview  on July 14, 2010 at 3:20 PM

[…] via Little White Earbuds […]

» LWE interviews Theo Parrish best house music  on July 15, 2010 at 5:27 AM

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The Essential… Theo Parrish – FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music.  on July 24, 2013 at 8:04 AM

[…] Thanks to – Jimmy Jean, Dj Liamski, Alessandra, Rupi and the original Sound Signature disciples. Gerd Jansen and Red Bull Music Academy for all the interview quotes – full transcript here. Rotating Assembly quote taken from Little White Earbuds interview – full transcript here. […]

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