The recent Madison transplant and Orchard Lounge member discusses a few of his favorite tracks.
While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces (as in “aces up the sleeve”), is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.
For this installment of Aces, we spoke with current Madisonian, former staple at Chicago’s Smart Bar, and founding member of the Orchard Lounge DJ crew Ben Silver. A deep selector and touring veteran, Silver generally reaches toward the deepest, moodiest corners of house and techno. In his sets, cosmic synth passages pop and glide over squelching acid patterns, dubby basslines, and polished, thumping rhythms that stay below the threshold enough to be tasteful, but still provide heavy enough grooves to keep folks glued to the dance floor. Over the past few years, Silver has been spending less time on Orchard Lounge, and investing more of himself into pushing himself further as a solo selector and sharpening his production chops. You can catch him about once a month slaying the decks at Natt Spil, but most of Silver’s gigs find him cruising around the country at various parties and festivals. We spoke with Silver about balancing reading a room with his own taste, diving into production, and how not partying has made him a better DJ.
Tone Madison: How did you get pulled into electronic music?
Ben Silver: I have always liked it to some degree, even as a young kid. I was very into breakdance music and early electro, but then I later got into stuff like New Order and Depeche Mode. The synths and drum machines were always something I loved. When I was in college, Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, and an album by the downtempo side project of Hardfloor called Da Damn Phreak Noize Phunk became an obsession of mine. However, it wasn’t until I went to Europe after graduating in 2000 that I truly understood it. Seeing the biggest DJs in the world in London and Ibiza was something that truly changed my life. I came back, moved to Chicago, and saw house and techno every weekend at Smart Bar and other clubs, which was big for me. This was when I started DJing as well.
Tone Madison: I’d imagine that being one of the biggest DJs in the world required a way different skill set back then. Was there a particular DJ in Europe that blew your mind?
Ben Silver: Absolutely, not to mention it was all vinyl. There were many [great DJs], but keep in mind this was almost 17 years ago so the sound back then was more progressive—Sasha and John Digweed, Paul Oakenfold, and BT were the big names at the time [laughs]. This was all I knew back then and I didn’t learn about the more underground sounds that I would end up liking much more until later. At the time, the big names and mainstream sound drew me in and allowed me to explore this vast world later and pick and choose what I liked. Richie Hawtin really blew my mind not long after that.
Tone Madison: So you started exploring the underground once you got to Chicago?
Ben Silver: When I started going to [Chicago] clubs that focused on deeper sounds, I got to see a lot of great underground house DJs who’d come through. However, it was the extensive hours digging for records at Gramaphone that really exposed me to good stuff. I would go with Spencer and Bethany Lokken—who would later form Orchard Lounge with me—constantly. We spent countless hours digging for records and even more hours spinning them at my house late at night, after the clubs shut down.
Tone Madison: Most of the tracks you chose to talk about for this installment of Aces have sort of a cosmic vibe—these spacious tracks with drifty and plucky synth parts. Do you typically lean toward the headier, more psychedelic side?
Ben Silver: I have always been into the more psychedelic side of house, techno, and everything in between. I love the darker, more hypnotic stuff. I love when there’s a repetitive main riff that stays static, while everything around it changes—if that makes any sense. I have never really played anything with vocals, but big basslines and heavy synth stabs are always good. Lately, the stuff I’ve been producing here in Madison with my friend David Hammond has been that sort of sound.
Tone Madison: Were you learning production when you started DJing?
Ben SIlver: No, the focus was on DJing back then. I later did a little production here and there, but it has become much more of a focus lately. David [Hammond] and I have multiple EPs’ worth of material that we need to find the right home for. I’ve been playing my original tracks in DJ sets for many years, though.
Tone Madison: Moving back to Orchard Lounge, what’s the process of preparing for lengthy three-way tag set like? I’d imagine there are certain challenges when you’re tagging with two other people for four hours or more.
Ben Silver: We have always taken the tag-team route and tried to feed off the crowd and vibe in the room. We always dig for music on our own, but we have similar tastes. We break it down by splitting up the time—perhaps each of us do 20-minute chunks and then play off of each other. Nothing is planned and it’s all just what we’re feeling. We just had a really fun night at Smart Bar after Lollapalooza and played a seven-hour set—10 p.m. to 5 a.m. I had a blast and it was great to do that with them again. Part of the fun of playing off of one another is hearing how the flow of the set can go. If one person takes it deeper or maybe funkier, the next can take it way further out and go darker and harder.
Tone Madison: So you’re in full-on journey mode.
Ben Silver: We prefer it that way. It’s fun not knowing what will happen. Also, DJ’ing is a lot more gratifying when you take risks.
Tone Madison: You’d brought up reading the crowd, which is of course something I hear about a lot from DJs. When you have such a specific sonic zone you like to tap into, how do you reconcile the interest of the crowd with your own taste?
Ben Silver: It all depends, but sometimes it’s good to try to draw people in. For example I don’t usually start out a set by banging it hard. So, I may ease in with some spacier, more ethereal tracks, or even some funkier stuff. Then after I ease into it, I will start pushing it further out there and take it much deeper and darker, which is the area I like to hit. However it all depends on the crowd and not everything will work in every room. There is no “one size fits all” for electronic music. You really have to have a wide range of sounds.
Tone Madison: I’d presume there’s sort of a natural arc to the night when you’re playing for seven hours.
Ben Silver: Absolutely. There always have to be peaks and valleys. Playing the same thing the entire time may not keep the interest of the dance floor. There are so many emotions and vibes that can be conveyed through all of this music that don’t even have words—even within the same genre or BPM, there can be so much variety. Certain producers or styles played at a certain BPM are perfect for the early part of a set and others are better for later, yet they might be within the exact same genre. Different chords and sounds just have a unique effect and signify the pacing. I also play a lot of downtempo and the range is insanely vast. I have tracks that are absolute bangers but are only 100 BPM. Also, one thing that I pretty much always do with house and techno is pitch down. I buy a lot of tracks that were written at maybe 126 BPM, but I’ll play it at 118 BPM. I much prefer that pitched-down vibe, it gives it a deeper feel to me. I love manipulating the tempo.
Tone Madison: I’m way into messing with the pitch of a track, but it can get tricky if you’re dealing with vocals. I saw a DJ in Santa Fe drop “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” about 15 BPM too fast and it sounded like chipmunk music. The best part was that it was coming out of this huge sound system in a pretty fancy night club. It was really bad.
Ben: You can’t do that to M.J.
Tone Madison: Agreed. So, let’s dive into these tunes you’ve shared. First up, we’ve got Recondite’s “Petrichor (Tin Man Remix).” This is a drifty acid cut. How did this one enter your repertoire and how would you use it in a set?
Ben Silver: When I’m in Madison, I work at this amazing record store Strictly Discs. That Recondite record was sold to the store by a friend of mine and fellow DJ Jordan Ellerman. I would play the On Acid EP a lot in the store and fell in love with that track. I’ve been a big Recondite fan for years and this track has a funky bassline and quirky drum pattern that fits well with the tracks I play when I start to get a little darker. However once that extended break hits and it drops into the TB-303 acid squelch into the second half, it’s over.
Tone Madison: So it serves as a bridge between the mellow beginnings of your set and when you launch into the heavier grooves?
Ben Silver: That, or later in the set to bring it back a little bit. Acid tracks are always something I have loved and the dance floor always seems to respond to them. It’s a universally loved sound. Acid sort of signifies the old school and I love that.
Tone Madison: Agreed, even though it’s being used in a pretty polished and futuristic way on this one. I also like that polyrhythm.
Ben Silver: He also brings it back in an unorthodox way after the break.
Tone Madison: Moving on to Love Over Entropy’s “Rommella,” this is another deep, polished acid jam. It’s a bit more up front and floor-ready than the Recondite tune. How do you like to use this one?
Ben Silver: This is one of my favorite tracks and Love Over Entropy is a favorite producer of mine. He really has a way with melodies—often deep and powerful, with a minimal amount of notes. I tend to use this track a little earlier in the set. I also like that the main melody is repeated so many times that it’s hypnotic.
Tone Madison: Yes, there’s this foggy elegance to it. I’m a huge sucker for well-placed rim-shots too!
Ben Silver: There’s a Dixon remix of the Love Over Entropy track “Tonii” that’s one of my favorites of the past couple years. That track is amazing, he has a great ear for melody.
Tone Madison: I love how dubbed-out and deep this Dorisburg track “Cirkla” is. Definitely my favorite of the tunes you picked out.
Ben Silver: That’s a unique track and it’s nice and weird, which I love. That whole release is great—every song on it is interesting. It can be somewhat tricky to place this one in a set, however I recently played it in a more ethereal set and it meshed well.
Tone Madison: I like how enveloping that little lead sequence is, but then he’ll throw in a crazy flourish here and there like, “caught you sleeping!”
Ben Silver: Yeah, the Dorisburg tracks all seem to morph a lot. They also touch on elements of techno, as more experimental sounds.
Tone Madison: OK, so finally we have Lindstrom’s “Closing Shot.” This one definitely seems to be the most rhythmically front-and-center of what you’ve picked out. It also has some Italo disco influence. I love when those glittery pads and arpeggios kick in. Is this your 4 a.m. track?
Ben Silver: I really like that track. It’s not dark and out there, but just a solid record. I usually play the first three to four minutes—where those longer chords hit. Creates a nice feel. It could work as a late-night track, but I recently opened a set with that one before taking it deeper at this festival in Maine. It was the first of two sets and it was a sunset timeslot, so I thought it fit nicely. In that environment, you can’t really start out too crazy or you could lose people. Or, they may not check out the set at all since it’s a festival.
Tone Madison: Do you have a favorite time of day or night to throw down?
Ben Silver: I love playing at any hour, as I really enjoy tailoring sets to fit the vibe and setting. I love the build up early-on, when intensity is growing. Of course, I also really love playing late night when I can take it way out there. That’s probably my favorite time to play—closing out a club or venue. I like being able to drop all of the bangers. Another time that I really enjoy, yet is somewhat rare of a situation, is a sunrise set. With Orchard Lounge we have done some memorable sunrise sets where we would start faster and work backwards, gradually slowing down the tempo until we end with ambient. There are more beautiful tracks that fit this setting.
Tone Madison: As a touring DJ, how do you deal with the grind of being expected to stay up all night, every night, and dance?
Ben Silver: It’s a lot easier to stay up late and have fun playing without drugs. I stopped partying and It’s been a brand new thing for me. I think the partying can really take away from the music. People are in the bathroom and focusing on that and not what is being played. I have been having so much more fun playing now that I have gotten away from all of that. I think, by not partying, I can DJ way better and spend way more time finding tracks. It has made me improve. Plus, playing long solo sets. It’s just been different.
Tone Madison: What’s next for you?
Ben Silver: My main goal is releasing music right now. I don’t play all too often here in Madison, but I do play at Natt Spil once a month, which has been a perfect place to test out new music. I love it there because it’s low key and always open to hearing anything. I’ll be on the road for most of October and I’m doing a run of shows with Ichisan. He’s from Slovenia and he’s a master of the space-disco sound. We’re playing Brooklyn, Philly, Baltimore, and the Luna Light festival in Maryland. On Halloween, I’m going to Denver to play with The Orb.