Ciarra Black talks about her musical evolution, her approach to live sets and the community of artists that has formed around the No-Tech label and parties.
Ciarra Black is a producer, DJ and promoter based in Brooklyn, New York. She curates the No-Tech party series in New York and has also launched a label of the same name, which has released four tapes so far. Ciarra Black is currently touring Europe with a hardware live techno set.
Can you tell us a bit about your musical background? What did you listen to growing up and how did you get into producing electronic music?
When I was 7 I begged my parents for piano lessons which I took for a few years. I think doing that at a young age really set a solid foundation for me in my musical process that has stayed with me. When I was in college I learned to play drums and later bought my first synthesizers and samplers after getting involved with the Philadelphia noise and coldwave scene. My band Appetite (duo of myself and Jane Chardiet) started shortly after and when I moved to New York I started playing hardware techno.
When I was a teenager growing up in New Jersey I started getting into punk and DIY which has definitely shaped my outlook as a musician and artist. When I was 18 I moved to Philadelphia where I was surrounded by a close knit music scene that relied only on our own organizing and output. A lot of those artists I still know today and it is really cool to see how everyone has grown and where we are now in our musical careers. Some of them are also playing techno and touring Europe. Years ago we were in a basement with 5 people watching a noise set or a friend’s punk band. At some point my bandmate Jane decided to move to New York (where she grew up) while I was still living in Philly. It was during that time I met some DJs in the local scene and started going to experimental techno parties in warehouses in North Philly. That was about 7 years ago. After some encouragement from friends I decided to start DJing and pretty quickly was given opportunities to DJ at several events as well as my own monthly party at an underground club called Medusa. After going through a bad breakup, Jane (my bandmate and best friend) convinced me to move to New York, which I decided to do on a whim and moved 3 weeks later. We started working together again on music and I started DJing at local clubs like Bossa Nova Civic Club in Brooklyn and Over the Eight (where my monthly party No-Tech was based for 2 years). I had always wanted to make hardware techno after being inspired by several people doing so while living in Philly and seeing so many inspiring artists doing it in New York. It’s interesting looking back on because at the time I barely knew any women making techno or using hardware. Now I have a solid community of women doing that in New York, which I feel incredibly lucky for. Many of them are my closest friends. While making music in my bedroom a friend of mine pressured me to send them my music and booked me on a bill against my will. I worked insanely hard on the set and it went really well.
What are the main differences in the musical approach between your duo project Appetite and your current solo live set and are there any future plans for Appetite?
Appetite was originally formed as a noise/ synth project and at the time I was not working on solo music seriously. The first Appetite practice we didn’t even know how to use a mixer properly, midi syncing or even really what we wanted to do going forward. That was about 8 years ago. When I moved to New York and was interested in integrating aspects of techno, Appetite became more rhythmic, industrial and with more elements of techno mixed in. Jane comes heavily from a noise and punk background and she can be a hard one to convince when it comes to techno. But when we finally agree on a sound it is usually a pretty great combination.
My solo material is mainly hardware techno with some noise and ambient stuff mixed in. A bit harder beat wise than Appetite while Appetite is more noisey and even has some pop elements at times. Appetite also has some performance elements integrated into our live sets.
Recently Jane moved to LA in a sudden twist of fate so Appetite is on hold for the moment. We have been best friends for 13 years and playing music together for 8 so we definitely would like to continue in the near future when we are capable of doing so.
What kind of setup do you use for your current live set and does it tend to stay more or less the same or do you change it around a lot?
I do an all hardware set up that generally has a lot of the same players but definitely rotates: Ms-20, Mother 32, Korg Volca keys, Korg Volca Fm, Octatrack, Electribe Es-1, Roland Tr-707, MFB Tanzmaus, Electrix Filter Queen, some pedals and compressors.
Your label No-Tech has had a great initial batch of releases. What was the motivation behind starting your own label, how did you select the artists you released and what’s to be expected from No-Tech next year?
No-Tech originally started as a monthly DJ night in the back of a low key bar a bunch of our friends worked at and one of our friends owned. We liked doing it there because we could literally play whatever we wanted - techno, noise and bird sounds without having to worry about losing a conventional club crowd. The crowd at the start was mostly made up of our friends but grew larger and larger over time. The idea was an alternative to a regular club that a lot of our close friends from the punk or noise scene did not feel as comfortable attending but enjoyed the music and wanted to dance. We focused on playing more challenging music that didn’t quite fit into any specific box, as myself and fellow resident JR Nelson both came from multi faceted music backgrounds. Over the years No-Tech became more like a community with a very specific feeling of a time and place. We decided to end the night after 2 years when JR was moving to Phoenix and I suggested continuing No-Tech as a label going forward. Our first release was the compilation that consisted of almost everyone that played live or DJ’d at No-Tech over the years. It is kind of like a time capsule with many close friends included - Bookworms, Via App, Drew McDowall, Motiv-A, Boy Harsher, Young Male - to name a few. The next release was my own release that I decided to put out as a tape after sitting on my first release for so long. Despite getting offers from other labels I felt compelled to release it myself, especially as I was about to release other artists. I’m really glad I decided to do that because I learned a lot about the process along the way. The next release was Speaking Parts who I stumbled upon and really loved his music. He lives in Philly and when we connected we realized we had a lot of mutual friends and ran in the same scenes for a long time. The Creatrix release comes from one of my best friends of 10 years and old roommate, Sylvia. She lives in San Francisco and at some point also started making hardware techno. I was incredibly honored to put out her first release, she is killing it and will be making some EU appearances soon. To tell you some future plans: I will release definitely more on analog media and there will be a split between No-Tech New York and No-Tech Berlin!
One more question about the label: You have chosen tapes as the format for the first four releases. Was there a specific reason behind the decision for this format and are you planning to stick with it or try out different formats as well?
The beauty of tapes is they are very “DIY”. We pick up the blank tapes at a warehouse in South Brooklyn, have our friend dub them in his bedroom, print all of the inserts and stickers ourselves, assemble everything ourselves, ship everything ourselves… and it’s much more affordable then putting out vinyl, especially with the incredibly high cost of living in New York. In 2018 we will be doing some collaborations for vinyl releases which is very exciting.
You currently live in Brooklyn, if I’m correct. How important are your surroundings for what you do? That can include exchanges with other artists and the community in general, performance opportunities, venues but also economical considerations like the price of rent, availability of jobs, etc.?
This is a very interesting question because I recently came to some pretty big crossroads with all of this myself. But let me start here: There is a very specific energy in New York that has created a really special community of young musicians, producers and DJs that I feel lucky to have been a part of for the past 5 and a 1/2 years. A lot of us have grown together - starting playing live sets around the same time, started DJing in the same clubs around the same time, and have pushed each other forward in a lot of ways. As mentioned previously I hang out with many women who are producers - we make dinner and collaborate or give Octatrack lessons on a Sunday afternoon. It is really a special thing that I don’t think exists everywhere.
But of course, the price of living in New York makes being a working artist a struggle. Most of the musicians, DJs and producers I know in New York hustle throughout the week at part time service jobs to be able to afford to have time off to do their gigs on the weekend. Rent is insanely high and rising every day.
The craziest part of this tour was the day I got an e-mail that my affordable apartment of almost 6 years (that my roommate was in for 15), got sold and is being knocked down and built into condos. I get back to the U.S. on December 10th and have to move out January 1st. Simultaneously the room I’ve been renting in Neukölln in Berlin is opening up in January and with some support from my friend and booker Jordan, I’ve decided to move to Berlin in the beginning of the year to be able to focus on music a bit more full time. So I will be bringing No-Tech to Berlin with a branch remaining in New York. More on all of that very soon…