The Chicago DJ plays July 16 at La Fete De Marquette.
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 veteran DJ, occasional producer, and all-around Chicago soldier Samantha Kern, better known by her alias Sassmouth. Between Kern's day gig as a flight attendant, her residencies split between San Francisco's As You Like It crew and Chicago's Planet Chicago (not to mention her international one-offs), and running her God Particle label, the longtime selector is constantly in motion. The same could be said for Kern's many guest mixes lingering across the Internet, as well as her live DJ sets, which showcase her masterful grasp on tension and release, as she glides between infectious acid house, enveloping deep house, and nasty hard techno. In advance of Kern's July 16 stop at the Musique Électronique tent at La Fete De Marquette (where she'll be supporting another deck destroyer in Detroit's Stacey Pullen), she spoke with us about carrying her punk roots into dance music, and why it's the most versatile tracks that stay in her record bag the longest.
Tone Madison: How did you get started with electronic music?
Samantha Kern: Well, growing up in Northwest, it wasn't an easy find—specifically in Spokane, [Washington]. I had a fascination with all kinds of music growing up, but was very much drawn to the punk scene, and I gravitated towards that sound in high school. It really wasn't until I moved to Chicago in 2000 for my flight attendant job that I immersed myself in dance music—being a part of the dance community and going out regularly to nights at Boom Boom Room, Smart Bar, and clubs like Rednofive and Crobar that don't exist anymore. As an avid dancer, I definitely fell in love with electronic music. I met some people with turntables and decided, "Hey! I want to try that," so I bought a janky setup in 2002 and started bothering my neighbors on a daily basis [Laughs].
Tone Madison: Being from a small town in Wisconsin myself, I can understand how the commercial representation of dance music and nightclub culture back then didn't do much to lure in someone drawn toward the do-it-yourself ethos of the punk scene or counterculture in general. I could definitely see how moving to a place like Chicago at that time could flip your world upside down. Did you grow up an avid dancer? Or is that something your ended up falling in love with in Chicago?
Samantha Kern: Yes, I've always loved dancing. My friends and I would sneak into a gay bar in Spokane just to dance and I wouldn't even bother trying to drink. I felt like I'd found that DIY spirit when I discovered loft parties and underground events. I kept that same tradition when I started throwing events myself.
Tone Madison: Did you start out throwing your own house parties and work your way up from there?
Samantha Kern: I got my start with a mix of gigs at any bar or lounge that would take me. [But then, I started] to throw parties with my husband. We found a great apartment with a huge, graffiti-covered basement and started having after-parties there. I loved playing down there—it felt like the best club in the world. It gave me a lot of confidence when I was just starting out. The mix of people that would come together in the club scene was incredible and it felt like I had found the community I'd been searching for while growing up in Spokane.
Tone Madison: Do you remember a particular moment from your early days in Chicago where you went to a party and a switch flipped in your head and you went, "holy shit, what is this?"
Samantha Kern: I definitely felt that way going into a Boom Boom Room party for the first time. Chicago's gay and straight dance scenes were very segregated in the early 2000s, but that Monday night party seemed to bring all the freaks together with its fantastic Chicago house soundtrack. I felt so at home and started learning as much as I could about house music, something I didn't hear growing up in the Northwest. For me, going out [in Chicago] was always this mix of totally losing it on the dance floor and also being in a classroom setting. I was always asking people, "What track is is? What DJ is this?" [Laughs]. I learned a lot that way and met lots of cool people, too. That's something I missed when I lived in London. The crowd in the Midwest is very knowledgeable about the music, culture, and history. It's part of the fabric. I've enjoyed bringing people in from other countries and showing them Chicago and Detroit for that reason. They get a kick out of hearing house music blaring from car speakers. My friend was visiting from Chile this past month and we had a picnic on the lake. This family next to us set up a generator and turntables and the dad proceeded the play the best, most seamless house set you could ask for.
Tone Madison: I haven't really experienced club culture in London. Do you feel that the club scene there is a bit more surface-level? Do you think it's because the average club-goer is more wrapped up in the more modern styles of dance music (at least comparatively) like UK garage, dubstep, or grime that are popular in the region and sort of forget about the history?
Samantha Kern: It's not so much the genre. Electronic music has been part of their mainstream culture for decades, so a night out clubbing is the norm. You don't have to know who you're listening to enjoy yourself. But I found that I missed the underground vibe that the Midwest has cultivated so well. Perhaps it just goes back to my punk upbringing and wanting an escape.
Tone Madison I see you've got some active residencies going right now with the As You Like It crew in San Francisco and Planet Chicago at Smart Bar in, well, Chicago. Do you have a different way of selecting music for each residency?
Samantha Kern: Yes, I'll be back in San Francisco at the end of this month for an As You Like It party with Robag Wruhme and a few other DJs. Every gig is different. The fun thing about residencies is that I usually play an opening set, which means going from zero people on the dance floor to hopefully a decently crowded one when the headliner goes on. I try to buy all kinds of records. Sometimes I buy something that I know won't work for the upcoming gig, but might work for one down the road. I usually like to start out with ambient-sounding stuff and then go into dubby, stretched-out techno, and then into some deep house—like that Gari Romalis track "Q-Dig (Dam Right Mix)" track I wanted to talk about. When I'm opening, I try to keep things stripped down, but playful, if that makes sense.
Tone Madison: I totally get that. You're sort of putting the room on a charger for the headliner. So, you use the Romalis jam as a sort of ramp-up?
Samantha Kern: Yes, I feel that if people aren't dancing by that point, this track might coax them to the floor. It's beautiful and pretty much just a perfect loop, which I think works great earlier in the night and perhaps late as well.
Tone Madison: Yeah, this one is gorgeous and I could totally hear you playing it at 11 p.m. or 5 a.m. I'm a sucker for tracks that combine dub techno with the raw, swinging house feel.
Samantha Kern: I feel like there's a natural arc to a night and tracks that work well at different parts of the night and different types of places tend to stay in my bag for a long time. Gari's records tend to stay in my bag a long time. Someone at Gramaphone turned me on to his stuff —probably Michael Serafini, the owner.
Tone Madison: I'm really feeling this Gunnar Haslam remix of Justin Cudmore's "Crystal" that you picked out. This one was recently released by San Francisco based DJ and production crew Honey Soundsystem's label. It has kind of a mutant modular synth feel to it.
Samantha Kern: I love the juxtaposition of the mutant modular sounds with the playful acid that comes a few minutes into the track and watching people's reactions when I play it. I like finding playful-sounding stuff like this, which kind of works in the same way an old punk track might use the "loud-quiet-loud" format.
Tone Madison: Yes, I really love the contrast you mentioned—between the modern modular feel and the acid vibe. It has an infectious build, too. This one seems like a great utility player. What's an ideal moment for you to throw this on?
Samantha Kern: I would use this as a segue from tough stuff to acid, both of which I love playing. I played this last month as one of my opening tracks at a Smart Bar party at TV Lounge in Detroit [as part of the Movement festival] and it made the crowd go kind of nutty. My friend Jarvi and I were taking after an unbelievably good Bruce Bailey set and I felt like this track might hint at the kind of stuff we'd play. This a really cool release—the original and the remixes are all quite good. I met Justin a few years ago and we've been digital pen-pals since. We enjoy running into each other on dance floors here and there. I was excited to hear that he's releasing music and love supporting friends doing their thing.
Tone Madison: Yeah, the acid is undeniable with this one. I'd imagine it's definitely a great way to release some of the tension that builds up after a lot of heavy techno cuts. I love that crunchy, overdriven snare sound.
Samantha Kern: Speaking of tracks that release tension, that's what Slam's "Positive Education" does for a dance floor.
Tone Madison: The kick in that song just pounds. I feel like it's one of those tunes where you can instantly tell that a real TR-909 drum machine is being used, and I rarely care about that sort of thing.
Samantha Kern: [Laughs] It's a guilty pleasure. I've been playing it consistently again for the last year after playing some hard techno tracks. Kind of like punish, punish, punish, and reward! Slam at their finest.
Tone Madison: It feels really loose and open—raw, but with pristine mixing. It has a lot of character and depth. Is this a track you've been playing since the early aughts?
Samantha Kern: Absolutely. It's one of the first records I found. It was on a compilation called something like "greatest techno hits." It's such a beloved song, especially in the Midwest, and I love sharing that moment with seasoned ravers and watching new ones hear it for the first time when I play it. I probably need to retire it for another 5 to 10 years though at this point, although maybe I'll play it one more time in Madison.
Tone Madison: Sometimes, while not the most convenient or best-sounding option, the most economically friendly way to get a track on wax is to get it on a big compilation with other tracks that you don't necessarily want. I remember buying a quadruple LP Roger Sanchez collection to get "The Deep." I got the four LPs for $20 versus shelling out $100 for the 12-inch.
Samantha Kern: Yes, I have quite a few of these types of compilations from my early days of digging. In fact, I've got a really great one put together by Slam.
Tone Madison: Oh wow, an entire compilation of Slam jams. I'll have to look into this. But yeah, I love those evolving synth stabs.
Samantha Kern: And that modulating synth at the breakdown.
Tone Madison: The track is so minimal, but the sounds just wrap around your brain.
Samantha Kern: It sounds like a brain melting.
Tone Madison: So finally we've got this Claro Intelecto tune "Peace Of Mind." I've always been in awe of his work. Just beautifully polished techno with immaculate sound design. It's so fresh. How'd you get turned on to this one?
Samantha Kern: I have Ricardo Villalobos to thank for the intro. He put out a mix in the early 2000's called Taka Taka and I listened to it religiously. I was absolutely obsessed with his DJing and productions. He included "Contact" from that same Claro Intelecto release, so I bought it for that. But then I listened to the B-side and heard "Peace Of Mind" and I was like, "Oh my God!"
This particular track still gives me goose bumps, even after playing it so many times. It has a lot of emotional feeling—like it's attached to 100 memories of great parties and times with friends. That's one of the coolest things about DJing for years and years—tracks start to take on multiple memories, or maybe feelings, would be a better way of putting it.
Tone Madison: Between the jazzy chords, techno polish, and electro feel, he's really pulling a lot of different elements together in a very cohesive way with this one. Do you have a particular memory of spinning this one that stands out to you?
Samantha Kern: I usually play this one at the end of the night, sometimes as the last track. So, I always think of the lights coming on or friends embracing, knowing it's the end of the party. There's an intimacy at the end of the party. Maybe a little bit of melancholy, but also joy. I guess that's what I think of.