Mike Relm - When In Relm
Mike Relm might be one of the hardest working and most creative DJs in the business today. 3D’s Scott Henderson finds out how boredom, robot rock and a dose of tech obsession have inspired the turntablist to create a show that no one anywhere else is doing.
San Francisco: spiritual home to hippy throwbacks and geek chic. Actual home to Pixar, Google, Apple, YouTube, Wikipedia and one Mike Relm. Compulsively clad in red sneakers, black suit and his trademark thick, black-rimmed specs, Relm is the very picture definition of geek cool. This Steve Jobs of the DJ world might not seem it to look at, but in an art dominated by the likes of Mix Master Mike and DJ Shadow, Relm is one person pushing the creative boundaries of turntablism and forging a path that’s inventing its own curve.
For anyone familiar with Mike Relm’s work this is nothing new per se, after all Relm has been a force in US DJ culture for the best part of a decade, really coming into his own these past few years, tracing back to the release of his mix CD Radio Fryer in 2005. But for the uninitiated, it is Relm’s live show, incorporating his own unique brand of real-time VJing into his scratching, juggling and mixing that is an experience that has to be seen to be appreciated. A cursory search on YouTube yields a ton of footage of Relm at work, including some of his more famous mash-ups of films (Office Space), music (Imagine) and YouTube faves (Charlie Bit My Finger).
When 3D caught up with Relm we found him indulging himself in a music trade show in southern California, checking out all the new hardware on show, getting demos and looking for anything that could enhance his show. This time, Relm tells us, he’s on the lookout for new software, “gear-wise I’m pretty set for now. I’ve got some really cool toys.”
It’s all a far cry from his typical ignoble beginnings as a DJ in the mid-‘90s. At age 15 Relm bought his first pair of decks from a local DJ; turntables, it turned out, that were completely unsuitable for his purposes. Relm got himself a job, saved up for some Technics and started playing parties for friends in high school, before finding himself drawn to the turntablist scene. Back in the day when it was just two decks and a mixer playing records back-to-back Relm says, “I felt guilt getting paid for that, it was crazy. There just had to be something more. That was when I discovered scratching and tricks and I was like, ‘Okay, now this is cool.’”
It was the restless scratch pervert inside Relm that inspired him to seek out new challenges in DJing, and after watching endless videos of The X-Ecutioners, the Beatjunkies and practicing, Relm started to enter local battles, then national ones, eventually winning the International Turntablist Federation's USA competition in 1999. By then though, Relm was getting bored again, “I could scratch and I could juggle, but had no idea what that meant.
“It was then that I incorporated those skills with what I’d learned from parties into making a show. In about 2004 I was getting bored again and started to incorporate video into my sets. I was already doing visuals of sorts, but there was no real connection between that and what I was doing with the music. Now there is Serato Scratch Live, where you can control music and video with the turntables, which was right up my alley.”
The genesis of all this, of course, being the birth of the video turntable with software to support it. As opposed to many DJs who just saw it as an opportunity to play music videos (“Why would you want to do that- What a waste of time”) while they spun, Relm saw much more potential. Over the years he’s gotten a lot better at recognising what the audience react to, and trying wherever possible to manipulate those responses. “I try not to rest too much,” he explains of his time on stage. “I’m there for an hour, maybe two, and you look at a band and the drummer is going nuts the whole time; that guy doesn’t get a break, why should I- I wanna earn it, especially being up there on stage.”
It pretty clear chatting with the ever-enthusiastic and talkative DJ that he’s geeky in all the right ways about his approach to DJ/VJing. Filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino, says Relm, have influenced the perspective from which he wants to use and present his clips, creating “more of a cinematic feel. It’s still fun though; I love making people laugh.” And when we stumble onto the subject of Daft Punk’s live show, Relm, like the rest of us, is in complete awe – only with much greater appreciation of the accomplishments and having been one of the lucky few to see the legendary Alive 2006 tour unveiling at Coachella.
“I was blown away, completely blown away,” Relm begins, struggling for words. “Man, where do you start- I wish I wore a helmet for my whole career. They’ve got that pyramid, and the lights are so… it’s just so dope. It’s like everything is synced, everybody who is doing something for that show is a band member, you know what I mean- If the lights are off by a second, forget it, I’m disconnected. For them though, it’s so locked it’s insane. They are proof that if you can lock it all up it’s just mind-blowing… It was like they had created a whole new world.”
Late last year saw the release of Relm’s debut album, Spectacle, as an original artist – something he has been “pretty juiced” about. It’s a natural progression for Relm, following in the footsteps of Shadow and Cut Chemist, as someone whose restlessness has fed a completely innovative approach to turntablism as a form of expression. “What I do isn’t the regular DJ thing and it was tough at first because it was unheard of. Now I feel a certain amount of responsibility to keep taking things in a different direction. I see what others are doing and it’s cool, but if I don’t do things my way no one will.”
Who: Mike Relm
What: Good Vibrations at Centennial Park
When: Saturday 14 February