Why We Burn: Orion Keyser

(I really need to interview DJs I’ve booked more often. I’ve been lucky enough to have Orion spin at a couple of things I’ve done, and not even because he’s been one of the main selectros in the DISORIENT universe for years. His sonic sense impeccable, and I was honored to talk to him about how music at Burning Man has evolved over the years. Show him some love & if you’re in the city and need studio time, let me do you a favor. Interview by Terry Gotham)

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1. Favorite Burning Man memory?
I guess my favorite DJ memory from Burning Man is playing music for sunrise. It’s always amazing to DJ at the Burn, but sunrise is the most beautiful time of day out there and playing music for it is a rare and wonderful thing. I generally play something a little more sentimental than usual for a sunrise, in order to make the moment more meaningful and to bring a sense of pause into a sound world that is usually insistent or frenetic.

Most of my other favorite Burning Man memories come in the “stumble upon” variety. I usually do a bit of wandering about in deep playa at odd hours of the night, and the things or the people that you run into when you are away from everything are often the best. It used to be just some little lonesome temples and things like that, I remember one burn when there was a full moon I stumbled upon some wooden structure that had a mostly working telescope on it and I was able to focus it on details on the face of the full moon that I’ve only seen in pictures before. Another time I was far away from everything and hungry and confused and I stumbled on an open air Diner serving coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches that was serendipitously staffed by some friends from SF I hadn’t seen in four or five years. Surprises like that are always the best.

2. As a go-to DJ for one of the biggest camps at Burning Man, how do you prepare for a week of performances? Is it a similar process to regular gigs in the default world or totally different?
It used to be very different! When I first started with Disorient you couldn’t play House or Techno or Breakbeats at most parties in NYC without putting a lot of pop culture references and remixes into your sets to keep people interested and to stop them from asking you if you had any Hip Hop. So I would always prepare by buying a lot of vinyl pieces that were too dark and driving and nonverbal for my sets in NYC. Additionally I would scamper around the San Francisco Bay Area before going to Reno and make sure to hit up a few of my favorite vinyl shops in search of white labels and other gems that you couldn’t find in New York City stores. Vinyl was certainly harder to beat match, heavier to carry and much more expensive to buy, but there was a lot of fun regionalized culture to it like that.

Now that electronic dance music has a more dedicated audience you can play more of what you want to play in the city and theme camps at the burn have much better organized stage management and set times so that you don’t have to over prepare for that extra few hours you weren’t expecting to spin. Purchasing music online is also much less of an adventure (though possibly a more difficult research problem) as searching out specialty vinyl stores in unfamiliar cities had to be done without the assistance of smart phones. I used to really enjoy getting lost in unfamiliar cities that way. What you play and how you prepare for sets these days depends, for me, basically on what time of day or night I expect to be spinning. I guess that might not be true for every DJ but I took a class on Indian music in college and the notion that time of day affects the mood of the music that it makes sense to play always resonated with me. The Burn has gotten more populous than it was in those days, so maybe it’s not as much of a faux pas to play commercial selections as it once was, but I tend to avoid most of the most obvious choices when possible, because I’ve spun enough commercial music in my day and if there is an art left to DJing anymore a good part of it has to do with finding tunes that connect with the dance floor but that the next DJ either won’t have found, or won’t have figured out how to work into their set.

3. How do you fund your excursion out west? Do you have a day job, or is it just all DJing, all the time?
Well, you won’t be hearing me out there this year! I have a small recording studio that I run in which I mostly record people singing and people rapping either over stock instrumentals that they’ve found, or over accompaniments that they have me make or help them make. I record and produce a couple of bands as well, but we have to rent additional studio space to record acoustic drum tracks, because my studio space isn’t large enough for something that big. Business has been a little slow and I’m wholly focused on trying to keep the lights on at the studio so that I can finally start releasing some of my own productions on my Reality Sync Records label again. Maybe it sounds funny to be prioritizing my own art over getting to Burning Man but Burning Man has never been supportive of music, they don’t give art grants to sound systems so they can act like they aren’t a rave in the desert, one just happens there by accident. Maybe dance isn’t an interactive enough art form for the BMORG or something, but at some point you stop complaining about it and just have to go about doing the things that you want to make happen regardless of whether there’s any support for it.

Things have really changed in the money and preparation side of things in terms of getting to the Burn. These days you have to have the money saved up by January and know you can take the time off at the end of August otherwise it is impossible to coordinate everything. It’s an unbearably adult process, with all the spontaneity of paying your estimated taxes. The first time I went to Burning Man, in 2002, I didn’t know I was going to go until two days before I got on a plane. I had been working a bunch of odd jobs for a couple of guys and one of them just gave me a call and said he thought I was a perfect fit and he’d gotten me a ticket and I had to get on a plane in 48 hours. Doing the exact same thing for someone these days would probably end up costing something like four grand.

4. Since you’ve been spinning at Burning Man for years, how has the soundscape changed over those years?I guess it’s about the sounds that you hear muttering out of the camps you don’t make it to that changes most. There used to be a lot of Psytrance and then there was a lot of Dubstep. I suspect this year there will probably be a lot of that kind of ambient downtempo house music that goes by the improbable title of “Deep Tech House.” Also these days big name DJs are a real presence, I remember in 2004 I saw Sandra Collins play on a tiny sound system and only a handful of people were in attendance or even knew she was going to play. These days a similarly famous DJ would be playing on a massive sound system. I guess that kind of thing is symptomatic of the greater commercialization of Burning Man. Also what happened to her? Did she disappear because she wasn’t young and cute anymore? Until recently no famous DJs were young and cute, which makes sense to me seeing as older people have listened to more music than young people since they have had more time to listen. I guess now that we live in a selfie oriented culture what you look like is more important than what you sound like?

Certainly the music that I will go dance to and that I play has changed a lot too. It’s kind of hard to describe, with the written word and without using a lot of jargon, all of the elements which make that the case. Probably the easiest to describe parameter of house music that has changed is that the tempos that are trendy are slower now than they used to be. In breakbeats or “breaks” the trend has been towards not actually having bass lines, but putting a sustaining 808 kick drum in to fill out the bottom end; it’s very similar to what used to be considered the “Miami Bass” sound (though the English DJ/Production team Stanton Warriors were also instrumental in popularizing that sound). As a side note, now in the world of Hip Hop a very similar kind of sound is being made at a slower tempo that people refer to as “Trap” or the Atlanta sound. It’s not from Atlanta or Miami though, Roland is a Japanese company, so they should probably get the credit. Speaking of Roland, the 303 sound seems to have become a little less prevalent in the kind of dance music people play at Burning Man lately. I guess there’s a lot of ways that electronic music keeps changing and maybe it changes you a little if you are DJing or attempting to curate a set or a night. I handle it in two basic ways 1) I studied music composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music so I tend think about music based on objective characteristics: note sets, rhythmic patterns, motivic elements (if there are any), instrumentation, formal structure.. etc. listening to music in that way keeps me from being blinded by a lot of the superficial “genre” elements that people use to determine which bin in the record store you are supposed to shop from based on the way you dress (or whatever) and 2) when I am shopping for new music or preparing myself to DJ I like to live with the music a little bit in order to see how it makes me feel, what tunes I play for myself because I feel one way or another, to create my own sentimental bonds with the music. That allows me to have elements of my own emotional narrative at my fingertips so I can relate to the dance floor and chose what to play a little more “from the heart” in order to fit the moment better.

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5. Do you see electronic music as crucial to BM, or are you more of a fan of the TAZ that’s been deployed over the years to keep the bass away from heavily populated areas?
Electronic music is crucial to my Burning Man experience, and many people go in order to be able to dance all night in a beautiful place on top of a mountain. There are other reasons for going of course, a lot of people go with a plan to make something or other out there, or they find an art project to join, or create and spearhead a larger art project, but I think most people spend at least some time dancing and listening to music is unavoidable. I doubt it would be anywhere near as popular a party if there wasn’t music at the Burn. But I understand, some people will always complain and other people will bring crazy sound systems anywhere if you don’t try to regulate it in some way. While a few of the really great DJs do go out to play, while a few of the really great Burning Man DJs who’ve bonded together in camps and built their repertoire over the years still play amazing parties at the Burn, and while you might have one of your most uplifting life altering experiences while listening to music at Burning Man, for many camps and especially in terms of the BMORG itself, music is almost always financially ignored and aesthetically an afterthought. Despite all of that ambivalence there will probably always be music at Burning Man because of the best listening experiences that are possible: Great Organs in famous Churches, Great Orchestras at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, etc.. Listening to a premier sound system, high on a desert plain, in a place where there are no walls, is definitely an aesthetic experience just as worthy as any of those.

6. As Burning Man has become more popular, some believe it’s gotten more commodified, while others miss the punk/DIY/”here to shoot guns not do yoga” aesthetic that some have said was more prevalent in its earlier years. How has it changed to you?
I don’t think there should be guns? I have been to camp out parties where there were guns and it’s fun to shoot them I guess, but they don’t make me feel either free or safe. I’m not necessarily in the do yoga camp either, but that probably has more to do with the fact that I’ve never been a successful young professional. I think the main way that the Burn has changed as it gets bigger is that it is generally less dangerous and more friendly, but what is more interesting to me is not how it has changed, but rather how it should change.

There are probably better things to focus on than anarchy or lack thereof when it comes to determining whether Burning Man has become too “sold out”. In my heart I’m a populist and I’m always trying to see how making things less exclusive can be a good thing, but the Burn is on a kind of frivolous path now. I hope Burning Man and its myriad of related events can grow into something that is more than simply this heady kind of psychedelic solipsism or just another Instagram worthy photo op for sexy people in their elaborate bikinis, and maybe become the kind of revolutionary tool for social change that it markets itself as. When I first went to the Burn there were no ten principles so the way it was explained to me was that it was a social experiment where there was no money, you were expected to bring extra things so that you could give to people in need who forgot to bring the things you remembered and vice versa. Pooling our resources and helping one another out, even if we were strangers, was the way thousands of beautiful projects came together. Leave no trace was always a concern, but that is a responsibility that comes with the privilege of spending time in a beautiful place, you need to keep such a place beautiful for the next person who comes along.

Given the event that Burning Man has become, I think a better litmus test of how relevant or revolutionary the social experiment we are conducting is is not simply based around trying to interact without money, but rather the extent to which the social constructions we create are in fact able to redistribute wealth. I think this is necessary both within the context of the burn itself and within the larger burner community. If we want to create meaningful change in the world through the social realities we are creating, leveling the economic playing field is important. This might seem an unlikely political fit for Burning Man, but in larger camps like Disorient these issues come up a lot concerning the roles that people play in the construction of the camp and the ways that the camp is able to reward people who work hard to build the camp and not just the people who only show up to party. I personally think we need to do a lot more in this direction because the unequal distribution of wealth is one of the biggest issues of our current era, second only to man made climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels. I think we can all agree that building a carbon neutral flame thrower would be much harder.

Rather than creating events where we ignore economics, we need to be creating alternative economies, rather than gift economies. I’m not saying that generosity or gifts are counter productive, but the gist of this idea is that the main benefactors of the gift economics of Burning Man are big companies like Wal-Mart & Costco & Home Depot. We hit up all those places in Reno to get staples before we head out to Black Rock City to give them away, but what we never seem to learn is how to build organizations where everyone involved benefits. Sure we feel good about working together with one another towards building a communal project, but eventually a lot of people burn out and have nothing but a few photos to show for what they’ve spent the best years of their lives trying to build. Often times the people who have the most free time to spend on these kinds of organizations and events are artists or other people living on the fringes who don’t know they can’t afford to ignore money. So by ignoring money, or worse refusing to acknowledge that the key role money should play in society is not the accumulation of wealth, but rather facilitating the transfer of the value of work from one application to another, we are refusing to help those who are helping the most. While we should be teaching one another to act differently than the aggressive capitalism we’re surrounded by in order to create more generous kinds of organizations, we often create institutions that can be quite exploitative and dependent on unpaid labor.

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7. Do you think plug & play camps are just the next step in Burning Man’s journey, or a problematic symptom of its success?
It’s funny in a way that the plug and play people who are adopting Burning Man are people who cannot be seriously Decommodified (#3 of the Ten Principles) because they are themselves commodities. P. Diddy is a brand whether he’s Sean Combs or Puff Daddy.

On the one hand there have always been rich people at Burning Man, on the other hand it takes a lot more preparation and money than it ever did before to go to the burn and Burning Man has become popular with Celebrities, so we’re talking about a different echelon of wealth. I’d like to say that the problem itself comes directly from the ten Principles but that isn’t exactly the case, because some of it comes from the way those principles have been implemented. Ultimately I think it goes to show that we were kidding ourselves that the politics of Burning man are revolutionary, at least in their current incarnation. The ten principles do something in trying to point to the direction where some of our problems as a culture come from, but they probably aren’t a revolutionary enough guide to begin to tackle even the microcosm of problems that come from trying to run a Burning Man camp. I guess maybe it’s just a question of intention versus realization?

8. Which events/event staff treat you better, Burner event producers or EDM event liaisons?
I wish I had more experience with EDM event promoters so I could say something more meaningful about them. Promoters in general are supposed to be a bit sleazy, that’s the job. Promoters have to be keeping everyone happy: artists, audience, venue, fire department, bar staff, etc. so it’s no surprise that they make a lot of empty promises and follow through on as few of the ones that cut into their ability to personally survive as possible. Without promoters, lots and lots of amazing experiences would be impossible, so you have to love them, because they put their nerves on the line every time. EDM event liaisons, as you call them, certainly do treat some people right as Avicci recently retired from performing live with his net worth speculated to be about $75 Million. I could probably happily live the rest of my life for like 1.5 percent of that.

Some Burner events pay, none of them used to pay, and some of them started paying and then stopped paying. Sometimes Burner groups use the ten principles, or more vaguely the “ethos” of Burning Man to justify the ends that they would prefer. One problem that comes up is that Camps tend to conflate “Communal Effort,” “Civic Responsibility” and “Participation” together to mean that every job must be an unpaid volunteer job (even off playa). The problem with this interpretation, from a DJ or Musician’s point of view, is that while it costs money and lots of time to prepare music, Burning Man does not offer artist grants to any musicians, DJ or otherwise. The BMORG occasionally funds sound-art projects, but if neither Burning Man nor theme camps are willing to give art grants for music, then musicians have to fend for themselves in a world that is already increasingly difficult for musicians. Some California based camps may do things differently, but this has been my experience with NYC based theme camps. Many people go to the burn to dance or at least feel that dancing is an excellent part of the experience. I guess it doesn’t matter to DJs like Carl Cox who can afford to play for free because they believe it to be the greatest party in the world, but it matters to those of us who were there before he was and who aren’t independently wealthy (though I admit I’ve played a couple of his records on playa). I’ve never been able to save any money because any extra money I’ve ever earned I spent buying records, producing music or trying to get my “Reality Sync Records” label off the ground.

9. Got any favorite regional burns, or do you just save yourself for the big kahuna?

I love going to Disorient’s Country Club, which is intimate and excellent, but it isn’t an official regional burn and probably better off for not being affiliated with the BMORG. My favorite official regional burn is Transformus, though I haven’t been back in a while, but the natural environment of the mountains in North Carolina is one of the most hospitable places I’ve ever been to camp and reset your mind. The camping spots are probably not as good as they once were as attendance at every event has grown, but I remember I got to fall asleep and wake up next to a bubbling brook and that’s almost an idyllic cliché of what relaxing is supposed to be.

10. What’s one thing you wish Burners would understand about what it’s like to produce live sets & sonic experiences for playagoers?
To say we are living in strange times is a cliché, so let’s say we are living in strangely unforgiving times; there’s even more cheap façade than there was in the designer eighties and underneath each sparkly veneer there is an ever deeper chasm of hopelessness. It’s almost a simultaneous boom and bust as millennials spend the boomers money on objects of distraction, and as Gen X ages the responsibility of steering the ship of state gradually becomes theirs while the precarious position civilization is in has begun to dawn on all of us. We are living through a Renaissance of information, we have libraries of books at our fingertips alongside a recording of nearly every song ever written, the most extensive encyclopedia in human history, a map of everywhere with a teardrop that says “you are here,” and enough television and movies to fill a lifetime or three. We want all of human knowledge for free or for ten dollars a month or at least that’s how it feels. We’ve been living with youth culture for so long that we now all somehow believe that as soon as we reach adulthood we become irrelevant, with each decade dismissing the other as either old and out of touch or dangerously devoted to the idea that youth and beauty is the only meaningful part of life. The idea that you can define and possibly even find yourself by mixing and matching the mismatched products for sale at a cornucopia of retail outlets has dominated our minds to such an extent that our sense of the importance of our individuality rather than our unity has become so strong that we spend all our time taking pictures of ourselves at the kind of parties which once were so overflowing with familial empathy that at one legendary rave in California the whole audience reported having experienced a communal hallucination.

DJing is simultaneously this kind of consumerist perversion of the politics of identity, such that in order to be yourself you have to buy a bunch of mismatched records and mix them together into a unified narrative, and this communal loss of self that comes from the bringing of records together to form a unified vibe that helps the dance floor to experience the euphoria of people coming together in Peace, Love, Unity and Respect. With the selfie-stick culture of social media taking over and the concurrent popularity of EDM (an overly commercialized adaptation of House, Techno and Drum & Bass) much of the uplifting, unifying & empathy inducing power of the events, the music and the DJs who were able to channel where dance floors needed the music to go, has been perverted into just another shallow reflection of our “Look at Me” culture. It’s become hard to differentiate between poseur DJs and people who have their hearts in the right place, as a lot of the dedication hurdles of DJing have been removed by computers carrying technology that “listens” for DJs who don’t have enough experience to have developed a musical ear of their own. That’s not to say you can’t be a poseur with an ear or a tone-deaf empath with heart, and sometimes only the eroding river of time can expose whether any given DJ is in it for selfish or selfless reasons.

I guess if there’s anything I wish Burners would know it’s that they need to dig deeper. I know that between the sheer natural beauty of the venue and the slight altitude sickness of being on top of the Rocky Mountains and whatever drugs you might indulge in (as if the experience needed to be any higher) you might have had some of the most amazing musical experiences of your life at Burning Man, but you need to take that as an inspiration to find and create the next level. This is the epoch of information but the extent to which people settle for mediocrity despite having the greatest research tools ever invented at their fingertips is shameful. The whole point of experiencing something great is to inspire you to make something better. Too many times we emulate things by making cheap knock offs, we jump on a bandwagon, try to follow the template and are content to fall short rather than aspiring to improve ourselves and our community by having ideals to fall short from that are higher than the source of our inspiration. No cultural phenomenon can remain relevant forever so we must constantly be striving to build the next thing and to learn to live and create together in ever more consonant harmony.

Bonus: Favorite track/mix of 2016 so far? 
I love Stephan Bodzin”s new album, though most of it is a little too mellow for my dance floor. I try not to confine myself to researching only new releases as much as I did when I first started DJing, sometimes it’s refreshing to listen to many different vintages both in terms of finding production inspirations and when it comes to thinking about how to make certain kinds of moments happen within a DJ set.

3 comments on “Why We Burn: Orion Keyser

  1. Pingback: Electronic Drum Set Cheap | Purathrive

  2. “I really need to interview DJs I’ve booked more often.”

    Or how about someone else besides DJs? Ha. I’m guessing you’re pulling from the people you know for this series, and I can’t fault you for that, and it’s not like I’m contributing anything here. But, most of the people featured are from the same scene. It’s cool and all, just somewhat repetitive.

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