Midwestern rave icon, Lisa Smith – formerly DJ Shiva and now renamed Noncompliant – chats with Leo Maymind about workflows, crossing the DJ-producer divide, and not looking a giftMachinedrum in the mouth
Lisa Smith is a charismatic individual, both behind and in front of the decks. Part of that appeal comes from her deft mixing and deep knowledge of underground ’90s techno, much of which was on display at her recent b2b with Courtesy in Paris for Red Bull Music Academy, as well as on mixes for Resident Advisor, Discwoman and Slam Radio. But another part of that charisma comes from her outspoken nature on all things related to music and life in the US, including her pure and contagious joy for the art and magic of DJing. Starting out as DJ Shiva in the Midwest rave scene in the late ’90s and eventually taking on the nom-de-plume Noncompliant, Smith’s path has seemed to collide with everyone who has ever dragged a 1200 out into a field under a Midwestern moon.
While Smith’s skills as a DJ are now taking her away from her home base of Indianapolis on a regular basis, she’s also a dedicated studio head, with a small arsenal of drum machines and analogue synthesisers that she regularly puts through their paces, as can be seen on the many live jams catalogued on her Instagram page. Like a slew of producers that came of age after the golden era of Roland drum machines, Smith first tried her hand at production on a friend’s copy of Rebirth, and eventually Reason, stealing time when she could at her graphic design job.
Seven years later, Smith has built up an impressive discography with releases on Argot, Dark Entries, Detroit Underground, Flash Recordings and Valence that all demonstrate Smith’s impressive knack with hardware. Her taut, clear production style is countered by a playful approach to sound design that hints at a multilayered musical past. Informed by watching what did and didn’t work over two decades of throwing down ‘booty-shaking’ rave hits, a Noncompliant track manages to always move forward kinetically, even while pushing elements on the sonic fringes to headier territories. Future Music went deep with the Indianapolis native on what she does to get inspired in the studio, her favourite live acts, and how a group of friends and family came together to gift her a piece of kit that’s become a studio staple. You started out as a DJ and then started producing, right? “Yep.” How long have you been producing? “I think since about 2004, with some gaps in there when I just stopped for a while. My first record release was in 2005. I got fired from my job and vowed to learn how to produce and have a record out in six months. And I did.” What was your relationship to producing like before then? Was it something you had always wanted to get into or was it not on your mind at all when you started DJing? “Well actually I did start out playing instruments. I played violin first. Then guitar and bass guitar. A little bit of drums. I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. I played in string quartets and punk rock bands in Evansville, Indiana. Started DJing in ’95. Moved to Indy in ’96, and when I say ‘started DJing’, I mean I finally got turntables. I was playing just random rave CDs in punk clubs before that.” Were there any live acts at all? “There probably were, but I didn’t see many back then. There were definitely people playing live. Ron S, Shawn Rudiman, Paul Birken. It just wasn’t a big thing at the time. At least not in Indy. I mean, we are so close to Chicago and Detroit that we were seeing the best of the best DJs all the time. And I was pretty damn poor at the time too, so buying music gear was not really on my radar. Especially since anything that ate into my record buying habit was a no-go.” So, your first record, your first productions – what were you using when you started out? “When Rebirth came out I spent a lot of time at my graphic design job playing with it. That’s really the origins of me trying to make techno. So then my buddy Adam Jay and I started messing with Fruity Loops. Just casually at his house, since I still didn’t own a computer. I didn’t have a computer until 2002, and it was a hand-me-down from him.
“And I started learning Reason on that. I got to play with drum machines here and there. My friend Devin (Craco Saca) from Louisville let me mess with the 909 and a sequencer. And I was really resistant to production for a long time, too. There was a lot of outside pressure to produce music ‘in order to get DJ gigs’ and I thought that was a stupid reason to make music, so I wouldn’t do it.” When you were messing with Reason and Rebirth, how familiar were you with the instruments and drum machines those programs were emulating? The 909, 303, etc. “I mean, yeah, I knew about the classic Roland machines. I didn’t know much. I just knew those were key elements. I only recently realised how key the SH-101 was to techno. Because I played with the That seems to be a common thread among people we’ve talked to – the idea that DJing starts when you get turntables, not that it starts when you start playing music for people, regardless of format or where it’s happening. “Yep. Well, for years I wanted to get turntables and buy records, but I knew. I knew I would be addicted and it would never stop. I was correct.” So when you were DJing in those early days, did you have any idea that you wanted to get more involved in production later down the road? Was that in the back of your mind? “No, I was really dedicated to DJing. It was when the Midwest rave scene was really at a high point and DJs were really the focus there.”
SH-01A and I heard all the sounds and weird legato bends that you could hear in so much Detroit and Kalamazoo techno.” So this is a good bridge to drum machines in general, as you have quite a few in your studio now: the Digitakt, the Machinedrum, the Analog Rytm, and the DFAM, right? “Yep. And that’s all because of Adam as well. Without me knowing, he set up a crowdfunding page and a bunch of my friends and family bought me a Machinedrum for my birthday. I thought I was coming over to his house for cake. I did get cake. I also got a Machinedrum! I studied that manual like I was studying for a physics exam. Because, when 36 of your friends and family buy you a drum machine, you should probably learn it and make music with it, right?” How was it, suddenly having the Machinedrum? “It was hard to grok in some ways. I had been making music with Ableton for a while before that. So I understood basic 16-step sequencing and all that. But then suddenly I needed a soundcard. So I had to figure that out. And then once I started to figure it out, you need a monosynth to play along, right? And this is all sounding familiar because this is always how it goes. So after I got the Machinedrum, I got a MicroBrute. And I started to understand synthesis much more. I could always bumble into cool noises. But understanding how to do it made things much more immediate.” Did you like the MicroBrute? “I did! It was really fun, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t save patches. The good thing was that I would just jam live and record whole five-minute jams. But then I would kind of get stuck and that’s all I had. Then came the Novation Bass Station 2.” So you had the MD and the BSII. Were you doing a lot of jams with just those two? “Yeah, the AirlessSpaces EP is mostly those. I just synced them up with MIDI. And sometimes I did some simple sequences with the Machinedrum MIDI machines. The BSII is a great synth. Adam always reminds me that when I’m stuck, go back and make some sequences and just jam with envelopes and knobs with that one, and something cool will come of it. I really love envelopes with sliders. It’s really nice to have that visual representation to work with.” Did you find yourself making different music when you got more hardware? “I feel like there is more of an element of play to it for me. I still do a lot of arrangement in Ableton. But I can find the bare bones of a tune by playing and recording it all. It’s more immediate when I can sit down and rattle off a beat quickly and then just pick a synth and play with sounds. It feels more exploratory and less like I am just making a spreadsheet. And it also imposes some form of limitation. Even though these instruments can do a lot, there are, with each one, certain limitations. I’m not scrolling through endless lists of samples. Or presets. I just sit down and make noise and sometimes that’s all it is, which is fun and educational on its own. But sometimes out of inchoate noise something happens and begins to take shape. And you find its shape and then you add something else around it. And it’s just… fun.” Are you always recording in the studio or sometimes just making noise and not worrying about capturing it? “Both. I do a lot of just making noise. But once I feel something has a form to it, I will record. Though, I’m kind of reassessing my workflow lately. I want to do more bare bones arrangement on the machines.” Where do you find yourself starting when you are getting into the groove with the machines? “I’ve been terrible about working lately because I’ve been pretty smashed for time. But I try to do at least three sessions a week if I can. Just go sit in the studio. Even if all I do is rewire shit, or learn a new thing, that’s progress. My studio is in my house, so that makes it easy. I might be thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder what it’d sound like if I sequence the SH-01A with the Digitakt sequencer’. Maybe it’s interesting. Maybe it isn’t. So what happens if I add a trigger from the Machinedrum? A lot of this is
“Using hardware feels more exploratory… less like just making a spreadsheet”
experimental. Sometimes it’s less so. Sometimes I am like ‘I want to make a really brutal beat and run it through this thick-ass tube plugin.’ I start with whatever I want to play with that day. If I want insta-techno, I start with the DFAM.” Do you ever find yourself on the dancefloor thinking about the production of a track you’re listening to? “I don’t get too thinky about it, really. I might wonder, ‘Oooh, how did they make that sound?’ and try and figure it out later. Or if I am struggling with basslines, I might pay more attention to basslines and how they work in a tune. Or hi-hats. I’ll listen to hi-hat patterns and variations just out of curiosity and thinking about how to make variations of my own. So, maybe I do get thinky about it? ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’.” Do you ever think about how ‘functional’ a track is when you are in the studio? “I mean, as a DJ, I kind of do. I don’t have a problem with functional music. I like tracky tracks that are just meant to be layered.” Your decades of DJing mean you’ve seen a lot of producers come and go. What do you think a producer needs to do to stand out today? “Not try to sound like everyone else. There’s a lot of samey stuff these days. I sift through tons of music.” Do you think it’s because more people are doing it these days? “I mean, the technology has become much more accessible. Just lots of people making this kind of music for reasons of getting gigs, as you said before. So you take the good with the bad. Yay! More people can make music. Boo! More people make the same kind of music everyone else does. I have often questioned myself. Like, am I just putting more crap out into the world for other people to sift through? I made an entire EP based on that called Consumer Product EP, which includes a song called Insipid
MarketFodder. I was like, ‘Am I just adding to the noise?’ Yes, the answer is yes. But… here we are. I still want to make music.” What are your thoughts on collaboration? And, have you ever thought about putting together a live set? “Yeah, Adam and I have collaborated a lot. We did a couple EPs together a few years ago. He’s still my go-to listener when I am stuck or just not feeling a tune. He can always suss out what’s not working. I love collabs. I am working on some stuff with a few people now. As far as a live set, I would be bored to death listening to an entire set of my own music. When it comes to playing out, my skills are as a DJ. I am OK with that. Plus, honestly, I don’t want to drag all my gear out and travel with it. That sounds annoying and potentially expensive. I admire people who do. Especially people like Shawn Rudiman who is so improv with what he does. Or KiNK, who looks like he is having the time of his life.
“But no, to hear me play techno is to hear me play techno in the context of the whole genre, not just my little sound in it. I love techno so much, I want to play it all.” What would you say to your younger self? “Don’t worry so much about the sound engineering. Pay someone else to do that. I quit for years because I was spending 50% of my time being creative and 50% trying to make everything sound perfect. And I got frustrated because I just didn’t want to be a sound engineer. I mean, I learned a lot. But it stopped me for years. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to sound perfect. Just write good music. Let someone who is really good at engineering help you. Women are cautious about that because so many times their work is then credited to any dude whose name is connected to the music. But I would rather take that chance than quit making music out of frustration. You don’t have to be perfect. Just be you. Make what you like. Enjoy it as much as you can.”
“I’ve no problem with functional music. I like tracky tracks that are meant to be layered”