Sian, The Autodidact

What makes Graham Goodwin so dynamic?

It’s his perceptiveness. He took an unrelenting willingness to learn and spent fifteen years honing a vision that does not compromise on integrity. Graham knows what’s real. Raised in Dublin, molded in Berlin and Barcelona, and now based in Los Angeles, Graham has a track record that would explain his musical versatility. His body of work spans a vast spectrum—his productions from 2002 would make you think of a different artist entirely—that puts his evolution into perspective. Now known by many as Sian, Graham has lead his label, Octopus Recordings, through its 100th release and ascension to one of the most respected collectives in techno.

Taking a glimpse into Graham’s mind as we sat down at The BPM Festival was one of the most candid and insightful experiences we’ve ever shared. Our discussion spanned a range of topics, from the site specificity of techno to the largely unspoken detriments of life as a touring artist. Graham shed light on his inception as a producer and evolution as a DJ, reminding us of the importance of one’s willingness to learn and setting aside ego for the pursuit of something higher. The following is best described as three dimensional insight. Graham didn’t hold back.



When did you realize you wanted to make your life about music?

I remember the first time I tried to get a normal job. That week I realized how scary a prospect it was. I started out studying marine biology. The first month of college I got signed to a record label. I was thinking, “this could be my career path, or this could be my hobby, or I could slip it and try to give this a go. And make biology a hobby.” I had studied art for a while before that. I skipped a few years of school when I came back from Spain. Came back, did a year of art, then studied biology. But in the background I was always collecting old synths.

Do you have any music theory background?

No, not really. I played a little bit of guitar, a little bit of bass, keyboards, but not any theory. In fact, I kind of started to learn that, but then I quickly got to the point where I thought, “I don’t want to be in that restraint.”

I started out assisting on studio sessions—you know—the usual, rolling joints, bringing drinks. During the night, when the bands and the producer left, myself and my friend would use the studio. This was in Temple Bar in Dublin. The sound training center. Sun Studios. There’s a legendary room in the basement there. A lot of bands disregarded it because it looks rough. Like most of the best studios, it looks like someone’s bedroom.

I was staying up during the night working through the night on my own music. I literally went to the studio and said I want to help. They were like yeah, whatever, join the queue. But I insisted, “no, really, I’ll do anything. I’ll literally stay here all day and work.” It wasn’t so much about my skills. It was about learning skills from them. So it wasn’t a case of me going in there and saying I can do everything. The most important thing was the attitude. So they told me to make tea and roll joints while I watched over their shoulders.

What DAW did you start with?

I originally started on Cubase. But I quickly shifted over to NPC. I used it for years. I made two albums on an NPC with no computer. So it was straight hardware. I released my first album just after LTJ disbanded Good Looking Records. He made an electronic label and I did an album with him. It was dubby electronic stuff. Around 2004. Then I went off and worked in pop music for ten years. Making beats and synthesizing loops for pop artists.

I lived in Spain for a while, then I would go back to Dublin. I lived in Berlin for a while. I was kind of moving every year. But there was a period of four years where I stayed in Dublin and focused on all that stuff.

Who were your biggest inspirations when you started making music?

I would say Andy Weatherall. He broke all the rules. He was a guy from our electronic scene who was producing rock, country, cinematic stuff. Jeff Mills, obviously, was just relentless with hardware. And then I would say Ryuichi Sakomoto, who was bringing really melodic elements into experimental music.

Who are your biggest inspirations now?

Noah 40, who produces all the Drake stuff. He’s a huge inspiration. I have one foot in pop and hip-hop and one in techno, so a lot of my inspirations are people like that. Chemical Brothers were a similar way. I would also say people like Metro Boomin. There are a lot of young guys, too. I really love Heroes and Villains. The guys treading the line between… I mean trap’s a four letter word, the hard production and 808 stuff, like trap meets techno. It’s kind of where my next album is heading.

What is the greatest set you’ve ever played?

Sometimes the ones where I’m so concentrated I can’t focus on enjoying them people will say that’s the best set. I was doing a lot—a lot of tracks and loops. But one I really loved was playing in the desert outside Johannesburg. It was just like the outback. It felt like a really renegade festival. Kind of like what Burning Man wants to be. Burning Man without the furry boots.

When I was really young—I started going out when I was thirteen—there was this big free rave culture then. So I’d go to these parties in the woods. Completely free, no money changed hands. Everyone was really community-minded. I always laugh when people in LA say to me, “hey, you gotta come to Burning Man.” It’s not the spirit of what the free rave culture should be. And where does that entrance fee really go when the artists haven’t been paid?

The organizers were asked why there was so little racial diversity. They said black people don’t like camping because it reminds them of their history. It’s like wow. But I digress.

Would you consider yourself a certain percent DJ or producer?

Strangely, I never set out to be a DJ. I just really loved collecting records. People noticed I had loads of cool stuff and told me I should play it out. My music took me there. My singles, especially those first few singles, got me those bookings. I’m 39 now. I’ve been doing this as Sian for seven years.

Nowadays DJs are content generators and traveling salesmen. Hopefully [how difficult it is to make money from producing music] will change with streaming. Running a label you can kind of cover your costs and make a little bit every now and then if you have a solid flow of hits, but the days of the studio band are unfortunately gone. Which I really miss… the kind of people that don’t really want to go out.

Bands tour once a year. They do a Europe tour or a US tour. DJs tour every week. It’s not really talked about. I’ve spoken to a friend of mine who’s been touring for thirty years and he said no one talks about the fact that it’s kind of bad for you. How do you get to the point where you ask what’s good for your health and what’s good for your business?

Also just going up and down in an airplane. The compression of your intestines is really bad for you. We’ve never seen musicians do that before. You’re always being passed around to parties. You come, the promoter’s like, “let’s go,” boom boom boom, then you’re on to the next party. These people might do this big party once a month. You’re being passed along.

Some of my friends have continued to party, but after the first few years I realized I had to choose. Either I stop doing this, or I get to the point where I can do it while staying out of the other stuff. It’s hard. You get there and realize that everyone’s having a good time and they’re throwing these cool parties. All these hot girls. But I’m going to the airport.

Berlin has that stamina, though. Barcelona, where I lived for a long time, in my opinion is the worst party city in the world. It’s stamina mixed with excess. No one has a job. Everyone’s just cruising through life. Berlin is stamina, but there’s not as much access to drugs like there is in Barcelona. Berliners pace themselves.

Now I’ve really chilled out. Once or twice a year I’ll have a bit of a rave with my friends. We had our Octopus party at Exchange in LA and afterwards I realized I deserved a bit of a party. We went a bit nuts, but nothing crazy—we were all in bed by 6am. We’re getting better and better. Scary, because it was a huge venue, but we’ve hipped it three times in a row now. And just like me and Pleasurekraft. Not these huge lineups. Just me and him holding it down. Last year was insane.

What do you think of the Afterlife crew?

A lot of that music, in my opinion, is site-specific. For example, techno, as I see it, is not for a car or someone’s bedroom. It’s for 4am in a dark club with a strobe going. But I feel like this man trance trend isn’t really suitable for big venues. “Man trance” being the jokey name people use to describe acts like Dixon and Tale of Us. Kind of poking fun at it being overemotional.

But what I like about the Afterlife music is that it’s stripped down and slow, but it’s got this cinematic vibe to it. Those things used to be minimal, like Minus. But there’s this danger in becoming a trend. Even Adam from Drumcode will say Drumcode is having a little moment. It’s not like a party party; it’s a bunch of hangers on that are like, “oh, I’m into this now.”

I would always try to just say we do techno, we keep our heads down, try to do something cool, and not be that trend that pops up for a while but then it’s not cool. You need to be careful of that.

Do you have any rituals in the studio?

Not at all. I never try and plan it. My usual starting point is one atmospheric sound. The rest comes off of that. Which is unusual. I used to use a huge studio full of old synths and big desks; nowadays I’m all in the box and Universal Audio. And Push, obviously.

You put the Diva against any hardware synth and I guarantee you that any human ear will go for the Diva. Anyone with a tuned ear, or even anyone on the dance floor… the richness of the basslines out of that thing…

I use Diva a lot. I use a lot of the Universal Audio stuff just for utility. I’ll use the Ableton plugins as much, just because they have a built in spectral analyzer. Ableton, in my mind, are some of the most functional and modular things to work with in software. Everything feeds into the other. You can set up these great chains.

What would you do if you were an up and coming artist now?

It’s totally different now. The route that I took is almost impossible nowadays. No one is going to stay to you, “hey, come into the studio and do your own shit at night time.” Everyone’s on their own. I just think there are too many people doing the same thing. I would say one of the reasons I got signed early is because I was outside of what other people were doing. There wasn’t a music scene in Dublin at all. There were guys making techno, kind of in the background, there was hip-hop, but I wasn’t hanging out with them. The stuff I was making was like… why not send an ambient track to this label that usually does techno? And they were like, “oh yeah, this is interesting.”

Nowadays… I mean, I won’t name who it was, but blatantly outright an EDM producer outlined the steps that he took to get well known. He basically said he took out three credit cards and put all that money into boosting his socials so a big label would listen to his stuff. A lot of these guys take out loans, whack their socials up with fake followers, and then they’ll… nowadays an EDM or commercial label asks to see the social stats before they listen to the music. So that kind of shows you they don’t have an ear themselves; they’re not on the lookout for new music. It’s almost backwards. What they’re looking for, essentially, is are the kids already liking this? That’s commercial music.

Many thanks to Graham, So Dark Its Light, and The BPM Festival for making this discussion possible.

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