music journalist since 1992 | educator since 2004 | podcaster since 2020 | Iranian American since birth
Before there was EDM and its multiplying sub-genres, there was techno. And at its forefront, is Joel Mull. Fueled by a passion that has become increasingly more defined and tangible over two decades, the Swedish DJ/producer has been an avid pursuer of the sound from when he was a teenager. In the process, he has become established in techno’s vanguard.
Mull’s introduction to techno came when, as a 16-year-old, he made the pilgrimage to Manchester, UK’s storied Hacienda nightclub, propelled by his interested in that city’s early ‘90s indie dance scene. He was refused entry to the club for being underage and ended up in a basement with garbage bag-covered walls, lit by a stroboscope, filled with smoke, and techno blasting. This was Mull’s first encounter with the sound. “I had heard acid house, Balearic stuff, but I had a mental thing with techno,” he says. “The disharmony, the weird sounds, it was so intense. I got really hooked.”
Upon his return to his hometown of Stockholm, Mull’s pursuit of techno led him to dance record shops, techno parties, and the rave scene, where he immersed himself in the sound. At the same time, he started at an arts high school as a continuation of his musical upbringing: singing in a boy’s choir from when he was seven years of age where he practiced eight hours a day and performed every weekend. This was another factor that drew Mull to techno.
“I was very tired of the square way of seeing music and its rules,” he says. “What techno did was break rules. You didn’t have to be a musician in order to create techno. It was another way of making music: sampling, filtering, effects, generating different colors. It made me explore music more, gave me courage to search for different methods to combine music. It was, in a certain way, chaos, and that was attractive to me.”
Befriending likeminded peers, Mull’s brotherly association with another techno stalwart, Adam Beyer, began in high school. Spending every day listening to Beyer’s record collection, it was from him that Mull learned how to DJ. His first public performance as a DJ was during the afternoon break at school using the school’s sound system and his own turntables to entertain his classmates. From here, Mull moved to the second rooms at parties, DJing ambient and chill-out sounds, a good training ground for him when he was still learning how to beat-match.
Mull’s real education as a DJ came when he moved to Germany in 1994. For the first six month he was resident at club called Labor, in the north then becoming the resident at Unit in Hamburg from 1995 to 1998. Here, he played marathon sets lasting 10 hours. He was also the opening and closing DJ for marquee international guest DJs at the club. Playing the gamut from hard techno to acid, trance, and ambient styles, Mull learned the art of being a DJ. His crafted sets were, and are, mesmerizing; taking their time to grow, reaching a delayed crescendo that is much more powerful than the instant builds and drops of today’s predictable EDM. These skills are ones that he continues to put into practice at the present time in his globe-spanning DJing calendar that in a single month could have him appearing in North America, Japan, The Netherlands, and Poland—and that’s on a slow month.
“The way I see DJing is telling a story,” says Mull—who despite the multitude of stamps in his passport makes a point of playing in his hometown at least six times a year to stay connected to the scene from which he came. “Your identity as a DJ is your way of telling the story. You have so much power behind the mixer, controlling these frequencies, you can make people forget everything and just be there in the moment. It’s not about bringing the noise and hands in the air, that instant reaction. For me, it’s about taking your time to build something, taking the crowd—and yourself—to a different place. Techno is about that hypnotizing, long-spanning journey. It’s where I come from; it’s what I strive toward.”
Mull’s production know-how started and moves at the same pace as his DJing. His initial forays into making techno happened in Beyer’s fateful bedroom where the two of them and their friends pooled their resources to obtain classic pieces of outboard gear: a synthesizer and a sampler, which they plugged into Beyer’s mixer and started experimenting. Their trial-and-error efforts gained them enough recognition to start releasing music on a multitude of labels.
Mull released his first full-length artist album, Imagination in 2000 on his own label, the defunct Inside. A representation of himself at the time, Imagination is a personal piece of work whose creation played double duty for Mull by serving as therapy of sorts. He followed Imagination with The Observer in 2007. The Observer was released on the re-launched Harthouse label, which once belonged to techno godfather Sven Vath, a major influence on Mull. The Observer was developed as a live project and put together like a DJ set with gradual builds and movements similar to what Mull would perform at a club. His next album, Sensory in 2011, was released on Beyer’s Truesoul label. This musical home gave Mull the comfort and confidence to really be himself, designing an album geared toward the dancefloor.
Mull regularly releases new tracks on a variety of labels most recently, Nicole Moudaber’s respected MOOD imprint and Sasha’s standard-bearing Last Night On Earth—a particular badge of honor for Mull who considers Sasha a major inspiration. He continues to be part of Beyer’s Drumcode family and has tracks in the works for Victor Calderone’s Matter label. Much like his DJ sets, Mull’s original productions are slow to build with intricate harmonies and engaging rhythms that are about subtlety far more than noise generation. In addition, he has a steady slew of remixes including for such notables as Carl Cox and Mauro Picotto. More recently, under his darker techno guise Gotzkowsky, Mull has had remixes on the Berlin-based label, Dystopian.
A natural extension of his DJing, production, and remix activities, Mull set up the unifying entity, Parabel Music, as a platform for new artists. For the last two years, through its booking agency, record label, and club nights arms, Parabel has cultivated fresh talent in 360 fashion with an eye on maintaining the authenticity and quality of the genre.
“Techno is not as rebellious as when it started,” observes Mull. “People used to not understand music being made with computers and synthesizers and not ‘real’ instruments. They didn’t consider it music. The kids that went to techno clubs only drank water and danced their asses off. The clubs couldn’t make money off of them.
He continues, “But techno was always the music of tomorrow. I knew that way back then. The formula of techno is so basic everyone catches it. At a time when you’re getting bombarded with media and different frequencies, techno streamlines everything, gathering people into one frequency that feels harmonic and united, a feeling of being together.”