ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 15 000
Like a lot of good techno clubs, Itaewon’s Volnost is a little hard to find. It’s located just a few doors down from Cakeshop, in the basement of a Vietnamese restaurant, but looking from the outside you wouldn’t know it; the only indication that there’s a club there is a small, discrete sign on the door informing patrons that illegal drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and asking them not to take flash photography. Go through this door and down the staircase behind it, however, and you find yourself in a low, square, brick-wallled room, with a bar at one end and a DJ booth at the other; a functional, utilitarian dance space that matches perfectly the aesthetic of the music played there. It’s in this shadowy dungeon that I found myself on Friday night, sipping on my complimentary rum and coke (like many clubs in Seoul, paying entrance at Volnost entitles you to one free drink) and looking forward to hearing the evening’s headliner: the Madonna of minimal techno in Japan, Hito.
Hito’s been in the game for a long time. After being exposed to techno upon moving to Berlin in 1999, she began DJing and swiftly gained attention for her energetic, vinyl-only sets. Hito’s rise to techno stardom began when she connected with minimal techno superstar Richie Hawtin, who brought her onboard as part of the team for his legendary ENTER. summer residency at Space in Ibiza. Since then, Hito has been living the nomadic existence of a touring DJ, playing at clubs and festivals around the world. Unusually for DJs of her stature, Hito has never really made the jump from DJing to producing, and she has maintained a slightly old-fashioned approached to DJing; unlike her mentor Hawtin, who has eagerly embraced the possibilities afforded by digital DJing, Hito has decided to keep things old-school and continues to play strictly vinyl sets. There were a lot of good parties on in Seoul this last Friday – Jimmy Edgar was playing a set at Cakeshop, while Faust hosted a gig by Chris Liebing – but I was intrigued by Hito after hearing her play a warm-up set early Friday evening for Seoul Community Radio, so at the last minute I decided to get myself down to Volnost and see her for myself.
Before her set at Volnost on Friday, Hito played an excellent warm-up set for Seoul Community Radio.
Being an opening DJ is a thankless job; most people only want to hit the club a little later into the night, and so in most places openers are usually stuck playing to a small scattering of friends who’ve shown up to support them. Friday night was no exception to this rule; opener Comarobot – who, with his patrol cap and beard, put me in mind of a young, Korean Fidel Castro – only had about ten people dancing to his set, which is a pity because he played a very high-quality selection of contemporary dark techno, though it was marred a little by a few mixing slip-ups here and there. By the time following act DJ SIN took over, however, the club had begun to full up considerably, and it didn’t take long for the small, square basement space to begin to feel a tad crowded. DJ SIN has apparently been an important figure in the Seoul underground dance scene for some time; she was formerly a resident DJ and musical director of Itaewon’s legendary club Mystik, which sadly closed its doors last year, and was also (together with vurt. resident Suna and Mario, a DJ who has since left Seoul) one of the members of Triple House, the first all-female DJ crew in the city. Listening to her play, it was easy to see how she’s managed to garner such a good reputation. Her set was masterfully executed, a totally seamless flow of sound that seemed to bridge the gap between the current trend towards hard-edged European basement techno and a more classic mid-00s “minimal” sound. Particularly towards the end of her set the cosmic overtones and dreamlike loops of the bleep techno she was laying down reminded me of the future-shamanism of artists like Sleeparchive. I was actually pretty disappointed when it was time for her to step down from the decks and let Hito take over – which to me is always the mark of a really strong supporting act.
Hito and Comarobot relaxing in the Seoul Community Radio studio before the gig. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio.
Like certain parts of DJ SIN’s set, Hito’s set was a bit of a throwback. Playing only vinyl, Hito favoured the crisp, punchy drums, clear sine bass tones and washes of white noise that characterized the minimal techno boom of the 2000s – unsurprising, given Hito’s connections with Hawtin, arguably the definitive figure within that particular scene. The overall sound of the set was more Ibiza than it was Berlin; she was a lot less self-consciously dark and serious than most of the other techno DJs I’ve heard over the last year or so, and wasn’t afraid to throw in more than a fair share of catchy melodies and infectious vocal hooks. The term “tech house” has acquired a bit of a pejorative connotation in techno snob circles, but this was tech house done right, full of soul and swing, unabashed party music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some serious, cerebral basement techno, but hearing something so different and yet the same time so similar was like a breath of fresh air, and paradoxically enough, even though this style of techno is perhaps a bit more of a “dated”, to me it sounded really exciting, fresh and new. Hito’s tunes were a good reminder of how, even though from the outside it seems like a very constricted and unvaried genre, techno is actually an incredibly diverse sound, one that comes in many different forms and flavours. The last time I heard this kind of techno was a few years ago, at one of the dance camps at AfrikaBurn (South Africa’s regional Burning Man event), and if I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was dancing in the desert under the stars, rather than in a basement in Itaewon. In fact, overall I got a very “festival” vibe from Hito’s set – her track selection and mixing were very evocative of an outdoor party feeling, music for open fields and marquees, beaches and forests.
This festival atmosphere was further reinforced by the crowd. Everyone on the heaving dancefloor seemed to be having a whale of a time; every time I looked around I saw people smiling, people cheering, people hugging and embracing (not to mention people making out; it felt like a LOT of people got lucky in Volnost that night!). Special mention needs to be made of one individual, an absurdly tall moustachio’d man in a red tophat and kimono shirt wrapped in fairy lights, waving a plastic baby doll around, who seemed like a small festival all by himself. That kind of whimsical approach to partying – costumes, props, a flair for the theatrical and the carnivalesque – is a big part of the underground dance scene back home in South Africa, and it’s something I don’t see a lot here in Korea, more’s the pity. It was good to see a little glimmer of the same attitude in Volnost that night.
The crowd at Volnost. Picture courtesy of Richard Price, Seoul Community Radio.
By the time Hito finally spun her last track and Xanexx took over, the audience was, in a word, lit. Their ranks were a little thinner – several large groups departed en masse shortly before the end of Hito’s set – but those who were left behind seemed well and truly ready to party, with seemingly no interest in stopping any time soon. Fortunately, they were in good hands; Xanexx wasted absolutely no time, laying down track after banging track of loopy, mesmerising voodoo techno. I’ve seen him play closing sets at vurt. before, and the man really is a veteran when it comes to this kind of thing; he knows exactly how to keep people dancing at the end of a night. Every time I felt like I’d reached the point of exhaustion where I needed to call it a night, he’d mix in some new hypnotic rhythm or ecstatic burst of noise that kept me wanting to hear more, and more; I lost track of the times I muttered “just one more tune” to myself. Eventually tiredness won out and I finally made my way upstairs and out into the light, but when I left everyone else in the club still appeared to be going strong. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that all of them are still there dancing, two days later.
If I have one small complaint, it’s that at times the sound system at Volnost didn’t seem to be quite as good as it could be. The bass was sometimes a little muddy and muffled, and the acoustics were a little weird – there were certain spots where if one stood the music became noticeably quieter or louder, which threw me off a bit. On the other hand, I feel compelled to mention of how really excellent the lighting was. Whoever was in charge of Volnost’s lighting that night did an excellent job of reading the feel of the party, making use of flashing colour, strobes, bursts of brightness and bursts of total darkness in perfect unison with the music. It did a lot for the atmosphere of the event, and perhaps also contributed to the “festival” feeling that I keep harping on about.
Between the four of them, Hito and her supporting acts put on a hell of a show, a fun and engaging evening of techno and good old fashioned Friday hedonism. Nights like this really are testament to how healthy the techno scene is, not only in Seoul, but in east Asia more generally.