Chasing the Ghost of Techno's Latest Obsession: TB Arthur
A chat with the elusive producer’s sole connection to the outside world. Plus: two new squelching acid tracks.
When the anonymous producer TB Arthur appeared out of nowhere in December of last year, many were rightfully suspicious. After all, we live in an age where DJs shroud themselves in mystery with the air of a magician twirling his sequined cloak. When you say "anonymous DJ!" I usually hear "marketing gimmick!"
It didn't help that everything about TB Arthur seems perfectly engineered to arouse the delight of techno heads and vinyl fetishists. First, there's the name "TB" Arthur, presumably a reference to Roland TB-303, the machine that birthed acid. Then, there's the intriguing backstory: TB Arthur is supposedly a forgotten Chicago producer who made densely psychedelic techno in the 90s. After running into financial problems, he dropped out of the scene, and would've been swept away by history, if a former partner hadn't unearthed his material and decided to sell them to distributors.
Finally, there's the fact that Hard Wax—a well-respected techno distributor based in Berlin—has put its stamp of legitimacy on the whole operation. A Hard Wax rep told Pitchfork that they took the bait after spotting "MMMJR" engraved on the grooves—a sign that the original test pressings were cut at Metropolis Mastering Chicago, a legendary plant that closed in the late 90s. Of course, no one would really give two flying fucks about this grand mystery if the music wasn't actually good. But it is. Great, even.
Here are two tracks that were given to us by TB Arthur's representative and former partner, who also refused to divulge his identity. (For the sake of convenience, I'm just going to assume that it's a dude.)
Like the rest of Arthur's output so far, "Samba" and "Crybaby" are prime cuts of swooningly dissociative acid techno that sounds at once familiar yet far away, worming into your ears like a long-distance phone call from some dusty warehouse stuck in time. Perhaps worthy of note: "Crybaby" is the track you hear in the background when you call the phone number on the album art for Arthur's last four releases. (For the lazy or busy, calling that number will not give you the coordinates for some illicit rave, unfortunately. Rather, a female voice will anticlimactically ask you to leave your name and email.) I traced the location of that number, and it seems to check out; it belongs to a landline registered since 2000 in central Chicago.
According to Arthur's rep, who agreed to answer a few questions over email, these two tracks are part of a "considerable archive of material" taken from DAT master tapes of TB's studio sessions. They are unreleased and do no appear on Tracks From The DAT EP, which came out last month. The rest of Arthur's catalog so far amount to three EPs released in 2014, simply named TB Arthur 1, 2, and 3. Those were based on test pressings that never got distribution in the 90s. "Stampers for the first two survived. Visually, they were made in the spirit of the original test pressings. TB Arthur 3 was a recut, the stampers for that one had been lost," he says. Since the rep paid for all the studio time back then, he claims to now own all the recordings.
The rep met Arthur at a club in Chicago called Medusa's in the early 90s. "Back then our favorite label was Wax Trax, but acid and other stuff got played at Medusa's. We were excited about music and our journey began. Sometime later, TB handed me a demo cassette. I decided to become the record label," which he named Test Pressing 312 Records.
"We were consistently high which was not a great basis for any solid business planning," he adds.
As for the intrigue and obsessiveness that TB Arthur's output has inspired in the underground techno community, Arthur's rep thinks it boils down to the allure of what the 90s represented: an era when dance music was more tribal, and made for the community of people supporting it. "People could not Google DJs promoting illegal events, and the anonymous factor was incredibly helpful to cover your ass," he explains. "Anonymity also supported the concept that music was about community, bigger than the individual. Selflessness is a common theme when psychedelics are at play and 'underground' had a different context."
Sure, the allure of anonymity in the age of the superstar DJ is obvious. Pure, unprejudiced listening is a rare privilege, and anonymity has proven to be an effective tool to ensure that we take in music without preconceived notions. "Techno's facelessness had ideological aims," Philip Sherburne wrote in his recent review of Steffi's Power of Anonymity on Ostgut Ton. "It was a reminder that the individual was less important than the collective."
But anonymity has a flip-side. In the age of information, nothing inspires more obsessive sleuthing than being denied knowledge. (Guilty.) Telling someone to just "listen to the music" is about as effective as telling someone to stop scratching once they've started itching. Savvy managers and PR teams have figured this out; which is why for every Redshape and Head Front Panel, we've also got pseudo-mysterious acts like ZHU and Claptone.
Ultimately, I reserve a healthy amount of skepticism that this could all be bullshit. But Arthur's rep insists that there's no grinning DJ waiting in the wings to claim Arthur as his alias in a few months. "It would be highly amusing, and a downright lie, if someone else did lay claim to TB's jams," he says. "Stranger shit has happened in the history of Chicago house music."
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.