Once known as DJ Shiva, Noncompliant is a veteran in the Midwest electronic music scene with over twenty years of experience behind her. In the age of the internet and regular dates at Chicago’s Smartbar, Noncompliant’s worldwide breakthrough moment only happened a few years ago after landing key dates at De School, Concrete and Berghain as well as being named one of Mixmag’s Top 20 Breakthrough DJ’s.
Growing up in Indy, Noncompliant’s early experiences with rave culture were completely DIY and most often also completely illegal. The sounds of that era were punk and industrial whilst the mixing style was fast paced. Coming through at this time meant that Noncompliant learned how to fight for her work and a go-getter ethic – no chances to be lazy or to expect things handed to you on a plate.
Cutting her teeth in Chicago and Detroit, this punk-like attitude is evident throughout the string of outstanding, relentless records on labels such as Dark Entries, Valence, Argot and Flash. Her single ‘Women’s Work’ was picked up by Fiedel for his official Berghain 08 mix and his label Fiedeltwo. The politically-charged mixes and productions have been supported heavily and her online social presence has allowed Noncompliant to become a voice for marginalised people, fighting for the LGBTQ+ community as well as talking about US-centric issues such as the constant battle with their problematic healthcare system.
Starting from the beginning of her journey, we speak to Noncompliant about the growth of Indy’s electronic music scene, picking and choosing battles on social media and how the LGBTQ+ community are striving towards a sober environment.
Having started DJing during the 90s DIY scene in Indy, what do you feel are some of the benefits you experienced breaking through then compared to now?
We had to build things ourselves, so there was never a sense of entitlement or an opportunity to get lazy about it. If you wanted something to happen, whether it was a party or learning to DJ or bookings or whatever, you had to get in there and get your hands dirty. There was no one to do it for you, so you just had to learn as you went along. That made for a lot of mistakes, but no lesson will ever stick with you more than making mistakes.
How do you think the scene in Indy has progressed over the years? Is there still a need to travel out to neighbouring states to get yourself noticed?
The Indy techno scene has been pretty nonexistent for a few years. A lot of folks just did the grownup thing, got good jobs, had families, and just dropped off into adulting land. A few of us have stuck with it and tried to do some bigger events even a few years ago, but was a massive struggle to get more than 50 people out. With people ageing out, we needed fresh blood and we just couldn’t find it. That’s why I did SUBterror Radio for 4 years. I wanted a place to play (even if it was just my studio) and I hoped to reach a few people in Indy and get them hyped on the music (I probably reached people everywhere BUT Indy, tbh).
But I just started a monthly weekday event at a new club called The Patron Saint. The club is run by old school house DJs and they offered a night and I jumped at it. It’s nice to be able to play in my own city and also give local techno DJs (new and old) a place to play. The first three went really well. We had Erika down from Detroit in April and in May we have Kyle Geiger coming from Berlin. It’s definitely a local thing at its core, but it’s always nice to bring in friends who can come through to give Indy a little taste of sounds they don’t get that often.
And one nice thing is that now we are getting some younger folks who are really into the EDM festival circuit who have come to check the night out and ended up really liking the music. That’s what has been missing since all the old school techno heads bailed. We need to get new people into the music and seeing that happen in Indy, FINALLY, is really encouraging.
As far as travelling, I think the internet certainly helped with that. I mean, you still kinda do need to get out to get heard by the right ears, but that’s why I am doing this night. I think you also need a regular place to sharpen your skills in a small venue in front of an audience so that when you get those bigger gigs, you are ready for it. I want to help build the next generation of Indy artists that get heard outside of here.
You mentioned in a previous interview how you had to be super good, better than most at DJing, to get noticed as someone outside of Chicago and Detroit. Do you feel it’s easier now to get recognition, regardless of social media, but the need to be skilful and technically good now matter less?
As far as skills, there have always been super good DJs and there have always been super wack DJs at every level, honestly. ‘Tis the way of things. I think with the rise of elevated DJ booths and massive festival stages where the DJ is eleventy billion miles away from the crowd, there has been a disconnect created between the DJ and the crowd. I love a DJ booth that’s at eye level with the crowd so there is a personal exchange between all involved. I am not one of those who think the DJ needs to be hidden or that it’s bad to watch the DJ. I LOVE watching a great DJ work their craft. That’s how I learned! But if you can’t see a DJ’s hands doing the work, it’s really easy to fake the funk. Even if you’re not “faking” in the strictest sense of the word, you can get away with a lot if no one can REALLY see what you’re doing.
Streaming videos or small, intimate clubs with booths right there in your face are actually a pretty effective way to see how hard a DJ works if you know what to look for. And I don’t mean you need to be a DMC champ on the decks either. But you do need to be doing something other than sliding a crossfader over after every 10-minute long epic breakdown track.
Can you get exposure without being super skilled? Yes, and some of that is because of the weird relationship between production and DJing that has long been a thing where making a hit record will get you DJ gigs, even if your expertise is in the studio and not the decks. Some of it is this weird social media thing happening.
But honestly, we spend a lot of energy caring about that stuff and at the end of the day, all you can do is be the best you can at what you do and hope people hear it. If you’re enjoying yourself, the rest is just noise.
Because of the short set times during the early days of your career, your style is fast-paced from the get-go and what you describe as ‘manic’. Other than the environment you were playing in at the beginning, what draws you to this style of mixing?
I have a short attention span and get bored very easily. LOL But really, while that’s part of it, one of the things I love about techno is that if you really want a DJ set to be interesting, you have to put some work into it. When you are dealing with very stripped down, repetitive music, it’s up to you to bring more movement and change into it. Techno sets with tunes just mixed end-to-end for a few measures can EASILY be linear and boring as fuck. I want to be in the mix more than I am out of it.
That’s really what I enjoy about techno. It’s up to the DJ to make things happen, instead of just relying on the records to do it for us. It’s a little different perspective than the “selector” angle. I like great songs too. But what about taking several tracks and turning them into a whole new thing that is greater than the sum of its parts? It’s more collage to me than anything else. And I know a lot of people diss “DJ tool” type tracks or anything deemed “functional” techno, but those are often the most fun because I have a TON of room to do something with them that’s not already there for me. It lets me add my own ideas and spontaneous FX or fader cuts or whatever just happens in that moment. If I just wanted to listen to songs, a well-programmed jukebox would work just fine. I want to listen to techno through someone who knows how to contextualize it into the mix.
There’s no “right” way of DJing, of course. But I will be honest, when I see people doing Jesus poses or having their hands in the air, my only thought is always “if your hands aren’t on the mixer, you’re not working hard enough.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that you made your European debut, what were the notable differences between playing in the EU and the Midwest? Do you feel that your trajectory would be vastly different had you played in Europe earlier in your career?
The biggest differences are people actually showing up and knowing the music and also the length of sets.
Yeah, I think playing in Europe earlier would have been better for me but no sense in wondering about it. Here we are. I might be doing it at an age when it’s all a bit harder to do, but I’m doing it! And I think having to wait for things to pick up until I was older gives me a much deeper appreciation for every minute I get to be doing the thing I love most. Plus, I’m old enough that I’ve already done all my wild partying, so now I can just play music and wake up without ringing ears and hangovers.
There’s been a lot of discussions lately on how there are so many incredible artists in the US at the moment but they don’t necessarily get the same support as artists in the EU. Have you ever felt personally there’s a difference in how your career has progressed compared to European artists?
Well, we definitely don’t have much in the way of institutional support. And one of the biggest obstacles for any kind of artist in the US, as I have said before, is access to healthcare. I still work 40 hours a week and part of the reason for that is that I need healthcare and in the US, healthcare is still mostly tied to our jobs. But working full time is also a hindrance to touring. If we had more healthcare support for self-employed people, this would be far less of an issue.
Also, the US is a BIG country, and airfare between cities (even very close ones) is MUCH more expensive than in Europe. So even though we really do have a pretty cool network of techno people all over the country, it’s sometimes prohibitively expensive to get around. So even people who WANT to support each other sometimes can’t because the numbers just don’t work.
I think the main difference between how my career progressed compared to EU artists is just that people in Europe have spaces to play. There is a much more well-formed network, more venues, and fewer constrictions on time (bars in the US usually close anywhere from 2am to 3am). In Indy, I can count on one hand (and have fingers left over) the number of venues that will let us set up techno nights, and even fewer with sound systems already in place. The rest of the Midwest deals with similar circumstances. It’s an uphill battle 100% of the time.
It’s always more motivating when you can look up to people you also relate too. Did you find it difficult to relate to other artists when you were entering the scene not only as a woman but as a queer woman? Were there any artists you felt like you could relate to at the beginning?
I managed to find the nerds pretty quickly, so I had friends who were into the same things. There weren’t any women at the time where I am from, but I still had a pretty good and supportive friend group, so that helped. But when I started finding more women and more queer people, it was definitely a happy thing for me. Finding people who relate to your experiences both as a DJ and just as a person, dealing with the things you deal with, is really important.
You’re very active on social media, especially on Twitter covering political issues – do you ever find it gets too much for your mental health? How do you find the balance between activism and your health? Do you have moments where you realise you need to step away from a situation?
Oh yeah, I definitely have gotten better at assessing when an argument is going to be a waste of my time. There are people who might be misinformed or say something thoughtless, but who you can tell just messed up or didn’t know something and are willing to learn. Those folks I will always try and have a conversation with. Then there are people who obviously are either trolling or just dicks. That’s when I just go scorched earth and move on. I don’t have time to get dragged into that level of bullshit.
I’m much better these days at closing the computer, putting the phone in airplane mode, and just reading books instead. I am trying to spend a lot less time online and more time feeding my brain. It’s time much better spent. There will ALWAYS be someone wrong on the internet. But I don’t have to feed that beast.
Sticking to mental health, you recently experienced ‘the burn out’ which most creatives face nowadays. What’s your method for powering through it? Is there anything that you go to religiously to get that spark back?
I think my level of burnout was because of touring back to back with having a day job. I went a good 9 or 10 months in 2018 without more than a couple days off the entire time. Then when I had time off and wanted to work on making music, I just didn’t have the energy to do it. It doesn’t take me much effort to get hyped about DJing still, because it’s my favourite thing. But where it really saps my energy is from the writing of music.
I still haven’t really been able to make music lately, but I do make myself get in the studio and work, even if it’s just making random sounds or learning a piece of gear. It’s not the same as finishing the music, but it’s good to stay busy and stay connected.
Mostly though, if I am not feeling it, I just like to read books and watch movies. I try not to stress too much about it. I don’t believe in “powering through” either. That can be more dangerous than helpful. Give yourself time to rest and engage in other things. Especially in the music industry where there are no set hours and you can always be working on something no matter where you are or what time of day it is, I think it’s essential to give yourself time away from it.
You talk about the importance of community and how it helps you keep moving forward. It wasn’t always so easy, especially in the early days, but who played an integral role in your life, in creating that community feeling? Are there any parties that you’ve played that you’ve felt had that feeling too?
A lot of the community stuff that has really impacted me has been online communities. Mw-raves, 313 mailing list, and the Sister DJs email list back in the late 90s. My friends that started SUBterror with me back in the 90s. Dubstepforum in 2006-2008. ExpUni a few years ago. Lots of connecting with people all over the world in all those places.
As far as parties go, Room4Resistance really had that feeling for sure. UnterNYC. GHT. I’m sure there are more I could name, but those, in particular, have had a super-connected feeling for me.
I saw you reposted a feature about sober queer spaces and why they give LGBTQ+ a place to just be and recently there was a Motherbeat event where you had to bring your own alcohol to the party if that’s what you wanted. Why do you think people are moving away from this drinking culture? Especially within the queer community which is focused around meeting in bars.
I think it’s key to remember that the rates of alcohol and drug addiction in the LGBTQ community have always been elevated, for the obvious reason that so many of us have been rejected by family/friends/religious community/etc. That takes a heavy psychological toll and some people turn to substance abuse to mask the pain. I’m not judging anyone for that. Those losses are huge and heavy. I think a lot of the partying in the LGBTQ community is meant to make up for that darkness, but what ends up happening is a lot of access to substances that can be fun in moderation, but dangerous if used frequently/heavily. And alcohol, while being the most legal one, also tends to be the most destructive. I just personally don’t have a lot of patience for drunkenness. It makes people more aggressive, less responsive to reason, and super sloppy and gross. And inebriation also tends to cater to a much more dangerous atmosphere, especially in more het-inclined spaces, where it means fights and sexual assault. And I am just super fucking tired of it, to be honest. But in the US, it’s really hard to move away from it because that’s how venues survive. It’s a major catch 22 for those of us who need venues to play.
And to end on congrats, you’ll be making your debut at Movement Festival this year! What else do you have on your bucket list?
I am super psyched about Movement. For those of us in the Midwest, it’s kinda like the holy grail. It’s a techno family reunion time and to get to play is definitely a big one for me because a lot of my good friends will be there!
Bucket list items? Mostly it’s just a list of places I want to see. I would love to go to South America (not only to play but because I REALLY want to go to Iguazu Falls), Japan, Australia, Portugal, Croatia (it just looks beautiful there)…I just really dig going to new places. Especially pretty ones with beautiful oceans and water and mountains. Oh and sloths. I want to go to Costa Rica because sloths. And that island in Japan with all the cats. I have my priorities!
You can catch Noncompliant playing at WHOLE Festival from the 14th – 17th June – buy tickets here.