On a steamy August night in a dark space bursting with Brooklynites and other humans, a DJ steps to the decks. It’s the third installation of the Lights Out series at the Knitting Factory, and Detox Unit is about to blow minds. Ascending into the corner of the room, Joe Roberts knows what’s cranking inside the spanking Hennessy Sound System before him. He knows forwards and backwards the material he’s prepared - detailed, meticulous, dirty, and deep. He knows when the music meets the medium, sound speeding through wire and circuitry, he’ll ignite the sell-out crowd like a tinderbox.
Detox Unit is returning to New York City this Friday, November 10th to headline the anticipated Sauce Sessions at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn, a new series of shows conceived by the The Saucy Monster. Joe Roberts a.k.a. Detox Unit actually grew up just north of the city in Scarsdale, NY before moving to Austin, TX in 2013. “I really miss the snow, proper bagels, great Chinese takeout everywhere, as well as the urban sprawl of NYC, but the scene here is rad,” says Joe, who was generous enough to speak with The Rust amidst a hectic schedule of shows from Portland, Oregon to Miami to West Virginia.
“I think Detox Unit is easily the breakout artist of 2017,” says Kyle Miller a.k.a. The Saucy Monster. “Dude’s been on a steady path of destruction, releasing all original mixtapes while simultaneously touring across the country.” Kyle is a photographer and producer (Indobeats). As the gracious host and founder of Sauce Sessions, he’ll be seeing Detox throw down for the first time on Friday.
Many in the community got their first taste of Detox at Tipper & Friends (T&F) events, which have been a modest launching pad for Joe and a handful of other artists. In 2016, the community left the gathering at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Florida mad for Jade Cicada. This year, Detox Unit were the words on everyone’s lips.
“In the summer of 2016, I got a message to my artist page on Facebook from Tipper's manager along the lines of ‘You doing anything in October?’.” Joe's first T&F performance transpired during the October, 2016 Denver get-down. “Needless to say, I proceeded to freak out and run around the room, then did my best to respond in a calm and collected manner. Tipper's music has been a huge influence on me." Some said they enjoyed Detox more than the headliner himself at Suwannee this Spring. This may be a minority opinion, but among the Spanish moss dripping thick with humidity Detox made his name known.
This come-up has been propelled not by a few spectacular sets nor a groundbreaking release, but years of dedication to a craft. “I met Joe in 2013 through a mutual friend while living in Austin” says Sofia Raisanen, a current writer for the knowledge-sharing platform ProducerDJ.com founded by ill.Gates. Sofia brought Detox Unit into the fold at Street Ritual in Summer 2015 while working as the A&R rep and PR Director for the West Coast conscious music label. “Joe was really focused on his DAW (digital audio workstation). His full motivation is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed; it’s straight up hard work.”
"I began producing music in 2012, initially with a program called Reason but then I switched to Ableton Live. The early stuff was pretty abstract, ... kinda beat-less stuttered out sequences of odd synth sounds. In 2014 I dropped all other pursuits and put my focus on music. Haven't looked back since.
Joe is an audio engineer with a sophisticated home studio that includes modular and analog synthesizers, keyboards, old-school effects units, a controlled mess of circuitry, and a separate room for mixing. While some individuals including the author are driven to madness by the slightest technical difficulty, since childhood Joe has derived satisfaction from fixing and tinkering with electronics.
According to Oxford researcher Simon Reynolds in his history of electronic music titled Historia Electronica Preface and published in “The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader” in 2005:
'Electronic music is driven by a quest to find the most radical or futuristic-sounding potential in brand-new technology. And that involves essentially (re)inventing the machines: producers are always claiming the first thing they do after acquiring new gear is to throw away the instruction manual and start messing around. Often creativity entails abusing the machines, employing them incorrectly.'
As a gear head and someone who has loved electronic music “since day one”, Detox Unit embodies this ethos. “Most of the audio gear I own I've taken apart and messed about with the insides at some point in time,” Joe says. This obsession can be a double-edged sword, however. “I find sometimes this fascination can lead to a never-ending cycle of tinkering with this or that and never actually writing any music. I am constantly rearranging how everything is plugged in, never satisfied with just one particular signal flow.”
Joe incorporates his technological fascination into the aesthetic of Detox Unit, believing the imagery juxtaposes well with his sound design. Take for example the visual associated with the “Recent Works, Vol. 3” mix. “I used an image of an old Turbosound cabinet, the TMS-4 to be exact. I had been reading up on the history of Tony Andrews and his time at Turbosound prior to Funktion One; the image seemed appropriate.”
Generally, with more than three self-acclaimed sound heads in a room, and it becomes nearly impossible to find a consensus about what music to bump. For the last month, however, virtually every time I gather with friends one person will advocate for the new Detox mix to the immediate and unanimous approval of others. “I made ‘Recent Works Vol. 3’ at around 8:00am in a makeshift studio I had setup in Denver after staying up all night writing the third tune in the mix, the 808 heavy one with the vocal bit saying ‘this is my real life’,” Joe tells us. “Admittedly I probably should have slept and then made the mix but inspiration is fleeting so I think it's important to strike while the iron is hot.”
Detox Unit music is mental and physical. Glitches woven into intricate patterns twist the mind in comfy little knots, while thunderous but carefully placed bass vibrates the room and everyone in it. Space is key. Empty space in his mix casts sounds into dramatic relief, sharpening their edges and drawing acute attention to every noise. Brief pauses give greater force to the fusillades of bass that follow, and the details of sound design which can be so easily missed become the center of attention within Detox Unit music.
This caught the attention of Blake Oakes from Together At Last Promotions out of Atlanta. Rust readers may remember that Blake conceived the Lights Out series to create a party focused on sound and little else. “It’s completely about the sound with him,” says Blake, who recently booked Detox Unit for another Lights Out set - his second - in Chicago. “He matches the concept to a tee.”
While Joe appears to spend most of his energy crafting new music, he’s found time to focus on his live performance, too. “Lately I've been mixing on the Pioneer CDJ platform using flash drives and it's been a lot of fun. My old setup featured Ableton, and I used a controller to play my tracks. Now with my new setup I've been focusing on how to string together different tracks to make the whole set one cohesive journey that keeps the dance floor moving.”
It's rare to be intellectually engaged by music while simultaneously getting down, but this is what Detox can deliver. Friday at Sunnyvale the dance floor will indeed be set in wild motion, but not just by Detox. Supporting him is the rising Rust artist MALAKAI along withgifted instrumentalist and producer 5AM, and local low-end lurker Yakooza who’ll spin back-to-back with a special guest. If you’ve never seen Detox Unit perform, prepare for an immersive experience. Check out any of his Recent Works mixes, his latest EP SubPlatter Splatter, or his set from Tipper & Friends Suwannee.