“The inescapable narrative of Hawaii being a special paradise is kinda tired,” John Keaka Friend tells me over email from Honolulu, where he grew up, and where he returned after a long stint on the mainland, including SF. “It is another place to enjoy friends, family, memories, and music that is probably not similar to other places. Regional and global at the same time.”
But it’s difficult not to project some of the cliched beauty of the islands—at least the beyond-the-beaches primal, rugged landscape—onto the electronic producer‘s terrific new album as Trip Show, The Far East is the Near West and the Wild West is the Near East, released by ace local label Broken Clover.
There’s an outdoorsy expansiveness hinted at in track titles like “Trailhead,” “Urban Coyote,” and “Cold and Brilliant Light.” Others like the fantastic “At” and “Easy Rough” conjure open-ended perambulations. And the music itself takes listeners on a meandering, psychotropic journey—Trip Show is well-named—of gently mutating grooves, flashing textures, and half-remembered sounds burbling up from the past. Vibrant rhythms and ideas shift kaleidoscopically, like molten lava freezing into slightly irregular hexagons. An organic sheen coats every sound.
In short (and without the belabored metaphors), it’s the kind of cerebrum-tickling, chilled-out yet dancefloor-ready album you’d expect from someone who was crucial to the post-rave San Francisco electronic scene at the turn of the century, when Intelligent Dance Music, glitch, and an ambient revival had taken hold—and whose record recommendations were essential to a generation of nightlifers, just before the Internet offered everything at once.
Friend’s presence at a record store—along with fellow heads like Jacob Peña of Sweater Funk, Ali Neef, B-Love, Dwane Mooney, and Kevin Koga—ensured you were at the nexus of what was up back then. If he told you to grab a record, you immediately tossed it in your bag. If he DJed somewhere, it was the spot to hit. I would often run into him in some of the most idiosyncratic parties of the era, which was always reassuring. At least I knew I was in the right place!
Friend has been promoting the new album with some cool animations and underground tidbits on the Trip Show Instagram, and will appear at Phonobar on August 7. I asked him a few questions, and relived a vital nightlife time.
48HILLS Congratulations on the lovely new album. What have you been up to since you left us for Hawaii?
JOHN KEAKA FRIEND Running Secret Record Store—an online record store—working in the arts, enjoying the ocean, making music, perfecting time travel…
48H I know you have a couple decades under your belt of making music, but I think a lot of us in San Francisco still think of you in the context of being an influential records store worker and DJ. Can you tell me a little about your production background and how it led up to this record?
JKF After leaving Waikiki in 1987, I messed around a little with making electronic sound collages in Washington DC, then began taking it more seriously once I moved to SF. I started with a pawn-shop noise-dub soundsystem called Bucolic n the early ’90s (that then turned into the label BSI and moved to Portland) and moved into early raw club tracks.
I remixed Kit Clayton, Systemwide, and Daddy Freddy, and I was invited to submit a downloadable audio file to Betalounge—it was before MP3s. More remixes followed—Heinrich from Spundae, Solid Gold Playas project Techelectro… mostly I was making edits to play at bar gigs in the Mission where you could really stretch out and not have to worry about dance floors or dotcomers or weekend warriors.
When I moved back to Hawaii I started a label to put out some remixes that Luke Calzonetti and I were doing of each other’s work. That’s how Trip Show started. I was stoked to be asked for an album from Mickey Darius at Broken Clover Records. I was used to thinking in remixes or single track downloads. He pushed me to think in more broader terms, and the album would not have happened without him.
48H The record traces back to your days at “1984 Waikiki teen clubs,” which brings up some very colorful images in my mind. Can you tell me your history in Hawaii, and recall those days?
JKF Hawaii was the last state to go from an 18- to a 21-year-old drinking age in 1986. So teen clubs were for the 16-18 folks—but some were so busy, they held their own. All ages meant the over 18s going to teen clubs! Waikiki was an international disco playground in its heyday so there were quite a few nicely tuned sound systems, even at the smaller venues.
I started DJing in clubs at 16 years old, where the sounds were freestyle and industrial. More Jellybean’s Fun House in New York meets Medusa’s in Chicago than Paradise Garage or the Loft. Sweet Sensation was just as much a floorfiller as George Kranz or Cabaret Voltaire. I think a lot of the sounds I use reference that sonic palette.
48H You also credit DJing techno happy hours and after hours here in the Bay Area. What are some of the seminal gigs you recall from the late ’90s and early 2000s? That was the height of the local IDM/glitch, drum and bass, and “lounge” techno scenes, for sure … I definitely hear some traces of IDM in the record.
JKF Opening for Move D and Jonah Sharp at a loft on Howard street; calling in a live broadcast to Betalounge on two phone lines because stereo encoding had not happened yet, dropping Beau Mot Plage by Isolee at the height of the dot com frenzy at a packed Dalva in the Mission and the place exploding. The loving mayhem that was the techno happy hour Qööl at 111 Minna, the vinyl 45-only reggae nights at Tunnel Top, and the all-styles ragged majesty of Sidecar at Laszlo.
Rx at Miss Pearl’s was amazing to play disco for models being wheeled around in gurneys; Lush at that basement spot off Howard where the crowd knew the words to abstract free-jazz anthems. The joy of playing techno at the Top, the family chaos that was 26mix; guesting at an 8-bit party in the basement of Li Po. That mid-’90s spot in the Tenderloin where the those Brits threw parties where you DJed boogie and house in the glass elevator. San Francisco Endless.
48H Walk us through your process a bit—what equipment do you use, and what is your goal with a track?
JKF I make almost all of my tracks digitally, using laptop, jailbroken tablet, live recordings, and phone to start the construction, and bounce them eventually to a desktop to build the structure. Vibe first, architecture second. Would it make someone move? Turning their head is as important as making them dance.
48H When are you coming back so we can hear Trip Show live?
JKF I have never played live. OK, once, at the Purple Onion but that’s another story. But I enjoy DJing unreleased tracks that I have made. I think I’ve always tried to make records that don’t exist yet so I can DJ with them. I’m playing at Phonobar in San Francisco on August 7 with Guillermo and Jonah Sharp.
The Far East Is The Near West And The Wild West Is The Near East is out now on Broken Clover Records. Buy it here.