Lady Starlight Talks Techno, Live Performances, & Touring with Lady Gaga
For anyone who’s caught one of the shows from Lady Gaga’s intercontinental artRave: The ARTPOP Ball tour this year, Lady Starlight’s percussive-heavy techno performances will be instantly familiar. The New York City-based DJ/producer has been a close creative partner for Gaga since their artistic beginnings in the dive bars of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, leading to an opening slot on the popstar’s Monster Ball tour and all subsequent outings.
While her DJ roots are planted in spinning heavy metal vinyl, Starlight—real name Collen Martin—has transitioned to an authentic techno sound, both in the studio and during her fully-live performances. DJ Times caught up with Starlight amidst the tour’s packed itinerary to talk about her origins, live approach, and Lady Gaga.
DJ Times: You’re currently opening for Lady Gaga on the artRAVE, delivering a heavy techno performance each night. What goes into preparing for each show?
Lady Starlight: It’s life-consuming! My set is 100% live, all-original material step programmed on actual gear. There’s no computer, so I can’t pre-program important details like instrument tuning and measure counts. I have to practice my tracks like a guitar player would practice songs. I also can’t help constantly tweaking the sequences and writing new tracks. I’m a perfectionist, so after every set I always hear things I want to change or I want to write a better bassline.
DJ Times: What’s your equipment setup right now?
Lady Starlight: That’s another thing I can’t stop changing! At this exact moment, I’m using Roland’s new [AIRA] versions of the 808/909 and 303 (the TR 8 and the TB 3), Roland 404 sampler, and Boss DR 202. My first live performance was nothing but a Roland MC 505—the best piece of gear to write tracks on—but it’s currently out of order due to a bizarre MIDI-related problem.
DJ Times: Most people playing to a pop audience tend to play bigger and louder, but you stick with a very authentic techno sound. Is there a reason for that?
Lady Starlight: I’m so happy you asked me that; it’s actually the reason I started making techno. All the overblown nonsense going on in dance music made me want to vomit. Sonically, everything and the kitchen sink is thrown in. Actually, it’s kind of like vomit! Early techno was rebel music, the ethos was like punk: just do it with what you have and put it out yourself. Listening to Underground Resistance/Jeff Mills, Joey Beltram, early Adam Beyer, Surgeon, Richie Hawtin, their tracks were banging and maybe have a total of nine sounds in the entire track. All these bells and whistles you hear now are just camouflage. The artist doesn’t know how to make it move without some absurd white noise sweep to tell people, “Okay, it’s getting exciting now.”
DJ Times: How have the crowds reacted to it?
Lady Starlight: It’s definitely a mixed bag. I’m in a rare and fortunate position where I’m able to perform to a crowd that hasn’t come to hear techno. The media we are exposed to is all curated by Facebook and YouTube algorithms, so people are rarely forced to experience something new. I would say the majority of people hate it, but my perspective is there’s no difference between loving and hating it, because at the end of the day they now know what they are loving or hating is techno. That’s what I care about.
DJ Times: On Gaga’s past tours, you were playing rock records in your sets. Rock DJs are definitely something you don’t see often in 2014. What’s the approach to a rock set?
Lady Starlight: My bank account definitely reflected how little demand there is for rock DJs. When I was younger, I would follow DJs that could turn me on to the more obscure bands/artists in their genre, so that’s what a DJ’s job is in my mind. You have to know your history and hunt for the vinyl, play hits and then some deeper tracks like a human YouTube suggestion bar.
DJ Times: How did you get your start DJing?
Lady Starlight: Out of necessity. No one was playing what I wanted to hear, so I had to do it myself and start my own monthly party.
DJ Times: How did you and Lady Gaga meet and how did you both begin the New York Street Revival and Trash Dance party and later Lady Gaga and The Starlight Revue?
Lady Starlight: I’m older than Gaga, so I’d been DJing and doing parties for quite awhile when we met. There was an immediate feeling that we were from the same planet. She had been working her whole life on her singer songwriter career. That world in New York City is kind of conservative and boring, so when we met and started hanging out it took on a new dimension. She asked me to go-go dance and spin my metal vinyl onstage while she performed her pop songs, and I of course said “Hell yes!”
DJ Times: Were you two really lighting hairspray cans on fire?
Lady Starlight: Yes, I think every venue we performed in threatened to never let us back in their doors after we did.
DJ Times: How did you end up later touring with Gaga?
Lady Starlight: She’s an unbelievably loyal friend and wanted me to succeed from the very beginning. As soon as she had the power to control all the content of her tour, she invited me to open for her.
DJ Times: What projects are you working on now?
Lady Starlight: I just released my first single “Operator” on Paturn Recordings. The most important factor in what I’m doing now was reconnecting with underground techno artist Mike Gates. We grew up in the same area and shared a lot of friends on the scene, but only knew each other in passing. We were fatefully re-introduced by my brother Jason Martin, who’s also an artist and musician, He had taken a break from techno to pursue other things, but he had started Paturn and got back into producing just as I was starting to make techno. He’s been a major source of inspiration, and there’s no way I would be at the level of proficiency the gear and composition without him. In fact, it was his 505 that I started performing with. Most importantly, we share the same ethos that techno is about innovation and creativity. He would die before letting a sample pack anywhere near a Paturn release! My next release is in the works, and Mike and I are collaborating on several as yet-unnamed projects that will mess with people’s brains.