I’m barely halfway around the loop, and dismayingly close to giving up. It’s my first run in weeks, and I’m determined to complete the roughly 4.5 kilometers of Durham’s Al Buehler Cross Country Trail, but it’s not going well. I’m barely breaking a 10-minute mile, and I’m acutely aware of my atrophied leg muscles, my upcoming 40th birthday, and my impending doom. The 95-degree heat is not helping.
My salvation is musical, via iTunes shuffle, which decides to drop the digital needle on “Motormouth,” a devilish slice of heavy Detroit techno by Audion, the dance floor-oriented alias of Matthew Dear. It’s a wild beast of a track, surging forward on a meaty kick drum, engine-revving synths, and a chattering, circular vocal sample of heavily filtered gibberish. It’s the auditory equivalent of speedy MDMA, awash in red lights and fog and sweat.
And somehow, it’s an appropriate soundtrack for a dusty, miserable run through the woods. I feel a spring in my step, a burst of wicked energy. By the time “Motormouth” reaches its “drop” and the snares start slapping, I’m blasting up hills and pumping my fist.
As a 40-year-old father of two young kids, this is as close as I come to the strobe-lit rave days of my youth. Running helps me maintain a deep physical connection to the electronic music that I love: The same pulsating energy that once fueled peak-time dance marathons now carries me over the next hill, through the next mile, toward the next goal.
The physicality of dance music is an indomitable force—even if its other vital aspect, the joyous social communion of dancing, is currently in major trouble. Age and parenthood had already (mostly) cut me off from nightlife before COVID-19, but the pandemic has effectively ended clubbing for everyone else. Experiencing any kind of live music with a crowd is now a dangerous proposition, and throwing down with a crush of sweaty bodies is totally out of the question. The dance floor is closed, and the party—for the foreseeable future—is in cryosleep.
“Man, I was gonna be able to work with so many amazing artists this year,” laments electronic artist Sean Garrett. “So much was on the books, and it really seemed like 2020 was going to be this huge launchpad of a year, but then COVID happened. It has been devastating.”
Garrett is one of the heads behind Durham techno label and party crew Maison Fauna. He’s also an avid runner and doesn’t lace up his sneakers without an electronic mix cued up. “When I run, the music just kind of takes over,” he says of his love of lo-fi house artists like Baltra and Earth Boys. “I find it makes me more aware, and more in touch with my surroundings.”
There might not be a social outlet for electronic artists, but electronic music production has exploded under lockdown. Garrett says Maison Fauna has had to pivot away from throwing ragers in favor of the more quotidian duties of managing a label and staying on the lookout for new artists to lift up. “We have calls every day; we have meetings a couple days a week,” Garrett says of Maison Fauna’s workload. ”And since COVID, I’ve honestly been consuming so much more music, just because I’ve had time to run and listen.”
“The pandemic created a lot of space to work on music without all the usual distractions,” says musician Alison Martlew. “[And] it’s been great for my exercise routine.”
You might know Martlew from the legendary punk outfit The Butchies, as a member of Amy Ray’s band, and, more recently, from the scathing glitch/noise duo sister,brother, who melted my brain at Moogfest in 2018. Years of grueling tours inspired Martlew to get in top physical condition; these days, she’s an accomplished marathon runner. She has run three marathons to the soundtrack of Australian dance music shapeshifters The Presets.
“For long runs, I like a tempo that maintains the pace that I am trying to maintain,” Martlew says of The Presets. “They tend to fit into that zone. I have listened to their songs so much. Maybe it’s the magic of hyper-familiarity that I can use to even out my energetic and mental dynamics over the course of a few hours. They are my favorite running partner.”
On Martlew’s recommendation, I fired up The Presets’ 2005 album Beams on a recent rain-soaked jog. I found it fit exquisitely into the liminal space between invigorating and meditative.
That word—“meditative”—was a touchstone in my conversations with runners, musicians, and musician-runners. After all, for all its pleasures, running is an activity that can engender tremendous physical pain. Everyone I spoke with told me that music played some role in mediating or transmuting the discomfort that comes with major exertion. A consummate DJ set can keep a club churning long past the point where everyone should be in bed; the right music can push runners beyond their physical limitations.
Andy Stack, the multi-instrumentalist behind Joyero and one-half of Wye Oak, says that he finds the world “more beautiful with a soundtrack.”
“Music draws my attention from the exertion and makes time pass more swiftly,” he says. “And I’m sure there is a physiological connection with breathing and heart rate and pacing.” He adds that he would “rather run in combat boots” than run without music. “If my phone or my headphones go out mid-run, it’s twice as hard to keep moving,” he says.
Corbie Hill, a writer and music journalist who also fronts the Pittsboro band Land Is, echoes this sentiment. “Running without music is fine, but it’s not as meditative,” he says. “The sensation of moving forward, the sensation of exertion in your muscles, breathing in and out—those are meditative sensations, and the music is the focus of the meditation.”
His ancient, screenless iPod shuffle is loaded with all sorts of genres, but he often runs to the beats of DJ Shadow, Portishead, and Morcheeba. He was part of his high school’s cross country team, but found a renewed passion for running—and running fast—after he was diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia.
“I was like, I am going down fighting,” Hill says of his diagnosis. “I am going to do everything possible to improve my chances and just be in the best shape possible as a means to an end.”
Beyond robbing all of us of the possibility of communal musical experience, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on our shared mental health. Running has been shown to increase concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that moderates the brain’s response to stress, and multiple studies suggest that, generally speaking, exercise is a key to a happier you. But running to music remains an unaccompanied pursuit.
Hill says that the act of running is solitary, though not lonely.
“Most of my runs are just me going through Pittsboro and seeing my town on foot,” he says. “I live in a small town where I am connected with the community. There’s something precious and intimate about running past a friend’s house.”
On a recent run through Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, the weather was, for once, gloriously cool and shade-dappled. A track I’d listened to a hundred times came up: “The Difference It Makes” by The MFA, remixed by German minimalist doyen Superpitcher, a song I had come to rely on for its calm, determined propulsion. On this run, though, it filled me with a hyperreal happiness, a feeling I can only equate with that elusive runner’s high. It didn’t transcend the mundane; it colored the mundane transcendent.
In harrowing times, that feeling is precious.
“Music just kind of reminds me, OK,” Corbie Hill says. “We are propelling forward.”
Running and Listening
The label heads at Maison Fauna—Joe Bell, Nick DeNitto, Simon Briggs, Sean Garrett, and Sarah Damsky (aka Kir)—were kind enough to curate a Spotify playlist of some damn fine running music from artists who are currently striking their collective fancy. This playlist will be updated monthly, but here are a few highlights for now.
Baltra, “O’Neal” [IDNK; 2017] — A woozy R&B sample burns at the edges, almost swallowed by the duck and thrum of the heartbeat kick, while icy hi-hats keep the track from fading into vapor. A good track to get a run started.
Aleksandir, “Hard to Explain” [Artesian Sounds; 2019] —Friendly claps and heavily filtered piano keep this welltempered house banger floating along through seven blissful minutes. Peaceful and sexy—just like you?
Harrison BDP, “Sun Dial” [Berg Audio; 2020] —Skipping, percolating house beats imbue this track with all the momentum it needs, as gauzy snippets of melody rise and fall like radio transmissions.
Earth Boys, “Piff Party” [Wolf Music Recordings; 2020] —The sampled sounds of birds and tree frogs—plus what seems like the sparking of a blunt—will make you feel like you’re running through a rad party in the woods. The wobbly baseline is a delight.
Jon Hopkins, “Collider” [Domino; 2013] — Jon Hopkins’ tracks tend to sound broken at the beginning, but they usually resolve into breathtaking feats of syncopated psychedelia. Fire this one up when your run needs a dose of something spiritual.
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