Written and published by X and Alana Ryan
Whether you’re an avid techno fan, or are simply interested in branching out into other subgenres of EDM, best friend - now married - duo, Marissa and Rae, who collectively go by the stage name, TonalTheory, are looking to completely transform and expand your perception of what techno music can be defined as. In this interview, I got the opportunity to ask Marissa and Rae about what specifically sets TonalTheory apart from other artists in the current industry, and how their passion for sound design, genre-bending, and above all, creating music together, has gotten them to where they are now in the DC underground music scene. They also provided me with a sneak peek into how they’re looking to expand their musical horizons moving forward, all while continuing to encourage diversity, positivity, and open mindedness to all genres, within the EDM community.
What genre do you two make? Why specifically this genre?
"We are all about breaking down genre boundaries, specifically in Hard Techno, but with a flare of Trance elements! We strongly believe in the timelessness of the genre and we always want to make music that will stand the test of time. Some people say that Techno is too repetitive, but if you really immerse yourself and listen closely, each element gives it that extra layer upon layer, and you really start to lose yourself in it. Sometimes in our productions, we like to incorporate melodic moments, which really speak to our classical backgrounds as well."
What does your music making process look like?
Rae: "We think we really build off of each other! Marissa is very strong with the sound design and putting down the ideas and technicalities with the DAW. Sometimes it just comes so naturally for her and she would sit down and record amazing ideas effortlessly. And then, I would usually look into the finishing part of the track such as the arrangement: Does the energy transfer work here? Did this sound make sense? What else should be happening here? Et cetera."
I’ve been around plenty of production collaborations, and I’ve noticed that building off one another is exactly what a collaboration needs. It’s not about one upping each other or a balance of power, it’s about what each artist thinks the song needs and how they can make it better. It seems to me from the sound of their music that Marissa and Rae make a great team and really know how to structure their music collaboratively.
How did both of you first get into music? When did you start producing together?
Marissa: "I started learning how to play the piano from a very young age and also played the viola as part of an orchestra until college. Once I got to college, I was definitely more focused on academics, but I still needed an outlet for my passion for music and I had to find a way to make my own allowances as a college student. Then in 2011, I opened up a credit card, maxed out on it to purchase all of the equipment, and started hauling them to gigs and bars every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and started DJing! That’s when I met Rae!"
Rae: "I have always been around music since I was young. My dad plays the guitar, and my mom was actually in a folk band so they would always introduce me to new music, at home, on trips, everywhere we go, there was music. So that’s how I started learning how to play the guitar and spent about 8 years in a classical guitar ensemble throughout my high school and college years. That’s when I met Marissa, in college, and she was doing a lot of gigs at bars and formals and we became best friends!"
How is it being a duo? Have you experienced any challenges?
Rae: "We went into music as best friends and we quickly found out that we had a common mind and passion towards music. So, when we sat down and decided to do it together, it was not a difficult decision. Being a duo definitely comes with some challenges though. The biggest challenge for us is the prejudice that comes with being a female and male duo. Up until recently, when we walked up to a venue, I cannot count how many times I was met with 'Who’s the DJ?' When we say we both are, Marissa always gets pointed out with a look and gets told “You’re not a DJ” with a chuckle, or even better, she gets blocked from walking into the venue and gets told “Oh you are not allowed to go inside until the door opens,” as if she is just another female friend that I brought with me to get inside together early before the show starts. We would always just shrug it off and reiterate the fact that we really are both DJs and a duo group because we want to be respectful and avoid any unnecessary altercation. It has definitely gotten better but it is something that we worry about for sure and that’s why I always remind people that she is the one that taught me everything I know!"
Unfortunately, this is such a common situation in the music industry. Women get pushed to the side or discriminated against simply because we live in a misogynistic society. It’s especially common when it comes to producing music. The only reason you don’t see more women producing is not because we can’t or don’t know how to produce, it’s because it’s harder to get to the top without running into men who don’t respect us. It’s great to know that Marissa has someone like Rae to point out these issues as well. These two are very lucky to have each other.
Where have you guys performed?
"It’s been a roller coaster for us in the DC scene but we’ve played possibly everywhere from a small dive bar, to major clubs in DC, including Flash, Soundcheck, and U Street Music Hall that would book techno artists over the years. We recently made our major festival debut at Insominac’s Project Glow Festival in May and had an amazing time playing back to back - techno and trance with our brother Ricky S. But our absolute favorite has to be the intimate DIY warehouse parties in DC, and Philly. We recently made our debut in LA with TechnoFamLA and will be playing for Taken Music Experience for our New York debut soon!"
Are there any good stories from any shows or festivals you’ve performed at?
"It’s not necessarily a show that we played at but back in early March of this year, we recently worked on a video production project to really showcase our music and it was something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. It was a passion project for all of us involved including videography, lighting design & production, video editing, and of course, our music. Our Decibel Collective team members each shot an hour set in one of the DC warehouses that we throw events at and we literally pitched a tent in the warehouse and spent 4 days building and recording the set in the space. Unfortunately, the heating system in the warehouse was not working so we had to bring portable heaters and radiators to keep ourselves warm overnight but the best part was, one morning, we woke up to a 50-degree room and found out that we had 3 inches of snow overnight! We were all seriously concerned about the project for sure then. But we were able to finish the shoot and it was such a memorable and rewarding experience for all of us. It was definitely an honor to be noticed by one of the biggest techno promoters in Los Angeles and have the opportunity to have it featured on 6AM Group. We are very excited for people to see what we have created together, which is now available to stream on 6AM’s YouTube channel!"
"We really want to thank Sarah and Anzhonny for their magical work behind the cameras, as well as Will and Lance who spent 3 sleepless nights to set up the lighting production for this shoot. Also, Adam, who has put in countless hours to the final edits to make sure it looks perfect, and lastly our Decibel Collective team, Henry, Andrew, and Matthew, for their amazing artistry in their music. We’re so proud to be part of this team!"
@sarahnoellephoto, @anzhonnyc, @kroma.prd, @thedecibelcollective, @synthdc @invigoratedartists
What is it about producing music that makes you so passionate?
"Being able to see the same emotions you put into your music reflected in another person we think is so powerful. We believe that music has always been the most powerful means to connect people and that is what drives our passion in it!"
What is one message you would both like to give to your audience? Do you have any advice for beginners?
"We always say that - and this has been our motto - if our music impacts one person, if it moves one person, then that’s all that matters and it is all worth it in the end. We see a lot of amazing new artists in the scene with a lot of drive and passion, and we want to support them in any way we can because that’s what keeps our DC music scene healthy and ever-evolving, but it is sometimes sad to see them wither out from the scene so quickly. Surely everyone has their own journey and their own ups and downs, but sometimes we think that instant gratification gets the better of them. It took us 11 years to get to where we are now, knocking on bars and clubs and establishing genuine connections with people, and we still have such a long way to go. Patience is key and do not lose sight of what actually matters most, which is the music, and it should always be the number one priority. With this mindset, we really think you’ll be able to make your journey much more enjoyable! One practical piece of advice we can give is record every set and critically listen to them. We think that what will set you apart is the ability of story-telling through your music."
What are your goals for the next two years? Where do you think you guys will be? What is it that you want to be doing?
"We strongly feel that the next two years are very crucial for us. We want to keep the momentum going. Keep creating music and work hard towards opportunities to share it with more people out in the world, whether that is releasing on big labels outside of the US that we’ve been looking up to or playing in unknown territories for more people to hear and feel what TonalTheory can offer. While focusing on growing our label, Undertone, that we launched in 2021, we want to expand our knowledge to provide professional mixing and mastering services for other artists! We want to do what lights a fire in us and that is through music. One of our biggest passions is to build music scores for films and indie games so we would love to expand our music into that space as well."
Is there anything you would change about the industry?
"When we were younger, as a Korean immigrant and Korean-Mexican minority we struggled with our identities. And especially jumping into the music scene, it was very difficult to find our place and feel accepted with our backgrounds. We’ve always felt that there hasn’t been enough Asian representation in the scene. Therefore, it has always been our goal to be a part of the development and hopefully help drive the change and support for Asians and minorities especially in the underground techno community. Secondly, we would love to bridge the gap between the techno and trance communities. When traced back to their origins, Techno and Trance always went hand in hand but we feel that it’s become increasingly divided in today’s electronic music world. This was a huge part of the reason for the launch of our label, Undertone, and its vision - bending genre boundaries - our focus is on creating music that breaks down these walls. We are a strong believer that we should be listening to music based on how it makes you feel and the depth of the story it tries to tell. People before our generation took music for what it was and we hope to inspire today’s industry to be more lenient and accepting for what it still is, music."
What makes you two unique in this industry?
"Us both being Koreans, we are definitely proud of our heritage, and we always try to incorporate some of the Korean cultural elements in our music productions. We actually have a 4-track EP coming out soon on one of the Berlin techno labels (SINDEX), that we’ve been really wanting to work with for a long time, and two of the tracks on the EP actually have samples that we took from one of our favorite Korean films called Man From Nowhere, and of course, some are also from the infamous Netflix series, Squid Games! We are really excited for this EP especially because we always hear techno tracks with these amazing vocal samples, primarily in English, German, French, you name it! but we always found it difficult to find tracks with samples that were in Korean! So, this was definitely a part of our effort in bringing more awareness and representation to the scene with our culture and we believe we can provide that unique vision and sound through our music."
Do you have a good support system?
"Every person that we’ve connected with and that’s believed in us has kept us going for sure. We’ve also met some of our best friends, whom we consider our family, through music. Especially our friends at Synthesis, who have been leading the trance and techno community in DC for over 6 years, and our Decibel Collective team, who has been on the forefront of showcasing the best of the underground in our DC scene. They are truly the supporting backbone of our passion and we can’t thank them enough for their friendship and support. But of course, our best support system is having each other for sure. We’re constantly uplifting one another and being each other’s biggest advocate and supporter, which has really helped us build TonalTheory into what it means today."
What’s your next move?
"We are working on our first-ever vinyl release on our label, Undertone, consisting of our original productions that we’ve been meaning to share with everyone so we really hope to make that a reality soon! We think that this will really take our label to the next level and lay the groundwork to reach a broader audience. With that, we hope to focus on aligning a tour soon, hitting the major cities in the US, and bringing our own vision to people who are passionate about music and the Techno community."
Overall, TonalTheory is a powerful duo. Their music is intense, mysterious, and groundbreaking. You will definitely be catching me at their shows. You can catch TonalTheory performing alongside the Possession Techno artist, ØTTA, Saturday, August 20th, at H0L0 on 1090 Wyckoff Ave, Queens, NY 11385 as they make their New York debut. Also, make sure to follow the duo on Instagram so you don’t miss any updates on what current musical projects they’re planning on releasing and where they’ll be performing next in the DC area: @tonaltheory