Jeff Derringer Looks Ahead After Battling Cancer

The last time we interviewed Chicago-based producer, DJ, and Oktave boss Jeff Derringer was in September of 2016. A lot has happened in the world, and with Jeff personally, since that time. He played fantastic gigs at Bassiani in Georgia and Berghain in Berlin, and we even had the pleasure of hosting him in Los Angeles for one of our WORK events.

This past summer, however, Jeff was forced to take a break from performing to fight a relapse of cancer. This meant undergoing major surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes in his neck, as well as post-surgery chemo and Proton Theraphy. When he announced the unfortunate news on social media, Jeff made a promise to himself, “I’ve beaten this dreadful disease once before and I fully intend on doing so again.” Needless to say, he fought hard and kept his word following several harsh months that required him to take a step back from touring and his involvement with Chicago’s techno scene as a Smartbar resident and head of Oktave.

The great news is that Jeff is back behind the booth and ready to tour once more. Not only that, but he took what was undoubtedly an unfortunate situation and made the most of it, using the down-time at his disposal to produce music and launch Oktave Records, a goal of his that he had had for quite some time now. The label debuted with Jeff’s very own Control EP, featuring three originals from the man himself, and also kicked off a podcast mix series that has so far hosted quality techno the likes of Iori, Altstadt Echo and Annie Hall.

In light of all of this we decided that it was time to sit down with Jeff newly and go through everything that has happened in the second half of 2017, as well as to look ahead to the future that is now surely ahead of him!

Hey Jeff, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Firstly let me say how happy I am to be talking to you today and to see you back in action. As our readers may know, you recently underwent a second round of cancer treatment which I know was no easy thing and took a lot of strength and courage. First things first, how are you feeling today?

Thanks for the kind words! I’m doing ok. I’m about six weeks out from my last radiation and chemo treatments. It hasn’t been easy, although I’ve managed to keep a positive and productive mindset throughout. Having been through it once before has helped, believe it or not. There were less surprises this time, and that eliminated a certain amount of stress. I’m still having some physical challenges with my throat and what not, but I’m trying to take it in stride and get back to normal after what was a very difficult, intense and stressful summer.

I can only imagine. I remember we talked on the phone after your diagnosis and you told me the story of how you found our right after playing Berghain. If you don’t mind, can you tell us what happened?

I don’t mind! I had just landed in Berlin and was at the hotel really early. My room wasn’t ready so I went to breakfast. When I took a sip of orange juice, it stung the back of my throat. I thought I was getting a cold. But I went through the whole weekend in Berlin and I didn’t get sick – yet the strange sensation in my throat persisted. I got back to the States, and I decided that with my throat history, I should probably go see my doctor and find out what was wrong. I didn’t for a minute think it was cancer – I’d been healthy for thirteen years! It took about three weeks to get in to see the Otolaryngologist, but once I did they quickly found a swelling in my right neck that I hadn’t noticed. They scoped me, and that was that – I had a tumor on my tongue. It took them all of ten minutes to detect it.

“This mess represents where they went into my throat to remove the tumor from my tongue, and also where they cleared out about 40 lymph nodes from my right neck. This scar meets up nicely with the left neck scar from my 2004 cancer. I hear people like symmetry, so I got that going for me. #fuckcancer”

You had to go through an operation first, right?

Yes, the first step was ten hours of surgery. I was in the hospital for nine days. It was basically like getting hit by a truck. I was completely flattened.

Can you talk us through the kind of treatment you had to do post-op?

When I was released from the hospital, I was weak and I wasn’t allowed to swallow anything. I had what they call a G tube, which is medical speak for a stomach tube. That’s how I took nutrition for about a month. I also still had a tube in my trachea, which was a disaster. I was pretty much a disaster all over for a while. After about a week they took out the trach tube, which was a big relief. Four weeks after surgery, they cleared me to swallow liquids and soft foods. Five weeks after surgery, I started the post-operative treatment.

I’d already had radiation to the left side of my neck, so they were worried about radiating the right side. Generally, they won’t give you radiation to the same part of your body twice. But they were able to get me approved for a new kind of radiation called Proton Therapy, which is gentler both during the treatment and with the long-term side effects. I was lucky to get it.

Proton Therapy is similar to standard radiation therapy, except it’s a bigger room, a bigger machine that houses the Proton beam, and it’s a little bit longer laying on the table every day. Before you start the whole process, they cast a plastic mask of your face and neck. During treatment, they place the mask over you and use it to bolt you to the table – the beam is very precise and any slight movement could throw everything off. The mask is uncomfortable but not painful. If you’re claustrophobic, it would likely be a problem. I did thirty-three Proton treatments overall.

I was also given Chemotherapy, but not as a primary treatment. Chemotherapy is not traditionally used for throat cancer patients, but they’re utilizing it more and more as a way to ‘boost’ the radiation therapy. I did it in 2004 as well. This time I was dead set against it, as Chemo is hard, it has lousy side effects and it’s dangerous long term. I was on the verge of refusing Chemo, but at the last minute I changed my mind. My thinking was “I’ve now had two throat cancers. A third will likely kill me. If I get it again, I don’t want to look back and think there was something else I could have done to avoid another recurrence. The regret would be unbearable.” So I decided to do the Chemo – and I’m glad I did.

What does that mean now, as far as the cancer and future chances of a recurrence?

It’s early and I don’t really know where I stand as of this interview, other than I’m still in recovery from treatment. When they operated on me, they got all the cancer out. My understanding is that they got 100%, and my margins were clean (meaning no cancer had escaped the cells they found and removed). The radiation and Chemo were precautionary.

I had all these same results in 2004. I was clean for thirteen years, and then it came back. With a recurrence already in my history, another one is more likely. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen, especially in my throat – I’m sure that goes without saying! I am otherwise healthy, I have a really positive outlook, and music and my family keep me motivated. I think with cancer, you have to have a survivor’s mentality. It’s not a matter of being tough or brave. It’s a matter of doing what you have to do to survive, and give yourself the best odds of doing it over the long term. It’s mostly out of your control – the mental part is something where you can give yourself an advantage. If you can be positive and motivated, I think you have a better chance of staying alive.

You gave regular updates throughout this process via social media, a personal choice that really highlighted the honest truth of cancer and the treatment process. Why did you make the choice to do so?

Cancer is isolating and it separates you from other people, both when you’re being treated and in your life afterwards. Communicating with people via social media was a nice way to stay connected to the ‘outside’ world. I didn’t have that tool in 2004 and I wanted to take advantage of it.

I’m a pretty direct person and I I didn’t have anything to hide. I certainly wasn’t ashamed of what I was going through, and am going through still. I’ve always felt like cancer survivors have a responsibility to help other people who are dealing with that specific kind of hell, as well as their loved ones. So as I was living it, I wanted to be open and communicative, to let my experience help anyone else who might be going through something similar. Just as important, I wanted to be sure my friends and the people I care about knew I was ok, I was strong, and I was going to make it.

It makes sense, it’s an approach I completely agree with. It was during this period that you also announced the launch of Oktave Records, your new label. Congratulations on the first release, the beautiful vinyl and also the podcast series which has been amazing. How long has that project been brewing?

I’ve wanted to start my own label for as long as I can remember. Even when I was young and I wasn’t listening to Techno, I thought having a label of my own would be amazing. I’ve always been a DIY, project-oriented person, and I’ve always tried to turn other people on to the music I’m passionate about. Since I started Oktave in 2009, I’ve thought it a natural progression to turn the night into a label. But for lots of practical reasons, I never did. It was only in February of this year that it started to come together. I had an old friend come visit me in Chicago, someone who is not at all related to the music business, and he offered to float me the money to get it started. I went to work after that.

The timing, however, couldn’t have been better. All three tracks were finished before I was diagnosed and had to go for surgery. But all the administrative and design work had to be done after. At first I thought this might be problematic, but it turned out to be a great project for me to work on while I was recovering and starting treatment. It helped me to sit at my computer in the studio in my pajamas, organizing the details and laying out the look and feel of the label. It helped to keep my mind off things I’d otherwise be thinking about. I’ll certainly always remember the feeling of getting those records in the mail and seeing the whole release come together, made into something I could touch and see and hold. I’d had a terrible day physically, and when the records came and I opened the box it gave me a huge boost.

What’s your goal with the imprint?

I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to you or anyone reading this interview that running a Techno label isn’t a big money-making endeavor. It certainly isn’t about that.

For me, the label has several positive outcomes. First, it gives me an outlet to release my own music without going through the always exhausting process of submitting music to a label. While I still intend on releasing the occasional record on other labels, Oktave Records gives me the freedom to release the music I want to release, when I want to release it. Secondly, I love curating, which should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention to Oktave for the last eight years. The label gives me the opportunity to release music from producers I really respect. Yes, I’ll be putting out records from established producers, and yes, I will also be putting out records from newer artists who I think deserve a chance. More than anything, Oktave Records gives me a new project to work on and to expand on what I’ve already built in the community.

I know some of the names lined up for future releases… can you reveal any publicly?

I don’t have a ton set in stone. I intend to have a distinct pattern with the label – all odd-numbered releases will come from me (001, 003, 005…) and all even-numbered releases will come from guest artists. 002 is coming from Iori, whose work I’ve always loved. We’ve worked together before, and he was a natural fit for the label. That record is already in production and it’s brilliant. Some other names in the mix are Giorgio Gigli, another old friend, as well as newer producers like Christian Gerlach, Sophia Saze and Motionen. After that, things are still pretty loose.

If you could choose ONE producer you really admire to release on Oktave, who would it be?

That’s a tough question – there are so many artists I admire. I’ve always loved Function’s tracks and played them out. All the Sandwell District guys. Dasha Rush is another big talent I’d want Oktave Records to be associated with. I’d also be really excited to put out tracks from Abdullah Rashim/Anthony Linell. Paula Temple as well. I could probably name twenty other artists whose work I love and would be thrilled to put out. Let’s see where the label goes…

You’re continuing the Oktave parties at Smartbar. What can the Chicago techno faithful expect as far as those in the coming year? Will they be as frequent as before?

I guess that depends on how you describe ‘frequent.’ Three or four years ago I was doing a monthly, maybe even more. Thirteen to fifteen shows a year. That was probably too much. However, 2017 was particularly quiet, mostly because of my health situation. Ideally I would love to be doing around six or seven shows a year at Smartbar, and maybe a rare underground here and there. I’ve never been a big underground event guy – the risk is generally beyond my appetite. However, with the right partners an underground can be fun and the energy cannot be replicated in a club setting.

You’ve done Oktave events in New York, where you were first based, and of course at Movement. Do you plan to come back to Detroit with the brand this coming Memorial Day Weekend?

I’ve done Movement pre-parties multiple times over the years. They’re a lot of fun and the energy is awesome there. Once again, it’s about the partnerships. If I can find the right partners, I’d be totally into going another round at Movement. Know anyone?

We do, actually… but for now let’s talk a little bit about your career as an artist. You’ve been playing a few gigs in Europe, including two colossal venues in Berghain and Bassiani. Can we expect you to get around the Old Continent more next year?

I love playing in Europe. The crowds there are generally more interested in Techno than they are in the States. That’s not a knock on the States, but a tribute to the European audience and their level of commitment to Techno. I’ve been playing at Berghain since 2013, and I certainly hope I’ll do it again in 2018 and beyond. I will definitely be back at Bassiani in the first part of 2018, so I’m hoping to string some dates together around that show. This will very likely be Spring 2018, which will be my first time back to Europe since the hiatus.

I am not in a position to tour Europe to the extent that some other American artists do. I have commitments in Chicago that restrict my travel, particularly the need for health insurance, which, with my health history, requires a steady job. Going to Europe three times a year is probably the ideal number for me. This was the pattern in 2015 and 2016. In 2018, I’m going to have to remind bookers I still exist, and that I’m healthy enough to gig.

We wish you the best with that. How about back in the States, any plans to reach beyond Chicago?

Over the last month or so I’ve been approached by promoters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and New York. I’m hopeful that it all comes together. I certainly intend on traveling the States, but here again, I’ll have to see how my health holds up.

Of course, health is first! Let’s forget the music for a second. What else in life gives you joy that isn’t music related?

Outside of my dog Samson, straight up joy has been hard to come by in 2017. I do love reading – I constantly have my face in a book and I’ve read some great ones this year. I’m working on a History of Club Culture class for Columbia College Chicago, and I’m reading (and re-reading) a lot of books for that curriculum, which is fun.

I’m close with my family and it’s important to spend time with them. Going to the movies gives me joy. Blade Runner 2049 brought me joy in 2017! Twin Peaks The Return as well. You can pretty much say I was obsessed with Twin Peaks this year.

Right on. So what do you like doing in Chicago if you’re not working on music?

Essentially I’m working all the time. I teach at Columbia, I teach at Apple, and when I’m not doing either of those I’m writing music, experimenting in the studio, working on a set or a mix, or catching a few stray minutes with Sam. I know that might sound very grim, but that’s the truth of it.

Not to jump right from that to more macabre discussion but you’ve been very outspoken about your political stance in the current climate here in the U.S., and have participated in various initiatives to raise funds for groups that protect the civil liberties of all Americans. How do you see the current Trump presidency panning out seeing he still has at least 3+ years left in office?

Speaking of grim? Honestly I’ve backed off talking about politics publicly. I was ranting on Twitter after the election and for several months after, but coming down with a case of Stage 4 throat cancer certainly changes your perspective on what you should be complaining about.

I despise the current administration and the signs in America of creeping totalitarianism. Trump will pass one way or another, but the underlying trend is what bothers me – the fact that some Americans are ok with Trump and all he’s come to represent. There are people in America I don’t recognize or understand. Some of that is just a by-product of getting old. But some of the anger, aggression, and willful ignorance and stupidity is new. We have a lot of problems in this country.

I couldn’t agree more. You often hear people state that artists and the like should keep their mouth shut when it comes to politics or related matters. What’s your response?

I’m a die-hard believer in the First Amendment and anyone’s right to say anything they please. Far be it from me to tell anyone what to say, or when they should say it. I’m far from perfect and I try to be open to all perspectives. I do think there are people in the underground community who should say less, generally.

That takes me to an important social media subject, which has been debated in the techno community recently. What’s your take on the use of social media in today’s industry?

Oof. Scene questions. You can really get yourself into trouble here. Generally speaking my philosophy is be present, but say as little as necessary. Not everyone agrees with that philosophy, and that’s ok. Promotional strategies are hard. Social media is an integral part of the underground music scene, no question. I would say there are definitely some people who do it better than others.

Ok one last question: if you were on a dance floor, what would you consider makes a truly great techno set?

I appreciate narrative, first and foremost. I don’t want to be slammed in the face for three or four hours straight. I like to hear an overall dynamic flow in a set – tell me a story! Next it’s energy – there are Techno producers I love who outthink themselves in the booth. They simply don’t bring enough gas. They forget that above all we are entertainers and we have an audience in front of us that wants to dance, generally speaking. Especially at a place like Smartbar, where it’s a hard-working crowd out for the weekend and they want to be challenged a little less, and catered to a little more. Last, I would hope to be surprised once or twice – with recognition, with a big dynamic shift, anything to keep me a little bit on my toes and guessing.