The hosts of WLUW’s Abstract Science reflect on the electronic music radio show’s 20-year history ahead of its thousandth episode | Bleader

The hosts of WLUW’s Abstract Science reflect on the electronic music radio show’s 20-year history ahead of its thousandth episode

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The Abstract Science Team, from left: Henry Self, Chris Widman, Luke Stokes, and Joshua P. Ferguson. - KATHLEEN KAZIMIR
  • Kathleen Kazimir
  • The Abstract Science Team, from left: Henry Self, Chris Widman, Luke Stokes, and Joshua P. Ferguson.

At 10 AM on Thursday, July 6, Chris Widman, Henry Self, Luke Stokes, and Joshua P. Ferguson will settle into the studio for WLUW 88.7 FM at Loyola University's School of Communications—they'll have to get comfortable, because they're planning to stick around till 6 AM the following day. The DJs regularly appear on WLUW as the hosts of Abstract Science, a program that's focused on the breadth of electronic music rather than a specific genre beneath that large umbrella, but their block usually takes up the last two hours of Thursday night.

The version of Abstract Science that will air on July 6, however, is special—it's the program's thousandth episode, which is why its hosts will take over the station's controls for 20 consecutive hours. "It was sort of this crazy idea I came up with—like, 'Well, surely someone will shut me down at some point,'" Widman says. "But everyone's, like, 'That's a great idea!'"

Abstract Science began 20 years ago at the University of Missouri's student-run station, KCOU, but its founders' history runs even further back to when 40-year-old Widman and 39-year-old Self were fifth graders in Kansas City, Missouri. "It was joining the Boy Scout troupe in Kansas City that brought us together," Self says. The pair remained close through the years, and attended the same grade school, middle school, high school, and college. Music wound up being a glue that allowed Widman and Self's friendship to stick, and Widman pinpoints one shared musical experience as setting the foundation for Abstract Science: "It probably goes all the way back to when [Self] suckered me into joining the Columbia House Music Club."

Widman found his way to electronic music through hip-hop via a local DJ collective called Flavorpak. "They would do these DJ parties—some of them would be at VFW halls and warehouses and things—and through that aspect of DJ culture I got introduced to other aspects of dance music and electronic music," he says. "That's how we got into DJing." As U.S. rave culture began to seep into the midwest in the early 90s, Widman, Self, and a clutch of friends began to explore the dance music communities within reach of their own. "Chris, Adam Brown [another friend], and I would very frequently drive to Saint Louis or Chicago or Louisville for raves," Self says. "Being such a participatory culture, you look around, you see all these cool people making cool things happen, and you want to contribute."

Self found his "in" while working at 7th Heaven, a Kansas City record shop a stone's throw from the high school he attended with Widman; the store's incense vendor was a hip-hop DJ who was looking to get out of the nightlife game by the mid-90s. "He mentioned that he was looking to offload his turntables 'cause he and his wife were starting a family, and he needed to settle down," Self says. "I was like, 'My friend and I need turntables—how much are they?' And we got them for a steal." Self, Widman, and a couple other friends chipped in for the decks and a sound system. Their friend Adam Brown lived in an old farm house—the family's plot of land included an old barn, and the aspiring DJs set up their gear in the barn's loft. It was the spring of 1995—Widman and Self's senior year—and Widman, who was the section leader of his high school's drum line, took to DJing. "I'd tried to play in some different bands and things like that, but it was hard to find people to collaborate with on that level," he says. "DJing was sort of the next best thing—an even better thing, because you would collaborate with other people, but as far as performing you could do it on your own."

In the fall of 1995 Widman and Self began their first year at the University of Missouri. They immediately signed up to join the ranks of KCOU, but it would take a few semesters for the pair to launch Abstract Science. "We wanted to do an electronic music speciality show, and they already had one," Widman says. "The music director and programming director were very resistant to the idea of another electronic show. It was, like, Pavement or the highway—no pun intended." Widman and Self worked graveyard radio shifts and subbed whenever they were needed; they also would DJ on a small, pirate radio station operating out of a dorm while they waited for their moment. "Henry and I ended up taking executive positions at the radio station," Widman says. "He became operations director, and I became the promotions director our sophomore year. At that point they couldn't deny us our show, 'cause we were on the exec board and we were putting in all these extra hours."

Widman and Self finally launched Abstract Science in January 1997. Widman says he got the name from Headz, a 1994 compilation from influential UK label Mo Wax—one of the record labels is emblazoned with the words "Abstract Musical Science." They had the sweet spot on Friday evenings, taking over the airwaves at 7 PM and wrapping up at 10, just as their peers began to make their way out to parties. Though aspects of the show have changed since its inception, Widman says the program's focus remains the same. "We've always been interested in new music and new artists, and then also placing it in a context of where we are," he says. "It's not only weird experimental music and club music, but it's also how popular music intersects with that world."

At KCOU Widman and Self met Luke Stokes, now 42, who helmed a Saturday night show focused on ambient and world music. A Wisconsin native who fell for radio after seeing Christian Slater in the 1990 pirate radio flick Pump Up the Volume, Stokes bounced between Missouri and Wisconsin before landing at KCOU, collecting music gigs along the way—he briefly worked with defunct alt-rock band My Little Dog China, and talked his way into a job at a Missouri recording studio. He moved to Chicago in 1998, with his heart set on working in music. "I did whatever I could to make it, basically, in the music industry," Stokes says. "That's all I knew I wanted to work in." He spent about five years with Martin Atkins's industrial label Invisible Records, and got a security gig at Metro.

In 1999 another Metro security guard told Stokes about an opening for an electronic show at WLUW, and Stokes eagerly applied for it. When he received the WLUW slot, he hit up Widman and Self with a pitch. "I was like, 'I'll piggyback your playlists, I'll do Abstract Science here, and you can do it there,'" Stokes says. He launched the Chicago version of the show in September 1999; Abstract Science existed as two simultaneous programs only for a brief time, as Self and Widman graduated from college that year. Self moved to LA, and in January 2000 Widman moved to Chicago. "Without skipping a beat, [Widman] went from one show down in Missouri, moved up to Chicago and just did the next week's show in Chicago," Stokes says.

Self enrolled in law school at UCLA, and for a few years couldn't do much with Abstract Science. Once he graduated in 2002, he found a way to contribute from the west coast. "I was remotely pre-recording a segment, burning it to CD-R, and mailing it up to Chris's house in Chicago," Self says. "Fortunately bandwidth has extended since then, and I no longer have to mail them anything—I can just upload my portion to Dropbox." While Self buried himself in law books, Widman and Stokes quickly built up a reputation for Abstract Science in Chicago.

Widman arrived to town during a shift in the dance scene. In May 2000, the city of Chicago quietly passed an anti-rave ordinance, and anyone caught throwing a party without a Public Place of Amusement license—which not only included promoters and DJs but also property owners—could be fined upwards of $10,000. Meanwhile the late-90s major label electronica boom began to fade. More and more touring dance acts that could play in Chicago, big or small, were filtered through the club system, often playing in intimate spaces.

The shift benefitted Abstract Science in small ways. Stokes had pitched the staff at Metro on a Smart Bar residency on Mondays, a particularly vexing night when it comes to bringing people into clubs. "We were happy if we could drag 150 people in on a Monday," Stokes says. "And the club wasn't complaining." That residency, Abstract Sessions, launched in 2001, and helped the DJ collective gain traction in the nightlife scene and land some great opening gigs at Smart Bar. "Whenever they'd have an event coming up, like Alex Paterson from the Orb, Scanner, or some of these underground acts, they would throw them on our night: 'Here you go, guys, open up for this,'" Stokes says. Through playing alongside touring national and international acts, Stokes began an ongoing project—recording touring electronic acts to air on Abstract Science.

In 2002, as Self finished law school, Stokes began working as a freelance tour manager and merchandiser. Self's CD-R contributions were especially welcome as Stokes spent less time in Chicago and more time making sure metal acts such as Dope and Mushroomhead made it from one show to the next in one piece. As the years wore on and Abstract Science celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, the team decided to expand. Widman found a new collaborator in Joshua P. Ferguson, who at the time served as the nightlife editor for Time Out Chicago.

Ferguson, now 37, got into electronic music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A roommate of his was from London—he introduced Ferguson to the UK's rich pirate radio culture and one of its chief exports at the time, drum 'n' bass. "We were stoners, so we got into some of the more chillout side of electronic music," he says. Before moving here in 2003, Ferguson would drive to Chicago to see electronic shows, and he'd occasionally catch Widman spinning an opening set. The two would cross paths more once Ferguson got settled in town, and not exclusively through going to clubs—before joining the staff at Time Out Chicago, he worked as the head of sales for dance music wholesaler Groove Distribution. "I'm sure Chris and I crossed paths there as well—even though we were a wholesaler, you could come in one or two nights a week as just a customer and buy records direct from us," Ferguson says. "It's completely possible that Chris was coming in and we kind of struck up a conversation there."

Widman saw a partner in Ferguson and asked him to join the Abstract Science team in 2012. Ferguson offered not just a new voice, but, as he says, "I could bring this extra element of contact with artists, so either having them do guest sets with us or being able to do interviews." Ferguson would regularly interview artists through Time Out, and anything that couldn't make it to print was game for Abstract Science. Through the years he's brought Abstract Science interviews with pop-forward LA-based producer Bonobo, German heavies Modeselektor, and Danish chillout wiz Trentemoller, among others. "We had [Public Enemy Bomb Squad member] Hank Shocklee come in and do an interview in the studio," Ferguson says. "He was here doing a press junket for that 808 documentary—I was able to ask him a few questions live, which was a really spectacular honor."

Along with chipping in interviews, Ferguson helped expand Abstract Science's online presence by writing for the show's website, which first launched in 2002. Longtime friend of the show Colin Harris (who collaborates with Widman in the electronic group Quadratic) helped maintain the site's upkeep through the years, one of many tasks he's helped out with behind the scenes; Harris and Kim Schlechter, both of whom lived with Widman for a spell, help out with the logistics and finances for Abstract Science's club events. Harris hasn't had a hand in the site since its last update in 2014, when Abstract Science also launched its podcast—another outlet for maintaining the show's deep archive. (The site also hosts the exclusive live recordings the Abstract Science team has compiled through the years.)


These days half the Abstract Science team doesn't live in Chicago, which can make planning the weekly show a bit of a challenge. Stokes, struggling with the stress of tour life and mounting health issues, left the music industry completely; in June 2014 he moved to Colorado, where he's growing medical marijuana and raising a family. But even with the distance separating the hosts, the show is a relatively well-oiled machine. The biggest issue might be deciding who gets dibs on a hot track—Ferguson mentions he and Self tend to overlap in terms of taste. "Now we just joke about it," Ferguson says. "It'll either be like, 'Hey, like, I know you're loving this new single, why don't you go ahead and play it this week?' Or 'Hey, I'm loving this new single, do you mind if I can play it this week?'"

Chances are slim that any of the DJs will be inclined to want to repeat a song during the thousandth episode. It'll be a chance to reflect on more than 20 years of sharing music, and also be an opportunity for other DJs to share their favorites with the Abstract Science team; among the special guests who will help celebrate the milestone are locals Chrissy and M50, Indianapolis's DJ Shiva, and Monolake, the veteran German composer who, among many accomplishments, helped develop the music-production software Ableton Live.

"In one sense it's just another episode that we've already done a thousand times before," Widman says. "On the other hand, it is this big, monumental accomplishment to us. Ultimately, we got involved in doing the radio show, and have continued to do it—it's always just because we love sharing music."




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