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Vital Signs

Photo by Christian Petersen

Vinyl obsessives like Dr. Troy 
are reinvigorating Seattle’s 
underground DJ culture.

"Hey Troy, what time do you play tonight?”

It was a Friday afternoon in early June when I messaged Troy Wadsworth, aka Dr. Troy, who was DJing at Kremwerk, the dance club in Denny Triangle, at some point that evening.

“11:45–12:30,” he texted back. “Too late :)”

“I predict a disco nap in my future,” I replied, feeling old.

“Let’s call it an industrial techno nap.”

To which I “LOLOL”ed, because Wadsworth knows his oeuvre well enough and loves it unrepentantly enough to crack a wry joke about it.

There’s something comical about Wadsworth’s musical habits, an implied grin wrought not of insincerity or condescension but from the awareness of an obsession, deep and precise and maybe a little absurd in its fervor. One who can laugh at his obsession is not ruined by it. Wadsworth laughs a lot.

He is naturally affable, a trait that buoys him in and out of the dance club. That night at Kremwerk was packed with black-clad revelers cheering Wadsworth’s set and celebrating the fourth anniversary of Motor, Seattle’s preeminent techno label and dance party. Medical Rx, Wadsworth’s monthly DJ night at Pony, might be the most uninhibited free-for-all in the city, the tiny club’s tinier dance floor writhing with glitter and sweat. And Medical Records, the boutique record label Wadsworth runs out of his Madrona home, has released more than 50 records of offbeat music in small batches to dedicated fans around the world.

He’s plugged into Seattle’s vinyl-focused DJ community, an inclusive, inquisitive cadre that’s experiencing a renaissance due to obsessives like him. On any night of the week you can walk into an array of colorful, casual dive bars on Capitol Hill and find the city’s most knowledgeable collectors sharing their stashes with listeners eager to discover new sounds. Small-scale nights at Speckled and Drake, Nacho Borracho, Bar Sue, Revolver, Chop Suey and Pony allow big-time talents the freedom to get as weird and deep as they want. For curious ears, right now the scene’s a goldmine.

Wadsworth’s thing is synthesizer music, a swath of esoterica made almost exclusively with analog synthesizers between the late ’70s and mid ’80s, mostly in Western Europe. As determined by a slew of intricate qualifications, it slots into a range of sub-genres: synthwave, cold wave, synthpop, new wave, krautrock, Italo disco, darkwave, minimal wave. (For brevity, some go simply with “wave.”) It leaked into the mainstream with ’80s-radio hitmakers like Duran Duran, OMD and the Fixx, but those are gateway bands, the tip of the iceberg-wave, as it were.

The music follows Dr. Troy through Seattle’s nightlife. As for daylight hours, that’s when 42-year-old Dr. Troy is Dr. Wadsworth, an oncologist who’s practiced at Tacoma General Hospital for the last nine years, seeing up to 25 people a day, many in terminal stages of cancer.

In creased khakis and black doctor sneakers, Dr. Wadsworth shuffles from room to room in the hospital’s quiet, beige cancer wing. He greets each of his patients with an open face and mild Texas drawl that could be described as “folksy” even as he discusses antibody levels and white blood cell counts. Room to room, he parks himself behind a telescoping computer keyboard to chart each patient’s status, glancing from the screen to make eye contact, asking about energy levels and shortness of breath, feeling for swollen lymph nodes. He quips, banters and makes small talk as he mentally gauges their responses, enters their charts, sends them off with their prescriptions and a reassuring smile. Fifteen minutes, tops.

As an oncologist, Wadsworth’s job is to interpret lab reports—CAT scans, blood tests—to determine the proper medication and dosage for each patient based on the stage and severity of their disease. Between consultations, he returns to his tidy office, desk arrayed with framed photos of his wife and their toddling daughter, to study the constantly shifting field of cancer therapies, a field which historically has not been above the influence of capitalism and profit motive. (He also might shop for records online.) Tacoma General, he says, lets him prescribe therapies as independently as he likes, applying his own judgment rather than defaulting to hospital-mandated programs. The hardest part of the job is telling a patient to stop treatment when there’s no more to be done. Sometimes, he says, that’s a relief to them both.

It’s repetitive business that requires a lot of sobering conversation, and it could make an automaton out of a less engaged physician. But Wadsworth is powered by a voracious curiosity—about people, about science, about music. His mind operates in a constant state of assessment. Clinical, aesthetic; it’s the same. The enemy is boredom.

“The science of oncology is insanely complicated,” he tells me later. “I still think it’s the most interesting science in medicine. It’s gone down to the level of the cell: You have this intercellular machinery, like a Boeing factory inside a cell. And you have a million parts inside the Boeing factory and all these drugs that go in and disrupt one worker in the entire Boeing plant.”

Throughout his 15 years of medical schooling—first in Dallas, then at Drexel University in Philadelphia—Wadsworth developed an abiding passion for vinyl records. He’d been into music from an early age, thanks to FM radio in his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. In high school his cousin’s boyfriend—“this weird rebellious dude, a slouchy, druggie type”—convinced him that Sonic Youth’s guitar meltdowns weren’t far from the heavy metal he was into. The same guy introduced him to the Cure. From there, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine. By the time he entered undergrad in the mid ’90s he was beholden to the popular variants of alternative music.

Which carried on until the late ’90s, when a friend in Austin instigated a second paradigm shift. This time it was the Gary Numan album The Pleasure Principle that rewired Wadsworth’s brain.

“I heard it and fell in love with it, went into the deep end—like, this is crazy! It’s so textural! The synths! It took me to this place,” he says. “And basically from that point on I’ve been digging, trying to find weird new wave and synthpop, the weirder and more obscure the better.”

Wadsworth prizes the perplexingly arcane—French and German cassette-only releases, short-run 12” singles, forgotten LPs released on minor labels and made by capricious musicians never heard from again. Songs range from pillowy, new-agey rivulets to sinister, paranoid jitters to goofy, bubbly semi-funk to propulsive dance-floor instigation. The whole style is profoundly geeky in so many ways: the era-specificity, the vintage gear, the language barrier. In true postmodern fashion, it conveys a spectrum of emotions through purely artificial means.

“When I listen to early Human League, this strange feeling washes over me,” Wadsworth says. “I hear the synthesizers and they have this mood, and in my mind I’m picturing this machinery and radiation and metal, a lot of steel and aluminum and chrome and glass. It’s this dystopian futuristic society.”

Dr. Troy spins for a rollicking crowd at Medical Rx, which happens at Pony every fourth Thursday of the month. Photo by Valerie Calano

In those first years of infatuation, early ’00s Internet culture facilitated musical investigation. Message boards crackled with conversation and music blogs and websites like Napster and Kazaa facilitated streaming and high-speed downloads. Wadsworth compiled a list of five confoundingly hard-to-find records that captured his imagination. These works spirited him to that blissful, dystopian fantasy of amorous sterility and man/machine interface. He had the MP3s, of course, which he’d DJ from his iPod at house parties. But he longed for the realness and permanence of vinyl. If he ever could, he vowed, he would figure out how to reissue those albums. He eventually did.

In 2006, Wadsworth visited an old friend in Seattle and immediately fell for the city. He was sick of the East Coast, his first marriage was busted and he needed a new start—and the Northwest was the place to do it. He took the job at Tacoma General, lived in that city for a while and relocated to Seattle shortly afterward. He met his wife, Heidi, online and they later had a daughter and bought a house.

By then he’d amassed a collection of several thousand records and a broad knowledge of countless underheard albums and artists. He’d long kicked around the idea of launching a label—as a non-musician, this is how he’d contribute to the community he loved—but it took years to build up a financial cushion and wheedle through enough negotiations to make it happen. Medical Records’ first release came in 2010: a vinyl reissue of a dreamy synth-pop treasure by a German musician named Dorothea Raukes. The label printed a run of 1,000 and sold out just a few years ago.

In the years since, Medical Records has released 50-some albums, all on heavy-duty vinyl with lavish packaging. Most are reissues with meticulously recreated artwork, while others are albums by new, up-and-coming bands that parallel the Medical aesthetic. He occasionally partners with a Florida man named Nick Mariano who runs a synthwave blog called Crispy Nuggets, co-releasing dusty gems Mariano unearths.

It’s a boutique operation on every front. Wadsworth’s friend from Texas, Tyler Jacobsen, designs the packaging and liaises with the press, and Wadsworth’s wife does the books. An exceptional run will see 1,000 units produced, but 500–600 is the norm. They almost always sell out. The goal, Wadsworth says, is to break even. To continue to exist. Earlier this year, he launched a sublabel imprint of Medical called Transfusions to release the industrial techno he’s lately embraced.

“We’re constantly listening and searching for more,” says Crispy Nuggets’ Mariano via email. “We may know more than the average listener, but I’ve never postured myself as a know-it-all. Blogging for me has always represented the opposite—that I don’t know it all, and really who does? Keep searching and sharing, I say.”

Obsessives obsess, the Internet connects and vinyl ships all over the world. These days Medical Records is linked to an international synthwave underground of labels, club nights, DJs, bloggers and fans. When Wadsworth travels to Chicago or Berlin or Tokyo, he knows people, people he’s met through the music.

“It never stops. It’s open-ended. I go wherever it takes me at this point,” Wadsworth says.

In mid-June, Medical Records announced its next release, by French experimental musician Bernard Fevre. A small, obsessive slice of an active but mostly invisible underground is waiting.

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