This interview was conducted in the spring of 2007 by Deano Sounds.
You are definitely the professor of disco. I've never heard of a DJ like you who uses an academic approach to dance music but you have a lot of great ideas. In an interview for Red Bull Music Academy you mentioned that Disco music is the perfect combination of melodies and rhythm. Would you care to elaborate on this?
Thanks for naming me a "Professor" -- I was actually on an academic track in University (studying literature and film) and got sidetracked by going out to all-black gay dance clubs in New York and Chicago! For me having fun is still the most important thing, but I also realized that I couldn't have fun unless I made sense of what I was hearing and learn how to produce music myself. So, to answer your question about disco being the perfect combination of melodies and rhythm (I was just thinking this morning about how to phrase this): "If someone can produce classical & jazz & blues & pop properly and beautifully and applies all that knowledge to making music with a steady 4/4 beat, they'd come up with Disco, as we heard it starting in the mid 70's. If someone tried to imitate the form and spirit of Disco but with machines and without the deeper knowledge of musical theory, they'd make what we call House (starting late 80's). If someone got stuck in this world of machines and lost all sight of melody and harmony, they'd make what we call Techno (starting early 90's). If someone mostly steals other people's musical ideas from the Disco era as a backing track to their own ego and woes and disregards the joy of music per se, they make what we now call Hip Hop (also starting early 90's). If someone sticks rigidly to the European classics like Mozart and Bach, they will often get a semblance of beautiful music, but without the joy of African rhythms. If we know the beauty of Bach and swing the rhythm, we get jazz in all its diversity. If someone combines Chopin and the Samba, then they get Antonio Carlos Jobim - he called this combination Bossa Nova. Hope that's not too elaborate... It's all very simple, really!
How is it living in Berlin? Culturally, do you find Berlin more accepting and open to new ideas and sounds than New York?
There is so much hype around Berlin! First - I think each person brings their own experience and talents to the picture. Of course there are still amazing things coming out of New York (Hercules and Love Affair on DFA is a recent fave of mine - pure gay funky disco with amazing production), there will always be a huge pool of talent gathering there from all over the USA. But we ALL know that New York now is a largely commercialized cesspool of people trying to make as much money off of others as possible - via unlistenable pop music, fashion and body-image paranoia, media blitzkrieg, and high rents. Berlin can seem provincial to outsiders at first, but to me, this is the charm. No Gucci bags or D+G ads to be seen in the subway, thank heavens; not massive numbers of only dark-skinned or immigrant workers frowning sadly at you in McDonald's; inexpensive, spacious apartments, open spaces, young people prefer bicycles to cars, flea markets galore, an openly gay mayor who is adored, and a music scene not much based on jealous competition and exclusion (like I often saw in NYC) - there are enough gigs and clubs here for everyone, and its a springboard to the rest of EU too, unlike NYC. Many people here in Berlin grew up in communist East Germany and are not greedily trying to make a fast buck at every turn. When I think of the vermin-like people (the Chelsea gym freaks, the Wall Streeters) in NYC, I wouldn't return to live there even if given a penthouse on the Upper West Side.
What kind of musical experience did you have as a kid? Who are your favorite musicians and producers? What in your mind is the perfect disco song and why?
Oh... I guess you would call it a middle-class American musical childhood! My mom did sing a few traditional Chinese songs to me, but at 5 or 6 I clearly remember listening constantly on vinyl to "Classics for Children" like Edvard Grieg "Hall of the Mountain King", Tchaikovsky "Sugar Plum Fairies"... Karen Carpenter "Top of the World" and the whole Julie Andrews "Sound of Music" album of course... later, at age 9 or 10, Bee Gees, Leo Sayer, Theme to Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.
"Favorite producers and musicians"? Pretty obvious stuff -- The Carpenters far above and beyond most others, Quincy Jones for his George Benson "Give Me the Night" album, all the Vince Montana Salsoul Orchestra material of course, Alec Constandinos and Cerrone for their 1977 visions of Eurodisco, and we can't forget those one-off instances of genius like Harry Thumann "Underwater." Choosing one perfect song is too difficult -- although I might pick Montana "Good for the Soul" for its amazing violins, chord changes, and the Norman Harris guitar solo.
What have been the most important moments in music in your mind?
That is a HUGE question! Honestly? I would pick Debussy "Clair de Lune" from the Bergamasque suite. That was 1890 or so, but the chords and style he employed really set the stage for ALL the fantastic modern deep jazz modulations, mood music in the 20th century, etc. And maybe Satie "Gymnopedie" in 3 parts - similar reasons, compositionally less developed but conceptually on a super-high level. I mean, you can put these things to a beat in year 2008 and they STILL sound beautiful, relevant, amazing. (Mozart or Wagner, on the other sound, can sound a bit ludicrous.)
What projects are you currently working on? Are you working with real musicians and if so can you tell me more about them?
Well... I just got myself a new HD Recorder a few weeks ago -- Korg D3200 -- so this is changing my life. Everything I've done so far was on 12 tracks! I never used a laptop, you see, I have to have faders and knobs. Now I have 32 tracks, enough for anything! Collaborator No.1 is Pamelia Kurstin the great theremin girl, we did a version of Herb Alpert's RISE on Theremin. Then my favorite New York native talent, Carlos Hernandez... kind of a Latino Beatles I guess... David Guenther, a young Berlin jazz guitarist who is super sweet... and a few others, we will see if I finally get them all onto my hard drive.
Have you ever thought of putting together an orchestra to produce disco music like the Salsoul Orchestra.
I honestly don't think I'm good enough to score it properly -- I'm really kind of a naive arranger, all by ear. I'd love to have an orchestra, but I'm afraid that I'm better cobbling it all together in my own studio. I have enough sounds and musicians to do it virtually at home, so it's not about the egotism of having an orchestra, it's about the end result!
What do you think of the new cosmic disco / disco re-edit scene with DJs like Todd Terje?
Todd Terje is an adorable guy who is also a good friend of mine. I think he does all these edits out of joy and wanting to spice up his DJ sets. However, yes, I'm a bit sick of everyone doing edits -- there are so many things which don't need any editing, really, and many edits have removed the chord changes and other better parts to create dumbed-down loops -- that's not a service to the music. And people confuse editing with being creative. You shouldn't build a DJ career by showing that you can basically nick and simplify other people's creations, many of which have already been played and edited by other DJ's since 1980, if you did your homework at all.
In 1996 you stopped using samples. Do you think that there are no more samples left to be used in an original way? How do you come up with new music but still keep that "disco asethetic?"
More honest revelations - I still sampled a few rhythm bits on my Ghostly EP in 2004! Ha ha! Rhythms are somewhat interchangeable (they provide the texture), but I am totally against sampling the essence of the song, i.e. the groove, the chords, the musical core - which is what most Hip Hop people steal outright now, even if they pay for it. I believe in original composition -- this mean a unique bassline, a unique sets of chords or motifs, and that's the fundamental of any musical creation, really. It doesn't matter what genre you're in. Coming up with new music is just that: you sit at the keyboard and pluck your guitar until something comes up. People who cant see the value in that shouldn't be doing music. That's why, after all, all my own tracks each had their own unique sound, even if they're not the greatest disco songs of all time (like e.g. Bee Gees "Stayin Alive")!
Where do you hope the future of DJing goes?
Actually I think there are still some frontiers to open up! For one, all of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, China, southeast Asia. And maybe even Africa. Disco was part of Western Modernity in the 60s and 70s, it speaks for physical freedom, gay liberation, multi-culturalism. Of course. You can beam the sound over via radio, but that's just the surface. When people really learn to dance together and enjoy that feeling of community and openness, then Disco music (or any great genre of music) is relevant. It's a bit like swing-jazz: the canon is there, but there's always room for new singers, new arrangements, new classics.