This month sees the release of the 50th edition in Fabric’s esteemed mix series. The series has hitherto been fairly unwavering in its commitment to repping “pure” house and techno, but Fabric 50, helmed by Martyn, is a more varied and frankly riskier affair.
While productions from Ben Klock, Levon Vincent and Redshape all make an appearance, there’s also broken beat from Altered Natives, dubstep from Zomby and Kode9, UK funky from Roska and Altered Natives. Martyn hasn’t adapted his sound for the sake of the mix, but rather sought to represent the full breadth of what he does and to expose the links that exist between genres that traditionalists insist on keeping separate.
It’s no surprise that Fabric have granted Martyn the freedom to mess with their tried and tested formula. He’s proved to be one of the most on-it DJs of the past two years, capable of juggling styles and thriving in a range of environments, from Glasgow’s Numbers to Berlin’s techno mecca Berghain. Based in Washington, DC, he’s managed to avoid getting caught up and weighed down by any localised scenes, and his productions too have resisted easy categorisation. Following a run of exceptional singles and his reputation-making remix of TRG’s ‘Broken Heart’, Martyn last year released Great Lengths, his debut artist album, and more recently has remixed the likes of Fever Ray and Detachments to greatly convincing effect. With the Fabric mix in shops this week, and with artist album no.2 due in mid-2010, FACT spoke to the Dutchman shortly before Christmas to find out how it all came to pass.
Tell me a bit about your origins in club music. You got into house and techno first, right?
“Yeah. Well, I did high school and then I studied Dutch literature and communication in the south of Holland, in Eindhoven. That’s where I grew up and that’s where most of the clubs that I went to were. I guess I started clubbing quite early, but it was mostly about bands, way back in the day. I saw my first band play live when I was 13, I bought lots of records and slowly but surely got into house and techno. In Eindhoven there were a couple of after-hours places.
“Because Einhoven is right between Amsterdam in the north and then Brussels and Antwerp and Ghent in the south, it was just a really nice place for techno – because a lot of the Detroit people lived in those cities at that time and they played a lot, especially after-hours, you know, they had a gig in Brussels or something and then drove to Eindhoven and played a gig from 6-9 in the morning or something like that.
“So I saw a lot of people play around that time, people like Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen and Derrick May, and a lot of the older Dutch and Belgian DJs that were strongly influenced by Detroit techno. That really influenced me I guess – at the time I didn’t pay that much attention but after a while I started exploring it more and buying the records, so that’s kind of where I had my roots, you know?”
“I saw a lot of people like Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen and Derrick May, and a lot of the older Dutch and Belgian DJs that were strongly influenced by Detroit techno. That really influenced me…”
Was it hard for you to get hold of releases from Detroit in Eindhoven at that time?
“It was actually fairly easy. Also Eindhoven had two big techno labels – one was called Eevo Lut and the other one was called Djax. Djax used to put out a lot of Chicago stuff like Mike Dunn, Armando and a lot of early acid house things, and Eevo Lut was also Terrace’s label but they also had a Carl Craig release, for instance, and people like 2000 And One – so yeah man, there was a lot going on back then for such a small city.”
It seems that Holland – whether Eindhoven, The Hague, Rotterdam or wherever – has always had a special relationship with techno. Why do you think this is?
“Well, it wasn’t only Holland! Look at Manchester for instance, they have a big link with that music as well. I think what happened was that basically old cities, kind of hollowed-out cities, took to that sound. Detroit was the main example of a hollowed-out city, where basically everything that was important to that city disappeared with the whole automotive industry and this whole city – all the white people basically left and all the black people stayed, and made it into a kind of ghost city. Obviously you’ve probably read a lot about Detroit as well, I don’t have to repeat the whole story…”
“Anyway, I think that a lot of young people in other cities at the time could really recognise and relate to this feeling and this sound that accompanies it, you know? Specifically when it comes to Eindhoven, it’s a very technological city, because you have this big electronics giant called Philips, they originated in Eindhoven and basically everyone in Eindhoven knows someone who has worked for Philips or has worked for Philips themselves. It’s so linked with the rest of the city, and obviously if you look at Detroit it has exactly the same thing but on a much bigger scale. I think young people could kind of understand where the early Detroit people were coming from…
“It’s a bit of a on-the-fly theory, but there you go…”
“There was a lot going on back then for such a small city.”
I know drum ‘n bass was subsequently a big part of your life. Were you into the hardcore and early jungle stuff, or was it later on that you got into it?
“I first went to listen to people like Grooverider and Randall – that was around ‘94-’95, so quite late, and I missed the whole hardcore period. Much, much later, in the early 2000s, I was talking to this guy in Rotterdam – where I lived for a while – and he said that in the early, early 90s, around 1991-92, people like Kenny Ken, Nicky Blackmarket, people like that, they were all playing in Rotterdam – and they were actually playing alongside people like Darkrave and Gizmo, people who back then were on the forefront of what now is called gabba. So these early hardcore types, they were in Holland, just not in Eindoven, only in Rotterdam and the occasional squat around Amsterdam. They were actually co-founders of gabba music without really knowing it!”
Is Eindhoven a gabba stronghold now?
‘No, no, no [laughs]. Eindhoven is a very laidback kind of place.”
So where are the gabba strongholds?
“Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, in that order. And that’s typical because that’s also where the most notorious football hooligans are, in that order. [laughs].”
Are you a PSV [Eindhoven football club] man?
“Yeah, I grew up in a little village near Eindhoven, so yeah, I’m a PSV man. You could compare Eindhoven to Bristol, it actually looks a little bit like it. And the relationship between Bristol and London is a bit like that between Eindhoven and Amsterdam. For the outside world, a lot of stuff happens in Amsterdam, but if you’re a Dutchman it doesn’t really happen in Amsterdam, it happens in Eindhoven.”
“Metalheadz used to have this soundsystem called Eskimo Noise, and they were like fucking scientists when it came to speakers.”
I read somewhere that when you started getting really into drum ‘n bass you made some pilgrimages to London to check out the sound ‘at source’. Can you tell me about thoese trips?
“I wouldn’t call them pilgrimages exactly [laughs]…but I was just very curious, because when I got into drum ‘n bass I really got caught by the whole Metalheadz thing, and Photek – especially Photek, actually, and Goldie. And I just wanted to see where all that came from, and what the vibe was, and what it should sound like – because obviously there was people playing in Holland and we went to see them but we just really wanted to see what the Blue Note was all about basically. So that’s what we did.
“Me and a friend went to London – I think we stayed in Peckham somewhere, I don’t know why there, but yeah, we stayed there and went to the Blue Note. We saw everyone there and what impressed me a lot was that Metalheadz used to have this soundsystem called Eskimo Noise, and they were like fucking scientists when it came to speakers. I remember that Blue Note had an upstairs which was kind of like a café, or bistro thing where people would play, and then downstairs was a proper club; and the café was always open first and then once that filled up they’d open up the club downstairs. And I remember walking down when there was no one in the club yet and there were all these people walking around with db-meters, standing in front of the speakers just to test the sound and to test – I don’t know what they were testing but it was magic to me! I was like wow, this is a science. They weren’t wearing white suits but it was pretty damn close…[laughs]”
“So I went to London then and saw all that stuff and I came back and I said, alright, we’ve got to do something here, we’ve got to do our own events and try to get to that point where you have this vibe, and this music, and this sound quality. So that trip was really what motivated us to start our own nights.”
So began your Redzone nights, which ran for 10 or 11 years. Was it a drum ‘n bass-oriented night throughout the whole of its lifespan? Did the musical policy change much over the years?
“Actually it didn’t change that much at all. As I said, we were so inspired by this Metalheadz thing when we started. We started Redzone with local DJs but the first foreign artists that we invited were I think Iain and DJ Stretch from Reinforced, and after that basically everyone that was associated with Metalheadz played our night, including Goldie a couple of times. We just had everyone really, and I know d-Bridge from that era, and Marcus Intalex, Klute, DJ Krust, everyone…
“We were always pretty straightforward when it came to booking people, we weren’t consciously looking for what was the ‘sound of the day’, we just kind of did our own thing and it was basically quite Metalheadz-related. It was only maybe in the last couple of years that I started to play different stuff, because I used to warm up on the night or end the night or something like that, and I used my warm-up slots to play some house or techno, I think we even premiered some DMZ stuff, and some Burial and Kode9 things there, all the way at the end. But that really was right at the end, it still remained a drum ‘n bass night first and foremost.”
Was broken beat ever a thing for you? You can kind of hear its influence in your music, and there’s a Maddslinky track on your Fabric mix…
“Yeah, ‘cos while I was doing the Redzone nights I also had a weekly residency at a real small club. It was kind of a student night, maybe 150 or so capacity, so it wasn’t all that really…The owner of the club said to me, ‘You can have the residency, but you can’t play drum ‘n bass’ [laughs]. Which was a bit strange, ‘cos that was my main thing at the time, but I was like well, ok, I can use the money I make every week to buy records that aren’t drum ‘n bass.
“So that gave me a whole fresh incentive to explore new and different music again – I mean, I’ve always been buying vinyl in different genres anyway, but I just thought that I could take it up a notch and really get into other styles. That was around 2000 I think, and that was the broken beat era, and stuff like the first 4Hero album, early 2-step, Wookie, Exemen, Maddslinky, Zed Bias, the Locked On label, things like that, and obviously a lot of broken beat – like the People label, and one called Main Squeeze. So yeah, I basically bought all that every week religiously and I just mixed it and I listened to all the tunes and that was for a good three years. And then I completely lost track of anything 2-step/garagey up until I heard DMZ, Kode9 and Burial. That was obviously a huge gap, but I could also still hear what the roots of it all was.”
So you weren’t into Horsepower, Artwork and the stuff that came between garage and dubstep?
“No, that completely passed me. All that came much later for me, basically when everyone started tracking it down. Like when everyone heard Burial saying that he was influenced by El-B, and all of a suddenly everyone starts hunting down El-B records – I was doing the same as that [laughs]. But you know, although I didn’t really follow that connecting stuff, when I hear the first Burial album or the early DMZ things you can definitely hear that it comes from 2-step, from garage.
“So maybe that’s what appealed to me, and also the tempo of it all – because I was used to drum n bass, you know, 175rpm, and getting more and more frustrated at not being able to make music at that speed because it was too fast to do the kind of melodies that I wanted to do. So I thought, OK, I should just show it down a little bit and go on this 140 thing and see what happens. And this is what I did, and it was an experiment more than anything else, and that’s where we are now…”
“I was used to drum n bass, you know, 175rpm, and getting more and more frustrated at not being able to make music at that speed because it was too fast to do the kind of melodies that I wanted to do.”
Tell me about the Fabric mix. Much has been made of how house/techno-oriented it is, but I’d actually say it’s less so than the club sets I’ve heard from you recently…
“For me it’s like a summary. I’ve never played as many gigs as I have this year; the other day I had to count because I was giving a kind of overview to my new agent, and I think it was well over 70 gigs. If you’re in London you can basically take your bike to the gig, but I flew to every single one of these, I never played DC in this whole year – and you can imagine what kind of an impact that had on my health and my sanity and all that kind of thing [laughs].
“I played a shitload of gigs basically, so for me the Fabric mix, when they asked me to do one, I just wanted to give sort of a reflection, because I knew I was never going to be able to make a definitive Martyn mix anyway – not in 70 minutes, it’s impossible. So I thought I should just do a summary of what I’ve done this year DJ-wise, just as I think my album was a summary of what I’ve done production-wise. So this is what I did really, and I made a shortlist of tunes – I think about 40, 45 tunes – then the whole licensing process begins and you can see where it’s going to go and who’s going to be on the CD and who isn’t, and after a while you just compile it all and make it into one logical mix. I did want to make sure that a couple of my favourite producers were represented in it – people like Zomby, Ben Klock, Kode9 – I would’ve loved to have had a Flying Lotus track in there too but it didn’t work out in the end. Just all those people together, you know.”
There are a number of remixes of your own tracks on there…
“When I was doing the CD I figured I’d like to have a couple of people remix my stuff, because there are going to be two 12”s that will come out at roughly the same time as the Fabric remix, and the two 12”s will have four remixes across them. So there’s mixes from Redshape, Ben Klock, Illum Sphere and Zomby and then the Roska one is digital-only. It’s just people I’m really feeling this year – obviously the Redshape album [The Dance Paradox] had a really big impact on me, that was a big album for me.
“Same for Ben Klock who did an album [One] earlier in 2009 – I mean, I really dig that whole sound that he’s doing together with Marcel Dettmann and Shed and T++ – I’ve had the chance to see them DJ a couple of times this year and I just really like their vibe, that sort of minimal warehouse techno. It’s quite brutal what they do, especially live, but it never gets angry, they keep it really funky, and all those songs I’m like this is a big, hard tune, but they way they mix it up, especially at Berghain – the vibe there is just enormous man, it’s really inspiring.
“I’m always quite inspired by locations, you know, I use locations for track titles, I record sounds in certain places just to catch some sort of a vibe, and for me I was just like, well, Berghain in Berlin, I’ll never be able to catch that vibe myself but I can just ask Ben Klock to do it for me [laughs]. So that’s what I did, and he just picked a tune from the album that he really liked and he obviously was inspired by Spaceape’s vocals and, I don’t know, he captured the Berlin vibe perfectly for me.
“That was a really great moment, to hear his version of that song, and to be able to put something like that out, you know, it’s amazing. There are similar stories to all the remixes really – I mean Zomby is obviously a genius producer, and it was really great to see someone taking one of your tracks on and on top of that you can put it out, you know? And then Illum Sphere, he did one of the most difficult jobs, because the original track was just strings, one of the interludes on my album, and he kind of turned it into a whole tune and I think he did a great job.”
I don’t know much about Illum Sphere. What’s his deal?
“Have you heard of a club called Hoya Hoya? It’s not that big, it’s in Manchester, it’s kind of comparable to Numbers in Glasgow. What they do is kind of semi-hip-hop, they have people like Gaslamp Killer and Hudson Mohawke and Daedalus play there, so it’s kind of an instrumental hip-hop vibe. Illum Sphere does the night together with a guy called Johnny Dub, they’re local DJs. Illum Sphere has done one 12″ on Fat City, he’s working hard and I think he has an album coming out [this] year, also on Fat City. Yeah, I knew him for a while just from playing Manchester and all that.”
You seem to be one of the few DJs who seems to be able to mix up surgically well-produced techno with more rough-hewn house and funky sounds. Do you do much editing to tracks before you play them?
“Maybe I have a little bit of a production ear…but I do think that there are a lot of tracks that I hear and I like but that I’ll never play because I know they won’t sound right. Some of them do sound right – especially the Roska stuff, it’s kind of easy to play, because it’s well-produced and it has a bit of bottom and everything in’s the right place. It’s still a bit more outspoken than, say, your average Berlin track or your average New York house track, but there’s ways to transition between the two, you know.
“Still, there’s definitely a lot of good tracks that I would never play just because they sound shit, and not work in my set – and I know that if I play that track it will be completely overpowered by the Kenny Dope production that I play after it. Just because [Dope’s] stuff is much superior in terms of sound quality. So you need a little bit of a production ear I guess, and you just need to be a little selective about what tracks are good and bad not just in terms of ideas but also in terms of production. What I do is quite risky – because I play so many different styles, and if the sound of all these different styles was also completely different then it would just be a big mash-up of nothingness. You want to have it sound coherent, you don’t want to be eclectic just for the sake of being eclectic – that’s just not very interesting.
“But to answer your initial question, I don’t think I’ve ever ‘touched up’ a track – well, I’ve done that actually, but only with the permission of the artist [laughs]. I make tracks louder and stuff like that, little tiny things like that I can do with EQing, but it’s not like I actually alter the tracks to make them sound better in my sets.”
Do you play many gigs in the States these days? How has touring impacted on your DJing style?
“I think the ratio is about 80-20 Europe-America, maybe a bit more like 75-25. I play a decent amount of gigs, it’s not like I’m actually touring, but I’m flying in and out, I play a bit in New York and LA and San Francisco and places like that, and sometimes the odd other city. It’s also quite a variety of gigs which is what makes it interesting and is probably why I’m still doing it – it’s a lot of fun to do touring in Europe, for instance on Friday you play with Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke and then the Saturday you play with Skream and Benga and Rusko, and Sunday you play with Marcel Dettmann – that is really what keeps me going, just the variety of things.
“It’s not just that you play with these different people it’s also that you play to different crowds, people that are expecting different things from you, and that makes it a challenge to play. And that’s the same in America: especially now, I have an agent that kind of knows what I want, and sometimes he books me in a pure dubstep show, and sometimes he puts me on a house night, sometimes it’s kind of like an everything thing, with people like Daedalus, something like that. It makes it interesting, to hear all this different music and also to find your own spot in it as well.”
Your recent remix work has surprised a lot of people – you’ve worked on more “indie” acts like Maximo Park, Detachments, Fever Ray. Tell me a bit about that.
“It kind of sounds a little bit odd, I guess, that I started doing remixes for those sort of bands. But then if you look back at all my other remixes, hardly any – or maybe only one – is actually in the same sort of scene that I’m in. Really only the TRG ‘Broken Heart’ remix, that’s a dubstep tune that I turned into a dubstep tune; all of the others are different styles. So for me it wasn’t that much of a transition – I must say that when I was gigging this year, obviously I wanted also to get away from my music when I was travelling or when I was just sitting in the hotel or being at home, at these times I couldn’t stand hearing dubstep or anything like that. So I kind of reverted back to David Bowie and Talking Heads, The Human League, stuff like that – I used to be really into all that music, and I have the vinyl, and I started listening to that again, and I don’t know – for some reason that revived my whole interest in indie.
“So when I heard the Maximo Park album and also some of the earlier Detachments stuff it just really sparked my interest again, and I’ve always loved working with vocals, so for me I thought it might be quite a challenge to take this tune with guitars and crazy synths and then some vocalist over that and then just try to turn it into something that sounds like me. That was my reasoning, and it’s funny because actually the three remixes that we’re talking about – the Fever Ray, the Detachments and the Maximo Park – I approached them to do the remix, and not the other way around (which is how it usually goes). Because I love these tunes and I really wanted to do something with it, and for me it was a challenge, so yeah – they were interested, that’s a good thing as well…[laughs]”
How as it to work with vocals and the umpteen parts that come with tracks like those?
“You can learn a lot about production when you remix a tune like that [Fever Ray’s ‘Seven’]. You get so many parts – recording a band is such a different story to just playing around with Logic. Lots of microphones, they record instruments from lots of different angles, and they do a lot of compression, and other stuff to make it sound like it’s a band that’s playing in the studio, which it really isn’t, you know? So much work goes into it, it’s incredible – it’s funny, I have another remix project going now, which I still have to start on, and it’s like a Latin band; they gave me 50 gigs of parts, you know, a guy on the piano recorded with four different microphones so I have all the four different versions, all the same playing but just recorded from different angles in the room. And all the percussionists have been recorded with multiple microphones and everything; so I’m just wading through all these tracks to find that one bongo that I’m going to use! [laughs]
“But it’s interesting, you learn a lot about how a real studio works, and you see how they record it and stuff, it’s cool.”
Did you record Great Lengths in a long period of concentrated studio time, or was the process more fragmented? Have you started work on a second artist album yet?
“The first album I did in about four months of concentrated work. That was the last four months of 2008; I didn’t have any gigs because I was in a sort of paperwork mill because of moving to the US, you have to wait for visa and all that. So I had four months, I couldn’t work officially, so I thought I might as well sit at home and make an album.
“I’ve actually already started on album two – I started about three weeks ago. I took the last two months of 2009 off gigs to concentrate on getting this Fabric mix CD done and just sketching away for my next album. This will be a much more fragmented record I’m afraid – I’m going to be working on it till mid-January, so about a five or six weeks from now, then I’m going to have tours and weekends that I have to play gigs and stuff. So it’s going to be a very different album, that’s for sure, just because the timeline is going to be so different. I do really want to try to get it done as soon as possible; I really want it out in May 2010, which is a pretty hardcore deadline. That would mean that I would have to finish the music by mid-February latest – two months from now [laughs].”
Shit. You better go off and get on with that.
Martyn’s Fabric 50 mix is out now. The launch party takes place at Fabric in London on Saturday 16 February, with Martyn heading up Room 1 alongside Pepe Bradock, Actress and Kode9. More info at fabriclondon.com.