I’m outside the 7 train stop of 82nd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens and I’m freezing my balls off. The day before New Years Eve is an experience typical of my short visit to New York; temperatures at a constant near-zero, wind lashing the harried people going about the odd holiday atmosphere, a huge amount of local history to take in over an absurdly brief space of time.
In this area of Queens, male strip clubs, 99-cent stores, Latin food outlets and street vendors must outnumber the regular commercial businesses five to one. The buildings hunker down beside the Metro’s looming presence, traffic travelling a corridor formed by its elevated tracks and steel pillars. I’m about to meet with producer Madteo (born Matteo Ruzzon), and the scene is fitting: Jackson Heights instantly puts the noir-ish qualities of his deep, moody, dance-inspired tracks into an unexpected, sharp clarity.
Spotting me from down the street, he calls to say he is (quite literally) 30 seconds away, while simultaneously apologising for the New York weather. Ruzzon is very tall, his face constantly oscillating between pensive and grinning, and he speaks in a loud Italian-American drawl indistinguishable from the natives of Little Italy – although, as we enter his apartment block just a couple of avenues back, his voice drops to a whisper out of respect for neighbours along its echoing corridors. In a nutshell: very Italian, instantly likeable.
In his apartment guests get the easy chair, beer in a glass and their coats hung up for them. A wealth of interesting, anonymous tracks churn constantly from an internet radio station, the computer speakers apparently Ruzzon’s main production monitors too. Aside from the expected couple of thousand records in units, a huge map of New York also hangs in his kitchen, to which he refers just as much when talking in long, winding streams of consciousness.
Ruzzon lives for local history as much as music. The vast majority of his conversation is anthropological – probably why he knows where everyone is from – and New York’s illustrious past. That street I was waiting on? Previously known as ‘The Corridor of Vice’ (an honour now bestowed upon Roosevelt Avenue, apparently). Hip-hop? Made in the Bronx, but most of the originators grew up in Queens. Historic neighbours of the immediate area? The inventors of Scrabble, Xerox and Charlie Chaplin. If you ever wanted to join an obscure American political party, cult or organised crime venture, he can point you towards their headquarters with a wide, wry smile.
There is, however, definitely musical discussion amidst all of this, so here’s what I salvaged from intermittent, tangential and completely absorbing recordings over a 5-hour period.
You seem like a voracious listener.
“Oh yeah! There’s always something on. As you can see, I’ve got three computers. I just need one for that corner now and I’m set! That’ll be my studio set-up eventually: “I have four walls and four computers.” [laughs]
Sounds like a Richie Hawtin project.
[Gestures at stacks of vinyl not on shelves] “Yeah, I was in Europe for four months this year, and all this I got over there. So I’ve spent the last two weeks, five hours a day, recording and archiving them on these hard drives as uncompressed .AIFF files so that I can take it around.
“I’ve had this routine for the past five, six, seven years now where most of my Saturdays I go to this little local flea market; I discovered a particular stall, run by this guy Harry that I’m just in love with. Everybody loves him, typical New York Latino guy, Dominican, he’s funny, got a big heart, and I’ll spend an extra hour just talking to him.
“After that I come back with a stack of fifteen to thirty records, one-dollar records, LPs. Then I spend the rest of the day, deep into the night, then all of Sunday cleaning them, figuring out what’s going to make it to the archive, recording in real time. I’ve been putting in probably twenty to forty hours a week just archiving the wax.
“I’ve been using Serato since 2005 and I realised much more on this trip that people in Europe have a very…polarised view on it. But in America it’s ‘official’; I mean, the originators of DJing, all these people who have millions of records, they endorsed Serato from the get-go, but in mainland Europe there’s this stigma to it. Which I find ridiculous! [laughs] And it’s particularly funny because CDJs are much more accepted in Europe than Serato.”
“Yeah, over here in the US it’s more: vinyl, then Serato. CDJs have lost a lot of their audience. It’s kind of like, the older guys stick to their wax, and the newer, younger kids are on Serato. And that’s fine. But what I really don’t like is how Serato has become a way for kids to invest in one thing, and then they don’t have to invest in anything else. Because they’ll get their music for free, y’know?
“Anyway, I came back from four months in Europe, it became a kind of tour, I was travelling quite a bit, and I realised that I’m too old to do this kind of thing.”
How old are you?
“I’m thirty-seven. And…I like DJing – I love DJing, actually – but mainly it was about the vinyl I picked up. Europe has the coolest sounds.”
“Since ’94. I knew I wanted to move to the US since pretty much I was born! I also knew I would not have a typical working career, nor would I be able to get a college education. So I left Padova [his home town in Italy] as a teenager with no connection to the music biz and no history in it apart from being an ecstasy-popping club kid.
“The old sound there, the cosmic, Balearic, spaced-out shit, I was too young to be around for, but the house scene took on massively in some areas of Italy. The older, ‘after-hours’ scene generally, its death was largely due to it being appreciated by a lot of junkies. There was a lot of heroin and hippies, a more psychedelic, anti-establishment audience, but house was still connected with the mainstream and establishment and it flourished.
“I came as an English Language student in ’93 at age 15, but I’d spent ’90-’92 partying really hard and was pretty dazed and confused. I went to Texas first, but got arrested for shoplifting on my 18th birthday and eventually kicked out. But I got a diploma, and managed to get to New York in ’94. That was the MTV age, it was a very different listening experience here to where I grew up in Italy.”
Did you keep European connections, or did you have to re-connect?
“I never kept in touch with my friends for music-related stuff. All the releases I have come about from people reaching out to me. I had been sending a bunch of demos to Rekids in ’05 after they had enthusiastically responded, prompting me to ‘keep sending’ shit…but nothing happened in the end. Which is fine, and it was also was the year of the end for some of the big music distributors. Many labels that had been building a solid reputation lost a lot of money, so perhaps that’s relevant.”
“Morphine Records [who put out Ruzzon’s first release] are based in Italy now, but I never knew them. Their boss moved to Italy years after I left. He decided to release stuff from me after checking out my MySpace page.”
“Oh yeah, that’s really important! Andreas Krumm, of ACIDO Records and Dynamo Dreseen, he introduced me to Sex Tags. Daniel Pfumm of General Elektro and Atelier Records too; he’d been living in Italy up in the Apennine Mountains and knew about my first record, so when he found out that I was in Italy on vacation he spoke to Morphine Records and got in touch.
“He came up for two, three days to my parents’ house while they were out of town. There was this big heatwave so we just stayed in and listened to music the whole time. He introduced me to Sex Tags’ stuff, gave me some records too, like the first Wania release. I’m not sure how they met, probably something in Berlin, but Daniel is one half of Busen with [Sex Tags boss] Sotofett.
“He or Andreas must have talked to Sotofett about me, or something, but one day I got an email from Sotofett saying he was coming to NY and he wanted to meet up. So we met up and became friends; he comes every year now for the last two or three years, just to hang out. In fact, all of the artwork from WANIA – 11372 came from a session we had buying records from that flea market; most of the logos are scanned and referenced from the records and flyers at the stall.”
That seems pretty Sex Tags-ish; building something with a bit of an inside joke and familial quality.
“They’re so on point with everything, from the music and the layout, but also the history, and that’s really important. But they don’t really give a shit too, and that’s really inspiring. Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. Very smart too, but not, like, academically.”
Yeah, they’re amazing. They come across a bit like the class clown who’s actually really clever but like ‘…I can’t be arsed with this’.
“Yeah! They always make sure to mention that they didn’t have much to do out there growing up so they made something. It comes across, it’s really inspiring.”
Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to turn pages (page 1/2)
Speaking of European music, have you come across Actress yet?
“It’s funny, a few people have likened my music to his but I hadn’t heard it until recently. Will Bankhead played me his R.I.P record, and I knew of his Werk Discs, but did my own research after.”
Yeah, I was going to ask what you made of people like myself referencing his sound when reviewing your music. I think there’s a few scattered artists focusing on a sound that’s inspired by similar roots and using similar techniques – such as heavy compression to bring out digitised noise…People like patten, Lee Gamble…
“Lee Gamble! Oh yeah, he’s totally a star in the making! Love his stuff, man.
“But yeah, I could totally see the connection. But the only way I could answer this is to slip into…sort of a larger point of view. So let’s put it this way: we are lumped into the techno category, be it Actress, me, and many, many other people. But, to be fair, it’s the wrong thing; it’s ‘techno’ because we’re tired of listening to some new term for a new thing, because in most case it ain’t no new thing.
“Like, last week I discovered this hip-hop scene that’s got pretty big here, it’s called ‘ratchet’, pioneered by this guy DJ Mustard.”
“Very smart guy too, he must be making millions of dollars now, but I liked him because he wasn’t saying ‘oh it’s this new thing, my new thing’, he was like ‘not only is this not new, but I actually took it from Lil Boozy.’ [laughs]
“Now with techno, and me and Actress, it’s easy to see the comparison when you are on the fringe of it. But it’s also just as easy to get lumped into the same category as anyone else on there. Like, and I was joking with Sotofett about this, saying that if this were the 90s, making the music we are now back then, well – me and him would be classified in the ‘trip-hop’ scene. Which is probably true!”
I guess it’s a bit like taxonomy, in that it’s truer to relate a music back to its larger, historically defining family, like ‘house’ or ‘techno’ – and I’d argue that this is probably better. But then, when enough people are exploring similar ideas for it to become a ‘thing’ it’s given a name, which may not be accurate.
“Well, another friend of mine made a good comment, actually: back in the early 90s I didn’t really know techno yet, I was a house guy. And house DJs would play a lot of disco and soul too, and since there wasn’t anything being called, like, ‘deep house’, it was just all known as ‘underground house’. So as a definition of that time, he would say that anything that wasn’t house was techno. Which made sense for us, in that context.”
I tried to define your album as split between ‘pulse-based’, ‘non-pulse-based’ and somewhere in between. Probably pretty academic, but it was difficult to relate it even to ‘house’ or ‘techno’ or ‘hip-hop’ in many ways.
“Nah, I quite liked that ‘pulse-based’ term actually, that was interesting.”
How do you feel about this newer term ‘outsider dance’? Would you ever use it to sum up your own material? It seems like quite a useful catch-all for writing about music, although it’d probably sound just as weird and incredulous to say ‘I make outsider dance’ as saying ‘I’m an outsider artist’.
“To be honest, I have a problem with having a ‘dance’ definition applied to me much more than ‘outsider’. Outsider pretty much defines me, and not just my music, to a tee.”
Yeah…there’s a distinct lack of studio here…
[laughs] “Yeah man! One of the ironies of all my endeavours is that I have no studio; I have a laptop with Ableton, but I don’t use any third party VST plug-ins, don’t use any external devices…I have, uh…[opens cupboard, takes out some hardware] a MIDI controller…that I don’t use. [laughs, puts it back in cupboard]. I do want to use it for a live show, but I’m not sure when it’ll be ready. I got it this summer, before I went to Europe, so I need to make that transition.”
Have you always written in this way?
“I used to make music on hardware: a [Roland] MC-909, a groovebox. You know the kind, all-in-one, got an on-board mixer, synth, drum machine, sequencer. You make patterns, make a chain – the same patterns but with different mutes.
“So I was using this MC909 for years, just sitting on a little plastic fucking stool, linking straight to a CD recorder…and it was fresh! But because of the limits of the sequencer you couldn’t do really long tweaks, you had like…sixteen bars or whatever.
“In the end I wanted to space it out more, and I used ProTools for a while, but then went with Ableton, and there you can do anything. It’s amazing. But it becomes much harder to finish tracks. Having a programme that will allow you to do so much, it makes me wish I could much more with it. I spent almost ten years recording tracks with the groovebox, but I don’t feel like I have those tight arrangements, those cuts, and it’s been kind of tough to deal with that, especially as it takes so much of each day trying to find that necessary inspiration. But in the last couple of years I stumbled on ways to think outside of the box with that. ”
“Well…I’ve been working on this remix recently and the deadline’s tomorrow. But, meanwhile, I’ve come up with another few versions…[;aughs] And I actually just got asked to do another one and…it mainly comes down to time. As well as this extra issue about monetary ‘value’.”
“Yeah. I’m trying to be honest with people because this is only my third remix and…well, I was talking to Tin Man the other day about this – that’s why my flatmates thought you might have been him [laughs] – and he was considering whether he’s even going to remix anymore. Because it takes too long. I mean, we’re talking about a month easily, if not two… which might sound stupid, but it’s not, really. It’s pretty reasonable…”
Well, you’re making it your own piece of music and if you’re a slower worker…
“Right, yeah. I’m not used to deadlines. Like ‘well, I might work on it for a few months…’ [laughs] How do you put a price on that?
How about for your own output?
“It’s the same. The way I live as a listener-buyer has changed a lot in the last few years. Now I’m always questioning what kind of music I’m trying to make. I’m trying to find this…thing that makes sense.
“It’s never necessarily about elation anymore. It’s inspiring to constantly try and find a meaning, because the end result becomes more interesting if there’s this…exasperating struggle leading to completion. A lot of it is cutting. You know? Cutting material out. When the end result is so different from what you might have started with when making it. The development of writing, it often leads to a total annihilation of what you began with. And you repeat this process every time you create things.
“That’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve learned. It’s a very humbling thing, actually.”
Madteo’s next release, Strumpetocracy, is out via Nuearth Kitchen Records on March 11th.