IN THE STUDIO WITH:
Detroit Swindle We get a taste of The High Life, the latest album from Holland’s premier funk-house-fusion outfit
If this year’s summer proves to be as stop/ start as previous summers then you could do much worse than to keep a copy of Detroit Swindle’s new album, High Life, close at hand, as it’s possibly the closest thing to audio sunlight you might hear all year. Amsterdam-based Detroit Swindle, aka DJ/Producers Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets, started working together in 2011 and made a name for themselves with the house-infused delights of The Break Up and The Wrap Around, both released on their fledgling Heist Recordings imprint.
Lars and Maarten then garnered a reputation, both as artists and as label-owners, for embracing eclecticism and steadfastly refusing to stick to any narrowly defined genre, preferring, instead, to follow their electronic muse wherever it takes them and to use Heist Recordings as a platform for their own musical adventures as well as for nurturing new and upcoming electronic musicians.
High Life sees Detroit Swindle conjuring up multiple flavours of carefree, soulful house music, from the floor-filling Flavourism (featuring the distinctive vocal chops of Seven Davis Jr) to the infectious funk of title-track, drenched in Fender Rhodes and vintage-beats while album closer,
Lucky Number 13, shows the duo at their atmospheric best. Never ones to forego the many delights of Amsterdam, FM caught up with Lars and Maarten in their electronic lair to find out more about the great Detroit Swindle methodology.
High Life sees you further your reputation for refusing to stay within any one genre; is that important to you guys?
Lars: “The thing is, we started off as being fully house but then over the years we’ve explored so many different genres and now we hardly stick to any genre. We like – and play – almost everything during our sets and I think that’s what people really enjoy now… it’s definitely what we really enjoy. We felt it was time to expand our production to that level of eclecticism.”
Do you find any resistance to your penchant for genre-hopping?
Maarten: “There are always people who say we should make another version of TheBreakUp or
TheWrapAround again. I guess that makes sense and it’s also a compliment, as it’s probably the first song of ours that they heard. That’s kind of what sticks with you, if you discover a band or a producer and you maybe don’t want the sound to change so much. Everyone changes though, and evolution is normal so it’s fine for those people to still want to hear the older style of things.
“On HighLife, there are some really defined nods to the style of tracks we used to make. A track like Flavourism, with Seven Davis Jr, is not unlike
TheWrapAround. We don’t intentionally set out to make things sound completely different, it’s just the product of the evolution of our taste in music, our production skills and the way that our studio setup has evolved.”
Each new bit of gear can take things off in a different direction?
Maarten: “For sure. You may discover a synthesiser whose sound you really like. For this album we’ve worked with, aside from a guitar and one synthesiser, everything we used came from our studio and nothing was borrowed. So, all the sounds are more coherent as they’re from synths we’ve been using for a while and that we know well. It’s been nice for us to work that way.”
We know you’re both fans of Elektron’s tech, which are not for the faint-hearted programming-wise. Do you both go deep into the architecture of them?
Lars: “Maarten is the more pragmatic one of us. He’s the one that reads the manual first then goes into the machine. I don’t have the patience for that, so I’ll just dive into the machine then figure out stuff that I should know way later than he does! We’re both fluent in Elektron now. So to speak.”
Their gear certainly proves popular within the dance music community, despite that harsh learning curve...
Maarten: “You know what, if you prepare a live show with them you must just really get to know them as you play around with them so much. It makes you dive into them. For our live show at the moment we’re using the Analog Rytm and the Analog Keys and, in a way, once you’ve got to know the architecture of one of them then the architecture of the others is quite recognisable. We’ve also got an Octatrack, [laughs] which is a different beast altogether and in no way resembles the other two. It’s an older machine of theirs but it’s a great sampler. Once you’ve got your head around their menu architecture though, it’s amazing how much you can do with those machines.”
Lars: “There must be some credit to Lorenz, our keyboardist, for the live shows but he’s also a big part of creating a lot of sounds for the album. He does a lot of patch-creating for Dave Smith’s synths. We’d be working on a sound and say we wanted it more a certain way and Lorenz would say, ‘No problem, just change this and this’ and it would come out exactly the way we wanted it to sound!”
So, a very handy addition to have in your musical team?
Maarten: “Very true… although he overcomplicates things sometimes too. When he’s creating patches for the Dave Smith synths, his challenge is to get the most out of the synth, so he makes some of the craziest things you can imagine with polyrhythmic things going on, with delays and aftertouch. We have to say, ‘yes but we want to make music as well!’”
It can be quite a delicate divide between studio experimentation and actually getting some music finished sometimes?
Maarten: “Absolutely. When we were recording this album we were smart enough to take a few weeks off, which we’d never done before so we had the
time to mess around with synthesisers and see the ways in which we could create new sounds even though we’d been working with some of the synths for a long time already. So, we had the time to do that without having the stress of having to finish anything or having to deliver something.”
Lars: “We were also lucky to be working with a lot of incredible musicians. We had Tom Misch here in the studio and we worked with the guys from the Amsterdam brass-band Jungle by Night over a couple of days in the Red Bull Studio there. Lorenz was with us for a big chunk of those weeks in our studio. All those incredible artists helped make things fresh and added a new input. Sometimes if you get a new synth, a new VST or a cool sample, then that triggers you to feed on that and make something new. We cooked up all the great little sessions we had with these great musicians and recorded everything, so we had so much great stuff – hours and hours of music to choose from. That’s a different approach for us and the first time we’ve tried anything like it. You can hopefully feel and hear that.”
It’s great to capture the much sought-after ‘vibe’ when you’re putting stuff together…
Maarten: “Callof theWild is a good example of that, as it’s over nine minutes long. The only reason for that is that it was impossible for us to fit it within a more regular house-track length as we just had too many cool parts. So, we thought, ‘Let’s go full Fela Kuti on this track and get all the horn sections and all the solos in and just go crazy’. It was super fun to do it like that.”
We love all that beautiful Fender Rhodes all over the album, but also the space you leave around everything...
Maarten: “Thanks. Most of the Fender Rhodes is Lorenz playing but most of the stabs or loopy stuff is Lars and me.”
Does the Rhodes and everything else go directly into the box?
Lars: “Yeah… we record everything into Ableton, then chop things into pieces, glue them back together, then discard bits or record new bits on top. Most of the tracks we put together like that in a day or over a couple of days. The details come after.”
Maarten: “There was hardly any hardware processing during the recording, maybe just one or two things going through our Akai filter or the Elektron Analog Heat but mostly everything was recorded super-dry. Then we take a lot of time to give everything its proper place in the track.”
Once you start adding effects and processing, are there a lot of plugins involved or is it mostly hardware?
Lars: “Some hardware but mostly plugins. Basically, we don’t have that many outboard effects. We just bought the Eventide H9, which is a very cool machine. We’ve got a Boss RE-20 that we use for live shows and we used that a bit on the album too. We use the Soundtoys package a lot, which we really love. We got a great deal on the bundle about a year ago and we use them loads.”
Maarten: “The mixdown was done with a lot of nice hardware… we took the tracks as far as we could take them in our studio, but we felt that they still needed a little more life, so we asked our friend, who’s a great engineer, Marco Spaventi, who lives in Amsterdam too, to help with the mixing. He’s got an amazing studio filled with distressors, compressors and everything you need to get a really nice dynamic mix. So, we spent a few days there with him finishing everything off.”
Lars: “Marco said that he really loves how much dynamic we leave in our tracks as it gives him a lot of room to work with. Because of that, I think, it never sounds too pumped and maybe helps keep it quite organic sounding.”
We recall you previously extolling the virtues of the Apogee Duet. Is that something that’s still in your studio arsenal?
Maarten: “No, we used to use it for live but there’s no computer involved in the live show now, everything’s hardware.”
Lars: “We’ve got the big brother, the RME Fireface UFX still in the studio. What we used a lot on the album was the Prophet-6 and the OB-6…”
Maarten: “We made use of a lot of the equipment
“We had so much great stuff – hours and hours of music to choose from”
we already had in the studio, actually. Pretty much every synth we have has featured at some point on this new album.”
Lars: “That’s true… the Moog Voyager, the Korg Mono/Poly, MFB Dominion, our ARP Odyssey. Even our little MFB-503 drumcomputer. Pretty much everything we have was used during the making of the album.”
There are so many great little companies such as MFB and other boutique companies making interesting hardware again…
Maarten: “Yeah, it’s nice. I think the most boutique thing we have is the Twisted Electrons Acid 8. I think there’s a version 2.0 out, which is good as I’d never take this one out live but for recording it’s super cool because it’s really raw. You can compare it to a 303 but it’s a unique machine.”
Lars: “It’s a very electronic kind of sound, not acid. It’s almost like a computer growl.”
Do you ever set down the hardware synths in favour of any soft synths?
Lars: “Actually, we did use one on the track Flavourism. The top-line over the synth sound is from Analog, one of Ableton’s basic synths. It can add a fifth layer to the main chords as well as just a little pitchbend.”
Do you each have set roles in Detroit Swindle? And is anything off-limits for your music?
Maarten: [laughs] “The only rule we have is that Lars isn’t allowed to sing.”
With your label, Heist, you’ve gained a reputation for helping new artists come through. What are the pros and cons of running your own label?
Maarten: “Well, it takes a lot of time and it usually costs more money than it makes you! No, there’s not really a downside, as it’s a lovely outlet of creativity for us in terms of putting out our own music, as well as putting forward artists whose music we really enjoy listening to and who we want to help promote.”
Lars: “I’d say that the only downside for us, if you could call it that, is that we really wanted to release this album on Heist but we’re still a fairly small label, so for an artist of our size it was a bit of risk to do that. You have to do quite a lot of promotion and try and get it out to as many people as you can, which has been a challenge, but it’s also been fun for us. It’s the first album, so we’ve kind of come full circle as the first single was on our label too so it felt like the most logical and good thing to do to release our album on our label too.”
You mentioned the track Flavourism earlier and it’s such a standout track! Could you tell the
FM readers how you assembled it?
Marten: “Flavourism was fairly straight forward as it was just Lars, Lorenz and me in the studio and we didn’t have a beat or a sample to start off from…” Lars: “I think we did, actually, we made a beat and then made a vocal sample then, from that we
worked towards the chords. Then we took out the original sample and worked from there onwards. The original percussion was quite shuffly and when we recorded the bassline the shuffly percussion sounded off, so then we made a more straightforward percussion other than the kick doing hops here and there.”
Marten: “The bassline was done on the Voyager, we have the rack-mount Voyager and it’s probably one of the first patches we’ve made on the Voyager in a long time. It’s by far the most expensive synth we bought in the first years of Detroit Swindle but it’s also the one we used least!
“We started using it more after we spent some time getting to know it. For this bassline it worked so well. I love the pads on it too and when we play live I play them, but I’m just in love with the bassline as it kicks through and it’s so funky.”
Lars: “Lorenz was playing the bassline while I was handling the cut-off frequency on the Voyager while he played, and we recorded the whole thing. Seven Davis recorded his vocals in LA and what he did brilliantly was combining the little modulations in the bassline with his vocal so it’s a really organic flow in the track. I think he really nailed it.”
Do you stick with an idea until it’s working, or are there some things that you’ve abandoned in the studio?
Marten: “We’re not the kind of producers who’ll make 100 sketches but only put out four tracks. We’re more likely to write 20 sketches and put out 18 tracks. Pretty much all the sketches for the album were made in the initial three-week period and I vaguely remember only two or three ideas that we bailed on after a few hours working on them. We were clear about the kind of vibe we wanted so most of it just clicked.”
Is it all the Elektron machines you’re using to take After Life out on the road?
Lars: “It is quite an extensive setup… we have three stations, so it’s me, Marten and Lorenz. I’m in charge of beats, sequencing and some bassline and effects. I use the Pioneer Toraiz SP-16 sampler as the main element in my setup. When they first came out, it was more of a glorified looper than anything else but then they added all the MIDI functionality, extra effects and the later firmware updates. It’s an incredible machine to use because, as Lorenz aptly put it, it’s ‘simpleton live’! [laughs] It’s like a simpler version of Ableton but in a box. It works really well and I’m sequencing the Elektron Rytm from it, so all the beats are sequenced within the Pioneer.
“I’m also sequencing the little Dave Smith Mopho for some basslines and I use the Roland Aira MX-1, which is basically a little digital mixer. The cool thing about it is that it’s got built-in effects and a built-in effects sequencer, which I use mostly for side-chaining on different levels for different instruments. It has a recall function where you can store specific mixer-wide settings for every track. Maarten is using the Analog Keys and the Prophet-6 with some cool patches and Lorenz plays the Fender Rhodes and the OB-6, which he also uses for his talk-box. It’s a cool setup. Our manager’s boyfriend, Thys, is a really good programmer and he’s in the process of programming a light-show that’s combined with the music and the MIDI-notes that we’ll take out live with us.”
Finally, is there anything either of you is keen to add to the Detroit Swindle gear-list?
Lars: “Personally, I’d love to have an 808 and a real tape-echo…” Maarten: “I’m not allowed to buy anything because I already bought too much this year! To be honest, because we were so busy finishing the album, I can look around the studio and see four or five bits of equipment that we haven’t used much at all yet. I picked up a Yamaha DX7 for a good price and we have a new boutique drum-machine called DoubleDrummer by Audiothingies, which we haven’t hooked it up yet. The list goes on, really!”
“As our keyboardist puts it, the Pioneer Toraiz SP-16 is ‘simpleton live’”