Interview with Matt Tolfrey

The last time we spoke was right before Movement, you mentioned you had an upcoming residency in Ibiza and were also planning on attending Burning Man, how was your summer overall?

The residency at Sankeys went really well, so much so that I had an Essential Mix recorded for one of the parties there, that was really special. I just got back from Burning Man, it was my first time. I’m not going to say it changed my life, but I still had an amazing time and met some great people. It was nice to go to a place where there was music, but it was secondary to everything else. A lot of people have asked me what DJ’s I heard but I didn’t actually know who was on at any point. I tried enjoying my time with friends as much as possible and didn’t really worry about work for a week, which doesn’t really happen often if you know what I mean (laughs).

With that Essential Mix, it was your first time on the show, how much planning went into it? 

Normally they give you about two months to do the studio mix, so you email all your friends and ask them to send you the best music they have. You get a nice lead up to it; most people end up doing it on Ableton so it sounds amazing. For the live recording I did at Sankeys, I was told two weeks in advance and they said they would pick the best hour of my two hour set. And that didn’t bother me, I’ve recorded live sets in the past. The funny thing that happened was since I was a resident at the club, and Carl Cox and DJ Sneak were only playing on the island a couple times this summer, they each got two hour sets and I ended up getting an hour and fifteen minutess. So basically it meant that they were going to use an hour of my hour and fifteen minutes and I couldn’t really fuck up. Literally, there were four mics in the booth, two on the top on either side, and two in the back of the club so they could pick up the crowd noise. As I came on, the guy running all of it was basically just like “ok go, get straight into it.” I was told I would be getting a studio Essential Mix in October, I’m very excited about that.

Ibiza is one of the dance music capitols of the world, do you go there to learn or do other things? What do you get out of it?

The last couple of summers I visited more as a tourist, this was my first residency. I think Ibiza can be viewed as the center point of the summer for everyone, there are people visiting from all over the world, almost like a Las Vegas for “that kind of  music.” This was the first summer where I felt like a part of it all whereas in the past I only played here and there. Getting a residency allowed me to really get to know people on the island, find out where the nice restaurants were, things of that nature. Next year I’m going to rent a room for the whole summer and live there for a few months.

What kind of sound dominated over there?

It’s such a broad thing every night. There are about six or seven big clubs and they each have a different theme every night of the week, from trance all the way to hip hop. We were laughing because the hotel we were staying at had all these big hip hop crews coming  in, with rudeboys that just didn’t seem like they fit there. It’s so spread out now, everything is happening it seems. Ibiza is like Burning Man, you kind of just need to go and experience it for yourself. Everyone that lands there and gets off the plane is just ready to party, so it creates a buzz immediately because they are all there to do the same thing.

Did you pick up new ideas? Did you find yourself messing around with new sounds there?

Not so much, it was a good and bad thing. Sankeys is a big, black room with huge sound, it almost reminds you of a club you’d find in Manchester, New York, or anywhere really. The club molded itself and people liked it for that reason, it became a kind of escape from other places where you got things thrown in your face. You could hide out there and listen to good music. People don’t realize it, but your musical tastes change through the seasons. If you’re a producer, you make darker music in the winter and happier music in the summer. Playing in a dark hole, I knew people came to get down and really let loose. But if I was playing under the sun, it would be a bit different.

What’s the main difference between how you are received here in America versus Europe and the rest of the world?

America, crowd-wise, has changed the most out of any other territory I’ve been to in terms of being clued up on the music coming out of Europe.

Are you surprised it took this long?

Not so much, no. Sasha and Digweed came out of there and did their thing at Twilo and that kicked off the whole Prague thing. Prague washed through America…the internet helps, obviously, with transporting the music everywhere. I don’t think it’s like a catch-up thing, people have their tastes, its just the way it goes. This sound that came out of the UK recently from Hot Creations has this hop hop house crossover kind of thing, which can be seen as quite commercial or not. It’s very accessible but it still has its roots in underground music, because that’s where they’re all from. If you stick a hip hop vocal on a house beat, people are going to like it because they’re going to recognize it.

I remember about two or three years ago when we were in England, I was chirping up that house music was going to be big again and it was when the whole dubstep thing was really out of control. And everyone disagreed with me. Right now in the UK the dubstep nights are as big as the house nights, they’re as busy as each other. Your Maya Jane Coles’ and Jamie Jones’ are HUGE DJ’s in the UK and now it’s translating over to the states. Accessibility is good but just to a point if you know what I mean. I don’t mind playing to a crowd that is there because they’ve heard accessible music before. You can use those tracks and tease them into other stuff that they’ve probably never heard before.

Your label, Leftroom Records, had a very successful year by most people’s standards. Gavin (Herlihy) had a big hit, Laura (Jones) also made waves with “Love In Me,” Kate Simko etc. What does it take to get on your label?

Well it starts with good music but with every label, it’s always about building up a bit of a family first. I’ve known Gavin and Laura for ages obviously, that’s how that came about. But we still listen to all the demos, so if something stands out, we all sign off on it. We just signed an artist recently because of a demo he sent us; we don’t work with just “established artists,” we are always looking for the best music at the moment. We don’t make records just because they are “hits,” you know what I mean? We sign stuff that we like. I’ve actually turned stuff down that came out on other labels and turned into massive hits, just because I wouldn’t play those records in a club. (pauses) Really big hits actually (laughter).

Do you feel this was your biggest year?

We (Leftroom) had some big hits in the beginning and got off to a very good start. Everything is set right now though, the label has actual structure. It’s a working machine and its going along pretty well. Altogether its Leftroom, Leftroom Limited, and digital-only Left. And with music going digital, its become so easy to mass produce. We get some really bad demos but the people out there that know they are good are separating themselves by investing in hardware and making their music sound very professional in a number of different ways. I still use engineers to make music, I’m still learning as a producer. (pauses) It’s easy to make a track, but it’s that much harder to make a really good track.

I got to listen to your debut LP Word of Mouth which came out recently. I thought it had the feel of an effort that attempted to bridge the dancefloor and the living room, correct me if I’m wrong.

We looked at it like this: if you’re going to listen to a CD, most likely, you’re going to listen to it in your car, at an after-party, or when you’re getting ready, that’s what the CD buyer’s market is at the moment unfortunately. I remember being a kid and buying CD’s left and right but everyone else just goes on iTunes or Beatport and sorts it out like that now. With that in mind and the idea to not just put out an album full of dance tracks, I tried to make something that would show the different types of music that I’m into. It starts off kind of easy and ends quite easy. When I was at the university, I was the trip-hop man, I was really into Rae & Christian, they were my thing but I don’t DJ that kind of stuff. It’s hard nowadays, there isn’t a rule about how to make an album, especially with a dance album as opposed to working with a band. With a band you write twelve songs and then you work out an order to put them in. When it comes to dance tracks, people say “take them on a journey.” Bollocks. Or its twelve individual dance tracks, which can really come off like six EP’s to some people. So the real tricky thing is adding that personal touch to it, and I tried doing that in my own way.

You had a guest on almost every track, was that a conscious decision or did it just happen spontaneously?

Well the album is called Word of Mouth for a number of reasons. One, it was going to be a very vocally-lead album. All the features on the album are strictly vocals, none of them were involved in the production aspect. It’s funny, someone else asked me the same question. And to go back to Rae & Christian, those old hip hop guys had guests all over their albums. For some reason in house music there are not so many features these days. I can’t sing so I had to turn to others (laughter)!

Well, I enjoyed your vocals on “Candy” with Lee Curtiss…

I CAN sing, but I didn’t want to make the music and do the vocals for this. I wanted to let other people be creative with it as well which is what I did. For example, I’ve known Kevin Knapp for ages, he wrote all the lyrics from his perspective. I sent him the beats with an idea and then we talked things over. He sent it back to us, we chopped it up, and that’s the way it went. It was very organic process rather than a set thing.

Did that make it a longer process?

It was about twelve months. It was weird because I spoke to a couple people who had previously made albums, and everyone said something different. One person told me to write twenty-four tracks and pick the twelve best. It probably would’ve taken me three years to do that, so I scratched that idea immediately. It was more like work on a load of ideas first, pick my favorites, and then have the balls to be like, right, “let’s get these done.”

When you had the final tracks picked, how did you choose the order?

When I got to that point and had my ten tracks set, I put them in zone mixing key, just try to do it in key for a laugh. The way it laid them out was what I was thinking anyway. I wanted it to kind of start off a bit slow, build up, and then slow down at the end. It’s like if you’re driving a car and just have your foot on the accelerator. When I used to go clubbing as a kid, I was into people like Sasha. They would start from down and take you up, actually take you for a “ride.” I think that’s lost a little bit now with techno and house, I feel like it’s all just go, go, go!

Slot times can play a part in that though…

Absolutely. What’s happened is slots have gotten shorter, so you’ve only got so much time to get things going. There is more competition among clubs, so they are adding more artists to the bill and everyone is playing less. Compared to an album, it’s a totally different concept.

You’ve played SpyBar three times in the last year, what keeps you coming back and choosing this club?

When I was young, I was really lucky and got to play Fabric from a really young age. The level of professionalism there is unbelievable. The moment you get there you feel like you’re at home. And that’s why everyone plays so well there; it’s not because it’s a huge club with an amazing sound system, it’s because of the way they treat their DJ’s. You’re not treated like a bit of meat that’s sweeping through, you feel like you’re a part of it. So early on, I got that kind of treatment, and I assumed that I would get it everywhere. But as I began to explore other parts of Europe, I saw the other side and got treated like shit at a lot of clubs. SpyBar was the only other place I came across that reminded me of Fabric. It has this family atmosphere and that’s why I’ll never play anywhere else in Chicago.

What is something outside of your genre that has you excited at the moment?

In the UK at the moment, there is this dubstep-techno crossover thing going on, people like Joy Orbison, Boddika, Ramadanman etc. It’s exciting because they’re from a different genre but they are making our type of music and yet it sounds completely fresh. They don’t have other influences telling them it has to sound a particular way. That’s the freshest thing. It would be like if I sat down and decided to start making dubstep. I’m sure if I worked on it for a year, I think some people would really like it because it would be really different. That thing is what is really exciting me most, this future bass, future garage movement that is occurring. You look at Scuba, who just did an Essential Mix…

He played several songs from your label…

They are dipping into our genre just as much as we are dipping into theirs.

It seems like the dance community is sharing ideas at the moment.

That’s the best way it should be, people should be sharing. I think the difference is that the old guard of DJ’s felt they had to earn shit and do it their own way, that’s kind of fading out. There is this new wave of DJ’s coming through that are a lot more open-minded, and they are also just less money-oriented and not worrying about things like branding, they just want to play good music.

One last question before we let you go: what does Leftroom Records have in store for the rest of the year?

The next release on Leftroom is a six track summer sampler called Our Summer; it has old and new artists. On Leftroom Limited, we have an Odd Parents, which is actually Maceo Plex’s wife and his studio partner; it will also have two Mark E remixes, disco-tastic stuff. I don’t want to say too much but we’ve got lots of good stuff coming up.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.