Thursday, May 13, 2010

Artist Interview: James Duncan

James Duncan is a name whispered in DJ circles and those in the know. A trained musician with a DJ mentality, James' work as a producer shows his experience as a long time DJ and club devotee as much as it shows his musician background. Duncan has played trumpet in sessions and live for Metro Area. Yet his own productions point to a more loop and groove based direction. Having recently moved back to his native Toronto from New York, and with multiple projects coming up, James may come out from his underground status and into the limelight...perfect timing to catch up with James about what he's been up to.

DT: Many would say that NYC is going through a resurgence as far as Dance Music. Would you agree? Is there as much happening as the media would suggest?

JD: Man, that’s a good question. I can’t really speak to what has been going on over the past few years because I haven’t lived there for a minute now, but I’m really inspired by all of the music coming out of the city these days. The quality is so high, especially on the House front from all the people that have been getting some well-deserved media focus.

NYC is such a strange situation in the sense that, just like anywhere, after a while, even it can begin to feel small. Walking through Times Square just becomes more of a hassle than the total center of insanity that it really is. So I think when one is there, in the thick of it let’s say, it’s easy to feel as if not much is going on at all and take it all for granted. But then you leave that situation and environment and you quickly realize there’s quite a bit going on and it’s all so accessible.

So it’s not like there’s some “oasis” with all of these people sitting around welcoming you with 12”s, but I think all of the various circles of people and their activity combine to make for a very vibrant environment in which to be creative in, even if one takes the stance that NY is maybe a somewhat muted, cleaned up version of its former self.

Having moved back to Toronto recently, what is the difference between working as a producer in Toronto vs New York? What inspires you musically in each city?

Well another great question. I think the things that are different, other than maybe the size and some of the outward focus on NY in general, is merely reflective of me still being some what of a “new comer” back here in Toronto. At my age, I’m not out too much shaking hands and doing a lot of face time. My process is, and has always been, me literally sitting at home alone, listening to great records that I love and then trying to make music.

What always inspired me about NY was that energy you could feel seeping right up into your feet every time you walk outside of the house. What seems to be pretty inspiring about being back in Toronto is a general sense of ease about being creative and to be honest, Health Care. Not having to stress out about getting randomly hit by a cab and then all of a sudden having an $80, 000 hospital bill should inspire anyone to great things.

We spoke at length about the positives and negatives of the Toronto scene. Many Torontonians tend to complain about the state of the scene. As a local who recently returned to the city, perhaps you could expand on your views of the city from a fresh pair of eyes?

Well that was a good conversation mostly because it was so positive. I think I’m a bad guy to ask about scenes because I always enjoy going to more low-key events and I usually go out during the week.

I do try to get involved in scenes but being at home; working in the studio and practicing my trumpet and guitar usually distract me. But I’ve been trying to get out more and more lately. I’m DJ’ing a weekly here in Toronto these days and it’s been great to connect with a lot of people that I knew via 6 degrees of separation and some old friends.

I think the situation here is very good. There are parties and people to both play at them and go to them. There’s so much good history here too, especially for House, so one of my pet projects is to try and get some of the older cats and newer guys (like yourself) to play some gigs around town in some more intimate settings. I tried to get D’Pac to play but Yogi (his brother) said he doesn’t DJ, so maybe there’s a Live PA there waiting to happen. The fact that the guys responsible for one of the greatest house records of all time live here in the city just is so cool. I’d also like to get the Stickmen too.

As far as some fresh eyes, my take is simple - there’s quite a lot of stuff going on and it seems healthy, as well as it’s getting good attention from abroad. A friend of a friend played on David Letterman the other night and Letterman said the band was from Toronto. That’s pretty good in my books, so I’m happy to be here.

Being a musician, producer and DJ, do you identify more with one or do all three have equal importance to you?

It’s funny but I still have problems identifying with any of them! I guess since I’ve been a DJ and musician the longest, I do identify with them, but not really with the ways in which the musical public perceives what those roles are. I started DJing in 1983 but it was on a high school radio station and I was also playing at high school dances, so I still feel at odds with the notion that one is a focal point of attention when one DJs. I’m much more comfortable being quite anonymous, but I do love playing and sharing music I love with people.

How does each role affect the other?

For some people they all go hand in hand, but for me, they all seem to just get in the way of each other. Playing the Trumpet is a very physical, taxing activity and a lot of one’s practice time is spent on musical calisthenics in order to keep up one’s tone and endurance. So people sometimes assume that because one has some degree of proficiency on an instrument, therefore one must be a good producer, but for me it’s been quite the opposite. I guess the only thing that is consistent between all the roles is that I’m not very good at any of them. If I were to play a stock trumpet gig where there were charts, and other ensemble players, I’d fail miserably, even though I studied legit trumpet and have played in Orchestras, playing some bigger pieces in the repertoire. That being said, I play with people I enjoy and am inspired by and sometimes I contribute to the situation and thankfully, people seem to relate to my musical statements, however small and humble they are, in the grand scheme of things.

You’ve mentioned about your musical background progressing from Jazz, Free Jazz into Hip Hop to Disco and Boogie then eventually discovering house music. Do you remember when and how you discovered house music? What were some of the first and most influential house tunes you heard?

Well I remember “house” coming along in around 1986-7, along with the club culture that went along with it and the whole UK Summer of Love vibe. I would intermittently go to the Twilight Zone in the mid 80s, but I was far from a regular or conissuer, just a drunk teenager. I remember hearing Mr. Fingers and some of the other more mellower things that came out around that time. Hearing New Wave, New Romantic, music on Factory etc was such just a “given” growing up in Toronto back in the 80’s that the early, more beat oriented house tunes I heard at the time just initially mixed in. When House really hit, I had sort of thrown myself full into discovering and studying jazz so it was sort of when I got in Disco that I re-discovered (or really closely discovered) House in the mid 90s. I had been playing both indie rock and jazz up until that point, so it was around when I started to try producing and learning how to make tracks and beats. I think the track then that really hit me was Acid Tracks. To me, it just sounded like a punk rock record, which in my mind, it basically is.

Though you are a trained musician, to me your productions convey more a sense of a loop based groove. Do you consciously try to step away from making productions that are “over- arranged” or “over-produced”?

Yes and no. I mean I think Dance music inherently is a very abstracted form of music, so maybe sonically, I like to explore that, plus loving sampling like I do, I guess that work flow just lends itself to loop based music. But I’ve been really trying to make it less “loop” based, but still using samples. I guess for me, every time I try to play arranged things on a keyboard, I just hear my bad clich├ęd Piano playing and throw in the towel. I guess I’ve also always loved the “happy accidents” of working with samples, so I’ve always stuck to that method. Plus I’m just such a huge Hip Hop fan that I guess that mode of production is now part of my musical DNA.

People have try and push me to broaden my arrangements, but when I sit down to work, I just come up with very groove based things. Personally I have no problems with that reality and if that’s all that comes out, so be it. I just try to get better at it as I go along.

What is your method of production. I believe when we chatted last time you had recently acquired an MPC 2000. Has that changed your approach?

Yeah the MPC 2000 completely changed things for me. In some ways it was what I was always looking for. All of my records from NY (listen to me, “all of my records”. it’s like 5. Producers out there make 5 records a month and here I am waxing on about 5 records in a career) were made on a laptop, but it was literally a portable, digital version of my original set up, which was a Prophet 3000 run by either an Amiga 500 or a early version of Cubase on a Mac Powerbook 140. I used Halion and Battery running though Cubase and that was about it. I was mapping samples onto an external midi keyboard and triggering them. Removing the keyboard has been a godsend. It abstracts the music so that I’m not thinking about pitches or about any little keyboard facility I might have.

Just last week I got a MPC 2000xl and it’s been the perfect transition. The updates to the sequencer section and the way the XL handles switching between various modes have been amazing and I’m already busting through a lot of barriers.

After a long hiatus, your Le Systeme final saw another release with the Friday Night Sessions ep. Have you got more plans for the label this year and releases lined up?

Yeah this year might be busy actually. The next release is by Carlos Hernandez of Balihu and Basenotic fame. Carlos is basically a “go to guy” for tons of friends and peers in NYC when it comes to percussion or various instruments.

I met Carlos originally in 2003 doing some Metro Area Live PAs and we’ve always stayed in touch and done some gigs together. His big connection is obviously to Danny Wang, not only playing on some of Danny’s tracks but also having productions on Balihu proper.

As a producer though, he’s one of my faves and we talked about doing a record on Le Systeme over dinner and drinks in NY when I was there a while back. I’m so happy that it’s almost a reality. The record is getting pressed as we speak and I hope people check it out.

What are some projects, releases, gigs, etc. on other labels to look out for?

Man, it’s been busy, something I’m really not used to. I have a new record coming out at some point on Real Soon and there’s a remix/edit I did coming out soon on Bliq, both from London. Then I’m just finishing up a 12” for Third Strike, run by David Griffiths in London, who does both Jiscomusic and Under The Shade, and who is just a great music person and long distance email friend since his days in the Jigsaw crew when they got in touch with support in 2003. So a lot of London right now. The UK people have always been such massive supporters and it’s so great to do all of these projects there.

As far as my label goes, I want to re-issue the Mantler CD this year (that originally came out in 2000) plus my first 12” that I did in 1999. I’m trying to track down the plates now.

I have a bunch of gigs in NY for the first week in July, some with my friend Jon DeRosa’s Aarktica project and some other things that we’re just getting the details together on now.

I’m trying to get a EU tour set up at some point this year, so working out the details for that over the summer.

And then there’s my weekly gig here in Toronto at Sweaty Bettys. Pow!

Friday Night Sessions Ep is available here

Friday, January 22, 2010

Artist Interview: Lerosa

Deep Transmissions has been in hibernation mode for awhile mainly due to personal reasons. But as we're having a bit of a mid-winter thaw here in Toronto, I figured it was time to reactivate it. To kick things off we have an interview with Ireland based Italian producer Lerosa (Leopoldo Rosa). Leo has been building a steady name for himself on the back of several great releases on labels such as Real Soon, Quintessentials, Uzuri & Millions Of Moments. The recent inclusion of his track "Plesso" on Tama Sumo's Mix CD on Ostgut Ton also up his profile no doubt. Rosa's sound is derived from his love for classic house and techno as well as all things deep but there's a quirkiness that gives it his personal touch. As discussed below his musical interests and influences span beyond just four to the floor. Deep Transmissions talks to Leo via email about working with Donato Dozzy, his impressions about returning to DJing and doing live shows, and his new found appreciation of vocals.

DT: Now that you’re back playing live and Djing, how do you find the current vibe in clubs? Does the club environment excite you as much these days?

LR: I quite enjoyed the places I have played at; I am hardly what you’d call a big clubber so gigging gave me a chance to see venues across Europe that I would not have seen otherwise. It’s nice to be back on stage either Dj’ing or playing live, I had not played in a good few years and I really enjoyed the feeling even more than back in the days (late 80’s early 90’s) mostly because back then a lot of the Dj’ing involved having to play some commercial music whereas now it is acceptable to play quality underground music from start to finish. Also I am enjoying the little bit of notoriety

Any particular experience (city and club) that was memorable?

I think Fabric was the most memorable, sharing the stage with big names, an immense sound system, a great crowd, it was quite overwhelming. Also Tape in Berlin alongside Jus'Ed was a blast, great fun from start to finish. I've enjoyed the smaller parties a lot too with Luxor Live in Arnhem, Club 80 in Amsterdam and the party for Sound the Alarm in Glasgow being some of my favourite. Can't say I have seem much of the cities but the little time spent in each city I really enjoyed so far. It's nice to meet new different people all geared up and in party mode, you catch them at their best :)

A lot of people were surprised (maybe stylistically speaking) of the collaboration with Donato Dozzy. Have you known him for awhile? How did this project come about and what was the working process like?

I have known Dozzy for ages; we went to the same school, lived in the same neighborhood and for a few years Dj’ed together at various parties and venues. We lost touch after I quit Dj’ing and moved to Ireland but then found each other again when we realized we were both producing electronic music. Once we got in touch again we immediately decided to try and work on something together as we were curious on how the years and experiences had changed us and as a way to rekindle our friendship and artistic relationship. Because of the distance we decided to start 2 tracks each and to send these to the other to finish. As a result some tracks have a closer association to the style of Dozzy and some to mine but I think as an overall project it worked nicely and generated an EP with variation which we both enjoyed.

Are there any other collaborations in the works? What other artists would you be interested in working with?

At the moment I am working with Lakuti of Uzuri on a vocal project. I have always been more interested in instrumentals but I have recently come to appreciate vocals more, in particular thanks to Prosumer’s productions and Dj sets as well Theo Parrish DJ sets. Something about a good vocal tune can definitely make a track special. The Prosumer Dj sets I have been lucky to catch of late have really been a revelation in that sense. I hope to be able to produce something worthwhile. I think I would like to work with Prosumer at some point as well as with Oliverwho Factory.

Have you maintained any links to the Italian scene (producers or Djs)? Do you know what the scene is like there now?

No, the only Italian Dj I know is Dozzy, I only go to Italy once every 3 or 4 years and when I’m there I’m too busy catching grief from my parents or stuffing my face to find out what the scene is like! In terms of producers I rate Marcello Napolitano very much as well as Ra.h and K Soul, very talented bunch.

You’ve mentioned before that you have a lot of other types of music that‘s un released. It’s also obvious even in your house tracks that you have a lot of other influences. Do you ever feel pigeon holed into being a house artist?

I feel some labels pigeon hole themselves in focusing too much on house at the moment. I produce a lot of different things but all I’m asked of is mostly house. I can’t blame the labels as at the end of the day it is the distributor dictating what they will carry. It’s a buyers’ market so the distro is just stocking up on things they know will sell and won’t chance their arm on styles that are not hot, what with vinyl sales being what they are. I’m happy to produce and release house music when I can, the other stuff I still record and store away, when I come across labels that want something different I release these other things too as I think they are worth being released.

Seems actually that you were able to stretch out a bit more on your recent debut album release “Dual Nature (Further Records). In the digital age, why did you decide to release your debut album “Dual Nature” on Cassette? Was it your idea or did Further Records approach you on this?

Further proposed the tape format as they were keen on giving artists a channel to release a physical product that because of its cheaper costs did not weight as heavily on the choice of tracks as vinyl would have. When Further approached me they presented this as a chance to release ‘the album I always wanted to release’. I immediately accepted as I did like the idea and felt I had finally found a way to release my less dance floor oriented projects. This ties up with the point I made earlier about the pressure of releasing sure fire sellers. It can be argued that digital releases are a neat solution to this but I don’t feel excited about releasing digital files. I Dj with records, I buy records, CDs, books, I like things like that.

Do you have any desire to start your own label (as it might give you more creative control)?

If I had more spare time I probably would give it a shot but as things stand with my full time job I have just enough time to produce music and to work on my sets, adding to that the running of a small label would just be too much for me, I'd rather give that hassle to someone else and concentrate on making music.

You’ve been into house for a long time and seem quite knowledgeable (as evidenced by your classic house mixes for ISM). Do you find a lot of the current trend in classic sounding house tracks derivative or are there producers in this vain that are pushing the boundaries for you?

I don’t know if I am that knowledgeable but thanks! I like a lot of the current producers that use sounds and production techniques from yesteryear. I have always loved trax and nu groove, dance mania and even though I missed on things like Cajual, Relief, Balance and Prescription when they were new I am very much enjoying those too now. I like producers like Levon Vincent, yourself, Spectre, Polarius, Prosumer , Omar-s etc etc as I hear what might have influenced them but I also see their willingness to add a bit of their own to that and for taking things further.

2009 was quite a productive year for you. Are you working on music full time now?

Na, I still have my day job (thankfully!), but I do tend to work fast on my music in general and I don’t like holding releases back in order to create some fictitious sense of demand, so when I have music and a label that I like working with I just go ahead. I am always working on something as I enjoy working in the studio.

What are you inspired by and listening to these days outside of house or techno?

Well I listen to a lot of 70’s Jamaican dub, soul and funk, afro funk, jazz and fusion…since I have got my Dj hat back on I have found myself listening to a lot of Dj sets; again Prosumer, Theo Parrish and the regular ISM contributors have been my main inspiration in that sense as they tend to have a lot of variety in their selections.

What can we look out for from Lerosa in 2010?

I hope to finish and release my collaboration with Lakuti on Uzuri soon, plus hope to wrap up EPs for Love What You Feel, Quintessentials, Apnea and some contributions to Lunar Disko and another as yet unborn Irish label which I hope to work for. Also March should see me play in Japan for the first time so I’m very excited about that.

Dual Nature Cassette album available here