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The Belgian trance-dance master talks us through his process and influences, in light of his recent ‘Deviation’ EP
Innershades’ brand of entrancing deep house is the kind that can never fail at igniting dancefloors the world over. Both melancholy and upbeat, the Belgian producer opts for something more than just simple tool music, always getting at the dance’s more moving subtexts.
He’s always locked that combo down, whether that be via his residency at Brussels nightclub Fuse, or his releases on a seemingly endless array of underground labels, like Creme Organization, EYA and his own co-curated outfit Altered Circuits.
His first EP for 2022 (given his yearly track record, we doubt it’ll be his last) is ‘Deviation’, marking his debut for London-based label Cartulis. We caught up with Innershades for the lowdown, and in return he treated us to a special In The Mix session…
Of all the tracks on the EP, ‘Electro Emotions’ might best represent your style, being a great combination of syncopated synths and strings laid to an electro beat. Why do you prioritise overt emotion like this in your music? Have you noticed a difference in crowd responses at your DJ sets when playing that kind of sound, compared to more hard-edged dance music?
I like to layer the directness of club music – and what one would generally associate with that: straight rhythms, high energy, euphoria – with more intricate emotions. Evoking those feelings is the most important part of music for me.
One way to achieve that is through melody : when I make music I always try to write a melody that works for me, one that touches and moves me, first. I start off from there and then I write the whole track around it.
The same goes for my DJ sets. I don’t play a lot of hard-edged music, I tend to always pack my bag with tracks that have a lot of good melodies: tracks that will affect people and are still functional for the floor.
Why do you think dance music from Brussels is so emotive in general? There’s a lot of trance in the city, for example, and we certainly don’t have anywhere near same level of emotion in our club sounds here in the UK…
Those not familiar with this type of sound might find a nice introduction through the “The Sound Of Belgium” documentary. Once you have seen it, you’ll get a better idea of why our music is so emotive. Belgium has a rich musical history and was a bit ahead of the times at certain points – electronic music wise definitely at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. Maybe It’s also the complexity of the country that drives us to make this type of music.
I was influenced by a lot of the early new beat labels: R&S, Antler, Target Records, Dance Opera… just to name some of the bigger ones. The music they released contained a very emotional component.
I’m also obsessed with early CJ Bolland and Joey Beltram stuff: for me that’s some of the best music ever made. Their tracks were a really big inspiration for me.
What hardware / software are you using to generate some of the acid sounds, bells and other great melodious parts we hear on this EP?
I just use a bit of everything at the moment – whatever takes me to the sound I want to make or hear. For the Deviation EP on Cartulis specifically, I used a lot of Roland gear: the Alpha Juno II, the Juno 160, the SH-101, the Roland D-50… combined with some Roland generated drum sounds of course.
How did you link up with Mutado Pintado?
Unai from Cartulis had the idea for the vocals and he made it all happen! A big thank you to him, and of course to Mutado as well for doing those vocals.
What can we expect from you next, and where can we catch you playing soon?
I have a few gigs confirmed in Italy, Germany, France, the UK, Belgium, … The nightlife lockdowns seem to be disappearing everywhere and I am happy to see my agenda filling up nicely. On the 18th of February the Belgian clubs reopened, and I was able to play my residency spot at Fuse in Brussels that night. It felt good to be back: I enjoy the sets over there a lot! Production wise I’m talking to some labels at the moment and I’m also planning another EP on “Altered Circuits”, the label I launched with my longtime friend Mathias last year. My “Faith of the Misbelievers” EP was the first record we released. The second EP will be taken care of by Polarius, an alias of Danny Wolfers (best known as Legowelt), and the third one will be by DMX Krew. We are very much looking forward to getting those to the stores, but with the delays at the pressing plants everywhere, we have to have some patience.
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Authenticity, influences…. and that new album
James Connolly can find inspiration in so many places. Speaking on the phone, our conversation veers from the visual work of Nam June Paik, a pre-eminent Korean member of the Fluxus art movement whose installations often involved multiple TV sets, to the joys of London queer clubbing institution Trade and its iconic late-resident DJ, Tony De Vit.
We called to discuss his debut album under the Dance System moniker, In Your System, but our reassuringly loose dialogue has gone off-piste because the man also known as L-Vis 1990 is, if nothing else, passionate about talking creativity. The wildly varied back catalogue of beats he has made since the mid-noughties more than betrays this penchant for trying new things, soaking up sounds and cultures, and developing new interpretations. It’s been a wild ride, packed with difference and constant experimentation. But one thing is clear — everything he touches has authenticity at its core.
“I feel the Dance System project is always kind of celebratory, you know? It has that positivity. But I think the album is a slightly darker, more twisted side to that psyche… I have a folder on my Rekordbox with good Dance System and evil Dance System sounds,” says Connolly. “If I want to fuck people up and just kind of twist things around I go to the evil folder. I feel like this record definitely has more of that side… Throughout my career I’ve battled with my pop and underground sensibilities.”
We suggest this is an important line to navigate, and our opinion clearly isn’t far off the mark. Soon, the likes of Basement Jaxx, Armand Van Helden, and Fatboy Slim are being cited as examples of electronic music from Connolly’s youth that focused on inducing smiles, rather than moods. But his admiration is less about the tunes, and more tied to the way those names — and others, like Daft Punk — imagined and constructed entire worlds, and then invited fans in. Method actors playing central roles in narratives they wrote for themselves, resulting in genuine individuality the likes of which many can only hope for.
“It’s all about character, and building albums and tracks which have character and a life of their own. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with the Dance System project as well. It was never strictly within the world of house or techno,” says Connolly. “I don’t really fit within either of those places, you know? I’m always somewhere in the middle. So it’s been a little bit of a struggle… it’s like, I’m not really a house DJ.. And I’m not really techno… I’ve just built my own world.”
A vivid place, to say the least, Connolly’s domain is at once accessible yet aimed at outsiders. In Your System has roots in what’s best described as ‘banging house music’, with one play revealing a record capable of turning any club into a chaotic, feral sweatbox. But then there’s nothing on the tracklist that feels predictable. For the producer himself, it’s a collection of tunes harking back to the genre’s original underground. Music for freaks, rhythms for miscreants, a feeling everyone can embrace once they find it.
“Chicago house is the ghetto house. It’s the weirdest shit. It’s Green Velvet, all of that early stuff, like Steve Poindexter. And that’s what I want to bring across now. The record is a house music record, really, but just calling it house sounds a bit reductive. It’s just the word house has been kind of moulded into, I don’t know, a money making thing, where it’s all about house music tunes going off on Instagram with those big drops,” Connolly explains.
In many ways, the new album is the antithesis of that surface-skimming dance music culture, delivered in an upfront, rave-inducing, direct way. Some tunes date to around 2019, including the logically titled ‘Shutter Track’, which Connolly made in the hope dropping it at Panorama Bar would trigger the iconic window blinds to open. The plan worked, but while many would rush to release such an effective weapon, inception to final public offering has taken the best part of three years.
“I feel you need to trust your gut on songs. A lot of times when I trust my gut it normally comes to fruition. When I’m making music, and I’m really deep into something, I’m like, okay, I can see this being a thing — a sound coming back or whatever — and I can trust it will come round. I’m seeing it happen now with a few styles,” Connolly replies when we ask how he knows when to put music out, and when to sit on tunes for a little longer. Naturally, our conversation segues into the fine points of releasing sounds in 2022.
“Some of music’s organic-ness has kind of been killed a little by your digital streaming platforms like Spotify, in terms of building hype on tunes. These days, it’s a different world. Like you used to be able to get your tune on radio a few months ahead of release and then start building momentum. Now you can’t release a tune on radio until the day your tune is out on Spotify, because Spotify sees it as a poor user experience if people can’t instantly access a tune,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of strategy with music now, and we’ve lost that organic kind of vibe.”
Although this suggests radio is more restricted than it once was in terms of tracks, its resurgence as a key dance music discovery tool over the past decade is impossible to ignore. Now Connolly, whose CV already includes stints on Rinse FM, is about to add another chapter to that story, with a new slot on BBC Radio One. The station’s legacy — one of the earliest legal UK platforms to throw cutting edge electronic music at a mainstream audience — is more than fitting for a guy who has always wanted to make and play ‘proper tunes’ while leaving militants and purists to brood.
“I’ve had a lot of support over the last couple of years from Radio One and done various mixes, including for Annie Mac and Danny Howard… I’ve always been a bit shy of radio, like whenever I was on Rinse it’d be me just playing tunes, you know, not getting on the mic,” Connolly says. “But I feel now’s the time to really find my voice within radio and tell people my story, where I come from. So they understand a bit more. I often feel like a little bit of a lone wolf in the world of dance music. I just want people to hear what I’m about, where it comes from. Because for many people, new fans, I’ve just come about in the last couple of years, but realistically I’ve been DJing since the age of 14. My first release was 2008. I’ve had various aliases and different projects, and this is a chance to show people I’m O-G, I’ve been doing this for time, and I’ve got crates.”
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See the video for the ‘My Best’s Friend’s House’ single below
They’ve been around for a hot minute now, but with every new project they put out, it feels like Blue Hawaii are reborn again.
Their new single ‘My Best Friend’s House’’ (see video below) follows up their 2020 album Open Reduction Eternal Fixation and last EP ‘Under 1 House’, and perhaps teases yet another big’un yet to come. It’s part of a new EP from the pair, also titled ‘My Best Friend’s House’, which nails a completely different sound to their last – getting at a much funkier, groovier electronic disco feel than before.
Now a long-distance collaboration between Berlin and Montreal, we caught up with Blue Hawaii (Alexander Kerby aka Ag and Ra Standell Preston) for a catch-up about lockdown music-making, Montreal, love, and everything else in between.
This album feels like the spiritual successor to ‘Under 1 House’, which was much more upbeat compared to your earlier albums. What inspired that change?
Ra: It is the spiritual successor to ‘Under 1 House’! Haha, I like that you said that. We were drawn to creating music that’s more similar to our live show – uplifting & celebratory, very danceable. We would usually do dancier versions of our songs for the live domain, and would also Dj during our live-set, I would improvise vocals over tracks, it was this very exciting, in-the-moment experience. We had such a good time playing live that we naturally gravitated towards emulating this feeling in a studio setting. I’m glad that we had this desire, especially given how sad the pandemic can be, and given that we haven’t been able to tour – we’re able to continue a mini celebration, even if it’s just between Ag and I. I think it makes other people happy too, and we all need a bit of that right now! –
What’s the full story of the ‘haunted cabin escape’ that inspired the making of this record?
Ra: Oh goodness. Ok, so you asked for the ‘full’ story. So I will honour your request. We rented an Air Bnb that had no reviews and that had a fake address (didn’t know this at first). I think this person had maybe been removed from Air Bnb before, hence the fake address that I needed to call the host to find where the hell we were staying. Ag and I like to rent little cabins and bring a small portable recording studio with us. It’s pretty much how we’ve done every record. We travel very light! I would say we are very ‘portable people’.Since the pandemic, everyone is peacing out of the concrete jungle to cabins, so this was honestly the only place available. Montreal at this time was like 40 degrees C so it makes sense that people wanted to escape.
We arrived at the Air Bnb and we got out of the car and the host came to greet us and was like, “I cleaned up the place but I just didn’t do the toilet yet. It’s a little messy in their still.” I was floored and didn’t know what to say and well… that was the start. We went inside and the back window was smashed in, there were no locks on the door, the guy had his house on the property (not great when you’re pumping four on the floor out of speakers), and the place was so messy, not a little messy. I went into panic mode and started cleaning and then was like, wait a second…. this is ridiculous! I gave the guy a kind but firm piece of my mind, that the place needed to be cleaned, the window repaired, locks on the doors, and he kept coming over and talking to us about how this person was a narcissist, and this other person was also a narcissist next door, and that his mother had made him a lamb that was in his freezer… etc etc etc. Then we were like omg we are so thirsty after setting up the studio and semi cleaning the place, and we turned on the water to get a drink and it just ran black. So then we were going back and forth to this guy about the water, and as ag was going back and forth to this guy’s house, he saw in the basement window of this man’s home that there was a Jason mask and an axe.
The basement window was next to an area where this man would actually chop wood. And ag came back into our little cabin and was like “Raph we gotta go.” And I was like “what, what why? I do want to go, but what’s up, I dunno if we can get a refund.” Ag was like “there’s a Jason mask and an axe”. And then the convo about his mom making him lamb in the freezer, how everyone’s apparently a narcissist, how there are no locks on the door, I was like “OMFG” and ag was like “OMFG” and we both turned into 12-year-olds and started scaring each other.
In retrospect, I think it was just a crappy Air Bnb owned by someone who was going through some life shit, but at that moment ag and I were convinced we were going to die. So we packed up with all the lights off (of course right! so our host didn’t know we were leaving), and then the worst rainstorm of the year happened with the gear outside beside the car, we started throwing garbage bags on it while packing in the dark, I was on the phone with Air Bnb… oh man it was such a mess. As we drove away a car started following us, or rather we were convinced it was following us, we were soaking wet in the car driving so fast to ditch this car, and then agor and I stopped being 12-year-olds and took a few days off in Montreal to recover from us freaking each other out. Then we made a record in like 7 days and it was frigging so much work! Really grateful that upon returning to Mtl our friend Edwin de Goeij collaborated with us, he’s on the songs ‘My Bestfriend’s House’ and ‘Danced into My Life’. He also offered us his studio ‘Ed’s Studio’ to work from when we were in a mega pinch and couldn’t rent my studio ‘Toute Garnie’ as it was booked. I think we wrote some fire tracks together and he definitely gave some essential magic juice in a tank that was very depleted after our studio cabin fail!
After spending a year apart and then reuniting for lockdown, did the process of making your music improve, compared to the period in which you exchanged files between Montreal and Berlin?
Ra: Well because of the Studio Cabin fail we ended up needing to do allllloooot of remote work on ‘My Bestfriend’s House’ because what we thought was a finished record, just wasn’t! Seven days is a very fast turnaround time for a record! Agor recently came to Mtl, on Jan 7th and we recorded potentially another EP though 🙂 We tried to do it in full so that we wouldn’t have to work remotely quite as much. Being together is always wayyyyyy better than remote work. I hope that once we figure out ways to deal with the virus we can all be in spaces together more. I think one on one human connection is sooooo essential. Screw ZOOM! I’m thankful it’s been there. But there’s nothing more beautiful and special than people being in each other’s presence. I’ve really come to appreciate that since March 2020. Nothing like it!
Could you name your main disco and pop influences?
Ag: Big Nile Rodgers / CHIC fans. Rodgers’ signature guitar chuck and Edwards’ bass playing is a real special driving force that is very dancey and permeates up to this day, and the way the songs are so studio produced but feel live is also reminiscent of how music is often composed these days. Donna Summer is a huge influence. Cher, Gloria Anne Taylor and Whitney Houston are big singing influences. Modern techno/house/trap also factor into our music in the sense that we always want to have a balance between bass and rhythm and good belted diva singing, and we don’t pay too much attention to what genre we’re supposed to be doing – something which shows when you listen to our releases! – Ag
What are your recording spaces like, and what equipment and software do you use to make your music?
Ag: Lately the UAD system of recording and plugins have been invaluable to teaching us to mix in a softer/less precise analog sort of way. I think the way their plugins are modeled after classic gear has taught us to use our ears more and think about the legacy of all this classic gear in our creative process. We’ve used Ableton Live since day one. We also use lots of vocal layers, guitars, synths, percussion etc as they come naturally into the process, and everything usually happens super fast without much planning. We have studios we work out of in Montreal and Berlin, and our favorite studio monitors are the relatively cheap Yamaha HS8s
Could you tell us a bit more about what the Montreal loft party scene is like, from which you emerged?
Ra: Oh, it was so long ago now. It’s not quite like that anymore. But it was so sketchy and so amazing, and everyone just went to parties together and showed each other music, played on each other’s records, that sort of thing. The internet wasn’t really around, I still had a flip phone! No Instagram. It was a time in my life when people were fully present, and just sharing shit. There were few rules and few worries.
The lead single is questioning and almost quizzical of love – the refrain asks and repeats, “what is this feeling?” Was this sense of apprehension inspired by either of your past experiences of love?
Ag: Hehe, yes, it’s this inquisitive question of, OMG, what is this burning feeling in my chest that I feel so intensely (“what is this feeling”) and then my response “It’s love!” Singing is so fun in this sense, where, I’m asking quite a small, private question:What is this feeling? It’s love. But it’s how you sing it that brings the question to life. I’m like IT’S LOVE IT’S LOVE! Belting it and wavering the note up and down gives the word ‘love’ this huge and powerful feeling, which I feel for my partner.I fell in love with them very hard!
How did you create the animations and tripped-out square patterns in the music video for ‘All That Blue’?
Ag: We shot the video with our friend, the dancer Lili Dobronyi in one of those full covering body morphsuits. It was bright orange so we could screen out her figure later and place it in our own atmosphere. The found footage is really interesting, it’s all super 8 from the 60s, shot in germany and france. It had been sitting undeveloped in an attic in southern germany all these years and comes via our friend, Eddie Rabenberger. It was cool to see this footage for the first time since it was recorded all the way back then. The squares are actually just from creatively automating some parameters in Premiere while editing, nothing fancy, trying to bring together the trippy vibe of the whole thing.
Are you excited to be back on tour again, and what’s your live setup like?
Ra;: Gosh darn! We just had our tour cancelled and rebooked for June. Omicron! It seems like this may be the last iteration of this complex puzzle piece virus. I feel like it’s on its way out and we are all adapting. So fingers crossed we can play for people in June and in September! The setup will be Cd-j’s, vocal processing and a whole lot of diva energy on stage. We will throw down so hard. It’s gonna be so good to get back out and feel people in a room. It’s one of my favourite feelings in the whole world.”
Stream the single here
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