Interview: Hamburg's nu-disco producer Tensnake
Should nu-disco be filed under so last year? Well, judging by the biggest dance track to turn up the heat this summer, it’s not ready for the bargain racks just yet.
For anyone who hasn’t turned their ears onto Tensnake yet, the Hamburg-based producer has cooked up a deliciously infectious slice of nu-disco, ‘Coma Cat’ (the track in question, natch), which was rereleased on big-gun house label Defected in June. Consequently, its uplifting vocals, ’90s piano-house stabs and groovesome synths have been whirled around the decks, Piña Colada in hand, everywhere from Miami to Ibiza.
It has had an especially shimmering effect in London, though, where you are likely to hear it, not just on Radio 1’s C-list, but from disco pubs to dubstep sweatdowns. The sound doesn’t have a ‘scene’ as such, but disparate producers Aeroplane, who is playing at Annie Mac Presents at Koko this Saturday, and even the cosmic Scandinavians like Prins Thomas and Todd Terje (who incidentally is at Plan B on Saturday too), are close sonic cousins.
Now, having just released Defected’s new mix last week, Tensnake is playing at their London home, Ministry of Sound, later in the month. But for more underground warehouse disco vibes, you can catch him headlining No Fit State’s secret party next weekend.
You’ve heard the tune. Now meet the man behind it after the jump (you can also meet him in next week's Time Out, but this is a longer version of the interview). And quite a dashing one he is too…
What are you up to today? "I’ve just been outside, enjoying the day, but, unfortunately, it’s not yet a typical day for me. I hope it will be soon! I’m usually just sitting in the studio in my flat from early in the morning and working on remixes and productions. I’m searching for a new place, but it’s quite difficult here in Hamburg as there’s rarely any space for creative work, it’s really expensive. I thought about moving to east London, I really like it there, but it’s very expensive too."
Does Hamburg have a healthy club scene? "Yeah, it does. Compared to the last two years, the club sound has changed from colder minimal sounds to house and disco-influenced stuff, but it’s more about techno. But we don’t have that many clubs here – maybe just two good clubs that you can go to."
So Hamburg hasn’t experienced a proper disco renaissance yet? "Not that much, no. Friends of mine are running a party here called I Feel This and they’ve booked people like Maurice Fulton, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje, all the great guys that I love to see and I love the dance to, but sometimes there were only 50 people showing up. Hamburg isn’t the best place for the disco sound."
Where is, then? "Probably in heaven!"
How do you feel about being called a nu-disco producer? "I’m fine with that, but I don’t see myself as ‘nu-disco’, that’s much too narrow-minded. I don’t think that I’m doing something particularly new. I’ve been doing this for myself for quite a while and I can’t see why this is something extraordinary."
People do seem to find ‘Coma Cat’ extraordinary, though. Why is that? "I don’t know. It’s kind of scary sometimes. Probably because it has a great crossover potential somehow. As well as the fact that it sounds kind of ’90s and people are over with all the of the ’80s stuff and now they are moving on. It’s just a happy song." What goes into making the ultimate dancefloor anthem? "If I knew the answer to that, I would only produce ultimate dancefloor anthems! But I think there must be something in it so that when they go home and think about the whole evening, that there’s something they can remember. I would say feelgood and happy is better than a dark track that brings you down – at least, for a summer track, that’s really important."
What inspired the track? "'Coma Cat' is part of a whole EP that came out early this year and the idea behind that was to recreate a sound that reminded me of my childhood, when I started listening the boogie and disco tracks that my older brother was playing in his room next door to mine. I started working on it last year when I had come back from holiday in Miami and I was really relaxed and wanted to capture the feeling of the holiday and bring it to the next year." I read that you used to be a bit of a goth? "I wouldn’t say goth! I was listening to indie music, stuff like Sisters of Mercy and Pixies, but I wasn’t walking around like a goth."
I had a mental image of you in white facepaint and a black wig. "Ja, no, I didn’t. But I’ll think about that for the next photo session!"
Do you think nu-disco is over? "Yeah, I do. I don’t even know what the term means. I’m not quite sure if there’s a scene – at least I don’t feel like I’m part of any scene – but I’ve been into this sound for quite a while and I’m feeling kind of bored at the moment. It’s not over, because it will never be over for me, but I’ll be happy when the big hype is over. I think I might maybe move away from the four-to-the-floor beat a little bit and be more experimental – I’m really enjoying some dubstep and broken beat tracks, like the Mount Kimbie album, at the moment."
You’ve been working for a DJ and producer for 10 years – why has it taken you that long to break through? "Before, I was doing remixes as a service for major companies and not under a name, but I started producing under the name Tensnake in 2005. That was when I realised that out there in the world, people are digging disco more. I was listening to Tim Sweeney’s Beats in Space radio show and, ja, I was a big fan of all the Scandinavian guys like Prins Thomas, Lindstrom, Todd Terje. I became really motivated and I decided to start my own label [Mirau]."
Are things getting quite serious now? You look quite serious in your new photo… "Yes. Really serious. [laughs]. It’s getting a little bit more hectic to be honest, but I’m trying to relax."
And with your label too? "The sales are going up a little bit, but still the label is just not for making money, it’s just a playground for releasing quality music. We are really lazy – I think we’ve only done 10 or so releases on five years!"
You’ve done loads of remixes – which one would you particularly recommend? "I still really like my first one for the Junior Boys. When I listen to it, I don’t get bored, which happens to me with most of my tracks. I did that really early on, in 2006 maybe, right after my first release. They heard the record somewhere and they contacted me. They were, like, fans and I think was just running around my flat when I got the email for hours and hours screaming 'The Junior Boys!'."
You’ve just remixed the Scissor Sisters too. What do you like about them? "I have to say, I don’ t know that much about them. But I shouldn’t say that. Erm, what I like about them is: I like the track, I think the production was really nice and I think it’s just great pop music and they don’t have a too-serious approach. It’s about entertainment. They’re just a good pop band."
And you’ve remixed Goldfrapp – do you have a thing for disco divas? "I think that just happened accidentally, but I wouldn’t say I’m very passionate about disco divas. I like them, they are strong women, and there has always been a connection between disco and strong, powerful women, but I’m into so much stuff, I’m not only into them."
Is ‘Coma Cat’ a pop track? "It’s on the border. It has a big pop influence because there’s a catchy melody and it’s really happy and has delighted sounds in there, but I think it’s both: it’s club music and pop music."
Is making pop music your end goal? "Yeah. For me, the most exciting and everlasting music is pop. I’m a massive fan of Prefab Sprout, which is really soft and perhaps other people would say cheesy. But it’s just the perfect pop music. You could listen to it and play it in 100 years and it will still sound, maybe not fresh, but not dated, and will move you for sure. The ultimate pop music – a great song with good songwriting, great instrument and really well-produced – is timeless. It would be nice to produce something that will last when I’m not here anymore. Maybe I’m trying to produce something that I can leave behind."
Isn’t that a bit dark? "Is it? I don’t know? Well, we talked about the goth thing before, so perhaps that’s influenced me. I’ve been listening to too much Sisters of Mercy."
Do you have any plans to produce anyone else? "I would love to, maybe next year, but first I need a new studio because I don’t want to have to clean up my flat every time someone comes over and hide all my dirty underwear."
Who would you like to work with? "That’s really difficult. I’ve just finished a remix for Aloe Blacc’s ‘I Need a Dollar’, who has released on Stones Throw in the States. He’s an amazing artist. And I think for my album, which will be finished sometime next year, I would really just like to work with some vocal artists. There are so many great people, but they are all dead already, that’s the problem! I’m a huge Arthur Russell fan and, if I could turn back time, I would love to work with Larry Levan in the studio, or Marvin Gaye."
Is there anything else that people get wrong about you? Apart from that you’re a goth? "So far, I’m not feeling misunderstood, I’m just really happy. But maybe it’s about my name, Tensnake… People wonder where it comes from and unfortunately there’s no story behind it. But a few people, especially in the UK, have thought my name was 'Trousersnake'."