First album from quirky L.A.-based label 100% Silk
Kingdoms, the debut album from a British artist with the Continental name of Fort Romeau, is a rarity for electronic music: pure, floor-oriented house music that nevertheless works wonderfully as an album-length listening experience. Its creator, Mike Norris, is a session and touring musician with La Roux, but Kingdoms is his first release, which is another rarity in a field where musicians often toil away in the 12-inch trenches for years before summoning the gumption to tackle the LP format.
Like many of his peers, Norris is clearly motivated by the form and feel of classic house from the 1980s and '90s; the very first track, "Jack Rollin'," incorporates a sample of Chuck Roberts' 1987 song "My House," probably the most famous a cappella in house music. But despite the obvious echoes of labels like KMS and Nu Groove, and of artists from Larry Heard to Move D, the record never feels like a textbook exercise. It's supple and involving, tough enough for the dance floor, but rich enough that I've had it on steady rotation for weeks now.
Kingdoms is the first full-length to come from 100% Silk, the dance-leaning offshoot of Los Angeles' experimental label Not Not Fun Records, and it's something of an outlier on the roster. Run by co-founder Amanda Brown (of LA Vampires and Pocahunted), 100% Silk has specialized mostly in self-styled "outsider" approaches to dance music, with an emphasis on the lo-fi or even naïve qualities of early machine-funk. Kingdoms, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly lush and uncommonly polished; there's nothing amateurish about it. The label may operate according to punk's DIY precepts, but Kingdoms flies in the face of the notion that music has to be ugly or rough-edged to be underground.
I spoke with Norris about sampling, homage, and whether he considers himself an "outsider" to house music. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't.)
Tell me a little bit about your background. What do you do in La Roux’s band?
I play [keyboards] in their live band, and I do some of the programming for their live show with a couple of other engineers. But primarily I'm just a session musician for them, really.
How did you get that gig?
They had just signed a deal, and I met them through a friend who had heard them on MySpace. He just sent it to me and said, "This band sounds really cool, they sound like they could be really big." So I listened to them, and I saw on their page, like, "We're looking for more band members." So I just sent them a message and said, "I like your stuff, I can play keyboards and program." This was maybe February 2008? So we met up and we just got on really, really well, and started hanging out. Maybe six months later, we had a band practice, and it just went from there. With the first album, I went through it with the other musicians, and we figured out who was going to play what [live], and how we could organize it. We'd take the different parts and break them down. So if you had a piece recorded off an analog synth, we'd say, "Let's resample that, put it onto a MIDI keyboard." We methodically broke the record down into a playable format.
Is your background more in bands or programmed music?
I've been playing guitar since I was 14. I was in bands with some friends of mine at school and college. One of my friends, who I was in my first proper band with, is actually quite a good producer now called Ital Tek; he's on [the London label] Planet Mu. We kind of grew up together, and lived together for maybe five years at university. We were in a band together when we were 16 or 17, kind of alternative rock, as wide as that net casts. We liked Radiohead and Sonic Youth and stuff; we just ripped them off, really.
You wouldn't be the first people to do that.
Then we both got into production when we were about 18 and continued to work on stuff at uni. For Al [Myson], Ital Tek, it just clicked a bit quicker, I think. He's been releasing tracks since about 2008, but it's just taken me a little bit longer to get my shit together.
What's your history with dance music?
My dad's an avid record collector, but his primary focus is on '70s and '80s rock music, straight own the line: Deep Purple, AC/DC, classic rock stuff. But he couldn't stop buying records, so there'd be the odd thing that didn't fit that he'd like — the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack for Midnight Express, or Mike Oldfield or Jean Michel Jarre, and those things always stuck out the most to me. I've always been drawn to the different textures and alien sounds, I suppose.
Even at a young age, I always identified most with electronic music. When we were in bands, I didn't really like many solely guitar bands; I was never into just rock music. I liked Radiohead from OK Computer on, do you know what I mean? It was when the electronics and the production became a vital element to their music that it became interesting to me. I think OK Computer and Air's Moon Safari really switched me into full, electronic music, as it were. And Autechre's Amber, as well. Those three albums started me off on the path of exploring more club-based music. I started off liking Squarepusher, Aphex, IDM, I guess you might call it. As time went on, I was drawn towards the slower, housier stuff. I think I first heard some of the classic Chicago house when I was 18. Maybe that's late? I don't know. Because it's before I was born, it's outside my context of culture. I guess you just discover it when you discover it, don't you?
How much were you trying to do a purist house record?
There are some unavoidable references I put on there. Like, using that vocal [from Chuck Roberts' "My House"] in "Jack Rollin'" — that would either be extreme naivete or a totally obvious choice of something to use. I guess you could call it homage, if you like, to that Chicago sound. I'm definitely aware that it's something you might say is on-trend or fashionable. But nothing I've put on this record is at all contrived or forced. It's like the culmination of all the things I like about electronic dance music — and that really is to say, everything I like about music.
I guess it's house because it's mostly 4/4, and I guess it references Chicago because there's that emphasis on deep, lush, a bit lo-fi, but I wouldn't want people to think that it's somehow contrived, because I actually feel it's a very honest representation of how I see music and the things I'm drawn to.
The first time I heard "Jack Rollin'," I immediately thought, "Oh no, another one of these records." But the way you use the vocal is much more interesting; it's buried in the production, and the way it loops, you almost stop hearing it.
It was a very deliberate choice to use that vocal, and I'm glad it comes across in the way that you're describing. The looping, repeating thing is just trying to emphasize — it's a dirty word in dance music these days, but the trance effect. That's what I wanted to do with the vocal, just have it become this entrancing sound that loses some of its symbolism. It's this little phrase that's going over and over, and it detaches itself from its original meaning.
It's kind of the same thing that Nina Kraviz did with "Ghetto Kraviz," and, of course, juke, as well. But it goes all the way back to early Steve Reich, really.
The Steve Reich reference is probably the most pertinent; I pretty much ripped that idea off from him, rather than any more contemporary source.
The album reminds me a little of Luomo's Vocalcity. It has a similar balance between lushness and toughness.
Oh, cool! One of the great things about electronic and sampled sounds is that there's so much variation in texture and timbre, and what makes a piece of music interesting is trying to find a point of tension, or a counterpoint. The idea that you've got quite a tough sound, mixed with something that's deeper and warmer, that's what creates interest in music. I'm glad you said that, because that was definitely quite deliberate.
What are you using to make your music?
Technologically, it's extremely simplistic. I've got a MacBook Pro and a Yamaha DX7; the only plug-ins I've got are an Arturia Mini-Moog plug-in, which does all the bass, and a Korg M1 [emulator plug-in] that I got for free with a MIDI keyboard controller. Then all the drum sounds are sampled from a million different places. There's loads of fuzz and loads of crackle injected into it. I think it's really important, if you're in the business of using samples, which I think nearly everyone is, to use them as ways of adding in history and subconscious reference points. That's a really interesting aspect of music: you have this ability to take something from the past and put it in the present. It adds a whole new layer of meaning; it's as if you've got harmony and rhythm and melody, and then you've got this other subtext of almost subconscious memory, or cultural memory. I'm not interested in invoking a specific track, but the idea that this is something that has its own history and has gone through its own processes before it's gotten here.
How did you hook up with 100% Silk?
I had made a couple of the tracks; I think "Kingdoms" I did at the beginning of 2011, maybe the end of 2010. And then I heard Ital's release on Silk, and I thought it was really cool. I saw the other releases, and I thought, "There's some contextual link here between what I'm doing and what they're putting out." So I just emailed Amanda and sent her a couple of tracks. And she emailed me back and said she really liked it. Originally, I think, she was going to put out a 12-inch, like the rest of [100% Silk's releases], and I kept sending her different tracks, and she liked them all. And then she decided she wanted to put out something that was a slightly longer format.
There's been this discussion of "outsider house" around 100% Silk — like, house music made by not-house people — but I don't get any sense of outsider-ness from your own record.
I don't consider myself, as a listener, to be outside of that in any sense. I guess, with Silk, it's as if people have come from this tradition of American experimental indie music, and have thought, "What happens if I apply this logic to dance music?" Whereas mine is definitely coming from dance music from the get-go. I suppose I'm going against the ethos of the label, somehow. I think Amanda's kind of open; she's just really interested in the vibe, you know? I think she's got this idea about what she wants it to sound like, or what she wants the thread that strings them together to be. And as long as it has some part of that, I think she's happy with it.
Was the record cover a tribute to Dial Records?
No. There were actually maybe four different covers before that, but me and Amanda just could not agree on an image. We were going back and forth between different things, and eventually that came up. It was the only artwork that we both liked. I'd be lying if I said there was any specific reason it was that image or that format. If it's similar to anything, it's by accident on my half, and perhaps by design on hers.
It can be an accidental tribute. Will you be doing a live show for this record, or DJing?
I really want to do something live. But what I don't want to do is have a one-man-and-a-laptop based thing, where I'm effectively DJing but only playing my own music. I mean, it's totally legitimate, and I wouldn't say that anyone is wrong for doing it. But I'd rather be DJing and not having the computer there as a barrier between people. I find that, for some reason, the laptop DJ thing adds a barrier between the DJ and the crowd. It's almost the opposite of what DJing is supposed to be about.
In a sense, I feel like the idea of playing electronic music live is kind of conceptually bankrupt from day one. But, saying that, there's a lot of interesting live stuff going on in electronic music. There are some people who do quite mind-boggling generative and interactive things, which you never could have done in the past.
DJs, of course, can play a much broader range of music. With a live act, it's just one perspective, one voice.
Live performance is inherently quite egocentric, isn't it? I'm fully aware that there's mountains of music out there that is massively more interesting than my own. Playing your own music and hearing it really loud on a good sound system is excellent and really enjoyable, and it's great if you see people enjoying it. But being able to construct a DJ set and put it into context with records that you really love, and be able to build a larger picture of what you're doing and where you're coming from — I think it's incredible. I don't think DJing is given the credit it's due. That's not like saying it's a technically necessary and difficult task. But as an idea and as a cultural activity, I think it's amazing.