Swiss Beats: Alex Attias and the Swiss Electronic Dance Music Scene
Swiss producer and DJ Alex Attias, aka Mustang, Beatless interviewed by Rose Parfitt.
Alex Attias most recent project is ‘The Sunny EP’ on Cadenza Lab and the popular track ‘Caipirinha’
Alex Attias is in the bath warming up after a weekend in the beautiful mountains of his native Switzerland. It’s been seven years since he lived permanently in Lausanne and you can tell it’s nice being home. “Of course I was dying to go to London,” he says, looking back on his years in the Big Smoke crafting dancemusic’s most significant development since Goldie swallowed his first E in Stoke-on-Trent. “London was fantastic – hooking up with the musicians I like, DJing all over the world, making albums, producing stuff. But I can do all that here now, and I’m two miles from the lake, an hour away from the mountains if I want to ski…”
Maybe this craggy and glistening habitat is responsible for the thread that runs, production-wise at least, through Alex Attias presents Mustang – long awaited solo album from the artist formerly known as Beatless, Freedom Sounds, Bel Air Project, Funkanova, Catalyst, Plutonia and River Plate. Some tracks are for dancing; others are for listening. But all the way through the tom-toms and the timpanis, the layered choruses, classical samples and hints of blues reflect in your mind’s eye a night-time forest of huge, shiny leaves, hidden animals with big ears and insects rattling under a spherical moon. A soundtrack, perhaps, for Moomin-papa and all the little Moomins, frolicking in the silver dusk. “Mustang is more cinematic, more dark jazz, a little bit moodier,” Alex explains. “I wanted to do an album that made sense from A to Z. Every track is kind of different – one track is more bluesy, one track is more influenced by drum & bass, one track is more like Detroit house, one track more hip hop – but it’s not house and it’s not hip hop. You get the impression of that, but there’s a line in the sound – the soundscape – because I use the same kinds of classical string sounds and samples.”In a way, a soundtrack is exactly what this album is. “Cinematic breaks” is the name Alex gives to the Mustang sound, and some of the inspiration behind it came from his work last year on the soundtrack for Anomalies Passageres, a French TV film directed by Nadia Fares. “Working with images was an absolutely magical experience,” he says. “And in the film I used the same kinds of sounds; it gave me the idea of doing this album in the same vibe.”
This other virtual-visual dimension is partly what makes Mustang such an unexpected offering from the producer who, being Swiss, always made it difficult to substitute the term “West London sound” for “broken beat”. Alex, after all, was part of this scene before he even arrived in London. Early releases like “Dark Jazzor” and “Jazz with Altitude” from the Bel Air Project – his first, Switzerland-based production outfit – became cult classics when they crossed the Channel, championed by the founding fathers of the broken sound including Dego (4Hero), Phil Asher (Restless Soul) and IG Culture (Bugz in the Attic). “Once I came to London just to visit, and I went to [That’s How It Is at] Bar Rhumba and [Gilles] Peterson was playing my track, “Jazz with Altitude” and people were going nuts!” remembers Alex, laughing. “I was shocked! Because in Switzerland, nobody would play this track – nobody even knew it.”With the break-up of the Bel Air Project in 1997, Alex pitched up in London bang on time. Main Squeeze, 2000Black, Bugz and other groundbreaking labels and collectives were just hatching into the open thanks to clubs like Inspiration Information, That’s How It Is and, soon, Co-op. Visions Inc., Alex’s own label, wasn’t far behind. Soon he was collaborating left, right and centre, giving – in the true “broken” spirit – a new name to each project and leaving in his wake a trail of floorfillers which made mincemeat of generic terms like hip hop, house, soul, boogie and death metal. “I arrived just at the beginning of this kind of West London crew. I was just there at the right time so it was great for me, but it was great for everybody else as well because everyone was getting tired of what they were doing in their own separate scenes.”The rest is history, and curiosity – the reason the whole thing keeps getting stronger.
Curiosity about other techniques, styles and rhythms means something new is always being invented or discovered or learned. That’s why there’s no need to worry about whether New Sector Movements destroy Busted live on Top of the Pops or what. “I see the future as people doing a lot more production for other artists,” says Alex. “The state of music in general is quite poor, but I think the quality of the producers in this scene is better than in other scenes for one reason: because they’ve all touched and they know different styles of music. You can ask anybody in this scene about hip hop or house or techno and they know a little bit about it, they’re interested in it. I don’t know if you could ask a producer in the hip hop scene if he knows the Carl Craig mix of Beanfield, you know what I mean? There’s more knowledge because of the experience we all have. Phil Asher producing Nathan Haines, a jazz musician, for example, and then a soul singer and then doing some house music. After that you’re ready to do stuff for anybody. Even rock!”The cast of Mustang is studded with stars from the Hollywood of future soul, including the pianist-composer extraordinaire Jessica Lauren, singer-producer Bembe Segue and vocalists Colonel Red and Vanessa Freeman. “Everybody was really good to work with because I’ve known them for a long time and they almost all know each other,” says Alex. “It’s kind of a little family.”
And, whether it’s to be an ongoing project with a strong character of its own or the start of a whole new “cinematic” sub-genre, this first Mustang project is unlike anything that has come before. Continuing to outwit the genre-spotters whilst re-engaging with the name on his birth certificate, Alex has opened up a whole new avenue in a scene already bristling with ideas and energy. As with your first taste of toast and Marmite, this is a gamble that could change your life. So hand over the vouchers.
Rose Parfitt: Is Mustang another pseudonym, alongside Beatless, Freedom Sounds and all the others, or is it a project you see continuing into the future? How come it’s “Alex Attias presents Mustang”?
Alex Attias: To avoid confusion, basically. It’s too complicated to have many names; plus, as a DJ I’ve always used my name so people are really confused. Some of them know my name but they don’t know that I’m doing Mustang or Beatless or Freedom Sounds. So from now on it’s just going to be “Alex Attias presents…” and this is the Mustang project. Mustang is more cinematic or dark or whatever you call it. I don’t consider myself as an artist with one name and one sound. I’m more a DJ-artist-producer; it’s a mix of all that for me.
How do all your different projects and project names relate to one another and what’s happening with them all the moment?
Before I left Switzerland to go to London 10 years ago I had just one name, I was doing stuff under Bel Air Project. And then when I arrived in London I hooked up with a lot of people I really admired and respected, so I’d start a project with Dego [4Hero – the project which became Plutonia] and then another project with Paul Martin [Beatless] and then suddenly I ended up having like three or four names…
And then in London because of the many influences you do a project because you think it’s more techno or more funky or whatever, and you just change names. Which in a way was kind of cool in the underground to do that [at that time], but now I think it’s too confusing. So now I’m doing Mustang which is more my baby, lets say, more film music – my interpretation of music mixed with dance, and blues as well. And Freedom Sounds is more my funky and let’s say housey and broken beatey answer to the music. So I’ll just keep these two now.
With Mustang the album seems to fit very well together as a whole; there’s a lot of tribal rhythms and it’s very densely orchestrated. What’s the idea that links it all together?
I wanted to do something a bit more – not intellectual, don’t get it wrong – a bit more of a concept thing. So I’ve used the same drum kit, some orchestral sounds as well timpanis and some orchestral percussion. And for the drums I used brush drums but they’re processed so they sound a little bit fatter so you can dance to it, not like jazz drums. I needed a kind of a kit that I could use on every single track.
I didn’t change the concept on previous albums; I used to do one funk track, one house track. So that’s why I wanted to do a concept album using the same drums and the same sound throughout the album, but then every track is kind of different. That’s my interpretation. It’s more personal this time.
How was it made? Which parts of it are live – did you have whole orchestras and stuff in the studio and big choirs?
Absolutely not [laughing]. No, no – it’s all synths, it’s all samples, it’s all CDs, classical CDs that I took bits from, and then some of it is replayed on top so it’s a mix of samples replayed with synths. There’s one track where you have live strings and live percussion, the track “Back Home” – those are real violins and real percussion. The rest is all programmed and played with synths and samples.
Who was fun to work with?
Jessica [Lauren], she’s a person I’ve been working with long time so it’s always a laugh working with her. She she’s not like session keyboardists, she’s a real musician so when I would say: “look I’ve done this demo and I want you to replay some stuff”, she will never only do what I say. She’ll do what I’m asking but then she will add loads of things and have loads of ideas so she’s great because she’s bringing a lot, she’s giving a lot. But then, if I’m talking about Colonel Red – we have a lot in common and we’ve been working together for a long time. Vanessa [Freeman] is the same; the track with her actually is an old, old track actually. And Bembe Segue is really fun to work with; she’s a really funny character. I would say almost everybody is really, really good to work with because I’ve known them for a long time and they almost all know each other, so it’s kind of a little family. The only person that I didn’t know was Del the rapper, but with him it was done within an hour. Because when I send the tracks I really try to find people who are on the same wavelength.
What aspect of music really fascinates you? It seems to me that it must be rhythm…
Well it was more rhythm than anything before, seven years ago when I arrived in London I was just all about rhythm. I couldn’t really think of making tracks with singers and start building melodies. But I’m fascinated not only with drum tracks anymore, more like the whole concept of working with musicians and singers and building some tracks to make people sing along if possible and dance. (Although we’re not making pop music!) But I’m fascinated with the fact that you can explore different kinds of music and find people on the same wavelength and then build something really basic and go to other fields, if that makes sense. Take for example a singer like Colonel Red, he’s a real soul singer but I bring him in and then he adapts himself to my music which is a bit crazy and not really soul, but then he brought soul to it and I brought my madness to it so we mixed together. So that’s what I really like about music is that you can mix stuff together and bring something to it that is really personal. It’s not only about drums; it’s about being able to make music that sounds more…worldwide.
Is it a very different scene between London and Lausanne?
Very, very different; it’s two different worlds. Lausanne is 100,000 inhabitants – London is probably 11 million! So there’s no comparison – Lausanne you’ve got the lakes, you’ve got the mountains, the air is fresh, you don’t have the same stress. Okay, you’ve got a lot of clubs, loads of bars and stuff but the culture is so different. Here people listen to commercial dance music or rock. For the funky side of things like soul and ragga and all the stuff that you get on the radio in London, or like Patrick [Forge]’s music or Gilles [Peterson] or Norman Jay, you know the funky side of it, or jazzy – you don’t get that here. So people are less black music orientated, if I can say that.
The thing that’s not different – it’s probably the same all over the world –in every city in the world you always have like-minded people. So when I was making music or DJing I was playing similar music to Phil Asher or Dego or Patrick Forge or IG [Culture]. That’s why when I came to London we hooked up – because we were the same people, you know. We’d been playing the same records but we didn’t grow up together.
So when you came to London did you already know people like Dego, Phil Asher and so on – did you know you’d be able to go straight into that scene or was it a leap of faith?
Well the advantage I had was that when I was doing my stuff here on the Bel Air Project I had a couple of titles out were doing well in clubs. Dego knew my music, Gilles knew my music very well, Phil knew my music. Dego contacted me when I was living in Switzerland because there were a couple of tracks [“Dark Jazzor” and “Jazz with Altitude”] that he really championed and really liked and he said to me: “Man, I really like your music, maybe we should do something together one day.” So when I arrived London I contacted him and he said: “Well, I just want you to do something straight away on my label [2000Black, just starting at that time].” And then Dego said to IG [Culture]: “IG, you have to ask Alex to do a track on your label [Main Squeeze, also just starting up].” So he called me and said: “I know your music and I want to do something with you.” He hooked me up with Mike [Slocombe] at Goya [Music] – and it so happened that Mike was an old friend of my wife! So it was kind of crazy.
I arrived at Goya because I was looking for a studio and they were building studios at the same time. Mike showed me the places and he said to me: “Well, in two or three months there’s a studio available for you if you want it.” So I arrived there and found IG already there, and I got to know Orin and then Daz [I-Kue] and Seiji and then Domu, and I knew a little bit Phil [Asher], and Phil and his wife and my wife we got friends together so Phil invited me to the club [Information Inspiration]. And I knew Patrick Forge from back in the days because I used to invite a lot of DJs over to Switzerland and I’d invited him over three times. So everybody knew each other. And then I started my label [Visions] just four of five releases later than the others. And then Co-op started and a year after I was there.
So it all started together and it was a really good time, it was great.
How did you come to move into production?
The production came just because I was DJing here and buying tons of records. There was the guy I knew who he went to England to study sound engineering and when he came back he said: “I’m just starting to make some beats, come and bring some samples,” and we just started. For me it was just for fun. We did one track and played it to a small label here, and they loved it and they we were licensed straight away to a compilation in France. And we thought: “Hhmmm, strange… we should do another one!” And then we did “Jazz with Altitude” and people went crazy for it and then the third one [“Dark Jazzor” – all three released as the Bel Air Project on Corn Flex] people went mad, so I thought I’d better learn how to use a computer because I was just DJing and giving ideas and samples and producing, but I couldn’t touch the machines. And then in ‘97 when I decided to come to London and spit with this guy to stop doing Bel Air project I learned how to do the programming bought a computer and then started.
This music, call it broken beat, West London sound, whatever, is all in some way or other jazz-influenced dance music. Has straight jazz, be-bop and free jazz and all that, been a big influence for you? Do you listen to a lot of it?
Of course I do. I used to do more – I don’t listen to it much now. Funnily enough maybe, I’ve been listening some classical music – maybe you can hear that in the album. I’ve been listening to some blues and to some other stuff. But yeah, I’ve been always really influenced by jazz, I cannot hide this, this is really my thing; it’s always been my thing.
But is it “Future Jazz” as you call one of the Mustang tracks? How do you see the relationship between what you’re doing and straight jazz?
There’s no direct link saying you can call my music jazz. Particularly in London and in England when you do this kind of music you call it jazz. For some reason. But for me it’s influenced by jazz music and by other music. Maybe more by jazz music because of the sounds I’m using, and sometimes because of the structure and sometimes the singer, the way I make them sing. It’s more jazz than it would be rock, for example, and sometimes it’s more jazz than soul. But in this album particularly I’ve done a little bit of blues singing and a little bit of soul and a little bit of jazz.
Personally I’ve always been influenced by jazz, for example I’ve used jazz samples and jazz drums. But this is just the influence at the beginning, when I started making music. Now it’s kind of open. Because jazz for me is an evolving art. So is jazz wasn’t dead – I mean it isn’t dead but in a way it is with the big jazz musicians – if Miles Davis or people like that, really pioneering jazz musicians were alive, I’m sure they would do futuristic music now. Like Herbie [Hancock] did. But unfortunately the people who are really into jazz like Jazz FM, they think jazz is for granddaddies. Which is a shame because some of the music is for everybody, not just for granddaddies.
When you sit down to do a remix, what’s the creative process?
First of all it depends on the track. Recently I had some vocal remixes so basically I work on the vocal first and just see what bits I’m going to use. The last remix I did was actually a remix of my own track [“Help Me” from Mustang], which was really the hardest thing to do; I’ve never done that before. So I did it electronic and broken beat, two remixes on one – it starts slow and then goes a bit faster. I did a remix for a new French label, a vocal broken beat tune with Marilyn David. I didn’t really feel like doing a Mustang remix so I did a Freedom Sounds remix which sounds a little bit more let’s say house, but not house – house with breaks, lets say more in the vein of Kenny Dope. I worked on some drums and then took a few sounds from the original. I know some people they only use the vocal, for example, but me I also always use sounds from the original. So, a few sounds like the Fender Rhodes and then I just tweaked that in my own way and adapted the sounds to my style so people can recognise that it’s me who did the remix, because that’s what they asked for.
Is there any anyone you’d really like to do a remix for or to produce for?
Yes of course, I would love to work for Jill Scott, or Björk, or even for Stevie Wonder. There’s too many people to say, the list is really, really long. I’d like to work with Shirley Bassey, Erykah Badu – these kind of people. So many others it’s impossible.
Is there anything coming up in the future that you’re really excited about?
I am planning to work on some Freedom Sounds tracks – I’ve got a few tracks and I’m wondering if I’m going to do an album with it or if I’m just put up some twelves – it’s a little bit more dancefloor orientated. And slowly starting to do some demos for the next Mustang. But I’m not taking too much work because I’m committed to doing some new language lessons. I’ve done some cooking courses as well so I’m just going to do more of that. And I want to do more sports. So it’s difficult to do everything. Plus I’m going off to do a lot of promotion and DJing when the Mustang album comes out. I don’t like to overload and I’m not the person who likes to take all the remixes I can. I just want to take the good things and be honest with me and with the people and work on the stuff I can really do, and not just do it quickly because there’s some cash behind it.
When you are promoting the album, where are you going to be DJing?
I’m going to Italy on a beach near Bologna in a couple of weeks, then I’m I’ve got a gig in Moscow, and then the next thing I’m playing Root Down, in Freiburg – Rainer Trüby’s club. And I’m sure, because the album’s coming out in Japan, that I’ll go back to Japan again, and to America.
Is there anywhere you haven’t played that you’d love to?
I’d love to go to South America and I’ve never been to Africa. I’ve never been to China. But it’s nice to have loads of new countries you’ve never been to because it’s all new stuff to discover.
You did the soundtrack for a TV film [Anomalies Passageres, a French TV film directed by Nadia Fares]. Was that a completely new way of working?
Yeah, completely – it was great. The only thing was (laughing) I had only a very old computer and I didn’t have the programme that allowed me to play the film at the same time as I was making the music. I had to bring a telly and a video and try to synchronise both – it was really like working in ancient times, if I can say that! But it was great because first of all it wasn’t really a big film so I had no pressure. Plus it was great to work with images and build the music with the images, because you don’t have the structure that you have to do to make people dance. You’re just completely free to do whatever you want as long as it makes sense and doesn’t take the whole space. When you do the music on a film you have to be careful that the music is not taking over the scenes. Because it was a small film we didn’t have much time or much budget but it was really a new experience.
What’s happening with Visions?
Visions was on hold because of moving from one country to another, so it took a few months to settle down and I didn’t want to rush anything. And also I want to start Visions with a new sound. Not in the sense of musical sound but a good quality sound. Because in London I had my own studio and the mixing sound wasn’t that good. Now I’ve got access to a massive studio here with a really, really good sound engineer and everything, so my album actually sounds really good, I’m really pleased with it. So on Visions I didn’t want to rush and mix it myself – that’s what I used to do and I’m not a really good sound engineer. I want to give Visions a new life, let’s say. I was just waiting a bit to finished Mustang stuff, not only the album but a lot of promotion. So now I’m ready to start Visions again, I’ve got a few releases planned.
What kind of stuff are you going to be releasing on Visions?
Well it’s not going to be the Mustang stuff, that’s for sure. I don’t want to consider Visions as a proper label, which means that you pay people to do stuff for you, because I don’t have the time to administrate all this stuff, it’s a proper job and you have to take the artists seriously. So I’m going to do more stuff for myself, more simple stuff, stuff for the dancefloor, more funky stuff. I’ve got some new musicians here that I’m working with and I’m planning to do some live stuff as well. Loads of new ideas.
Who in terms of producers and musicians are you really excited about? What should we be looking out for?
What I heard that is really, really good, it’s a soundtrack as well, “Legends of the Underground”. It’s music for a dance project that Mark de Clive Lowe did with Seiji and Domu and Bembe Segue. So it’s half an hour of musical madness going through broken beat and cinematic stuff. I haven’t heard much, you know. Since I moved back here I’m a little bit disconnected. I’m sure there’s some really exciting things happening.
What does the future hold? Where do you think the scene will be in five years time?
I see the future as people are doing a lot more production for other artists. I think it’s going to be good, it’s going to be very exciting. Even if it’s really hard, and it is really hard at the moment. But it’s hard for everybody. It doesn’t mean that you have to stop or it’s going to be even worse. I think it can be good. You know, underground music is doing alright compared to the big record companies.
DJ Alex Attias Mix: Cadenza Podcast