'It’s got an arpeggio synth. It must be Italo'
Interview Marisa Brickman
Photography David Ryle
British-born-and-bred Serge Santiago and Tom Neville make up the dance duo Retro/Grade, that has taken the dance world by pleasant surprise this year. They’ve released two stand-out 12-inches, both of which have received plenty of air time on the dancefloor and great reviews. “Moda” is a beautiful track that takes you on a journey, mixing loads of different sounds from old school house to Italo to big beat, all overlaid by this amazing futuristic squealy rave sound. The latest single, “Zoid”, takes the best of “Moda” but creates a more cinematic soundscape with lots of foreboding sounds and police sirens–very retro indeed. Not only have the tracks themselves been quite a hit, so have the quirky Youtube videos.
Serge and Tom met in their early 20s in Brighton, DJ-ing and raving it up. Both gentlemen went on to have their careers before aligning as Retro/Grade in 2008. Serge spent a few years in Radio Slave, but left to do his own thing in 2005. He quickly became known in his own right for his Italo re-edits (“Atto D’amore” is one of our faves), released as a series of different-colored vinyl. Then of course came the remixes. Tom is by and large known to the world as a house producer, DJ, remixer and sometimes-vocalist with more than 350 tracks credited to his name, the biggest standout being “Just Fuck”.
The inherent freshness and creativity in both the audio and the video output of these two can only mean good things to come. Thankfully Retro/Grade are more than halfway through an album, which is due to be released in 2010.
Where are you guys from in England?
Serge: Originally from Brighton.
Tom: Originally from Portsmouth.
Serge: We first met in Brighton.
What was the Brighton scene like?
Serge: It was amazing. It was such good fun and there was so many crazy people down there. At one point, they ran out of plumbers and gardeners and builders and stuff because there were so many people who were artists and musicians down there. They had to put an ad in the local papers that was like “We need plumbers.” It was unbelievable.
When was that?
Serge: The late-’90s. It went through such a golden period of so many people building sculptures, writing good music and throwing parties.
Tom: There was loads of good outdoor parties in the summer.
Why did the scene change?
Serge: It became popular from being featured in magazines every two minutes. More people flocked there. Bigger, more obvious places got built. It became London-on-sea.
Tom: We were obviously a lot younger then.
Serge: We were all very wet behind the ears.
Tom: We just DJ’ed and threw parties all the time. That’s all we did.
Too bad it’s not really like that anymore. Are any of the places still the same?
Serge: The places are still there, but different names and not as grubby. There’s more rules down there these days. It was much easier to get away with things in the old days. At the old Escape–which is Audio now–I used to go this night called Free Banging Techno. I used to be so skint and on the dole. I’d run in there and steal people’s pints, get pissed on other people’s pints, then leave and have a great time.
You’ve obviously stepped it up a notch since then. Looking at where you are now compared to the Brighton days, have there been any particularly career or personal defining moments?
Tom: What’s been crazy is the fact that now over the last couple of months DJing is that I’ve started to play records that I bought when I played when I first started DJing—
Serge: You’re doing that as well?
Tom: It’s crazy. I must have heard them 80 times now—
Serge: All the old Africanism stuff is the first stuff I bought when I started DJing. It’s mad. We’re so bored of the music now. It’s so linear and boring.
Tom: And people are like ‘This is fucking amazing. What’s this?’ And it’s actually really old, but they don’t realize it because it sounds like new stuff where people have intentionally decided to try to sound retro.
Serge, when you left Radio Slave, was it because you didn’t want to make the harder sounding music anymore?
Serge: When I left Radio Slave, it was purely musical differences. We weren’t doing any hard music. All we were doing was edits of pop music. Matt [Edwards, Radio Slave’s frontman] went techno way past that point. It must have been a good two years before he started writing techno and being good at it. He had much more control over the whole Radio Slave thing than I did. I was very wet behind the ears, very young, didn’t know the music industry at all. I knew that I wanted to be involved with it, but didn’t know where I wanted to go. Matt ended up doing his own thing behind my back. He wound up just going and writing music and not telling me he was doing it. Its funny when you get something sucked away from you like that. It’s that horrible gutted feeling and you’re feeling quite bitter. It took me a long time to get over that.
Tom: It’s amazing though because you were always working with other people up until that point. It made you realize that you wanted to do your own thing. It forced you to go and find what you wanted to do.
Serge: It made me come out of myself and realize, ‘Hey I can do this on my own’ and I became very independent. I suddenly realized I could do it and I did it.
Had you two ever worked together before Retro/Grade?
Tom: Kind of.
Serge: We did an edit together. I was doing lots of Italo edits. I’d always wanted to do a track with Tom because we’d known each other for such a long time.
Is the album going to be full of Italo?
Serge: Because of a lot of remixes I’ve done, people think it’s Italo. It’s like the Africanism sound. It has nothing to do with Italo. People think that because you’ve done Italo before that’s all that you do. Italo has just become a hot word. Still people don’t know what it is. They’ll be listening to Euro pop. People don’t actually know what Italo is.
Tom: It’s like some elements of progressive house. Because it has a melodic synth line people will think its Italo.
Serge: It’s got an arpeggio synth. It must be Italo.
What exactly is Italo then?
Serge: Do you have an hour of your life? [Laughs] Italo is basically the grey area between disco and house music, like Chicago house music. When producers started doing disco beats and the first synthesizers came out, they started putting synthesized sounds on top of disco beats. The point of a changeover when the first drum machines ever came out, people started putting electronic drums over synths and that’s what the Italo scene was. The thing is, they didn’t like Italo in England so they called it New Wave and New Beat, so it never came over here as Italo. It was only like that in Europe. In Canada as well. One of the biggest producers of Italo is Canadian. Junior Sokkia is one of the biggest producers and he’s totally Canadian. And in Germany it was massive as well. It only got called Italo because this collective who loved that type of music at the time put together a thing called the Italo bootlegs. From that point, that name stuck. But before that time, there was no name for it.
When was that?
Tom: Late ’70s, early ’80s.
Serge: ’79 or ’78.
Tom: It was like disco but replacing live elements of what disco did in the ’70s but with synths.
Serge: Disco had become so processed at that point.
Tom: The Italo guys were making beats that were really loose and playing synths over the top.
Serge: The first Italo records were in like 1976, which is early on even in disco. Then ’80s music came around off the back of disco. That’s the really quick version. I could go on for days talking about this [laughs].
[Pointing to the loft in Serge’s bedroom with one desk and a chair] Is that where you work up there?
Tom: I have a studio too.
Serge: We work between the two.
What’s your process?
Serge: [Laughs] I sleep and he does everything.
Tom: I make the tea.
Serge: Tom is the most amazing person at listening to something and replaying it.
Like on the keyboard?
Serge: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. Like really, really quick. I’m really good at trying to find the sounds I want to re-create off of old records. [To Tom] It’s painstaking. You do it in 10 seconds, one-handed and done.
Are you guys going to play shows?
Serge: Big time. It’s a live act, isn’t it?
Tom: We’re not going to DJ.
Serge: The DJing will come a lot later when the live act can’t be possible maybe.
Are you inspired by any new people making music?
Serge: My biggest inspiration when it comes down to it is totally Daft Punk.
Tom: No one really makes music like that.
There’s not that many dance acts who play their electronic music live. Simian Mobile Disco do, but Justice just stand there and push buttons.
Tom: There’s a real dubious line where people will say they are doing a live electronic set, but what they are actually doing is a live DJ laptop set. It’s not live. They’re just playing their records. Some people do live electronic and it’s really live, really on the fly and they are playing instruments. It’s hard to tell sometimes though. It could look like someone is playing live but it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Tom, you play the keyboard. Do you guys play any other instruments? Do you build your own modular synths?
Serge: No, I don’t build modular synths at all. Thing is, I’m very into the way that music is made, but I’m trying to use new soft synths through the computer but make them sound old. I don’t have a spare two or three thousand quid to go and by a Moog or Korg. For one, my girlfriend wouldn’t have it in the house and two [pointing upstairs] it wouldn’t fit up there in the slightest. [Making the music on my computer] is the only way I can think of to do it. It’s not lazy because it takes a long time to make these synth sounds sound old.
How will you do that live?
Serge: The way the live show is going to start is going to have to be a keyboard, a laptop and a mixing desk, but over time I want it to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Tom: We’re going to play a lot of the melodies and live and the beats and things will be controlled by Serge. So it will be live in the sense that we are playing parts of the songs live and editing on the fly. We can stop and stretch parts of songs. It will be a communication thing between the two of us.
Serge: Basically the way that the Chemical Brothers do it, the way Daft Punk do it and the way all those massive acts do it, they really get into the body of the track. Its not just what the track sounds like on the record. They’re really playing with the sounds. People get lazy over time and then end up just using a laptop. The more instruments and the more technology we have, it will get bigger and bigger.