'If I had to choose, probably Parmesan'
Interview Alex Macpherson
Photography Dan Wilton
The rise of Hamburg’s Marco Niemerski, aka Tensnake, has been slow but sure. And to anyone familiar with his work over the years, it is also more than a touch inevitable. This year has seen “Coma Cat”, with its irresistible conga melody, vocal hook, and jacking rhythm, explode in clubs worldwide. Originally released in January on the small, Munich-based Permanent Vacation imprint (a label that has become something of a dance connoisseur’s choice with a string of consistently excellent Balearic/disco releases), it was picked up by the mainstream crossover vehicle Defected in June. Meanwhile, his remix of Azari & III’s “Reckless (For Your Love)” has become one of the most hotly anticipated of 2010, based on just a minute-long snippet on Tensnake’s Soundcloud site with what seemed to be a sample from C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”, of all things.
Tensnake hasn’t exactly emerged from nowhere, though. He’s been building up a small but distinguished catalogue of both original tracks and remixes since 2006, and the deft way in which he has walked the line between lovingly crafted, detailed sound design and populist, crowd-pleasing immediacy means that his crossover success comes as no surprise. From the warm, tactile “Congolai” to the opulent bliss of “Holding Back (My Love)” to a take on Sally Shapiro’s “I’ll Be By Your Side” that magnified the original’s dreaminess while also giving it the oomph it never realized it needed, Tensnake’s music has gone straight for the pleasure receptor sweet spot every time, and his aim has been unerring. Talking to him about his increased profile and plans for 2010 in an East London hairdresser’s basement a few days after his live performance at the Field Day festival in Victoria Park, he turns out to be a positive, if shyly self-effacing presence in person – exactly as you’d expect of a man so devoted to enabling people to enjoy themselves.
“Coma Cat” was released at the end of September with remixes from Round Table Knights and Mark Knight (Defected Records) and made a good run on BBC Radio 1’s playlist.
How does it feel to be more and more talked about this year?
I didn’t expect it at all. All the stuff that happened with the last record, especially “Coma Cat”, I was totally surprised. It came out in January on Permanent Vacation, an underground label, and was quite successful then. Then it got signed by Defected and [it all] just kept rolling and rolling, so I’m really happy about that.
You’ve been making music for a while now, but your catalog is quite small in comparison to other artists. Is this deliberate?
Yeah, that’s true. First, I’m not the fastest producer. And I’m trying not to overdo it with too many releases, I’m trying to be my own biggest critic, so it takes a while until I say, yes, this track is ready to be released.
Are you a perfectionist when it comes to producing?
I think everyone is, in a way. Everyone working in production knows that you’re never satisfied. You can keep on working and working but at some point you have to say, it’s ready. It’s a never-ending process of learning and improving. I think at least the sound has improved a lot since my first record. I’m really into all the gear and technique. It’s a lot of fun for me to learn.
The first thing I heard by you was your remix of Junior Boys’ “FM” back in 2007, which is still one of my favorite remixes ever. I loved how you took a low-key ballad and turned it into a full-on disco number, complete with incredible drum fills and glitzy ornamentation, without ever losing the melancholy of the original. How did you go about transforming it?
Well, as far as I can remember I had to listen quite a few times. As you said, the original track is really moody and melancholy. I really liked the atmosphere but at first I had no idea how to put it into a dance track. I’d been told to do a club remix, so I had to do something faster. I just started to build the instrumental and gradually added the vocals back in. And I think when the vocals are kicking in, it has a little bit of the original feeling still there.
You were born and raised in Hamburg. How did the musical culture of the city help to form you?
There used to be an amazing gay club, the first one I went to when I was 17 or 18, called Front. That club was very popular, it kind of socialized me music-wise, and it was really exciting. They played a lot of vocal house, of course. It began with acid house but I wasn’t there, I didn’t get in because I was too young, so I heard a lot of NY house and Chicago house [by the time I was going].
What about the music you heard at home? How did that shape you as an artist?
I think the first music I remember hearing was boogie and disco. My older brother had a huge record collection of Shalamar, D-Train, all the original ’80s disco sounds. I think that had a huge influence on me. But then later I listened to everything – the mod sound, sounds of the ’60s, Northern soul. I even listened to a bit of indie, the Pixies and Alien Sex Fiend. I remember going to an Alien Sex Fiend concert in Hamburg that was pretty insane. I mean, today it’d be nothing, but there were stroboscopes, lights, everything. I was 16 and really impressed. I wonder if [Nik Wade] is still alive. He didn’t look that healthy even then! My brother doesn’t work in music though, not at all. He sold everything when he moved house and today he’s married and listening to normal stuff on the radio. But he really likes my stuff, he said when he heard it for the first time it reminded him of when he was younger, and that was nice.
What artists inspired you to start making music yourself?
It was definitely when I first started to go out and first heard house music – DJ Sneak and all those guys, early Armand van Helden stuff. That was my goal when I bought my first sampler, to sound like that. But I was never satisfied, and it took quite a while until I found that all these guys were just sampling old disco records! And I’d been trying to reproduce the sound, which obviously sounded kind of wack.
Your citing Armand van Helden makes a lot of sense: his success has been based on his ability to speak to the underground and the mainstream at the same time, to be rooted in house culture but also score #1 hits. Your music shares something of those traits as well by working within house culture but also being quite playful. It’s a pop sensibility in an underground world.
Yeah, I can imagine some people don’t like it. But, I like it! There are a lot of purists out there, which is fine, but I think it’s good to sometimes break barriers and rules and mix stuff. If you always stick to the old way of doing things, nothing new turns up. A few years ago in house and techno clubs you couldn’t do some cheesy piano line or whatever. I didn’t exactly try to break the rules but at the same time I’m not afraid of including some cheesy elements if I think it feels right, and if it fits right for the track and completes it. The great thing about today is that you can mix everything and play every style of music, so all those purist boxes feel a little boring. I think pop music is the ultimate. I’m far away from writing real great pop songs, but I think if you have the ability to write great songs – something that lasts, something people listen to in 10 years, and that work the emotions too, songs that can make people cry or laugh – then that’s amazing.
Talking of cheese, I like the way you reclaim the idea that it can be a good thing – not just acceptable or ironic, but valuable in and of itself. What’s your favorite type of cheese?
(Laughing) I actually rarely eat any cheese! If I had to choose, probably Parmesan. Italian cheese. You need it for pasta, and I love pasta.
The closest you’ve come to a proper pop song so far is “Need
Your Lovin”, the B-side to “Coma Cat”. How did that come about, and who is the singer on it?
She’s a singer from Hamburg called Khia. I actually forget her family name. A friend connected us. We wrote the lyrics, I had the melody in my head and played it on a keyboard, and she sent me demos. I had the idea that it should sound like an early Madonna production – really naïve but at the same time sexy, you know? I think she did it well, I was really happy with the result. That was the first vocal track I produced myself.
Let’s fast-forward to your next big release, the Azari & III remix. It’s obviously gained a lot of attention already, not least because of the C&C Music Factory sample. How did you approach making that track?
My idea was not to do a house remix, because the original was so amazing. You can’t do any better than that. It’s perfect. So I tried to do something really original from the ’90s. I took some really characteristic drum loops from the time, added the bells that you remember from bands like Massive Attack, or even Snap and C&C Music Factory. And then there’s the guitar sample from “Gonna Make You Sweat”, but actually it’s not sampled! Well, it was sampled, but not from them. I found out that they originally sampled Van Halen, so I just went to YouTube and did the same as them. The idea just turned up one day and I thought it would be funny and not too serious.
Another recurring quality of your productions is the way they constantly change and switch up the groove – you seem to like pulling the rug from underneath the listener. I’m thinking of how “Holding Back (My Love)” suddenly becomes more euphoric midway through, or the weird juxtaposition between the upbeat arrangement of “In The End (I Want You To Cry)” and the sour sentiment of the title.
That’s something I try to do with every track. I really like songs and tracks that turn into a totally different direction, it’s very exciting. If a track is just the same for seven or eight minutes – like some tech house productions – I get bored, so I try to add some structure and surprise people. And myself! As for “In The End (I Want You To Cry)”, I didn’t plan to make it like that, but I like the contradiction and how it starts really positive. The lyric could have easily been something like ‘I got love in my heart’ or whatever, but then it surprises you.
What would you say inspires you to make music?
Life, in general. Lately I’m traveling a lot, so that inspires me. Different DJs and DJ sets. Even music I thought I wouldn’t be very much into – it depends on the party or whatever. But travel, mainly. I’ve been here for a few days now, and I already can’t wait to get back and start working on stuff, there are so many ideas in my head now. The atmosphere here is great, I really love East London. I went to the Brick Lane market on Sunday, and you just want to catch that feeling and take it home and put it in a song and see how it turns out.
While we’re talking about what you’re going to go home and work on, I hear you have an album in the pipeline.
(Laughing) Well, yeah, for quite a while now. I think the album will come out next year, and it’ll be quite different to what I’ve done before. My [latest] idea is to release a live album by the end of this year that will mirror the releases I’ve done until now, and at the same time represent the sets I’m playing at clubs and festivals. Sometimes people ask me where they can buy my stuff, obviously not everything is on iTunes, or it’s hard to find, so I’d like to put everything together on a CD or digital release. Then hopefully after that, in January, I’ll start working on a new album.
Any idea how you’re going to approach that yet?
More and more. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue a few weeks ago. I think it’s going to be really different; I’d like to work more with vocal artists, but nothing is sure yet. Maybe I’ll be doing more broken beat stuff like the Azari remix, instead of four-to-the-floor all the time. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out lately like that. Two-step’s coming back, dubstep and UK funky are both strong, and all of that’s really inspired me.
Any particular vocalists on your wish list?
I really like the singer of Little Dragon, and there’s a guy called Theophilus London who I think is pretty amazing. I don’t know if they’d be up for collaboration, but let’s hope!
You mentioned earlier that you love the variety of genres you can get away with in clubs these days. It’s definitely the case, and you see it in all sorts of clubs – house, techno, dubstep. The best DJs define an aesthetic, but not along strict genre lines. Why do you think this has come to be the case?
Absolutely, that’s what I love. I can’t listen to an hours-long DJ set that only features one style of music. The most important thing is to take people on a journey and excite them. I love those joyful sets, but at the same time sometimes it’s hard to build one of those sets when you have only one or two hours; you have to get on point pretty fast. I think the happy vibe now is like a counter-movement to the minimal sound, which was really dark – the opposite of what’s going on right now, when even vocal house is back. You couldn’t play any vocal tracks a few years ago! As always, music is fashion. In a few years I’m sure it’ll be dark again, without any joy or cheese. That’s just how people excite themselves. You hear something, you want more and more and more, and then you’re fed up, you’re searching for something new. And then you find it and you eat it until you’re not hungry any more.
What are your interests outside of music?
Food! I really like to cook, and to eat of course. I love how I can try so many different types of food wherever I travel, though I’m mostly really into simple Italian food. The best, unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the dish, but I had it in Rome – homemade pasta, really thick, with loads and loads of pepper, pecorino and just a little bit of cream. Really delicious. And lately I had a friend of mine take me to a Chinese restaurant where we had this dish called lion’s heads. It’s meatballs in soup with onions and spices. The portion was so massive. I couldn’t eat for two days afterwards.
Of everywhere you’ve traveled and all the places you’ve seen, which are the ones that stick out the most?
There was one party in Leeds that was really mental, and also the first time I played at Fabric. I was so excited that I couldn’t remember anything from the set. My first time in Room 1, in front of so many people, I was just like, ‘Whoa!’ I think it went pretty well. And I’ve just come from the Garden Festival in Croatia. I spent a whole week there, like a holiday, and it was so beautiful. Nice people, the sun, good food, crystal-clear water, perfect music, it was pretty great. Just perfect happy sunshine vibes. That’s what I like.