Bromance in Action
Interview Alex MacPherson
Photography Aurélien Arbet and Jérémie Egry
Apart, Henrik Schwarz and Jesse Rose are two of the finest auteurs of the past half-decade in house and techno. Rose was one of the pioneers of fidget house in the mid-’00s – a style that continues to be felt on the top of the charts even now – but it’s his ability to seamlessly blend everything from electro to rap to Afropop that’s characterized his music, not to mention a no-nonsense banging bassline (or several), that places it firmly at the center of the dance floor. Schwarz, by contrast, is known for epic, lushly textured productions, both his own and a sequence of astonishingly large remixes of unlikely artists outside the usual purview of the dance world. Together, they are Black Rose (a play on their names: “schwarz” is German for “black”), a formidable DJ duo who have gained a reputation for out-of-this-world sets. Now, they’ve built their first bonafide anthem (titled, with no false modesty, “Anthem”). It’s a peak time track that builds around a mysterious loop of a reggae vocal: it’s simultaneously a celebratory carnival and a sinister fairground. But what of the bromance of the men behind it?
“Anthem” is a huge, huge tune. How did it come about?
Henrik: Well, in a way we started to do this by chance, by just playing back to back. We thought we should take it to another level. We had the idea of searching the web for tracks that had the phrase “black rose” in them, and Jesse found this one. We just played around with it a little bit.
Jesse (to Henrik): Yeah, I’d given it to you just before we went on to play somewhere, and you kind of messed around with it for 10 minutes and when you were playing you just mixed it in, and I was like, ‘Whoa! You’ve made a record in 10 minutes!’ It’s been one of the biggest records in our sets. You can see the big reactions on YouTube videos of when we play it. We’ve been playing together for two years. We weren’t even thinking of releasing a record, but people kept asking us to do it, so we went in the studio to sort it out.
Tell me the story of the Black Rose project.
Jesse: Basically what happened was, we were both booked to play Razzmatazz in Barcelona. Henrik had played before me, smashed it. I went on after him, and he came up and said, ‘Hey, fancy going back-to-back?’ I said, ‘How can we go back-to-back? You’re playing live and I’m DJing’. He said, ‘Don’t worry, when I put it in the mix you just have to make sure it’s in time.’ So he comes on stage while I’m playing and the place goes pretty nuts and we both leave just super-hyped about it. About a month later I’d booked Henrik to play at Panorama, and he said the same thing, and this time we ended up playing five hours back-to-back. It was truly one of the gigs of my life. And from that moment people started to call up our agent, trying to book Black Rose.
What draws you together, artistically? Your individual styles are pretty different. How do they mesh together?
Henrik: For me, it’s very much about the same kind of energy, how we deal with that energy. Of course it’s about having fun, but there’s also something else – a very positive kind of energy that goes in the same direction, even if it might come from slightly different positions.
And is that what you try to replicate in the studio?
Jesse: It’s the same thing. We’re both just vibing off each other. For me, it’s a kind of excitement; there’ll be this kind of buzzy energy.
Henrik: It’s the same as when we talk on the phone. ‘Hi! How’re you doing!’ and then we can talk for hours, because there’s so much to say and a lot of understanding. So it’s super easy to make tunes also. It’s a conversation where we throw things back and forth, and you get from one topic to the next easily. In a way, there’s no effort involved. One person drops something in, and the other immediately agrees. It’s hard to describe with words, but it works quite well with music.
Jesse: It definitely never feels – whether we’re playing live or in the studio – like work. It’s just something that seems to happen.
I’m getting the feeling that, at the root, it’s about a strong friendship between you two.
Jesse: I think that’s so important in the studio. It’s about respect, and friendships are built on respect. You trust someone, you trust their opinions. I’m a massive Henrik Schwarz fan.
Henrik: Same here!
Do you hang out together outside of studio or gig time?
Henrik: It might take three months to find a date when we’re both free. When we meet, we really use the time, we sit down for a few hours and if we haven’t had seen each other for a few weeks, then it just bursts out.
What makes you a fan of the other?
Jesse: For me, I feel like Henrik, whenever he’s making a record, there’s always soul in it, whether it’s a tech-y record or a deeper one. There’s that constant quality sound.
Henrik: For me, it’s the energy thing again. And I have the feeling that – well, take two engines on a plane, one on each side. If you were only one engine, you’d go in circles all the time, and if it’s two then it goes straight up in the air. That’s what Jesse is in a way.
Jesse (Laughs): Thank you!
And what’s most likely to go wrong between you?
Jesse: I don’t think we’ve had much disagreement ever.
Henrik: The problem is we talk too much. We end up after three hours saying, ‘Should we start working now?’
Jesse: We need to vibe! From my experience, you can’t go straight into the studio and make it like a job. You have to have fun, have a chat, go off and work, and in 10 minutes you come up with this great idea. It’s really important that making music is this really fun thing that never feels like a chore. That’s how great music happens.
Henrik: It’s not about working for hours. It’s about creating a vibe, and then just grabbing something from that vibe and turning it into music.
Henrik, one thing I’ve noticed in your stand-out productions over the years is how you’re drawn to a lot of exotic vocals. There’s Norwegian folk, your remix of Mari Boine’s “Vuoi Vuoi Me”; Sudanese hip-hop, your remix of Emmanuel Jal’s “Kuar”; and Arabic chants, your remix of Sheharzad’s “Yalla Yalla”. What’s the attraction for you?
Henrik: Well, this music that comes from outside the club world or outside Europe, it carries this massive amount of culture with it. And there’s all this information in how it’s sung and who is singing – where it comes from, what the melodic and rhythmic elements are. That makes it, in a way, easy for me to take from this huge treasure. I want to be involved in this culture. Not as an opposite, but put my notes against what these people are singing so in a way you get a bridge from one culture to the other culture. Using elements from other cultures is hard without it coming across like gimmicky appropriation, but you succeed.
Henrik: Of course you have to be very careful that you don’t lose the folkloric elements, because then it becomes cheesy immediately. If you take these African chants, or whatever element it is, you have to go find out what the essence of this element is and not just use it as an effect.
Jesse: Listening to you speak, I think that when you make music you come as a songwriter, or as a producer in the original sense of the word. Not as a dance producer but as someone who wants to make music that can be also played in a club. Whereas I definitely come at it like, ‘How can I make something that can work on the dance floor?’ Yours work on the dance floor because they’re great records; I wouldn’t spend as much time theorizing. I’d spend more time just doing it and seeing what happens.
That’s the impression I get, too. Jesse, your music is the core groove of a set. Whereas, Henrik, your tracks would rupture the set, in a good way.
Jesse: I definitely agree. At the moment, I’m doing more producing for bands and getting more into that. As a producer, that’s what you want to do – to make a record that can be listened to in 20 years. I think Henrik’s nailed that. His tracks will always sound great.
Which bands have you been working with?
Jesse: I’ve been working with Chiddy Bang, these hip-hop guys from Philadelphia, and I’ve just done a collaboration with Mansions on the Moon, a band who are managed by N*E*R*D. I’m working with Switch, lending him some beats towards the projects he’s working on. So I’m still doing the dance music thing, still working towards my next album, but I think you should always be pushing yourself, putting yourself in situations that are difficult. I don’t want to settle for being a guy who just puts some hi-hats and some claps into a record.
You grew up with Switch. How does it feel now, with both of you having become so successful?
Jesse: It’s insane. It was literally seven years ago that Switch and I were sharing plates of food, putting a line down the middle – he’d eat from one half and I’d eat from the other. Now, he’s living in L.A. and working with Beyoncé. The other night we were talking about this, he’d just got in from the Vanity Fair Oscars afterparty, and I’d just got in from the Playboy Mansion. We just sat here and thought, ‘This is really, really crazy!’
Talking of pushing yourself creatively, Henrik, you have four releases due this year after a relatively quiet period, and they’re all completely different: your solo album, your album with Bugge Wesseltoft, music you’ve written for a classical ensemble and a film score with Âme and Dixon. What drives you to pursue all these avenues?
Henrik: I always want to take it one step further, every day. Very often it’s that I’m just inspired by something, or a door opens. For example, the classical ensemble project, they asked me last year by if I would work with them. I think maybe they were just expecting me to do some beats over what they were doing, but for some reason I took it a bit too serious, and got this arranger who transcribed my music into written music so they could play it. When I was at rehearsals, I was blown away by what I heard. I thought, ‘There is definitely some serious stuff here, and I should put more work in it.’ I’ve been doing this now for nearly a year, and now I’m ready to record everything. It’s one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever made, because it’s so different from the world I’m in. Every single effect is written down on paper. I wasn’t able to read sheet music for a long time and I’m slowly getting used to it, and reading all these words that they use. But that’s what’s keeping me going. You learn so much if you look at what others do.
Jesse: What we’re both saying is that we like to push ourselves to new places. And I think that’s another reason you and I get on so well, Henrik. In Berlin, a place where most people are content with staying with what they know and just making house or techno records, neither of us is happy or content just to stay on one thing.
Not just in terms of sound; in terms of modes of working.
Henrik: If you go through life with open eyes, many things come towards you. You sometimes don’t need to do anything. You just have to recognize it, grab it, and from there maybe develop something. Enthusiasm is something we both share – it’s about how you look at things in general. You can have an idea and be excited about it, or you can see all the problems that will come up. Jesse and I are the same, we’re excited about the positive aspects.
Jesse: Also, we were both brought up in very different ways in very different places. It wasn’t an easy journey for either of us to get to where we are. I come from an area of London where most kids I knew in school are either jailed or have never left. And Henrik, I don’t think there are many from your area travelling the world now.
Henrik: There might be a few others, but yeah, for me, it was also difficult when I started doing this. None of the people around me understood what I was doing, and it gave me the feeling that I was wrong. I got more confident when I came to Berlin, and realized there are other idiots like myself who do the same shit!
What area of Germany do you come from, Henrik?
Henrik: It’s a town in southern Germany, Ravensburg.
And you, Jesse?
Jesse: Ladbroke Grove. One road away there were, like, £12,000,000 houses. I didn’t live in one of those.
And how did you escape that area, so to speak?
Jesse: I was super lucky. My mum moved to Bristol and made me move too. I was pissed off about it and never really got over it. But at the time I was going to a school that had metal detectors around it, and most kids couldn’t read or write by the age of 12, so she got me out of that.
Henrik, tell me more about the film score you’ve done with Âme and Dixon, it sounds fascinating.
Henrik: That was something we’d been thinking about for a while. We wanted to make film music, but I wasn’t sure if we really could because of course it’s a completely different approach. We got asked by a music festival in south Germany if we would be interested in doing a new soundtrack for a very old black-and-white silent movie so we said, ‘Yes, of course!’ We sat down and took it very conceptually. For example, we developed melodies from the letters of the actors’ names, so if they had an A in there, we used an A, etc. From that we created the scale we would use and the melodies. It turned out that it worked really well, we created some very complex music in a very short period of time, just two months, and we had this hour of music that showed we could do it. I’m hoping there will be more things from this field coming!
What was the film you were commissioned to write for?
Henrik: It’s called Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari. It’s the first ever horror movie and it’s definitely worth a watch. For our eyes it’s quite slowly cut and there’s a lot of extra information that you maybe don’t understand, but it’s a weird horror thing. You don’t know if you are in the head of someone else. And some guy is taking control of someone else who is sleeping for 23 years, and trying to turn him into a murderer, which works quite well. It’s a crazy story with really crazy images, absolutely mind-blowing, and it’s a look into the time when they made it, too.
Jesse, you run three different labels, why? What are the distinctions between them? And how do you cope with that on top of your DJing and production?
Jesse: I love being busy. It’s that mentality where you’re never overly confident about things. Some people think, I’ve got this now, it’s gonna last forever. I never think like that. I’m constantly trying to build things around me in case something goes wrong. The Front Room label I started 10 years ago. I was really lucky. I was back in London, things weren’t going great, but I met a guy who was working in the City and wanted a label just because he wanted something creative in his life. So I started a label for him called Lounging, and he funded me to start my own, Front Room. So it was just a mixture of friends around me like Solid Groove and Jamie Anderson. Five years later, I started Made to Play, which was just about getting records and putting them out, no big promo or stuff. But it’s gone on to become quite big. We’ve built up all these careers, and now our artists are putting out artist albums. We can’t just chuck records out any more. So I started Play it Down last year to do the same thing that Made to Play did originally.
Would you say your need to build up all these projects stems from the lack of privilege in your background? It’s funny, what you said mirrored almost exactly a quote I read from Mariah Carey, of all people, about how she was so driven to build up more avenues because she was terrified of it all being taken away.
Jesse: Totally. That’s the reason why, even if I’m living in L.A. in a nice house and I’ve got my DJ diary booked for the summer, I never slow down. I’ve got three labels, a publishing company, a management company, offices in Berlin, London and now opening here. I suppose, yeah, I always knew my parents wouldn’t be able to buy me a house or a car. At the same time I don’t want it to come across like a sob story. There was always food on the table. And that food always had virgin olive oil on it. We couldn’t afford meat, but we always had virgin olive oil.