|Breaking through: John Talabot
The mysterious Barcelona DJ/producer's slow-moving and ebullient house has been turning heads of late. In advance of his Sonar appearance, RA's Philip Sherburne finds that it's a sound borne of happy accidents.
Barcelona's John Talabot arrived seemingly out of nowhere last summer with a single so huge, it was hard to believe you'd never heard of the guy before. "Sunshine," released on the local Hivern Disc label, wasn't hit-huge, necessarily—just massively proportioned and swollen to bursting. It piled loops on top of loops—disco breaks, drum machines, Rhodes riffs, silvery guitars, African chants—like some kind of top-heavy wedding cake that might come crashing down at any second, a celebratory overload. The track was relentless in its ecstatic pursuit, finally blowing wide open as a chorus intoned "Sunshine" over and over again, stepping down the scale while virtually everything else zoomed upwards, a delirious collision of energies.
The track, along with the few other bits and pieces of Talabot material that one could find—an EP on Permanent Vacation, remixes for the Swiss producer Zwicker and local indie dance band Delorean—fit loosely with the spirit of the nu-disco and slow-house material of artists like The Mole or Mark E, but there was something about its intensity and its muddled colors that set it apart. The press was generous: His hometown's Go Mag declared it the Spanish single of the year. Resident Advisor's Chris Mann praised its "mantric ecstasy" and awarded it a rare 4.5 score. Pitchfork gave it a "Best New Music" tag. But none of that was enough to lure the pseudonymous producer out of hiding.
I spent the Christmas holidays in Barcelona, where I failed to find any of John Talabot's records in my favorite record shop. The clerk did me one better, though, and told me who the artist was. It turns out I knew him from when I had lived in the city. For what it's worth, I never necessarily would have put the two together. Part of what makes Talabot's music so special is its sui generis quality, and if he doesn't really sound like anyone else, it's striking how little he sounds like himself, or his former self, anyway.
Non-spoiler spoiler alert: In the spirit of the project, I'm not going to reveal who it is here. In part that's because it's really not a big deal. "It's not a real secret," he says. "Some people know what I've done before. I just didn't want to be associated with my other projects. I only want people to judge the music that was made for John Talabot."
The artist currently known as John Talabot started recording what would become Talabot's music in 2008. He had recently quit his DJ residency at one of Barcelona's principal clubs. Part of it was personal: overwork, exhaustion, feeling stretched too thin. Besides, Barcelona's clubbers are demanding, with perennially peaktime expectations, which can grind down a DJ's enthusiasm.
"Sometimes I felt that the music I was buying on vinyl was empty," says Talabot of the shift in his own productions. His previous music—techno, basically, some of it very good—he describes as "training," a learning process. It's only now, he says, "that I feel that the John Talabot music has the essence, maybe, that I was searching for. I feel comfortable with the name and the music. I think it's the first time my music has had a real identity."
That identity is complex, a matter of a very particular approach to pacing, timbre and texture, but its origins were simple—and totally accidental. One day, at a local record store, virtually every record he tested on headphones had exactly the aspect he was looking for: Hard-edged drums, suggestively distorted. Back at home, though, everything flattened out into the clean, featureless world of contemporary tech house. It turned out that the amplifier in the shop's listening station was broken. Intrigued by the power of the music he heard in the store, he began experimenting with running sampled drums through distortion and overdrive, in order to give his music a rawness that it had previously lacked.
Of course, all the distortion units in the world would matter if what he ran through them weren't captivating in its own right. In fact, Talabot's music doesn't sound all that distorted, not next to someone like Oni Ayhun, anyway. But it's true that his drums have unusual bite, with the heft of real wood and hot circuits. More importantly, Talabot's sample-heavy productions are unusually colorful and vibrant, like gardens planted with spliced saplings and hybrid seeds of his own weird invention. If the music sounds unusually organic, it's because of the way the elements seem to grow together into a living mesh. The textures and timbres are clear—here's a sampled snare, here's a strummed guitar—but they're all tangled up so that you can never really figure where one element ends and the other begins.
The tracks didn't sound anything like he'd done before, and he decided to let the music speak for itself, fed up with running the self-promotional gantlet. "I was really tired of sending links to people, asking them to listen to my tracks," he says. "I thought my music was more or less correct, so I decided to wait, and if nobody wanted to release it, that was OK, and if somebody wanted to release it, that was better."
He created a MySpace and uploaded some music to it. He gave out only two promo CDs, both to headlining DJs at clubs he was playing under his other alias. Neither of them got back to him. (Ironically, one of them, Ewan Pearson, recently commissioned Talabot to remix Al Usher for Pearson's Misericord label, but Talabot is pretty sure that Pearson doesn't remember receiving the demo CD.) In the summer of 2008, Talabot released his first track on a digital-only compilation EP from Hivern Disc, a local label with links to the city's Factor City crew.
Around the same time, he received an e-mail from an artist signed to Permanent Vacation, a German label with disco leanings. "He really liked my tracks, and he said, 'I'll send it to Permanent, I'm good friends with them, I'm sure they'll release it,'" he recalls. "And I'm like, yeah, yeah, yeah, let me know." Permanent Vacation wrote him the next day, eventually selecting three tracks—"Afrika," "Naomi" and "Korli"—for what became Talabot's debut EP in April 2009.
"I think it's the first time my
music has had a real identity."
The single "Sunshine" followed on Hivern in June, and Talabot has kept the goods coming with assorted remixes; the Al Usher remix, in fact, plays a pivotal role in Ewan Pearson's recent mix CD for Kompakt, We Are Proud of Our Choices. Matilda's Dream, his most recent EP, is freshly out on Permanent Vacation.
There's something unmistakably Talabot about all of it, but he doesn't sound in danger of getting stuck in a rut. The title track from the new EP sounds newly focused, pursuing a narrow acidic corkscrew and keeping a tighter leash on Talabot's ebullient sensibilities. But what holds all of it together is its emphasis on texture, a collision of timbres and atmospheres culled from a wide array of sampled vinyl.
Talabot describes his composition process as a kind of game where he selects half a dozen disparate chunks that he then has to find a way to fit together. "If I can't do it, then the track won't happen," he says, sounding almost reverent about the serendipitous meeting of sounds that, by all rights, never should have met. But it's usually difficult to tease out any given strand; there's none of the recognition factor of conventional ethno house, which might graft eight or 16 bars of melody onto a drum groove (an appropriation Talabot writes off as lazy or, worse, "a little bit rude"). When he samples flamenco records, he's not going after some Gipsy Kings vibe, but flamenco's turbulent energy, a cycle of crescendos he compares to techno. "The secret of sampling," he says, "is to pick whatever you like, but do something different, because everybody knows how to use Ableton and how to make a vocal track fit with a drum."
For all its grounding in classic house and its surface similarity to "nu-disco," Talabot's music is defiantly, almost stubbornly doing its own thing. He doesn't mind hammering a loop until it risks wearing out its welcome. Speaking from experience, his music can be hard to mix, too: Most of his tracks trudge along at a steadfast 115 BPM or so, but there aren't a lot of other records at that tempo that reach this level of balls-out, breast-beating intensity. If you drop a Talabot record in a set, you'd better have a plan for where you're going to go next.
He laughs at this. "I've seen my music charted many times, but I don't know if people play it, you know? I heard James Holden playing 'Sunshine,' and I heard another DJ playing 'Afrika,' but my music isn't easy to fit in a set. Sometimes it's too far from the sound of other records, and sometimes that scares DJs who need to have everything under control. But I think that's the point too. People feel they need to make perfect sessions, all with the same sound, the same style, and if it's not, it's not a coherent set." (Talabot's own wide-ranging sets, like this one from November 2009, offer a compelling counter-argument to the streamlined approach.)
It's odd, actually, that Talabot comes from Barcelona. Having lived there for several years, it's hard to imagine his sound finding a foothold there. Not only is the scene dominated by large clubs, where punters' tastes set the rules; clubs remain virtually empty until 2 AM, and close their doors just three or four hours later, discouraging anything other than peaktime sounds. The stranglehold that minimal, techno and electro have on the scene extends even to beach parties.
But Talabot sees changes on the horizon in the Catalan capital, even if much of the input is coming from outside dance music proper, from artists like El Guincho or Delorean. Familiar categories are becoming refreshingly blurry, much as they do in Talabot's own music. Delorean, in particular, has been enamored of Talabot's sense of texture, and brought him in to consult on the production of their recent album Subiza. Each has remixed the other's work, fueling a back-and-forth between dance rhythms and psychedelic atmospheres that's invigorating for house and indie rock alike.
It's not really a scene yet, though, and maybe that's the point. In order to find his sound, Talabot had to make a break with his familiar surroundings. But there may well be others like him. "It's not that nobody is making good music in Barcelona," he says. "The problem is that it's difficult to be on the map, to find a label here that can take risky decisions releasing risky music. Producers in Barcelona are resigned to making techno, minimal or house because they think that's their only means of releasing music outside Spain and growing as professional producers, but that's untrue. First we need strong personal music, original and powerful, and I know that in Barcelona there are enough talented people to do it. Maybe they just don't know it yet."