|Tensnake: No holding back
In advance of his Warehouse Project gig next month, RA catches up with the man behind "Coma Cat" to find out how he became one of the biggest names in house music seemingly overnight.
It's raining heavily in Hamburg, and in this very instant, it's hard to imagine this is the place that produced the Sun King incumbent of electronic music, Tensnake. Tonight the man known locally as Marco Niemerski is hosting a party in his hometown to celebrate the latest release on his label, Mirau. The guest of honour is Tim Keiling, AKA Erdbeerschnitzel. Limbering up for the main event, the pair are sitting around a large restaurant table accompanied by a motley crew of Hamburgers—artists, teachers, musicians, lawyers—all close friends and confidants who drink merrily, eat heartily and pull up a stool welcomingly. Swig beer, laugh, engage in interesting conversation, swig beer, laugh. As the rain continues to pour outside, so do the drinks inside and I start to see where the feel-good element synonymous with Tensnake comes from.
Niemerski is currently enjoying something of an annus mirabilis, and few would begrudge him the pleasure. He has become a reference point for dance floor smiles and sing-alongs, good vibrations which have evidently earned him some karma points: Playlisted on BBC Radio 1, featured in The Guardian and NME, festival darling, Ibiza darling, North American tour. Ostensibly it's all down to his steel-drum earworm, "Coma Cat," which was handpicked by house behemoths Defected for mainstream propulsion and summer anthemisation after an initial release on Permanent Vacation back in January. But for those of us who were following Niemerski's career long before the remix requests from Kylie Minogue, Scissor Sisters and Eric Prydz (watch this space) came in, the success of "Coma Cat" merely confirmed that our already deep-seated admiration had not been misplaced. After all, he remarkably secured two of the top twelve spots in Resident Advisor's 2009 tracks poll.
Commercial success and dance music, however, have never had an easy relationship: It's not cool to be successful, but then it's not really successful to be cool. Thankfully the insouciant world of Tensnake couldn't seem further removed from these forum-centric philosophies, and after a night of strawberry schnitzels, steel drums and "can I get, can I get, get another cuba libre?" Niemerski offered his opinions on the matter. Both of us hungover, scoffing takeaway pizza and contemplating the hair of the dog, there was no holding back…
How does it feel to be a dance music poster boy?
[laughs] I really don't feel like that. I actually haven't seen a poster yet.
I guess what I am referring to is the heightened coverage of late, features in perhaps more unlikely places like The Guardian and NME, for example.
Well, everything is pretty new. Like this, for example. Being interviewed. In a way it is kind of fun, but it can also be distracting from my main aim, which is to make music. There's part of me that enjoys it, though, of course.
I suppose it could be quite a useful platform for you to move in other directions. I know you've talked before about wanting to produce other bands.
Well, there's no sense of VIP, but I think the good thing about wider recognition is that it becomes much easier to realise your ideas and ambitions. Getting in touch with other artists I'd like to work with is certainly a lot easier. For instance, as there is more attention now, it would be great perhaps to make some collaborations for my album. I have the possibility to work with some people now, which wouldn't be possible without the awareness and attention.
How's the album coming along?
Nothing is done yet. I had four tracks, but I deleted them because I started working on them maybe two years ago and I don't feel like they fit anymore. I feel like I have moved on musically. Actually I don't have a final idea of how the album could sound yet and that is also the reason that I am waiting for the moment when I think "now is the time." I think it might sound different to what I have done so far. I think there is no use for a club album; that would be pretty shit. So it is going to be some downtempo pop or whatever. I don't know. I really have no idea yet.
Do you feel your music is more suited to 12-inches perhaps?
Yeah. I am really happy with what I have done before, releasing 12-inches. It's so much faster, and I really like the medium. I don't actually buy vinyl anymore but I still appreciate it. In a way I don't feel like I have to do an album. I know it's maybe better for your reputation and you can possibly make more money, blah blah blah, but for me it's not about that. You shouldn't just release an album just because people are saying so, or to get more sales.
You seem to be a bit of a perfectionist. Is there any production you've done so far that you have been particularly pleased with?
Sound-wise? You mean technically? I like the punch of "In the End (I want You to Cry)." I think it's really aggressive in a way; it's really noisy. For me it was with this record when I knew that something was going on, that people were beginning to like my stuff and there was more awareness. Also, I like the how everything fits together on "Congolal." It's not the loudest or the biggest production or mix-down but all the little ingredients work really well together.
Both of those tracks are relatively different in style. How would you describe your music personally?
The process is always open. I don't see myself as a house, disco or even nu-disco producer for that matter. I don't even know what nu-disco is. I think it is important for the media or for listeners to put music into genres or to label it, but I don't think that nu-disco is particularly new. It's funny how anything with a beat and a melody is called disco today, don't you think? Sometimes you read on YouTube comments on some boogie track or whatever and it says "great disco shit," and you think "what?!" So I will be happy when the disco hype is over.
Why do you think "Coma Cat" struck such a chord with a wider audience?
Obviously it has a big crossover potential. I mean you can listen to it at home, while ironing or... [laughs] It works everywhere: in the car and the club as well. It's just really catchy, right? The whole EP, even the b-side, is catchy and easily accessible too.
"How can you like a track,
and then not like it when
it becomes more popular?"
You have been quite public that you borrowed heavily from the Anthony & The Camp record "What I Like" for that track. Do you often use samples as a starting point?
It's really different. With "Coma Cat" I remember I heard this track by Anthony & The Camp...I don't know if I should really talk about it right now, as we're currently negotiating a formal deal. Basically, I heard the track and got inspired. I get inspired by all the kooky stuff in tracks I discover here and there. There are no samples at all, though. It's all replays apart from the vocals.
Did you have any concerns about licensing it to Defected?
You mean like going "overground"? Of course in the beginning when they got in touch I had to think about whether it was right for me or not. It is a massive label with a big room approach, which is not at all where I come from, so sure there were certain concerns. But in the end I am really happy that I did it. I really appreciate their work; they are very professional and there is no pressure. Usually there is a lot of pressure with a big label; when you sign to a big label or to a big company you can feel arrested, like you are losing all your freedom but they didn't push me in any way.
People ask me sometimes about the remixes, like "how could you do that?!", and so on, and of course it wasn't my idea to get the Round Table Knights to do a remix. It was their idea and I think they know their business really well. I don't think there would be any need for a cooler remix from some underground artist. The idea was to bring it to another level, to the big room clubs, and that is something I am not very familiar with.
So there's no pressure from the label per se, but do you yourself feel any added onus to cater for certain tastes now that your music is reaching out to more people?
Before "Coma Cat" became as big as it did, I was already thinking "what's next?" My first thought was that my next record had to top this; it had to be better, bigger or reach more people but now I am totally relaxed and comfortable knowing that it's not about that. It's about being happy with what you are doing. It sounds like a cliché, but it's really like that. So I don't feel any pressure, no.
Do you think it is possible to be "overground," as you say, and still maintain artistic credibility in dance music?
I hope so, yes. I think it really depends on quality without selling yourself out. You have to stay true and keep on doing your stuff. There are always people who, when you move away from the underground and start selling more records, turn away from you. Even if they liked the record before, they can't deal with it anymore. I don't know why, I don't understand it. It is like they are afraid of something. It is about the music, so how can you like a track and then not like it when it becomes more popular?
You've always been very open about the fact that you are not a DJ. Why do you think Defected asked you to do something outside your normal remit and mix the last edition of In The House? How did you feel about taking that on?
It was kind of funny really. Usually they ask proper DJs. I think the idea was actually based on the Resident Advisor mix that I did. They were huge fans of that apparently. But I do like the idea of doing a compilation and putting together a mix CD. The aim was to do a mix for home listening, but of course within a club context.
Do you think that if it is a success and there is more demand for Tensnake as a DJ it's something you might look into?
Sometimes when I am in a club and my live set doesn't work I wish that I could just grab a record, a crowd-pleaser or a floor-filler. That is something I miss sometimes. After a while I think you get fed up with your own sound, so that would be maybe a nice and different kind of direction.
Yeah, I wanted to ask how you find playing the same set week in, week out?
It really depends on the club, the crowd and the vibe that is going on there, and how battered you are from last night. So sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's really easy. Sometimes I can't listen to "Coma Cat" anymore and then the next day it's fine. It's a challenge, of course, but I am still really enjoying it and if it continues to work then it's a nice feeling to entertain people. It's all still really fresh and new to me, and it is such a great thing when you see that people are having a good time to your music.
Is your live set already mapped out each time?
It is kind of prepared in that I use Ableton Live and the Akai APC-40. The live set is basically split up like a DJ set. I launch audio clips and they are pretty much all prepared. I make my mind up before, but the live aspect is that I use effects and patches from MAX for Live so sometimes it is like instant remixing, looping stuff. I build up a lot of melodies that extend over more than a simple 4-bar loop, so I feel like I can't do too much without destroying the feeling of the track.
England in particular seems to have taken to Tensnake in quite a big way. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. Perhaps they are not so serious; they just enjoy the music and don't think about it too much. Or maybe it's a more humorous approach, like when I played in Leeds a few weeks ago there was part of the crowd who changed the lyrics of "Coma Cat" to "Can I ket, can I ket, ket?" as they sang it [laughs]. It is also the motherland of pop music. I don't know if you could say the people are more open-minded, but they were always receptive things like happy hardcore with the pitched up Mickey Mouse vocals, and they totally get into it.
"Tim Sweeney started everything
with 'Coma Cat'….so thanks, Tim!"
How long have you been making music?
Well I was playing around forever but serious music started in 2000, so ten years now. It's all been trial and error [over the years]. I did work in a studio that I set up with a friend. We were doing different sounds, working with a lot of German hip-hop bands and we did some remixes, but I never learnt music; it was just trial and error. I got my first drum machine when I was 16 or 17, and then came a synthesizer. I was always playing around but it took some time. Learning by doing.
Was it long before you became satisfied with what you were doing?
That was in about 2005 when I decided to start a label, Mirau, with my friends Stephan (Lorenz) and Maik (Pallasch) and to come out with my own moniker. I finally felt sort of satisfied with the sound and the quality around this time.
Tell me more about the label.
It was more like a playground for our own stuff so it was more like a hobby when we started. Arp Aubert was the first record we released, which is a project I am doing with Stephan. That's how it started; we just wanted to test our own stuff. We were kind of lazy though. It's been five years and we've only released 11 records. That is not much. There is some kind of connection now because everything is building up a little bit and, of course, there are more possibilities to get to know other DJs and producers and you can ask them for remixes. It is so much easier now.
What equipment are you using when you produce? Is there a defining Tensnake instrument?
I would say as a plug-in I am mostly using the Arturia Mini-Moog. I produce in Live as well. It's always really different. I don't have a set-up, so I always start from scratch. I think it is a good way of avoiding always doing the same over and over again. I don't think there is a certain Tensnake synth. Or at least not yet.
What is the work process like for you?
I try to work every day on something. Sometimes it's only beats or if I don't feel like it is a good day for making music then I try to learn something new. I'll get a new program or read something on the internet. I think it is a never-ending process of learning and I am never satisfied with the sound or mix-down at all; I don't think I ever will be.
And what's going on with Tim Sweeney's label? You were billed as the first Beats In Space artist last year as I remember.
I feel kind of guilty about that actually. He asked me for a track ages ago, last year, and I sent him some layouts and he wasn't really happy with them. It just wasn't his taste. I think I actually also sent "Coma Cat"! He really started everything with that, though, when he played it in his radio show. He was really pushing the record so thanks, Tim! I just haven't managed to send some new stuff, but I hope I can still do that. It is definitely the next thing I want to do, as that one is really important for me. I hope he is still up for it. I am also thinking about maybe doing a live album in January, maybe like a summary of all the releases and remixes so far, not just put together as a compilation on a CD, but as a recorded live set. I think that could be a nice possibility.
Published / Wednesday, 03 November 2010
Photo credits / Paul Clement