|Willie Graff: Funky house
There are no shortage of great DJs and producers born and bred on Ibiza. RA's Grego O'Halloran tracks down one of the best.
Meeting Willie Graff on yet another bright, sunny and hot Autumn morning in Ibiza seemed to be the perfect backdrop for his cheery, always smiling and ultra-laidback personality. An American at first encounter, the unmissable accent gives the game away immediately. He is, in fact, born and bred on Ibiza. And if you want an advert for what the Balearic lifestyle can do for your blood pressure, he's a prime example.
As the conversation develops, it's clear he isn't phased by anything. He never seems to be rushed, angry or arrogant and is almost a cliched version of Mr. Nice. But that placid character is slowly unravelled as music becomes the focal point of discussion, revealing a "bad boy in disguise"—as someone so eloquently once described him to me. Make no mistake, Graff is a total fanatic, living and breathing music, a "stripes earned" clubber and dance music culturist. Passion is only the beginning of what this means to him.
The 28 year old has been a resident at Pacha in Ibiza longer than all the big names, and has managed the impossible, retaining an unblemished credibility for pushing true, non-commercial house music at the club. However, that Funky Room residency only serves as just one small fraction of the Willie Graff equation, with one well-established relationship at Cielo (New York) and another at DC-10 (Ibiza) being two more variables to consider, alongside his growing production discography. Remarkably, after such a long time served in the business, this represents his first full-length interview.
Willie Graff at his Ibiza home, the Funky Room at Pacha.
I want to go right back to the start. You were born in Ibiza to American parents, right?
Well, my Dad wanted to escape the States, the corporatism and 9-to-5 jobs, this was the mid-'60s. He was tired of it all, and he went to Amsterdam first, opened a restaurant there for a couple of years, before ending up in Ibiza in 1971. He was actually the first guy to run the hippie market at Es Canar.
Yeah, it was a real hippie vibe then, so he was running that and my Mom, who had been coming here from the early '60s with her family—who actually had a place here—well, she spent a summer here in 1969 and has been here ever since. Funny that New Yorkers met each other here.
But you consider yourself Ibicenco?
Yeah, for sure. I love the Ibicenco vibe. The people and the language, I speak Ibicenco...100%.
What influence musically did that upbringing have on you?
Try to imagine growing up here in the '80s, with all the club scene and everyone talking about going out. Everyone goes out naturally here. My dad was always interested in music and he passed on that love to me, showed me everything from rock to disco to soul to reggae. Growing up here, there are so many different vibes and scenes and I tried to take all the parts I liked and put them together.
Then when I was about 13—I can remember the exact day—my Dad took me to Sol D'en Serra where they were having a little beach party and Sergi Ribas was playing and I completely flipped. Now that I think back, the music was actually very tough, but it was the first time I'd ever really seen a DJ or watched the people dancing and going crazy to the music. It was the connection between the people and the DJ that got me so interested. Right then and there, I knew what I wanted to do.
So I bugged my Mom to buy me a mixer and turntables for my birthday and then it just started like that, buying records at shops like M15 or Delta Discos. They used to get a great selection of records in Ibiza and, by the next year, I had my first residency at Mariners [in Santa Eularià] just playing all sorts of music, from Sade to Gypsy Kings to Sylvester to something on Pro Zak Trax. Next I was at Guarana, then I met Vaughan [founder of Funky Room at Pacha], as well as Joan Ribas and David Moreno from the Cadena 100 radio station. They helped me out a lot and it was David who called up Pacha and said, "I've got this young kid who's playing soulful, funky music…..he'd be great for the Funky Room."
"The Funky Room can be
as underground as
anywhere on the island."
How old were you then?
I was 16. So I was 16 when I first played at Pacha, in the winter of '99, and then when the summer came around, they asked me if I was interested in being a resident. I was so happy! Pacha was always my favorite club on the island. Probably just from all the memories I have there. It was the first club I went to when I was like 13.
I often think people get something they're not expecting from the Funky Room. How do you describe what it's all about?
It's a place for people to come and dance to listen to funky, groovin' music. All different styles we play up there. A little eclectic room where it can be as underground as anywhere on the island. A lot of people don't understand why I'm in Pacha because of the music they play there now, but up in the Funky all the people who want something different than the Main Room sound end up there and just dance and it's always just so much fun.
The Funky Room is a separate thing... We're like the bad guys who don't give a fuck. We try and be independent. Even when the promoter doing the party downstairs was putting guests in there this summer, we said, "This isn't going to happen anymore." The Funky Room is the Funky Room and we want to keep it like that. The Funky Room's original name is Cielo, which means sky (or heaven) in Spanish. I guess they gave that name because it was on the second floor of Pacha and it was originally just a chillout room for friends of the club. Kind of like a heaven!
Willie Graff at his New York home, Cielo.
Speaking of Cielo, how did that link up come about?
When I started at Pacha, Nicolas Matar was also one of the residents in the Funky and after playing together for a few years, he left to go back to New York and eventually was thinking about starting a club and he just asked me, "Hey, why don't you come be the resident in the winter when you don't have anything to do in Ibiza?"
I'd just finished High School then and it wasn't hard to decide what I wanted to do, I was like "New York City, here we go!" I actually couldn't play in the club legally, as I was only 19 and you have to be 21 to get in. But it started, just Nic and me, then a few years after that we started getting some guests in and now it's evolved into this whole other thing.
And Cielo is intimate like the Funky Room?
Yeah, it's just 350 people. The idea is, again, to just concentrate on the music, have a good soundsystem, minimal lights...even though now it's a bit more clubby in there. A lot of things have changed in New York since we opened.
In what way?
New York City in general is harder to promote a party in. Police, new laws, the smoking ban, etc. People have been doing things in Brooklyn, more private parties or not even publicizing their events. The first five years I was there, I went out every night, listening to everyone. But now it's more mainstream and also the area too. When we opened Cielo, there was nothing there, it was abandoned. Now it's like the hottest area with the hottest hotels and hottest restaurants and so there are more tourists and those are the people coming in—unless it's a special night, like for Francois K or Louie Vega or any big DJ that has a steady following here.
I wanted to ask how you feel about having these residencies, do you ever feel like they hold you back?
Sometimes I do think about that, but I love being the resident at Cielo or Pacha. You create a family with the people that come see you each week, with the people who work there and that's very nice. They get to know you, and you know them. You try things you wouldn't try if it was a two hour set somewhere else. I have my own night, so I don't have to worry about who is playing before me or after. I can do exactly what I want to do, I have 100% freedom. The people know where I am, they come to see me there. Still, that doesn't mean I don't like playing other places, it just turned out that way. I guess I kind of am a bit too comfortable.
"[At DC-10 this year, I was] probably
the most nervous I've ever been."
But, especially with Pacha, there must be...
Pacha's Funky Room is like a playground for me. Yeah, sometimes I feel limited with the music I can play. I kind of have to keep it in a certain style, but I deal with it and play the best I can. I wouldn't say it's holding me back though, I meet a lot of people who have fun and that's what it's about—just having fun. Then when I play other places like DC-10 or Ushuaia, that's like complete freedom and where I want to be.
Sticking with Pacha for a second, you had a big role for Cadenza this summer also.
Yeah, that was really nice of them. They only picked two residents to open for them. I was one of them, whether it was the Main Room or the Funky Room or the Global Room, so they obviously know about me and like my stuff. I was so happy about that and the parties on Sundays were really good. They brought a great crowd in, and the sound was much different to the usual Pacha vibe.
That role seemed, to me anyway, just one factor in this summer for you that, I don't know...it just feels like something changed in terms of where you're at.
Yeah, I feel that too. It's basically thanks to Tania [Vulcano] and Tato [Isgud Records] and some good friends around me helping me out and pushing me in DC-10 and Ushuaia. Basically, more people from another scene have seen me because, I mean, that crowd doesn't usually come up to the Funky Room so they wouldn't hear me play otherwise. It opened me up to a new crowd. Also, since the house thing "came back," it just clicked, with the old styles of music and old sounds set in a new way.
...and there were a couple of standout moments. Playing the peak time set on the terrace at Circo Loco, that seemed like it was a defining moment somehow.
Yeah, I kind of feel like that was the moment I was at home and so happy to do what I love and be able to share it with like-minded people. It's the way you can play the tracks there, people are just open to what you give them. I just try to look for tracks that standout, it doesn't matter if they're new or old. I just try and fit it together and try to say something, you know make an atmosphere and create a vibe and a flow. I try to get people in a zone and lock them there, dancing. But, yeah it was huge for me and probably the most nervous I've ever been. Honestly, I wish I would have appreciated it more but I was just so concentrated on the mixing and the tracks that I didn't really.
I want to change the focus and talk about how you got into producing music?
Well, it's just when you're listening to all this music, you get your own ideas and inspiration. I had a friend in New York called T. Tauri and he really taught me a lot. I actually ended up releasing something through Martinez's first label [Out of Orbit Recordings] with him and also on Wave and Ibadan. But yeah, it was natural, just in the studio, I was just learning, fooling around, trying different styles of music, seeing how sounds are made, how you come up with an arrangement. It's just a natural flow. I don't ask for anything, I just let things come.
Someone told me you spend a lot of time digging around in basements in New York looking for records?
Yeah I basically devote almost 100% of my time to music and a big part of that is searching for new music. In New York I go to all the record stores and secondhand shops where I can buy vinyl. And another thing that helps is playing vinyl...
There's too much on the download, too much music. I can't find anything, I can't organize anything. If I haven't got it in my hand, then I forget about it. The vinyl really helps you choose the sound that you want to play. I'm pretty much playing exclusively vinyl. I just couldn't do it another way. The sound, too, that the vinyl gives you, believe it or not... People say mp3 or wav sounds the same bla bla bla, but it's like this subconscious thing that it's there and after a while the vinyl gives off a vibe itself. Just in the club, little pops and stuff. I love that.
"I don't want...to be a huge
brand and I don't want to
compromise what I'm doing."
In only a small amount of releases, you've still managed to find your productions on Wave, Freerange, Drumpoet Community, liebe*detail, Ibadan and Circus Company. That's an impressive CV.
Thanks. In the end it's normally who I've got a good feeling with or if I like what they're doing. I'll get in touch with them to tell them, and then go from there. That's how it happens. Francois [Wave] was because I knew him from Cielo and we'd played together a few times, I just gave him the track because I know and like how he plays. He asked me was it free, and that he wanted to sign it. That was it. It's like that with most of the labels I work with.
Do you feel like you have a sound for your music?
I haven't released all the sounds that I want to do. I just love too much music to stick to one thing. Maybe if we release an album then I can show a few more sides. We're working on a lot of different things we don't release. I try to release a few funky, happier sampled tracks and then have another release for the other side of house, darker and trackier. But I always try to keep it so that all sides can play it. I look for that fusion of sounds and vibes.
When you say "we," I presume you're talking about Tucillo, who you've been producing with recently?
Yeah, for the past four years we've really connected through our friend Pippi, and became good friends. The last five releases have been with him and I think it's gonna be like that for a while. He's really talented. We get on really well, and we feed off each other in the studio, so it's always a good experience. It's a real mutual thing and we just try to have fun. Recently, we've just finished a new release for Isgud, which is coming out on vinyl with a remix by DJ Qu from New York. There will be a new EP also coming out on Circus Company next year.
Are you ambitious?
I'm ambitious to make myself better and make it better for the people, but I'm not really pushing myself on anyone. Is that what you mean?
Kind of. I guess I mean do you want to do things like have your own party at Pacha or wherever, and travel the world as a DJ?
Yeah, of course, that's what I'm aiming for. I'd love to be able to play my music to more people all over the world. But I don't want it to be like a huge brand and I don't want to compromise what I'm doing. Playing music is what I love, so I want to be doing this for the rest of my life, I want to be involved with this forever, so I like to take it easy and I think I'll always be playing in the Funky Room or as a resident somewhere. I just want to do my thing and hopefully have people that like it.
Published / Monday, 22 November 2010
Photo credits / Font - Jakob Nylund