|Mr Ties: Listen Without Prejudice
Francesco De Nittis hears music differently from other people—and it's made him one of Berlin's best DJs. RA's Will Lynch tries to get inside his head.
Mr Ties drops about 1,000 Euro on records every month, and spends most of his time mixing them in his apartment with three turntables, a rotary mixer and no headphones. He gave me a demo one afternoon in the airy den that serves as his studio. Standing in blue workman's overalls, he blended three records that should have nothing to do with each other: a dirty old techno 12-inch, a single by Cagedbaby and a recording of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." This last one he played with the deck turned off, making queasy lurches in pitch as he pushed the label with his index finger. The other two records fell out of synch occasionally—he wasn't cueing, after all—but he always corrected them quickly and easily. It all had a raw and slightly demented energy that reminded me of Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner," though Mr Ties burst out laughing when I said this.
"Come on! No way! You can't compare it to Jimi Hendrix," he said in his sing-songy Italian accent. Maybe a better comparison is Jackson Pollock, whose paintings Mr Ties sees as a model for his DJ style. "If you hear the whole thing and see the full picture, it's like a Pollock, you know? Every time, you throw something different on it. In the end it's a really fucked up picture. It's nice."
Mr Ties is Francesco De Nittis, a 26-year-old DJ from Giovinazzo, a small port city in Southern Italy. He left home as a teenager, eventually landing in a squat in Berlin, a city he now considers his true home. For the past few years, he's been the main resident and creative force behind Homopatik, a once-a-month, all-day and all-night party at ://about blank. This has given him a small cult following in the city.
Homopatik is basically a gay party, though De Nittis, who is gay, winces at the idea. "It's not so simple," he says. "The party is for everyone." That might seem hard to believe in light of promo videos like this. But like Ostgut (Berghain's predecessor) a decade before it, Homopatik picked up so much buzz as a gay party that it eventually lured in the straight crowd. Today many people, whatever their sexual orientation, would tell you it's the best party in Berlin.
This wouldn't have happened without De Nittis behind the decks. His sets at Homopatik are something to behold. Most DJs use their records as tools; for Mr Ties, they're lumps of clay. He'll smoosh them together in ways other DJs wouldn't imagine—careening through techno, disco, pop and house, with the occasional acapella on the third turntable. He leaves no breakdown intact and stays busy on the filter and EQ. It's the kind of DJ set that makes you lose track of which song is which, and you're caught off guard when a fat kick drum comes out of nowhere. The crowd laps up every second of it. "When I first saw Mr Ties here, he played from 3 AM until 9 PM," one regular told me on the dance floor. "There were many moments when it was so good I thought I might cry."
"I think only, 'Is this a good production?' Nothing else."
That's normal for Mr Ties—most nights at Homopatik he'll play for 10 hours or more, subsisting on water and the occasional banana. How does he do it? "It's very simple," he says. "You get endorphins." He also plays completely sober, which he thinks is key. "Otherwise you get a different perception, a different ear... there is a filter in your ear, and alcohol makes it fucked up—sometimes you hear very quiet, sometimes very loud. It's not good. Endorphins change your ear, too, but in a good way."
At the April edition of Homopatik (entitled "Erotikmesse"), Mr Ties started in the techno room at noon, then sometime around 4 PM moved into the main dance floor, which is essentially a large hallway. (://about blank is a formerly illegal club that looks and feels like an abandoned public school.) Tinted windows painted the room piss yellow and cough syrup red. One guy danced completely naked on a pedestal, jerking off from time to time, while three feet away a girl with an afro casually ate an ice cream cone. A couple of bears to my right repeatedly did hand stands. Mr Ties was playing silly disco—the instrumental mix of Talko's "The Hustle," "I'm A Man (Who Needs A Man)" by Gay Men (he held up the sleeve and giggled with this one) and "French Kiss" at -8. Someone used the light from his phone to show onlookers his goosebumps.
The party spilled out into the club's huge and scuzzy garden. In a tent made of red tarp, the Japanese DJ DSKE went back-to-back with another Homopatik regular, Akira, while ravers lollygagged in the dead grass outside. There were guys in long flowing dresses or skimpy vintage sports wear (one sat on a discarded surfboard with no pants, solemnly comforting a crying friend), plus stoner types, expat hipsters, crusty punks, elegant party girls and so on. Panorama Bar is homogenous by comparison.
The mood changed when the sun went down. Inside, Mr Ties was digging into some seriously tough and cosmic techno—Italian forest rave shit. Occasionally revealed by the strobe light, he looked like a grease monkey at the controls: scrawny, with a bushy beard and short hair on top, his tattoos peeking out from his half-buttoned work apron. At one point he faded whatever brutal techno record he was playing into a verse from "Goldfinger," but cut the power on the turntable to let it grind to a halt—"he's got the miiiiiiiiidaaaaaaaasss tooooooooouuuuuurrrrrrrrcccchhhhh"—then plunged us right back into the forest. This didn't last long: the next song had a guitar solo.
Mr Ties' panoramic DJ style reflects his philosophy about music in general. He sees most of the world as criminally narrow-minded about music, especially in the pop realm. "Why is it that something like Andrés' 'New 4 U' can't be a radio song?" he says. "I don't even really like that track, but I think something like that would work if they just tried it. Instead it's only Rihanna. Say I don't want to hear Rihanna—it's not possible. I get in a cab and there's Rihanna. I go into a spätkauf and there's Rihanna. You don't have a choice. It's rape." His own taste really could not be more broad. Over the course of five minutes, he mentioned his love for the soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, various Italian noise artists from the '20s, and Massimiliano Pagliara's latest 12-inch on Live At Robert Johnson.
At the root of this eclecticism is a very pure method of consuming music. "You have to listen without prejudice," he says. "I think only, 'Is this a good production?' Nothing else. Genres will be gone in ten years, what matters is the composition. Does it have four beats in the measure, what key is it, how fat is it—this is what matters. If I'm mixing, to know that it's techno or disco doesn't help me."
There's no doubt this way of listening helps Mr Ties hear music differently from other people. Take punk, for example. "For me the most punk band of all time is Einsturzende Neubauten, much more punk than The Sex Pistols." As I tried to work my mind around this one, he said, "Actually, you want to hear a real punk record?" What he pulled off the shelf was, judging by the cover, not a likely candidate: Mustapha Tettey Addey's Master Drummer From Ghana Vol. 2. He put it on the turntable, and I had to hand it to him. Tettey Addey's drumming was stripped down and very linear, with an almost metronomic groove. Its similarity to punk was its raw essence—"the juice," as Mr Ties called it.
When it comes to buying records, Mr Ties isn't a collector so much as a hoarder. "It's like drugs for me," he says. "I really can't look too much around because I want to buy so much." Used record shops are his favorite, and while he does have artists and labels he seeks out, he casts his net much wider than that, always checking out records he's never heard of based on little more than a hunch. In his apartment, he plays me a 12-inch called Sferik by Emmanuel Top that he bought on a whim in Italy—a sticker on the corner of the sleeve indicated it had been sitting in the shop since '96. He grooved gently while it played. "Mmm, super-fat. It's so good, techno."
As loved as Mr Ties is by some, his reputation doesn't extend very far beyond the Homopatik community, which is mostly his own doing. He never lists himself on the lineup, so it takes a bit of insider knowledge to even know his name or what he looks like. (He doesn't list anyone else on the lineup either, though Homopatik has had some huge guests before.) This stems from one of his many strong convictions about music and identity.
"The iconography of the DJ is wrong," he says. "When people know who you are, they have something they expect, they want you to play one way. But if there's no name on the flyer, you can play what you want. There is no prejudice, no expectation. No one knows what's on the menu."
"The DJ is not one guy," he says. "He is a different guy on a different night."
This relates to why De Nittis doesn't release music under his DJ name—"I don't want to ruin Mr Ties." He's put out a few EPs so far, through Homopatik's self-titled label (whose records are only available at their parties) and a new label, Homophilics, which quickly sold out. It might seem absurd to keep such a low profile, especially since De Nittis isn't averse to success—he says he'd like to play more gigs and have more recognition in general.
But for him, even minimal publicity efforts are not an option. "If you put yourself out there too much, people come to you for the wrong reasons," he says. "If you put nothing out there, the right people will find you." It's not hard to see what he means. Big name DJs with big promotional efforts behind them often get bookings and publicity simply because of who they are: the DJ name becomes a brand unto itself. Meanwhile, talented artists without big names get attention almost exclusively from people who really appreciate what they're doing. This points to why "underground" is such a sacred concept to begin with: the more obscure something is, the theory goes, the more sincere its appreciators are likely to be.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Ties has a different idea of success from other DJs. His international bookings have been picking up a bit—French promoters Concrete recently booked him for parties in Paris and Rome—but he's not too concerned about that one way or the other. "My target is always to have better sound so I can express myself better," he says. "To play in other cities, bigger stages with better sound, that's always nice. But I'm satisfied with what I have now. I have my freedom. To do the stuff I did last Saturday—what more can I ask? Having a party like Homopatik in a city like Berlin, you have the feeling like you've eaten well—you're full, you know? If something new comes along, I'm happy for it, but I'm already full now."