A world apart from the romanticized European image of the city, Chicago—for Roberts at least—turned out to be less than the fervent hot-bed of house music many may imagine. Interestingly, he points out that his exposure to such sounds were actually more frequent back home in Cleveland. "I kind of started doing it in Cleveland when I was like 15 or 16, going different raves or whatever was around the Cleveland and Pittsburgh area, so I think I was really exposed to more house music there….I started going to a couple of record stores after school and they had a pretty good mixtape selection," he recalls. "So I was buying a lot of these ghetto house mixtapes from Chicago which was my first exposure to house music….[but] when I moved to Chicago, I wasn't listening to it as much for the first couple of years."
Does Roberts feel that despite being the undisputed birthplace of house music, peoples' assumptions of Chicago being a stronghold for the genre are just that? "When I was living there it wasn't like that much of a big deal. I mean, it is in some ways. There are things like Frankie Knuckles Boulevard, but it's still kind of like this niche thing." Despite the apparent lack of the sounds he was subconsciously craving, parties led to more parties and new listening experiences, fuelling an absorption into DJing, and later, of course, production. But, there was one establishment that Roberts is quick to heap praise upon when it came setting him on the path of house music enlightenment. "I got back into it properly through going to Gramophone Records which is a really amazing shop that's been around for years now, and they were like the house music authority in the city."
As anyone at any level of the electronic music-making pursuit will tell you, the industry works on a perpetual turnover of technologic developments, feeding into a mindset of obtaining the next "must-have" product. But Roberts quickly realized that to effectively facilitate his desires to throw his own hat into the house music ring, he was going to need to settle into a comfortable and singular way of working. Using a dusty Commodore Amiga, Roberts threw himself into learning everything he could about Renoise, a cheap tracker program. "I started using it and kind of said to myself 'You can't keep jumping from program to program, you have to just master one,' and for some reason I chose that one, so I've been using it since that point."
He goes on to explain: "What I really do is constantly collect samples from different sources: A lot of shopping in used record stores and then also I'm occasionally buying synthesizers or going to friends apartments and using their synths and drum machines and I do like a quick live session on those instruments while recording it all." Wherever the audio is extracted from, nowadays the disparate pieces of the puzzle end up in exactly the same place: On Roberts' hard drive waiting to be fed through the sonic arithmetic of Renoise while propped up in bed during one of his late night recording sessions.
Consuming any of Roberts' output for Dial and sub label Laid, you get the sense that the remnants of these often-ancient sound sources still linger, smearing the recordings with a kind of warm retrospective grease. His debut EP Hesitate along with the subsequent Blame and Mirror releases were characterized by a sort of off-kilter shimmy that wouldn't sound out of place on a Moodymann or Pépé Bradock 12-inch; classic Chicago house licks and jazz melodies bang heads almost playfully with intuitive drum programming and an overall sense of sonic freedom.
This freedom it seems is borne from a blissful ignorance of the scene around him. "I try not to listen to new releases," he reveals. "Every time I have, it's messed with me mentally a little bit because I think that I start to notice trends that are happening and I don't want to give myself the opportunity to have a moment of weakness and jump on to a trend. I find that I produce something more original if I don't let myself listen to any new things that are coming out."
After a brief stint spent living in Berlin during 2006, Roberts headed back to Chicago, and eventually on to New York where he began to think about finding a home for his nascent productions. The hook-up with Dial is thanks in no small part to a visit back to the German capital, and a brief meeting with the imprint's booker Romy Zips whom Roberts had met via MySpace. "Romy was going to New York for a while and she had a going away dinner, and at the dinner she gave all the Dial guys a CD of my stuff which was like the sweetest thing anyone could have done." It was on his return to New York that Roberts received a message from David Lieske (Carsten Jost) and Hendrik Weber (Pantha Du Prince). "They wrote saying 'we really want you to be a part of the label,'" he remembers fondly. "They've offered a lot of support and guidance. It's an interesting situation as you have to remember that all of these people have been friends for like eight to ten years and now I'm someone who's new to that. I was always a little bit conscious of that at first and not wanting to overstep any boundaries, but I really feel like now that everything is equal and we're all friends. Anything I need, they're there for."
the opportunity to have a moment
of weakness and jump on a trend."
After negotiating a nerve racking European live debut at The Golden Pudel Club in Hamburg, while simultaneously overcoming the complexities of transferring his sample-ridden studio tracks into a coherent live performance, Roberts settled into a groove and found himself feeling very much at home at the site of Dial's regular Berlin residency: Panorama Bar. So was performing at the club the moment when Roberts' realized he'd—for want of a better expression—made it? "I definitely felt that way when I had the opportunity to play Panorama Bar for the first time. I went there a lot when I visited Berlin in the past and had always imagined what it might be like to perform there. There is something really legitimizing and totally humbling about getting to play your music in a place with that kind of reputation."
Those with a nose for a good old narrative arc may already have guessed what follows next in this coming-of-age music tale: a debut album. An agreement had been struck in those early days of his dealings with Dial that a round of EPs would be followed by an album project in 2010. Despite a couple of single releases this year, Roberts has been working almost continuously on the Glass Eights LP for the last nine months. Recently completed, it was, Roberts says, "the hardest thing I've ever done. I really thought that I would never finish it. It took over all aspects of my life, but in a good way. I became really obsessed with it and was thinking about it as I was walking down the street and when I should have been sleeping."
So: Does it please the floor or the home listener? Fans of his releases to date would surely long for more of the same dance floor burners, but Roberts sees little merit in simply patching together three EPs and calling it an album. "I wanted to make it for a listener primarily," he confirms, "because I think if it's for something that's going to be released on CD there's no point in just having ten things that should be released for DJs on there." So is this a departure from his beloved house sound? "I still wanted to stay true to making house music because that's what I love to do, but I also wanted to have these really melodic, pop elements in there too and so it's really been fun to try and find like a happy medium between them. I really feel confident that I've been able to do it."