2011 looks to be the year that the Toronto quartet will pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat—or follow it down a hole. Their debut self-titled album will be released in August, and they've recently debuted their new live show in Europe and Australia with a date at Lovebox coming up next month. RA's Christine Kakaire caught up with the quartet—producers Dinamo Azari and Alphonse Alixander Lanza III, and vocalists Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full—earlier this month to talk about some of the tracks they hold dear.
No Way Back
This wasn't on the list of tracks you sent me, but I wanted to throw it in as it featured in your live show the other night, and it's the only track that wasn't one of your own productions
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: We were talking with Trax about doing some remixes of some of their back catalogue and we were like, "we'd love to get the parts for this". They came back to us a week later and said the parts don't exist anymore, all they have is the master mix. So we decided rather than try to do a remix, why don't we just recreate it? We have a 303, we have an 808, the whole song was made with those two pieces of gear and a microphone. So we reprogrammed it, embellished on the vocals a bit, and realised after it's quite the banger. So why not? I think that because we've gone down the rabbit hole it does say a lot to us, like there is no way back from this kind of lifestyle once it has its imprint on you.
Fritz Helder: And I feel like it gives us an opportunity—especially for Starving and I at that point of time in the show—to just let loose a bit. It's not our original song, so it's like "The pressure is off." We know everyone loves this song already because it's tried and tested. We're just giving our version.
La La Land
Do you remember the first time you heard it?
Fritz Helder: I think it was 2001, right after high school. I grew up in northern Canada far away from any kind of afterparty or afterhour rave scene in a very rural community, growing up on local radio. So we were at some party somewhere and someone had it on and my ears—well his voice is very similar to mine, and finally hearing something like that was like "Who is that? What is he saying?" It led me down the rabbit hole it terms of dance music.
I always thought it was a little strange that out of his whole body of cartoonish, chant-along tracks, that his biggest hit is the one where he discusses drugs so brazenly.
Fritz Helder: Exactly, that's what was very appealing to me. That pop anthem quality but the same time what he's speaking about, to me it's that kind of storytelling when you're young like that you have nights like that. Like, "Who's going to take me to the aftershow?" It felt like a nice narrative of a really fun night mixed with some politics.
We like to leave things really open in our writing process, instead of being really concrete and too forward or preachy. You can take a lot of the lyrics on the album in multiple ways, you can choose your own adventure. It can be an uplifting motivational album for you or it could take you to some place that you never want to go ever again.
Have you ever seen Green Velvet/Cajmere performing in the flesh?
Fritz Helder: I saw him do a DJ set in Toronto a couple of years ago. It was good, but it was funny because I was thinking it'd be something a bit more demented and twisted. But then obviously he's just a normal guy like the rest of us. Yeah, he looked really healthy, which is great, but I wanted to see horns and stilts! Something a little crazier.
I liked the contrast between yours and Starving Yet Full's performance style, he is a lot more flamboyant, projecting a lot more outwards, and you're basically locking, with lots of controlled, sharp movements.
Fritz Helder: That's what makes it really exciting for us on stage, Cedric (SYF) and I met at a club and we used to dance together a lot and we kind of had that Janus thing going on where he's like one side of the coin and I'm the other side. He's more fluid and liquid on stage and I try to be more jarring and have the opposite energy. I come from a performance background, I was a dancer for as long as I can remember so that's where my training comes from. That how I fell in love with music, by studying dance, classical, jazz, hip-hop. I love to communicate through moving.
Alixander, all of your selections are from the same early '80s British EBM era, tell me a bit about how that music first caught your ear.
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Well I grew up in the Sheffield of Canada, Hamilton, which is a steel city. It's all factory-based. My family are all factory workers and I guess in that scenario when I grew up in the '80s and '90s goth was huge. That's what we listened to: the most deranged, psychedelic, out-there stuff we could find. Very big, sounds of the city and industry.
Was that background the inspiration for your track "The Worker"? It's sounds like a very literal representation of mechanical movement.
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Yeah something like that. You know, Metropolis, a little Fritz Lang.
Has film had much of an impact on you as a musician?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: For me personally, yeah. A lot. I had a whole career doing music for movies, I grew up on movies. I'm a total film buff, so I love John Carpenter's music. Especially '80s music. I was watching Big Trouble in Little China the other day and I was like, the music I have to make now for films is all quite orchestrated. You get into the Social Network style stuff but back then you just bust a [mimics a wailing synth sound], ya know? I wish I was making film tracks back then, it would be amazing.
What was it about "Love Cuts" in particular that left an impression with you?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Chris & Cosey, Cabaret Voltaire, I love it all. That old S&M, deconstructionist, bedroom stuff. With these guys there is a picture on the back of the record [Songs of Love and Lust] where you can see that they make all their music in this tiny little flat. There are modular synthesisers stacked all around, and you listen to the record and it sounds amazing. There's production in there you still don't hear as crisp today, to a certain degree.
Is that production quality something you're aiming for yourself?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: I think so. I mean you could argue that there is a clarity to digital, but the perceived clarity of tape is still stronger in people I think, at least if you're over 30. You relate to that sound. So all those records even if they're made on a four-track still have that warmth and dimension and depth. Digital is very good at spreading things wide and giving you a stereo field but it doesn't have much depth, so you can't really place things too far back and too far to the front. I love the old records because they do have that depth, the drummer could sound like he's not even featured, like "Where's the drums? I didn't realise they weren't there, you don't even need them, they're just a little washy thing in the back." I miss that. Too much emphasis on beats and punch, overly produced things.
Control (I'm Here)
Speaking of punchy drums, that's one of Nitzer Ebb's signatures, and what endeared them to a lot of early techno DJs.
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Yeah, I was a huge Jesus & Mary Chain fan, and they happened to be opening up for a Depeche Mode concert. I went to see them and Nitzer Ebb was the first band to open up. I'd never heard of them and it was just two guys on Simmons kits, Octo-pads, just banging away, and it blew my mind. I went and asked my producer uncle, "How can I do this?" and he gave me a drum machine and I spent about a month trying to make it and I realised I needed more than a drum machine to pull that off. "I need a reverb unit." That was the beginning of my techno career.
So you were really plugged into techno from its early years?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Well I really loved Eddie Grant and that kind of electronic production. Funky but combining real instruments with the electronics, really well-integrated.
That kind of integration was really apparent during your live show. What was the process like of getting all those elements together for the first time?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: We had a certain palette we made the record with, and we basically had to buy second pieces of equipment that we could make roadworthy, so we could have our pristine stuff in the studio. It did take a bit, but I think we had a good idea of what we wanted to accomplish, and we knew the sounds and the instruments that would produce what we need. We don't want to change it up too much and we want to be able to improvise and have some new sounds in our material live, but we don't just want to stream a backing track or recreate the whole thing and have it sound awkward to people that recognise the album versions.
Were Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full always in mind when you were developing your show?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Absolutely. These guys have been here since our second song.
I Like It (Blow Out Dub)
This song has what now sounds like archetypal old school synth stabs, but it was one of the first tracks to really accentuate that kind of chord progression.
Dinamo Azari: Yeah it was, at the time. Now it feels like every producer right now is trying to emulate those chords. It's so sad, really sad. I'd like to think that that's the original of that sound. It's just one step from that deep stuff, with a little more energy to it. You can play it at a rave; you can play it at a late night warehouse scene. It's more mature, it has a lot a depth, but you could just call it a house track.
Is that criticism, of trying to emulate the sound of something that's distinctly from the past, something that you've had to face yourself?
Dinamo Azari: Everyone recycles art, every artist does. But when it's blatantly obvious that someone literally just listened to a song and tried to emulate it and never grew up with it, you can really sense it.
Do you guys sample at all?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Not in the hip-hop sense, we might have a hi-hat here or a snare drum there.
Dinamo Azari: It wouldn't be fun to have samples, it takes away all the fun. In generating the sounds, we're trying to do something new and different. Like Alixander said, there are definitely some interesting sounds out there, we're sound junkies too. Alixander grabbed an old MPC, what was it?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: MPC-60.
Dinamo Azari: MPC-60. And then he bought a bunch of the discs for it from a guy in LA.
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: A studio that went out of business had 400 discs of '80s samples, so you hear the drums from hip-hop, you hear all these classical sounds, like that stab, the Landlord stab, is in there somewhere. I've been looking for stuff like that for a long time and I haven't seen it since or before, so it was a rarity. There were people bidding against me and that's why I ended up spending $400. I was like, "What kind of samples am I going to get?"
Dinamo Azari: We've worked some.
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: Definitely, we got our $400 worth.
What does your production set up look like now? Are you analog purists in that sense?
Alphonse Alixander Lanza III: We have digital gear, and we use a computer. We use everything, mash it up.
Dinamo Azari: You've got to find your little bits and pieces, they can be cheap, they can be expensive. That's the whole fun, I think that's the really exciting part about all of it. Not really getting stuck into one little sound. Enjoying different machines, enjoying machines from the past, enjoying machines from the future, acoustic instruments, just whatever can really create a sound that we all cherish and want to put on our album.
Even within the band's relatively short history, it's often repeated that house music is very new to you, Starving.
Starving Yet Full: I am very new to house music or I guess, dance music. I remember I used to see Snap on one TV programme back home, but Fritz reintroduced me to the song. When I first heard it I didn't speak English, so it never really mattered, but I had a listen to the song again and he pointed out this "Little Miss Muffet...what's in the bowl bitch?" bit at the end and I just died! I was like "Oh that's it." That just closed it for me.
When did you leave Rwanda for Canada? And what was access to pop or dance music like at the time?
Starving Yet Full: I left ten years ago, but I grew up in Burundi actually. We had this one station and every Saturday at 6pm it was like that 106 & Park thing where everyone runs in and you watch a programme for an hour. That's pretty much the only access to music videos we had, but the radio was more French and British pop, very commercial, very mainstream, boy bands. I love a lot of African music from Congo, Senegal places like that, and Zouk. A lot of Zouk. People are obsessed with Zouk back home.
When did you start singing?
Starving Yet Full: I was probably around 8 or 9 years old. My older sister used to sit me and my other sister down and teach us a song and make us harmonise. She's got an amazing ear for that.
What, just for something to do?
Starving Yet Full: Yeah. Literally. She would sit us down for an hour and was like, "Learn this. No. You're singing the wrong way. Higher!" It was crazy. [laughs]
That doesn't sound like much fun.
Starving Yet Full: No, I hated it actually! It was just because she was taller and bigger. [laughs] If it wasn't for her I don't think I'd have been singing or honing it. But by the time I was 13-14 we really started going at it, it was just her and I and we would do little talent shows, it was cool.
What sort of songs were you singing for the talent shows?
Starving Yet Full: We did a lot of Boyz II Men, actually. I remember my first song in a show was with her, and we did "The Boy Is Mine." I was Brandy and she was Monica. [laughs] At the time I had a girlfriend and every time she had to explain why we were not singing male songs because I didn't have the range for that, I couldn't go that low. We did a lot of Celine Dion too, it was hilarious. Gosh, you're bringing out some memories.
Are there any other tracks that stayed with you from the period when you first started going out in Toronto?
Starving Yet Full: I remember Robyn-S "Show Me Love" very vividly. I was like, "Oh my God, who is this diva?" It just made me want to catwalk the whole way everywhere, so every time I put on that song my walk just changes in the street, I don't even care! I strut. "You've gotta show me love. You across the street! You've got to show me love!" [laughs]
Did you have to change anything about your natural style of singing to fit the music of Azari & III or is this the voice that comes out of you naturally?
Starving Yet Full: This is how I've always been I guess. Then again I went to church, so I guess I have that gospel attribute to me, but even back home I remember listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder and I guess I was trying to emulate the sound that was coming from that. So I went towards that direction and it's just how I sound. It just ended up fitting what they wanted.
Do you listen to much traditional soulful vocalists away from dance music?
Starving Yet Full: Yes, I listen to Kirk Franklin; his vocals I find are amazing. The last album was brilliant to me, I can go home and just sit down and listen to gospel, like Fred Hammond, Donnie McClurkin. I spend enough time listening to gospel, just honing that whole, what do you call it? Anointed? They sing, they just make me feel so warm inside.