Indeed, Bortz is hardly a newcomer in the traditional sense, having been a DJ for more than 15 years now, with regular releases since 2007, most of them on Munich label Pastamusik and, more recently, Berlin-based Suol. And yet, something has changed over the past two years that put Bortz in the spotlight of the international house scene and in RA's Top 100 DJs of 2011. We hooked up with Bortz in Berlin during his busy tour schedule to talk about the myth of slow house, his annoyance with remix culture and traveling to the United States for the first time.
You are just on your way to a festival. As the season is just warming up, do you enjoy playing festivals?
I'm not sure, because I haven't played all that many yet and I've never been to any festivals myself as a visitor. Generally, I enjoy playing outdoors, but of course playing at a festival is something else entirely. I'm not a fan of massive line-ups but rather like to keep it small and simple. Besides, the one-and-a-half or two hour timeslots you usually get at a festival are a bit too short for my taste.
What's your ideal length for a set?
It always depends on the atmosphere, the people and the club. Three hours are nice, but I've played lots of longer sets, even going as far as six hours and more. Although I have to admit that I don't like parties that just won't stop. I think it's totally fine if it ends eventually and everybody had a good time.
Every party needs to end.
Yeah, I think it's just a nice thing if everyone goes home with the same memories of a wonderful night out. That's much nicer than having a party which kinda fades out, which has people leaving one after another and in the end you end up with just ten dudes on the dance floor. Those are the times when I ask myself: "Were the last two hours really all that necessary?" I don't like double bookings or changes in location either. If one party is over, it's usually a good time to go home.
It is almost presumptuous to call you a newcomer, given that you've been putting out records for a couple of years now. Still, would you agree that 2011 was your breakthrough?
I consider it a "healthy growth," as we use to say. I always knew great people in the business and had tight connections, but I've never been one to send promos to labels or put myself in the spotlight. I don't know, I reckon now is the right time and the right place to step it up a notch. I'm certainly thankful for all the experience I got in the past, because once I got asked to play bigger events, I was pretty calm and relaxed.
It's the same if you're playing in Augsburg or Ibiza?
In a way, yes. After all, I always have the same "task." I want to inspire the crowd and make them dance. Sure, as a DJ you're usually more euphoric if you're playing a great club with a great sound system and cool people who are up for surprises and ready to go all the way. Of course that's something special. But does this make me more nervous? Nah.
tracks as if they were hip-hop."
Tell me about Augsburg. Is there a scene for house music?
Augsburg is your typical provincial town. Everything is smaller, calmer, more restrained. But then again, there are lots of artists in Augsburg, some renowned graphic designers for instance. What a lot of people don't know either is that Augsburg has one of the highest densities of bands in relation to its population. We have lots of talented jazz musicians, a revived hip-hop scene and, obviously, some of us are doing techno and house as well. But then again, Augsburg, being Bavarian and all, is quite prude, quite bourgeois. The city doesn't make it easy for a lot of artists, so you are more or less on your own.
Is it a personal challenge for you to create something in this environment?
I guess you could call it a mission or challenge to do something in "my" city. The nice thing about it is that you are able to do whatever you want if there isn't much else. Maybe you can provide an alternative, play music that people may know but don't hear in other clubs, not even in nearby Munich.
Right now, I'm also trying to promote and support some younger house and techno producers. I try to help them with the more technical stuff, arrangements, mixing and all that. I think we are slowly building up a small network of our own in Augsburg.
Yes, I have only been in South America recently. But I have to confess, before I started DJing, I'd never been anywhere really, except some holidays in Italy or Austria with my parents. Imagine, the first time I ever stepped on a plane was in 2009—and only because I had a gig. [laughs]
Being a house producer, will it be something special for you to play in cities such as New York or Chicago?
You mean because of their history? When I was getting into house music, of course I took in all the classic records from back in the day. But now there has been such a major generational change that lots of other music is far more important to me. I always try to see things from a present perspective. Of course New York and Chicago have a colorful history, but how much of it is retained in the clubs nowadays anyway? Music has become much more global, much more dispersed. Young clubbers in New York don't necessarily have a more personal connection to records coming from their hometown than they do to records coming from Berlin.
How do you manage to make music at all with a packed tour plan such as yours?
I ask myself the same question. [laughs] But seriously, right now I don't have time to record anything really, I'm merely collecting ideas, for example how to improve my sound design or how to tweak my mixing. I once tried to record some stuff while I'm on tour, but I cannot make music just with a pair of headphones, no chance.
You need your studio setting.
Basically, I'm your typical nerd. I've been collecting records since I've been 12, then I started mixing and eventually I began to make my own music. During most of that time, I've just been sitting in my room. This hasn't changed really. I'm still a lonely musician so to say. Whenever I find the time, I seclude myself in the studio. This doesn't mean I don't have any social contacts. Occasionally I need some input from outside. Otherwise I wouldn't get anything out there.
How did your music develop over the years?
When I first started, I mostly made downbeat, trip-hop and some experimental, rather weird and "arty" stuff as well. I also did some hip-hop, recording rhymes with some friends of mine. The most important thing about making music is that I don't bore myself. I don't want to be bored behind the decks, I don't want to be bored at parties and I certainly don't want to be bored in the studio. So I often try some things that might be a bit odd. But that's OK.
When did you get into house music?
Oh, I've always been playing house and techno records, even as I was making other kinds of music. For me, those things don't have to exclude each other either. For instance, I try to master all of my tracks as if they were hip-hop.
For instance, I concentrate on the bass drum, the claps and snares and try to use less treble while at the same time lifting up the bass frequencies. You always ask yourself how you want your tracks to sound. I always strived for this hip-hop and R&B sound.
Speaking of R&B, most of your tracks contain vocal samples of some sort. How important is this aspect to your music?
I always loved vocals, even in electronic music. You know, stuff like Blake Baxter, Dance Mania from Chicago and those dark, brooding, pitched-down vocals and techno loops. I guess that's when it all comes together—my love for both hip-hop and dance music. But there was a time when I recorded lots of straightforward—I might even say pop music—very melodic, built around traditional radio arrangements, with guitars and vocals and all.
Were those recordings ever released?
No. Sometimes you are too mainstream to be underground and too underground to be mainstream, if you know what I mean. [laughs] Right now, I think some of those tracks might work. But hey, as I said before, I don't take it too seriously. You don't have to release everything you do. In fact, looking back, I might even cross out some of the releases I actually did bring out...
gets on my nerves."
That's quite an unusual thing to say for a producer.
Is it really? I don't know. I guess there are more producers that feel just the same. Let me put it this way: These days, I only want to release records that I'm playing myself. This has not always been the case. Don't get me wrong, I'm not ashamed of some of the tracks I put out in the past. I know why I did them and what sort of atmosphere and message I tried to contain. But they just don't fit in my sets anymore. Maybe it's because even back then I wasn't sure whether I should release them or not.
So why did you?
I guess I was a bit insecure and went on to let the label decide which tracks to release. I wouldn't do that now. I'm confident enough to say: "These are the tracks I want on this EP, no compromises and no remixes."
Hang on. You don't want your tracks to be remixed?
I've had a remix of one of my tracks before which I really liked. And of course there are many truly great remixes out there. But there is just an overflow of tracks coming out these days, and the remix madness really gets on my nerves.
Some records only seem to sell because of a famous remixer being on the sleeve.
Exactly, and that's what I try to avoid. If a track isn't good enough on its own and you need a remix in order to sell it, you should rather not release it at all. But I can see that many young producers are willing to compromise. I can't blame them really. As I said: been there, done that. It just takes some time to build up some confidence and experience in this business.
Heal the World, your recent release on Suol, seems to be considerably slow.
True, one of the tracks plays at 99 BPM. Me personally I absolutely adore tracks that are hovering around 100 BPM. Maybe it's because I love downbeats in general. You know, everyone is talking about a "slow-mo" or deep house vibe going on around the clubs, but this just isn't the case. 120 BPM is not slow and most of the time not "deep" either. There is a small scene covering the slower, discoid sound but there are only a few people who actually play this. I mean, I have the same problem: These days, I often play at prime time and you just can't play slow if some other DJ already set the mood beforehand. If you really want to play slow, you basically need the whole night. [laughs]
Were you glad that Suol took those tracks as they were?
Definitely, although I must admit that I didn't even knew the label before I released The One last year. I just sent some tracks to DJ friends from Berlin and eventually they found their way to the guys over at Suol. They wrote me and wanted to release them. When I first talked to the guys on the phone, I quickly realized that they enjoyed the slower side of house as well. I think it's just great; to have a label willing to release tracks around 100 BPM. Truth be told, there are not that many out there.