On the surface, Young Marco—real name Marco Sterk—is just another face in the crowd of Amsterdam's thriving community of producers, DJs and designers. But his two records for ESP Institute have offered some of the most subtle and charming house music of the past two years. His style is informed by years of seeking out strange and exotic sounds on vinyl, an obsession he's cultivated with close friend Tako Reyenga.
Sterk talks fondly of the routine he fell into with Reyenga, co-founder of Redlight Records and one of Europe's most respected crate diggers. The pair met seven years ago. Sterk would cycle to Reyenga's apartment in the centre of Amsterdam after work, and together they would leaf through piles of records.
"He had this tiny apartment rammed full of vinyl," says Sterk. "The couch was placed strategically in the middle of one room. There would be people crashing with him all the time. I mean, one year when the Utrecht record fair was on, there were six people staying there."
They listened to rare disco, they listened to jazz-fusion and they listened to new age. It was a formative experience. "I was already deep into music," Sterk says, "but meeting him opened a whole new world to me. He showed me a different way of digging for records. It's not about trying to find the best records; it's about finding pretty shit ones with potentially one amazing song on it. We spent a solid two years just listening to new age records."
They met when Sterk was hosting "pretty unsuccessful spacey disco parties" in Amsterdam. On one occasion he invited Reyenga, then a regular DJ on cult radio station Intergalactic FM, along to play. "We became friends," he says. "I learned a lot from him, because he's got so much knowledge and he's really open about sharing it."
Though he speaks often of his friendship with Reyenga, it's only one part of Sterk's musical education. Arriving in Amsterdam aged 18, he immersed himself in the local music scene—"hip-hop was big at the time," he recalls—and eventually landed a job at Rush Hour, the record shop, label and distributor, where he's worked for the past six years.
He started as the label's in-house designer, though as his influence grew he began to take on occasional A&R duties. "All the Rush Hour guys are super inspiring to be around," he says of the tight-knit cluster that includes San Proper and Tom Trago. "I met Tom pretty early on when he was still playing hip-hop, but soon enough he had his first record out on Rush Hour. Through him I started to get to know the guys behind the label."
As well as throwing him into the local scene, the Rush Hour role has given Sterk the opportunity to mix with some of the US artists the label has reissued in recent years—acts like Virgo Four and Mandré. "It's nice to get a historical perspective from the source," he says.
The reissue of Mandré, AKA the elusive one-time Motown artist Andre Lewis, was spearheaded by Sterk. "I chased him for a year. It wasn't even confirmed back then that Mandré 4 [Lewis's 1982 synth-funk opus] still existed," he says. "He put it out himself after he left Motown, and most copies were lost in a fire. I just wanted a copy for myself. At some point I got an email address for him that was 10 years old. I thought it was worth a shot to ask if he wanted to re-release Mandré 4."
Sterk fired an email to Lewis, who had been living in obscurity, playing organ in a church. "I got in touch from my personal email address—it was [email protected] something—and I got a reply within five minutes saying, 'Yes, let's do this.' I later found out he has an almost religious obsession with the letter 'm'—you can find little diagrams and formulas of the letter on his sleeves. He saw it as a divine sign that I emailed him."
Before joining Rush Hour, Sterk ran a graphic design agency with Orpheu de Jong, who now runs Redlight Radio, the online station that shares the same HQ as Redlight Records. The pair, who remain close friends, ran those unsuccessful parties at various venues across Amsterdam. Along with a couple of other local DJs, de Jong and Sterk put on the Cosmic Disco events, which later evolved into Velvet Morning.
"We did some pretty cool parties with interesting guests, but there was usually, like, 30 people there. We made a huge loss. Shitty turnout." It was at these parties that Sterk began to develop his wide-ranging tastes. "You can be an adventurous DJ when you're playing to an empty room."
Sterk is also attracted to what he calls "dumb" music. "By 'dumb' I mean intuitive, naïve and honest," he clarifies, adding: "There's jazz-fusion stuff, which is often really hardcore musicians flexing their muscles, but sometimes they accidentally make something really dumb, and to me, that's where it gets interesting."
In 2013 he's had more DJ bookings than ever before. He says his taste "used to be a bit of a hindrance when getting gigs, but now people kind of dig it. I feel like the luckiest dude alive, because right now I'm traveling the world to play records I love. And with that comes the perk that I'm able to dig in every city I go to. I usually dig for local stuff. So it's actually really cool because my record collection is full of souvenirs."
Dusseldorf's Salons des Amateurs seems tailor-made for a DJ like Young Marco. Located inside a contemporary art museum, it's one of Europe's best venues for dancing to oddball records. "That place gave me the confidence to play weird shit and have belief that people will respond positively to it," he says. "They've developed this whole crowd there that's open-minded. You can play the weirdest stuff there and people will just dance to it like it's a James Brown track."
He bemoans a lack of originality in today's clubs. "A lot of parties I see, there are two DJs booked that probably have the same records in their bag. I think it's more interesting to not be dictated by what's coming out right now. A good record is still a good record after 20 years; some even get better with time, because they gain a different context."
It was through Reyenga that Sterk met another like-minded soul in Andrew Hogge, AKA Lovefingers, who runs the New York-based ESP Institute label. Sterk debuted on ESP in 2011 with the Nonono EP. Though he already had a couple of records to his name, it was this one that really announced him as a producer. Displaying the off-kilter, worldly charm of his DJ sets, gentle drums coexist with sparkling synths on the title track. Better still was "Darwin In Bahia," where marimbas and vintage drum machines playfully intertwine. All those nights listening to new age records had paid off.
Nonono was followed by another ESP outing, Video Days, in 2012. Around this time he was also tapped to remix Michael Ozone's "Hetrotopia," again for ESP. That this remix features on John Talabot's upcoming DJ-Kicks mix is unsurprising: though their signature sounds are different, the Hivern Discs man shares Young Marco's ear for melody.
Sterk says he sees his two roles—DJ and producer—as entirely separate pursuits. It goes against the grain of today's culture, where the line between the two disciplines is consistently blurred. "I'm a producer during the week, and a DJ at the weekend. They don't really feed off each other," he says.
His debut album, Biology, will come out on ESP Institute later this year. Though a debut LP is generally regarded as a key moment in most artist's careers, Sterk is keen to downplay its significance. "It's not a huge deal. For me it's not a case of, 'Here's my mind-blowing debut album,' it's just some music that fits together. But there is more space for tracks to do less on an album. You can have a track that doesn't really go anywhere and that can be cool, not boring."
Sterk does his best studio work in the wee hours—"it's easier to justify getting drunk by yourself at night," he jokes—and Biology is the product of countless late-night sessions. It's hardly a surprise when he says that his album "isn't very dance floor-y."
"I have never tried to make dance music per se, apart from a couple of remixes perhaps," he says. "I make music I want to hear when I'm by myself in the studio at 5 AM as the sun comes up."