"The music I was making was too emotionally superficial, like the vocal samples and stuff—it didn't relate to what I feel about anything," he said. "It's just like an expression of joy, an expression of sadness, that I've sampled from somewhere."
FitzGerald has worked to become a high-profile artist over the last few years. He's featured among RA's top 100 DJs two years running, and his touring schedule has been busy enough to cause exhaustion. Tracks like "Child" and "I Can Tell" were huge club hits. Most of his music has been released through Hotflush or Aus, key labels in the scene he works within. Along with fellow UK artists like Joy Orbison, Mount Kimbie and Pearson Sound, FitzGerald helped popularise the nebulous "post-dubstep" sound. His music blended sampled vocals with bright synthesis and garage- and dubstep-influenced beats. On tracks like "Hearts" and "Shackled," he captured the excitement and creativity that was oozing from the UK scene. Then, like many of his peers, he gradually began producing house and techno, and became even more successful.
Even so, FitzGerald didn't seem like an obvious choice for Domino. "It took a lot of deliberation," he said about the deal. "But it's also something that I didn't feel like I was going to say no to. They're an amazing label with a lot of history, and it just felt perfect at the time. Maybe one of the nicest things someone said to me in the Domino office was, 'When those guys signed you, I wasn't sure whether I could see you fitting into our narrative, with us having released Jon Hopkins and stuff like that. But now I understand it. I can see that you sit somewhere in between Jon Hopkins and Hot Chip or something like that. I can hear that.' And I was like, 'Fuck. Maybe I'm not going to be a massive disappointment,' [laughs]."
FitzGerald says things like that a lot. He's the sort of self-effacing Englishman who plays down his achievements, lest he seem pretentious. We met at a pub on East London's Hackney Road a couple of months back. It was FitzGerald's 30th birthday, and he was planning a low-key celebration later that day. As we chatted, the drink probably loosened his tongue a little, but he's the type of person who prefers straight talking.
Just down the road from where we were sat, at The Star Of Bethnal Green, FitzGerald put on some of his first parties. ManMakeMusic was a co-venture with his friends Amit Gudka, Nikhil Shah and Sam Leon. FitzGerald played at all the events in the early days but describes himself as "the least-contributing member." The party wrapped up a couple of years ago, but it spawned a label that's still going today. It's released 18 records so far, and artists like Laszlo Dancehall, FOLD and Shenoda typify its modern house sound. ManMakeMusic links FitzGerald to London in some people's minds, but he's spent the last ten years on the move.
FitzGerald grew up in Watford, a town northwest of London. He started collecting records when he was 12 or 13, and got into DJing through his brother, who gave the younger George his decks. UK garage was his passion. He went on to study languages at Cambridge, and spent a year of his course in Berlin, by which time dubstep was beginning to kick off back in London. "When I initially moved out to Berlin I was like, 'Everything is happening in London. The most exciting musical happening of my entire life, the thing of my generation.'" When back in Cambridge, FitzGerald went to key dubstep parties like FWD>> and DMZ as often as he could—"it felt like this totally incredible, unprecedented thing that was exploding."
Inspired by these experiences, FitzGerald started making music. He became a competent producer, but he lacked the confidence to send his music to labels. Amit, one of the guys from ManMakeMusic, who FitzGerald was living with at the time in London after finishing university, challenged him to "stop being such a pussy," and FitzGerald sent some tracks to Paul Rose, AKA Hotflush boss Scuba. FitzGerald was working a job in insurance at the time, with "nothing on the horizon," so when Rose got back to him six months later, saying he wanted to feature FitzGerald's "Don't You" in his upcoming Sub:Stance mix for Ostgut Ton, it felt like he'd caught his break. Plus, Hotflush was his favourite label. FitzGerald released his first EP, The Let Down, in July 2010, and he's since become a core Hotflush artist. Rose also introduced FitzGerald to Will Saul, who runs Aus Music, and they wound up working together on a string of releases. "I really do owe Paul," FitzGerald said.
"I was very, very lucky because I never had to hustle too hard. I probably never would have got anywhere, because I'm not much of a hustler, to be honest."
The music FitzGerald recorded for Hotflush, Aus and other labels can roughly be split into two categories. First, there was post-dubstep sound of EPs like Shackled, Silhouette and Don't You—the BPM averaged around 130, the synths were colourful and infectious, and, at their best, the tracks pushed into a fertile new zone between dubstep, garage and house. Then, with the release of Child on Aus, things became more house- and techno-orientated. FitzGerald's fondness for melodies remained, but the kick drums went four-to-the-floor, and overall the tracks were more influenced by the past.
FitzGerald described Saul and Rose as "two of my very best mates," and said that Rose has shown an incredible amount of personal and professional generosity towards him over the years, which included giving him a place to stay during his breakup. He talked about their working relationship, and Rose's approach to A&R. "I think the most feedback he ever gave me on a tune was like, 'Eight more bars in the breakdown.' He doesn't micromanage your stuff. If it's good, he's not going to tell you to turn down the hi-hats or something like that."
I first spoke with FitzGerald in Berlin at the end of last year, and on both occasions we met he mentioned the idea of patient DJing, something he said Rose helped teach him. Like Rose, FitzGerald comes from the UK garage school of DJing, where the emphasis is on quick mixing and almost constant crescendos. When FitzGerald moved to Berlin a few years ago, his eyes were opened to a more drawn-out, considered way of playing. "Paul was one of the first people I saw from our scene play in a house and techno style," FitzGerald said. "Playing in a techno style like Dettmann and Klock would, working the mixer in the same way, and not having this dubstep and garage 'in-out' thing. A way more gradual building process. I learned from playing with him how to not stand out as somebody who only did 16-bar garage mixes."
I saw FitzGerald play this way at Panorama Bar a few weeks ago. He followed a live set from the Norwegian artist Andre Bratten, and when he took over at 5AM the place was bubbling. FitzGerald stood bolt upright, lips pursed, and quickly took control of the room. The club had recently installed Rane's new MP2015 rotary mixer, which FitzGerald manipulated with subtle gestures, adding to his composed demeanour. There were splashes of the melodies that typify Fading Love—he played a couple of tracks from it, including "Crystallise"—but the backbone of his set was robust, bass-driven house, which the crowd responded warmly to. Of the times I've caught him in the last few years, it was the best set I'd heard him play. His mixing got a little quicker as the set wore on, responding to the intensity of, say, Audion's remix of Scuba's "PCP," but overall he was a picture of calm.
In the moment, at places like Panorama Bar, it's likely that FitzGerald forgets about the doubts that have begun to creep into his mind. "Over the last year, once I really got going with this album, a feeling of—not sadness to be doing what I'm doing, but there's a bit of melancholy sometimes," he said. "You go around, hammering yourself in clubs, get up the next day and sit alone in an airport... I look at the people who come out in different cities to watch you DJ, and they have a great time, but you never talk to them.
"I was in an intense relationship that was disintegrating because I was travelling so much, and that all feeds into my dwindling enthusiasm for that whole circus of like, being a big DJ, and doing the big Radio 1 events, and releasing big, happy, vacuous music. Oddly, the whole arc of the relationship basically followed the arc of the album. The last tune was written after we broke up. So it does track very accurately a lot of different moments in that relationship."
On "Full Circle," the album's second track, Boxed In sings: "You're always starting the fights / And there's days and there's nights / Girl you've gone full circle." Like elsewhere on Fading Love, FitzGerald then shifts the blame to himself: "I'm always locked up in here / Making up for lost years / Girl I've gone full circle / I've gone full circle." By "Crystalize," the eighth track, there's acceptance of the situation, as Lawrence Hart sings: "Now at the end I realise / The love we have has crystallized / Around my heart, a clear divide / When all that's left, we crystallize."
Fading Love won't win prizes for songwriting, but its gestures of love, loss and frustration are endearingly simple, something that's true of the tracks themselves. There's very little clutter. The productions are built on a handful of elements, each tailored for maximum clarity. The melodic lines are strong and straightforward, and a couple of the album's tracks have been stuck in my head for months. "All of the tracks are really deeply personal. It's not like, 'Oh I wrote this when I was kind of sad and I found this really cool sample by Chaka Khan.' It was like no, we wrote that song about this particular feeling. In that sense, as well as in the stylistic and musical sense, it was trying to get away from that superficiality."
FitzGerald said that the process of writing the record has made him "five times the producer now than I was when I started out." He talked about his earlier music flitting between styles, and how he now feels settled in what he's doing. There will be a line, he said, where before it was zigzags. With this in mind, I suggested that he'd reached a fork in the road, with his DJing going one way and his productions going the other. "Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. There's a lot on the album that I wouldn't necessarily play out, but for the first time I'm not stressed about that because I don't think my DJ sets need to be a way of playing people my music. The best position to be in, where I really, really want to be, and stay, over the next few years if I'm lucky enough to keep doing this, is people think that your records really have something to say, so they trust you to curate the music [DJ] on a given night."
In the past FitzGerald was "anti-aliases," but he's now considering splitting off his dance floor music into a separate name. "I'm definitely at a point artistically where, with my George FitzGerald stuff, I want to move it away from the dance floor," he said. "I already know what I want to do with the next album, and it's definitely not moving back towards the dance floor. I want things to be more broken, I want there to be more played instruments on there. It's not going to turn into a rock album or anything."
Fans of non-mainstream forms of dance music can be famously sensitive when it comes to the idea of artists "selling out" or having commercial viability. FitzGerald has never openly embraced this dichotomy, but Fading Love is the most pop-leaning, radio-friendly music he's recorded, which presented a risk of alienating his "underground" fans. "It is a worry," he said. "I wasn't writing for radio play, because I know that you have to have a song for radio, or you have to have a hook line going the whole way through. And none of the tracks are like that—none of them will do any damage on the radio, I'm completely certain of that.
"I was writing songs for them to be listened to, it's not meant to be consumed in a club. There are some proper vocal tracks in there, and I've got no problem with them being slightly more accessible. I don't feel like they've been cynically written to be hits, they've just been written because I like vocals."
FitzGerald's new sense of musical clarity has shifted his long-term goals. "I want to move into producing other people, and you can't do that if you've just been a bedroom producer, you have to collaborate with people, and then also have a way into that world, which Domino are massively part of," he said. "James [Ford] from Simian Mobile Disco—those lads are people who I look up to… You know, I look at the RA top 10, and I might have told you five years ago, 'I want to be in that Top 10,' and now I really don't. Now I'd rather be James in five years or ten years time. I'd rather be just sitting slightly back and producing fucking amazing music, and not be hogging the limelight."