Interview: Fort Romeau

by Sabrina


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Fort Romeau
Ghostly International

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The words “atmospheric” and “spacious” aren’t typically used to describe dance music. Neither are comparisons to the ambience of Arthur Russell with accents of Balearic rhythms and drum-machine soul. Good thing Fort Romeau isn’t typical.
His music defies categorization, which is paramount to his success. And what success it’s been: since releasing his debut LP Kingdoms on LA record label “100% Silk” last year, Mike Greene, the man behind the moniker, has received widespread acclaim for his seriously fresh take on dance music, marked by smooth hints of old-school Chicago House. 2013 saw the release of singles SW09 on Spectral and Jetée/Desire on Ghostly International, followed by this month’s release of EP Stay True, whose title track is a seven-minute dance odyssey of epic proportions.
In a sense, Fort Romeau is bringing house music to the home. He is one of the few artists capable of capturing the raw energy of a long night in a warehouse through your desk speakers, without sacrificing his signature sleek production and dream-like, sophisticated sound.
And it’s not just his music that’s provocative: it’s also his opinions. I had the chance to chat with the artist about his upcoming LP, his creative process, and that whole digital vs vinyl debate. He had a lot to say.

S: You started making music in your teens. Who were you listening to most at the time? Was there anyone in particular that urged you to start making electronic music?

FR: Quite a lot, really. My dad's a big vinyl nut and has a massive collection, mainly ‘70s rock and pop, but there were all sorts of oddities too. I was into bands mostly, but always music that had electronic elements like Radiohead, NiN, which then got me into the Warp records catalog and from there, the wider world of House, Techno and Electronic music. There was also my Dad’s music that I grew up on: Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, proggy stuff.

S: You’re working on a second LP that will be your first release on Ghostly International. Has your approach for this album differed from that with your earlier releases?

FR: I think the principal difference is I'm opening myself up to a wider range of influences and reference points for this record. I’ve also done a lot more crate digging and micro-sampling, which is the most inspiring way to work at the moment—finding sounds from records that are totally unrelated to house music and trying to re-contextualize them into something honest and personal. I’m also trying not to over-think it, but probably failing at that.

S: Sophomore releases can be difficult, especially when your debut effort is a success. Do you think early acclaim adds too much pressure or allows you to take greater risks?

FR: I suppose the notion of success is relative. {Kingdoms} definitely got more attention than I thought it would have, but I'm still fairly unknown, so I don't feel much external pressure. I think there is always an internal conflict between making something that you imagine people want to hear and will be popular and doing what you want and being honest to yourself. I think though that there is no real alternative to following your gut...even though it may not coincide with what is fashionable.

S: You’ve stated you’re more interested in evoking a feeling in the listener than adhering to a specific genre. How is this approach reflected in your creative process?

FR: I definitely adhere to the tropes of certain genres, but I think that the most important thing is to get soul and personality into the music. People respond to hearing other people in the music—that’s why songs are the predominant form of popular music. Art is about connecting with people, and although it might sound a bit high-minded with regards to simple electronic music, fundamentally, that’s the goal.

S: Was there a specific feeling you sought to recreate or evoke with your latest release “Stay True?”

FR: Each track is kind of a variation on a loose group of related musical ideas. I’ve always been drawn to using the human voice in tracks, even just little snippets, but I feel like that way of working, that kind of appropriated vocal, is overdone. I wanted to see if I could explore another way. So on the tracks "Your Light" and "Together," all the vocals are my own, although massively vocoded. The title track is my take on the that classic Moroder style arpeggiated disco, but instead of being just a pastiche I wanted to create a re-interpretation, so it’s super slow…drugged and draggy… things that are contrasting with each other. It’s not just trying to create something "sad" or "uplifting," but trying to create something emotionally complex and a little ambiguous. That makes it more interesting than just some simple minor chord progression and forcing people to understand, “this is a melancholy part now.”

S: Speaking of genres, traditionally genres of dance and electronic music were pretty stratified. It’s clear the lines are blurred more today. Do you think this is for the better?

FR: Yes, I think the less arbitrary destinations between genres the better. I think there’s still a lot of snobbery around {whether} something is "proper" house or "proper" techno. What does that even mean? Either it’s good music or bad music. Sometimes it’s both.

S: I heard an interview in which you deemed categorizing music mainstream or underground as arbitrary. If these labels don’t interest you, how would you describe your sound? Do you have an ideal listener in mind?

FR: No, there’s no "target audience." I just make what I feel like making. Obviously it helps to target what you have made to people that may be interested in it, but that’s the job of a record label. I think it’s definitely best to not think about that when your making music, and just explore your own thing as much as is possible.

S: You wrote an impressive essay for FACT magazine on the value of vinyl. Unlike most polar ends of the analogue-versus-digital spectrum, you view sound-quality and elitism as a secondary issues to our lack of patience and superficial interaction with the medium. How do you think we can raise a generation of better listeners (in the musical sense), even knowing most people will be downloading your tracks in digital format? Is there a solution?

FR: I think it takes an active effort on the part of the listener to engage in a deeper way with the music. You are swimming against the tide of modernity when talking about doing things slowly or paying greater attention. I think the resurgence in vinyl purchasing since 2008 is a small sign that there is a growing interest in doing things a little differently. The main thing that I think many people miss is that something that takes more effort is itself more rewarding and the notion of value is somewhat self-fulfilling. For example, if I download a piece of music for free or £0.79, my expectation of its value is significantly diminished than if I pay £8 for it on vinyl and have to go out to the shop in the rain. The fact that I've invested more time as well as money inclines me to pay it more attention and engage with it more, which in turn allows the music more of a chance to get under your skin. It becomes a longer-lasting relationship. It also makes you a more discerning listener, rather than just passively giving everything out there a cursory 10-second listen.

S: Soulful, emotional, and nuanced are all words that have been used to describe your music. Björk famously one said if electronic music doesn’t have a soul, it’s because no one put it there. Do you think there is truth in this? For you, what does it mean for electronic music to have soul?

FR: Yes, I think that the idea that electronic music wouldn't have soul is based on a few erroneous presumptions. Firstly, these days very little music is made solely with machines without using samples of any kind. Obviously when you use samples, even if it’s just a kick drum or a guitar hit, you incorporate that performance into your music, appropriating the original musician’s intent into your own work. Even if you work just with machines, the process is definitely collaborative. The machines didn't design themselves, the engineers at Roland or Korg or wherever made decisions about the sound and workflow of those instruments, which is in itself an aesthetic and therefore, emotional, decision. I just don't think its possible to not impart something of the human into what you’re doing to some degree. I think what people don't like is cynicism in music… for example, music designed to sound exactly like something else just as a commercial vehicle. I think when people talk about "soulless" music it is really a question of honesty vs. cynicism.

Fort Romeau's 'Stay True' EP is out now on Ghostly International.