Monday, 23 January 2012

An Interview With, Motor City Drum Ensemble (MCDE)

Germany’s Danilo Plessow has been recording exquisite, emotional music since he was 17, beginning with his electronic–meet-nu-soul project Inverse Cinematics and, for the past decade, as the housier and techier Motor City Drum Ensemble. Last year saw the release of a stunning MCDE entry in the !K7 label’s DJ-Kicks series.

You started producing at a very young age. How old are you now?
I’m turning 27.
So I guess we probably should stop referring to you as a “young phenom.”
Ha! I guess so. But I would still like to be called young; I don’t really like getting older.
I’ find that the name Motor City Drum Ensemble tends to confuse people who don’t know who you are, since you’re not from Detroit and you’re not an ensemble. What was the reasoning behind choosing that name?
I grew up on Detroit techno stuff in my hometown, Stuttgart, and a lot of the early parties I went to were called Motor City parties, with people who were into Detroit people like Robert Hood, that first-wave stuff. I’m also inspired by the kind of jazz and soul that was coming out of Detroit, and Motown—stuff like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Also Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are in Stuttgart, so a lot of people work in the motor industry there—like, in local hip-hip, Stuttgart was always called Motor City. So there are kind of two reasons for the Motor City part.
And the Drum Ensemble part?
That’s because I’ve always been collecting all these drum machines. They’re the ensemble.
You just alluded to this, but a lot of your work seems to have a very strong sense of musical history. Inverse Cinematics has a lot of soul and jazz influences, and your Raw Cuts series, for instance, seems to reference somewhat obscure early house from Chicago and New York, like Raw Elements on the Final Cut label and NY Housin’ Authority on Nu Groove. Is that something that you consciously try to inject into your music?
It’s all been a sort of natural progression. I was playing jazz as a drummer before I even knew about electronic music. From there, I realized how a lot of hip-hop is based on jazz grooves and samples, and so I started digging for those records, and then it sort of went from there. The music that touched me the most was stuff like jazz, soul, funk, whatever—and that was very evident in Inverse Cinematics, which had lots of broken rhythms, straight-up jazz beats. And then, the kind of house and techno that touched me was the kind that had jazzy elements. Not that there has to be a saxophone or anything—Kenny Larkin or even Basic Channel can have some kind of jazz twist to it.
It seemed like you included pretty much all of your influences on last year’s DJ-Kicks mix, which featured everything from Sun Ra and Tony Allen to Hood and Fred P. Was that a difficult mix to put together?
Yes, definitely. But the absolute toughest part was the licensing, even with the very obscure stuff. The last song on the mix, the James Mason song—he didn’t even know who had the rights to his own song! So that was quite a process. Once it was clear which tracks I was going to be able to use, it was pretty…not easy, but at least I knew what direction it was going to go.
How about the actual construction of the mix? There are 22 very disparate tracks, yet you managed to make a pretty coherent, smooth set out of them.
It was a pretty intense process. It was the first time I had ever used Ableton to do a mix, so I had to learn a new program from scratch while I was doing it. It was definitely a task.
How long was it from the time you knew you were going to be doing the mix to when you actually had it done?
Something like six months, I think. It’s not like I was working on it nonstop—I’d generally be touring about two days a week—but it was long. I heard Scuba did his DJ-Kicks mix in two weeks. I admire that. [Laughs]
The mix probably wasn’t what some people expected, but the reaction was extremely favorable—it was No. 9 on Resident Advisor’s Top Compilations of 2011 list, for instance. Did that surprise you at all?
I wouldn’t say it surprised me—but I was definitely very happy about it! The mix itself is not really the easiest listen, I would say, but if I play it to friends who are not really into music at all, they seem to like it. And, for me, that’s quite something. I definitely don’t want to be considered this intellectual guy, making music only for intellectual people.
You didn’t run into anyone who was upset that you didn’t make a straight-up house mix?
Not really. Maybe my dad did. He’s retired, and he kind of keeps track of reviews and stuff. He’s now proud of his son, and I have to say that wasn’t always the case! He’s always googling me—I’m like, Dad, give it a rest. Anyway, the overwhelming amount of feedback has been positive, but of course you can’t please everyone. People in electronic music can have a very narrow perception of things, but the message-board people who overanalyze every single sound aren’t the people I did the mix for. It’s more for the people who are willing to broaden their horizons.
I missed you the last time you played in New York, three years ago.…
It was amazing. You missed a good one!
When you play out, do you play mostly house-oriented material, or do you mix it up?
It depends on the night and on the crowd, but I usually try to avoid playing just house, or just a straight beat all night long. I do like to play disco, especially when it’s a venue where you wouldn’t expect it, like a big warehouse or something. It’s always good to break rules, you know? It seems like you have the liberty to do that a bit more in the States than in Europe. Berlin is starting to loosen up a bit, but just a few years ago it would have been hard for me to play much disco there, or even just happy music.
I think people will be ready for you to play just about anything when you come here.
Well, New York has such a rich musical history. You people have it in your DNA.

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