Monday, 24 September 2012

Maceo Plex: Sleazy Rider Interview

Success is a blessing and a curse. Just ask Eric Estornel. 2011 was his biggest year yet as a musician. But he got there under a name he wasn't expecting—Maceo Plex—and the speed with which it happened was almost too much to handle. "I was surprised," he says. "I couldn't believe it. But that's the power of Crosstown [Rebels]." Damian Lazarus' imprint released Estornel's debut Maceo Plex album, Life Index, to rave reviews last year. It came at a moment when slower, funkier house was just beginning to take over clubland, and deep and sexy tracks like "Vibe Your Love," "Your Style" and "Can't Leave You" became monster hits as a result.   

And now? Now is when things get interesting. Riding high on the new wave of interest in his work, Estornel started his own label—Ellum Audio—late in 2011, and is already six releases in. While its first record was yet another Maceo Plex monster hit, "Stay High Baby," Estornel says that he is slowly heading away from the sound that made him famous. "I think the biggest mistake would be to do too much of one thing," he explains. And Ellum Audio's latest release is by his harder, more techno-oriented project Maetrik... albeit with a Maceo Plex remix. "I don't want to veer off too fast," he says.   Ellum Audio, which was originally started to simply provide an outlet for the enormous amount of music that he was writing, has now become a more considered affair. "Now we're actually, like, let's think about where we want to go musically instead of just getting out what's been written now. We're actually trying to write things for it. Hopefully this time next year it's going to be ten times more serious than it is now—and much more of a force to be reckoned with."  

This is the curse of success. How to maintain it after it first comes. How to build upon it to make it something even bigger. Talking to Estornel, it's obvious that he wants to take it to the next level, but he wants to do so on his own terms. He wants to be able to bring all of his aliases along with him for the ride. "Pretty soon, I'll find the balance, I'll be able to satisfy that thirst to make good underground records as well as big dance records. If I don't, I'll go insane," he explains. "It's funny, because you make these records that people love, and it's nice to see that these big dance records have connections with so many people. You just wish they connected more with you. It's your records that don't sell and nobody cares about that are the ones that you connect most with personally, so you kind of have to find a balance."  Estornel knows a bit about records not working. At the start of his career, he admits, the stuff that he made was too experimental. He grew up in the surprisingly vital Dallas scene, learning to produce from Gerard Hanson, AKA Convextion and E.R.P. "He's one of my best friends. He was kind of the one that taught me how to produce. Him and Dan Kurzius were the ones that I met when I started buying gear. They sold me their gear. It's a little bit sad to think about all my friends who made really, really good music but never got any attention."   

Estornel was the same for a number of years, working part-time jobs to make ends meet while he made electro—his first love—IDM, glitch and "minimalist techno." The focus, however, was much more on the music. Not as much on the needs of the party. "In my early days we were pretty purist about the music we listened to. I eventually kind of put being a purist aside [to try] to make dance records. About five or six years ago, I started going to clubs more and realizing that my music didn't work. There was a pretty major paradigm shift around 2005 where I started making tech house that could actually be played and enjoyed in clubs... Some artists are fine with that, and some others start realizing well, I dowant to make people dance. I respect the purists that just don't care, because there is a side of me that is like that, but at the same time I was like, well I could put my technical skills to use and actually make some dance records."    

"In an underground purist  sense, I sold out."     

Looking over Estornel's voluminous discography you can see what he means. His electro/IDM alias Mariel Ito had a very short-lived history, apparently the result of his epiphany that occurred in clubs (many of them European) in which he saw his music falling flat. (Soon, he'll revive the alias with a track on Ellum Audio—backed by an E.R.P. remix.) "I was kind of weirding people out. I started realizing that I should stick around and watch [other people's] sets and I remember listening and thinking 'Oh my God, it's so easy. It's got a 4x4 beat, typical sounds and typical loops.' I was so into this sound design stuff. [But] then I realized it wasn't as easy as it looked to make people dance. It took a while to learn how to make dance records."  

By this time, Estornel had a decent following for his Maetrik alias—and plenty of labels eager to give him the room to figure things out. This resulted in plenty of chances to release his music throughout the latter half of the '00s on labels like Treibstoff, Dumb Unit and Dirtybird sub-label Mothership. It was here that things started to get simpler in some ways—and more complex in others.   

"Deep down inside I would rather become more [recognized] on the experimental side, but I'm not the best experimental person either so something is better than nothing," he says, now referring to his success as Maceo Plex. "I could have probably tried to be better and better in the experimental and techno and minimal techno scene, but it wasn't until I tried out the house thing that people actually cared."  So, where do we go from here now that people do? This is the question that Estornel is wrestling with. As mentioned, he's cautious not to veer too quickly into a different sound—lest he confuse his new hard-won fans. He's also cognizant that his old fans are probably a bit confused as to why he's seemingly made such a wholesale move to house music. "In an underground purist sense, I sold out, but the way I justify it is that I don't make as bad records as others, so at least I sold out halfway [but] not too far," he says. "Now it's a matter of trying to reincorporate the sound design and the actual things I care about and getting the attention again of some of my earlier supporters that are kind of missing the old days. I'm trying to find a balance now." 

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