It’s a path virtually ingrained in the wood of the dance floor: As techno and house mavens age and try to develop as songwriters, they turn to the Seventies and Eighties, when cutting-edge pop music flecked with electro and disco was in full flourish. And ultimately, they try to be Prince, a dream embedded in early Chicago house and Detroit techno, up through Ragga Twins, Green Velvet, Basement Jaxx, Felix Da Housecat and a multitude of others.
Add to that list German producer/DJ Marco Niemerski, a.k.a. Tensnake, a product of the Hamburg underground techno scene who evolved into a leading auteur of deep-house, breaking out in 2010 with the elegantly insistent club smash “Coma Cat.” Now, with his first proper solo release, Glow, Tensnake makes a full-on disco-R&B move, and with tracks like “Feel of Love” (in collaboration with Madonna producer Stuart Price and electro-R&B crooner Jamie Lidell), he gets brazenly Prince-ly. Plus, he also teams up with his own female foil, Berlin-based singer-songwriter Fiora Cutler, and legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, now having yet another career renaissance after Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
Tensnake chats with us about Glow, his formative years as an Eighties baby, and a mix, On Repeat, that he produced exclusively for Rolling Stone, which is as nastily percolating as his album is delicately moody.
Growing up in Hamburg, how did you end up being such a fan of disco and electro-pop, and end up making music in those styles?
Everyone knows how much I love U.K. electronic pop: Talk Talk, the Human League, and so on. I grew up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to do except listen to music, so the radio was the most exciting thing around me! My older brother was into stuff like [Eighties R&B/soul artists] D-Train, Shalamar and Aurra, and that was the start of my musical journey. When you’re young, those sounds tend to stick. And looking back now, I still feel the same: the music was just so good! The experience of hearing music by Shalamar and Chic seeped in at an early age.
Is it true that you went through a heavy goth phase?
Yes, I was a fan of people like Sisters of Mercy growing up! It’s fair to say I had a “mod” [goth] period before embracing dance-floor-inspired influences from Larry Levan to Junior Boys Own to Romanthony. But thanks to my brother, I also grew up listening to disco, soul, funk, the finer cuts of Eighties pop like Prince, freestyle, boogie, Italo-pop.
You’re always described as making “sunny” or “soothing” music. Has that actually been a goal of yours?
When I was 12 years old, I got a Roland TR-707 drum machine. After that, I started buying synthesizers – and I am still buying synthesizers! So that’s at the core of what I do. [But] when I started making music in 2003, the scene was really about being minimal, and I’d always had this soft spot for disco and boogie stuff, so I had the idea of creating a club sound incorporating all those kinds of elements.
You’ve said you didn’t want Glow to be a “club” album, but some critics have hinted that the album went a little too pop? Does that seem valid or unfair?
I wanted to make my definition of “pop.” I didn’t want to have ten straight club tracks, which is why so many different styles are covered. However, I think it flows nicely, from “First Song,” “Love Sublime” and “No Colour,” right through to “Last Song.”
Fiora is a real focal point on the album. Why was she appealing to you as a collaborator?
She’s incredibly talented, you can hear it straight away – she has soul, she has a sensuality that shines through – check out [Glow‘s] “Good Enough to Keep” and “Kill The Time,” for example. And being classically trained, she brought a real sense of class to the album. Once she was on board, the album came together very easily. I think “58BPM” with Fiora – the tempo and feel – surprised a few people when it was released and that was definitely a deliberate decision. I give credit to Fiora [for using beat-matching as a sexual metaphor], but it was my idea to use the slowed-down LinnDrum on the track, which has a Prince vibe. It really is a primary touchstone on the album.
What was it like working with Nile Rodgers?
I have said before, but it’s true: I couldn’t believe how grounded he was. When I sent him a message on Facebook, I didn’t really expect a reply, but he replied himself 20 minutes later and said he knew my music, that he’d heard “Coma Cat.” This was all before “Get Lucky.” I sent him the music [for Glow] and he called me and said, “Would you mind if I was just your session musician on this track,” which really was amazing!” He has so much energy! He’s 61 and still runs rings around people half his age. And that guitar riff he creates is totally unmistakable. When we finished “Love Sublime,” the first track I thought of was “China Girl” by David Bowie [the 1983 remake of which Rodgers produced and played on].
It seems like Daft Punk’s success must’ve been very encouraging to you, in the run-up to releasing Glow. Did you feel like it might’ve opened some doors (or at least some ears) to what you’re doing?
Random Access Memories is an album people listened to from beginning to end, and I hope that with Glow, people also sit down and listen to it at home from start to finish. It’s obvious that, at least in America, Glow will get some comparisons to RAM. I think Daft Punk did something brave and I would like to think that I tried to approach Glow in a similar mindset. I certainly didn’t know that Nile would end up exploding again thanks to “Get Lucky” and then the rebirth of Chic – who I am supporting at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on May 10th! I cannot wait!
This mix is really fantastic; what were you trying to emphasize with it? The sound is certainly very different from the album…
Thanks! I do a new On Repeat mix quite regularly and the approach is to showcase amazing new music from other artists alongside my own remixes and productions. So it opens with my mix of London Grammar and also includes Jonas Rathsman’s mix of my “Love Sublime,” as well as music and mixes from Henrik Schwarz, Prins Thomas and Nick Curly, all producers I really like and respect.
1. London Grammar – “Hey Now (Tensnake Remix)”
2. Holy Ghost – “Bridge & Tunnel (Prins Thomas Diskomiks)”
3. Tensnake, feat. Fiora – “No Relief”
4. Mighty Mouse – “Shaker Faker”
5. Crackazat – “Candle Coast”
6. Princess Di – “Who’s Dick Is This (Sqim Ghetto Mix)”
7. Jacques Renault – “The Fake Out”
8. Nick Curly – “The Underground (Dennis Ferrer Mix)”
9. Tensnake, feat. Nile Rodgers and Fiora – “Love Sublime (Jonas Rathsman Remix)”
10. Dusky – “9t8”
11. Murr, feat Rosina – “Dive into the Deepest (Maceo Plex Edit)”
12. Psychemagik – “Black Noir Schwarz (Tensnake Remix)”
13. New Jackson – “Jam on Summer”
14. David Herrero – “Bad Day”
15. Chasing Kurt – “From the Inside (Henrik Schwarz Remix)”