Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Citizenn is Laurence Blake, who previously recorded a Dummy Mix under his old moniker, Citizen. A London-based producer of deep, soulful, unpretentious house music, Blake has released records with the likes of Love Fever and Kerri Chandler's Madtech Records. His latest single, BE, comes via 2020 Vision and features the dynamite vocals of former Azari & III member S.Y.F., aka Starving Yet Full.
Hercules & Love Affair announced themselves to the world in 2007 with the Classique #2 / Roar 12" for DFA Records. A rotating cast of musicians, vocalists, and performers led by Andrew Butler, Hercules & Love Affair's three albums over the past six years have cleverly adopted vintage house, techno, and disco tropes without watering down the queer identity that these genres were built on. Re-energising these older styles are sterling vocal performances, with the likes of Antony Hegarty, Kim Ann Foxman, and Nomi Ruiz appearing early on early Herclues records, with further turns over the years coming from Shaun Wright, Kele Okereke, and John Grant.
Following Hercules & Love Affair's recent remix of Citizenn's BE, the two sat down (well, chatted over Skype) for a head-to-head, touching on their admiration for each other's music, the "cold soul" of Blake Baxter, and the unbeatable feeling of hearing a vocalist bring your song to life.
Citizenn: "I've been a pretty big fan of Hercules & Love Affair from way back in the DFA days, when I got my hands on the Classique #2 / Roar record, which were staples at the night I used to run at Bungalow 8 in Central [London]. I remember seeing them for the first time at the O2 arena, touring the self-titled album, and it being a pretty life-affirming experience. Fast forward a few years and a mutual friend put us in touch after I sent a hit list for remixers to potentially remix my next record. Andy was in the wishlist under the 'no chance' category. Turns out he was feeling the material and the rest is history, I guess."
Hercules & Love Affair: "So I had been familiar with Laurence's output via the Love Fever crew and some rumbles about Kerri Chandler hand-picking a young upstart. I dove into what he was doing. Upon listening I was taken by the ability to create big room techno vibes with proper soul injected into the mix. Techno and soul mixing is fascination street for me."
Citizenn: "Sometimes techno and soul can be so compartmentalised – but they have this affinity with one another. They come from the same places."
Hercules & Love Affair: "I agree – cold soul is a thing!
"I was particularly keen on his use of plate-y reverbs. Very well-placed and controlled, creating monstrous landscapes. So then I met him and was pleasantly surprised to find a playful pup attached to the output!
"Laurence can evoke my favorite house and techno legend, Blake Baxter, at times, with the use of spoken sexytime vox with deep, industrial textures."
Citizenn: "Baxter is a god. When A Thought Becomes U is like my afterparty anthem."
Hercules & Love Affair: "There is an earnestness to Laurence's work – it feels like he takes dance music ‘seriously' – and he has a sound signature already. Sorry to talk like you aren't here – but you are only here virtually, Laurence."
Citizenn: "What really grabbed me about Andy's work as Hercules & Love affair was that I'd never heard (excuse the music journo aping) retro-futurism done like that before. It sounded like a movement the first time I heard Roar, for example – I can't remember the last time a track made me think there was a movement attached to it – and it's kinda just stayed like that from release to release. You know it's them, they're coming – it's rare."
Hercules & Love Affair: "I think people forget about the very first release – Classique and Roar. That was me going into the ‘murk' and the slo-mo techno worlds that I got to return to again in the past couple of years."
"[Citizenn] can evoke my favorite house and techno legend, Blake Baxter, at times, with the use of spoken sexytime vox with deep, industrial textures." – Hercules & Love Affair
The early years
Citizenn: "I was always curious is that where the story actually begins, release-wise? There aren't any skeletons in the closet or anything, or earlier appearances?"
Hercules & Love Affair: "First release: yes."
Citizenn: "Amazing. Pretty much the blueprint would you say?"
Hercules & Love Affair: "I had done a ‘version' of Hercules – another collective art project primarily expressed in music – with another crew of NYC kids. But that was more informed by new wave and punk, I'd say."
Citizenn: "I mean it [Classique #2 / Roar] inspired me to start producing and looking backwards. Couldn't think of a more perfect home than DFA for that period."
Hercules & Love Affair: "It was def the ‘only' place. I mean, Gigolo [International Deejay Gigolo Records] in Berlin was still kind of happening."
Citizenn: "DJ Hell's thing?"
Hercules & Love Affair: "Yes. But DFA was like the punky kids that were open to disco and house. And I was like a queer house head kid that was obsessed with disco records at the time working with a singer [Antony Hegarty] who happened to be an unlikely pop star. Or had a crowning moment in the UK. It was all kind of right time, right place."
Citizenn: "It could have manifested in so many different ways – the creation just sounds limitless there."
Hercules & Love Affair: "You were in school at the time? Focused on visual/video?"
Citizenn: "Yeah, when I first got that record I was in my first year at uni doing fashion marketing, with music videos on the side for a couple of majors and some mates. That was a particularly amazing period, actually – everyone in the scene was in their formative stages doing first or early projects, experimenting with sound and location. Location at that point was a huge part of it. London was, and still is, the cultural mecca of the UK, IMO, but then you had all these regional kids coming down and bringing their influences and attitudes to the boil."
Hercules & Love Affair: "Do you think visually about your music? I have been looking at some vids for your own tracks recently."
Citizenn: "I had a period of thinking visually about my music – moreso when directing was my main passion and music production was secondary. I would have a drum loop going and think about that time I was in Fabric and the hi-hats were bouncing off the walls in a certain way and the cute chick keeps pushing in front of everyone at the bar and she's Irish – nonchalance, but loudly. It would influence most things. I like things to have a certain element of cinema and life."
"I had a period of thinking visually about my music. I would have a drum loop going and think about that time I was in Fabric and the hi-hats were bouncing off the walls in a certain way and the cute chick keeps pushing in front of everyone at the bar and she's Irish." – Citizenn
Hercules & Love Affair: "Was it exciting bring on the studio with Cedric [Gasaida, aka S.Y.F.]? I adore his voice – find him very inspiring."
Citizenn: "Oh man, Cedric – where do I start?"
Hercules & Love Affair: "I look forward to the moment I get into a studio with S.Y.F.! I imagine ideas pouring out."
Citizenn: "He's a ball of energy and completely genuine. I think we hit it off straight away. I met him at an afterparty after Circoloco a couple of New Years Days ago and talked and talked about going into the studio together until eventually our heads were brought together by a mutual friend and we went to work. I think we had a couple of sessions and made a couple of tracks – BE being one of them, of course. It all happened super quick. We spent more time hanging out than we did in the studio. He really is one of a kind. His work with Azari & III was the first thing that drew me to him. He is like our generation's Robert Owens, to me."
Hercules & Love Affair: "Right on. I was impressed. I think what you two did has an epic and classic/classical quality to it – meant in the best sense. Twisting/turning/tense, refusing resolve. Vocals and strings."
Citizenn: "Thanks. That really wasn't intentional. Fooling around with the Korg M1 trying to stay away from the 'vibes' preset and those lush strings came up. I really have to put that thing down, I abuse it far too often."
Hercules & Love Affair: "It's the cheesiest and most recognizable synth – all about using it well. I agree about Cedric. Azari were so fresh, the real deal, and Cedric has the effortlessness about his voice. That 'smooth brassiness' – and coupled with the visual – his physical presence and beauty – when I first saw him I was like, 'Okay, we are in for it. And she/Azari delivered. You did more for the album with S.Y.F., no?"
Citizenn: "Oh man, effortless is an understatement. First take I had my back turned to him, the metronome counts down 1,2,3,4 – LIKE A THIIIIEF IIIN THE NIIIIGHT…. I thought the guy was stood on top of a mountain with a megaphone while bald eagles were circling in the Canadian wilderness… Dude was sat down."
Hercules & Love Affair: "Amazing, I can only imagine. I love it when a singer turns you out in the studio. It is so exciting. I live for that creative moment when words on paper and an instrumental track come alive. I have had serious serotonin shock."
Citizenn: "Your vocal roster is nuuuuuuuts! Stef [Caers, aka Gustaph] and Rouge [Mary] are amazziiing."
"I love it when a singer turns you out in the studio. I live for that creative moment when words on paper and an instrumental track come alive. " – Hercules & Love Affair
Hercules & Love Affair: "Do you have some guests on the full length? Can you disclose already, or is that for another time?"
Citizenn: "I do have some guests on the full length. I worked with probably my favourite UK vocalist, Py, on a track. She is another amazing talent and has a record coming out soon independently that takes the piss out of everything in its immediate vicinity, it's that good."
Hercules & Love Affair: "And how was that experience different for you than Cedric? Because different singer = different process. It's not always easy breezy, but the different personalities and work styles is what makes it so enriching, outside of the different voices."
Citizenn: "I think it was quite similar, you know. They are both just effortless – they make it look easy. They both write super quick, toplines just pour out of them like it's going out of style, and they like to have input into the sound of the track and how vocals are processed. They are both very educated and talented musicians – they don't just turn up and sing."
Hercules & Love Affair: "Another great collab, then."
Citizenn: "Definitely! Yes. I'll send it onto you to listen after your vacation. How was the studio process on your new album? Congrats by the way, it's a keeper."
Hercules & Love Affair: "Well, each of the singers this time around were, as you described, educated and opinionated about their vocal presentation, though with different amounts of experience in studio – one of them was primarily a live singer before this. Extremely able, capable. Two were used to their voices on electronic music, but ultimately they all found their comfort levels and we achieved great stuff. I was so lucky to have monster voices on this last record."
Citizenn: "Yes, you did! How long did the whole process take? On all of your albums there is this incredibly tight and cohesive finish that makes me think from the first note that you knew what the whole thing was going to sound like that. How far off the mark am I with that assumption?"
Hercules & Love Affair: "I had a clear idea at one moment after a lot of experimentation. It initially felt like I was going to explore darker louder and softer sonic places. But at one moment, upon making a more direct, almost pop-oriented house track, the spirit took me in a different place… I'm kind of returning to those more extreme dynamics now, it seems. I'm lucky as a duck to have anyone who loves me."
2020 Vision released Citizenn's new single BE on February 23rd 2015 (buy).
mr. intl release Andy Butler's new single You Can Shine via Beatport on March 16th 2015 (buy).