ART DEPARTMENT: ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES
Toronto-raised house duo Art Department return with their second album, 'Natural Selection', to show that they've got what it takes to evolve and survive in the competitive world of electronic dance music...
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “natural selection” as “the process by which plants and animals that can adapt to changes in their environment are able to survive and reproduce, while those that cannot adapt do not survive”. Championed by naturalist Charles Darwin “natural selection”, simply put, is a key mechanism of evolution.
This November, Art Department, the two-man Toronto-bred project consisting of tech house devotee Kenny Glasgow and No. 19 label head Jonny White release their second studio LP, the aptly titled 'Natural Selection'.
“We really wanted to come up with a name that would depict us writing an album that was looking to explain how we had evolved since the first album — as people, as artists, even with our relationship in the band,” explains White from Barcelona, where he currently resides, while Glasgow splits his time between London and their native Toronto.
That first album was 2011’s 11-track 'The Drawing Board', featuring the group’s near-perfectly-received breakthrough B-side 'Without You'. Released on Crosstown Rebels the year prior, the track was a mesmerising-yet-subtle deep house burner propelled by hypnotic bass. It created a new pulse that catapulted the duo to the top tier of dark, deep house fame.
“Our lives have changed so drastically since the success of 'The Drawing Board' in terms of touring, travelling and the pace at which we live,” continues White. “It’s a fast, crazy life. We’re like circus animals. Literally, [two days ago] I had an operation done that is going to keep me on the road for a couple more months so I can finish an album tour instead of taking off two months to have a surgery that should actually fix the problem. It’s just a crazy life and we’ve evolved a ton as humans, the relationship between the music and everything. We were just looking for a name that would say that.”
The beauty in Art Department lies in not saying too much at all. This is a bit ironic given Glasgow’s and White’s very diverse and rich music backgrounds, with the former growing up on gospel and church music, and the latter on hip-hop, rock and other record store genres. “Art Department is that all coming together,” says White of the musical melting pot.
Glasgow and White have been acquaintances since White was a teen hungry to join the Toronto music scene where Glasgow was already ”pretty much the biggest local DJ in house and techno”, according to White. It would be a New Year’s Day many years later, in Toronto, spent out of their minds at their friends’ Jazz & Mel's house, carrying on from the New Year’s party the night before, when the two first discussed the idea of starting a collaborative project together.
Their first official collaboration together came in 2009 with their remix of Riz MC’s 'Don’t Sleep' for Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels label. The track was a modern day, ultra cool answer to all things funk and groove, with deep house and hi-hat bounce patiently building over psychedelic techno. This remix was “where we discovered this sound that came from our working together” says White.
Their debut LP for Crosstown Rebels came after Lazarus heard two of their earliest productions — 'Vampire Nightclub' and 'Living the Life', the latter featuring their longtime pal and fellow DJ Seth Troxler — at the first gig that they were officially billed with the name Art Department on the flyer. Acclaim, tours and a few trips to Burning Man followed, including the most recent one in 2014 where White dislocated his shoulder after scaling the Robot Heart dance bus to stoically grab pal and No. 19 artist Deniz Kurtel’s gear. (“I landed on my feet like a cat,” recounts White, “but the way my arm had ripped out of my socket it looked like my shoulder was coming out of my chest”).
According to natural selection one must adapt to stay alive. It’s survival of the fittest, so to speak. Sick of getting “shit on” for sounding the same, Art Department have decided to go in a different direction with their sophomore studio LP. Dare we say more artsy? The duo reunited in their native Toronto to work on what would become 'Natural Selection'. Hoping to work from start to finish on the project, Glasgow and White spilt up again in their Canadian homeland and worked separately until it was time to piece everything together.
Art Department’s 'Natural Selection' is not the dance record that 'The Drawing Board' is. In fact, there’s only one dance track on the LP according to White, the techno banger 'The Hunt'. “It wasn’t like we needed a dance track on the album, it was more to say we are still doing dance records and this is real music as well,” White says. “We wanted to put a techno record in there, in that context, in the middle of a record where you wouldn’t expect to hear a techno record in.”
From the early rumblings of 'Natural Selection', Art Department prove that they’re not afraid to adapt for survival. 'The Agent' attempts to unlock one’s higher consciousness, according to White, both lyrically and sonically. 'Natural Selection Intro', the LP's first track, pulls you in with its dark and brooding bassline, like the beginning of a never-ending journey, where one of us might not be coming back. The track was reverse-inspired by Daft Punk’s most recent album, 'Random Access Memories'.
“It was the day the Daft Punk album had just gone on iTunes for a pre-listen and you could stream the entire album,” recalls White of the track’s birth. “Being lifelong Daft Punk fans and looking to them as these guys who set the bar in terms of classic albums and pushing things forward, I was super-excited and got into my studio, went to iTunes and listened to the new album. There are some songs on there that are absolutely great and the production is so unbelievable… but it wasn’t initially what I had been hoping for — the dramatic, amazing album that I wanted to hear from Daft Punk in the beginning.
The majority of the album didn’t catch me the way I wanted it to. I literally turned it off and hooked everything up and started working and made this thing that is as dramatic as I hoped for. Now, I don’t want to compare Art Department to Daft Punk, that’s just ludicrous, but that’s actually what inspired that intro record. It was just sort of the drama and the cinematic feel that I wanted to feel when I was listening to the Daft Punk album for the first time. Not that I didn’t like Daft Punk’s project, it just made me want to write something that I wanted to hear.”
But the entire album isn’t a mutation of species for Art Department, per se. Seth Troxler, for one, is featured on 'Cruel Intentions' and 'It’s Through' was actually a record that the duo wrote during 'The Drawing Board' sessions.
“It’s an old song,” says White. “We were writing this record that was so different, and we are still aware of the fact that there are a lot of people out there that are just finding out about songs out there like ‘Without You.’ We still want to give fans that Art Department feeling that a lot of people are looking for, instead of going completely leftfield and surprising the shit out of everybody, which I think we kind of do as well on the album. We went back to 'It’s Through' and recreated it. It still kind of has that first album sound, that ‘Without You’ sound.”
Art Department’s 'Natural Selection' will be released on White’s No. 19 label
“bringing everything full circle to what started all this,” he says. “Where we released the last album on Crosstown Rebels, it’s really exciting to be releasing our own project on our own label. This will be a true testament to the musical evolution of the project so we're curious to see how it will be received.”
Other projects at No. 19 include the next 'Social Experiment' mix compilation, being mixed by Dennis Ferrer, an “incredible” record from Ralph Lawson for early next year, and a lot of big remixes for the new Art Department album.
“Having a record label has been a labour of love,” says White. “I just want to be able to look back and be like, ‘We got a catalogue of really great music that’s going to stand the test of time.”
As for Art Department, 'Natural Selection' proves that evolution is a beautiful thing.
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