DISCO-VERY! SESSION VICTIM
For their second album, Hamburg's disco-sampling duo Session Victim decamped to San Francisco and discovered a new way of working with analogue synths, drum machines and live kit. We talk to them about the ethics of sampling, digging for rare records in SF, the benefits of working in a proper studio, and how to maintain a working relationship without falling out...
It's great dance music is so big now that your mum hums Disclosure. What isn't so great is that because dance music is so popular, everyone is making it. No longer do we all have DJ mates: instead, in 2014, the world and his brother now knows, or probably is, a producer. But just cos you own a cracked copy of Ableton and can get a shallow, plastic track out of it, that doesn't make you an artist. Neither does taking pictures with your iPhone make you a photographer. And just because you've been to the zoo, you certainly aren't a monkey.
It's one thing to sit at home and — after many lost nights and forgotten friendships — finally turn out a kick-drum that sounds exactly like Kerri Chandler, or a bit of reverb that Basic Channel would be proud of. But all that means for any music maker is that they have learnt the language. Now comes the hard part; the part where they start their own conversation with stuff that has personality, texture and a living, breathing sense of realness.
Session Victim have been doing that right off the bat.
Ever since the Hamburg duo of Hauke Freer and Matthias Reiling began releasing back in 2008, they have clearly been on a mission to make music as alive sounding and authentic feeling as the funk, soul and hip-hop on which they grew up. In fact, they had been friends much before 2008 and first met in the '90s. Back then they simply "hung out and played records together" until, one night, Matthias, who had already begun dabbling in production, suggested they make a beat. They did, it went well, and here we are eight years later on the eve of their sophomore album on Delusions of Grandeur.
The first album, 'The Haunted House of House' in 2012, built and expanded upon the feel-good dancefloor house and disco they had been releasing across various EPs for Air London and Hauke's own Retreat label. Between the groovy, drum-led funk of tracks like 'Zoinks' and the still-heavily-rotated disco loops of 'Dark Sienna' were sketchy, soulful interludes full of beachy cool, stoner warmth and melodic bliss. It was a fine attempt at re-capturing the unbridled joy of instrumental dance music from eras past, was one that knitted together like a standalone story with a real sonic fingerprint, and firmly put Session Victim on the map.
"I'm still very content with 'The Haunted House of House'," says Matthias. "That was a great step for us and an extremely intense year writing the music for it. The last weeks of the production were a struggle and tested our friendship quite a bit." Tested but never terminated: in the years since they have become a showcase act on Jimpster's Delusions of Grandeur label as well as a pretty special live duo that regularly plays Fabric. They are also known from London to Lisbon as vinyl-loving DJs that dig deep; DJs who can surprise and entertain, educate and emote with every selection.
"Spending most of the week together and travelling nearly every weekend, there is of course friction," says Hauke of their friendship now, a couple of years after arriving in the spotlight. "Then you have two musicians' egos, so certainly some fights occur. But I think we found a healthy way to have these necessary battles. Soon after, we will have a great DJ set or day in the lab and all is forgotten. The great thing is that we agree on the important things — like music."
Sometime earlier in 2014, they also agreed the time was right for a second album. This one, entitled 'See You When You Get There', is a clear step-up for the old friends. Their passion for sampling, smoky textures and vintage imperfections shines through more than ever and means that the album is doused in a retro nostalgia that really permeates your soul. Far from being pastiche though, this album combines the old with the new in almost imperceptible ways: where the duo's own languid guitar licks, dusty drums and dreamy pads end and the irresistible vocal samples, imperfect percussive patterns and trilling keys start is almost impossible to tell.
Part of the reason for that is the fact the album was made in sessions split between their own Hamburg-based studio and the fully-kitted out Room G studio in San Francisco: quite a step up from the bedroom set-up that birthed their debut, that's for sure. This trans-Atlantic hook-up first came about when mutual friends put Session Victim in touch with the owner of the studio. "We had a coffee and he took us to the place without talking about it at all," remembers Matthias. "We thought it would be a little room with turntables, speakers and maybe a synthesiser, so you can imagine the situation when he opened the door. I still can’t believe he let us in there for three weeks."
What they were faced with was a professional recording studio jam-packed with all sorts of '80s drum machines, synths and Fender Rhodes, that immediately leant their album a whole extra layer of lushness. You can hear expressive little noodles and Balearic licks on the soulful swing of 'Hey Stranger', with a "hush now" vocal sample so smooth it would pacify even the loudest crying baby. The ramshackle DIY drums of 'HYUWEE', too, are aged to perfection, and 'Under Your Spell' is the sort of shamanistic, live-sounding groove-assemblage that Theo Parrish always perfects. Basically, this is grown-up music with a loveable personality.
"I was scared!" Hauke's talking about the first time they entered the serious San Fran studio. "Having access to all this gear, most of it only seen on the net before that night, I thought, 'If we cannot do it here — it is not in us'. Fortunately, on the second day we wrote 'Never Forget' and the pressure disappeared, so we started to enjoy experimenting with all the new equipment."
"It’s actually set up and wired so good that we just had to plug into the desk, and everything was instantly accessible,” Matthias elaborates. “That made it a lot easier than it could have been."
Admitting, on reflection, that after the first album they learnt it's better to admit some ideas are rubbish before you pursue them too long, Hauke also says that full immersion in the writing process is key to get the results you want. The upshot is that, this time, they enjoyed writing the so-called 'difficult second album' more than the first.
"We wrote 'See You When You Get There' in about eight months, and our mutual feeling and flow was, overall, more sustained than with 'The Haunted House of House'," explains Matthias. "Also, this time we had more of an idea where we wanted to go and how we wanted to sound. Right before we left for America for four weeks, we rented a studio in Hamburg where we set up all of mine and some of Hauke’s gear, plus we got ourselves a subwoofer and a few other little things after we moved in. It’s certainly not Room G, but we love the place. That’s where we wrote the other two-thirds of the album."
As is often the case for these long-time friends, Hauke continues the thought perfectly from where his buddy leaves off. " We were struggling to find enough time in 2013 to sit in the studio without a deadline and just experiment. The idea of how the album should sound developed in San Francisco. When we returned to Hamburg with a handful of songs, those pretty much set the tone for the following months of production. We experimented so much there that a certain direction was set and we just had to follow the path."
Unlike fellow Hamburg crew Smallville, where producers like Moomin, Christopher Rau and Lawrence deal in cuddly, cloudy and romantic modern house, there is no mistaking Session Victim's passion for a classic sample. Their love of searching through dollar bins was indulged more than ever for the writing process this time out, because right round the corner from the studio was the Amoeba Music record store. The pair reckon they lost about 14, two to four-hour sessions in there, digging for sound sources that would eventually marble the LP. "What did we sample? Vocals and drums for sure, guitars, pianos, animals, sometimes a break or loop, but mainly little things with good textures.
Plus we pulled out things like Tom Scott’s rare album 'Rural Still Life', and that just doesn’t happen in Hamburg," says Matthias, before agreeing it's important to have sample ethics. "We have a rule set, which we mutually agreed on without having specifically talked about it: sampling is not an excuse for having no ideas or making shortcuts. It just gives you so many opportunities, it is so much nicer to start with a sample, as it injects a certain mood and colour."
"Today's tools have a problem," adds Heuke. "They all sound too good: no noise, no hum, no distortion. This never feels natural, so people expend major effort to inject noise and error in their productions." Is there a line, then, between mindlessly rehashing the past and innovating with a respectful reverence for what has gone before? Surely so, but Session Victim know exactly where it is, and happily live on just the right side."We're trying to make music that creates an intense atmosphere, that draws us in and stimulates the imagination. I try not to think about if it sounds new or old, only if it’s capable of creating a certain amount of vibes."
SESSION VICTIM'S DISCO DYNAMITE
These deeper-than-deep crate diggers have a jam or two up their sleeves, so we asked them to reach up there and pull us out a few of their all-time favourites...
Young MC 'Know How'
“Timeless disco rap classic. When the Shaft loop and that bassline come together, something happens.”
Jan Akkerman 'Devine'
“Straight killer disco tune. Rather cheesy lyrics that, fortunately, fail to spoil the fun. This track screams for an edit!”
Casual T 'Hands Off'
“Perfect song, would have never dared to sample this. Black Madonna recently did and we really enjoy the result.”
Change 'Hold Tight (Danny Krivit Edit)'
“Brilliant edit of a marvellous song. Dropped this so many times and the result is usually smiling faces all around.”
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