Danny Tenaglia interview: New York State Of Mind

Read our Danny Tenaglia interview where Marko Kutlesa chats with the legendary don of NYC house.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 29th Aug 2018.
Originally published: 8th Aug 2018

Image: Danny Tenaglia (source)

Award-winning DJ and producer Danny Tenaglia is one of the biggest names to have broken out of New York's DJ scene. American and of Italian descent, he grew up in Williamsburg and took his earliest clubbing inspirations from Paradise Garage, becoming a DJ himself in the 70s.

However, it wasn't until the 90s that he broke into the big time via famed residencies at New York clubs like Twilo and Vinyl, a distinct hard yet soulful sound displayed on singles like 'Music Is The Answer' and on his remixes for the likes of Tribal Records, Jamiroquai, Depeche Mode, Green Velvet and Kings Of Tomorrow.

Tenaglia maintains his position in the top flight of DJs to this day proving an ever-popular draw for his sometimes marathon length sets on Ibiza and elsewhere internationally. Ahead of a return to the UK at Egg London on Saturday 22nd September, we chatted with the iconic selector.

 

Inclusiveness is something that seems to have been important to you. Which of your residencies held the best and broadest demographic and how do the audiences you play to today compare?

Ooh. That last part. Haha. Well, my favourite residency for sure was the last one, at Vinyl, which closed as a club called Arc. That lasted five years and four months. What made that different, so unique, was that it was like my version of Paradise Garage because there was no liquor. The club hours were 12 midnight until noon. And when you have a party like that with no liquor it really stands alone.

The only other things that were going on in town were all slowly closing, The Roxy, The Tunnel, Twilo, Sound Factory (which had moved to 46th Street and become Pacha). All of them got closed down and, surprisingly, we never did. And I think that was because of the liquor and drug factor, which was slowly starting to make its way to Vinyl because the others had closed.

What really closed that club down was the owners of the building deciding that it was time to sell, even though they were super rich. That's why they'd kept it all those years. They didn't need to make money.

I don't know if you're familiar with it, but there was Body & Soul on Sundays, I was there on Fridays, but its history went all the way back to the 80s when it was opened as a club called Area, which was a very chic, artistic club. They kept changing the design. It wasn't over fancy, like Studio 54. Elite. I think the owner's father was an artist. He used to raise wolves on the roof of the building. 

Their family owned a lot of property in Tribeca. Really, really big money. So, the two owners, who were brothers, when they were just rug rats they used to be able to go to the club, see all the changes. It was part of their lives. But once the city started closing all the other places down, because of drugs, violence, they thought it was time. They said they needed to close before they were forced to close down. They sold it to condominiums. 

What made it so special for me was that they gave me total control. We shared the night. It was a family, unlike anywhere else I've ever played. It didn't feel corporate and structured. It was purely about the party, the people, the sound. It wasn't about elegance or fancy lighting.

For a lot of people growing up in New York in the 70s and 80s, that was the last one left. No one's seen a club like that since. There hasn't been a club where you could go and see the same residency, like that since it closed. Very sad. There isn't anything left in Manhattan any more. 

The sound you emerged with in the early to mid-90s was different to a lot of the house music that was going on in New York at the time. Where did you take your inspiration from to do that? Did your previous residency in Miami have any influence over that?

No. I lived in Miami from 85 – 90, but I was a DJ for many years before I moved to Miami, so my influences on the soulful side were Motown, Philadelphia and then it became disco. That's when I started working in clubs in Brooklyn. I was 17 years old.

The reason I ask is, when I think of New York in the early 90s, not to forget New Jersey which was something different, but that sound was sometimes very jazz influenced and soulful, Masters At Work, Blaze, Nu Groove, early Kerri Chandler. There was a distinctness of sound between New York, Chicago and Detroit. But your sound was a little bit different, so why was that?

I think my childhood. Loving bands like Cream and Pink Floyd, but loving soulful stuff more. I would really get a kick of me dancing around the house to anything Motown, Jackson 5, 'Soul Makossa', Isley Brothers. I was a frustrated musician. I always wanted to play the piano. Tried that. And guitar lessons. But I couldn't deal with the discipline of it. I was just a child of 9 or 10. Then I discovered DJing at 12. 

I would listen to orchestration. Frank Sinatra and stuff that a traditional Italian family would listen to in the holidays. Doo Wop. I would remember it all. My initial breakthrough was disco, 1977, Cerrone, Moroder, Thelma Houston. I lived it, I breathed it. When house music from Chicago started to hit in the mid-80s I was loving it, but I wasn't having any luck as a DJ. So, I moved to Miami.

I got a gig in a club that was open seven nights a week and I would play three or four of them. I got to do my thing there, even though I had to play what was some really obvious stuff, Taylor Dayne, Rick Astley, Erasure. But a lot of people were doing house mixes and I enjoyed it. I was in my 20s. I was able to play Farley Jackmaster, Marshall Jefferson and Todd Terry because I'd figured a way to fuse it with the other stuff and, if I saw them getting bored, I'd be able to bring it back to something more commercial.

At that time I also got turned onto industrial, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, bands like that. The drum machines were very similar to house music, so I brought that in too. What really made it work though was that in Miami we were the only club that was able to stay open until 7 am. All the other clubs had to close at 3 am.

So, we had this really mixed audience of gay, straight, industrial, old, young. For that last three or four hours I really had them in the palm of my hand. I could play MFSB 'Love Is The Message', Donna Summer. I would play 'Bamboleo' and the whole place would sing. Nobody else was really introducing house music to Miami. People do always say that. The Winter Music Conference helped that too. That really boosted my career too.

When I moved back to New York in 1990 it was because I was being offered a lot of remixes to do, Shakespeare's Sister, Double Dee, Right Said Fred and all the rave sound of people like Frankie Bones was starting to come through in a harder way. Todd Terry was big and his drums were harder and stronger. And I had that industrial side too.

For the most part, the early remixes I started to do were pretty soulful. But I found I wasn't having luck with that. Louie Vega, Frankie (Knuckles), Roger Sanchez would all get my records and I was thinking “I really thought they would play this!”. But they didn't.

If I could mention just one of many names, DJ Pierre. He was doing things in a really different way with his Wild Pitch sound. It was fiercer. People like Farley and Heller were also starting to punch it a little harder, so I started to embrace the progressive thing that was coming mainly from England. I was like a sponge, absorbing it all. 

I remixed a song by New Order ''World (The Price Of Love)' and the versions I did were rejected by Warner Brothers. That was really the start of it for me because I asked for permission to use what I'd done, but removing the vocal. They said go ahead. That became 'Bottom Heavy', the first single I did that really got me a lot of attention. That's when the phone started ringing. That's when I started to travel.

Great that a positive came out of a negative!

Yeah. Thank you New Order.

Keeping the mindset in the mid-90s for another question... From the mid-70s to the mid-90s there was an established gospel element to a lot of vocals in dance music. Singers who could really belt it out. Some of your own vocal productions from the period featured voices that were a little more muted.

Your tracks weren't necessarily hitting the highs of the crescendo records like a Chaka Khan, Loleatta Holloway, Salsoul or Philly International record might be. Like you say, you'd absorbed that progressive vibe. Since that time, those big vocals have almost disappeared from the landscape in contemporary dance productions. Dancefloor vocals now are often very intimate sounding. Has the dancefloor lost its connection to gospel? Why? 

This is a great question. The most honest answer I can give you, from my heart, is that not alone from the dancers but also from the singers, I don't think anybody goes to church any more. I think that's at the heart of what became missing. 

So many voices I could mention... Martha Wash, Adeva, nobody gives that gospel feeling any more. Well, some do, but it's not in the same nature. When you listen to 'Stand On The Word' or 'Let My People Go', or records by The Winans or The Clark Sisters, it's different.

That's why I say that in dance music there wasn't anybody who could touch Loleta Holloway. No one. Not even Patti LaBelle, who's unique in her own way, but who hasn't had those dancefloor hits like Loletta did on Salsoul. That one performance in 'Hit and Run'. You can't touch it. I can't say that I know all of the new music that comes out, but I think if something like that, that was really good, came out, I would know about it.

Because I was raised Christian, Catholic, I think maybe that was part of why I embraced that so much. But, as the years have passed and I'm getting all these promos, I've seen it start to diminish. 

Look where Kerri Chandler is now. Kerri's done some great stuff. People sometimes tell me, oh, you're playing hard now, you used to be into deep house, all that. Yeah, but if I played deep house now I wouldn't be able to pay my rent! I'd have to get a second job. And, besides, I honestly love techno. It inspires me, it motivates me. Soulful house works with my emotions, techno works with my creativity. 

You lived in a vast loft in Queens for a decade. What was the view like from the windows of your apartment? In which area do you currently live? 

I was in the loft for 15 years. I was in the studio, mixing a gospel song actually; 'Finally' by Kings Of Tomorrow. I was living in Queens at the time and while we were mixing, we got the news the Twin Towers had come down. We all went upstairs, looking out the window at all the smoke because we were quite close to Manhattan. It was as shocking as you can imagine. We had to then go and finish the song. The lyrics were about meeting the singer's partner after they'd gone to the next life. 

I was still a resident at Vinyl at the time, but they wanted to sell the soundsystem. So, I bought it. And then thought, where am I going to put it? I had just turned 40 and I guess partly because of what had happened on 09/11, I just thought, I'm going to live. I'm going to do it now. I'm going to buy this soundsystem and rent this huge loft to put it in and I'm going to live there. Like a successful basketball player might want a basketball court at the back of his house, I wanted a club in mine. 

The view was amazing from the roof, which I had access to. You could see all of Manhattan, a major panoramic view. To my right was the 59th Street Bridge, you could see the Empire State Building, the Williamsburg Bridge. Now I'm still pretty close to Williamsburg, which is where I grew up. I'm on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Astoria. I'm very close to LaGuardia airport. 

 

Outside of great club space Output, where you play quite often, what's your perspective on the way Williamsburg, where you grew up, has changed?

I guess like everywhere else, you go back and so much of it doesn't look familiar because of the new structures that have gone up. Especially on the water's edge. It's just towers of condominiums and hotels, continuing constructions, cranes. I embrace it. I don't think it's a bad thing. I just think it's a shame that it's so overpriced. Several thousand a month to rent or a few million to buy. 

In your travels, have you ever visited the exact area of Italy the older generations of your family, such as your grandparents, came from?

I haven't. Honestly, I can't even tell you exactly where that is because, unfortunately, I didn't really get to know my grandparents. I knew my dad's mom. She passed when I was 14. She spoke Italian and we never learned it. I didn't get to meet my other grandparents, they all died young. 

I know that from my mother's side, which is the bigger side of my family (she's one of nine children), they're the Napoli, boisterous side. My dad's side of the family are more reserved. They're from Tirol, in the north. Where I got my sense of entertainment from was my mom's side. They would play guitars, accordions, spoons, it was really quite festive when they had their gatherings. 

You started to tour around more as a DJ in the early 90s and met a lot of other DJs. Which DJs, in particular, taught you valuable lessons or changed/influenced your style?

I was already back in New York in 1993 and had done a bunch of remixes of The Daou 'Surrender Yourself'. The first trip I did was I went to Italy with Kerri Chandler. We did Rimini, Rome and Naples. That was somewhat of a life-changing experience for me. Naples was the best of the three. Claudio Coccoluto was the resident DJ. I think that was quite important for being able to embrace differences. I was only really used to my residencies. I got to hear DJs playing tunes I didn't even know and saw the crowds erupting.

Over the years I've learned from everyone, including Laurent Garnier, Sasha, Digweed, DJ Pierre. The biggest I would have to say would be Carl Cox. When I started my residency at Twilo in 96 I was starting to embrace some of the harder things that were coming out on labels like Drumcode. But it was so fast back then, some were above 140bpm.

So, I would pitch them down to -8, burn them to a CD and then play them even slower. When I started to play and hear Carl though it really started to increase my appreciation for tech house. My ears really became attuned to what he was playing.

You've said goodbye to or even killed off some quite significant residencies over the years. Are you always 100% confident when doing so? Is there never the worry that the future may be less successful?

It's 360. Everything has changed 100% from when I first started. I don't ever expect it to go back to what I initially experienced, what I was motivated by, with The Loft, the Garage, the Inferno, Better Days. It's never going to be that way again. It's impossible.

We went through so many genres. House became this and that. Raves came through. 6–10 DJs per party. That became the norm. 

Yeah, the landscape has changed so much I guess it's almost pointless referring to the past.

Look at Vegas. The billboards used to be filled with David Copperfield or Cher. Now it's Avicii, Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki. It really has changed drastically.

In many previous interviews, you've spoken about going to Paradise Garage and how much of an influence Larry Levan was on you. But did you ever go to The Saint? 

Oh, yeah. It was not my cup of tea musically. I knew of the DJs, I knew of the music because as a young DJ I was in the shops regularly. I worked in a gay club on 39th Street Manhattan from around 1981 to around 1983 and I had to play some of that music. It was similar to Miami in that I got to play some of the soulful stuff but I had to play some of the hi-energy stuff to make them dance.

I often got invited to go there and when I did, just the experience was amazing. Being in that building and looking around. It was almost unbelievable. But, the party itself, I didn't really care for. What can I say? I was always a soulful child. One musical aspect of The Saint, which was also present at the Garage, was the slower tempo stuff they would play in the morning. That midtempo pace is something that Tony Humphries was also occasionally known for on the radio and at Zanzibar.

That sound is something that doesn't fit well in a festival or club weekender format when big billed DJs might be allocated only two hours to play and have to start from the last DJ's peak time track and a raging crowd. Have contemporary audiences lost the schooling to be able to connect to this sound (which, for me, is almost a bridge between R&B and dance music), if they are exposed to it?

On this side of the pond, it's called downtempo. Midtempo would be 118bpm and above. At The Saint that particular sound was known as sleaze and DJs would argue about who was going to play the sleaze set. I would hear stories about it which would make me laugh. That would be the end of the night when the energy would come down. That's how we did it.

There was a lot of it, classic Saint sleaze music, which was so far from gospel or soulful. It might be kinda soulful, in its own way, but to me, some of it was corny stuff. Yeah, there might have been a Melba Moore or a Thelma Houston track in there, but there was a lot of really cheesy ones. You could probably Google Saint playlists and see more of these specific records. They're all popping into my head now. Don't do this to me!

Hahaha! Well, that downtempo sound, as you call it, is not something that I hear around so much nowadays. Do you think it's not really part of our culture anymore?

I think it's probably gone. Soulful downtempo music has almost entirely become hip hop/R&B. Back then you could have played Marvin Gaye and it would have a groove. I worked in a roller disco and I was really into that sound. Rene & Angela, Roberta Flack, I could name many.

When I was young it was the music my mother would listen to, so someone now who has been raised on techno, trance, EDM listening to that? Very few would get hearing something like Two Tons Of Fun 'Just Us'. It goes back to what we were saying about that church sound being absent.

You stated in a previous interview that once your summer touring had ended, late 2017 would see you begin to work on a series of collaborations with others. Where are you up to with those projects and who exactly will you be working with?

I'm just about to meet up with an engineer called Phil Moffa, who I'm really excited about working with. He's also a teacher, he teaches kids about drum machines and engineering. He's a specialist.

As far as others, there are so many I'd like to work with. Quite recently I did a remix of Carl Cox and Nicole Moudaber. I hadn't done a remix in a while and I was wrestling which direction to take it in. So, I'm still trying to find my new direction.

In 2011 I started with a bunch of collaborations, but they all ended up on the shelf. I had just gone through a whole bunch of stuff, losing my mom and my aunt and I lost my motivation. But I have collaborations on the wall with Cevin Fisher, Chus & Ceballos, Nicole Moudaber and several tracks like my version of 'Gypsy Woman' that I've played a few times, like on my Boiler Room.

But some of these records are like deep house me, yet I'm currently making my living playing techno, so I feel like if I put them out then maybe I will be confusing this audience with what I'm about. That's why I'm excited about working with Phil. He likes deep house, techno and tribal rhythms, so I'm hoping we'll be able to fuse all that. 

Danny Tenaglia plays Egg London on Saturday 22nd September - find Danny Tenaglia London tickets below 

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