Dennis Ferrer interview: Calmer chameleon

Mark Dale spoke with Dennis Ferrer about his own label, predestination, global collaborations and much more ahead of his New Year's gigs.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 16th Dec 2015

Image: Electric Island Toronto and Ded Pixel Photography

Dennis Ferrer has, in recent years, sat amongst the top flight of international DJs, his name frequently billed at some of the best festivals and in clubbing capitals like London, Berlin and Ibiza. But his success was no overnight occurrence, Dennis Ferrer put the hours in to get to where he is today.

He spent the 1990s very much under the radar, learning his craft as a producer and initially operating in the genres of techno and electronica alongside names like Damon Wild and Pete Namlook

In the mid nineties he changed tack, a move he has used several times since and that his current standing can, at least in part, be attributed to. He hooked up with fellow New York producers Jerome Sydenham and Kerri Chandler, exploring new areas of house music in differing combinations of collaborative efforts with the pair, first on Sydenham's Ibadan Records, then on Chandler and Ferrer's Sfere Records.

On Ibadan they produced variants of afro house, sometimes displaying evidence of Ferrer's techno roots such as on Ferrer and Sydenham's hit 'Sandcastles'. Sfere, meanwhile, became known for a soulful, vocal house sound. 

Moving on from 'Sandcastles', Ferrer became an in demand remixer with Blaze & Barbara Tucker's 'Most Precious Love' and Fish Go Deep's 'The Cure & The Cause' being two early, well received moments.

His own productions 'Son of Raw', 'Transitions', 'P2DaJ', 'Sinfonia Della Notte', 'The Red Room', 'No Difference' and 'Underground' have helped cement his reputation on the underground and 2009's vocal smash 'Hey Hey', which was recorded for his own Objektivity imprint, became his biggest solo track to date.

Since its release Dennis Ferrer has moved with current trends, shying away from much of the soulful, vocal house that early supporters associated him with. Not that he has shyed away from producing vocals. He has produced two amazing tracks using the voice of Norwegian singer Ane Brun and received a Grammy nomination for a remix of Dido.

But these vocal tracks are far from the garage and disco endebted fayre of old, instead they display a more minimal, reserved and electronic edge, echoing current dancefloor trends and showing Ferrer utilising elements of each of the genres he has operated in to create something very contemporary and very new.

His recent DJ sets have also displayed the same minimal, techno edged and sometimes dark mood of these productions. They sound fresh while citing the influence of the earliest, basic Chicago house and, as such, these sets are perfectly in tune with today's best, large contemporary dancefloors.

We recently caught up with a relaxed Dennis Ferrer whilst he was having a rare week off from his music. Having been a little burned out by the end of a summer season that saw him play around 20 dates in 30 days (including many Ibiza appearances), Mr Ferrer was just on his way to pick up his dream car when we spoke on the phone about some of the transitions he has made and his continuing journey in dance music.

How do you decide what material you produce will come out on Objektivity and what will come out on other labels?

With me, there really isn't a set way of doing things. I'm like the social butterfly, running around, footloose and fancy free. It annoys the hell out of everybody else who's used to structured life, but I'm always more a feeling type of person. So I do whatever I feel is right at the moment. My whole life has been like that, I don't mess with that.

I'm a true believer that if things are supposed to happen they're gonna happen. If it's meant to be it's meant to be. So, if I were to sit here and go, I have to do this record, or, this is the record I'm gonna put out, I'd be limiting myself, pigeonholing myself. You're setting boundaries that sometimes just aren't realistic. I've never believed in that.

I've always worked thinking, if this record feels good at the time, and this is what people are playing, I'm going with it. nine times out of ten I'm right, my gut feeling is usually dead on.

So you believe that things in life are predestined? 

Well, you know, with my background... I've had a lot of luck. Like someone's watching over me. It's always been that way. You can plan all you want, but like the old adage, men plan and God laughs. 

I interviewed Osunlade the other week and he shares similar views to you on predestination. The problem I have with it is predestination removes the need for effort.

Well, that's up to the individual, it depends where they see themselves. Since I was young I always wanted to be the star, the head guy, the one everyone's always cheering at. That hasn't changed just because I got older, that's what I strive for, but I still believe in destiny.

Some people say you can make your own destiny. I'm not too sure about that. I think being successful in the music business is a lottery, just like life. There are too many factors. I know tonnes of people who are amazingly talented but who can't make a dent. My whole life's been a lottery, as I see it, and I've been really blessed. 

You used to share studio space with Kerri and Jerome. Do you think that close proximity affected each others sound and drive?

Of course. I first learned production from Tetsu Inoue, who used to work under Peter Namlook, who was like the ambient king back then. I did two albums with Tetsu, then one with Damon Wild from Synewave.

I think each time I shacked up with these guys it was definitely some form of competition. New Yorkers have that competitive drive where, even when it's with friends, you wanna do better than them. With Kerri it was a constant battle. And he'd took me in!

But it doesn't only apply to the people you work with, it's also the records you hear. I remember back in the early 2000s being pissed off hearing records by Osunlade because they were so amazing. I'd like erase the last 10 songs on my hard drive and start all over again. I'm a very competitive person by nature. I think making these records you have to be, there's so much amazing talent out there. 

From competition came education, everyone pushed each other, Kerri, Jerome and me. I learned how to arrange records properly from Jerome, he's an amazing arranger. I wouldn't be where I am today without what I learned from him. Kerri taught me other aspects of production and some of the business.

Do you miss that close proximity? Having someone to bounce ideas off or compete with immediately?

Oh yeah! I'm not into the back to back DJ thing, I don't play well with others, ha! Get out of my sandbox! Unless I really respect your work. Collaborations don't work for me. I believe in being true to yourself as an artist. But you can play with other people and have fun. I really miss that. Kerri, Jerome, I miss these immensely talented guys who taught me so much.

But, you know, I've got new kids around me and it's been fun for me to teach them how to make records, sharing what was passed down to me. Like I say to Nasser Baker, Andre Hommen and my son, you're not just learning from Dennis Ferrer, you're learning from five other people who taught Dennis Ferrer.

Nasser's amazing, he's doing a lot of stuff for Objektivity right now. He's still only 23, but I've known him since he was 16, since he first started to come over to the studio. Andre's picked up immensely recently, he's now out on his own. We also had The Martinez Brothers for a while, but then they grew up. I don't hold on to anybody. I figure, once you learn, you go off and do your own thing. 

Reinvention and movement seems to be a good tool that producers and DJs can employ in order to assist their longevity. Do you agree?

I agree wholeheartedly, although I don't really class it as reinvention. Reinvention, to me, implies that you already know everything. I never looked at it like that. For me it's just continuing education.

As a dance music producer you have to be aware that styles change, they come and go like the weather. You have to follow the movements, you don't want to be doing the same thing for 20 years, it's boring.

So, out of necessity, a dance music producer has to re-educate themselves. That's what some people in this business tend to forget. They do their one style, they become big and then they forget what got them there, they stop. They stop progressing. It's like giving yourself a blowjob. I've never understood that. 

What's the reason for you continuing Son Of Raw as a series?

Son Of Raw is something I got from Kerri, because he did this record called Back To the Raw. Son Of Raw, to me, is a moniker for my underground stuff that I really think is chance-y.

Underground dance music will always be here. It was here in the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, it's just taken on different forms. Son Of Raw is that raw, underground sound for me, so, as long as we have underground music I don't see why I can't use that.

What is it about a track that will make you want to remix it or accept an invitation to remix it? 

I don't remix everybody's things. I want to remix records that I find difficult. There's absolutely no sense in remixing a hit. The message has already been made, it's clear. Why try and better it? You're not going to. I've never seen a remix be bigger than the original, not on a hit record. It just doesn't happen. 

But if you take a record that's a bit difficult, the vocal is a little strange or whatever, and you think you can do something with it, make it different, then that's a good record to approach. As a remixer you're trying to draw attention to yourself, not to the original, not to a hit. Fuck the original, that's how I look at it [laughs]

What lessons from your associations with Sfere and Ibadan have informed what you do at Objektivity?

There's been so many records, so many remixes, I can't say that just those two labels helped me decide direction and goals. I guess with Ibadan I took to be very picky with what you put out. I'm not a believer in putting out 12 records a year. It makes no sense. Pick your 4 best records in a year and do them.

I truly believe that not everything you make should come out. I can show you a hard drive of 100 songs that nobody will ever hear. I think a lot of people aren't really being selective enough with what they release, they're hoping to garner attention, get gigs, raise their profile.

But if you pick truly amazing records to come out, people will automatically be, like, who's that guy? I think Jerome showed me that, to be really picky with what you put out and to be totally professional with what you did put out; everything was properly arranged, no sloppiness. 

The 'To Let Myself Go' remix is the second mix you've done using Ane Brun's voice. What's the special appeal for you? What is it about her voice or songs that suits where you are currently at as a producer?

Vocals are timeless, man. That's what people can forget. It's all fine and dandy that you might have 2000 tracks per month to go through on Beatport, but vocal records are timeless. People sing them. And people want to sing. As much as people wanna get high in a club, people still want to sing.

Anyone can play an hour of instrumental tracks, but then when that one vocal comes on, everyone goes crazy. Why? Because everybody likes to sing. They might like to be cool, they might like to act cool, but they also like to sing. I do! That's my thing. I've always wanted to sing songs.

I want to hear songs that I can feel and associate with. And, to me, Ane Brun had these songs that I could associate with, Headphone Silence and To Let Myself Go. When I was making them I would be humming and singing along. That's what's been missing from dance music these past few years, there aren't any good songwriters out there working in the genre right now.

That's why you don't hear that many vocal records in the clubs right now that are amazing. You had the Howling record which was fucking phenomenal, Ame has been rocking that. Adriatique also had a few remixes that had vocals on them and they were amazing too.

That kind of vocal is almost the antithesis to what people used to think of as a New York dance vocal track. It's certainly not Loleatta Holloway. 

Like I said, styles come and go. You put on a gospel house record right now and people will walk off the dancefloor. 

Do you think it's fair to say that in this age where communications are making global collaborations more easy, producers are beginning to represent global movements rather than the sounds of their home cities?

Yeah, that's gone. That's 100% gone. I don't know if that's ever gonna come back. You know, isolation was a good thing for music. That's how a sound developed. You had a hometown sound and nobody outside that hometown heard it.

Only when a visiting DJ would come, see the club going off to that sound, then take a bunch of records back home and say, this is Chicago house, or, this is Detroit techno, would others become aware of and start to follow that movement. That is gone. When somebody makes a record now it's fleeting, almost inconsequential. It's like, ok, next, what comes out this week?

There might be blurs of a movement. There's a movement with alternative vocals right now, but again, it's a global movement. Anything that's gonna happen now will be global. Anything with an isolated sound is gone.

How has playing gigs with the likes of Seth and Kerri in Ibiza affected your sound as a DJ and a producer? Do you come back from Ibiza inspired?

Of course you do. The best thing a DJ or producer can do is listen to another DJ play. Everyone's got different tastes, different opinions and I think you're being ignorant if you don't pay attention to what other people play. It's part of your education. When you stop doing that you get old real quick. In this business you can get old in a year. 

How do you go about A+Ring material? Is it track by track or are you on the look out for an artist to develop within Objektivity?

At this moment in time it's really track by track. You're hoping that you're gonna find a golden nugget. It's getting difficult nowadays to release records from other people because everyone wants to have a label. Labels right now are business cards, that's what it's become.

It's a network. It's just not as relevant as it used to be. You've got a label? So what. So have the last 5000 other guys, they're all on Beatport. I think you have to develop your own crew, your own movement, generate some branding attention and then, hopefully, sign some interesting records. Developing artists? Those days are gone. Most artists will now develop themselves.

So, right now it's on a single by single basis. I honestly don't know how it can change. The music industry's changed so much in the time since I came up in it, it's hard to keep up. 

Some of your recent sets that I've heard have sounded quite dark. I've always loved the techno and deep house sound you've always made since early stuff like The WJ. Your current sound is in a similar area, although with perhaps less of a boldness to the melodic elements. Would you agree? 

Yeah. It's funny, you know. What goes around comes around. It feels like I've been here before, you know what I mean? It's weird. When Jerome told me to start doing tech-y stuff, I was like, 'no, I can't, I don't want to go back to that.' But he said, 'you have to!' I wasn't really pleased with that [laughs].

But, he was right. That was part of my education. Sometimes you gotta go backwards to go forwards. And so, that's where I'm at right now. Will it change? Will I change? Of course I will. My whole thing has always been that I want to make music for my peers. When I was 20 those peers were 20 years also.

Just cause I'm older that doesn't mean that age group has changed. It's dance music! The clubs are still full with a certain age group. So, that's who I play to. I wanna make people dance. I wanna hear my record played in a club where 3 or 4 thousand people are loosing their fucking minds and in a dark and dirty basement club with three or four hundred people. 

You're playing a great looking party in the UK on New Year's Day. What is different about a New Year's Day party compared to a New Year's Eve party? 

Well it depends. I played the New Year's Day party for Panorama bar one year and, if I'm not mistaken, that party was going on for like 72 hours. People had been partying for two days, so you've got to be careful. You can't blow them out right away, you can't go in there with a crazy energetic set because everybody's kinda wasted already from new Year's Eve.

It's an interesting thing to do, but actually it can be kinda difficult. It's not easy. New Year's Eve is easy, you just go in there and blast 'em out, hero style shit. But New Year's Day? I know I'm tired, my feet are killing me, my head is banging, so it's a different way of playing. You can get a slow build up and a crescendo kind of thing.

It's always fun to play on those days. Especially with that crew, the Do Not Sleep guys, they're outrageous. They can all play, so you gotta bring your A game. Most of the time on New Year's day you gotta bring your A game.

Like this? Check out Osunlade interview: A man with no past originating his future

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