We catch up with Dan 'Liquid' Smith to discuss the secret of Danism's longevity, and learn how two became three...
It's over a decade since we last spoke to Danism. Back then, they were just about to release their second single, and we wanted to talk to them about it because of the unusual nature of the project. After all, Dan Smith was already one-half of successful soulful house duo Liquid People, while Dan Gresham was already widely acclaimed for his D&B work as Nu:Tone for Hospital Records. It was an unlikely combo, perhaps, but as a series of club hits for MN2S showed, it worked.
Today, while Gresham continues to be a key player in the drum & bass world, Smith is mostly pursuing non-musical business ventures. Yet Danism have never quite gone away: check out their listing on Discogs and you'll see a steady stream of releases on labels such as Defected, Strictly Rhythm and Nocturnal Groove stretching back... well, over 10 years!
So what keeps them going after all this time? There was only one way to find out...
When we first spoke, Danism was a new and exciting project... but you've been doing it a long time now. Over a decade, in fact.
"Yeah I know… and I'd been doing Liquid People for about 10 years before that as well! I think it's because we just enjoy doing it, y'know? We enjoy the process of hooking up, having a day together and making some music. Anything beyond that is secondary."
Yet it still seems to be very much an on-off/part-time thing...
"That's just because we both do other things as well. Dan's very busy with all his drum & bass stuff and what he does for Hospital - he's one of their main A&R's now, I think I'm right in saying. As for me, I don't do this for a living any more, I just do it for enjoyment. It's like golf is for some people, except that I go and make house music!
"So because of that, we don't really need to do it day and night, because neither of us are making our living from it. Most people that make music, that's all they do, but we just do it because we enjoy getting together and making some house music. But I have recently started going into the studio once a week, as opposed to every now and then.
But am I right in thinking it's no longer just the two of you?
"That's right, we've just brought a new producer in - Train. I met him at an MN2S party at El Divino a few years ago, and we stayed in touch back in Cambridge. He's actually a racing car driver by trade, but he's got a musical background as well, so I said 'Why don't you come in the studio for a day?' and it all just went from there.
"He's really into the German stuff, you know, Solomun and Diynamic and Connaisseur Recordings and all that stuff, which to me is like a modern, slowed-down version of progressive house. Steve (Train) is really into all that, he follows that scene really closely and he goes round parties in Europe all the time. So he'll come in and say 'Check this out', and we've started integrating some of those sort of sounds in what we do. It's like, I come from a soulful house background, Dan comes from a D&B background, and now we've got Train's input coming from somewhere completely different."
That's interesting, because it actually struck me that your last single East Coast/West Coast sounded like a more contemporary take on the classic Danism sound. So will Train be a full-time member?
"Well, we're certainly collaborating with him a lot at the moment, but East Coast/West Coast is his first record, and that's credited to Danism + Train, then the new single All Of Me is just me and Dan again. So we'll see.
"The other thing is, lately I've started going out to a few soulful things again. With Liquid People we used to play Garage City and be friends with Bobbi & Steve and all those people, and we were all going to the soulful parties. And recently I got invited to one again and I went along for old times' sake… and once I was there I was like, 'I wanna get back to my roots!'.
"So it's a combination between that, and then in the breakdowns, with the spacey pads… it's just paying a bit more attention to detail, really, and trying to be a bit more creative with the arrangement, trying to avoid any cliches as much as we can while still staying within that classic sound that we started off with… that's why East Coast/West Coast sounds the way it does."
And there's a story behind the vocal on West Coast, isn't there?
"Yeah, the vocal that goes "When the pain comes, you have to avoid the negative activity", or whatever it is... I sampled that from a documentary about people doing 30 years in San Quentin. This older prisoner was talking about how young guys come in and they do three years, and then it really hits home how long they're going to be there. I was like, 'Oh man...'. It just struck a note with me so I sampled the line. So there's a guy in prison doing life, who's on my record, and he doesn't know about it!"
So tell us about the next single...
"That's us hooking up with Arnold Jarvis again. We did a thing with him before on Noir's label in 2014, and it took two years to happen but it did quite well, Deetron did a remix and stuff. So we decided to do another record with him, something a bit more soulful. That one's Dan and I on our own, so it's a straight soulful house edge with a slight funk edge. And because it's going back to that classic style, we wanted someone from that background to do a remix so we asked Eric Kupper.
"But that's a one-off: I think moving forward it'll be more in the style of East Coast/West Coast, what I'd call 'future disco' or something like that. Something a bit more… I mean, I've been listening to a lot of Detroit techno lately! But then I'm also in quite regular contact with Lem Springsteen from Mood II Swing, and he's writing on some new stuff for us too."
Normally this point is the point where we'd ask something like 'What are you hoping to achieve with the new single?'. But does that even matter for Danism, or is it really just about making music?
"The latter, yeah. We enjoy making house music, and the goal is for people to enjoy it."
So speaking more broadly... you've said you were inspired to revisit your musical roots. Do you see any scope, in the current musical climate, for soulful house making a bit of a comeback generally?
"Well, things move in circles, don't they? But what is and isn't popular… when I was younger I would be very concerned about such things, but it isn't in any way what drives me now. If it does that's great because I love the musical side of house, but if it doesn't that's no big deal either.
"But, y'know… Defected are doing their Glitterbox thing which seems to be quite popular, and I think there's always a market for a good vocal house record, because every now and then you get a record that comes along that's so good it crosses over genres. Like, have you heard that track Set It Out by Omar S? They consider that to be techno, but I'm like, 'How is this techno and not soulful house?'.
"So how big that genre can get on its own I don't know, but I do think if you write a vocal house record and get a song that's good enough it can do well. You just need to have a bit more of an interesting edge to the songwriting, and maybe to the production as well so that young contemporary DJs can fit it into their sets without it sounding too… happy, for want of a better word.
"If you think back to old disco records, sometimes even when the music can be quite happy and fluffy, they're so organic that it gives it a certain depth. I think now, to make soulful house not sound old, to make it sound fresh and interesting, you've got to really spend time on the sounds and the songwriting and just try and give it an edge. That's what we always try to do, anyway!"
I personally think part of the reason soulful house isn't as prominent as it once was, is that every soulful track today seems to come with eight microscopically different full-vocal mixes... what happened to having two vocal mixes on one side and two hard slammin' dubs on the other?
"Yeah, I loved those days! Mood II Swing doublepacks and John Ciafone dubs… I loved that. I miss that too! But have you heard Precious Cargo by Mr G on Defected? The dub he did on that... oh my gosh! I played it at a party a few Fridays ago and it went right off. I love the dubs, absolutely love them… the dubs of American house, that's exactly the style I love most. Masters At Work dubs, Mood II Swing dubs… that's exactly how it all began, for me. That's what got me into house music."
And of course it was those dubs that filtered through to other areas… they filtered through to the deep house free party scene in the East Midlands, they filtered through to the UK garage scene in London…
"Yeah, they invented speed garage by speeding up those dubs basically! Gabrielle and things like that… they pitched them up and it made that sound. Which I wasn't actually that into personally, but that's what happened."
So we're agreed… more dubs needed?
"More dubs. Definitely, I'm into that. in fact we haven't done one yet for the next record so you may just have twisted my arm!"
Words: Russell Deeks
East Coast/West Coast is out now on SoSure Music. All Of Me feat Arnold Jarvis will be out on 2 October, also on SoSure Music. Complete, we're pleased to notice, with a proper slammin' dub!