The 'Choo-Choo' tag may have fallen by the wayside but this veteran NYC producer most certainly has not...
One perhaps slightly unexpected result of house music's return to prominence in the past half-decade or so has been the fillip it's given to the careers of some of the scene's more time-served players. Yes, we've seen the emergence of a new generation of bona fide house superstars - Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler, Maya Jane Coles, Eats Everything, The Black Madonna, etc - but we've also seen the likes of MK, Kerri Chandler and DJ Sneak back in the public eye in a way they perhaps weren't quite so much during the back end of the 00s, when electroclash, minimal and dubstep ruled the world's dancefloors.
Another artist you can add to that list is Harry Romero, who's been on a bit of a roll release-wise in the past few years, after something of a fallow period in the late 00s/early 2010s. Not that he ever quite went away entirely, of course, but there's definitely been more activity from the Romero camp of late, with releases on Subliminal, Strictly Rhythm, Relief, Ovum, Nervous, Hard Times, Hottrax, Material, Tronic, Do Not Sleep, Ultra Music, Suara and more in the past three years alone.
His most recent offering is the Chromium EP, which dropped on Yousef's Circus Recordings label on Monday (12 June)... almost exactly 16 years since yours truly first interviewed him for our Bubblin' Under section way back in 2001. Since then he's gone from that 'rising stars' slot to the iDJ cover (in 2002), had a slew of Top 20 singles, passed through the aforementioned quieter spell and come out the other side... and is now back with a bang.
Much like this very magazine, in fact! So, as it's always nice to catch up with old friends, we got Harry on the phone for a chat...
Can you believe it's been 16 years since we first spoke?
"Wow, that's crazy!"
In that time iDJ's fortunes have been up and down for sure, but we're still here, still doing the do... is it fair to say there are some parallels with your own career there?
"Of course! Every career has its ebbs and flows, but at the end of the day we love what we do. I love what I do, I love making music, and I don't do it in a bubble either, I'm always aware of what's going on in the market and just putting my twist on it. That's always been my MO, to be honest. For me, I never got into this to make money or any of that shit, it really was just for the love of music, honestly. And I still love making music, I still love playing music, and it seems there's a new generation of kids that like what I do, so let's go!"
I think for a lot of people who work in house music, whether it's DJing or producing or running a club night or just reviewing records, it's like it's something you/we need to do...
"That's exactly it, man, it really is. Without going through all the cliches, it's an extension of you. There's not a day goes by when I don't make music, I usually spend at least a couple of hours in the studio when I'm not touring. It's like all those other essential things you have to do every day - for me, making music is on that list."
Looking back at your discography, there was a bit of dip in the late 00s… but things have really picked up again. Why?
"I don't know! I guess in the late 90s, it was just a very innocent approach, and there was a lot of good music around. The late 90s, if you think back, it was the era of Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx and all those kinda really good pop acts that came from the underground and stayed authentically underground. There was that inspiration back then. And then as a result of my productions at that time, the late 90s and early 00s, it was constant touring, constant touring, constant touring.
"And then as the demographic changed, as the people that came up in the 90s got a little bit older and a new generation came in, that was were a bit of a lull happened, because it was a kind of transition from beatmakers and songwriters to how the new ways of doing things are. And then came the resurgence in the last four or five years, where it's like EDM is falling off and house music is back and there's a resurgence in creative juices."
So is house in a good place in 2017, do you think?
"I do and I don't. It's one of those situations where, I'm happy that it's back, in the non-EDM sense, but I also feel that we're kind of at a stalemate with house music right now because everyone is... well, not everyone, but a lot of producers and beatmakers out there really are painting by numbers.
"You don't see an evolution: you don't see people writing songs any more, you don't see people using vocalists - if you hear a vocal now you're like, 'Woah, what was that?'. It's all gone very instrumental, and there's a place for that for sure - back in the wax days that would be the second cut on the B-side, but what's lacking right now is that first cut on the A-side! I think producers have got conditioned into just making music out of sample packs, and the creativity and arrangement and songwriting have faltered.
Personally I find a lot of the big name, Berlin-style house that's around right now quite clinical and mathematical... would you agree?
"Yes, very much so. The thing is, with technology comes responsibility - the responsibility to still sound like a human being and not totally like a machine. I think a lot of that stuff does sound very clinical. You can tell it's been gone over with a fine-toothed comb, but you lose lot of the human element when you do that. And the funny thing is, the standout tracks from those producers are the ones that don't sound so clinical, and have those live elements: those are the ones that stand out."
Is electronic music, to some extent, a victim of its own success? It seems like every young producer's gone off to music college, and from a technical point of view they're all highly skilled, which is great... but that thing of, kids in the hood messing about with secondhand kit they didn't ever get a manual for... that's kind of been lost.
"100 per cent, man! Breaking the rules and making the machines do things they were never meant to do. Because we didn't read manuals, we hit buttons and hoped for the best! That's how acid house was started, it was just Pierre twisting knobs. It's almost like, there's so much information out there about technology, and how to use it to get from A to B, that we're not making those happy mistakes and stumbling upon different ways of getting from A to B that may inspire in a totally different way."
All that said, there are still some great labels out there, pushing proper house music with feeling - and you've released records on most of them by now!
"Yeah! Listen, the easy thing is to go on Beatport or Traxsource, see what the Top 10 labels are and send music to them. Cater music for them. I mean, I've been doing this for 20-whatever years, if at this point I don't know how to make a techno record for Suara, there's a problem. So that's become the easy part: seeing what the market has to show. Back in the day we didn't have that luxury of going online, because France had their own thing, the UK had their own thing, Greece, Spain, everywhere had its own thing going on. Now it's just become a global soup."
I do miss that thing of going abroad, and you couldn't wait to find a record shop because you know there'd be records you just couldn't get at home. Whereas today, I could order any one of those records, or 99% of them, without leaving the house…
"Exactly! Every region had its own vibe and its own labels. Now it's a global soup, and I hate to say it but I think the music had more personality back then. That was for more than one reason. The producers weren't just going to one place for their samples, and not everybody was using two DAWs - everyone was on different platforms.
"Some people used an MPC, some people used an Atari, everyone had their own way of music, because we couldn't go on YouTube and see how DJ XYZ does it. We had to figure it out on our own, and remember we had limited resources back then because equipment was still very expensive. We didn't have the money to go buy all the equipment we wanted, so we bought what we could afford and whatever gear we bought, we abused it! We pushed the envelope creatively, and you can hear that in the music. The approach was completely different, and in that approach we stumbled across some really beautiful ways of doing things. Now, you can do it all with a plug-in, but it's different."
THINGS ARE LOOKING UP
So - before we sound too much like a pair of old codgers putting the world to rights! - what are the good things about house music in 2017?
"Oh, the good things? File sharing's good, it means I can make music with anyone, anywhere in the world. And the ability to make music on the road is a big one. Whereas before, you left the studio and whatever you did, you did, these days we take things on road with us, and road-test them and tweak them as our tours are happening. It's awesome! And I don't have to get in my car and drive into the city to go record shopping, like you said I can do it all right at my desk.
"There are lot of good things, and I embrace technology. I think we'd be crazy not to, because music has always been a technological thing: the advancement of electronics, the electric guitar and the emergence of synthesis in the 60s.. it's always been a technological thing. And now we're starting to see a resurgence of synthesizers, people going back to using analogue synths, but a lot of gear now is a hybrid of analogue and digital so it's a seamless transition between the analogue and digital worlds. The technology's awesome, you've just got to know how to harness and use it."
Another good thing for me is how much more knowledgeable kids are now. They know far more about music from our era than we ever knew about music from the past when we were young...
"Without a doubt, and again that's thanks to the internet. Whereas our education was maybe talking to people that were there at the time, people what went to the Paradise Garage and The Warehouse and all that. I'm a bit too young to have experienced that, so our knowledge came from talking to them, people that went there or played there. Whereas nowadays...
"I mean, it's true for my own music knowledge as well. If I thought I knew something about music 10 years ago, I didn't know shit compared to now! Why? Because you're able to trace things back, you can go online and just search and search and search. Like, my understanding of jazz now is not what it was 10 years ago - because listen to a lot of jazz - and it's the same thing with Latin music, with everything - it's all there, you've just got to know what to look for. So this new generation nowadays, they've got everything at their fingertips, if they want to know something about something it's just a Google search away. Which is a good thing.
And of course that probably at least partly explains the career resurgence of one Mr H Romero as well...
"Ha ha ha, yeah!"
So let's talk about the Chromium EP. It's a little bit darker and techier than most of your stuff, is that fair to say?
"Yeah, I guess so. I mean if you listen to any of my stuff from the past two decades, it's always had that darker element, and it's always been quite percussive. To be honest with you, it's percussive because I don't know how to play keyboards! So I'm like, I've got to put something in there, let's have some more drums! The basslines and so on are almost incidental, my stuff's always been about the beats. And it's a fingerprint, it's like how can you sound different? You can try, but it's not going to sound like your authentic self. So in the past five years I've just been like, this is who I am, this is what I do, and I'm just gonna do it and do it to death.
"So the Circus EP is really just me, with the updated sound of today. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, I never have done - if you listen to my stuff, if you look at little chunks of my career and then look at what was happening outside of that, it's always just been my take on what's happening at the time. Like in the early part of my career, Sneak was sampling disco records, so I was like 'Okay, I can do that, but I'm gonna throw a vocal on it'. So that's what I did. I always just try to... I don't want to say make my music better than what was happening at the time, but just put my own personal twist on what was happening, you know?
"Like right now, tech-house is big - although it seems like tech-house has become a bit of a no-no word, which I think is hilarious - but I've always made tech-house! If you listen back it's always been house-y, dubby, driving beats and never too musical in the sense of chord progressions and stuff. It's always been really simple drums but with big impact. Drums have always been my thing."
If I hadn't heard the EP, how would you describe the tracks on it?
"Well, Chromium to me is like an experimental techno track, in the sense that Roland US, who sponsor me, sent me a bunch of gear and I just plugged it all in and hit record! The approach was a live one: all those tweaks on that record are 100 per cent live. I just recorded it an edited it down, so the process was quite old school and everything didn't have my touch on it, I let the personality of the gear come through. It was quite an old school way of making a track, and it was all done outside the box. It's dark, it's driving, it's ominous... so yeah, that's Chromium.
"Retroversy I actually did over a year ago, and I sent it to Yousef and he said, 'Yeah, I want it, but let's make it an EP', which is when I sent him Chromium. But then the EP was on ice for a while, because I felt it needed a proper A-side. So then I made Say Yeah, which for me is just proper dubby house music. For me, Say Yeah is the perfect glue for the more experimental Chromium and Retroversy, which was essentially my ode to Prince - although I actually made it before he died. I took some of Prince's lyrics, put them through a vocoder, ran them over a real dirty beat and it was like, 'This just works'. It's a track for 2000, 300-capacity rooms with a low ceiling and a great soundsystem.
"It's weird, but that's how music-making is for me - it's a very visual process. When I set out to make a track, I always kind of picture where I'd want to be, as a punter, hearing it. Is it a track for big rooms, like Carl Cox at Space or something, or is it a track for somewhere like Analogue Brooklyn? I picture myself on the dancefloor and then think about what I want to hear. And for Retroversy, it's just a groovy track for small rooms..."
So that's the EP for Yousef's label... what about your own label, Bambossa? What's going on there?
"Well, back in January I signed a new distribution deal with Armada Music, so since then we've been putting out a release every three weeks. The first five releases have been getting a lot of love on Traxsource and Beatport. My original intention with Bambossa was to kind of just put something out when I feel like it, but I came to the realisation that... it came at a time where I was ready to wave my own flag, and create my own brand, so it was like 'Okay, I'm gonna go balls-deep into this and release every three weeks - just quality dancefloor shit.' It's really just music I'd play in my sets, but then bear in mind I run the gamut from soulful house to techno, so expect anything, anywhere between those two extremes!"
I read that your music's been featured in films recently, too - what's going on there?
"Yeah, one of my tracks is in that Scarlett Johanssen movie, Ghost In The Shell. If you see the club scene, that's one of my tracks that came out on Cr2 about four or five years ago. First I knew about it was I got a call from my UK publisher saying, 'By the way, we've got this sync opportunity, do you wanna do it?' So I said yes, and then a few months later my wife and I went along to the premiere and there it was! That was a pretty cool experience, waiting to see my name on the credits on the big screen at the end. That's never happened before, so it was one to cross off the bucket list!"
What else have you got going on that iDJ readers need to know about?
"I'm playing at Glastonbury, is one thing - I'll be playing the NYC Downlow stage, which I'm looking forward to because I get to play a load of older 90s stuff. So in the weeks leading up to that I'm gonna be busy making edits and stuff, and then on the Bambossa front we'll be keeping up the release pressure, with something every three weeks either from me or one of my boys. Just keeping it moving, man, keeping it sexy and housey."
And finally... you told me all those years ago about how you got the name Harry 'Choo Choo' from a train driver's hat you wore as a little boy. But you seem to have dropped that moniker now?
"Yeah, well, y'know... when I turned 40 I figured it was maybe time to drop the 'Choo Choo'! But it's one of those things you just can't shake, and people still call me Harry 'Choo Choo'. And I'm actually totally fine with that: that's what got me here, so it's all good."
Words: Russell Deeks
The Chromium EP is out now on Circus Recordings