The Toolroom boss on his recent soulful excursion 'If It's Love' and why he thinks it's time for full vocals to make a comeback
When Toolroom boss released his latest single If It's Love a couple of weeks ago, it will undoubtedly have raised a few eyebrows here and there. Toolroom these days is perhaps most commonly associated with a tough, techy house sound, so to hear the main man serving up a full-vocalled soulful house podium belter may well have been confusing to some.
But not to those who've been around for a minute, because they'll remember that soulful house was actually where Knight came in, some 20 years back. So the question isn't so much "Why is Mark Knight suddenly making soulful house records?" as "Why's he doing it right now?".
And we figured the best way to find that out was to ask him. So we did.
First of all… how's lockdown treating you?
"It's bizarre, isn't it? It's really bizarre, and a lot of questions need to be asked about a lot of things, right across the board, because the world will be a very different place. There's lessons to be learned but we need to focus on the positive side of things, the things we can change – not least our own mindsets.
"But yeah, it's depressing, it's horrific. I can't really compare it to anything, it's like World War III or something. A lot of the time it all seems a bit arm's length, but then I've got kids and I was watching a thing about that 13-year-old lad that died… imagine your kid going into hospital, and you couldn't go with them. Just awful.
"We're all right at the moment though, thanks. We're four weeks into self-isolation and my wife's pretty hardcore about it! I think we all have a responsibility, right now, just to do the right thing. Squirrel yourself away and science will catch up and eventually we'll be good… but at the moment we've got to all play the game or we'll be doing this forever!"
Indeed! But anyway… what we're really here to talk about today is If It's Love. There's a quote on the press release about wanting to produce a soulful house record that would stand up, sonically, on today's dancefloors. Which I think you've achieved… but why do that right now? Was there any particular catalyst?
"Not really, it was just… look at the Beatport Top 10 right now, or at any point in the past few years. The amount of bootlegs, compared to original records of that quality… there's not enough records being made in electronic music right now that have those essential facets of good songwriting and musicianship, that are of now, that are relevant to what's going on and the energy that's required in a record now for it to stand up and make sense. I think five out of the current Top 10 are bootlegs – so what are we going to be bootlegging in five years' time? Where are the points of reference?
"What the record isn't, is a means to an end. We're all caught up on a certain treadmill, and this is a good opportunity to reset and change that. We're in this cycle of, I must make a record so I get a Beatport placement, and therefore I generate promo and visibility, and therefore I get gigs. It's this continual hamster wheel, so no-one's putting enough love and time and craft into writing records that are like, this might take a bit longer but I'm going to get off that gravy train for a moment, I'm going to go away and write something and when I come back it'll be worth so much more.
"Everyone's stuck on that hamster wheel – and I'm no different. We work to this schedule of one-a-month, bang 'em out… so now I'm like woah, woah, stop! If you've got the ability to do that, to produce records on a bigger scale that are a bit more involved, then I think you almost have a duty to do so. Otherwise all we've done is create a load of throwaway, tracky records.
"I thought, I'm not going into a new decade doing that, if I can do something different – I'm not just going to create a bunch of club records for the sake of it. That was one part of it. The other part of it was, I want to get back to writing songs that I can listen to six times in a row and still be excited about. When you write club records after two or three listens that's done, I'm over it.
"So it was the combination of those two factors, really. One was going back to my roots and writing songs that would actually make me want to dance, and the other was about making records that stand up in ten years' time."
It's interesting that you mention the time element – that it takes a bit longer to write a song than it does to make something tracky. Has that been a big factor in how the music's been in recent years, do you think?
"I do, because it's only now that a bit of money's started to come back into the music industry. So a lot of the people that are making music now don't really value it – it's just a promo tool, bang something out so I can get some shows. And because there's not much money in it, it ends up being a business decision: I can only put X amount of time and money into it, because it's only going to yield Y. And that becomes the norm.
"The barometer of that, as I said, is the Beatport charts. I look at all those bootlegs and think, why aren't people writing songs that are as good as those records now? And I think it's actually in danger of becoming a lost art. It's all too easy to go on Splice, get a load of samples, bash something together and you've made a record. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but there needs to be a balance between that, and people writing actual songs."
There's another side to that as well, isn't there? Because if the charts are full of bootlegs, surely that also shows there's an appetite out there, on the part of the music-buying public, for something with a little more substance?
"Absolutely. Especially… when you look at how musical income is generated now, 80 per cent of it comes from Spotify. That's where the audience lies, over there: that's who you need to invigorate if you want to grow as an artist. If you're not happy just supplying the DJ community with club tools, if you want to speak to people en masse, that's where they consume music. And people generally like to consume music in that world that has vocals and hooks: it works better in that environment, so why not give them what they're looking for?"
Okay, so that's why you made the record… now let's talk about how you made it. Starting with the vocals: you've got Laura Davis from the House Gospel Choir, but then you've also got Amy, Diana and Lou, AKA The Melody Men. Which works well, but why not just get the full House Gospel Choir, or four of them?
"Because it all started at a Toolroom writing camp we did. I was doing a session with The Melody Men on something else, and Laura was around as well, and we were all sat around chatting over lunch and we all had very similar musical references. I already had the chords for If It's Love, so I said let me play you this backing track, this is my idea.
"And then I said look, I'd like to get everyone on this record, and have lots of voices on it. I wanted it to feel very gospel, very church, so the more voices the better. I also thought it'd be a nice idea to have different voices on different verses, so Laura sings the first verse and Diana does the second verse… it just brings a different dynamic.
"Then we literally just jammed it out in two or three hours and it was down. When you've got a great song, the record really just writes itself – you don't really need to think about it too much."
You've also got Davos playing piano on the track… he's the guy I've seen on YouTube, doing live piano mash-ups of all the old rave classics, yeah?
"That's him, yeah. He was at the writing camp as well, you see – we had four or five studios on the go and he was bouncing from one studio to another, helping people out with piano parts. I wanted him on If It's Love, because I wanted to get back to something which I always used to do back in the 90s, which was having solos on records. Always – back then you wouldn't write a record without a 16-bar solo on some sort of instrument. So I was like, let's get back to that level of musicianship – everything doesn't have to be a one- or two-bar loop!
"So I asked Davos if he could come in and play a Rhodes solo, and of course he did about a hundred takes and gave me enough music for a whole Rhodes solo album! Davos is way above my level of musicianship so again, it's going back to the old way of doing things, getting the right people in. Because that was the old school art of the producer, and that's fallen by the wayside a bit in the past 10, 20 years. Because there's so much less money in music now, producers are expected to do everything themselves: to be the musician, the recording engineer, the producer and the mix engineer.
"But you can't be good at all of those things. Quincy Jones doesn't walk into the studio and go, 'Hang on, I'll just boot up the computer, then I'll get the keyboard out…' does he?! No, he walks in and says 'Right, I want you to play this part, he's playing that part… no not like that, like this.' He pulls it all together and steers the ship. That's the art of being a producer. That's what a producer does, really, but that's kind of gotten dissolved now, and we've got to this idea that if you can't do all of it yourself then you're not a producer. And I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. Quincy Jones probably isn't an expert in ProTools, I shouldn't think – he's still one of the greatest producers that's ever lived!"
"So again, it's about resetting the parameters and going back to some of those old ideas. Because that's how I used to make records, so it was nice to get back to that. And that's the level, now, that's the standard I want to adhere to."
I reviewed the Toolroom Miami comp recently and said that, while the Toolroom name has become associated – rightly or wrongly – with the tech-house sound, people should give the album a listen because it's a lot broader than they might expect…
"Well, that's what we try and do with those albums, definitely".
So in light of all that we've talked about above, will we see that reflected in Toolroom's output generally, going forward?
"Absolutely, yeah. We're trying to reset our values as a brand, if you like. Not to do songs on every single release: there's not enough of them out there, plus we have to… it's almost like the ultimate A&R accolade when you read a review of a record and they say "Oh, it sounds very Toolroom", so we do have to maintain the consistency of what we've built. But we just want to keep injecting more quality, whether it's vocal songs or just great instrumental tracks.
"We've always tried to do that anyway, we've always striven to be just that little bit above the rest… for instance, I personally finish off a good 60 or 70 per cent of the records we put out, I'll do the mixdown and so on, just so that there's a consistent production quality across everything we release as singles. But now we want to keep pushing that envelope.
"I'm touring a lot less these days – well, like everyone else I'm doing zero touring at all at the moment! But at most I DJ one or two weekends a month these days, so I've got time to spend on fine-tuning the music, and it's an investment that's worth making, because that way you build up a catalogue of records you can go back to in 10 years' time and say yeah, that still sounds good. They're not just club tracks that are of the moment.
"So we want to keep raising the bar on that front. And then for me personally it's a bit about going back to my own roots, too. Like, I've just done a remix with Michael Gray, of Jasper Street Company & Byron Stingily. They've done a cover of Paradise by Change that's coming out on Nervous very soon. And I've done some stuff on BBE in the last year, too. Just going back to my roots a bit, and doing something that'll impress my mates: I want them to be like, 'That sounds really good, mate,' not just 'Yeah, that's a banger!'."
Which comes back to what I said in the Miami review, in a way. Because Toolroom might be associated in some people's minds with tech-house these days, and soulful house people are notoriously snobbish… but if you've got Nervous asking you to remix Jasper Street Company that's a pretty hefty thumbs-up from the soulful side, isn't it?
"Well, exactly – I was chuffed to bits when Mike asked me to get involved! But hopefully if we can tell the story properly, then what people associate us with should be irrelevant. If you can get the music across in a way that it feels right to people, feels authentic… that's always the challenge with music.
"It's just like when you're DJing, you walk into a room and you think, are they going to get the music I play? But then you lure them in, you start with something that's very palatable, then you start to push the envelope a bit, and by the end they're dancing to music you'd never normally get them to listen to! I love that, and If It's Love is a bit like that, it's a challenge: can I make a record with all those elements across to a modern club audience?"
What strikes me is that after all these years you still seem really enthused, still keen to push yourself forward. Has that been the key to Toolroom's success, do you think?
"Totally. You can never rest on your laurels: you've got to stay inspired and invigorated. I'm not much one for looking back, it's always about what comes next and how we can push the envelope. That's partly just me, though: I get ants in my pants if I try and take it easy. But I'm very grateful I've got that energy… it's served me well!"
Words: Russell Deeks
If It's Love is out now on Toolroom Records