UK house producer, remixer, DJ and all-round music maestro Shur-I-Kan has a new EP out on Lazy Days, and it’s an absolute corker…
A journalist shouldn't really put themselves into their articles, but I'm going to here. I was lucky enough to be asked to remix a track by Shur-I-Kan (real name Tom Szirtes) a few years back, and it remains one of my best productions, simply because the parts he sent me were such high quality. I remember playing a friend the bassline part at the time, and us both marvelling at its sheer weight and evenness. The percussion was precise, intricate and clearly not loop-based, and the assorted chords, pads and synth licks were an absolute delight to work with.
If you’re unfamiliar, Szirtes is an accomplished musician, producer and "recovering international DJ" (more on which below) who's released his pristine brand of 4/4 tech-soul on plenty of decent labels, but is perhaps best known for his work on Freerange and Lazy Days. He made his debut with Niomi’s Dream on Tom Middleton’s Jedi’s Night Out compilation in 1999, and began the 2000s with his superb debut album Advance on Freerange. Drifting gently between jazz and electronica, it introduced a highly musical production style that excelled at layering pads, chord stabs, keyboard flourishes and synth squiggles, each with their own neatly delineated space in the sound field.
Freerange also released his 2004 follow-up album Waypoints, which again didn’t feature much dancefloor-targeted material, but instead an enticing concoction of broken beat, downtempo, electronica and space jazz. In the mid-2000s, though, Szirtes started releasing more house records: part deep, part tech, excelling at unconventional chord voicings, detailed productions and tunes that progressed, developed – did things. He also found time to be a member of the electronic improvisation group The Bays.
He’s just returned to Lazy Days with a super three-track EP called This Situation, a release that may well end up in a more than few few end-of-year charts. So this seemed like a good time to have a chat with the man himself…
First off, for readers who might not be familiar, you have a full time ‘proper’ career outside of dance music, don't you?
"I wouldn't say a proper career – it’s a bit all over the place! But I've had a varied life – I've made videogames, produced music for clubs and films, toured as a DJ and in bands, mentored, lectured, consulted, started my own business and exhibited as a digital artist. 'Confused' career is probably a better description!"
And you describe yourself as a ‘recovering international DJ’… how’s that going for you? Do you attend meetings?
"What happened was, my booking agent retired a few years ago, and I didn't bother replacing her. It was never my intention to pursue DJing as a career, it just happened as a result of my productions. I started composing music at a very young age and later on the computer as a teenager, so the need to create is deeply sown into my identity. Whereas, as fun and rewarding as DJing was, it didn't feel like something I'd want to be committed to 10, 20 years down the road.
"Another aspect is climate change. Touring involves lots of flying, and I find it very hard to justify flying thousands of miles to do a party to a few hundred people any more, so I'm very selective now when asked to travel. I'm very fortunate, because I have a choice: many of my peers rely on touring as a major source of income and would be super-hypocritical of me to go 'Hey, I toured for many years, but now I don't think anyone else should'! So it's a personal decision for me, although as an industry it's something I think we should address."
Let’s talk about the new EP. Your records are always expertly produced and put together, and these three tracks are no exception. Tell us a bit about how you approached making the EP?
"Thank you! For this EP all the tracks feature samples as the central element. This isn't always the case: normally, I use samples in more supporting roles. But I have a fairly big personal collection of samples I maintain, so I started there, throwing them into Ableton Live, where you can quick-tune, loop them and layer with others. Then I'll bounce them into Logic and add drum machines and synths on top, and start arranging them before really getting into the details."
How do you feel about the EP now that it’s released?
"It feels nice to release more music! I've not been as prolific lately as I used to be some years back (for time constraint reasons), but I have a lot of tracks that are almost finished that I need to get over the line. There's always things I think I could do better, with every release, but I've tested these on the dancefloor and they work well, and also stand up as something you can listen to… which is the balance I like to achieve."
Does it take you a long time to make house records? It’s usually a weekend and evening thing for you these days, is that right?
"It really depends on the track. For example, on this EP, I did Freakin' in probably three or four sessions of a few hours each – that's pretty quick. The bass loop holds the track together, so once that was sorted it was fairly easy. This Situation I actually started about three-four years ago and kept coming back to over time – I was struggling to get the mix right more than anything. I typically drop in and out of tracks so they can mature over long periods of time (sometimes years), but then with others I just get in the vibe and knock them out."
How and when do you know when a production is finished?
"It's hard… in fact, I've never released a track I thought was 100% finished! But you have to draw a line somewhere: if you labour over something too long, you can kill the spontaneity and vibe, and ultimately your enthusiasm. However, it's also easy to get over-excited by a new track, only to realise a week later that it wasn't as good as you thought it was.
"Music perception is very relative: it's influenced by context, mood and even time of day. I think the key is to create quickly, take a break, get perspective and then take time on the details. I also like to get second opinions, from other producers I trust."
Do you think much about DJs and how they might play your tunes when you’re producing? Or are you more concerned about making it musically successful?
"Because I do DJ myself, that's certainly in the back of my mind. House music isn't the only music I make, so when I do make it, it has to be useful to DJs because they are the main consumers of it. However, it’s not the only concern: personally, I'm listening to this music in a home context, so it has to work to me as a listening experience as well."
This Situation has a killer melodic hook, a tingle-inducing chord change that only happens a couple of times in the track rather than being rinsed throughout. Is that a deliberate exercise in restraint?
"Well, to quote The Fast Show (a reference probably only older readers will get): making a dance record is like making love to a beautiful woman. You have to seduce/tease them, building up the tension right till before climax, then pause before hammering at it again! This is an arrangement consideration in the end: music is based on repetition, but to maintain interest you have change things up and break things. If you use a sound or section too often, it becomes part of the repetition and its impact is removed."
It’s tempting for listeners to ascribe certain characteristics to labels or producers based on their music. So are you a classy, sophisticated person who absolutely kills on the dance floor, like your music? How might your friends describe you?
"That's a good question. Well, first of all, I'm a terrible dancer! Though I would love to be thought of as classy and sophisticated, you might have to ask 'Compared to who?' because I know plenty of more sophisticated people than me. I live in a small terraced house in Stratford, London, complete with Ikea furniture, a Netflix history that includes shows like Better Call Saul but also The Witcher and Hip Hop Evolution – so I'm that level of sophistication. Though my French partner is succeeding in poshing the place up a bit, and I have Radio 4 on quite a lot, so form your own judgement…
"I do think my music reflects my personality, though. It's clear from my tracks that I'm musically trained. It shows my interest in jazz, classical and other forms of music. The music is quite playful, doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a deep well of emotion in them, but kept well restrained – so basically your typical introverted, stiff-upper-lip Brit I guess!"
Do you have a personal favourite track of your own? Why?
"It depends on my mood, but usually it's the deeper, more personal cuts tracks like Blue Giraffe, Out Of Time and Stepping Tones rather than the obvious bigger tracks. Why? Because there are so many talented producers and artists out there, but when I listen to a track like Blue Giraffe I don't think there is anyone else out there who could have made that in the same way. as I did. Despite its clearly being based on a music genre, influenced by producers who have come before and even containing sounds from other recordings, it's a small glimpse into the essence of Tom Szirtes.
"Not everyone will like it, but that's okay – I'm not trying hard to fit in. It's my voice and I stand by the quality of the tracks. In the end I think that's all an artist can ask for."
Apart from This Situation, what else have you got coming up?
"I've been working on a really cool EP with my old collaborator and friend Milton Jackson which I'm really excited by – we're just finishing the third track, and I think that will probably be on Freerange later this year. I've also got a couple of releases I'm going to put out myself, one is an album of some new and old material and the other is a Miami bass-influenced EP."
Finally, is there anything you'd like to discuss that you never get asked about?
"Yes, 'How do you manage to maintain such a wonderful, youthful vigour and physique?', ha ha. But I'm afraid that's a secret!"
Words: Harold Heath
This Situation is out now on Lazy Days Recordings. Buy it here.