This Toronto native eats genres for breakfast and tears up rulebooks on sight – but whatever he touches seems to have a habit of turning to gold…
Glenn Morrison is best known as a Canadian progressive house DJ and producer. But that's far from being all that he is – in fact, after talking to him, we may have to rethink the way we talk about DJs and producers altogether.
Because normally, when we say a a DJ or producer is "versatile", it means their sets/tracks can be deeper one day, funkier the next, techier the day after; not that their productions have ranged from chart-friendly dance-pop, to moody underground prog, to classical compositions. Similarly, when we say people "have their fingers in many pies," it usually means they've got their own record label, a matching club night and maybe a DJ agency – not that they have a highly successful mastering business catering to A-list clients (Alpine Mastering), do sound design for AAA games companies like EA Sports, Activision and Rockstar, have a neat sideline as a songwriter for chart pop acts and run their own classical music and ambient labels… as well as being a resident for Amnesia and Space in Ibiza!
In fact, just about the only thing Glenn Morrison, hasn't done, as far as we know, is play for Renaissance – though given the sounds he makes, it's no surprise to find him citing the UK clubbing institution as a major influence (below). But he's nevertheless a Renaissance man through and through, flitting from one arena of musical, creative or business endeavour to the next seemingly without drawing breath.
Meanwhile, back within the realm of clubs and dancing and DJs and stuff, he's got a new single called Tangerine Dream about to drop on his own Fall From Grace label this Friday (14 February). So now seemed like a good time to take a little peek around his many-faceted, multi-talented world…
You have a background in classical music and I know you were playing piano very young, so when/where/how did you first get into electronic/dance music?
"From age 14 or so my friends and I were buying vinyl records each week at Release in Toronto. I was dabbling in Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy, The Orb, Adam Beyer’s Drumcode mixtapes, Hooj Choons, Skinny Puppy, Underworld, Sphongle Records – the Toronto rave scene in the 90’s was very forward and inspirational for me. I remember first seeing turntables at a house party: I had no clue what this alien equipment did, but I loved the Bush techno record that was playing on the deck at the time. That particular logo and label always stood out to me from that early memory.
"From there, it was just a crash course in all of the stylistic headspaces, ranging from Renaissance, Global Underground and the Bedrock Breaks series to the Fluoro stuff with Oakenfold during his Bullet In The Gun days. At that time everything within the electronica umbrella inspired me, and I'm happy to report that feeling is still alive today when I hear new records and artists."
You were resident at Amnesia in Ibiza for three years - how did that come about and how did that experience influence your DJing/production (if at all)?
"Actually Amnesia was for three years and I was at Space Ibiza on the Terrace for two years. It was a dream to be playing on the White Isle, the place for all things rave-related – I really cherish those memories.
"I had those opportunities because I was signed to the David Lewis Agency in Europe, and I toured frequently with Armin at the time around the world. I believe from memory we had the Tuesdays at Amnesia: Roger Sanchez was on the terrace and we were in the main room. I used to play four-hour sets which were recorded to Ibiza Sonica on the island Everyone there really appreciated electronic music and I was in my comfort zone, as well as learning how to work different floors and different types of room.
"And then on the off days, I would get to hang out with Sven Väth at his Cocoon nights which was very inspiring creatively, or with Frankie Knuckles for morning coffee and orange juice at the hotel we used to stay at. A lot of my fond memories from good souls all came from that island, so it's special to me."
And you did a stint for Space in Miami too, I gather?
"Yes, that was thanks to Louis Diaz, who now runs Pacha for bookings. That period really taught me how to build a room – when you have guys like Loco Dice and Luciano, who are able to masterfully build a room up and down, it helps calibrate your expectations. I was always nervous playing in rooms with such history and class, but eventually their confidence in me helped me to have some in myself, if that makes any sense?
"My last show at Space in Miami was New Year's Eve with Erick Morillo. I played from 12am-4am, and Erick took it away after that… for at least 10 hours, I have no idea, it was an unreal night. To be playing in company with such legendary musicians, makes me very grateful.
You're a man who wears many hats, including sound design and mastering as well as having a major label songwriting contract and providing music for IMAX cinemas... how do you allocate your time between all the different jobs/hats/responsibilities?
"That’s a good question. It's a variable model we have here at Alpine Mastering, where we try our best to balance the mixing/mastering/production-based work for our artists and our other clients, as well as making sure that I have the time to work on creating new material in the studio – regardless of the stylistic headspace, it's important to practise my instruments, and to keep reading and learning about sound design or new studio techniques – this is serious work and it needs to be treated as such.
"I haven't been touring for the past couple years, which has helped with putting my time into the various studio-related projects we have going on here. To be a chameleon in the studio is the ultimate form of creative and musical freedom: the ability to morph into one headspace on any given day, based on the feelings inside and how you want to convey that on a musical canvas."
Speaking of which, you're almost certainly the only house DJ we've ever interviewed who also owns and runs ambient and classical labels! So tell us a bit about those...
"With my classical piano background, and my live piano field recordings, we thought it would be appropriate to create a label that could cater to that stylistic headspace. We called it Wolfe Records, which was a name my parents almost gave me instead of Glenn – there was a cool nuance to that.
"It didn't make any sense to me to incorporate our classical catalogue along with the underground club label, or the film/ambient label… so having a classical label made the most sense. Tens of millions of streams later, here we are trying to figure out what we can bring to the table besides endless performances of Beethoven or Mozart or Chopin. I'm trying to really explore what is possible beyond just classical, and any session musicians or performance artists are welcome on the label if the sound is right.
"Our ambient electronica label is called Ambient Wave, and it's a vessel and vehicle for many amazing acts such as Camelphat, Musetta, Paul Keeley, myself and many others. On this label we specialise in mostly ambient, modal, explorative and experimental electronic music – things which don’t fit within a club mold or a whatever mold.
"Some real magic happens when you give musicians carte blanche to writing whatever they want. I don't gives a rat's arse about the artist's social media numbers: great music always shines through, and that's how we base our signings and our content acquistions, whether it be historical catalogue (like Miro's Paradise on Fall From Grace, which was first out on Hooj Choons in the 90s), or new records such as Camelphat's NYP2 or the Darren Emerson remix of my single Tough Love."
"Last year, collectively, our artists within the Alpine Mastering label business had just over a quarter of a billion streams – all of us have different trajectories and different reaches, but what unites us is that we're all passionate about what we do artistically, we're all striving for musical excellence in our various specialties, and we're all very grateful for the support we've received, both from fans and from press like yourselves, for actually caring about what we do musically and artistically."
In 2014 you had a big hit internationally with the pop-dance track Goodbye, which is a long way from the progressive sound you push with your Fall From Grace label. Have you left those more commercial territories behind now, or...?
"Goodbye was really special at the time. Those Sony/Universal commercial records formed a very strategic part of my transition leaving my old agents and booking managers behind – within 12 months of leaving my old agents, I had a No 1 record in seven countries - all funded off my own back. Luckily the music gods were kind to me, and it helped form the basis of my reshaping and understanding who I was as an artist.
"Those Billboard records – which had nothing to do with the club world that I came from, or the classical world I was born into – gave me the confidence to believe in myself, when so many in my previous team had wanted to one-up each other and play nonsense games. It also made me realise the importance of having a good caring team of people who understand you and your goals as an artist.
"It's analogous to walking through a jungle with a bushknife – you may walk into many horrible areas, so then you retreat back to the beginning and find a new trail to pursue. Things take time. Building a healthy, positive, caring, smart team around your work and art is essential in this business, and it’s taken me over a decade of working in it to learn that."
With such variety in their productions, some people would have adopted different aliases for the different sounds... how come you chose not to? And has having such a wide-ranging musical CV ever proved a hindrance at any point?
"That's a good question, because it’s something that my press and touring agents were speaking about recently. I actually think one of the biggest problems within the DJ world is the singularity of many artists – they do one sound, they do only that sound, and they do it for decades or more. It makes no sense and it’s soul-crushing. To be free creatively, and to express that authentically – this is the most important for me. We're constantly trying to figure out how best to market and brand me so as for people to get the sense of what I bring to the table musically speaking, and what they can expect at live shows… granted, I haven’t been touring in a couple years, but at the MUZ Awards in Russia I played piano to 35,000 people and it was broadcast to 80 million, so I'm definitely comfortable in live music settings, and if we do tour again, we'll make sure it's something special.
"I’ve been working in this industry for around 15 years now, and when I think about all the periods I’ve gone through, I look at them like chapters in a book. When people think of a great musician, it’s not so much bound in a particular style but the art and records behind it. Hopefully, the common denominator that comes through will be that I'm a passionate musician that explores different stylistic headspaces based on the project at hand."
When you're producing all these different styles, are your methodology/workflow always the same, or does it vary by genre?
"There is always a different workflow for sure – experimental approaches for stuff with underground sensibilities, and more practical approaches for the Billboard pop stuff. It’s like painting a portrait, finding the right brushes and canvas for the kind of work you want to display, that sort of thing.
"As I age and get more experienced, I've found I'm taking a generally warmer approach as compared to the more digital, loud approaches from a decade ago. I think it’s a combination of what I’ve learned over the years since then, and the new technologies coming to market. I'm beyond inspired by all the Eurorack stuff at the moment, and I've just about finished building my modular wall – making electronic music live, on the fly, with no computer or DAW other than to simply record it on."
Your next single Tangerine Dream is out on Friday. So tell us about that…
"I wanted to go back to that progressive house/melodic vibe on this release – the sound I used to play in the mid-00s, almost always within the realm of 118-126 BPM. Those records were simple but carried emotional weight with the chords and hypnotic vibes, and Tangerine Dream reminds me of that era: melancholy chords, dripping metallic riffs, shimmering reverb tails etc. And on the B-side is my dear friend Petar Dundov (Cocoon), who's done a killer remix.
"We've had some wonderful early support from people like Sasha, Luciano, Sven Vath and Danny Tenaglia, and now I'm working on a busy release schedule for 2020 with tons of records in this headspace: terrace-style afterhours music, smooth and hypnotic and full of flighty headspaces. It's time to bring the rave back – this is the zone I'm feeling right now emotionally and creatively. My new modular system is an extension of that."
Finally, what else is going on in Glenn Morrison's world right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"I'm just finishing up my modular build in the Alpine Mastering studio room, and later this year we'll have a proper live stream for people to tune in, learn a thing or two, heckle me when I strike a nice chord or yell at me when I play an ugly riff.
"On a record level, we have some very exciting releases forthcoming, with records featuring Deb’s Daughter, Dia Frampton, WhO feat Nil Rodgers & Josh Barry, Domino feat Snoop Dogg, David Morales, Colin Benders, Dusty Kid, Darren Emerson (Underworld), Petar Dundov (Cocoon), myself and many more forward-thinking musicians. We also have limited edition 2x12-inch Fall From Grace vinyl, available for sale on our label website.
"Thanks for asking some good questions today, and not about a load of nonsense… I enjoyed this and I hope you all enjoy the new records we're dropping this year."
Words: Russell Deeks
Tangerine Dream is out on Fall From Grace Records this Friday (14 February) – buy it here.
Tags: Glenn Morrison, Fall From Grace, Amnesia, Space, Ibiza, Miami, progressive house, sound design, mastering, songwriting, Sven Väth, Frankie Knuckles, Cocoon, Roger Sanchez, Loco Dice, Luciano, Toronto, Erick Morillo, Sony Music, Universal Music, David Morales, Camelphat, Colin Benders, Dusty Kid, Nile Rodgers, ambient, classical, Peter Dundov, Eurorack