With 'Green Supreme' due in stores next month, we catch up with the Berlin house hero
That's a very nice hat Phonique is wearing in our picture, we're sure you'll agree.
But it's not the only hat that Michael Vater has worn over the years. He started out in the dance music industry as a promoter (that's Hat #1) in Berlin in the mid-90s. By the time the parties he put on were starting to get successful, he'd taken to the decks himself (that's Hat #2), and, almost inevitably, by the early 00s a production career followed (that's Hat #3).
He's probably best-known for his work on Steve Bug's Poker Flat and Dessous labels, with his three studio albums to date (2004's Identification, 2007's Good Idea and 2010's Kissing Strangers) having come on the latter. But his 500+ tracks and remixes have also graced many other leading labels such as Crosstown Rebels, Brique Rouge and GU Music), while he's also found time along the way to set up his own Ladies & Gentlemen imprint (that's Hat #4).
He's collaborated with the likes of Sharam Jey, Gui Boratto, Dixon and H.O.S.H, as well as regular studio partner Tigerskin, and his work has spanned many styles, from straight-up deep house to minimal to acid to more commercial, vocal-oriented tracks. But it's the latter that provides the best clue to the sound of his forthcoming fourth long-player, Green Supreme.
Easily his most polished, accessible and radio-friendly work to date, the album's characterised, too, by its strong reliance on guest vocalists - there's one featured on almost every track, and the album's trailed by the midtempo, Crazy P-ish Grass Is Greener, featuring a full vocal from Anonia Vai. So who knows... maybe Hat #5 will be the one with 'bona fide pop star' embroidered on it in sparkly gold thread?
In the meantime, we caught up with him to find out more about the making of the album...
This is album number four. How would you say it differs from your previous full-lengths?
"This fourth album is almost like the essence of my previous ones. Nobody buys an album that's full of underground club tracks anymore - people pick their favourite few tracks and they buy or download these. My more song-like, vocal tracks were always the ones that are still in people's heads after many years, so I decided to take my time and come up with almost a full on vocal album, to hopefully make it more substantial and long-lasting."
The album includes a cover of the Smiths classic There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Why did you want to cover that particular track, and was it daunting taking on such a much-loved song?
"Of course it is easy to piss off the die-hard fans of The Smiths, but me and many other people from the electronic music scene love this track and might want to have an opportunity to include it in a DJ set. I had these vocals of Erlend Øye from Kings Of Convenience/Whitest Boy Alive, which we recorded for a DJ-Kicks release back in 2003. So I went to the studio and we just used them to produce a tasteful Phonique-style house version of the original. After we had the instrumental done, I asked Richard Davis, whom I already worked with on a previous album, and he was more than happy to join the project."
Reality Check features a vocal from Detroit techno veteran Eddie Fowlkes - how did you come to hook up with him?
"I met Eddie at a poker game in Berlin. Both of us are into the game and we had a talk and decided to have a little studio session together, simple as that! He's an amazing singer and I was really happy with what came out of the session."
There are several other guest vocalists featured on the album, could you briefly talk us through them?
"The most important and biggest discovery is surely Antonia Vai, a Swedish vocalist with Hungarian parents. She had already released her own music, but never in the field of electronic/club music. I discovered her listening to the radio on a ride home to Berlin one night, contacted her and she was up for giving it a try. Well, I loved it so much we ended up doing three tracks for the album.
"Then we have the well-known Stee Downes, who happened to be with the same agency as me last year, so it was easy to come together for one track. We also have a reunion with Ian Whitelaw, who has appeared on every of my albums so far.
"And for the reprise version for my 2012 track Vincent Price we got spoken words from Lazarusman, who was touring with my studio partner Tigerskin and had performed some live vocals on the track already. When I saw the recording of that, I liked the idea of getting him for a reprise version, as it already had 10 million views on YouTube but had never been featured on an album."
You've been involved in the house/electronic music industry for a good 20+ years now. What are the key changes you've seen in that time - for better and for worse?
"House music in all of its kinds is way more popular than it used to be and not just in some parts of the world: from the Amazonas to Bangladesh, you find it everywhere. But while back in the day you had to put much more effort into becoming a DJ, the quality of the top 1,000 DJs was way better and more individual. Nowadays it is hard to tell whose mix you are listening to, as the majority of DJs sound the same and you have a lack of individuality. That's why you see so many different shiny appearances on social media, because their music wouldn't just speak for itself."
In particular, Berlin has gone from being a techno stronghold to pretty much the world's electronic music capital. Is that a good thing - and how long can it continue?
"It is a good thing. Many clubs can do their thing and don't need to be worried about surviving. That was different 15 years ago. But the question how it can continue isn't relevant for Berlin. Berlin will always be Berlin, no matter if people from outside care or not.
"As long as people from all over the world have a good taste in underground electronic music, Berlin will always be on their map. But maybe some other eastern European country will make its way to the top one day? I play a lot in Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and possibilities are endless."
Apart from the album, what else have you got going on right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"With the album release, there will be many podcasts I am doing for various platforms - you can find the links on my Facebook artist profile. I am also planning on starting a series on YouTube, where I will be showing and explaining my take on the perfect mix. That means on each episode showing one mix between two tracks, which seem to be made for each other. I think these mixes often make the difference between a good and a great DJ set."
Words: Russell Deeks Pic: Marie Staggat
Green Supreme is out on Ladies & Gentlemen on 24 February, and can be pre-ordered here. The single Grass Is Greener, featuring Antonia Vai, is out now