June/July 2001

by Richard Thorne

House Of Downtown: Whatever Comes Their Way

by Richard Thorne

House Of Downtown: Whatever Comes Their Way

For three years Auckland’s House of Downtown have been engineering themselves a reputation of creative dance floor excellence. DJ-in-demand, Emerson Todd (residencies at Calibre and The Box as well as Stateside in Sydney), and his even more experienced DJ/producer partner, Christiaan Ercolano, have created a wicked air of expectation for their debut album ‘Release’.

‘Release’ is due in stores early July 2001, released on HoD’s very own State House Records label, through Universal. Their hybrid of “natural house/R&B crossover” will be this country’s first full self-penned dance album, a significant milestone in the development of the international reputation of Kiwi dance music.

Though both respected DJs, live performances involve no turntables – no computers either. They do pretty much everything live, which their audiences can see and really appreciate.
“What we are not playing live is basically eight bar grooves, and that’s it, everything else is done live over the top of those,” Emerson explains.

The two operate completely separately on stage, no MIDI links. An Akai MPC 3000 sampling workstation is at the centre of the sound, syncing a Roland TR-909 analogue drum machine and also playing bass lines off a dedicated analogue synth. Christiaan has a second analogue synth to play live, plus an MPC 2000 (like its big brother, another sampler/sequencer/drum machine in-one), as well as controlling the use of vocal samples and effects with his Jim Dunlop Heli Talkbox.

“l’ve got the MPC 3000 and 909, mixer, solid state filters, a bunch of Joe Meek gear; delays, reverbs, phaser controls,” says Emerson. “I do all the sequencing and mixing live, so I’m actually deciding the structure of the songs at the time. Christiaan is playing vocal samples and the Talkbox and keyboard lines over the top. At any moment we can go, “Hey, shall we break down now?’ or ‘Let’s go to this section of the song’.”

Christiaan takes over. “We’ve just got really good at going bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, stop! And people like seeing me hit those pads on the MPC 2000, it’s not like hitting a keyboard for vocal samples – it seems to get a much better public response than a keyboard. So basically I’m just hammering out lyrics.

“I think the songwriting process from now will be done the way we’ve been playing live. You just get such a better vibe and bigger sound. I think we lost some energy through all the processes we did to finish this album because we were a little bit nervous about it being the first full dance album done in the country. Everyone was starting to look to us with major expectations.”

Their debut House of Downtown album really began its gestation back last century, meaning it has taken “a little too long” to complete, Emerson admits. They suffered the nightmare of a computer hard drive seizure in “the great crash of ’99,” losing several completed songs just a week after they signed to Universal.

“We had only done those four or five tracks before we started the album, so we spent a long time here writing!”

‘Here’ is a house in Three Kings, suburban Auckland, well away from any ‘downtown’ club scene. The wooden-floored lounge provides the recording and rehearsal space.

“We’ve always thought about a worldwide market for the album, so in July last year, thinking we had finished, we went to Europe to shop it. We had about four meetings a day and got to play it to some of our favourite record labels and producers. They all said, ‘These are great demos, you are doing same amazing stuff. Why don’t you go back and finish them?’ Oh, okay!

“It was actually clarifying, we just had too much shit in there, it was too record-orientated or something like that. lt was a good wake up for us. We had all these people around us here saying, ‘That’s the most amazing stuff I’ve ever heard’, but we wanted this record to get that sort of response overseas.”

Returning from the self-funded 12-day European journey of enlightenment they ditched five songs from the ‘finished’ album. Actually they went straight into recording the soundtrack for Kiwi film ‘Stickmen’, putting everything else on hold for over two months.

Work restarted on their own album again in September 2000, the rewriting completed early December, by which time they had decided they wanted to go back to Europe for track mixing. The earlier trip had made them aware mixing facilities available here were not up to international expectations.

“We also wanted to mix with someone cocky enough to say, ‘No you’re wrong, it won’t work on that snare’ or whatever,” laughs Christiaan. “Everyone here was looking up to us like we couldn’t put a foot wrong – no, we’ve put thousands of feet wrong!

“We haven’t written marry songs that are the sort of things we play in the clubs. ‘Release’ is an all-CD album, to be noticed as not being normal house music, but as having songs. We wanted this melting pot feel of what goes on in Auckland.”

Representing an important port of that melting pot are the vocals of Sydney-based Tulele Faletau, who Christiaan first encountered as choir master of a Samoan church in Wellington. While no house music aficionado, Faletau lends a confident R&B crossover influence to the album, featuring on three consecutive first half tracks and returning for another couple later. Body Move combines the sublime vocals of both Stephanie Tuavehi and Siena, but other vocal tracks recorded were subsequently left out.

Having decided to mix and master ‘Release’ in England, HoD needed to book an engineer to do the work – which, they already knew, paying in $NZ would make bloody hard. They approached Universal, with whom they first signed a five album licensing deal in 1999, to get more money to fund the trip and work. Even though, as they point out, the amount required for their full album was about that spent on a decent single in England, there was suddenly talk about re-negotiating their contract.

“We were very naive going into the contract with Universal,” Christiaan confesses. “They did all the standard record company tricks and at times played international standard of hard ball – when we had never been so broke in our lives! I feel like I have doubled my record company knowledge in the last year – to the point we just decided to start our own one!”

“We had been turned down for funding by NZ On Air – because we are not a pop act, and our music is not suited to radio,” smiles Emerson. “Actually we’ve now had three number ones on the alternative charts. [What Ever Comes, Downtown Groove and Deeper Love.] We’d also tried Creative NZ and the Film Commission, then realised we needed an investor. We found someone who likes similar music to us – and has a great NZ art collection – and is an amazing guy.

“He was totally into it, and few minutes after we met, he said, ‘Yeah, sure’. The next week we established State House Records and revised our Universal arrangement, and two weeks later flew to England.”

Mr Singh, as they call him, is the third partner in HoD’s record label. The same age [33] as Christiaan, he will get to recoup his investment first, directly from his own record company. Emerson, who is just 24, says it’s nice to be able to establish a label and sign artists so they won’t have to go through the same learning curve.

Pnau have already done a remix of Rise Above and their offshoot L’amore are signed to record for State House, while local master DJ Greg Churchill will record an EP in the next six months. Taking a hard drive and a pile of back up CDs generated from their 16-track Pro Tools system, in mid-December HoD headed to England for the second time in a year. Former Underworld DJ Darren Emerson heard a demo of the album when here for the Big Day Out and had recommended the perfect mix engineer, tells Christiaan.

Mike Nielson, who did all the Jamiroquai stuff, and all the Underworld stuff, and is a Kiwi! He was half of Lava Lava, with Benny Staples, and has been in London for 16 years. He works for the Strongroom and can get like 1000 quid a day without the room – we had about half that and needed a room!”

They had just four days booked to finish six tracks with Nielson, who generously threw in a few extra days for his countrymen.

“The bit that amazed us was his understanding of our vibe and what we were trying to do, right from the word go,” fizzes Emerson, before Christiaan takes over.

“He started it all again from scratch, taking everything out of the sound, but he had this amazing ability to get a width and depth – I just don’t know how he did it? Processing, equipment or just good engineering or what?”

They agree the biggest thing learnt from that experience was to think of the sound in 3D – not left and right, but forward and back.

“Mike said another interesting thing, ‘…frighten your ears’. Mix for ages on one set then just change – it’s good to keep changing monitors.”

Album mixing responsibilities were half-shared with another engineer, Phil de Costa, who also engineers for Youth. de Costa got to mix the more electronic songs since he has a more traditional English house sound.

“Everything was pretty much produced, we had everything sounding how we wanted it to on Pro Tools,” explains Christiaan. “It had all the filters, EQs, choruses and everything, so it was really a matter of someone carving a little bit more away. He was good cos he got the stuff with no, or very little vocal, and I think we got it right.”

The second studio was in Acton, and here HoD lucked in again big time. A business buy-out only two months before our boys got there meant all bookings for the “amazing” Pow recording studio had been cancelled and it was sitting empty.

“It wasn’t just luck,” Christiaan notes. “We used a producer management company called Biglife, who knew we had useless peso currency, and someone hunted down this room for us. Actually it was because of Buggy G [Auckland-based designer who also supplied the HoD cover and editorial photos for this issue plus the ‘Release’ artwork], who does our press photos. He did all the Future Sound Of London stuff and lives over here now. He is managed by BigIife (who also manage Youth), and put the good word in, so the guys in the UK went out of their war majorly to get us the goods!”

Tracks were first mixed and mastered long, then cut down for CD, the tape masters left in England to be later redone for vinyl versions. Album mastering was done by Nilz Patel at the Exchange Mastering House, and he will also do the vinyl versions. Christiaan reckons he’s probably the best they could find.

“Nilz does Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx – he just finished Air a day or two before we got there. Mastering for the CD is a matter of crunching numbers; sparkle, bright, bass, tidy it up, clean, raise… don’t do too much – but the vinyl is a whole other game. He said what gets him up in the morning is every day seeing how loud he can get people’s songs to play! It took him as long to make two one-off vinyl cuts for us as it did to master the whole album.”

While all the vinyl will be cut in the UK, the CDs will be pressed here for NZ and then in each new territory as Christiaan explains.

“Our own label is licensed exclusively to Universal in NZ, so it’s a very small deal at this point. We’ll shop it from there. You’ve got to do your own territory’s numbers and those percentages get looked at in the other Universal branches around the world. Hopefully we can use that crazy NZ percentage-per-capita thing and it will look quite good!”

Quite apart from potential costs, the time involved clearing samples can be exhausting. Months down the road from acceptance, the paper work is still being processed for the few samples they used.

“You have to get two clearances on each sample – one from the publisher and then track clearance from the record label – and every one is different. Basically when you clear samples it is entirely up to the person on that day as to what percentage they demand. We’re probably the first act in NZ to clear samples, it’s a whole other thing to learn.”

Emerson confirms they dropped a number of samples because they were simply going to cost too much money. No longer appearing are takes from Fatback and Herbie Hancock among others.

“So we got it down to just three samples, two are on What Ever Comes. You’ve got the bass slap, which is Ray Parker Jnr [from Radio’s Get Down], who got a copy and said, ‘Yeah, cool’, and the vocal off that is Alison Williams who did Sleeptalk back in the day. The third is from Tossing, Turning and Swinging by Shalamar.”

Christiaan explains that dropping use of a sample generally presents no big issue.

“All our songs start from a record somewhere, that’s what we use as our inspiration. You find a groove you like then you write around it, and usually what happens in the process is that it gets pushed back and replaced with everything until it is gone. It was a really grainy canvas to work from and eventually you’ve got enough paint on not to worry. By then dropping the original sample doesn’t effect the track too much at all.”

“It’s an incredibly exciting point of songwriting, when you drop the sample and the song stands on its own,” Emerson reflects.

‘Release’ has been finished since January and the pair are anxious to make it happen by shopping it overseas, and getting some European interest happening.

“It’s a huge money making scene over there and we are destined to go over and work. I think things are evolving more towards our side of things,” he says. “In the UK especially everyone is getting deeper, and this is a deep album for Europe. Over here people might not think it’s deep house, but in Europe it definitely is.

“We get this really good (mixed] influence here, and hopefully we are representing the melting pot that New Zealand is,” sums up Christiaan. “That is what ‘Downtown’ means, what’s happening down town. Emerson and I both know that our job now is to get HoD up as the flagship act for our label. It’s not just us anymore. HoD is hopefully going to be what will make the money, and the label will be what we do for love, to get the music out to people, to DJs, so they can play them.”