WHEN HARRY MET DANNY
Words and interview: Ralph Moore
A short aside before we start. Ahead of an hour long Zoom conversations with Danny and Harry during lockdown, I prepped by re-reading ‘The Record Players’ by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, an exhaustive historical chapter by chapter blow (out) with some of the most important DJ revolutionaries in electronic music, from David Mancuso, Ian Levine and John Peel to Mike Pickering and Sasha. The recently departed acid house DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall (A.K.A. Lord Sabre) is actually mentioned at the end of Bill and Frank’s introduction with another of his killer lines regarding the fervor to his craft: ‘I’ve had the joy of hearing this for the first time, now it’s your turn!”
It’s this open-hearted and open-minded spirit that informed this wide-ranging conversation with Danny Tenaglia and Harry Romero, who have more in common than you might realize: it’s way more than that original NYC beat connection. The more eagle-eyed of you will have seen that Harry was credited as engineer on Danny’s comeback single for Hot Creations last year, ‘Don’t Turn Your Back’. It was an emphatic return after over a decade away that showed DT had lost none of his taste for drama, although in real life he’s determined to be as drama-free as possible at home in Miami. Similarly, Harry Romero’s home studio The Butcha Shop in New Jersey has been busier than ever, furiously recording, editing, remixing and mastering much in the same way that a woodsman chops wood, although Harry’s art history background points the way to the manner in which his creative spark is ignited. (“Harry,” Josh Wink told me recently, “is a machine.”)
In many ways, Harry sees music as a blank canvas onto which he paints a series of abstract creations and recently those creations have included remixes for Defected and Classic as well as the global smash ‘Where Do We Go’ with Weiss, his first release on the illustrious Island Records imprint: it’s little wonder that his music is all over recent sets from Louie Vega and Honey Dijon when the quality is this colo(u)rful. Like Danny, Harry has serious history. Between them, these two have created some of the finest club records in house music history. Let’s start with Harry. In the late 90s it was Circo Loco smashes like ‘Night @ The Black’ and ‘Tania’ on Bambossa and ‘Go Back’ with Robert Owens on Subliminal as well as that absolutely stonking sax-fuelled remix for Danny Tenaglia’s ‘…Back’ last summer and Honey’s own updated remix of ‘Tania’. Danny, meanwhile, has a history in club culture that reaches right back to New York in the seventies, and his deep knowledge of music goes right back to The Beatles and takes in Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind And Fire and the Pet Shop Boys along the way: indeed, he not only produced part of the PSB’s 1996 album ‘Bilingual’, his remix of lead single ‘Before’ was even nominated for a Grammy. Of course, his own anthems are as durable as incredible as ever, even a decade or two onwards. Honey Dijon has helped shine a light on some of those Twisted classics like ‘Music Is The Answer’ and ‘Dancin’ And Prancing’ but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t mention his 2002 remixes for KOT’s ‘Finally’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘I Feel Loved’: a recent Sunday blast of the latter mix, the timeless 12 minute dub especially, confirms that remains one of the finest remixes the Mode ever had made and that’s all down to the creative vision of DT. And that one was nominated for a Grammy too.
But if Danny is the director, Harry is more the architect. Danny’s towering knowledge and drive makes him more like Goldie, the creative genius in the director’s chair, the producer with all the sonic ideas who pulls a crack team around him to create those iconic records: during the interview, he admits to having never properly gotten to grips with Ableton but despite this, all of Danny’s records have the same deep production weight and sonic snarl: you can tell a DT record from the drums just in the same way that you would with classic Masters At Work and Deep Dish productions before them.
I first experienced Danny Tenaglia work his 24-hour party magic for the people at Space in Miami, which by 2000 was the undeniable focal point party of what was then called Winter Music Conference. Twenty years ago, there were no smart phones (just pocket-friendly Nokia 3310s) and the world was a simpler place for seasoned ravers of all shapes and sizes. This writer will never forget walking into the club for the first time to see half of my house music heroes lining up to pay their respects and dance their proverbial socks off to Danny and his incredible music, Carl Cox, Erick Morillo, Farley and Heller, Rocky and Diesel and Róisín Murphy among them. Countless other Boys Own heads were there making mental notes too and everyone knew the same thing that I did: which was that there was nowhere else in the world that we needed to be more than on the terrace in outer Space. And equally: we weren’t going to leave until the bouncers threw us out at lunchtime the next day. But that’s a story for another time…
R: Let’s start with a question inspired by The Record Players: at its best, is there an art to being a DJ?
DT: “To me, I’ve always said I’m an entertainer. And give advice to people who say ‘Danny, man, what’ve I got to do to get gigs?’ and so on. But my answer is still the same because maybe it’s just so much easier to be a DJ now with devices like Traktor and Record Box. But you can’t teach somebody what selections to play and what to feel and how to make the people feel what they’re feeling. So I can teach people how to DJ and use the mixer, you know sync etcetera, but I can’t teach them how to be an entertainer: that's just a gift.”
H: “I agree with you, man. That’s what separates you with 99% of the quote-unquote DJs out there. It’s an instinct that needs to be nurtured.”
D: “Yeah exactly! You give me a brush, I couldn’t paint for shit!”
H: “I see it as an instinct: the technical stuff you can teach a monkey to do it! But it’s those instincts that you rely on when you look out on to the dance floor and you say: ‘ok maybe they’ve had enough of those 20/30 minutes of this same kind of drum vibe, but what do we switch it and still keep them interested? It’s an instinct. How do we keep the vibe going, how do we keep the night going, you know with making it different but keeping most people engaged and keeping most people dancing. It’s an instinct. You can’t teach that stuff, man. Instincts can’t be taught.”
R: Talking of teaching and training: Harry you have a fine art degree don’t you? So you see music as something that you sculpt?
H: “100%! The creative process is the same whether you’re doing visual arts or making music. The creative process is all the same: it’s the medium that makes all the difference. I still approach the making of music as colours. Certain sounds I see as colours. How do I take these sounds (colours) and create an amazing audible drawing or painting? This question is what keeps me focused on creating and best of all, it’s a question I will never answer.”
R: Danny, bringing this over to you: when we last spoke we had a really good chat about the remixes you’d made and how much the budgets had dropped since that golden era.
D: “All throughout the 1990s to Depeche Mode and Kings of Tomorrow in 2002… from 1998 to 2002 was when I crunched them all in! But the thing was that everything I’ve done was all made on 2 separate machines locked together (so 48 tracks) and working in big studios with consoles. And the way I went about recording would be I would come up with the parts or again musicians but I would record from the beginning to the end of the tape. Just get all these different ideas down and then when it would come to mix day, I would go in and just listen to all the parts and come up with an arrangement. And because I had an idea of the direction I wanted to go, if it’s a remix to a song then you know there is a framework there but you know you have in the back of your mind you’re going to do this main version. If it’s a vocal, then you want to do a dub then they might request a radio edit, but the way I would create would be to print up to 40 tracks or more and then have a good nights rest and then go back and spend a good day or two on the mix and the arrangement. When it was done, we would be print from the 2inch to DAT tapes and it would take it into another session with a friend via Ableton or whatever they might have been using. It was a lot.”
H: “You create the approach that allows you to create in a certain way. As you said there’s a process, there’s like two or three processes to the finished product. I know for example for me when I edit, when I make edits, sometimes I’ll approach my productions now as I did back then which is you create these parts and they’re just then you create these what we called mutes back then and then you create your arrangement. And the outcome I feel is so much better because you live with it. The spontaneity is making the parts, and then you have time to really massage the thing and make something you could’ve never programmed on a computer. It’s impossible.”
D: “Even for me like something you can do right now, Harry that you do so greatly, you’ve got this big computer screen in front of you and you can see it all, I didn’t have that back then that visualisation. I mean I’m sure it was there because I was hiring the programmers and I was sitting right next to them! But I wasn’t looking at the way people were looking at it.”
H: “Linear, you were looking at it in a linear way.”
D: “It was all just a feeling, and there were often parts that were just never made it to the final cut because of overkill. Which happened a lot in a lot of my mixes!”
H: “The minimalism we call exhausting the content, you’re down back to the bare essentials. You’re back to what the music means and everything else is extra, but to get to that point you have to understand what the music means, and create the extra. Its amazing man, I love taking the punch.”
R: I’m finding this fascinating so I’m just throwing in perspective here. If making a big record is the equivalent of making a movie then you’re basically the director. Is that the right kind of analogy?
D: “I don’t want this to sound pompous, but when you used to read record labels, a perfect example would be Prince, those records would say written, produced, performed, composed and arranged by Prince… and I think that’s more than directing. You know, referring back to Phillip Lee and the sound of Philadelphia Orchestra I just envision being a fly on the wall, imaging that part when Vincent Montana came in on the xylophone and Bernie Young on the drums and the strings section, the horns section and watching these musicians that were classically trained you know jazz performers mashing that all together, so the vision I came in with was coming from that background but not as a musician I didn’t have that talent, that gift but I absorbed it. I always kind of imagined it you know how they have Broadway shows about musicals with The Four Seasons and Donna Summer and Elton John. I always in my mind envisioned something like that on Broadway, the sounds of Philadelphia, and again I can’t disown Motown Records for having bands behind the Supremes and Marvin Gaye and a lot of the same players. But Philly was stronger for me in my soul because of its lush productions.”
H: “And the beat.”
R: To finish off this analogy, if Danny is the director and you were involved in the same film, would you be the producer?
H: “That’s such a daunting question, sometimes I feel like I wish I would delegate more of what I do to other people, but then the control freak in me won’t let it happen. You know it goes back to my visual arts training as there’s no accidents in painting as if there’s an accident you can scrape it off with a scraper. So there’s that fine line of not driving yourself crazy, making sure it sounds good, making sure people are gonna understand and like it, making sure you’re expressing yourself as an artist. It’s a giant quagmire of different ideologies and different points of view yet it all falls down to the person sitting in this chair. I don’t know if that makes any sense?”
R: No I think it does!
D: “I was going to say depending on the quantity, it’s a collaboration and it’s a collaborative effort and it’s co-producing. I would never say that I’m an executive producer over Harry, if we’re doing a collaborative track then one thing that’s important you know something like I did with Carole Silvan on ‘Look Ahead’ or Celeda for ‘Music Is The Answer’. Then there was the flip side which I don’t think the bottom-heavy sounds anything like those sounds so its hard to explain but I think my roots being a New Yorker, coming from my roots I absorbed not just the soul but also the Latin influences as my neighbourhood were predominantly Latino. All the schools I went to from first grade to Catholic School were probably an Italian/ Puerto Rican split, same thing with Junior High School. So I was picking up on the rhythm influences. So I think as I hit teenage years and as I hit closer to being 19/20, I was working at a roller disco for two years and we sometimes would have dance night and take off the skates and it was all kind of like ‘Just Begun’ and ‘Sex Machine’. Obvious tracks they used to break the rock to which was the straight version of vogueing. It was all about battles and stuff but you don’t touch each other.”
H: “Vogueing is gay!? I didn’t know that.” *both laugh*
D: “I witnessed that too, on the Piers of St Christopher Street. I would go down and watch them vogue, and go down and watch them play. I also went to a few vogueing balls.”
H: “You went to the balls?”
D: “I went to a couple of them, people don’t even talk about it but I learnt so much about the Inferno and Bonds International and Mars…”
H: “Mars on the Westside!”
D: “I can think of so many places that I learnt so much from. But again it was me just absorbing all of this like a sponge, just from all the early soul, Stevie Wonder or whatever to the Philly stuff. You know things always started to get a little harder, James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ is a good example and there was that little rock and roll side of me from listening to what my brothers and cousins were playing. I never loved it all but it made an impact on me, without a doubt. I would say that maybe going off the track right now but 1973 was a transformation of the soul meets rock and that could not have been better done than The Isley Brothers with ‘That Lady’: when that lead guitar comes in and then goes and then comes back, I think it was the first song that I was allowed to play longer than three and a half minutes. That song changed my life ‘cause I was just like ‘what is this!’
H: “You know what else happened in 1973 that I don’t think people were aware of?”
D: “You were born?”
H: “Yeah I was born!”
D: “That was a good guess.”
H: “You know what’s interesting to me, and I’ll use Louie Vega as an example. It’s interesting to me how we all come from the same area and I don’t want to say you guys were polar opposites ‘cause you didn’t! The common fabric is the soul in it. But you went down darker alleys than he did. I find that so interesting man! I don’t know if it’s a question it might just be a statement.”
R: The reality is when I first heard you play in 98/99 it was all about that darker metallic groove. Meanwhile, Masters At Work eventually went more soulful and funky, if you will.
D: “First thing I’ll say is that you know Louie is very, very talented, he’s got such a great ear. My personal experience of approaching this is I started a lot longer before Louie when Louie came on to the scene it was like The Devils Nest and Silent Morning via Funhouse kind of era. I go back more than 10 years before that and listening to songs like ‘War’, ‘City Country City’ and you know things like that all that I mention before there are many means that inspired me but by the time that 1994 came round just as I embraced other stuff from soul to rock from Moroder and Kraftwerk. I think by the time I started noticing minimal and techno, it was like a nice refreshing change. On top of that, not only was I embracing that as change I mean you couldn’t deny those records back then, ‘Convextion’ by Convextion on Matrix Records to me is one of the best tracks ever made, like just having fun in the studio and probably had no idea how amazing it would sound in the club. I drove a lot of people away playing tracks like that especially on Saturday when it was gay night. You know Pink Floyd and of course the Beatles I love so much as well as Patty Labelle, Chaka Khan. But I never loved every sound on each label. You just find those ones you cling to.”
R: Do you still have a connection to New York emotionally now?
H: “I mean I don’t have the history that Danny has, I never held a residency in New York. My references to New York were limited to Danny Tenaglia, Masters At Work, Frankie Knuckles sometimes at The Sound Factory, but that was it. I really don’t have a connection where I’m sitting today right now with New York at all. My drums are very New York and New Jersey as a point of departure. Not beyond that but when I’m making music I’m not imagining myself in a New York City club that’s just what it sounds like.”
R: What would you define as an amazing NYC club to play in?
D: “In my honest opinion in what I’ve witnessed since the 70s, they are 100% all gone. The only thing I connect to is the newer generation that I’ve played for maybe at Brooklyn Mirage or the $3 Bill where we did a vinyl reunion last year that felt almost like a new york appeal, we brought in a sounds system it wasn’t nothing fancy about it. But that’s a pop-up party and that’s in Brooklyn. Crossing that bridge to Manhattan used to be everything and earlier I had mentioned the Inferno and Starship and Bonds International and so many clubs they had so many reasons why they were great besides the DJs and the lights, it was a synchronicity, it was a family of employees who cared so much about making it special about when 10PM came it was time to open doors you know everything was a bunch of artistic people, like-minded but its gone and I don’t think it’ll ever return because of the cost. And you know when people do want to bring something big back to New York they’re going to go Vegas cause it’ll be a 2million dollar light show and it’ll be overkill. So the rawness and the spiritual side of it will only come round once in a while when they have like a Body And Soul 718 sessions or Shelter with maybe myself and Louie. Old-timers really.”
H: “I was going to say, a lot of these parties bring out the gravers, people who used to rave back in the day. Occasionally a young person, but mostly it’s the people who experienced the club back in the day!”
D: “Did you say gravers?!”
H: “Is it engaging the younger audience? I would say yeah I mean to some extent it has to!”
D: “My biggest problem with being a DJ in New York or anywhere for that matter is that when people want to hear me play classics it doesn’t come off right cause if you don’t know the songs and can’t really sing to them then you’re not really getting that or coming from a place of being like you’re not really hearing this at hear or remember when this guy used to play it or when my Mom used to play it, a connection with so many songs. Whereas the kids today yes they’re hungry to hear it and learn it but as a DJ you’re playing ‘Keep On’ by D Train and it maybe doesn’t mean so much.”
R: We can’t close out with mentioning Miami. Do you remember Carl Cox dancing on the bar to your music?
““I totally do. I would say in many ways that was a highlight of my career at that stage! Carl was so into the grooves I was playing – a techno moment or a deep house moment – so he climbed on the bar being himself. Looking back, Groovejet couldn’t exist ever again, likewise Studio 54 and The Garage. The congregation of industry was so diverse and to see MURK, Paul Oakenfold, Farley and Heller and Pete Tong there… it was so amazing to keep them together through the music I loved. When I didn’t live in Miami in the 90s, I would get depressed when it was all over. There was such magic in the air! So once conference was over, it was like, ‘where am I?’ It made me feel a sense of pride. Because I was doing there what was almost like a show. I wasn’t on the mike a lot but I loved announcing people. I used to play a record three times! When a crowd went off, I had to play it again. And I could see the feeling when people looked at me. And I would say this is the new DJ Vibe, the new Murk or the new Deep Dish. With that crowd, I felt they totally enjoyed it. I would bring down the music and say, this is the new Peace Division! Those days of record of the conference were so long gone and it go to a point where I bought an LED light sign and that became fun. It was something unique.”
R: So you have great memories of Carl I imagine.
“We’ve done quite a few things together, maybe close to ten. He had me as a guest a few times at Ultra and our biggest event was at Twilo together when I was a resident. People loved that. I went on after Carl, then when I played he danced with the people for a bit. At Space Ibiza I was a guest many times and even back in the day, at Underground I played with him and Jim Masters in London. I always felt a good positive connection with Carl.”
H: A final question from me. What’s your favourite disco record?
“’Love Is The Message’ by MFSB. It laid the foundation.”