Lone Romantic: The Dance World According to Maceo Plex

Maceo Plex
Pablo Bustos

Maceo Plex

Luminary DJ/producer on the search for deeper meaning and his first album in five years.

In the plush, zen-white lobby of the Pacha Group's Destino resort in Ibiza, overlooking the hotel's paradisiacal ocean-facing outdoor pool, Eric Estornel chats amiably in Spanish with staff. They're only too eager to serve the American-born, Barcelona-based producer better known as Maceo Plex, but, "Estamos haciendo una entrevista," he reminds them with a smile.

Estornel is a guest of the resort, launching his Mosaic residency at the nearby Pacha on Tuesday night. On the day of our entrevista, though, he's performing at the International Music Summit's 10th anniversary closing party, a killer, if all too brief evening of hour-long back to back sets featuring the likes of Dixon, Miss Kittin and Seth Troxler, held at Dalt Vila, the magnificent fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site sitting atop Ibiza Town.

Later that night Estornel will ascend the cobbled streets flanked by his wife and management team as the crowds part for the biggest name on the bill, closing the event with a back-to-back with Tale of Us. His fans are vocal, crying, "We love you Maceo!", and behind his rose-tinted sunglasses, Estornel appears to be enjoying the rock star moment. And who could blame him? It’s a particularly spectacular gig, but Estornel's been no stranger to moments like these since assuming the Maceo Plex alias in 2011. In the years since, he's become one of the most respected and popular producers on the scene, creating dance floor destroyers of unusual emotional heft; the sort to inspire rumination and even tears as much as dancing.

With his new album Solar arriving five years after the Maceo Plex debut LP, he's hoping to forge an even deeper, more meaningful connection with his audience. "I wanted to connect with fans who are into my music but not necessarily into dance music," he says. "If it doesn't sell well, I don’t really care." "If I get a bad review, I probably will, but I won’t really say anything," he laughs, then looks vaguely wistful as he takes a sip of his detox juice. 

The album shares its name with Estornel's two and a half year old son, and along with track titles such as "Polygon Pulse" and "Tesseract", reflects the producer’s lifelong love of sci-fi, something that grew out of his upbringing in Dallas, where he moved from Miami with his Cuban parents as a teenager.

Just as industrial Detroit was a breeding ground for the extraterrestrial imaginings of producers like Jeff Mills and Juan Atkins ("I think he’s the best producer to come out of Detroit - ever"), culturally-depleted Dallas provided similar inspiration to a young Estornel.

"When you’re that isolated, you tend to come up with concepts for your music that don’t pertain to your surroundings," he says. "In Dallas, the downtown area was kind of a ghost town, there was nothing to do, you had to come up with something that was out of this world."

Two years after Estornel's father bought him a set of Technics turntables, at 16 he was a regular fixture at raves and parties around the city, playing a mix of electro, breaks and techno. "Luckily I was considered Dallas’ youngest DJ, and promoters were interested in promoting that, I guess, so I got started really quick." By 19, he was producing experimental techno and IDM under a few different guises, the main one being Maetrik, then in 2010, shortly after moving from Dallas to Valencia ("everybody was moving to Berlin and it just seemed a bit cliche to me"), Estornel sent a bunch of tracks to Damian Lazarus, who was into the music but wanted Estornel to do a re-brand.

"He’s a really good A&R," says Estornel. "I knew the Maetrik name had grown stagnant even though I was getting better as a producer. It wasn't going anywhere." Estornel put out his first album as Maceo Plex, Life Index, in 2011 on Lazarus' Crosstown Rebels label. Estornel's take on sleazy, soulful deep house was more accessible than anything he'd released as Maetrik, and his popularity as Maceo Plex soon usurped all his other aliases combined.

The Solar project has been a long time coming, teased by two releases in the past two years, Solar Sampler, boasting hit "Solar Detroit", then Journey to Solar. It was, admits Estornel, a way of slowly getting his fans used to the idea that something significant was on its way, albeit something quite different to the dark, brooding house heard on the EPs. "I kind of learnt from other A&R's I've worked with that you don't want to jump into it so quickly, the fan base have a certain sound they want to hear," he says. "It’s taken years to get to the point where they want to go with it."

Three years ago Estornel was riding high as Maceo Plex, releasing a string of hits through his Ellum Audio label, touring extensively and partying nearly as heavily. The arrival of his son, to wife Christine Mooneyhan - herself a producer as Maars and one half of Odd Parents - changed all that. "It wasn’t as important to me any more to travel as much or do as many gigs or to have a hit record," he says. "And people don’t realize it puts a lot of pressure on your relationship as well, it's basically a test."


Nice view of Time Warp 2017 --@time_warp_official

A post shared by Maceo Plex (@maceoplex) on

The highs and lows of navigating his new fatherhood is what Estornel poured into the record, a deep dive of ambient electronica, breakbeats and melodies, with dub and techno flourishes and guest vocalists.

The exception is "Wash Away Your Tears", first released in a sped-up, tougher form on Solar Sampler. "I just had to have it on there, it’s a special track to me, the vocals, the melody," says Estornel. "I wrote it in 2005 or 2006, I was in a really bad relationship and it was written in that really bad relationship and I modified it to fit the low points and trial points of this marriage I’m in now."

Estornel is releasing Solar on Lone Romantic, his new, electronica-based label that shares a name with a track he released in 2006 as Mariel Ito. "I think at that time I was lonely and romantic, there wasn't any girls around me," he laughs. "I think we never really achieve the level of romance that we want or that we imagined - we're all kind of lonely in a way, and we like that feeling of loneliness sometimes. We just put on our favorite Smiths record and get emotional and then get back to reality. That’s why the name was cool to me."

For all his success as Maceo Plex, it's clear satisfaction still eludes Estornel, who had the honor of being the first DJ to perform at Amsterdam's grand Rijksmuseum in October last year. His fans might see him as that rare beast capable of productions that both roil dance floors and reward armchair listening, but he "hates the remixing" and is surprisingly dismissive of what he calls his "big dance tunes."

"Dance music is awesome, it's awesome to make, but it’s for dancing and life isn’t dancing," he says. "Do you connect more with the last amazing dance record you heard, or with Dépêche Mode?” Solar, he says, is far more interesting to him than the hits. "When you write some listening music with a proper concept and message, it's a deeper connection to the people."

On Tuesday night, at Mosaic's 2017 season opening at Pacha, the venue swells and fills as Joy Orbison, then Agents of Time warm up for Estornel. There was consternation around his choice of club for his first Ibiza residency last year, but "Pacha have a really nice need to shed their commercial stigma and create something underground," he says. His free reign is patent, too; as it was last year, this season’s lineup is a blend of esteemed, cerebral names like Jon Hopkins and DJ Koze, as well as emerging talents, "people popular in Berlin or the bowels of London but not in Ibiza."

Estornel plays a pounding techno set that builds on the foundations laid by Agents of Time before him; it’s more Maetrik than Maceo Plex. The crowd laps it up, keeping him playing an hour after close, chasing the producer with one last compliment as he finally steps down from the decks. Estornel smiles as he exits the club and steps out into the sunshine. You just know he’s hoping his fans will follow him off the dance floor, too.