Before Wolfgang Gartner ascended to the forefront of electro house, he made deep and soulful club cuts as Joey Youngman. Now he’s returning to those roots.
Fed up with formulaic, festival-driven nature of dance music’s present, Gartner’s has refocused his production efforts on new material that takes stylistic cues from the classic disco and Chicago house of his past.
“Unholy,” his first single from this body of work, will be released on Gartner’s own Kindergarten imprint on October 21. Sporting a throwback vocal from Bobby Saint over pulsing synthesizers and bumping bass, the single imparts a clear signal for Gartner’s new creative direction.
Watch the video teaser for “Unholy” exclusively on Billboard:
Billboard caught up with Gartner in Los Angeles, where the producer is hard at work on a forthcoming album, to discuss his new direction and disillusionment with the dance scene.
Billboard: What led you to change your sound?
Wolfgang Gartner: I don’t know if I realized until last year that the current musical phenomenon that dominates the Beatport dance charts just started going downhill. When things started going in that direction that summer, I also switched back over to releasing music through my own record label, so that was a little transition period there. I had had an A&R who had to approve my music for the past few years, which is a part of being on a record label — and now suddenly I am my own A&R, and I don’t have to make music for a label. I can literally do whatever I want. That was part of what allowed me to open up. The other part was the soul and funk and disco music I grew up on. Before I was Wolfgang Gartner, I used to make sampled disco house, funky house, Chicago house, and I switched over around the time that dance music started to become commercially viable again, with the transition to digital music around 2007 and 2008.
This is my third turning point, or career transition, but it’s not like a rap producer trying to become a rapper. I’m still making dance music. EDM is not EDM anymore. It’s just electronic music, but it’s not dance music. It’s like people hanging over guardrails pumping their fists. That’s not dancing. I’m still doing the same thing as when I switched over to being Gartner from making disco house to grungy electro, which is still four-to-the-floor beats and 125-128 bpm, but now the whole feeling behind it is different because it’s coming from a place of funk and soul.
Did you feel there was a lot of pressure to maintain a certain sound when you were with Ultra?
Not from them, necessarily. They weren’t barking down my throat saying ‘you have to do this or be the Wolfgang everyone expects’ or anything like that. They let me have my creative freedom. But when you are on a label and you’re signed to a contract and given a check, you’re expected to do a certain thing. It wasn’t necessarily that I felt pressure coming from them. If anything I should blame it on myself… but yeah, I did feel that a part of me was trying to be safe and continue to produce the sound I feel I kind of spearheaded and championed. I was in a groove doing my thing, and at the time I didn’t realize I was in this little bubble, but now when I look back on the last six months to a year of music that I put out on Ultra — it’s good music to play in my sets, but I wondered if I’d look back on it in ten years and say ‘these were timeless’ or ‘these were just cool dance tracks.’ And it was the latter. They were just cool dance tracks, and that wasn’t enough anymore.
Do you still feel there are interesting things happening in electro house?
That’s a good question. As a DJ, I can’t just play my own stuff. I grew up in the era of DJs playing music that nobody had heard before, so part of what I do is go on Beatport and blogs and just search for everything. I don’t really use the charts anymore; I just go to my favorite artists and labels. I’ll spend eight hours on Beatport listening to new albums, new labels and people that I follow. I’ve found that when I look at my shopping cart at the end, most of it is house, rather than electro house. As for what’s coming out and being branded as electro house right now, I don’t think there’s much innovation at all. Electro house has turned into something different than it once was. It’s gotten very festival-oriented — but that’s not necessarily the problem. The problem is what people want at a festival, and the fact that DJs are trying so hard to get those main stage and closing spots, so they want to play sure-shots, clichés and formulas that people recognize.
There’s something about formulaic music that actually works very well in dance clubs and music festivals, because people like to know when things are going to come. That’s why you hear all these catchphrases like “1, 2, 3 jump” so people know when to jump in the air. Part of the problem is the dance music audience, part of the problem are the DJs who are training these fans, and another part is the music being made by producers geared towards this festival-oriented big business system that dance music has become, especially over the past two years with the corporatization that has happened. It’s like a feedback loop.
What was it like to re-approach this sound as an artist?
It was awesome. I haven’t had a creative block since I started creating this shit. I used to have them at least once a month. I’d come in and bang my head for at least three days until I finished something. That’s what makes me realize — I just literally realized this right now — that this is what I’m supposed to be making. This is what comes naturally to me. Maybe there’s an element of what I was doing before that comes unnaturally to me, I don’t know. There’s some stuff on this album that isn’t formatted for DJs, tracks that are under 120 bpm with a rapper on it. I’ve allowed myself to come in and make whatever I feel like making that day. If I feel like making slower, funkier shit that can’t necessarily be played in clubs, I’ll make that. At the end of the week or month, I go through it all with my manager and see which ones have something special to them. We start thinking about all the different artists whose sound and aesthetic fits what I’m trying to do right now, and we get them in the studio to do vocals. A majority of what I did before was instrumental, while a majority of what I’m doing now is collaborating with vocalists, which is a lot more exciting and musically fulfilling.
How many new songs do you have ready?
I think I have 10 completely finished, and two that are almost there. I basically have an album with 12 songs almost ready. I’m not sure how many I’m shooting for now, since I’m not signed to a label. We’re still working out that part. I’m just looking at it as making music. With “Unholy,” I’m just putting it out on my own label. As of now, we haven’t solidified any record contracts, which I think is a good way for me to finish this music while not being under a system and not knowing how it’s going to come out. It’s uninfluenced by all that stuff.
It seems like many of the fans that got into dance music during the EDM boom are discovering more underground sounds, like deeper house. Do you feel the American market is ready for the new sound you’re making?
What you say is true about the underground, especially the whole deep house thing. As far as what I’m doing, I don’t think it fits into that category. I think those are two different things. I’ve seen the resurgence of acts like Disclosure as a perfect example — I’m actually a huge fucking fan of theirs.
This year was the most I’ve toured America in my career, as opposed to other countries, so I really know what’s going on out there right now. It’s very divided. At the clubs I play, I could not put on a single Disclosure or deep house track. All this stuff is going on, but it’s going on in completely different venues and completely different factions of dance music, so I don’t really see my stuff as being in that vein.
Most of the songs on this album are formatted like radio cuts, so I’m doing extended mixes and remixing them as if I was making an edit for myself to play in a set. I’m making more club, festival and DJ friendly versions of them, because I want to be able to play all this stuff in my sets, with my old stuff, and have them work together. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing touring-wise, playing to the same size audiences, and people who used to like what I’m doing and people who like what I’m doing now will come together to make up whatever the new fan base is. I don’t think I’m going to have to go into a separate underground faction of dance music. I’m trying to change the one I’m currently in.