When your career encompasses as much as that of Christian Smith, your words hold weight in the world of techno.
The Swedish DJ, producer and Tronic founder has released music since the late ‘90s. In that time he’s traveled between Brazil, New York and his nation of origin, weathering the ebbs and flows of the industry while eking out a niche for himself as a tastemaker.
Earlier this month, Smith set aside some time to speak with Selector at SeifhauS presents An Intimate Evening w/ Christian Smith at Milk Bar in Denver, Colorado. During the interview, he went as far as to disclose which Tronic signee he considers to be most underrated.
Christian Smith also touched on topics like Movement’s controversial 2018 lineup and his upcoming John Selway collaboration. Find his answers to our questions below, and expect the Count Zero EP out on Tronic March 5th.
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You recently announced that your John Selway collaboration is out on vinyl in March. You and Selway have teamed up on a diverse cross section of house and techno over the years, so where does part one of the Count Zero EP fall on that musical spectrum?
Christian Smith: John and I have made a bunch of singles throughout the years. In the past ten or so years I’ve worked more by myself, but this year I was in New York and we were in the studio together and we decided to work together again because we always had very good chemistry in the studio. We started making techno when we started working together 13 years ago – and we still make techno – so the single coming out in March is pretty much peak time techno.
Kind of like you and Selway’s 2008 Drumcode collaboration, “Total Departure?”
CS: I would say stylistically similar to that, yes.
What led you to divide the EP into two parts?
CS: Just to make it more interesting. These days there are very few stories behind releases and the shelf life of music is very short. I wanted to make it a little bit more interesting, do special artwork, and with this project I want to make it a series. Two or three albums; we haven’t decided yet.
So far 2018 has seen two massive Tronic compilations, one of which titled Flashback just came out this week. Your particular style of techno could already be described as melodic, but selections from both albums were especially progressive. Is that deliberate – and if not, what do you feel might be inspiring such a creative tangent?
CS: I wouldn’t say “progressive.” “Musical” for sure; I’ve always pushed musical techno with melodies. It’s funny because I’ve done this a long time on Tronic and right now musical techno is very popular. If you look at Drumcode, for example, pretty much every release is very musical right now. I just do what I love and I follow my passion. I don’t care what is trendy right now, and I think that is one of the secrets of the success of Tronic: not following trends.
Among the locations in which you’ve spent meaningful time over the years is São Paulo, Brazil, which also happens to be a hot growth market for electronic music. As you command a significant following there, how have you observed the city’s house and techno scene evolve?
CS: I lived in Brazil for a couple of years and also toured a lot through South America. Yes, you’re right, the region has expanded a lot. The first time I played there was around 17 years ago, so I can really see how everything evolved – and now when I go to Agentina, even if I play alone I get 3-4,000 people. Argentina is huge and people are very passionate. At the end of the day the Latins like to party so they’re very passionate, and yeah, the scene is fantastic. In my opinion Argentina is the best country in the world right now to DJ in. Brazil can be very good too; it’s a very strong market but it tends to be more on the commercial side.
Five years ago you began releasing studio-length albums, and Tronic’s focus has also shifted more to albums as of late. Meanwhile, mainstream electronic tastemakers like Calvin Harris are adopting a single-only model for more practical reasons. Do you think the roles have reversed and house/techno audiences call for longer, more conceptual efforts nowadays?
CS: I wouldn’t say so, and actually, I disagree with that question. I release albums on Tronic because I want to help the artists evolve musically and push them to release music that’s more outside the box musically. It’s easy to do one techno single after another, but it’s much more difficult to release a cohesive album. I honestly believe that concept is not very lucrative right now. Albums don’t do well, but I don’t really care about sales or income. It’s about developing the artist and moving forward, and I think that if an artist gets a chance to produce an album, he or she should. It’s a lot of fun as well. However, this year I’m going to do less albums on Tronic because last year we had around five, I think. Each album entails a lot of work between marketing, public relations and planning. This year you’re going to see a little bit more singles.
You were recently revealed as one of the Movement 2018 headliners amid a somewhat controversial lineup announcement. What are your thoughts on the social media clamor?
CS: I honestly just saw a few comments. I understand from the promoters’ standpoint. At the end of the day they do a festival for 30-40,000 people, and you will always hear people moaning about the lineup. Also, you can’t book the same people every year. You can’t book Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin every year. You have to book other people. I think Diplo – who is, by what I hear, the person everybody is moaning about – I’m sure he’s not gonna play a cheesy EDM set. He’ll adjust and, I hope, play a more techno-style set. As for the other commercial acts, like I said, it’s a festival and they want to please several markets – and they want to grow. Nothing wrong with that. Also, if you consider this Movement lineup commercial have a look at EDC. The commercial names on Movement would be considered underground acts at EDC. I’m actually really happy to be on it.
“Tech house” is something of a dirty word among dance music purists these days. Although your style predates the descriptor, some of your music does share a lot in common with much of what has been termed such. Honestly, do you ever feel pressure to find ways of setting your releases apart from what comes out on labels like Toolroom?
CS: That is a very good question. Like I mentioned before, one of the secrets to my longevity as an artist is not really caring about trends. I’ve been making techno and house long before the term “tech house” existed. I used to call it “housey techno.” At the end of the day, if something is house and techno that’s the best of both worlds, and together it’s a great product. To me tech house, if done right, is not a dirty word. Of course, if you do the really commercial side of it, it sucks – but the same with techno. There’s a lot of shitty techno out there, so you just have to seek out the good music with any genre.
Tronic has provided a platform for several notable producers over the years. Currently, however, who do you consider to be the label’s most underrated artist?
CS: I would say Wehbba from Brazil. He is a fantastic producer and amazing DJ. He’s got two albums on Tronic and a single coming out on Drumcode next month, I think. He’s doing very well, but he should be doing even better. I hope the next single on Drumcode will give him a little bit more promotion so he gets out there a little bit more than he is now.
I couldn’t help but notice that you’re a sake fan, which appears to be a common drink of choice among techno producers. Have you tried Richie Hawtin’s ENTER. sake?
CS: Yes, of course. I’m friends with Richie so I’ve had all the different flavors that he has on his line.
Be honest – what’s your take on it?
CS: They’re really good. He’s teamed up with excellent sake producers from different regions in Japan, most of which are small, boutique producers. The quality of the sake is really impeccable. I really like sake, but I love wine. I’m also a big wine drinker. Not all techno guys only drink sake; if you look at the big picture there’s only Richie Hawtin and Dubfire who are really into sake. I like sake, of course, but if I had to choose between sake and wine I would choose wine.
Aside from tracklist entries on the aforementioned Tronic compilations, you’re still holding back on the production front so far in 2018. What can you tell us about your first big release of the year?
CS: My collaboration with John Selway is definitely gonna be my first big project of 2018. It’s coming out on March 5th, and I’m really excited about that because one is peak time dark techno and one is really musical but also really powerful at the same time. I’m excited about this project and I hope it will do well.