The techno maestro Marc Houle, ex-member of the legendary Minus collective, joins Tijana T in an online chat to talk about his weird Eastern European experiences, past life as a mega nerd, making 3 songs a day, getting hurt in the studio, the possibility of being liked by Madonna and his theory on why minimal techno is dead. He also promised a tour around Balkan villages.
TT: If someone would drop you out of a plane in Belgrade (let’s say) would you be able to tell if it is Belgrade, Timisoara, Sofia, Sarajevo, Bratislava or any other Eastern-european city?
MH: Belgrade yes, but if I was dropped just outside the city and had to guess it would be tough. I’ve spent lots of time in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, so I would know them but outside of that it would be very tough. What are the chances of being dropped out of a plane when I travel to Serbia anyway? Just so i can prepare…
TT: You never know with us, we have some photos you took in a Romanian graveyard…how did you end up there if not being dropped?
MH: That was a fun adventure….I have to look up the name of the city it was in….it was somewhere I never heard of before. Hmm, this might take a bit.
TT: Was it Sibiu?
MH: Hah, yes! OK, so Troy (Pierce) and I were playing at Club Midi in Cluj and we were supposed to leave from there the next day, but the airport was so foggy that we couldn’t leave and they said we had to take a bus 4 hours away in Sibiu. But, it was the next day so we had a day to walk around before driving through the countryside in a weird van. So, on our way to a sports bar – the only thing that was in the area to eat at, we passed by this really creepy cemetery with the fog sleeping over the tomb stones. We stopped and stared for a while before taking a hundred photos. Every shot I took looked like some old Black Sabbath album cover. So, then the next morning we drove to Sibiu where the fog was exactly the same as in Cluj, but for some reason there it was ok to leave. It was a long as trip that really drained us but it was really cool to see the real Romanian countryside. The food sucked at the sports bar p.s.
TT: And the real Romanian cemetery…you do know that Count Vlad aka Dracula is from Romania?
MH: Haha, the Impaler, but that’s so cliche no?
TT: Speaking of cliches – what stereotypes and prejudice proved right and which one proved wrong in you Eastern European experiences?
MH: Anything I say now sounds racist…
TT: No problem, if we realize it is too racist, we’ll cut it out.
MH: Oh, I remember the first time I went to Bucharest, we had to do a security check at the airport going back to Europe. When we landed in France later that day we found out that the security had gone in our bags and stolen all our money we had made that weekend. That sucked. So I learned quickly that you gotta watch your back there and you’re not really too safe – even from the airport security.
It’s just that the whole area is weird and strange. Nothing is quite right and people just do things their own way. Politicians have loads of money and there are wild dogs running around and giant groups of people trading football cards between broken buildings. But, once I am in the club or festival it’s just like anywhere else in the world which is great.
TT: Yes. I remember when you were in Belgrade it was at the time of world football championship and you thought there were protests going on in front of your hotel, but actually….
MH: Yeah, that was insane – a giant MOB there of people trading cards! I was staying at the hotel Moscow which was super cool since it was right out of the cold war days.
TT: Yes, you have it in the photos too. Also, your comment after a whole day of walking around Belgrade is that you took more photos than in Tokyo. What was so interesting?
MH: Yeah for sure! When I was there it was like the whole place was frozen in time. Everything was grey and a little bit broken, everywhere I looked there was a broken sign, paint falling off walls and wood falling off buildings. I really like that stuff so for me to walk around there with my camera was great fun. It’s like the whole area is getting ready to emerge from a past time and for me to be able to absorb it all before the place changes is very exciting. Even when I walk around and feel the old ways then go and play in a club and see the new generation emerging with fresh ideals is so strange.
TT: Oh well, it might never change, you know, we like to nourish our history…
MH: It will change for sure, but I am glad to see it the way it was.
TT: So you can say to your kids: “I was there…” OK, back to you and your music now, I’ve heard a rumour you’re actually a retired millionaire who’s making techno just for the fun of it and for the rock’n’roll lifestyle. True?
MH: Haha, is that a serious question?
MH: Making music for the fun of it would be kind of like me breathing just for the fun of it. This isn’t a part time thing, but something I’ve been doing my whole life. Millionaire.. I’m a hundredaire, hah!
TT: What was your life before the one we know in the last (I think) 8 years when you joined Minus?
MH: I was a mega nerd programming day and night and played drums in a rock band back in Canada. On weekends, I would either play in the band or head across the bridge to Detroit where we would hit up underground warehouse parties and listen to the best music and DJs. Things really haven’t changed too much now that I think of it.
TT: You last album does have a lot of Detroit, Chicago and even disco and new wave sounds/influences. You releases on Minus (or at least the most popular ones) where in a different style. How did the change happen?
MH: Every album I do is a change from the last one. It’s more fun to experiment in the studio than to just spit out music that is safe and I know works like many producers do. I also don’t listen to techno so much at home. I like music from all over so I have many influences I guess? Listening to Under My Thumb right now from the Rolling Stones.
TT: So, you’re converting to classic rock now?
MH: Classic techno rock.
TT: It would work in Serbia. You know what turbo folk is?
MH: Like disco-polo?
TT: No, it’s something between techno, heavy metal and folk. Sometimes rap/hip hop.
MH: Things that shouldn’t be mixed. Like babies and gasoline.
TT: How many unreleased and unfinished tracks you have?
MH: Usually for every song that I release there are about 100 that aren’t. I have fun making tracks, so I would rather sit and make 3 songs in a day then spend a week making one. It’s lots of fun and you learn a lot more about making a song. Sure most of them suck ass but they lead me down the trail towards new directions and that keeps me excited in the studio. Oh you know – that was a Marimba in Under my Thumb not a xylophone of course….totally gonna make marimba techno now.
TT: So, your next album is coming out on Turbo recordings?
MH: It’s coming out on my own label Items & Things, tomorrow actually.
TT: Not that one, the one after that one.
MH: I do have an EP coming out with a new wave project I did 10 years ago that’s coming out in a month on Turbo. Raid Over Moscow, it’s just 3 tracks but I like them. It’s electro 80’s kinda stuff with a French girl singing. It was fun to make and is a slight peek into my synth pop world.
TT: Azari & III (also on Turbo) became Madonna’s favs, are you aiming for that?
MH: Haha, definitely not.
TT: You wouldn’t like to be liked by Madge?
MH: Although I would love to get my hands on all that old material stuff that girl made. Liked by Madge… I dunno, I guess. I’m Canadian, we strive to be liked by all. That’s why I should say now that I love that whole Bulkan region. Balkan. Did you see Madonna at the Superbowl thing? What did you think?
TT: I didn’t like Madonna Superbowl thing.
MH: Yeah it was all show and no content. I hate that but it’s the nature of our business I guess. People respond better to whistles and bells than good music. My next album – whistles, bells and marimbas! My chin really hurts.
TT: Ok back to interview.
MH: This is the interview?
TT: Ok, it is.
MH: Yesterday I was mixing all day in the studio and I found that the way to get the best sound from my speakers is to stick my chin on the table right in the middle. But, after hours I get a bruised chin that hurts for days later. I get the best sound but it really hurts – I need to get a mousepad or something.
TT: Alright. Back to music – “Techno vocals” was a parody on people pitching down vocals in techno songs. If you were to make that kind of parody now, what would be the theme?
MH: Oh, has to be woodblock techno. Everyone just makes a simple house beat, adds some shuffle wood blocks or shuffle toms and a little sub bass.
MH: Listen to the minimal top ten and you will see it’s retarded – there’s no melodies or notes or anything – just track after track of shuffle toms. Ticky ticky ticky ticky wooo woooo woooo woooo
TT: But minimal is dead anyway, right?
MH: After all that shuffle tom woodblock stuff I can see why. But, if you take out all of that crap, there’s some excellent music still. Unfortunately, the last few years have been full of that crap so people at clubs are really, really bored with it. I don’t blame them. But, then they are going to cheesey house to make up for the lack of interesting hooks and melodies, but that’s gonna kill them too. The way to do it is moderation, good ol’ Detroit techno, Chicago house with a modern twist. To me that sound never gets old. Stupid ticky tickies.
TT: Alright, do you see yourself making techno when you’re 50 years old?
MH: You mean next week?! Yeah, of course, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to devote my life to making music and it’s something I won’t get tired of doing as long as I have balance in making music and playing live and in the studio, making more than just techno so that things are always interesting. I love the Balkans. (I dont want to get kidnapped or shot the next time I am there)
TT: You’re safe in Serbia at least, people here worship DJs. Are you releasing the music you made with your friend Joaquim Dos Santos? (new wave synth pop)
MH: I dunno really. That’s been a project going on for a decade now, it’s almost at the point where I like it all, very close. But, I just gave him 120 more songs to sing on, so when we finally release that project, our first release will be a super mega box set.
TT: It almost sounds conceptual.
MH: Or perpetual.
TT: Is there anything more you would like to say in this interview?
MH: I really wish I could see more of the smaller towns and cities around that whole region because I bet you there is so much weird shit all over that would amaze me. It’s such a crazy world over there and I’m scared that when everything modernizes and the economy stabilizes, all the really cool weird stuff will disappear.
TT: We’ll make a Bturn/Items & Things tour all over Balkan villages. Nobody has done it, except Bono and Brangelina.
MH: Might be really fun. I’ll do a tour this summer if you want
TT: I’ll keep your word on that one.
*Marc Houle’s new album “Undercover” is out today on his own label “Items & Things”. Go buy it and enjoy. If not, you can always get a woodblock sample here and make it your own.
If you’re into Marc’s live, here’s where you can see him play during the next month:
March 3 – Infierno – Cordoba, Argentina
Marc 10 – Down & Out (with Troy Pierce and Magde) at Madero Club – Mexico City, Mexico
March 16 – Five Sixty with Troy Pierce – Vancouver, Canada
March 17 – Down & Out (with Troy Pierce and Magde) at Spy bar – Chicago, USA
March 23 – Down & Out (with Troy Pierce and Magde) at Treehouse – Miami, USA
March 30 – Robert Johnson – Frankfurt, Germany