An interview with Fort Romeau

“Everyone’s got their own distinctive blend of influences. I think if you’re doing your own thing, and being true to whatever the blend of things that you like is, then you can’t go wrong. You’ll always be able to stand behind it.”

A decade on from his debut release, English producer Michael Greene – aka Fort Romeau – continues to craft material imbued with an unparalleled sense of depth, purpose, and character. His brand new album, Beings of Light, marks a further evolution in his work, as Greene merges minimal house, deep house, and ambient elements to form a truly timeless body of tracks. He also runs the masterfully-curated label, Cin Cin, providing a stream of unpredictable and dynamic split EPs from artists across the globe. I sat down with Greene to talk through the influence of the images that guide his production, the different ways of becoming a master DJ, his shifting perspective on sampling, and the role of albums in the modern world.

Your upcoming album, Beings of Light, is set for release on Feb. 11, 2022 through Ghostly. What is it about your new record that sets it apart from your other work?

With doing LP’s, it’s a slightly different beast than doing 12”s. The thing I like about doing 12”s is you can try on a lot of different acts musically, bring in different sounds, and kind of play with things a bit. With an LP, I really like to narrow down on the core sound of what I’m interested in. I think the three albums, including this one, have a lot of consistency in terms of the sound, and some of the methods and techniques. But I definitely wanted this one to take in some other sounds that I hadn’t really explored as much before. The main one stylistically is that I wanted to bring a little bit more of that minimal house sound, which definitely isn’t in vogue any more.

In this day and age, a lot of styles co-exist at the same time. But I think there’s a very dominant trend at the moment for things to be very fast, very direct, and very retro. One thing that I didn’t want to do was make something that felt like a bit of a pastiche of old styles. I think that I wanted to bring in some different influences, but still try and be myself. 

The most important thing for me is always to try and do things from my perspective. You’re never going to do Jeff Mills better than Jeff Mills. You’re never going to ‘be’ someone else better than they’ve done it, so let’s not waste our time trying. 

Everyone’s got their own distinctive blend of influences. I think if you’re doing your own thing, and being true to whatever the blend of things that you like is, then you can’t go wrong. You’ll always be able to stand behind it. 

As I get older and more experienced, that idea gets reinforced further. You can get carried away with wanting to go with the crowd a bit, but I actually think that really, as much as possible, doing the opposite is actually the best idea. 

A lot of the records that I like, whether they’re house and techno records or rock and pop records, are the ones where people sound like who they sound like. That’s something that everyone can do: everyone can be themselves. You don’t have to be particularly technically gifted; you don’t have to be a great singer to be an individual singer.

You’ve spoken about how, when working on an album, you always have a particular image that’s somehow guiding your work. I love this concept. What are some of the images that have influenced your music in the past? You’ve previously mentioned Steven Arnold, Francis Bacon, and the imagery in Peter Greenaway’s films. Any others?

With my last album on Ghostly, Insides, the image on that is a photograph of a piece of blue velvet that I shot myself. But it’s a direct reference to the opening scene of Blue Velvet by David Lynch. I was watching that movie a lot at the time when I was making that record. The colour language of that film, the rich and deep but also dark palette of it, was very prominent in my mind.

I find it extremely helpful to have visual analogs to guide what I’m trying to do sonically. I don’t know if it’s because I studied art more than I ever did music; I never actually studied music in any formal capacity. 

Another example is an EP I did in 2019 on Permanent Vacation. The image is blue with an illustration of an eye on the front. I had a friend of mine, Molly, who works for Ghostly, draw it. But the original image is from a Beatles illustrated song book of this eye with a crystal teardrop. Something about that just married so well with the progressive house sound that was on that record.

You’re playing all night at Pickle Factory in London on Feb 19. 2022. What’s your approach when it comes to preparing for an all-night set? Besides being longer, does the experience of playing an all-night set differ from your experience of playing shorter slots?

It’s definitely a totally different thing, both in terms of the preparation and the approach to it. I think that when you’re doing a two-hour slot, whether it’s in a festival or a club, you’re limited with what you can get across. It’s much more direct and to the point. There’s not as much time to explore different things or set things up in a way that could be interesting or different. It varies depending on where you are and what the vibe’s like. There are also certain risks that you could take in certain clubs that wouldn’t go down well on major festival stages, so it’s all about context. 

But an all-night thing is a great opportunity to set things up in the way that you want. Being able to structure it and set the tone from the very beginning, it just gives you so much more scope to explore different stuff. 

In two hours, you’ve usually got to get right into it. There’s not really any room for a detour. You’ve got to get from A to B, straight down the highway; there’s no taking the scenic route. Whereas with an all-night set, you can take the scenic route, and take a few lunch stops along the way.

In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, you mentioned that, “DJing is easy to do but extremely difficult to master, and I don’t think I will ever stop learning.” What, to you, is the mark of a master DJ? Do you think that it comes down to several aspects, or just one?

I think there are different ways to master it, and different types of masters. If you take someone like Dixon, for example, he’s very good at being able to set a mood, stretch things out, and build a narrative. That’s one way of being a great DJ. 

There are also great DJs who can mix 650 records into two and a half hours at breakneck speed. It’s almost the opposite approach, but both can be brilliant. 

There are great DJs who play in a way that I never would, because it’s just not me. I’m trying to think of an example…

Like the effects? You’ve mentioned before that you’re not a guy who likes tonnes of effects when DJing.

Yeah! I hate playing with effects. It’s so annoying. But some people do it really well, so I’m not saying that it’s always bad; it’s just bad if I do it. It’s the same with mixing. There’s not one ‘correct’ way to mix two records together. I like to do very long blends sometimes that might be two or three minutes. But that’s a very different energy to having a very strong cut from one track into another. Both can be extremely effective in the right context. 

I think that so much of what a great a DJ is, is understanding context and understanding when something is the right thing to do, and that I think is what takes people a long time to learn and to realise. Being a good DJ isn’t playing all the biggest tunes for two hours straight, with no breaks. That’s what any person with Rekordbox for 15 minutes can do. There’s no technical skill in DJing, let’s not beat around the bush. It’s simple. I could teach my grandmother to do it in 25 minutes.

But what does take time is having enough experience to take in these different things and adapt them to the right context.

You’ve mentioned previously that DJing has gone the way of the Rock Star in certain areas. What are those areas, and what do you think has caused this shift?

I don’t think that this is a new phenomenon. I think that it goes back as early as the mid-90s, when huge house and techno DJs became celebrities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being very famous. But if you’re famous, people want to see you. It’s just human nature: if you’re famous, people want to look at you. That changes the whole experience, especially with DJing and club music.

When you go to any random nightclub on any given night, no one’s concerned with if there’s even a human being playing the music; it could be coming off an iPod. What they’re interested in is their own experience, with the people that they’re there with. It really has nothing to do with the person providing the music. I don’t think that one thing’s right and one thing’s wrong, but I do think that they’re very different.

The issue that I have is that if you’re going to see a DJ, and you’re expecting a ‘performance’, you’re most likely going to be disappointed. Unless you’re going to get on the mic and start MCing, or start dancing, then there’s very little to look at. 

I don’t really have this problem, but if you’re famous, people want to see you, and they kind of – even if they wouldn’t even think this – I think there’s an expectation that you’re ‘performing’. But really, you’re not performing when you’re DJing. You just aren’t performing. That’s where I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect between audience expectation versus the reality of what’s happening. 

This is why we have pyro at Tomorrowland and huge video screens, because at the end of the day there’s nothing to see! You’re not looking at anything visually engaging, you’re just looking at a person standing there pressing play on a couple of buttons. When you’ve got 10,000 people looking at one person with their hand in there… let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not much to look at, is it?

You’re a master manipulator of vocal samples. How do you go about the process of finding vocal samples and transforming them?

It’s the hardest part of doing it. Finding them is incredibly difficult, and then getting them to work is just as difficult usually. It also depends on the type of thing that you’re using. If you’re just using an acapella from a disco track or another old dance record and sticking it in as is, obviously that’s pretty straight forward. But if you want to take them from different sources, like movies or spoken word bits, it can be harder to do it. 

Usually, it’s just by chance that I’ll come across something that I like, and then I’ll keep it stored for something, and then I’ll come back to it afterwards. It’s extremely time consuming. I couldn’t tell you how much time I’ve spent listening to acapellas… it must be hundreds of hours over ten years. I probably got, if you put it all together, three or four minutes of usable audio out of all of that.  

I’ve definitely tried to move more and more away from sampling other people’s music, illegally anyway. One of the more recent 12”s I did on Permanent Vacation, which is called The Mirror, has got three tracks; they’ve all got samples in, and they’re all cleared.

I feel more and more uneasy as time goes on about using other people’s music without permission. Things from movies and stuff I’m less bothered about; I think it’s so far into the realm of repurposing that I don’t have any ideological issue with it. But now, I can’t imagine making a track by taking an eight-bar disco track, looping it, and sticking some stuff over the top. I wouldn’t want to work like that anymore. I’ve done it in the past like millions of other people have done, but the more I think about it and the more experience I get, it’s like… without permission, I think it’s problematic, really, morally speaking.

If you take a sample and alter it to enough of an extent, do you think that it’s okay to use it without permission?

I think that it’s hard to have a catch-all answer that would appropriately justify every single case of it. But I think that as a general rule of thumb: if I can’t tell where it’s come from, if it’s sonically unrecognisable, then that, in my opinion, is a ‘transformative’ work of art, which is what the legal jargon would be. For me, the essence of it is that it’s got to be transformative. If it’s just the starting point, and it’s become something completely unique, then that’s fine. I fail to see an issue with that. Generally speaking, if you’re turning it into something else, then I think that that’s fair enough.

But if I can hear that it’s Nina Simone’s voice, then, whilst I don’t think that you should be legally punished for this, I think that it’s hard to find a justification for it, really. Let’s be honest: with very limited exceptions, you’re using that sound because you can’t produce it yourself… so you just steal it. That’s fine, but let’s at least be honest about it: you’re taking it because you can’t do it. Maybe a better approach is to find something that you can do. That’s the way I’ve come round to thinking about it. 

But that’s not a judgment. I’ve done it, I’ve sampled loops from records before. So, it’s not like I’m ‘above’ it, it’s just that this is where I’m at now. I also think that there’s an evolution. When you first start out making tracks, it just makes more sense to grab a few loops and chuck it together; there’s an element to which I think that it’s part of the learning curve as well.

In the past you’ve said that, because of the way that we’re now used to consuming music through YouTube and Spotify, our attention spans as listeners have been cut short, and that vinyl is a great way of slowing things down and getting people to focus on an album. 

Besides vinyl, do you think there are any other ways in which we can encourage people to be more patient music listeners?

I think it’s really difficult. Without making a conscious choice to want to do it, it’s really difficult, because streaming services are designed in a way that they don’t want you to do that. It’s not some malicious attack on your attention span, but they want you to listen to as much music as possible from lots of different rights holders, and they want to keep your attention in the same way that radio wants to keep your attention. They’re not necessarily designed for album listening, and why would they be? It’s not what they’re trying to do. 

I think that the people who care about it are always going to care about it. The good thing about the situation we have now is that if someone is so inclined, they can go and find an album by an artist that 25 years ago would’ve been impossible to get hold of. I think that YouTube is an amazing resource for that, more so than the major streaming platforms, because of its breadth of esoteric and interesting music where no one knows who the rights holders are anymore. There’s so much music there that’s never going to be part of the streaming ecosystem. 

Without archival sites like YouTube, we are at risk of losing huge swathes of music that will just be forgotten about, because it isn’t properly archived in any meaningful way. I think Discogs is another incredible resource for that.

With your upcoming LP, would you ideally prefer listeners to listen to it from start to finish in one sitting? Or are you indifferent towards whether people dip in and out of it?

I’m indifferent, really, because I feel like once I’ve made it, and it’s how I want it to be, and it’s presented in the way that I’ve presented it, which is as best I can do, which is to put it on a record and put it online or whatever, then for me I kind of wash my hands of it. 

I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell anyone else how to listen to it. If they only want to listen to it off an iPhone speaker, streaming on YouTube, while they’re in the bath, with their head underwater, then that’s fine. Obviously, you want people to hear your music, otherwise you wouldn’t release it. 

It’s difficult to get people’s attention and to hold people’s attention, but I think that this also comes down to the point from earlier, which is that if you make something that is the best work you can make, and that’s truly representative of what you were doing and where you were at the time, then hopefully that record will have enough of a value and shelf-life.

I would obviously like people to buy the record and the physical cassette. The cassette is just cute and for fun… you’re not expecting anyone to listen to the album on cassette. But the record is always going to be the holy grail, I think. I don’t think that many people would really argue with that. I think everybody likes to have their music on vinyl, I think everybody likes to have records when they can; I know it’s not always convenient and accessible, and that’s why I think it’s great that we also have YouTube and streaming. They all fulfil different purposes.

Listen to ‘Beings of Light’ below.

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