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Get Familiar: Halo Varga

The US house legend opens up about his career, H_Foundation, Eastern European connections, and his vision for the future.

Brian "Halo" Varga's Skype handle states that he lives "somewhere between house and techno," which is about as apt a description as you'll find of him. Growing up in Chicago during house music's heyday and the explosion of the rave scene, Halo was destined for a life in the groove. At a very early age, DJ Sneak invited Halo to work at his Hip House Record store, which, naturally, only accelerated his desire and drive to create a life in electronic music. Stints in San Diego, Vegas, and San Francisco followed, all in his pursuit to study house and techno and further his artistic vision.

In the late '90s and early '00s, Halo honed his DJing and production output at a relentless pace; as a solo artist and, most famously, as H_Foundation and Hipp-e & Halo alongside long-time friend and collaborator Eric Galaviz (a.k.a. Hipp-e). Early releases on Camouflage Recordings, Siesta Music, Low Pressings, Moody Recordings, NRK, and Soma catapulted the duo into speakers around the world, landing them a long-standing residency at London's fabric and regular gigs as far flung as Australia. In the mid-2000s, following an acclaimed fabric instalment and 2003's Environments LP, the duo decided to take a break and pursue solo endevours. Even though this was when the focus shifted to solo pursuits, during their time together, both artists were still actively releasing solo material—Halo's solo career has so far spawned countless releases, a handful of labels such as Surface Recordings, Bluem, and Muted Noise Recordings, and, most recently, the San Diego-based Artifact Record Store.

H_Foundation and his work with Hipp-e gave Halo's career the first big push, but it was the seminal "Future," one of his solo tracks released in 2001, that has proved the most endearing. Now, 17 years on from its first release, "Future" returns via All Inn Records, complete with a new remix package featuring six interpretations from Janeret, Coldfish, Howl Ensemble, Pola, and Jaffa Surfa. Back to the Future is out now and can be picked up as a 2 x vinyl (10" and 12") package here.

In support of the release, Halo and All Inn have offered up a new remix from Halo and Cess as a free download, available via WeTransfer below.

Halo Varga will be performing alongside Marques Wyatt, Green Velvet, Dimitri From Paris, Jay Tripwire, Doc Martin, Catz 'N Dogz, Walker & Royce, and more at RHA Festival, which takes place June 30 - July 1 at Marina Riveria Nayarit in Mexico. You can grab tickets to RHA here.

Growing up in Chicago, what were some of your earliest memories of music?

I think when I was probably 13 or 14 years old, all the Hot Mix shows were on the radio and that's where you heard all of the dance music in Chicago—especially for people who were too young to get into clubs. For me, it was recording the DJ mixes off the radio, guys like Bad Boy Bill and Farley Jackmaster Funk. A lot of the college channels were doing underground stuff too, so I would make my own DJ mixes with mixtapes that were recorded off the radio. The Friday and Saturday dance parties on the radio were my introduction to electronic music.

So you were waiting by the radio and hitting record on tracks and parts of the show that you liked?

Yeah, totally. I would do my own edits of mixes by splicing them together, and then give them to friends.

The Mid-West had a big mixtape culture, was that a big part of your upbringing?

Oh my god, yeah, the mixtapes are one big thing I miss. I was introduced to a ridiculous amount of music via mixtapes. I think I was probably 16 or 17 years old and I was working at Hip House Records and every time someone would bring in the mixtapes, I would check them all out. Or I would drive up to Gramophone Records or the flea markets and they would have tables set up everywhere with people slinging mixtapes. That’s the one thing I do miss from those days, the mixtapes.

I remember an interview with The Black Madonna, and she mentioned that wheeling and dealing mixtapes was her entry into the scene.

Yeah, it was like that. When I started DJing, there were a lot of High School and Grade School parties. A student would throw a party and I remember DJing and bringing a whole backpack full of mixtapes that I recorded the night before and I would sell them at the parties.

So these were proper mixes you recorded?

Yeah, with two turntables and my Radioshack DJ mixer. The mixtapes played a huge roll.

Were you creating artworks and covers for them?

I was really into graffiti at the time, so I was getting the markers and doing all my own covers and anything I could do to make them better to make more money.

When did you actually start DJing?

I think I got my first pair of turntables when I was in eighth grade going into freshman year of high school, so probably like 15-years old. My parents played a huge role in my development when I was growing up. My dad was totally supportive of me getting into music because music has always played a huge role in our family. On the weekends, we would play Rolling Stones, Genesis, and all the old classic rock.

Was he ever into house and the electronic scene?

Yeah, well, so I actually got hired by DJ Sneak to work at the record store and that was how I started playing out. After I got the job, I told my dad—who is actually a carpenter—that I need cases for my turntables. So, one weekend we went to Radioshack and measured it all out and he built a padded flight case for my turntables. I was taking the turntables out each weekend to these house parties and we needed a solution. So he started building these cases and selling them at our record shop.

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Hip House Records, mid-'90s.

Who were some of your biggest influences at the time?

When I first started getting introduced to it, it was all the guys on the radio, like Farley Jackmaster Funk and those guys. Because I was so young, I couldn’t get into clubs. I think when I first started to going to clubs, it was like DJ Rush, Gene Farris, Derrick Carter, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, and even Frankie Knuckles.

When did production enter the fold?

The guys that actually owned the record shop also had a studio. It was the same place that Sneak used to produce at and some big artists that worked at the store. I was already DJing and I wanted to start making some of these things I was playing. I would go and sit in the studio with the guys from the record shop and just tell them that I wanted to learn. My first record that I produced was with Angel Alanis in Chicago, I think that was ‘99.

What were you using at the time?

I literally had an MPC2000, a little mixing board—which I still have—and just a couple of effects processors. Really, really raw and basic.

That’s a key to that raw Chicago sound.

Oh man, it was so good. Coming from a DJ perspective, the music I was making were tracks that I wanted to play. I wasn’t a musician at all, it was all off hearing the sounds that I like and if they sounded good together.

So you never had any formal musical training?

No, nothing. My musical training was the DJing skills that I learned and I incorporated that into my production. I wanted to learn so bad that I would do whatever I had to do to sit with somebody who was working in the studio, I would always be there to soak it all in.

Tell us about your time at Moody Records.

Moody Records was probably the same time I was working at the store, from around ‘99. It was a company owned by Mix Connection and I was doing A&R for them and that’s when I brought Onionz, Joski, Tony Hewitt, and Hipp-e to Chicago.

Halo, Justin Long, and Project PM B2B at club Alcatrazz 1997 presented by VBNTS.
Halo, Justin Long, and Project PM B2B at club Alcatrazz 1997 presented by VBNTS.

So that was how you met Hipp-e?

I met him through one of my best friends in Chicago, who was one of the bigger rave promoters there. I was at his parties pretty much every weekend, and he asked me who I wanted to bring out and I remember saying that there was this guy Hipp-e from Denver, Colorado and I’d heard his mixtapes and it was funky shit with breaks and a really good flow. So he brought him out and we just clicked. We played together and from then on we just built the friendship. It all started at the rave when I hooked him up with a gig. I had already produced and released my first record and he wanted to get into it, so I showed him what I knew and the rest is history.

So that was when you both started working together?

Yeah, everything happened around those years. 2000 was when I moved to San Diego, because of Hipp-E. He had moved from Denver to San Diego and I was coming out there for weeks at a time—I would go in the winter time and I was like, “Woah, it’s nice here.” So I ended up moving to San Diego pretty quickly after that. That all happened within a year.

How was the scene in San Diego at the time?

San Diego was ravey. Everything was about the rave at the time, but it was different, it had a different vibe. The Chicago scene was grungy and in warehouses; the West Coast was super organic, a lot more outdoor parties, just a different scene in general.

I remember sending NRK the tapes but playing them the tracks over the phone before that—there was no MP3, it was like check this out over the phone and then we can send you the tapes.

It wasn't too long after that you were invited to play at fabric, correct?

Yeah, so me and Hipp-E were thriving in the studio, going crazy. We had been going to WMC in Miami and I remember when we were doing records we would think, what are the labels we are DJing that we like that we can send these tapes to? I remember sending NRK the tapes but playing them the tracks over the phone before that—there was no MP3, it was like check this out over the phone and then we can send you the tapes. It’s so crazy to think that’s how we used to do it, on a landline too, for three to four dollars a minute.

So NRK did a party at WMC and invited us to play. We had done some remixes for them and also the NRK compilation, and it all tied into WMC. Soma were there, the fabric crew were there, and it was right when fabric opened. We DJd and they were into it. I don’t think they even knew about the records, they were just into what we were playing.

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Hipp-e, Doc Martin, and Halo.

That was your first European gig.

Yeah, first European gig and residency. It was us and Doc Martin, we were the US residents at fabric.

At that time, was DJing and production your sole job?

Yeah, that was it, that’s pretty much all I’ve done. Took the chance and moved to California and it snowballed.

Considering how instrumental fabric was in your life and career, your worldwide notoriety, how did it feel when it looked like it would have to close forever?

Oh man! I have pictures and videos of us first playing at fabric, video cassettes. I’m looking at it all and thinking how we had been a part of electronic clubbing history, you know? We were a part of it from the early days since it opened, so it definitely hurt a lot. It was sad. fabric was such a sanctuary for so many people, and DJS too, DJs love to play at fabric. fabric was our family, is our family. There is still a lot of the same crew there you know? It was such a turning point for London.

Yeah, it was such a world-wide thing. I was living in Australia at the time and for underground electronic music, fabric was like a window to the rest of the world.

Oh yeah, it was like that everywhere. Actually, Australia played a huge role for me and Hipp-e, too. We recorded our first album there, in Byron Bay. Our album that came out on Soma, Environments, was recorded in Byron Bay. Soma rented a full studio called the Rocking Horse Studio and put us up there for a month and we literally lived in this studio house and every day that’s all we did. We toured quite a bit in Australia too.

What was the reason for them to rent the studio in Australia, considering it's so far from the rest of the world?

It was one of our favorite places and we had connected with a bunch of other musicians there. That crew operated as the 24/7 Collective and we linked up with them and had talked about working together. Three of the guys had been doing this thing where the one guy would DJ and the other guys would play keys and horn. Me and Hipp-E heard them play and we hit them up to do an album. It was a joke in the beginning, they would always be like, “yeah, come down here and stay for like a month and we can do it.” Well, it ended up happening. All of us, all of the musicians, literally stayed in this house. It was part of the whole deal. You rent the studio, you get the whole space.

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It sounds like how the Rolling Stones or Radiohead, these huge bands, would rent a mansion or cabin in the woods and write an album.

Yeah that’s it! I really want to do it again. I want to put myself in a secluded place, like Byron Bay. The studio there was in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black, you couldn't see anything. Everything we recorded, all the sound effects, everything, was recorded there. We left field mics out all night recording, we had reggae players come in and play drums. The studio was fit for that type of thing.

Was that around the time of the fabric mix?

Yeah, I think they came out around the same time. With the album, we became really good friends with the guys who do the fabric designs—actually, they are still doing it. They designed our album cover, and I remember sitting with them for like two to three days and giving input and working on it. The album was called Environments.

The records moved the dancefloor then and they move the dancefloor now.

In the last few years, there has been a noticeable resurgence in the late-’90s, early ‘00s US-based house and tech house. Why do you think that is?

This is good. I think for a long time, especially in Eastern Europe, West Coast music played a big role in the way the scene and music developed there and was a big influence. Now, everybody wants those records, everybody wants those old tracks from that time. And it was all records too, so it’s the digging thing. The records moved the dancefloor then and they move the dancefloor now. Like “Future,” for example, has enjoyed a crazy shelf life and has been constantly played. People have been bumping it for almost 20 years now. The grooves back then, people just don’t get tired of it, you know?

 

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Producing "Future," early '00s.

When you produced that record, did you think that it would have the success it did?

No! I think I was basically taking bits and pieces, samples that I really liked, and kind of mashing them together and I laid the track out how I would DJ. I will never forget, the first big DJ—now this is coming from a kid out of Chicago who just started producing and trotting around outside of Chicago—to play it was Danny Tenaglia. From that point on, I knew I needed to keep with it.

That’s a pretty big pat on the back.

Yeah, at the time, it was a big deal for me.

So how did the re-release of "Future" on All Inn come about?

There is stuff throughout my music career that has pushed me to know that music was what I was born to do, what I love. And there were always these little things that happen that are signs that tell you you’re doing it for a reason and keeps you going. When All Inn Records approached me, Pola asked what was going on with “Future” and that it was his favorite record of all time and he wanted to re-release it. It’s crazy, it was the only record I did from that time that I saved all the parts for. So we did a really cool remix project. It has been awesome, everyone we approached was down.

It’s been a crazy, magical thing. All these guys that inspire me now, were inspired by what we did.

How did the musical connection with Eastern Europe begin?

It’s funny because, during that time of first traveling to Europe, we would play in places like Bratislava, or Croatia. I remember playing Romania at a time when it was just starting to get movement on the scene, with Livio and Roby and those guys first building the roots of everything that would happen. Now, all my friends from over there and new friends, guys I have never met, I will hit up for my own label and they will all say that those early records played a huge role in the music they make. It’s been a crazy, magical thing. All these guys that inspire me now, were inspired by what we did. I just love their music, beautiful bass-driven grooves.

Yeah, we did a feature on the Romanian scene, the history of the artists and where it all began and they all cited that era of progressive house and tech house as the biggest influence.

And it comes full circle, everything always comes full circle and returns to the roots. It’s perfect timing.

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Since your first release, you’ve maintained a relentless consistency. How do you maintain that drive?

I think with me and Hipp-E, when we were working together, we made a lot of friends. And through our ups and downs, through H Foundation, and after we went and did our own thing, I was determined on trying to work with people that I liked their music. Reaching out to people to work on a collaboration. I love collaborations. For me, I get into certain ways of doing things and, for me, I like to work with other people and bounce ideas off them and try new things. So I think working with other people and doing collaborations over the years has pushed me to keep producing and to learn more in the studio and to get better and better. Working with inspiring people.

The latest in your long list of labels is Muted Noise. What are your plans for the label?

I did the digital thing for a long time. I have always had love for vinyl. Muted Noise is more of a curated piece of art mixed with music. I wanted to keep it a bit more personal and I feel records hold a lot of personal feelings. They have a special place. So for Muted Noise, I wanted to showcase a lot of the music from friends that I play. I wanted to bring that here to the US and tell people, this is what is happening, this is the music I love. So I want to push that music here and have a place for them to release in the US.

I’ve been here in LA for four years now and when I first moved here, there wasn’t really a big scene for the stripped-back house and techno in that sphere. Now, there's a big boom and it's really flourishing here on the West Coast. It’s almost running in a weird polarity with the West Coast sound going there in the early days and now that sound coming here.

Yeah, it’s really crazy how it works. I’m really enjoying DJing, really enjoying making music. Over the last couple of years, it has been such a relief for me, a breath of fresh air. Things get stale you know? I always want to keep things moving. And especially in LA, between the Cyclone guys and now Dialogue, they're really bringing a matured house sound to the city. There’s a really good underground scene in LA that is thriving right now, for true underground stuff.

Down here in San Diego, we recently just hosted Sepp and Nu Zau and it was great. Nu Zau was actually the main connection to open things up to this new generation. I had a list of guys I wanted to get on the label and he was one of them. I emailed him and laid it out and he basically said he was busy but that he would take a look. I’m not really the guy to big note myself and say look at me, so it took a little but then I guess he realized about some of my older records and then came back with a big yes. From there he introduced me to a lot of guys, like Sepp. It started a really good circle of friends and it’s amazing.

And you do all the design work for the label and some other labels.

Yeah, it’s hard to rely on someone else to complete your vision. I’m such a perfectionist and can never make up my mind. I learned photoshop, illustrator, and all of those programs the same way I DJd, by looking at what people were doing and just digging in. It just took off, people were into the designs.

Have you had many commissions to do designs in that sphere?

Yeah, I just did the new V.I.C.A.R.I. Counterculture release. I’m doing all the FAI<E stuff out of London, they have the Curtea Veche label and also Dreams Are Not Inside. From the FAI<E guys, I started getting some cool projects that I really enjoy doing. If I’m really into it, then I’ll do it. I’ve flooded myself sometimes though and had to pull back.

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What else do you have coming this year?

I opened up a small record store in San Diego last year with my partner Paulo, called Artifact Records. We have a tight crew here, we do a party called Texture too, it’s a curated party with the music we love, it’s all synergistic. I also have a collaborative EP coming out with Petar Cvetkovic on Nima Gorji's NG Traxx label, along with an upcoming EP with Sepp for Muted Noise and FAI<E and will be playing their showcase at fabric soon too.

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