Little-to-no lighting or ventilation. Borrowed gear. Sensitive circuit breakers. A sketchy, ex-con landlord. A five-dollar strobe light. Welcome to Digitalism's first fully functioning but decidedly low-budget studio, a converted World War II bunker right in the middle of a retirement community in Hamburg, Germany. In other words: a suffocating, isolationist environment better suited for a one-man doomcore band than a pair of club-trotting, night-crawling DJs/producers. Or so it seems.
"You can definitely get pretty depressed in the bunker," says Jens "Jence" Moelle, one-half of Digitalism, along with longtime friend Ismail "Isi" Tuefekci. "It feels like a world on its own–like eternal night. On the other hand, we love the night. Like, this one time we were sitting in the dark 'n' naked bunker/studio and came up with this hook–'I have an idea that you are here'–because we were thinking of our friends outside and felt we could sense [their presence] in a way."
That line eventually evolved into the hands-in-the-air hook of "Idealistic," Digitalism's first official single and a popular inclusion in the crates of everyone from Miss Kittin to Erol Alkan since its first pressing in 2004. Walk into an electro-house party today and you'll probably hear it dropped at some point, along with other popular Digitalism singles of the past couple years such as "Zdarlight," "Jupiter Room," and the recent Rapture-esque jam "Pogo" (co-written by The Presets' drummer/keyboardist Kim Moyes), all of which were released through Paris' trusted tastemakers Kitsuné Music.
"I first heard them on a local radio station when I was driving to the airport in Sydney," says Moyes. "It was 'Zdarlight,' and I thought it was amazing. They are more like an indie or punk band in an electronic format–much heavier and more musical [than other producers], with a great sense of harmonies."
Moyes first crossed creative paths with Digitalism soon after stumbling upon their single. Turns out Moelle had become an instant fan of the Presets track "Down Down Down" after hearing it on a friend's MySpace page and was hell-bent on remixing it. Of the final mix, Moyes says, "I thought it was an epic rock-rave anthem! I was dumbstruck, really, especially at how loud it was."
The bomb-squad nature of Digitalism's music is especially apparent during their knob-tweaking, synth-pad-slamming live sets and the greater whole of Idealism, their debut album for Kitsuné/Astralwerks. A banger right from the start (the crunchy, never-ending climax of "Magnets"), it feels less like a collection of proven singles padded with filler–which, given the strength of their 12"s, they easily could have gotten away with–than a well-sequenced DJ set somewhere between Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem, and the Joy Division days of Factory Records. (Think the floor-rushing seamlessness of Soulwax's Nite Versions, only not as homogenous.)
"We wanted the album to be a complete first insight into the Digitalism universe–something that feels like a book or a movie with different chapters," explains Moelle. "We didn't want to do just a compilation of tracks or build some useless material around the singles that we've released so far just to have an album. We want to be a band, not just producers, you know?"
The House That Paris Built
While Digitalism's music certainly stands on its own in the increasingly crowded realm of electro-house/synths-as-guitars singles (see Boys Noize, Justice, Surkin), the duo's back-story is quite typical. It goes a little something like this: A couple of teenagers forge a friendship while working amid elder DJ statesmen at a record shop and distro company specializing in house–music they first heard in 1993 on a weekly radio show simply called The Dance Charts. (Moelle and Tuefekci were 11 and 14, respectively, at the time.)
"That record store was one of the most chaotic, yet human, spaces we've ever seen," explains Moelle. "It was located underneath the main railroad tracks in Hamburg, so every few seconds the whole thing felt like an earthquake; the front door was made of old metal, so it expanded during the summer and shrank a bit during the winter; and the big house legends from those days performed right in the store–in a booth where I usually dumped empty pizza boxes–like Dimitri From Paris, the Basement Boys, and Sandy Rivera."
Stellar, intimate DJ sets weren't the only thing Digitalism soaked up while working at the store. They also amassed stacks of white labels and soon-to-be-hot filtered and French singles to spin around Hamburg. Once their selections ceased to be challenging, the pair broadened their playlist with raw edits of songs like The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" (later pressed as a now out-of-print 12-inch)–edits somehow pulled off on a computer with a 133 MhZ processor and basic, WAV-based Music Maker software. (Moelle's father actually worked for a major IT company when he was a kid, meaning the family owned a massive laptop years before the general public knew what such a thing looked like. It's also a major reason why he's Digitalism's resident tech geek.)
After the whole editing routine ran its course, Moelle and Tuefecki built Digitalism's aforementioned bunker studio with the help of a friend, and started turning some of Moelle's homemade beats and synth lines into actual songs, aided in part by Tuefekci's own self-proclaimed "ear for the dance floor."
"All we wanted to do at first was get one piece of vinyl out," says Moelle, referring to their tweaked White Stripes track.
I ask him how well that first single did and the mostly mute Tuefecki cracks a smile. "We pressed a lot; don't ask," he says. "We meant it mostly as a move of, 'Hello, we are here. Pay attention!'"
Kitsuné's ears were pricked immediately. They signed Digitalism soon after their official formation, releasing "Idealistic" and "Zdarlight" on pricey, appropriately loud import platters in 2005.
"People went crazy the first time [Masaya Kuroki and I] played 'Idealistic,' so I immediately told their manager I wanted to work with Digitalism," says Gildas Loaëc, Kitsuné's main A&R man and a former artistic director for Daft Punk. "Jens and Isi are genius producers–they have the energy of dance music with the strong writing and emotion of pop, which helps them stand out from every other act around."
One of the main reasons why Digitalism's music sounds like such a strong fusion of dance and pop aesthetics is the duo's blatant dismissal of house–easily their favorite genre during the '90s–right after Y2K hit. "House became boring," Moelle bluntly states. "It was so hi-fi and flawless, which has never been our thing, so that's when we started looking for different stuff that would suit our need for freaky, rough stuff better."
Digitalism found hope in everything from RZA's "very edgy and dirty" early productions for the Wu-Tang Clan to The Rapture's pivotal dance/rock tipping point, "House of Jealous Lovers." They were even inspired by the stronger side of electroclash, which, like it or not, got cool kids to uncross their arms and dance like complete buffoons well before Ed Banger and Kitsuné cemented their crossover status.
Speaking of being ahead of the curve, much of their debut Idealism was also written years before Justice and MSTRKRFT set dancefloors and rock-show after-parties ablaze. Digitalism insists they won't change their sound to counteract what's fast becoming the trendiest genre since, well, electroclash, because doing so would be "dishonest." It's hard to imagine why they would need to, what with the way Idealism references everything from New Order to Underground Resistance to Alan Braxe.
"Of course we're excited that one of our favorite electronic sub-genres just reappeared," says Moelle. "It's that old sound but advanced–very futuristic, melodic, and stompy–yet sometimes it can be a bit too much. People often tend to rape a genre to death by denying there's other great sounds in the musical spectrum as well. So, it's an exciting sound, but don't jump with your whole body into it"
Take a quick look at the song titles on Idealism's sleeve (sci-fi nonsense like "Jupiter Room," "Apollo Gize," and "Moonlight") and it's easy to assume that Digitalism set out to record nothing but a memorable, intro-to-out indie-dance album. Ask them about the ideology behind Idealism, though, and you'll get a carefully cultivated mission statement that's quite serious and deliberate.
"Digitalism seeks the great, yet exciting unknown," explains Moelle. "We want to encourage people to head for ideals and goals in life. It's like a mood of departure and launch. Digitalism means ones and zeroes, all or nothing, so we don't feel comfortable with average stuff. People shouldn't either. Idealism can sometimes be hard but very honest, whether it's love and friendship or just ideal food."
To achieve the best possible album, Digitalism was heavily involved in every step of the process, right down to a painstaking photography and painting process for Idealism's cover earlier this year.
"We met with a photographer and the Kitsuné artwork team from London to paint the tracklisting in our usual way of writing onto a large canvas–to take pictures of it and use it for the flipside of the album artwork," says Moelle. "It's a pity we just changed the whole tracklisting a few weeks later for the last time.
"So we had to do all this again," he adds. "As we didn't have much time, we had to do it in London's Fabric club between other bands' soundchecks–on the floor and in socks so the canvas wouldn't get dirty. It was very funny though."
Sounds of Summer 2007
Digitalism's top space-disco and dance-rock jams for diamond nights.
1. Digitalism "Pogo" (Astralwerks/Kitsuné)
This song just means a lot to us at the moment.
2. Poni Hoax "Involutive Star" (Tigersushi)
Amazing guitar riff and vocals.
3. Feist "Sea Lion (Chromeo Rmx)" (Universal)
Nice groove and melody.
4. Jence "Wired" (Kitsuné)
Since WMC, we know that people want to get "Wired."
5. Hadouken "That Boy That Girl" (Kitsuné)
Rolling Stones meets The Prodigy!
6. Hystereo "Gonna Love You" (Soma)
Ear candy from our Irish friends.
7. Eyerer & Chopstick Feat. Zdar "Make my Day (Isi-E. Edit)" (CD-R)
Old Crydamoure style.
8. Escort "Bright New Life (Morgan Geist re-edit)" (Escort)
Wonderful, smooth groove music.
9. Does It Offend You Yeah "Weird Science" (Virgin)
10. Jesse Rose "Everything Standard (Mustapha 3000 remix)" (Dubsided)