Q&A: Detroit Swindle

Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets sit down for a chat—and offer up a stream of their new Freerange EP..
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In early 20012, few people outside of the Netherlands were familiar with Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets. Nowadays, pretty much anybody with an interest in quality house music knows who they are—perhaps not by their names, but definitely by their production moniker. Dales and Smeets are the men behind Detroit Swindle, a duo which in three short years has rocketed to the top of the four-to-the-floor universe through a series of rock-solid releaes, released on some of dance music's most revered labels. One of those labels, Freerange, has just released the pair's Figure of Speech EP, a release that sees Dales and Smeets adding a touch of Afro- and Brazilian-tinged swagger to their bag of strutting tricks. XLR8R caught up with the pair via Skype at Detroit Swindle's Amsterdam headquarters, and discovered that the charming twosome are a bit amazed themselves at their rapid ascent.

You guys seem like such an established part of the house-music scene nowadays – but in reality, you’ve only been releasing music as Detroit Swindle for three years. I’m guessing those three years must be something of a blur.
Dales: Yeah, it has been! We started because we just wanted to do it, basically, and it’s all happened very quickly. The goal wasn’t big success; the goal was to make music, and see what happened. Then from the first release on, it just all happened with a bang—and the ball has never really stopped rolling.

What had you both been doing before Detroit Swindle?
Smeets: Lars had been DJing a long time as his job, and I used to working in advertising. But I had been promoting parties here in Amsterdam as a fun side project for a while, mainly the underground, techno, German, Dixon-style kind of stuff. Lars was doing more hip-hop kind of stuff. We knew each other through promoting through the same club a while back, but never really got together. But then at some point, we did—and this is what happened!

Did you pick up any marketing skills from your advertising days that have helped you out in the dance-music world?
Smeets: Lars is actually the big Facebook and Twitter fan, so he does all the social stuff. Which I guess is funny, because that’s how I used to earn my money.

That’s probably why you don’t want to do it now.
Smeets: That’s probably true. [laughs] But having a experience in advertising does make a difference, I think—you kind of know what people on the other side of the spectrum want to see. You know how communication works.
Dales: And how business is conducted. Most artists have a very…”artist” point of view, I guess. Which we do too, I guess, but we both had tons of experience from our former jobs. Besides DJing, I had been a promoter for a decade, and from that, we know how to talk to a promoter when something is wrong or something has to be changed. Having a background in different things has definitely helped.

Speaking of marketing—how did you settle on Detroit Swindle as a name?
Dales: We had known for a while, and then we lost touch for a long time, and then after ten years we re-met, and started talking about music. Maarten was playing for me and my former partner at this café-club, and we needed to have a serious talk about the music he was playing. It was a gay club, and what he was playing was maybe a little bit too…serious, maybe. So we were talking about that, and realized that we really liked all the same stuff. The biggest common denominator was music from Detroit—Motown stuff, a lot of Detroit hip-hop and other things. So when we finally started this project, we wanted to pay homage to our biggest musical connection. But we didn’t want to sound like we were saying we’re from Detroit—so the Swindle part was added to be a little tongue-in-cheek, and to let people know that we’re not actually from Detroit. Sometimes people don’t understand it, though—we have to explain it.

I wonder if Motor City Drum Ensemble has the same problem.
Smeets: He can say that he’s Stuttgart, which is the the German motor city—so he’s okay.
Dales: It doesn’t really matter anymore where you are from; music doesn’t have any geographical boundary now, anyway. It’s more about the music you make rather than the name you choose. In retrospect, yes, we might have chosen a different name, because people from Detroit tend to misinterpret our intentions.

Detroit natives can be very protective of their city.
Smeets: And rightly so.
Dales: We don’t want to borrow their culture heritage. We just want to pay homage to the music we grew up with.

It’s certainly a catchy name.
Smeets: You can still say when you’re drunk, which is important.

Has your own hometown, Amsterdam, been supportive of what you’ve been doing?
Dales: Yes—but the funny thing for us was that we didn’t really start out as a resident DJ team somewhere in Amsterdam. We started by making and releasing music—and our first success was international, not local. The records were picked up in England and in Germany, and then suddenly we’re doing a U.S. tour. Everything that happened here actually came a bit later than the rest of the world. We do headline a lot of parties here, but we’re still building our name here more than you might expect. We do seem to be getting more and more supporters every day, which is really nice to see.

Where does it seem like you have the most support.
Dales: It used to be U.K., Germany, Holland, and then the United States that were our biggest followers. But I just checked Souncloud today, and now it goes, U.K., United States, Germany and Holland. So the United States is going up.

You’ve just released the Figure Of Speech EP on Freerange, and you’ve been associated with Freerange since Detroit Swindle’s early days—how did the original hook-up with that label happen?
Smeets: We actually had a list of labels that we really wanted to release on, sort of like if everything happened according to whatever our biggest plan might be, we might get a release on Freerange. And we’d be the happiest guys in town. We got in touch with Jamie [Odell, a.k.a. Freerange label founder Jimpster] through a mutual friend and sent him “Creep,” which was the title track from the first EP—and he was blown away by it. When we got his e-mail saying that he wanted the track, and if we had two other tracks to put on the release, we just couldn’t believe it.
Dales: We hadn’t even been releasing music for half a year then. So we had to make bigger goals at that point!

You had already reached your original goal.
Dales: Right. And because we love Freerange so much, we said we would do more EPs for the label. We’ve released one a year since then.

The Figure Of Speech EP isn’t a huge departure, style-wise, for Detroit Swindle., but the title track has a definite Afro influence, and “Live at the Cosmic Carnival” has a real tribal feel to it. Were you making an effort to add a bit of rhythmic diversity to your sound, or was it simply just the way those tracks came out?
Dales: In the past year, we’ve actually been playing a lot of Afro-infused stuff, and buying a lot of records with that sound. This particular record came together after we visited Recordland in Calgary, which is one of the biggest second-hand record shops we’ve ever been to. We bought a bunch of weird conga stuff and African drum records that had all these great samples. So its two things: We’ve been playing a lot of Afro-infused stuff and have really been enjoying it, and from that, we’ve been getting inspiration to make something that we get the same enjoyment thing. And thanks to Recordland, we had the opportunity to sample lots of obscure old percussion solos and all kinds of things. So it’s not really an effort; it’s more just that the music has evolved.
Smeets: Our music has become more and more diverse, I think—we’ll play disco, too, or we’ll fit funk and soul tracks into our sets. The evolution is that our sound is getting broader, with more influences coming out.
Dales: In the beginning, we were mostly listening to deep house, so we didn’t really have the foundation yet. I mean, we had the hip-hop thing, and the funk and soul thing, but we never had much background with Afrobeat, for example, or the original true disco stuff. So we weren’t playing that. Now we’re playing it more and more and more, and that comes through in this EP, I think.

Detroit Swindle-2 kopie

Besides Freerange, the quality of labels that Detroit’s been on in the past three years is quite amazing. There’s Dirt Crew Recordings,Murmur, Tsuba…these are among the elite of the world’s house-music labels, which must give you guys a feeling of fulfillment.
Smeets: It’s been really special to be on labels that we really regard highly, and that a lot of other people regard highly as well. The fact that we have a good connection with people like Jamie, and Kevin [Griffiths] from Tsuba and Peter [Gyselaers] from Dirt Crew has really helped both with our production work and our confidence about what we’re doing. We’re really lucky.
Dales: The weird thing is that we never really thought that we had released so many tracks! We were looking at our own Beatport page and saw that there were over 35 tracks. We were like, really? You don’t really think about it until you see it.

I guess you can get a lot done when you are full-time artists.
Smeets: In the beginning, it wasn’t so easy. For the first year, Lars was still playing other gigs because, well, you’ve got to pay your bill. I had a kid—now I have two—and was still working three days a week at the ad agency. We had to put every free hour we had in the studio.
Dales: I think we actually spend less time now in the studio than we did then. That’s because of the touring.
Smeets: Basically, we’ve been really busy! [laughs]

And you’ve also been busy with your own label, Heist. Other than releasing your own material on Heist, how do you decide what to put out on the label?
Dales: It’s all gut feeling. Most of the people that we’ve released, we already knew, either personally or professionally. But beyond that, we just ask people, “We really dig your sound—would you be up for releasing on your label?” And luckily, most of them are. As the label grows and does well, it gets even easier to get people. Now they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s Heist—I really want to do it!” We do occasionally get a demo that really hits us.
Smeets: Like this one we have coming out in September. It’s from this completely unknown couple of guys
Dales: I think they have 31 friends on Facebook, who are probably their mothers and fathers and friends and nieces. [laughs] But they make really cool stuff. And that’s the best part about having your own label.
Maarten: It’s not about money; it’s not about likes; it’s just about sharing amazing music.

Can you name this up-and-coming act?
Smeets: Yes, we can! It’s Ouer. Not the easiest of names, but that’s not important. It’s nice, electronic, distorted but soulful house with a very cool vibe.
Dales: One of the guys actually booked us in the very beginning, right after we started. Suddenly he sent us all these tracks—and they were all amazing.

So what’s next on the Detroit Swindle agenda?
Smeets: Well, we’ve been doing our live set for a while now—but we’ve completely changed it over the past year, and now it involves a lot more gear. Which is a lot of fun, but a bitch to carry around! So we’ll be doing that a lot. We have a big festival coming up in Belgium in a place called Dour, and for that, we’ll be bringing a keyboard player, an amazing player who used to tour with Jamie Lidell. It’s almost like the Detroit Swindle Band! Or something that might evolve into that, at least. It’s a lot of work—we still need to practice a lot—but it’s also going to be a lot of fun. And we’ll be coming back to the States in the first two weeks of July, and doing all these other cool festivals, like this solstice festival in Iceland, something in Croatia, and the Southern Soul Festival in Montenegro with Gilles Peterson, Nightmares on Wax and Ron Trent. We’re really concentrating on trying to do a lot of diverse, not-too-obvious kinds of shows. Which might not be the best idea, business-wise—but if its fun to do, it doesn’t matter so much how much you get paid.

“Fun” seems to be the operative word for you guys.
Dales: This is our job, so we do need to make enough money to live, but it was never about the money. We can’t really complain—we’re buying lots of cool stuff for the studio, we get to travel, and we get to buy cool sneakers or whatever. But it’s really about doing what we love to do. I know that sounds super-corny—but we really just want to make music and play music.