DJs of the year: Tale of Us
As Tale Of Us prepare to begin a new chapter, we celebrate our DJs of the year
From up here, you can just about hear Kreuzberg kicking into life. On Oranienstraße the bars and restaurants are filling up, and another Berlin weekend prepares to get started early. It’s only Thursday, but Tale Of Us don’t spend too many weekends at home these days.
A going concern for half a decade, 2015 was the year the sound they play and represent evolved into something emotional and dramatic and unmissable, not just moving bodies on dancefloors but touching hearts and minds. From Miami to Secret Solstice in Iceland, Coachella in LA to The Warehouse Project in Manchester, and back home in Berlin, their DJ sets have hit the perfect balance between immersive warehouse techno party and evocative IDM experience. They took it to Ibiza’s DC10 for a mini-residency and it was the hottest ticket of the season. They’re busy remixers but not prolific producers, preferring perfectionism to cashing in. November’s ‘North Star’/’Silent Space’ double was the only new solo material they released, a dense and coolly atmospheric pair of techno tracks which also marked their first recordings for R&S.
Of course, there was also the dancefloor-hammering techno groove of ‘Astral’, a collaboration with friends and labelmates Mind Against, and remixes for Caribou, Plastikman, Kiasmos and Barnt. Their label Life And Death has been fundamental, from its legendary branded parties to releases from new signees including Recondite, Stephan Bodzin and Steve Rachmad, as well as Mind Against.
Five floors up one of those nondescript but elegant Berlin stairwells is Carmine ‘Carmine’ Conte’s penthouse apartment, a modest but stylish pad with attic windows which he smokes out of, a home gym in the corner and a laptop open on the coffee table, on which we find him road-testing the pair’s Mixmag cover mix when we arrive.
Matteo Milleri arrives moments later from his own apartment nearby, and looks around as if he’s never been here before. “I like what you’ve done with the place, man,” he nods approvingly at Carmine. “That mirror has to go, though. It’s too much.” He jerks his thumb at the fancy gold leaf thing in the corner. It’s no joke to say they’ve got that whole ‘odd couple’ thing going on. At first, settling into the leather sofa together, they could be brothers: both rugged and dressed in black, both sporting arm tattoos, both intense in their own way and casually handsome (they’re Italian, after all). Get talking, though, and they seem like polar opposites who fit together against all the odds.
Carmine was born 33 years ago in Toronto, Canada, when his parents were working there, but he was raised in the Italian city of Pescara. “One of my grandparents was a clarinet player and one was a saxophone player, so it’s in my blood,” he says. “I fell in love with the piano when I saw a solo concert when I was very young, like nine or ten.” After years of lessons he decided not to study at the local music conservatory, instead following his parents hope that he’d be a lawyer. “I did most of the exams. Not that I gave up, but I realised it wasn’t my place.”
Carmine describes his background as modest; the impression is that Matteo’s was less so. His father is a business consultant and economist. “He wanted me to take his path – it’s a good one, it could have been easy, but it was always going to be something predestined. If I followed his path I was never going to know if I really deserved it, you know?” Matteo’s 27 and was born in New York where his father studied, and raised in Italy’s Umbrian countryside.
His education came through Aphex Twin, Autechre and the IDM style. “I don’t really have a lot of weird musical skills,” says Matteo, half-nodding towards Carmine as if ‘weird musical skills’ are his speciality. “I mean, I’ve learned a lot about chords and progressions and stuff, but in the beginning it was more just playing with software. Right through school, I was a bit of a nerd. I had Logic, I had Reason, I was on Cubase for five years, then Logic switched to Mac and I had that again.”
Matteo also started out in a ‘proper’ career – he studied economics – but he quit. They both ended up at the SAE Institute in Milan studying music, which is where their paths crossed. “The school was more like a meeting point for us, it wasn’t teaching us anything we really wanted to know,” says Matteo. “It was more technical stuff. It’s a good school, a famous institute, but it’s more for engineers. We don’t like it.”
“Yeah, we don’t like it,” confirms Carmine with a laugh.
“It’s also a problem with Italy, with the way of teaching there,” says Matteo, sitting up urgently. “It’s why I didn’t like university – it’s like, ‘Learn this by memory and tomorrow tell me what it is’. Not like a group thing, like in other countries, with projects. You don’t learn about music by reading a two-hundred page textbook.”
“You learn music by doing music,” confirms Carmine. “The connection between us is a musical connection, a passion. It’s very strong, actually. Really, we come from two different realities otherwise, different crowds.”
Carmine is mellow and intensely focused on the classically musical, but he’s the more prolific clubber of the two. He threw himself into Berlin when they arrived, going to Panoramabar for six or seven hours on a Sunday to soak up the music and listen to what works. Tresor, Watergate and Club DerVisionaere too, though “Berlin is not just about the clubs,” he says. “It’s about the opportunity you have to go to the club or to do something else. If you want to finish a track at 5am, you know? It’s freedom. I would understand and learn in these places – I needed to. The frequency, the breaks, how each sound reflects in a club. If something sounds right there, you know it’s right. It was a different experience to university.”
Matteo is intense in a different way. Chatty and firmly focused on the vision for the duo and the label, he’s prone to overrule his partner in conversation. He used to co-run loft parties called Just This back in Milan when he was 19, booking “more melodic techno” artists like Seth Troxler. He’s the one who’s heavily into creating techno, but he is less interested in being a punter in clubs. “I once went to Berghain and it was amazing, but I felt I didn’t want to party,” he says. “I wanted to sort my shit out instead. I was so into some sound in my head that I didn’t need to be influenced by clubs. After success came – if you want to put it that way – I got more interested in the actual clubs. But I like things more private and chilled, like loft parties.”
It was connections made at those parties which made Tale Of Us happen. At the same time as the pair’s moody and intensely groove-laden remix of Thugfucker’s ‘Disco Gnome’ was taking off in 2010, Matteo was meeting Troxler in Florence club Tenax, where it was proposed they record what became 2011’s debut EP ‘Dark Song’ for his Visionquest label. With their own thing going on – ‘Disco Gnome’ came out on Life And Death, which they run with Greg Oreck of Thugfucker and Manfredo Romani, aka DJ Tennis – alongside interest from an established player, the pair moved to Berlin full-time.
“Life And Death is a great team at the moment which we are happy to be part of,” Federico Fognini of Mind Against tells us. “We’ve actually produced several tracks with Tale Of Us over the years but none of them convinced us to release it, including an unreleased ‘City At Night’ song we made years ago, which somehow ended up going viral on YouTube. We always said that if we release music together it had to be special.” That sums up the Tale Of Us approach in general.
This was, says Matteo, the beginning of the first phase of Tale Of Us – there have been three. “The first phase, we reconnected with the deep house movement,” he says. “I don’t deny that we sounded like deep house. Most of our colleagues, like Jamie (Jones) and Seth, were very successful in this, but we didn’t find our place somehow. It was, I don’t know… it was really not our thing.”
“It got boring,” offers Carmine.
“We went with it because it was big,” says Matteo. “It was big and we were considered precursors, so we made more music like that because the fans were there. It wasn’t exactly what we liked. We were getting a bit lost by the end of the deep house Tale Of Us period.”
The answer, he says, was to change their sound. Inspired by the invitation to expand on their love of progressive house with a Renaissance mix in 2013, they moved on. “We got out of the deep house loop and we educated ourselves in all electronic music,” says Matteo. “Renaissance was the end of the deep house phase and ‘Another Earth’ on Minus was the start of the more melodic, arpeggiated techno stuff. When I say techno, I don’t mean Berlin techno, not at all. We don’t make Berlin techno and we never will, because we’re Italian.”
You make Italian techno, right?” Yes, in a way,” he laughs. “It’s more emotional, I’m not going to deny. There’s more drama. We’re not going to hide it. We like it.”
“It’s true,” smiles Carmine, resting his thumb on the barrel of his lighter expectantly. “We like emotion and drama.”
Matteo picks up a copy of a German dance music magazine and points to the coverline alongside their picture. “Someone named it ‘new romantic house’. We don’t like that either, but we understand what they mean. It’s romantic techno. It’s the movement we’re in now, and I think it’s the movement we’re going to close soon, because this sound has got to its saturation point. We’re taking a new journey.”
The confidence to change again comes from the knowledge that they’ve done it once, and the vote of affirmation offered by having a label with R&S’ history take them on. “R&S is going back to this IDM, broken, atmospheric sound,” says Matteo. “It makes a lot of sense to be on this label because we’ve been listening to it for ten years. And they approached us. They sent us an email – ‘Hey guys, we really like your stuff, we think it’s got so much potential, we think you can go to a broader audience that’s not only dance.’ We’ve been working on an album for five years; we’ve announced it three times. But you know, the artist album, especially in the dance world, has to be right.”
This is where Tale Of Us’ evolution is taking them. They’ve tried out albums and realised they were writing a series of good dance tracks, so they’ve broken them up into EPs instead. To record an LP is a huge ambition for them, but not one they’re going to rush. “We’re going to make an album when it’s right,” says Matteo. “You’re not going to see a couple of DJs who made an album, and people know about them because of the press campaign – you’re going to see an act in the evening, buying the ticket for only this act. I think this is how we want to make the album, and this is going to take more time, unfortunately.”
Car horns blare up from the road outside, as two drivers move at once for the same space. “I like the model of an artist like Massive Attack,” Matteo continues. “Forget the music – although I like it too – but you buy a ticket to Massive Attack whether it’s a concert or a club, and you go to listen and watch. You don’t think, ‘Are they DJs, are they live, are they cool, do they have a night in Ibiza?’ You just see the name and you don’t worry. We want that: to express ourselves to more people with freedom, to be able to do what we want and stay true to ourselves.”
Despite that, the pair do have their own night in Ibiza – or at least they did for five consecutive Fridays this summer under the Life And Death banner. There, too, they took to uncharted territory and made it their own, stripping back a DC10 dancefloor more used to big Circoloco productions to its bare bones. With the help of label friends like Mind Against and Recondite, they put on a darkened, purist’s warehouse techno rave. It was another success.
“We like Ibiza, but the reality is it doesn’t belong to us so much,” says Matteo. “We brought our great vision of a party. We had more experimental line-ups, and more interesting music, in our opinion. The island can start brands and careers, but for us our brand was already successful and our career was fine. We were like, if we’re going to do Ibiza, we’re going to do it right. We had great feedback. We’re not sure if we’re going to do it again, we’ll see. We sowed some seeds.”
Later, Matteo enthuses over the concept for photographer Christian Lamb’s austere, stylish pictures of the pair in Spain, Iceland and America, while Carmine shows us his home studio, a red-lit attic room packed with pianos, keyboards and ItalianDylan Dogcomic books. He plays us his minimal piano compositions and pats us happily on the shoulder when we agree they sound beautiful. “We think about putting them out,” he says, “but there’s plenty of time. We don’t want to show too many sides.”
To call artists ‘ones to watch’ is a cliché, but it applies to Tale Of Us. Keep an eye on them, because they’re always changing. “We live in times where it seems easy to have overnight success,” says Dixon, with whom they’ve worked and played. “Often this leads to artists being lazy. Some even think that having great ideas is all you need. But the hard work that every artist or craftsman must put in is almost forgotten. Tale Of Us, though, invest everything and go the extra mile. I really respect them for this.”
“The Tale Of Us is our story,” says Matteo, pacing the floor while Carmine opens a window to let the smoke out and the cold Berlin night in. “The concept doesn’t allow us to stagnate. We’re not a lifestyle act and we can’t stop evolving our sound. It’s a journey, and the end is the end. Once it stops, you’re dead.” We should just enjoy that journey wherever it – and Tale Of Us – takes us.