Q&A: Soul Clap
How to be cool, make money, and never sell out - just be Soul Clap. Mixmag Asia caught up with Soul Clap in Thailand and talked about the tricks of the trade.
Soul Clap makes you feel good. Whether you walk into a room and they’re playing or even if someone else is playing them, they are the life of the party and from the moment their disco and funk vibes make their way into your soul, you become an advocate for their summertime sounding soundtrack even if you have never heard of what they are playing.
The Boston-bred duo together with Wolf + Lamb from Brooklyn and a handful of other extraordinarily eccentric talent push Crew Love and its musical mantra into the minds, bodies, and souls of anyone with an intelligent ear. As the ebb and flow of dance music becomes increasingly homogenized, Soul Clap is oft lauded for digging into the past so to restore the original elements of music back into what they produce and play.
Mixmag Asia first caught up with Charlie Levine from Soul Clap in the middle of the jungle in Thailand after a soulful Saturday night set at Wonderfruit Festival. He talked about the group’s organic approach to foreign festivals, how starting Soul Clap Records was in fact not that easy, and just how important money actually is.
What was the most unforgettable element of Wonderfruit Festival for you?
Having all the food vendors on site, like the Thai food and the Thai massages, that all made for something special. They did an amazing job with all of the little popups and the infrastructure too and also having Jo Vidler’s vision for Secret Garden applied with an Asian theme, that all made it really spectacular. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see that much music outside of our stage (the Soi stage) and that little rave jungle (the Green Quarry stage) but I would say that the site itself was just unbelievable.
What Soul Clap plays usually sounds best in small, intimate environments and is built upon vibe. How do you approach festivals differently where vibe is sometimes non-existent?
We’ve had a large amount of big club and festival-sized gigs and when we first started taking them it was more of a challenge and out of curiosity, like how could we apply our style to larger audiences, but we’ve really managed by playing classic vocal house, big anthems, and kind of borrowing some ideas from people like Masters at Work, Danny Tenaglia, or Frankie Knuckles in how they would play a larger and faster sound. For a while, we really fought against playing a faster tempo but nowadays it’s less about tempo and more about what fits the moment.
One of our biggest mentors is a woman from Boston named Carol Mitro, who was a DJ in the 70s and taught us a lot about classic house music, and she told us that house wears many hats meaning that there can be so many different influences that make house music. For example, it was a closing set at the Soi stage so I was playing faster and playing three CDJs at the same time, and also playing a lot of tribley house drum tools and a capellas and that I would call that more of a prime time sound.
Asia is a region right now that’s very much fueled by pop music and Soul Clap has a very quintessential American summer sound. How do you find people receive your music in other cultures? Is it more difficult?
Here in Asia they are just starting out and learning so we just stick to our guns and kind of play whatever vibe we’re feeling at the moment. But when we go places like South America, we play stuff with a Latin influence and that really translates well. When we’re in Brazil we do something similar and when we were in South Africa we went with really heavy African percussion kind of stuff. All these different multicultural sounds fit well into our DJ sets and if we’re in a particular region, I would say we just lean more heavily in that direction.
You have a mixture of influences in what you produce and play and by putting them together you’ve created this new old sound. Why do you think you’ve enjoyed so much success playing so many genres that are from the past and what do you think is drawing people backwards in sound today?
We like to think that we are educating people about the past and how it’s influenced the present. It’s like we’re trying to teach a history lesson with all these different sounds and influences. I think people get really excited when they hear a classic hit from the past that they’ve never heard before and that turns them on to a whole new way of thinking about music and about club culture.
The turn over in dance music seems to be about three to five years. You have people who want to get involved and participate and they go out clubbing. Then a lot of them outgrow it and there is an influx of young people that really don’t know. Then it takes the DJ that is going to go back and retell the story from the past to educate these young people so that their styles and tastes can mature.
Why is it so important for you to not forget your roots as far as music is concerned? Is the homogenized direction of the music industry an effect of everyone trying to create a future sound instead of not looking far enough into the past?
When you compare it to the past, things are getting increasingly less musical. When you listen to disco music, there are so many musical elements going on at once. The songwriting is really complex when you compare it to a basic tech house song that’s popular in the present. It’s really kind of sad that things go in waves. Like already in my career I’ve seen things go from really musical and over the top in the late 90s and the backlash from that was the beginning of modern tech house. Then it kind of swung back around and there was this whole resurgence of disco and the nu-disco sound that had a slower tempo and that was a reaction of just how bored everyone was with minimal techno.
Trends keep moving in cycles and people get really excited about what’s going on at the moment but I think that it’s problematic when every dance floor you go to sounds the same.
I think the way that people receive their music and the way the buy it is problematic too. There are these giant web-based music sources likes iTunes and Beatport and instead of there being many different local record shops with different specialties where you can get different types of music and be exposed to different tastes, you’ve got these one or two sources that are like monopolies on tastemaking. It’s kind of sad.
Soul Clap are as equally known for producing as DJing. How important is one to the other?
There used to be more DJs that were just simply DJs. Nowadays it seems like it’s more important to also be releasing music because you need to find a way to make it into peoples iTunes playlists. That’s how people will experience you. I find that releasing music is what keeps us growing as artists whether it’s edits, remixes, or original content. Especially if you want to have longevity, then it’s really important. It’s the best way to put your musical stamp on the world.
Is producing more of a technical skill or an artistic talent?
It’s both. You can have a producer with tremendous artistry that’s not a very good engineer and vice versa, you can also have someone that really knows how to make things sound incredible but is completely unoriginal in the arrangement and the writing.
Remember that traditionally there are so many different components. You once had somebody that wrote the music, somebody that produced the music, somebody that mixed and engineered the music, and then a room full of studio musicians that actually played. Now the expectation is that one or two people will fulfill all the roles. You kind of lost that team effort.
What has been the most valuable thing you’ve taken and learned from operating Soul Clap Records?
We’ve gained Nick Monaco and that’s something that we are really proud of. And all the other young guys that are coming up too like David Marston, he’s another young talent that I think people will really start to get excited about but he’s still finishing up school. Discovering young talent has been really fulfilling.
But it’s been challenging to get the record label off the ground though. I think initially we thought that because we had a good buzz behind our brand we could just start putting out music from unknown names, people would just trust us, and things would just take off right away. But it’s taken some work and definitely some serious time commitment and financial investment to make things move more fluidly.
How essential is running a label to artistry as whole within the music industry in terms of moving up?
Any brand that finds ways to diversify can create the image that things are greater or more powerful but sometimes it also shows the ability master the many different sides of the industry. I’m not exactly sure how essential it is to focus on one or the other though. It seems like a lot of people like to take on many different projects and I’m kind of a fan of just focusing on one or two things and just doing those things really well.
Almost everybody in our industry that is a big name has dabbled in deejaying, production, but also running a record label. We also do stuff with merchandising, like with fashion lines and having Soul Clap clothing. It’s all about finding ways to grow the brand, which is at the end of the day is really important.
What’s the advantage of being a part of a small and independent label over a major one?
There is certainly more room for creative expression with a small indie label. Some of the larger labels want to mold the sound or the artistry into something that is more particular to them but we encourage Nick Monaco, for example, to explore as much as he wants. Like with different tempos, different sounds, and different genres. In Mating Call for example, he went into something that sounds like a lot of slide guitars and, well he can explain his own music but he had a vision for what he wanted his album to be and we didn’t say we wanted it any other way. Nor did we want it to sound like the music that we make.
I think we get that ethos from Wolf + Lamb, who are very similar and just encourage everybody that is a part of the label to embrace their own vision and grow that way, which is what I think being an artist or a musician is all about.
Do you think about money and financial driven success when you entertain the idea of new projects?
I think about money when I’m doing commission based remixes and I think about what’s going to appeal to more people, but when I am writing original music I don’t think about whether it’s going to sell or not. I just want to follow an idea through and make music for the sake of making it and as a musician, when the music is in your head you need to get it out or else it haunts you. It’s a way to relieve this pressure that starts building up.
We’ve been fortunate that people like what we do and that we’ve been able to grow a large fan base, and people are loyal to us because we’ve never sold out. We’ve always stayed true to our belief and they respect that in us.
There have been quite a few acts that have come up, joined the masses, and reaped tremendous financial benefit from it however they strayed from their origins. It’s a difficult balancing act but I think if you can make good money by following your heart, then you’re in a really good situation. Anybody that finds success in this industry is going to face that at some point or another, it’s kind of a matter of what you do with it.
As I get older, I’d like to save up money be able to have a family. Eli is a few steps ahead of that from me, he’s married and will probably start popping out babies in the next few years and these are things that require a foundation.
Are there any interesting projects coming up that are perhaps different from anything Soul Clap has ever done?
We just finished up a collaboration with George Clinton from Parliament Funkadelic. His album has come out too and we produced two songs on it. We’re also going to release our remixes of those songs on Soul Clap Records and we’re going to film a music video with him in February in Los Angeles.
To follow will sort of be EFUNK part two, and I don’t what exactly the name is going to be yet but it’s going to be kind of a continuation of that idea but featuring a lot of studio musicians from Tallahassee, Florida, where George Clinton has his music studio.
Following that will be a third Soul Clap studio album.
I also intend on releasing my own solo project, which is called Lonely C, in the next eight months to a year and is something I am really glad to be able to move past. It’s been something that I’ve been trying to do on the side and I want to share that.
If you could create a super group, which you already have with Crew Love but think bigger, who would be in it?
I’d like to work with R. Kelly, I’ve always kind of wanted that. I’ve also always wanted to work with Amp Fidler on keys, Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite would also be one of the lead singers, then we’d resurrect Eddie Hazel from the dead and he’d play guitar, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo would be one of the backup singers. And every once in a while Herbie Hancock would play.
It’s the end of the year, what are the five best songs of any genre from 2015?
Nick Monaco – Mating Call
Life On Planets – Love So Fleeting
Pillowtalk – Devils Run
Soul Clap featuring Robert Owens – Misty
Greg Paulus & John Camp – Remo