DJ TREE

thumb

By discovering records from the past, this Berlin collective and label is carving out a fresh new sound. Matt Unicomb unpacks their distinctive style.
A strong sense of identity is the thread that connects the best house and techno collectives. The members of Slow Life, a six-person Spanish-Italian group based in Berlin, define themselves not only by their music but how they live their lives. They share a laid-back, unhurried approach to almost everything, not least their music. Long before their label, “slow life” was a catch phrase the group would jokingly use to explain their easy-going demeanour. It’s an attitude that stands out against a backdrop of an increasingly professional, PR-focussed dance music industry, where newcomers are led to believe that they need to hustle to get ahead.

As Slow Life and other press and promo-shy acts have shown, this isn’t always the case. A label or group grown organically, without PR blasts or social media, has the potential to build a more genuine and loyal fan base, which is precisely the case with Slow Life. Attend a few of their packed label nights in Berlin (usually held at Club Der Visionäre or Hoppetosse) and you’ll see the same faces. Each of Slow Life’s five releases has sold out purely by word of mouth. “We never push things onto people,” says DJ Tree, one of the group’s three DJs. “We know that if something is good, it will grow. That’s Slow Life. There’s no need to hurry.”

The crew is made up of three DJs (Laurine, Cecillio and DJ Tree), a producer (S.Moreira) and a graphic designer (Santi Uribe). Laurine and DJ Tree, both Italians, go back the longest, having met in London in 2010 before either of them had spent much time in Berlin (DJ Tree introduced Laurine to older house and techno, blowing her mind with DJ Assassin’s “Face In The Crowd”). They met the Spaniards S.Moreira, Cecilio and P.Villalba (a founding member who also dabbles in production) when they moved to Germany a few years later. A friendship quickly formed in the same way many others do, through dinners, clubbing and sharing music. It’s this friendship, combined with the group’s shared values, that forms the basis of their working relationship. They refer to each other as “family,” and explain that their friendship is one of openness and mutual respect.

“That’s the thing about these guys,” S.Moreira, whose first name is Sergio, says. “They’ve never told me, ‘Oh, good track,’ when they didn’t really think so. It’s good to have people to give you real feedback. Most of the time you show your tracks to people and they’re like, ‘It’s nice,’ when they don’t actually believe it.”

Moreira’s music is central to Slow Life’s identity. Since the label launched in late 2013, he’s produced (or co-produced) 16 of the 18 tunes it’s released, all with a sound informed by the record collections of the crew’s other members. A lot of the music he’s released could loosely be called deep house, but it has little in common with the genre’s current form. Inspired by sounds from decades past, Moreira owes more to labels like Peacefrog and Guidance Recordings than any present day deep house operation. His tracks are swung and funky, built with broken beats, lush pads and dynamic basslines.

“I was a bit lost before meeting the others,” Moreira says, referring to his first years in Berlin. “But they showed me the music that I really liked. When I started to listen to this deep house, I was like, ‘This is something I’ve never listened to before.’ It was 2011 or 2012, and the tracks they were showing me were from the ’90s. How could it be that I’d never listened to this kind of music?”

His friends, though, aren’t your average house and techno fans. They’re celebrated record diggers whose collections are full of obscure sounds. Along with the likes of Binh and Nicolas Lutz, the Slow Life crew are breathing new life into the scene connected to Berlin venues Club Der Visionäre and Hoppetosse. This scene is tricky to define, but has key characteristics, such as dedicated digging, loyalty to playing vinyl and long DJ sets. Its members play music that traverses house, techno and electro from the ’90s and ’00s, and they’re spread across Europe. Italian Francesco Del Garda is one of its key figures, and there are several DJs in the UK pushing things forward, such as Andrew James Gustav, Gwenan and Bruno Schmidt. Many in the scene, if not all, consider Perlon boss Zip a key influence, taking cues from his slick, unfussy mixing style and emphasis on deep cuts.

This new wave are all relatively young and have embraced the internet, particularly Discogs, as a tool for finding music. Slow Life still extoll the virtues of record shops, particularly when looking for records and labels they’ve never encountered before (or “blind listening” as they call it), but agree that when going deep on digging, there’s no better resource than the internet. “If you want to find something that you have never heard, you can go to a shop,” Cecilio says. “But Discogs is the main source for us.”

“Recently, when we go to a real second-hand shop we know most of the records on sale already,” Laurine says. “People are digging a lot now, and the shops can’t always refresh the stock with new material. Most of the time, whatever we find is not very good, as the bad records take the longest to be sold.”

“But I think it’s all about the style that you like,” adds DJ Tree. “For the music we like, maybe the second-hand shops in Berlin are not the best place to look, but someone else might find a lot.”

Online searching gives those willing to embrace the internet a leg-up over less computer-savvy DJs. The Discogs database seems infinite, with countless ways to navigate it. Some, like Laurine, follow a trail of artists and labels, obsessively researching the work and catalogues of new discoveries, and then other artists connected to them. “Once my computer crashed with 300 tabs open, so now I try and keep it to 30,” she laughs.

Others, like Cecilio, occasionally use a different approach, taking advantage of the site’s vast network of users. Many people make their collections visible to others on the site, which means if you find someone with taste similar to yours, there’s a good chance you’ll make some great new discoveries. “I have many paths,” he says. “That’s the good thing about Discogs. There’s more than one way of working. For example, there’s a girl I wrote to asking her if she could record some of her collection and send me samples. Then other times I check the ratings and comments, and sometimes you get somewhere and don’t remember how.”

Cecilio needs Discogs more than most people: he’s living as a yogi in the south of Spain with no access to record stores (“I receive a lot of packages for Cecilio at my place, believe me” Laurine says). He’s been based there for two years, but will be relocating back to Berlin in the near future. Since he’s been in Spain, though, the internet has become increasingly important, and the isolation encourages him to dig even deeper. “I keep coming to Berlin to play gigs,” Cecilio says. “I have to play on the same level as the others. So it makes me put even more effort in digging. Whenever I have free time where I am, I’m on the internet looking for records.”

The group have a clear idea about the sound they wish to push—broken beats, pads and a sense of depth—which limits the scope of their search. Secondly, they value undiscovered music, so they don’t place an emphasis on expensive, hyped records. As such, most of their discoveries don’t cost more than a few euros. They’re not afraid of dropping recognisable tracks at parties, but are still very much aware of what other DJs are playing, and try to avoid records that are being rinsed by their peers. At one of their recent showcases at Hoppetosse, Underground Resistance’s “Hardlife” was the trio’s most recognisable tune. The rest were a mix of atmospheric, pad-heavy house, techno and electro, all with fat broken beats and snazzy grooves.

The Slow Life crew don’t avoid popular tracks for the sake of it—they simply value having a unique voice. “It’s about being yourself,” Laurine says. “I have some represses that I haven’t played yet because I’m tired of hearing them. Maybe in five years I will play them.”

“I have one repress I bought two years ago that’s still sealed,” DJ Tree says with a grin. “I’m going to play it on Saturday.”

There’s no pretension when the group talk about records, only passion. They laugh, crack jokes and make fun of each other. Vinyl is a huge part of their lives. They buy it, sell it, play it and spend all their spare time looking for it (Laurine sleeps on a bed constructed from Ikea shelves stacked with records). It’s a kind of pursuit that wouldn’t exist without the likes of Discogs. The site has democratised the vinyl market, and now hobbyists can use it as a place to buy and trade, earning money with rare and expensive records they no longer want, and using the cash to buy more music. Slow Life runs a regular vinyl market in Berlin, where, with friends from the Berlin-based Libertine collective, they sell records in a bar.

Moreira, a former drummer, takes a similarly immersive approach to production. He’s in the studio for more than ten hours most days of the week. As a result, his tracks sound mature and full-bodied, striking an enchanting balance between trippiness and functionality. In making tracks both rhythmically complex and melodic, Sergio sets himself apart from others working with similarly subtle sounds. Modern deep house usually features relatively straightforward percussion, so the jacking drums on EPs like We All Are Fra! and Changing Habits, Breaking Rhythms stand apart from the sound of prominent labels like Dial and Smallville.

“I like breaks,” he says. “And I like pads and voices. So I try to put everything together. I start every track differently, because if you always start with the drums, then you add the pads, then the bass, and so on, every track turns out similar to the others. So I always try to start with something different—maybe a good sample or a nice pad from a new synthesiser. Working in new ways opens doors, and you can usually reach places that you’ve never been before.”

The producer’s dedication to learning, matched with the obsessive vinyl digging and DJ skills of his friends, make Slow Life a formidable force. And their foundation of friendship is possibly stronger than the bind of any musical idea. You’ll see it at a Slow Life label night: DJ Tree, Laurine and Cecilio will be crammed into the booth, laughing, waving to friends in the crowd, passing records back and forth. Sergio, Santi and P.Villalba are likely huddled nearby, breaking conversation once in a while to high five one of the DJs. Their smiles are infectious, just like the music they play and release. “You know what to expect when you come to a showcase,” Laurine says. “A lot of nice music and a lot of smiling. We are having fun, so there’s energy. You can feel it, you know?”