With a UK gig at The Warehouse Project tonight, the Chicago veteran talks 20 years of his Farris Wheel Recordings label and the challenge of staying "relevant"
Some iDJ readers will remember 1995 like it was yesterday; others won't have been born yet. But that was when a young Chicago house DJ called Gene Farris released his first record - an EP on Curtis Jones's label Relief Records called Farris Wheel.
A month or two later, he'd play his first gig outside the US, a Relief night at Ministry Of Sound with Jones (Green Velvet), DJ Sneak, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground and "someone else I can't remember now, maybe Baby Bumps?". Three years later, in 1998, he'd set up his own Farris Wheel Recordings label.
Twenty-three years later, he's still DJing all over the world, still producing, and Farris Wheel Recordings is still going strong. Recently, Farris has been on something of a collaborations frenzy, working with the considerably younger (Farris is 46) likes of Riva Starr, Demarkus Lewis, Sonny Fodera, Mihalis Safras and (soon-come) Tim Baresko and Max Chapman.
As he explains below, it's all about staying "relevant" and keeping his own sounds and skill set up-to-date. Read on for his thoughts on the label anniversary, modern mixing techniques, and the power of house music to break down barriers...
Let's start with 20 years of Farris Wheel Recordings… that's quite a thing!
"Yeah, I know! I started it in 1998: the first release was the Copa Cabana EP that did really well and got rave reviews, and that kind of started the momentum of the label. Then I did another single called The Spirit, which DJ Sneak did some remixes for that got really good reviews as well, and we've basically been cracking at it ever since. We've had a release pretty much... well, there was one year when I was living in Amsterdam where we didn't put out much but we still put out about six releases that year. That was about 2006, I was in Amsterdam from 2004-2008, and 2006 if you remember was not a great time for house music. You had the big trance thing going on."
Yeah, the great label die-off of the mid-00s, I remember it well!
"Oh my god! It was tough to keep afloat during those days. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a vendetta against trance music or anything, it's just not my thing and it's not Chicago's thing. So we kind of chilled out that year, but then we came back strong in 2007 with stuff from Greenskeepers and James Curd, if you remember those guys, and that really pulled the label back on top again.
"Since then we've been going great, and recently we've rebranded with a whole new look, still doing the house stuff but doing a little bit of techno and tech-house as well. And it's great man, it's a blessing. We've had records from a lot of the giants: Glenn Underground, Boo Williams, DJ Sneak, Curtis as well... Jay-J, Miguel Migs, plus a lot of these new guys as well - we've just signed something from Sirus Hood, Tim Baresko and I just did a collaboration that's probably going to come out on the label, we've got Ghettoblaster now... what can I say, the label's going really well right now, I'm like a proud parent!"
Did you ever think, when you were setting up the label, that you'd still be running it 20 years later? Do you ever sit back and think, 'Blimey, it worked!'?
"It's mind-boggling, man. Though to be honest with you I'm still not sure if it's worked, but I'm still working hard every day to prove to my Mom and my wife that it has! [laughs] Mind-boggling is the best way to say it: it's such an honour to still be around, and to be surrounded by so many talented peers. It's like, I was a kid when I put my first record out in 1994. Well, I was 22 years old and I'd been making music since I was about 17, but back then it was kind of cool to not put music out, to keep it underground and just have it to play in your sets.
"But 1994, when my first record came out... see, my hero growing up was Lil' Louis, of French Kiss fame. He used to do these really big shows in Chicago, playing to five, six thousand people before that kind of thing was even really happening. So he was my hero, and I always aspired to be him, or a version of him. It's just really mind-blowing when you stop and... like, having this conversation is probably the first time in about 10 years I've really sat and looked back at how far we've come. It's mind-boggling, like I said. You need to take a deep breath and suck it in for a second."
It does, of course, beg the question - can you keep it going for another 20 years?
"I actually see myself doing this until... well, originally I always said my retirement plan was 70 but when you look at some of the older guys now, they can probably keep going till they're 80! But my retirement plan was always to go until I was 70, and then kinda chill.
"If my ears allow me to, and if my body allows me to... I don't drink any more, I gave that up three years ago and I think that's bought me at least a couple more years. But if my body and my ears allow me to do it, and I'm still able to make relevant music, not just music for myself and my small circle of friends, but still stuff that kids 20 years younger than me are appreciating… as long as I can stay relevant and in good spirits, I'd like to carry on as long as possible.
"I love this stuff, I am genuinely in love with the music. I know it always sounds like a cliché when people say that, but I've been doing this since I was 11 years old. I've been making music in studios or on drum machines or synths of some kind since I was 17. I've been travelling the world since I was 22 years old - my first overseas gig was the same year as my first record, at a party Curtis did at Ministry Of Sound. There was Curtis, me, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak, Boo Williams, Gemini, and there was someone else I can't remember now, maybe Baby Bumps?
"So it's like I was built to do this. I can't see myself doing anything else, now. I did go off to college for two years before I put out my first record, majoring in business in North Carolina. I was doing that when I did that Ministry gig, and I went back to school when I got back to the US afterwards. But then I heard my record playing on the radio, and I dropped out of school at the end of that semester. You only get one opportunity at something like this in life, so I said 'Okay, well if I fail I can always go back to college later'. But of course I never did. It's just one of those things where, I've tried to do other things in my life but it always just ends up leading me right back here. This is what I was... the Good Lord, or God, or whatever you believe in… Zeus… this is where I'm supposed to be."
There are definitely worse destinies! So, coming back to what you said about staying "relevant" - I noticed, looking on Discogs, you've done quite a lot of collaborations with younger producers over the past couple of years, people like Demarkus Lewis, Mihalis Safras...
"Yeah, and Sonny Fodera as well, he's a good friend of mine and we've done a lot of stuff together... Nathan Barato and I have something coming out, and I've been doing stuff with Sirus Hood and Tim Baresko as well."
With these younger guys, you've almost got two generations of house producer working together. What do you think you can teach them - and what can they teach you?
"It's kind of a give and take thing. really. Producing music, the fundamentals of writing music, don't really change that much. What's different, I'd say, with the new guys and the new music, is the arrangement: the younger kids take a different approach to arrangement and how music is digested on their floors. Back in the day, in the 90s, we could play one song for eight minutes, and that was fine. Now, it's a lot of… I DJ a lot and it's faster mixing, we're talking three, four minutes and out, onto the next one. And if you're doing three or four decks like myself, you've still got time to put acapellas over the top and stuff, but not as much as in the old days.
"So what I've learned from the new guys is new versions of arrangement skills. And what I like to give to the youth is, y'know, throw away your bassline loops, your synth loops, and use analogue equipment. You get that warmth, you get depth, if you've got a nice preamp and all that stuff... that's what I really try to bring to the youth is, bringing back to the way I started, which was using hands-on analogue equipment, versus staying in the box all the time and only using plug-ins."
Sure. So your studio's a bit of a hardware heaven, is it?
"It kind of is, yeah. But I work a lot in the box too, because I've been using Logic since it first came out, since the 90s. So I do a lot of in-the-box stuff, I'm very familiar with all the tricks of the trade in Logic... even though most of these new kids are using Ableton. So if I'm working with them, if they're not familiar with Logic then usually what they do is, they pass me their stems from Ableton, I'll put it into Logic, put a load of analogue stuff on it, change up the arrangement a little bit, send it back, they'll put it back into Ableton, do their youthful stuff to it and send it back… that's usually how these collabs have been working."
You usually work remotely, then, rather than physically being in a studio together?
"Yeah, well a lot of the young guys I'm working with are based your side of the water, so it's difficult for them to get over to Chicago unless they happen to be in town anyway. Like Sirus, he happened to be in Chicago so we went into the studio for a week. Sonny Fodera, he stayed at my house for three weeks a few years ago, before he had a baby, and we were able to get into the studio every day.
"So sometimes we do get in the studio, and I like it better that way because it's more hands-on. But with people like Tim Baresko and a few of the other guys, it's all been by email transfer. Right now I'm working on a track with Solardo, who are also good friends o mine, and that's all been by email. And that's been great as well.
"I think sometimes, for the newer guys, that's better because they're in their comfort zone, being able to work at home in their own studios. And that gives it that youthful sound, that current sound, versus coming into my studio and being a little bit intimidated and having to kind of cater to me. I don't want that, I want them to be able to be themselves because I'm trying to stay current, rather than them trying to cater to me and coming out sounding kinda old school."
So the collaborations are a deliberate effort to keep things sounding current?
"Oh, absolutely. I've always had a thing where, if I'm DJing in a club and I look around and all my fans are my age, I'm doing something wrong. But if I'm in a club and I'm DJing and I look around and all my fans are half my age, I'm doing something right. And that's kind of where I am right now.
"It's cool to have old school fans but I'm trying to keep growing this, and people of our age group, let's face it, we've already made our decisions about who our favourite DJs are, who our favourite producers are. But for younger people, the option is still there to be influenced. I definitely still have my old school fans, though – my wife is only 26 and she comes to my gigs and says I must be cool because there's 400 young kids here and 150-200 older people too! [laughs] That's quite rare nowadays, it's usually either one or the other."
But that's what house music is supposed to be about, isn't it - bringing people together? Regardless of age or sexuality or colour or whatever else...
"Yeah, absolutely, I agree with that totally! It's about community, about bringing people together. Like George Clinton said, "one nation under a groove" - that's what it's about. Music in general is, really. Music exists to bring the tribes together and dance it out, whatever problems you might be having that day. I'm a firm believer in that. And that's all I wanna do.
"I don't know if you've seen Dave Chapelle's sketches about 'When keeping it real goes wrong'? A lot of DJs, I think, get caught up in "keeping it real," and kind of miss the point of the whole thing, because if you're "keeping it real" what you're really doing is isolating people out of your scene, and it was never meant to be about that. We've always been open, we've always wanted people of all ages and colours, gay/straight, it doesn't matter.
"I'm still a firm believer in that, and other than the fact that I love DJing so much, that's why I try so hard to keep my music current, keep my vibe current. It must work a little bit because my wife's friends always tell her, 'I keep forgetting Gene's so old'!"
Is that part of why you carry on? I know it is for me, just from having experienced the positive changes in UK society as a result of the rave era. You know, we still have racism and homophobia and the rest of it, but it's nowhere NEAR as bad as it used to be... and for me, that was a direct result of people getting together and dancing to house music...
"Yeah, you guys over there really picked up the ball and ran with it! And yeah, I'm in totally in the same boat as you - we're from the same era, so I understand completely."
Anyway, coming back to your own career... another thing I noticed when looking back on Discogs was just how many albums you've made - a lot more than most house DJ/producer types.
"Well, like I said, I just try and stay relevant. Plus Lil' Louis was my hero, and if you look at him, he put out a lot of albums, so I grew up listening to albums, and for me you're not a proper artist till you've got a least one album under your belt. Plus I was a massive Prince fan, and you know how many albums he put out! Michael Jackson, too - those guys were artists, man, and they were putting in work. They'd go in the studio and jam, and come out with a new album that didn't sound anything like the last one. And that's pretty much what I want to be, y'know, when I grow up!" [laughs]
So can we expect a new album any time soon?
"It's funny you say that, because I was thinking about this the other day. I've just done a bunch of collaborations - with Green Velvet, Sirus, Tim Baresko, Max Chapman, Solardo - and I was gonna say 'fuck it' and just put them all together as an album. But then when I looked I've kind of got releases lined up all the way through till May 2019, so I don't think an album's going to happen in 2019, probably. But 2020 for sure."
Is that how albums come about for you, then - when you've got enough tracks? Or is it more a case of, 'Right, this month I'm gonna sit down and make an album'?
"Yeah, it's usually the second one, which is another reason I backed off from making an album out of all the collaborations. Because all those tracks have pieces of me in them, but I think for an artist album it really needs to just be you. I might bring in a guest vocalist, maybe, or a rapper, but I'm a firm believer that for a proper album, 98% of it just needs to be the artist themselves. So I'm sticking to singles for all these collaborations."
On the DJ front, any UK gigs coming up soon?
"I'm playing The Warehouse Project on Friday with Sonny Fodera and Danny Howard. After that there's nothing for a while, but I've just signed to [UK DJ agency] Spectrum so hopefully there'll be more UK gigs in 2019. My wife said 'Let's move!' but I'm like, baby steps... let's see if the new kids like me in the UK first!"
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"I think we've touched on most of it. There's the collaborations, the label's killing it right now... personal life is good, I just got married last year and I have two kids now, a five-year-old and a one-year-old. It's nuts, but it's great!
"Oh yeah, and I'm doing something on Idris Elba's label soon. February, I think it's coming out, and we've been talking about doing a collaboration next year as well. I'm a big fan of his films and he's been a very cool guy through this whole process. You know, it's still a bit of a shocker for me when people like that even know we exist in our little world! But he's for real, he's heavily into the music and he's a really good DJ, too. I was pleasantly surprised!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Gene Farris plays The Warehouse Project, Manchester tonight (16 Nov)
Tags: Gene Farris, Farris Wheel Recordings, Green Velvet, Curtis Jones, Relief Records, Chicago, Ministry Of Sound, DJ Sneak, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, Riva Starr, Denis Cruz, Sonny Fodera, Mihalis Safras, Solardo, Tim Baresko, Max Chapman, Greenskeepers, Sirus Hood, Idris Elba