iDJ meets a very savoury duo whose music mixes up all kinds of flavas
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away called Germany, there were two little boys called Robert and Sam. They lived in houses somewhere near the Baltic Sea, and they went to school and they grazed their knees and they got chicken pox, and they probably had some goldfish or bunny rabbits at some point, and then they grew up and became musicians.
Robert (Helms) was keyboard player and producer for a Depeche Mode-esque live electronic act, and Sam (Schlatow) played guitar and sang in various rock and jazz bands. Then one day, they met in a recording studio - that's a place where grown-ups go to make hit pop records - and decided that what they should really do was form a duo. A duo that would surf merrily along the cusp between house and techno, as so many do these days, but armed with Actual Proper Songs, as so few do these days. Wasn't that a clever idea?
Then, from 2010 onwards, the new duo, which they'd decided to call umami, released some records - mostly on the Burlesque Musique and Katermukke labels, but with an excursion on Sony Music with their take on the evergreen classic Sunny in 2014 - and international fame and fortune ensued. And then they bought their Mums some new houses, and some more goldfish and bunny rabbits, and they all lived happily ever after. The end.
Oh no, wait, we missed a bit out! That'll be the bit where their latest EP RGB dropped on Favouritizm Records on Monday (24 July) so we grabbed 'em for a quick natter. You'll notice that, in the interests of brevity, we largely stayed off the subject of goldfish and bunny rabbits...
The two of you have been working together as umami since 2010. Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds before that?
Sam: "I started a rock band called Orange Distortion in school, so in the beginning it was all about Muse, Radiohead, Silverchair and Nirvana for me. Then I played in a couple of other bands as a guitarist/singer and even played bass and sang in a Latin jazz band!
"But apart from going to rock festivals, we also used go to a festival in the north of Germany called Fusion, which was all electronic music. I loved the way you could dance all night to house and techno, which was impossible to do at rock or hip-hop events, so I gradually grew an interest to produce dance music as well."
Robert: "I started out, like many others I've met in the dance music scene, as a diehard Depeche Mode fan when I was a kid. There's a video of me trying to dance and move like Dave Gahan when I was 15 - my father showed it to Sam a while ago..."
Sam: "We absolutely have to release that some day!"
Robert: "No we don't. But anyway, DM was definitely was my introduction into electronic music and the band that made me buy drum machines and synthesizers early on."
As you both have non-house backgrounds, who were some of the artists/DJs/producers who first drew you to house music?
Sam: "Because I came from rock, I really liked Popof and stuff like that, with huge build-ups and monster drops. I even played EDM back in the day when it wasn't as unbelievably ridiculous as it is today - or at least I hope so. And I loved some tracks from the Liebe Ist… album by Stephan Bodzin."
Robert: "Actually, none! I didn't even really want to do dance music until Sam convinced me that we had to do it, and we started producing a project together. So I guess started producing house music before I knew anything about it."
The music you make has elements of deep house, tech-house, indie dance and more. How do you describe it?
Robert: "Actually, I think something between deep house, tech-house and indie dance describes it perfectly!"
A lot of your tracks feature quite indie-style vocals, and you've spoken about your desire to write "techno songs". Do you see yourself more as a band than a dance music production duo?
Sam: "The short answer is yes. Although there is a longer answer behind that.
"We started out with the intention of bringing the band spirit into dance music. Not that we were the first to try that, but we wanted to really mix those sweet dark harmonies with vocals, then transform it into something really dancable. But after a while we realised this was way harder than we had anticipated! As soon as you start to put different melodies and lines of text in a track, you run the risk of creating something too confusing for the dancefloor. Then you reduce them step-by-step until almost nothing is left of the original idea, but now the track is creating great energy in the club!
"So we've now come to the conclusion that we need to separate our music into two categories. One category is more focused on the harmonies and the hooks, the vocals and the feeling. We have taken all our tracks that fall in this category and will put them on our album In Exchange For Everything once they are finished. The other category is directed towards the clubs and dancefloors, and we'lll release those tracks more frequently on EPs or as remixes."
On that note, are you currently playing live, or do you have any plans for a live show?
Sam: "We have been playing live for almost eight years - we actually experimented with a live set together before we decided to start umami. We have always tried to make it work like a DJ set with vocals and other live elements. As we are finishing our album and taking the approach I just described, of having two different directions with the music, we want to go the same way on stage. Our live set is going be less about banging it out for the dancefloor and more about presenting our own musical vision. A lot of material from the new album is in there, but several of our old tracks will be remade into something new."
Robert: "On the other hand, we want DJing to be a totally different musical experience. We love to play DJ sets and entertain crowds with all the new releases we like from other artists. It's much more flexible when you just need two CDJs and some memory sticks - you can adapt to a lot of different situations. So the new live set will probably have much narrower focus, with live instruments and a setlist and stuff."
How did you come to hook up with Favouritizm for the new EP?
Robert: "We were talking to Sarah from Favouritizm about promotion possibilities for our first album, and then we showed her the first track that was finished, which was RGB. She immediately said that we should release it as soon as possible as a first single ahead of the album, so we decided to release it on Favouritizm Records as a teaser."
If you had to review the EP for iDJ, how would you describe the two tracks? And what mark out of 10 would you give them?
Sam: "Okay, so first of all, obviously 10/10! No, but to be honest, these are two of our absolute favourites among our own tracks. It shows the range of emotions we feel when connected to the dancefloor. RGB is probably one of the finest chord progressions we have ever created together, and Detail is the other end of the spectrum, a massive club track with a huge drop."
Finally, what else is going on in umami's world that iDJ readers need to know about?
Sam: "Apart from working on the album and the new live show, which both take up a lot of time, I have a solo project I'm working on. We've talked about the difficulty of integrating complex melodies in dance music and I have a couple of songs that are geared more towards the indie/pop side of music."
Robert: "And I have a solo project too - and unlike Sam's solo project, I have already released music! It's just called Helms and you can check it out on Soundcloud."
Sam: "Yeah, thanks for that! I know I'm lazy and unproductive, there's no need to point it out again!"
Words: Russell Deeks Pic: Marie Staggat
umami's RGB EP is out now on Favouritizm Records