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Question time with Metro Area

Marcus Barnes

metro area 225x300 Question time with Metro AreaSeveral years ago, before digital media became the norm, I remember being handed a mixtape by one of my friends. It was a collection of house and techno delights from various artists, and at the time I didn’t know the names of any of the tracks or their producers but, as time went on I discovered some of them. Among the many gems on the mixtape was a track by Metro Area – as always, as soon I discovered the duo (Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani) I delved into their back catalogue and unearthed one fantastic track after another. Metro Area are renowned throughout the music world for their classic take on electronic music, full of soul and funk – music that really gets you dancing. Their influence is widespread and they have universal respect from within the electronic music community. Ahead of their first live performance in over a decade, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask both men some questions…

You guys grew up in New Jersey and New York… What effect would you say your hometown has had on your musical direction?

Darshan: Of course, I didn’t realize it when I was a kid, but I think we definitely benefited from certain influences and values growing up in the general vicinity of New York. Morgan’s hometown is about 30-40 minutes from Manhattan on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, and I come from a town about an hour north of the Bronx, between New York and Woodstock. This whole area has a pretty great cultural history.

Morgan: We both grew up in truly suburban environments, meaning we were outside of the city but still within reach and therefore affected by it. We were influenced heavily by its radio stations (KISS-FM etc..) and culture.

What kind of stuff were you into when you first discovered your love for music?

Darshan: Like so many other kids, I started with my Dad’s records and tapes. It was a mixture of stuff – mostly 60s and 70s rock. Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, Lata Mangeshkar, John Lennon & Plastic Ono Band’s “Sometime in New York City” album, which was slept-on at the time, but is now kind of a cult classic, co-produced by Phil Spector. Though I have to say, I had just as much fun looking at and reading the cover art as I did listening.

MG: I can’t remember not being into music. My older siblings had a major effect on me. Devo was huge for me as a little kid. You could listen to it as a child or an as adult. I could bounce around to simple lyrics and melodies but knew there was something naughty going on that I didn’t understand yet. I listen now as an adult and it’s pretty subversive stuff.

Who were your inspirations within rock music?

Darshan: By the time I had any sense of inspiration from rock it was probably 1979 or 1980. So I was into radio stuff like Foreigner, AC/DC, Toto, bands like that. I heard “Tom Sawyer” by Rush in my cousin’s car and the synthesizer sounds blew my mind. I liked Ozzy Osbourne when I was like 8 or 9, being too young to really know about the much cooler Black Sabbath stuff.

MG: One of the first songs I got into as a baby – and I’m not kidding, I used to mosh around to it – was “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. It was released the year I was born. The production of classic rock is amazing… that kind of dead room disco sound, but more expensive. Later I got into prog rock, that my brother listened to, like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rush… Stuff like that.

When did you start getting into house/electronic music?

Darshan: I think my ear started getting tuned to electronics starting with “Tom Sawyer” and then with Devo, “Whip It” and the “Freedom of Choice” album. My 4th grade teacher brought a Casablanca 12″ of Giorgio Moroder’s “The Chase” to class once and I loved it so much that she let me borrow it for a few weeks. I found R&B radio around this time and I think that’s when things really changed.

MG: I always loved electronic music. House didn’t come until my teens, and I hated a lot of what I heard – the Todd Terry era didn’t move me that much, and still (blasphemy!) doesn’t, along with lots of hip-house and other stuff coming back into fashion. I remember joking with my friends that keyboards must have come pre-loaded with air raid sirens and those house chords that were in every record in 1987. Early on, I think I was more into New Wave-y stuff with the occasional club track by Dominatrix or Freeze or whomever. I only started really getting into proper house music in college, or stuff like 808 State, LFO, and some Kevin Saunderson poppy stuff (from the radio) at the end of high school.

So who were your inspirations house-wise, when you first got into it? Who were the local DJs that inspired you? Which clubs were you going to?

MG: My first club experiences were all industrial dance clubs. The Ritz, Limelight (called “Slimelight”), a single show when I was really young at the Pipeline in Newark to see Severed Heads. Only in college did I start getting into house and techno, and I got lucky… I think right when I made my first record, 1993 or 1994, we drove to Detroit and saw Derrick, Juan and Eddie Fowlkes play in a tiny sports bar.

Darshan: I’m not sure, we weren’t even calling it house when I first started to be aware of those kinds of rhythms. This was mid-late high school for me – around 1989-1991. We just called it club music, and I wasn’t aware at all of what was going on in Chicago or Detroit. House music to me was “I’ll House You” by the Jungle Brothers, or “This is Acid” by Maurice. Kind of bad novelty versions of what was an underground sound being enjoyed by older people in other places. To me this stuff kind of grew out of breakdancing music and freestyle. I went to some industrial dance shows in the city during this time, like Morgan, and some little local clubs but nothing really of note.

Can you recall your first experience of partying to house music?

Darshan: The first couple of times I really understood house music were sometime around 1993, going to parties during the New Music Seminar which used to be held here in NY. I had a college girlfriend who lived in the city take me to this party called Sugar Babies with DJ Troy Parrish around 1994 at CB’s Gallery.

MG: It was really just dancing around with friends, maybe while doing my radio show in college. Then after that, going to clubs in Cleveland to hear Dan Curtin, Tatsuro Hayashi, Paul Johnson, etc. We’d go to the Packard Plant to see Richie Hawtin and Derrick May.

When/how did you start to get into DJing?

MG: Radio at college.

Darshan: I also started Djing on college radio around 1991 – but didn’t really understand how to play for a party until about 10-11 years later. They are completely different ways of playing.

Why did you decide to start making music, too?

Darshan: Music-making came way before DJing for me. I started taking guitar lessons when I was a kid and got my first synthesizer when I was in high school. I had only listened to DJs mix records but never really knew how to do it myself.

MG: I always wanted a synth. I was a competitive freestyle cyclist, but had to get major surgery in 1987 and couldn’t ride for six months, so my father bought me a Roland synth. I wonder if he regrets that. I could have a respectable job now instead!

How have your lives changed in the years since you released your debut album?

Darshan: I don’t know, I feel like the release of that album began for me a serious commitment to music-making and DJing in a time when it has been incredibly challenging to distinguish oneself doing either. The music industry has been completely disrupted by technology, everybody is a DJ but nobody buys records, the club scene and culture in NY has hit rock bottom. I mean, the changes have been endless really.

MG: I guess we got a bit of respect for a while, and now it’s long enough ago so I’m not sure the new kids know about us.

When you first started making music, what kind of style were you aiming to make/replicate? And what was your studio set-up when you first started making music?

Darshan: First it was some bad mixture of sample-y industrial dance with high-school melancholic new wave melodies. Then I was into imitating some dance influences and European import sounds that I would hear on the local college radio station. Back then I had one sampler that I owned, a borrowed synth and drum machine and a Tascam Portastudio cassette multi-track recorder.

MG: New wavey pop; Depeche Mode, Vince Clark. For years my set-up was a Roland D10, and Alesis MMT-8 sequencer. Then I added a Portastudio cassette 4-track thing.

And what’s your set-up now?

MG: Better.

Darshan: Yeah, a bit better.

Can you remember reaching a point with your productions where you felt you were onto something special?

Darshan: I think I may have surprised myself for the first time in the mid-late 90s. That was the first time I made something that I felt like I could buy or dance to, or that I would like to hear on the radio.

MG: I think you know in your heart when you’ve done something different or good. I think the first Metro Area record, “Atmosphrique” – when I was making it at my house to bring to Darshan’s to finish, it seemed super weird and unlike anything coming out at the time. I thought it would fail but I was excited by the song, it came together fast and I felt confident about liking it, which doesn’t usually happen.

What are the parallels, if any, between house/electronic music and rock?

Darshan: At their best they’re both truly transgressive and expansive forms of music. At their worst they’re both fantastic vehicles for narcissistic, self-destructive shit heads.

MG: They’re both full of egotistical douchebags and thieves?

Do you listen to modern-day rock music at all?

Darshan: No.

MG: No.

What have you been listening to recently, old or new, that’s really inspired you?

Darshan: There’s so much that either inspires or makes me want to sell my equipment. Music is all very atomized for me at the moment – I just cherry pick lately. Everything from Chic to Laurie Spiegel.

MG: I barely listen to music anymore outside the studio. I’m trying to change that, but I love quiet.

As producers, you’ve inspired countless artists around the world, but who would you cite as your ultimate producer?

Darshan: I don’t know if I can name an ultimate; Butch Ingram, Quincy Jones, Patrick Adams, Giorgio Moroder. Competition is fierce.

MG: I can’t narrow it down to one. There are so many amazing pop producers. But on the budget tip, I have a soft spot for Patrick Adams.

What have you been working on recently? Any new music on the horizon?

Darshan: I’ve mostly been working with Morgan on producing this live show. I just finished my first solo single for my new label Startree, but I still have to a dub mix for the other side and haven’t been able to. Some remixes of mine just came out last week on Permanent Vacation.

MG: We’ve been busy with getting the live set together, so no new music for a while. My music goal is finishing the Storm Queen album before nobody cares about it anymore.

What about your live set-up, how long has it taken to put that together?

Darshan: It has taken months to figure out an approach. The gear is only part of the issue – it’s really about how we want to play and what can we use to accomplish that, which is portable and on the cheap side.

What other releases do you have coming up?

Darshan: Big releases of tension once this live set is in the can and the tour finally underway.

What are you looking forward to most about playing at Oval Space in London?

Darshan: Hopefully being asked to do “one more song” because the set went well.

MG: Getting it over with! It’s our first live gig in over a decade. If all goes well, I guess I’m looking forward to going to sleep that night a bit less stressed than I’ve been in months.

Metro Area perform live along with Bicep and Optimo at Oval Space in Hackney, east London on May 25, more information here.

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