Labels That Matter: Turbo Recordings

We talk to Thomas Von Party about the renewal of the Canadian label

Turbo Recordings has been around for almost 15 years, so it's been around the block more than a few times: many highlights in the past and a vigorous present with new signings who all go in the direction of techno. We talk to Thomas Von Party, Tiga's brother and the label’s current director, to find out a bit more about Turbo’s past, present and future.

The story of Turbo Recordings is marked by many highlights, which, little by little, brought them an undeniable popularity (the label has a wide audience of clubbers and vinyl lovers, mostly thanks to the constant driving force of its founder, Tiga), but also an iron reputation as a prestigious platform. In truth, it's very hard, or almost impossible, to be at the forefront for almost fifteen years, standing up to the economic crisis and the passing of trends, if you haven't always worked hard, with clear goals and a plan, supervising the course of action and correcting mistakes as you go along. Turbo has managed to attain the longevity that many labels aspire to but few actually achieve, and although it seems like only yesterday when Tiga started the label in 1998 with “Live: Montreal Mix Sessions”, many things have happened since then.

We were talking about highlights. The most memorable one, of course, was “Sunglasses At Night”, a rendition of Corey Hart's eighties hit, in collaboration between Tiga & Zyntherius (Zyntherius was a one-off alias of Finnish producer Jori Hulkkonen, who had just abandoned F Communications, but not his passion for acid, synth-pop and warm techno). “Sunglasses At Night” wasn't exactly a Turbo release (it originally came out on Electric Kingdom, while the copy that sold the most was the issue on International Deejay Gigolo), but it did mark the moment when Tiga entered the electronic mainstream, dragging Turbo along with him. Until then it had been focusing mainly on commissioning sets by kindred spirits like Jesper Dahlbäck, DJ Lafleche and Hulkkonen and was contributing, step by step, to the growing buzz then about the Italo disco and synth-pop revival that we would later call electroclash. Turbo's reference number 20, “Crockett’s Theme” (a rendition of the more contemplative tunes that Jan Hammer did for the original “Miami Vice” soundtrack, by FPU, a short-lived alias of Swedish producer Peter Benisch, who released an album under that name in 2003, “Traxxdata”) was a defining moment as well: the label demonstrated ample knowledge of eighties music and great skill and taste when it comes to remixes and cover versions.

FPU - Crocketts Theme

In those ten years of frantic activity following Turbo's explosion onto the scene (with FPU and “Sunglasses At Night”, but already anticipated on the tremendous DJ-mix “Montreal Mix Sessions vol. 5 – Mixed Emotions” by Tiga, on which he effortlessly mixed the Scandinavian hard techno of those days with the first pieces of electroclash, key titles from cold, hard electro by Zeta Reticula and I-F, and a fistful of primitive German minimal records), the label released over 150 titles, seeing the coming up of artists like Chromeo, Mateo Murphy , Boys Noize, the Dahlbäcks (Jesper and John, alias Hugg & Pepp), and Azari & III, most of whom continued to release on Turbo, besides their material on bigger labels. It's also been Tiga's test lab, where he could experiment with material that is rawer and harder than the things he does on his albums, generally somewhere between house and pop: the 12”s signed by ZZT (in collaboration with Zombie Nation) and Rainer Werner Bassfinder (with his buddy Jesper). And so, year after year, record after record, variation after variation, Tiga and Turbo have adapted like chameleons to the needs of clubland. To this very day.

Today, Turbo is the same label it's always been, only with a different focus, which is leading the platform to dig in different fields, looking for new talents and genres. You could say that the brand is venturing into dubstep (there's a Skream 12” coming), nostalgic, angular techno, and new-generation acid house, without forgetting its close connection with cold-wave early eighties synth-pop. Among the label's new titles we find house master Nautiluss (a new arrival on Montreal's underground scene who sculpts bass lines as if they were marble), the mysterious Clouds (his “Optic”, released this year, is viscous 4x4 like few others), the deep-house-infused post-minimal of Sei A, and even Raid Over Moscow, Marc Houle's new openly synth-pop project.

All in all, it's a good time to go a bit deeper into the past, present and future of Turbo, guided by Tiga's brother and right-hand man Thomas Von Party (Turbo’s current director). But before we start, here's a little gift from the Turbo family: a set by Thomas Von Party recorded on 21st January at Le Bain, New York, at the Throne Of Blood vs. Turbo party, freely downloadable on Soundcloud.

"Montreal is a special city, with just enough cultural activity and music coming through, but not too much to be oversaturated in the way a place like London is."

The label was born in the late 90s, so it’s about to be 15 years old pretty soon. Where did you see yourselves in ten, fifteen, even twenty years’ time when you started Turbo?

Tiga started the label, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that, but I kind of doubt he was looking so far ahead… 15 years is a really long time in record label years. And even longer in dog record label years…

What were the initial motivations, musical and non-musical, behind starting a label at that moment?

It was a natural progression from starting a record store and opening a club. Tiga had been developing relationships with his favourite DJs and producers, and the label provided an outlet for him to leverage those connections and champion the music he felt passionately about. So passionate leverage, basically.

In all these years, a lot of things have happened in Canada: tons of indie-rock bands have achieved worldwide popularity, a notable breed of techno-house producers, etc. Turbo is based in Montreal, and I remember that in the beginning being a Canadian label was kind of exotic, but now nobody points out that fact, as if Turbo has somehow transcended borders, nations, etc. What ‘Canadian qualities’ do you think the label still retains, or, on the other hand, how important has it been for Turbo to transcend those origins?

Montreal is a special city, with just enough cultural activity and music coming through, but not too much to be oversaturated in the way a place like London is. We have the luxury of having a bit more space to do our own thing without feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of what our peers are doing. I think what’s pretty Canadian about us is that we possess a cool neutrality – the coolest neutrality, really - that allows us to flow freely across genres and trends… our identity is open-ended enough to embrace a range of possibilities.

"There are definitely core fans who seem to be into whatever we do, but I’m sure that for a lot of people, many of our releases appeal to them while others don’t at all."

The new releases you’re putting out in the coming months are mainly techno-oriented. That’s a big shift compared to the early years dominated by electro-pop, disco and house. What’s the reason for this change?

We’re just excited by a lot of the new young producers’ take on techno. There’s been a ton of amazing new music made in the genre over the past couple of years. That said, I think if you look carefully there have always been pure techno releases on Turbo, but yes, they’ve certainly been interspersed with other “electro-y” stuff that is something of a dominant strain. I think the issue is that when you put out something poppy or maximal, that leaves a big impression on anyone who is categorically into the minimal, detail-oriented world of Techno and before long you’ll be crossed off their list. Just like “open-mindedness” and “aversion to boredom” are crossed off their list.

There are still acid and electro records on Turbo— recently there’s been new stuff by ZZT and Renaissance Man. Do you have the feeling that the label has two kinds of fans, or that those fans are grown-up enough, and so committed to the label that they can perceive all those different styles as part of the same narrative?

There are definitely core fans who seem to be into whatever we do, but I’m sure that for a lot of people, many of our releases appeal to them while others don’t at all. We’ve never been super concerned about the narrative in the strict sense, and certainly not with pandering to anyone. We prefer the freedom to change and try new things.

Turbo has always been linked to Tiga as the primary force in the label’s foundation. What’s Tiga’s role at this moment, what does he do and what has he quit doing?

Tiga is still involved in the big creative decisions, mostly about which records to sign, and how to present them, i.e. the graphic design and packaging. As far as the day-to-day stuff, he allows himself the space to work on his own music and career, which ultimately fuels Turbo.

I’d like to focus on the new signings. Let’s start with Locked Groove. Who is he / they, if this can be said? There’s only one 12” put out under this name and it’s on Hotflush, without much information added.

He’s a super-talented young guy from Antwerp and I’m very confident he’s going to blow up this year. He has a knack for subtle arrangements and drum programming and his sound falls squarely on the lines between a lot of the trendiest dance music out there, like UK post-dubstep bass music, deep house, and stripped-down techno. He has an EP coming out with us in June and other collab tracks on a comp we’re putting out around the same time. He’s got a lot of music in the pipeline and offers from tons of big industry people in the past few weeks, so you should be hearing lots more from him very soon!

What’s interesting for Turbo about this purist / banging dark techno?

It has the same visceral appeal that artists like Proxy, Gesaffelstein or ZZT have, it’s all just a bit more stripped-down and bare, built for a club like Berghain rather than a massive festival.

Nautiluss is one of the rising artists of the new Toronto electronic scene, so I understand he’s pretty close to you, at a personal level. When did you know he had to join Turbo?

As soon as I heard one of his new tracks, it was a definite YES, an easy call. Our intern, Anthony (a.k.a. Bordello) knew him from Toronto, so he hooked us up. He’s an obvious talent, and again, it’s a pleasure to work with Canadian artists… easy to see each other in person, we’re in the same time zone, and we can often hook up grant money as well!

Nautiluss shares some of the ‘Finnish / Swedish’ aesthetic that has been linked to Turbo many times, raw house beats, acid basslines… Has Scandinavia been an important influence in the shape of the label’s sound, or on the other hand has Turbo been crucial for all those artists to emerge?

Our connection to the Scandis is a very important one. Jori Hulkkonen, Adam Beyer, Alexi Delano, Phonogenic, Renaissance Man, and of course Tiga’s long-time production partner Jesper Dahlbäck have all played big parts in the label’s success and the development of our sound. I think a lot of the Scandis haven’t really gotten their due. Jesper is one of the true techno prodigies. Jori is an incredibly prolific production-wizard. So check those Scandis out!

Are there any long-term plans for Nautiluss?

He can really write SONGS and I think he has a vision for the project that will develop into a proper album and not just a collection of singles, but we’ll see how things progress. These days, there is a lot less incentive to work as an album artist.

Duke Dumont is going to start a vinyl series for Turbo. The first 12” is going to be quite housey and pop-oriented. What’s the rest of the series going to be like?

The second one is massive… one track is a huge festival banger which got a lot of play from Tiga on his recent Australian tour. The second track is called “Arabesque” and it has a snake-charmer style, middle-Eastern hook. I think Duke Dumont is one of the most underrated producers around, and hopefully this series of EPs will help get his music out there to more people. He’s done some incredible remixes lately, but hasn’t put a solo record out in ages.

You’ve signed Marc Houle as well, for the Raid Over Moscow project. When did you know he had this kind of Black Strobe / Adult. alias? Was he easy to convince to join Turbo?

He sent us the tracks asking where we thought they could see a release and we said we wanted to do it… so that was an easy one. He’s an incredible producer and it was refreshing to hear that he’d done these cool lost synth-pop records. Probably not too many labels would touch music like that, but we’re comfortable with looking back at Electroclash, I guess.

What else is on schedule at the moment?

A New Jack Techno compilation featuring a lot of our new core artists, Proxy’s long-awaited debut album, new EPs from Skream, Clouds, Gingy & Bordello, and some more Twin Turbo releases as well. Tiga has some awesome new material, some of which will probably be on Turbo as well.

There’s even a shift towards dubstep, with upcoming releases by Skream in the works. Can you give us more details about it?

The Skream record is awesome but very different from most of his stuff. I love what I’ve heard so far, and we’re just waiting for the final masters.

What’s interesting in dubstep for you at this moment? In North America it’s like a mainstream dance sound at this moment, with all this Skrillex craze, so I was wondering if this is the correct moment to go in that direction –unless you want to attract new crowds to the label.

We were admittedly a bit late on the whole thing… Tiga is very into a lot of the big dubstep stuff, but I think in general we both favour the UK end of that scene, especially the more dubstep-influenced techno sound of guys like Untold, Zomby, Skream, and even someone like Blawan (though the dubstep influence might be a bit thin there).

You’re signing a project called Clouds as well.

I think there’s some confusion with Clouds, as there is a dubstep act from Finland with the same name as OUR Clouds, who are two young Scottish kids. In any case, their new EP is a monster… they’ve been playlisted by Sven Vath and Martin Gore lately, so it’s nice to see them getting picked up.

It seems the future will be exciting for Turbo. What are your feelings at this very moment, in the wake of a new phase of development, and without a glimpse yet of what’s to come in terms of reception?

It’s exciting to change things up and not stand still. I feel amazing about the new talent we’ve signed and really look forward to hearing all the new music they make this year!

What position on the global dance music market would you like to achieve for the next 5 years?

If not complete domination, then survival is ok with me. Just keep putting out music we love…

When’s the new Tiga album coming out? He said on Twitter that he has started to compose stuff (and playing the piano again, if I’m not mistaken)?

I can’t give any timeline for that, although I will say that he’s made some awesome new tracks and I’m sure SOME of them will get released this year. He’ll need to decide whether he wants to release singles first or just save it all up for an album, but the music is coming together one way or another…

At this point in the story, what do words like electroclash and nu rave mean for Turbo?

Almost as little as words like ‘Indie-Dance’ and ‘Deep Jack Swing’.

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