It’s a cliché to talk about an artist that’s been in the thick of the industry for more than two decades as “underrated”, but it’s staggering to take a step back and draw in all that Matthias Heilbronn has done in his career. Originally from Germany, Matthias (aka Matty) has been a relentless force in House Music from the late 1980s, manufacturing dance floor ordnance released on labels including Defected, Nervous, King Street, Wave Music and NRK. He’s worked with nearly everyone there is to work with, and has remixed major label artists including Mary J Blige, Chaka Khan, Alicia Keys, Beyonce and many more.
Matthias’ soulful remixes of pop and R&B songs that have topped the charts (even, as you’ll read below, many have never been released); just a simple timeline of his career, a list of the places he’s played and his gargantuan discography would probably be several times longer than this interview. Just since this article appeared in our February 2011 issue, a half dozen new releases bearing his name have dropped, including his remixes of what’s becoming one of the hottest Soulful House tracks of 2011, Sybil’s Troubled Waters on Deep Sugar (which also includes remixes by Frankie Knuckles).
The first line of your bio and the line that everyone leads off with is the beginning: that in 1986, you saw Larry Levan spin in New York and were inspired to pursue a life in dance music. Can you flesh that out for me? What brought you to NYC and more importantly, who were you?
I had my mind made up to work in the music industry way before I saw and met Larry. I DJ’d in clubs by 16, played guitar and drums, neither very well and sang in a band for a while. All I needed was to find the right path. While I had three residencies in my hometown every week, and guest spots in other cities in Germany, I also tried myself as a cook. I worked myself up to Sous-Chef at my friend’s French restaurant but I still wasn’t happy. I loved cooking, but I loved music more, so I convinced the owners of one of the clubs that it was imperative I’d go to New York to check out the clubs and buy new music to keep our party cutting edge. A couple of weeks later I was dancing inside the Paradise Garage.
Hearing Larry play and see what he was doing with the music and crowd made me listen to music in a different way. It felt like I actually heard and felt dance music for the first time and also made me realize what impact music can have on somebody. It was a humbling experience. Everybody on the dance floor was in a zone. It felt like the whole club was dancing together, nothing that was outside mattered anymore, you were in a different world. Until this day, when I think about the first time I walked up that ramp and into the club, it puts a smile on my face! Hearing music on that kind of soundsystem blew my mind. The floor was literally vibrating. I wanted to be in New York all the time. I wanted to go to the Garage every day if I could have. I don’t even remember what happened Mondays through Thursdays, those were just the days between going to hear Larry.
After that I went back and forth between NYC and Germany three more times, each time staying longer and while thus far this experience had only changed the way I played records, it had planted a seed. The last time I went, in the summer of ’89, everything just fell into place.
Related to that, who were some of your first contacts in the States?
Rob Sperte, who was the manager at FK’s Axis Studios and gave me my first job in the US as an intern; Frankie Knuckles, who offered me a place to stay when I first moved to New York; the “Sensible House” DJs James Breslaw and Justin Berkman, who first took me to the Garage (Justin later went on to open up Ministry Of Sound); and Lucien, the manager of Nell’s who gave me one of my first proper gigs in the city.
What was the German scene like at the time? Did it already have the notoriety of being “harder” than House Music as a whole?
Not at all, or at least not in the north, where I lived. When I started out, I played mainly soul, funk, reggae and early rap, but I had a good friend in Berlin, Gerd Gruenberg, the resident DJ at the Dschungel (Berlin’s equivalent to Studio 54), who played and turned me on to a lot of the same stuff that was being played at places like the Garage (D-Train, Konk, Dinosaur L, Liquid Liquid, Trouble Funk, The Clash, Kraftwerk and some of Larry’s productions like Gwen Guthrie’s Padlock EP), and maybe a bit more of the experimental and big sounding stuff that Francois was mixing in the mid-’80s. He went to New York quiet frequently to buy records.
I took over for him at the Dschungel while he was on tour, and it was a crazy place. People like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Prince, Nick Cave & Mick Jagger came through when they were in town. The “House” stuff crept up on me, and was just part of the more uptempo soul/R&B sets I played. I didn’t realize it was it’s own kind of genre until I went to New York for the first time. From that moment on it was pretty much House (and it’s roots) for me, and from what I remember, Boris Dlugosh did the same thing in Hamburg at his club “Front”.
The crowd was really up for it, and as long as it was good music, the dance floor would be on fire. You could mix early Fingers, Inc, into First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” or Loleatta Holloway to early Acid, like Phuture or Armando, without thinking twice about it.
It all went a lot harder around the time that I left, which was in ’89. Radio, labels and promoters from the UK milked the crap out of the Acid wave, which in Germany lead almost directly into Techno (and I am not talking Detroit back then..).
This was not my kind of sound and it was one of the reasons why I decided to leave.
What was your first production that you were really, genuinely satisfied with? Would it be one of the early Deep Zone productions?
I was pretty happy with my first release on Sub Urban, Sensible House’s “Give A Little More”. But you have to realize, back then there was a lot more quality control, and I had spent countless hours in the studio, trying to put stuff together that never came out at all. Then Tommy Musto heard this, helped me finish it and signed it for his label. By the time Mike Delgado and I started Deep Zone, we knew what we were doing. He had worked with Kenny Dope, I had done stuff with Tommy & Todd Terry, and we both were working with Benji Candelario, who kind of brought us together. Our first production “It’s Gonna Be Alright” feat. Ceybil Jeffries went to #1 in Europe.
I know you work with a lot of major label artists on the remixing side, and that sometimes the remixes never appear for sale anywhere. What are some of the gems you’ve done that people may have heard on a soundsystem but never owned?
Don’t get me started! I feel like I wasted almost two years, remixing Alicia Keys (twice), Beyonce (four times!), Kelly Rowland (three times), Michelle Williams (three times), Ledisi, Chaka Khan & Mary J. Blige, Solange & Bilal, Donna Summer, Labelle, Angie Stone & Betty Wright, Craig David, Was (Not Was), D’Influence,Toni Braxton, Musiq Soulchild & Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott… The list goes on!
None of that stuff ever came out commercially, as far as I know. They worked it to the Billboard DJs to get it into the charts, and that was it. Some of those remixes actually went to #1 in the Dance Charts. But since nobody in Europe reads Billboard, nobody ever heard about any of this.
Considering that Europe is where most of our DJ gigs are, and most of the labels that we like to sign our music to are based there, spending so much time and effort on these mixes was a bad career move. But it was a great experience and honor for me, to work with these artists! I used to be asked in interviews: “Who would you like to work with?” My first answer would always be Chaka Khan.
One thing I admire about your body of work is you’ve got a kind of relentlessness – whether it’s something for a prominent indie label or something much smaller, or remixing Chaka Khan and Mary J Blige or working on something more electronic with Joeski.
Not sure if I understand “relentlessness”. I think the direction of the music I do, whether it is a remix or a production is completely different from project to project. I think this is what makes it hard for some A&R people or even promoters, as this reflects in my DJ sets as well. I refuse to limit myself to one sound and genre. I don’t only listen to House Music, or more specifically one kind of House Music, and neither do I play or produce one kind of music.
When I remix a song, I like to keep the integrity of the song, while trying to push it into a different direction and make it accessible to another audience that might not have paid attention to the song before. I’d rather do a broken beat/Drum & Bass mix to something like Maxwell’s “Bad Habit” or Kina Cosper’s “Girl From The Gutter” or a reggae mix to Alicia Key’s “No One” or Jill Scott’s “Hate On Me”, just because it fits better when the time stretch to House tempo would just make the vocals sound like crap. After all, the job should be to make the artist sound good, not just to force their song into House territory, whether it works or not.
When it comes to my own productions and collaborations with Joeski for example, I think it depends on the mood of the day. Sometimes it will go Deep, sometimes Latin, sometimes Tech, sometimes even Techno. I have been doing this for quiet a long time, so however different the genre might be, I am sure you will find a typical “Matthias Heilbronn Sound” in it. Don’t ask me what that is… maybe it’s just the sound, maybe it’s arrangement. I think the fact that I am a DJ, and did my time as an engineer and a music editor, shaped the way I approach both.
The new stuff that is about to hit the streets is so different in style: The Monique Bingham Abstract Truth album is really funky – real drums, very jazzy, up and down tempo, some reggae as well. The new Joeski & Matthias single “I’m Losing My Mind” is really banging big room stuff. The Shawnee Taylor Remix of “Lazy Afternoon” I did for Todd’s label is very moody, deep tech with a soulful edge, and so is one of the mixes I did for my productions of Sybil’s new single “Troubled Waters” on Ultra Nate’s label Deep Sugar/Strictly Rhythm. The other mix is straight up Philly soul with a House beat. My remix of House Of Gypsy’s “Samba” is totally going into tribal/acid territory and the two upcoming singles Joeski and I did for Robert Owens album on Compost, “Unique” and “Rise”, stretch all the way from trippy minimal to classic Chicago House.
Maybe doing all this different stuff is what’s making it fun for me!
Dance music has unfortunately been viewed – sometimes by its own fans – as somewhat disposable. It’s irritating that in this day and age, I can’t grab a record you did on a defunct label from ’97, or one with an out-of-print back catalog like the (nearly) defunct Naked Music. What tracks from your catalog do you hope people will rediscover in the bins someday? (and, since you’ve seen the industry evolve, do you think the lack of physical pressings of music today will make this problem even worse?)
I find people digging out and posting old tracks of mine on places like Facebook all the time. I find things on YouTube that I had forgotten about, or people will contact me (like these two guys this week) and ask “Hey, I am trying to find your mix of Finley Quay’s ‘Spiritualized'” or “Any chance you might have a digital copy of Dawn Tallman’s ‘Be Encouraged?'”
So far, it seems pretty easy to find it on the internet… sometimes to buy, sometimes to illegally download, sometimes you hit up a friend or burn it from vinyl. A lot of that stuff was out on vinyl at some point in time and people seem to treasure it, maybe just for that?! A piece of vinyl is 12″ big, has proper artwork – hence, is recognizable in a split second – and costs $7.99 or more, which makes you think at least twice on whether you really want it or not. Not sure what’s going to happen to all of the thousands and thousands of digital only releases that come out each and every day. I reckon we have to run out of space at some point.
The question is not really how hard it is to get one of my old productions, but rather, what about the new ones? There is just too much new music every day, and no time to really go back and listen to what you have already, or listen to something that came out yesterday. So good stuff gets lost easily.
With so much music out there, it’s becoming harder and harder to spot a hit record. There are a lot of good tracks out there, but also a lot that sound the same.
Here is the obvious problem: there is almost no overhead in releasing a record and starting a label, which means everybody can put out a record, whether it’s good or not. On any given day you will find around 1000 NEW releases on Beatport. Nobody has the time or the patience to listen to all that, so people go directly to the charts or the Top 100s. As you can imagine, that’s taking away from the originality of a DJ.
It also means that rather unknown producers don’t really stand a chance and again, tracks get lost in the shuffle. Tracks that are really good end up as downloads on free sites before anybody can do anything about it. They lose out on the paying downloads and because of that they don’t end up in the Top 100s. That means that even (or especially) the labels that still put out decent music aren’t making money back, that again means that they can’t pay proper advances to the artist anymore, because they are afraid they won’t make it back. If I can’t get a decent advance to produce a record, I can’t hire a musician, a singer, a songwriter, an engineer… So I have to cut corners and put out quantity instead of quality, which results in too much shit music. And then we start all over again…
To come back to your question: Yes, there is a lot of music that I hope people will rediscover: Romatt’s “Froggy’z Congaz” and Martin Solveig’s “Heart Of Africa” on Chez; Dimitry From Paris’ “Strong Man”; SoulIISoul remixes of “Luv Enough”; Randy Crawford’s “Forget Me Nots”; Everything But The Girl’s “Lullaby Of Clubland”; Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”; Paid&Life feat. Lauren Hill’s “All My Time”; Matthias Heilbronn’s “Tribute/Peanut Butter”; Blue Six’s “Sweeter Love”; Big Muff’s “My Funny Valentine”; Pray For More’s “This Time”; Chi Chi Peralta’s “Un Dia Mas”; Loleatta Holloway’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”; Mory Kante’s “Dimini”; “Arriba, Abajo”; Mato’s “Tribe”; Lift’s “Music Takes Me Higher”; the whole Deep Zone “Daze Of Madness” album…
This is kind of an odd observation, but I think your name has been misspelled on more vinyl records than maybe anyone in history (the discogs page lists like 20 aliases, most of which are typos!) Is this the origin of the name “Matty”?!
People will misspell things all the time. I use the name “Soulflower” a lot for the more soulful productions, and 85% of the time, when I see a review or write up and even on some of the releases it will say “Sunflower”. Not much you can do about it. The nickname “Matty” came from my manager in Germany who thought that most people really had a hard time pronouncing my full name. I never liked it, but it caught on. I think that when you have a nickname that follows you from your childhood… at least there is a story behind it. Being given a nickname for promotional reasons just kinda sucks.
I don’t see myself as a “Matty”. German producers and DJs are at the top of the list now, so I don’t have to worry about it being hard to pronounce anymore. Hell – I might just add a couple more letters to it… Matthias Von Heilbronn perhaps…
The music that sells and the music that I buy are completely different. I personally think that 95% of what’s in Beatport’s Top 100 is pretty bad. Some of it makes me laugh. Maybe it’s because I know where most of the ideas and/or samples originated from, and I have heard them 100 times.
You’ve certainly seen a lot of trends come and go, what do you think of the current state of dance music as a whole and what do you think the next progression will be?
The music that sells and the music that I buy are completely different. I personally think that 95% of what’s in Beatport’s Top 100 is pretty bad. Some of it makes me laugh. Maybe it’s because I know where most of the ideas and/or samples originated from, and I have heard them 100 times. Sure, there is that little voice inside my head that says: “Your parents used to think the same about the music that you listened to”… but I refuse to think that I am my father quite yet and I just think that a lot of the tracks and the sets that are being played are boring.
Over the years we’ve turned to these micro genres of dance music and I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s easier to market? It helps when you need to read or write about music, sure, but playing, producing or promoting only one genre like Minimal, or Techno, or Deep House defeats the whole purpose of what dance music is all about.
Personally, I think it’s short term thinking. In the long run, you will not be able to successfully pack a 2000 people capacity club three times a week or more with a crowd that only listens to one small part of dance music. I love playing smaller clubs, but the big ones, with a proper soundsystem, are the places where dance music really shines.
DJs have become performers with an image that the people look up to. It’s possibly more important now for them to put on a good show, rather than playing good music. People don’t dance with each other or themselves, with their eyes closed and just feeling the music, anymore. They dance facing the DJ and expecting a good act. It all has to be packaged well, so the easier you make it, the better you can market it.
I get it: people can find themselves and others alike more easily, but they are missing out on a lot of good music, and in turn, we miss out on the sales we need to keep going. A lot of DJs don’t give their crowd enough credit either. If you know what you are doing, you can get away with playing pretty much anything, as long as it comes from the heart.
On the bright side, I have noticed while talking to labels that they are not happy with just any track anymore, that they want something with a hook, and the tracks that really make some lasting noise are full songs – like Dennis Ferrer’s “Hey Hey” or Black Coffee’s “Superman”. I would hope that we are going to hear more stuff like that.
Labels are being more selective now, which is a good thing, and the producers that are going to be able to deliver are not the one-in-a-million bedroom producers. It’s the guys that have talent. There is only so much technology can do for you. Let’s just hope those guys didn’t starve to death in the meantime, or became investment bankers.
I think the same goes for DJs. Once the crowd has figured out that the computer is actually mixing those songs together, I think they will want to hear quality programming, somebody that can take them on a journey, make them go crazy or somebody that has taken the technology part to another level and is creating a “live” set that will blow their minds. At this point, EVERYBODY can mix two records together. That’s not DJing – it wasn’t even before we had the computer do it for us! But new technology has always pushed music forward and created new possibilities and a new sound. It’s exciting in a way, but only if DJs, producers and musicians push the envelope rather than just using it, to make up for their lack of creativity and talent.
Tell me a little about your upcoming album with Joeski – out of all of the pairings you’ve had, this one seems to be fairly enduring. The two of you have been pigeonholed into fairly different genres.
I have worked with various producers over the years, like Tommy Musto, Todd Terry, Mousse T. and Francois K, but I really didn’t form too many partnerships. Mike Delgado and I worked together as Deep Zone for at least two years, and then I worked off and on with James Preston as II Deep, which was more my own productions with James as a musician, singer or songwriter, but I wanted to get him more involved and get more recognition then simply a writing or keyboard credit.
Joeski and I are going on our second year now and it seems that we are only getting faster, better and tighter. We both have the same goals, we are focused and we work together well. We are both known for a specific sound, and his and mine are quiet the opposite, but we both like, play, and can produce a much broader section of sound. We have our strength in different areas, which is perfect, and while we have the freedom of doing our solo projects in our own style, whatever that is, we are able to create a totally new sound together, which I think is exciting.
This upcoming album is a compilation of what we have been working on for the last year. The sound crosses many borders and is influenced by everything we have picked up over all the years of DJing, listening to and producing music, but it all has one root, which is what makes us unique. It’s a very heavy, almost tribal rhythm, techy, analogue synths, dubby fx and deep bouncy bass lines. While he was doing the tribal and Latin stuff, I was doing the soulful, jazzy house, but we always both had a banging beat. Multiply that by two and you got “The Sounds Of BQE”.
Release date was Feb. 2, 2011 on Todd Terry’s Inhouse Records, mixed and unmixed, and we’re going to showcase it in Miami at the WMC and go on tour to promote as well.
You’ve just completed a leveraged buyout of the four major record labels and combined them into Matty Music, Inc. Who do you hire to run the company – the business end and the A&R?
Wow, that requires some thinking…I’d hope for some old and new school:
Jay Z, Todd Terry and Steve McKeever from Hidden Beach do the business with help of Jeff Robbin (iTunes). Get Phil Shiller (Mac) to do promotions with whomever came up with the Absolut ad campaign.
Quincy Jones, Chris Blackwell, Mos Def & Charles Whitfield (also Hidden Beach) battle it out with Derrick May, Swizz Beats, Rob Sperte, Charles Webster, Peter Adarkwah (BBE), Henrik Schwarz & DJ Harvey as A&Rs and I have final say in EVERYTHING! 🙂