THE GROOVE: It’s something that in many cases got left behind when deep house, largely ignored at home, left its American motherland to spend a decade being the cool, exotic foreign exchange kid in Europe. Some European producers get it, but many of the biggest artists and labels currently spoon-feeding a fiddlier and frankly sanitized version of deep house back to New York’s clubbing cognoscenti, they just never quite figured it out. Maybe they never even felt it in the first place.
This is partly because, unless it’s simply flowing in your veins, a good groove is actually quite hard to achieve without sampling it. While hip hop pioneers focused on those elusive drum breaks, early deep and soulful house producers set their sights on extended instrumental sections of disco records, in which some of the funkiest musicians on earth effortlessly cut loose for the dancers. It’s pretty hard to compete with that level of rhythmic expertise using just a copy of Ableton and a mini keyboard. But, as we know, a great groove can be achieved in the simplest of electronic arrangements, without a disco sample in sight.
A pair of European artists who understood from day one that the groove isn’t just important, it’s everything, go by the name of Fish Go Deep.
Growing up in the small city of Cork, Ireland, Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson, having both fallen in love with early house music from Chicago, quickly found themselves spreading the gospel to an eager, open-minded audience for whom dance music was largely brand new. Their musical journey became the journey of their city, and in the days before the internet bulldozed so many subtly nuanced cultural differences, Cork (and Fish Go Deep) had their own unique thing going on. Opening its doors in 1988, their “Sweat” night welcomed the likes of Arnold Jarvis, Laurent Garnier, DJ Deep, Jerome Sydenham, and Derrick May to “Sir Henry’s,” turning a former rock club into a pivotal venue in Europe’s developing House music scene. The duo began producing in the mid-’90s, and informed by the utopian musical ecosystem they’d created at Sweat (which by the looks of the line-ups, simply never made a bad booking), their music sounded unique from day one. Deep and smooth, yes, but the Fish Go Deep sound has a special tension to it, no matter how buttery the vocals and pads might get.
I remember Romanthony once said that programming drums should make you feel physically uncomfortable in the studio, otherwise it’s just not gonna work in the club (or words to that effect). Recently, when discussing the fluffy, overproduced excuse for “deep house” so many Euro DJs are inflicting on us these days, my ranting turned to those artists who simply never get the credit they deserve for getting the fundamentals right. “You want to know about making a record groove right?” I bellowed at anyone within earshot. “Go and talk to Fish Go Deep!” I screamed, “‘Cause they’ve been doing it for 25 f*cking years.”
After I’d had a cup of tea and calmed down, I realized I’d never actually talked to Fish Go Deep myself, about grooves or anything else for that matter. Time to remedy that.
Do you remember what first drew you to House music? Was there a particular track, gig or mixtape that provided your “come to Jesus” moment?
Greg: I think for me it was when a friend who was living in London in the eighties sent back mixtapes with, what at the time, was the beginnings of the house sound. My ears pricked up and went: “What’s this?” Then when we had Mike Pickering over to play a set in Sir Henry’s we went, “Okay there’s something new coming. What the hell is this? Sounds amazing!” I went over to the Hacienda a few weeks later and, well, the rest is history.
Shane: For me it was that first wave of Chicago records that broke big in Europe… tracks from Farley Jackmaster Funk, Nitro Deluxe, Jamie Principle, etc. We didn’t have any real history of disco or electronic clubs in the city so, to me, these tracks sounded like they’d just landed from outer space. So fresh. On a couple of trips to London soon after I tried to pick up as much of the stuff as I could find.
When you first started playing House music, was there much of a scene in Cork?
Greg: No, nothing really. There were a few nights playing bits and pieces of house but nothing solid.
Shane: The scene only really started to come together when our Sweat party in Sir Henry’s got going in ’88/’89.
What are the pros and cons of being early importers, bringing new music/culture to a city and building a scene rather than joining an existing one?
Greg: Well the pros were it was totally new – nobody had heard the music before and there was an incredible excitement around the gigs and this new house sound. People were hungry for something new. Cork took to it straight away and loved deep soulful house music. You got to remember how fresh it was back then. On the down side a lot of the rock crowd said we were killing live music.
Shane: Because we started from scratch there wasn’t any rulebook telling us it had to be done a certain way. This freedom allowed us to both learn how to DJ on the job and develop a sound that was very particular to us and the city.
When did you make the transition to production?
Greg: Around ’94/’95. It seemed the obvious thing to do though it took a few years to really get going. We released our first single (as Fishgotech) around ’95 but we didn’t really get into it fully until we signed a few EPs with i! Records in 2000 and invested in a proper studio set up.
Do you both play instruments?
Greg: Kind of, though we’re not musicians. I play the guitar a bit and we can both figure out a tune on the keyboards and I guess we understand harmony and chords structures at this stage.
I think we work very instinctively on our music.
Shane: We can pick out a tune but you won’t catch us sitting in on the Monday night jazz session in the local pub.
What would you say defines the Fish Go Deep approach to production? What technique or studio technology helps define your sound?
Greg: I guess we always start with a good groove and work the tracks up from there. We try not to overthink it and go with our instincts and don’t over work it. House music should have a vibe and a feeling and a certain roughness to it. We are always searching and listening. We both have very wide ranging taste in music so our influences come from all sorts of places. An open and curious mind is essential in the Fish Go Deep world.
As regards the studio, we have a lot of outboard gear and a proper mixing desk, so I guess the desk is very much the sound of Fish Go Deep. We use an Allen and Heath GS3000. It’s been with us since the start. We mainly use Ableton Live now, which we love. It’s quick and efficient and doesn’t get in the way of creativity.
Shane: As a teenager in the mid-’80s I was really into hip-hop and I think my love of sampling and samplers stemmed from that. The Akai S2800 was a huge part of our early sound and sampling is still a key element in our music. A sampled chord or drone or field recording can give a unique feel to a track and can trigger all sorts of ideas that just wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.
One thing I think characterizes your music is that authentic deep house groove. That subtle rhythmic tension that drives the track forward; was this something you taught yourselves by analyzing classic US deep tracks, or did it come naturally?
Shane: I suppose it mainly comes from playing and listening to US house music for so long. We’ve developed an instinct for when our own productions sound right, or maybe more importantly, when they don’t sound quite right. With such powerful studio software at your fingertips these days it can be tempting to quantize every note and process every part, until there’s not much of a distinctive feel left. Our best work usually results from a looser approach.
What would be your advice to producers who want to make their tracks groove just right, like yours?
Shane: Don’t over-quantize or tighten up every little element. That little percussion loop, that’s slightly out of sync? Maybe that’s what’s giving your rhythm its own groove. And listen carefully to tracks you like – put a loop of a favorite track up in your DAW and figure out what makes it so good. It’s not copying, it’s learning.
What’s your most essential piece of studio gear and why?
Shane: I’ve loved working with computers since I was a kid so for me that’s the most important machine in the studio. It functions as a sequencer, sampler, synthesizer, effects unit, mixer, recorder and so much more. It’s great to have a wide range of outboard gear at hand but that wouldn’t be much use without a computer at the heart of it.
If you had one piece of general advice for an aspiring artist or DJ in today’s world, what would it be?
Greg: Work hard, stick to your guns, don’t follow trends, believe in yourself and above all, play from the heart. Enjoy it when you’re playing – show the audience you care.
As sales become less relevant and streaming takes over, we all have to restructure to continue making a living. How have you adjusted to the brave new digital world?
Shane: it’s very difficult to make a living purely from selling your music anymore so you have to become more flexible. Obviously, gigs are important and even more than before, the music you produce has become a kind of calling card for you as a DJ. I’m not sure that this is a positive thing though – a good producer doesn’t necessarily make a good DJ, and vice versa.
I don’t have a problem with the idea of streaming but many of the most popular services are little more than a scam, paying virtually nothing to the artists that provide the content. There are a few that pay a more realistic royalty and offer better quality audio but, unfortunately, these aren’t the ones most people use.
I see you’re now offering a subscription model for your radio show. What motivated you to do this? Do you find it’s helped to build a “community” around the show?
Shane: The radio show is still available as a free podcast but we also offer listeners an option to pitch in towards the costs of making and distributing it. In return, they get a higher quality download of each episode, plus a bunch of tracks from our label and back catalogue and regular subscriber-only mixes. We’ve definitely had a lot more direct feedback from listeners since we’ve started this, so I think it probably has fostered more of a visible community around the show. We’ve been broadcasting a radio show in one form or other for about twenty years and it’s been a really effective way of getting this music out to a wider audience. But as traditional FM radio stations have become more and more conservative in their programming, specialist music has been edged out. So I think it’s more important than ever that shows like ours continue as an outlet for independent labels and new artists.
What excites you musically these days?
Shane: It’s exciting that there’s still so much good new music to be found amongst the dross. For me there’s rarely a shortage – house, rap, jazz, rock, whatever. It’s out there if you go digging for it. With the diminishing financial returns many artists face today, it amazes me just how much good stuff is still being made. I guess creative people are compelled to create whether or not they can make a living out of it.
Finally, what do you have coming up in 2018 in terms of releases and gigs?
Shane: It’s been a busy start to the year with releases on King Street, Seasons and Large in the first couple of months. Next up is a vinyl EP on Swedish Brandy Productions and a remix for Karol XVII & MB Valance, followed by another 12″ on Seasons.
Gig-wise, apart from our usual parties around Ireland we’re looking forward to the Liverpool Disco Festival in late March and, a few weeks later, a great looking line up at a new weekender in East Cork, called It Takes a Village. Then we’re almost into the summer festival season…