For those whose lives have been directed by their passion for music, D’Marc Cantu‘s story will sound familiar. Starting with an insatiable desire to learn more about the new, strangely intriguing and all-consuming sound of electronic music which he had discovered in the late nineties, D’Marc began playing with all of the gear he could get his hands on in order to create those deep reaching emotions for himself. Always a lover of various styles of music, his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan was a fertile ground for artists, with a multitude of bands finding a vital home base of faithful fans and eager crowds who were happy to accept their experimental and creative ventures. D’Marc fell right in line with this local crew, his experience as a drummer with a love for rock and metal laying the groundwork for creating his own distinctive style that blended both analog and digital worlds. When he moved into a house with Ghostly’s JTC and a diverse group of dedicated musicians in 2001, D’Marc was introduced to the classic house and techno sounds of Chicago and Detroit, and a new direction in his creative expressions was born, one that would lay the groundwork for his future.
With a large catalog of music spanning over the past nearly 20 years, D’Marc’s own style of JakBeat combining house, techno, and acid has been an ever-present influence on the underground electronic music scene. While he’s known for his love of analog gear, often sampling his own instruments and drums, and using a large sample bank of sourced, found, and recorded sounds, D’Marc has continued to embrace all the available studio tools for productions under his variety of aliases. Whether making hard techno as Brickwall Giant, uptempo house as Marcial Escobares, or recording one-take sessions as Rival, his focus remains on creating music that has a spiritual connection which enhances his own life and those of others.
After many years working as a prolific producer in the electronic music industry, D’Marc has discovered that he is coming full circle. He feels that he is reaching a point where he has the solid production experience and knowledge to truly focus on creating the sound he really wants, and his passion for the music has been reignited as he’s rediscovering the joy of creating music for music’s sake. It was a real pleasure to learn about his production process, and to get his thoughts on succeeding in the industry, the challenges of being creative, and what making music is really all about. Although he’s a reluctant mentor (“I don’t see myself as a mentor, I still see myself as a protege”) I was really inspired and impressed by his insights, and know that they will be helpful to others as well, whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned professional.
photo by Seze Devres
How has your production process changed throughout the years?
The process more or less remains the same. My more cleaned up productions, housier productions, like the album The Lodge – that was way more samples, way more computer, with hardly any analog. That was more because of control. Not that you can’t have control with analog but it’s three to four times more work than to just open up a DAW and just do it there. Eventually that was the direction I was trying to get to, but I didn’t have the knowledge, the skills or the background at that time in the early 2000s to get there. Just in the last couple of years I’ve finally gotten comfortable enough with my production style to feel like I can… not necessarily stop learning, but really start focusing. I kind of think of it as finishing graduate school: you’re still going to continue to research, but now you’ve got the tools that you need to go out on your own and do it.
Was creating your separate aliases just experimenting with the different sounds that you’re resonating with?
I never started compartmentalizing my sounds until a few years ago. I realized I sort of shot my self in the foot because I liked making breakbeat, I liked making house, acid, even some hip hop stuff all under the same moniker. So then somebody would come to me for an EP and I would send them some music, and then they’d be like “Whoa, this was not anywhere near what we thought.” And then I’m sending them a batch of 50 songs to choose from, versus someone coming up to me saying they want an alias because they sound like that.
It was important for me to find the self-identity, spirituality aspect of it, to feel like there’s a therapeutic nature to music. and I was losing that. It wasn’t fun.
So what you would notice through my evolution from the Creme stuff and even the MOS stuff, there are certain little pops here and there of some really genius house moments where I was finally able to do what I was looking to do. Finally in the last couple of years it’s gotten to the point where I can be really tactful and actually go out there and do that specifically versus having to shoot in the dark.
What is your schedule like in the studio? When you start do you have a purpose of what style you’re going in with?
Just in the couple of years I’ve tried to pull back on this, but prior to then when I was sort of hitting my stride in getting a lot of bookings, I had the fancy booking agent, getting all these articles written about me, and so on, I was producing with things in mind, and going in there like it was work. But that was starting to burn me out.
It was important for me to find the self-identity, spirituality aspect of it, to feel like there’s a therapeutic nature to it, and I was losing that. It wasn’t fun, and I was becoming really depressed, and it wasn’t nearly as engaging as it has been in past years. Now I’ve been going in and just seeing what happens. I might go in with the intention of making an uptempo house track and come out with a breakbeat track, or I might find one synth halfway through that just sounds really cool, and pull everything out and just make a noise track, or an ambient track. Now I’m trying to let the music carry me, which is what started this whole process, versus me trying to force an idea. That’s not to say that my abilities aren’t where they need to be, that I can’t go in there and say, “I want to make a track that sounds like this.” I certainly can, but I don’t feel it’s nearly as honest as it could be if I just let the music pull me along instead of telling it where to go.
What are some of the other challenges you face when creating?
Expectations. Mostly from myself, trying to appease others. I think a mistake a lot of people make, and I’ve made myself, is that you find a label that for whatever reason you focus on, that you want to release on or want to work with. I’ve met a lot of producers over the years that find a label they really want to work on and tailor a sound to it. You’re just hurting yourself. That was one challenge I had, I’d work with these labels and just assume they wanted something that sounded like what was on there, that had been previously released. And in some cases they did, but many times it would be my own self-imposed belief.
Other challenges? Just getting burned out. I don’t know how people play day-in and day-out. I don’t know how extremely prolific producers are able to do so much at such a high level. So comparing yourself to those types of people, or even trying to push yourself into that direction believing that’s what needs to be done is a fallacy in my mind. I mean, you can do very little, one to two EPs a year, a couple of parties here and there, and still get just as much out of it. You can still be impactful and make a statement without having to release a ton of stuff.
These expectations that you believe need to be met, that don’t necessarily need to be only lead to writers block. Because again, if you’re trying to tailor your sound to a label or particular movement or genre, or whatever it might be, you lose sight of who you are and what your music stands for. And then you’re just another cog in the wheel. You’re no longer standing out. So it’s really important to distance yourself from that so you don’t get stuck in that loop.
I really like that, how it’s difficult when you feel that you need to fit in as a producer. Also with fans, who are just sticking with what’s popular rather than going deeper.
Movies are a really good example, I’m huge into movies. I’ll talk to people much younger than myself and they’re just not familiar with certain films, but they’re into films that are inspired by those films, and I kind of feel like music is the same thing. I’m sure it happened when I was younger too, but I think it’s worse now because of the immediacy of information and how easy it is to be given recommendations based upon algorithms, so it kind of takes away any of the fun. A lot of DJs will talk about how they like digging, and nobody does that anymore, but they’re able to find these gems because they spend hours in record stores. Nobody really gets into that. And you can still do digital digging on Google, or Youtube, and you can dig deeper into those genres you’re into, but I think most people just let the machine generate the music and then they follow.
It’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been making music. And the closer I get back to when I was 18 or 20 which is really where I was doing it for the sheer personal satisfaction, the better I feel.
It’s such a thing today that your brand is more important than your music. And people see artists who have a big brand and think they must be a good DJ or artist, because they have all these fans…
That’s the assumption. It’s no different than going on Amazon and the first product you see you think is the best one, but unless you’re going into the reviews and looking into it, you may not know and you’re just going on faith. And it’s a shame. There are a lot of people out there that I believe in, that I do remixes for, and I think they’re great artists, and they’re not getting attention. They can’t get anyone to return their emails and I feel bad, I don’t know what to tell them, except to stick with it because you love it and it’s doing something for you spiritually and emotionally.
A lot of artists I’ve worked with, I thought they were doing something really good, doing amazing work, but they’re constantly complaining that they can’t get anyone to write them back or no one is interested in their demos. I think a lot of labels are more interested in being safe than they are taking a risk and having fun with music.
What are your goals, what is your purpose right now?
It’s interesting, I don’t really have any particular goals, other than trying to get back to feeling satisfied and fulfilled with what I’m producing and putting out. Not to say that I haven’t in the past, but my goals – if you asked me three years ago, I would have said “play this festival, get on this label, get on this webcast thing…” Really superficial things that don’t necessarily enhance the music or my love of it, but would enhance my brand and hopefully line my pockets. But that’s not really where I’m at now. And it took a lot of soul searching to realize that I’m happy in my professional career, and I’m lucky enough to be able to rely on that for an income, and as a result I can go back to what I truly love – and that’s music for therapeutic purposes, to help alleviate depression, to fill that spiritual hole in myself. I think a lot of artists regardless of genre do that, and it’s important. Art for that exact reason is important so it’s good for everyone to find a way to express themselves to fill that need.
Is what the music meant to you when you started the same as it feels to you now, when you let go of the other stuff?
Yeah, I’m getting back there. It’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been making music and as I get closer to that 20 year mark… back to when I was 18 or 20 which is really where I was doing it for the sheer personal satisfaction, the better I feel. The more I’m trying to keep up with people, and prove myself, and shove my way to the front of the line, the less I feel good about myself and less fulfilled I feel. So I’m certainly getting back there, and it’s really uplifting.
Can you sum up what the music meant to you then and what it means to you – healing and spiritual wise?
Then, it was an awakening. From age 16 up to those early days of releasing it was an awakening. At that time what it meant was having a new outlet, opening this box of possibilities. It was new, like a new relationship with someone, it was exciting every time you thought about or talked with them. Every single time I went into the studio or listened to some tunes or fired up whatever hardware, software, it had that same feeling. And then it kind of got lost. But in the last couple of years I’ve been finding it again, so it’s been this reawakening, re-finding, of this spirituality. Stripping myself of the expectations and the agents, and chasing the big label names. By stripping that away I feel liberated to do what I want now, and that’s reminiscent of those early days, and that makes me really happy.
D’Marc Cantu is featured on a split EP (with Black Meteoric Star) called Split Concept, out now on vinyl from Nation sublabel Kode.