Mood II Swing’s Lem Springsteen and John Ciafone left an indelible imprint in House music’s global psyche since their debut in the early ’90s. With Lem on keyboards and John doing the beats, their original productions and remixes such as “Move Me,” “Do It Your Way,” “Living in Ecstasy” and of course Ultra Nate’s “Free” impacted an entire generation of listeners and forever changed the landscape of dance music.
But time moves on and people move on. Fast forward to 2015 and by some remarkable serendipity the two were reunited, and in January of this year they released a three CD compilation entitled Strictly Mood II Swing, comprised of some of their most notable originals and remixes. And with that release comes a tour of both US and European cities, a new love for the art of DJing and what we hope will be a forecast of new music to come.
Here’s my conversation with Lem shortly after his first DJ gig together with John since their ill-fated 2004 tour.
Can you tell me about how you guys started spinning? Was the compilation that you guys just put out the motivation for DJing out again?
I had to learn how to DJ after producing, and because I make music it’s not rocket science to learn, it is more about your selection and reading the crowd. But I’m a music maker, so both of us are more from the studio side of things. We did a mini tour in 2004, and so we had to do the things we needed to do to prepare for a live set. But making music is more natural to me.
It was pretty much the label’s idea to kind of put John and I back together and put this compilation out. It wasn’t really our idea of an album. Our idea of an album would definitely be more current music.
So you and John had a long hiatus of many years, and I thought I noticed you had some stuff out in the last two years or so.
Actually that’s all old stuff that got relicensed. Those are old tracks that were being reissued and remixed. This compilation is actually our first project together. And we’re also working on a remix we did for Reel People. That kicked my butt! It’s called “The Colours of Love,” one of my favorite songs. It’s by Portia Monique and it’s our first remix back together.
I’m a perfectionist, I wanted to submit so many things to them. I’m just really hard on myself. But it’s such a great song and should be out on Reel People Music in April.
I know that outside of the music in the compilation, there were other people were interested in some of your lesser known remixes.
Yeah we did some remixes of alternative bands. Back in the day we did our versions, House versions, and without thinking that it was going to be anything big. It turns out there were some people that wanted to showcase those particular remixes but I had to explain to them that when you license stuff from major labels, they can charge you whatever they want. So sometimes it’s just a lot easier to license something from a smaller, indie label.
Our bread and butter back then was remixing. We would sell our songs around town, trying to build up a catalog so that we could work with the Jody Watleys and other artists that we liked. And then at the same time John was doing underground tracks (just to small labels, beats and stuff) and he never intended that those dubs that he was doing on the side for fun would be anything people would want to put on an album ten years later. He never would have thought that! So remixing was a vocation for us.
So when you two started together I understand you both were doing R&B?
Well I was a college student at the time and was putting together an album project in a band, and John was the drum programmer. We co-produced all these songs we had with a very good looking, unique sounding female singer. We basically did the college circuit in Long Island. One of our female dancers had a contact to Louie Vega, and back then we had no idea who he was. We met him and he fell in love with the project. I liked House music, I had listened to a couple of DJs on the radio then, I had been to a few clubs during my college years. I had no idea what remixing was, but I loved it because I grew up on R&B, so transitioning to doing House records was easy for me. I’m a Nile Rodgers man, I love Chic, I love grooves. So Louie Vega wanted to sign us, but things didn’t materialize, the female singer decided that it wasn’t the direction she wanted to be in, so it all fizzled out.
I was just happy to meet Louie, and when I saw the productions he and his partner Kenny Dope did, I was like, “Woah!” I think one of the first sessions besides India was him remixing either a Queen Latifah or Madonna radio version with 123 bpm grooves behind it. I was locked. Me and John spent a lot of time just hanging out with Louie and Kenny and I ended up playing parts on a lot of their earlier records. I’ve ghost written “I Can’t Get No Sleep” with India. It was because of Louie that I started working professionally in this business. So that’s when Mood II Swing started.
Who are some artists that you enjoy or whose work you’re impressed by lately?
Ralf Gum, that’s one person I really admire. His music, the instrumentation, the musicality of it… Victor Duplaix puts out a lot of hot stuff.
What then are the respective roles between you and John when you work together on music? How do your styles differ?
I’ve dabbled in other things. I sang background on a couple of remixes, I’ve produced something for Adina Howard in the UK. I’m more of the Soul and R&B kid, I grew up in the black church. I have more roots in Soul music than John does. John was more into Hip-hop then. His music back then was influenced by that and pop. Now he’s become a househead, more of an electronica guy.
So will you guys continue on as Mood II Swing after the touring is done?
We’re trying. We’re trying to create stuff together and I think these DJing experiences we’re about to have are going to open up our minds and horizons and put things in perspective. Because we’ll finally get a chance to see together how crowds react in different cities and countries.
So far we’ve done San Francisco, we’re doing Amsterdam in about two weeks, then Chicago, Detroit and off to Europe.
So you’ve only done one gig so far? How was it?
The people there were amazing! They gave us time to set up, and when we started they went bananas! I’ve never been bombarded by people before, because I’m a producer. I’ve never actually met just random people that come up to you and want to meet you, tell you a story about how your music affected them. It blew my mind!
Well then you’re going to love it in Chicago! Wasn’t it a similar experience when you guys toured in 2004?
Oh absolutely not! We got involved with another guy that we tried to make a member of Mood II Swing, but he and John clashed a bit. Also at the time we didn’t understand who we were or what we were doing. We understand that now. Prime example: We went to a club in Frankfurt – this was actually when me and John had a falling out. A Techno DJ owned the club, so in our minds…we’re Americans, we’re in Frankfurt, let’s play harder! John started playing all this hard stuff I’d never heard before, and I have my keys and I was playing live. It was hard electronica stuff. So we did that, and people weren’t really… I mean they were dancing but it was all kind of weird…
After our set we go downstairs, and the two German DJs that were spinning downstairs were spinning the funkiest Soul, Hip-hop and R&B that I’ve ever heard before. And I said to myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” I felt like I was in Chicago or New York. They were just jamming! And here we were upstairs playing all this tech!
And then we also did Ministry of Sound. We weren’t ready for that at all. Before we did our tour we had a big hit with Ultra Nate’s “Free” and it was perceived so differently in Europe. We had just come out of dealing with all the music publishers, basically experiencing it on a pop level, and we got lost as to who we were. Like what kind of House music should we be doing? So I don’t know what we were playing [laughs]… That’s why the energy in San Francisco blew my mind. It’s like we’ve both grown up, we know who we are when it comes to House music. We both get it now.
Published first in 5 Mag Issue #129, featuring Mood II Swing, Martin EZ, Terry Hunger & Jon Pierce, a year hands-on with the Rane MP2015 and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music and save 60%!