Dutch duo Lars Dales & Maarten Smeets have been making music together as Detroit Swindle since around 2007.
In that time they’ve carved out their own particular niche in house music, amassing a catalogue of DJ-friendly tracks perfectly tailored for the dance floor. Their music is made up of nimble, efficient 4/4 grooves pushing up against carefully-textured pads and funky Rhodes licks. It’s deep house but there are hints of jazz and techno hovering in the background.
Detroit Swindle release most of their material on their Heist imprint, which is also home to Fouk, Matthew Herbert, Byron the Aquarius, Alma Negra, Pepe Bradock and Nachtbraker. October 2018 saw the release of their second artist album, High Life. 5 Magazine met up with Lars and Maarten to get to the heart of the Detroit Swindle sound.
Lead photo by Lauren Murphy
It’s a fresh late-afternoon in Amsterdam when 5 Mag settles in for coffee and a chat with Lars and Maarten. Both are tall, imposing figures. Maarten is dashing, speaks quickly, and has something of the Errol Flynn vibe to him. Lars is more considered, picking his words carefully as though he’s checking their panning and EQ before committing. Both are easy and relaxed in each others company, quick to laugh, and things within the DS camp are generally “super-nice” and “super-good.” We begin by talking about the new album, High Life…
Maarten: We wanted to make something new, we wanted to make something that on the one hand still recognizably Detroit Swindle, but also in the process of making music allowed us to explore what’s in us, explore our creativity more.
Since we’ve been making music we’ve always recorded and worked on the road, on the airplane, in the hotel, and then finished stuff in the studio, which worked fine, and we’ve made some tracks that we’re super-proud of.
Turn on the synthesizer, make a patch, make a loop, listen to what you made the night before & freely record whatever you feel like.
But on the other hand, it’s a limiting approach as you’re always on your way to have something else to do. With the way we recorded this album, we took three weeks off, we didn’t have anywhere else to be, there was no obligation to make anything. We didn’t put the pressure on and suddenly had an open mind – we’d just go to the studio…and just start. Turn on the synthesizer, make a patch, make a loop, listen to what you made the night before, and freely record whatever you feel like recording. I think that gave it a real sense of freedom that you can hear in the music.
Lars: The one thing that we were searching for was some kind of cohesion across the album. Even though it’s across a couple of genres, we still wanted to make something that’s very recognizable in one story, in one form. I think we managed that because we recorded everything in the same time frame, with the same instrumentation, with the same mindset…
5 Mag: Kind of like a band…
Lars: It was basically one big jam session, it was fun, really fun, way more than usual. Normally you have a little sketch and you work together to make it into the final composition and here it was literally just sit down in the studio and see what happens. I was really happy with the end result and it was fun, so much fun to do.
Every time something is completed, there’s always something that could be better… but musically, for me, there’s not a lot wrong with the record, it’s more mixing. It could have sounded even crisper, even better, there’s always room for improvement but we’re super-happy with it in general.
5 Mag: So tell us a bit about your roles in the studio, who does what?
Maarten: We both take exactly the same role! We do everything simultaneously…
Lars: There are slight differences though… Maarten is really good at making fiddly nice textures, and I’m a bit of freak when it comes to the drums, and shuffle and little hi-hat thingies…
Maarten: …but, in general, we do a lot together. They’ll be times when Lars has an idea and starts to work on whatever samples we have, and I’ll jump on the Rhodes and fiddle around to throw in a pad or just try some variations on chords, and then I find that Lars has already hit “record” five minutes back, recorded everything I was doing and we can chop it up. Or I hear something he’s working on but he can’t really find the right arrangement or the right harmony and then we switch places. Someone starts listening for half an hour and lets the other do their magic. It really flows naturally.
Lars: Maarten has a good sense for deepness, and I have a bit more of a knack for the melodramatic. Also in arrangements, if it was up to me I’d always put in a big drop, and Maarten is always like, “No I don’t want a drop in this track, I just want a track that goes on and on!”
5 Mag: You obviously work well together, how would you describe each other?
Lars: I would say Maarten is the most pragmatic person I know. And sometimes very anal about rules and structures(!)
Maarten: Rules are important. In order to break them! In terms of music, Lars is the most crowd-pleasing person of the two of us, in a positive way. Like, he’s been DJing for such a long time that he feels when you need to give something and I’m a little bit harsher. I’m like I wanna play this fucken record so I’m going to play this record and I don’t care if I clear the room! – Which doesn’t happen too often, luckily.
5 Mag: And what do you do if it goes wrong?
Maarten: You just let it happen and then mop up after!
Lars: Maarten is more a high risk/high reward DJ. So he can play a record that completely misses the crowd and I’ll do the mopping up because I’ll play something that I know the crowd will love … And it happens the other way around as well, I try to push something that doesn’t work and Maarten then plays something more oddball and it suddenly works. I think that why we’re better together than DJing alone.
5 Mag: So are you DJs who produce or producers who DJ?
Maarten: I’m not sure, can we be both?! It’s funny that they’re actually connected – the people are so interested in DJs who produce. I mean, I get it in terms of how you get to know music, you get to know an artist and you want to see that artist, they’re not a band, they’re a DJ, so you go see a DJ performing. But historically I don’t think it’s a logical combination of jobs because they’re both full-time jobs.
Lars: I think they are very 50/50. We both started with DJing but we became known by our productions. I was 13 when I bought my first hip hop record…
Maarten: I started DJing 2005 or 6, started with house music.
5 Mag: And what other music influenced you?
Maarten: I love jazz, especially artists like Herbie Hancock, and the way that he tried to break the barrier of conventionality, getting into the studio and recording days and days of weirdness before writing one chord progression… [That] amazes me and really inspires me to make music that’s unconventional … Even if we haven’t made any unconventional music yet – in terms of originality, that’s super-inspiring to me.
Lars: I’m a big fan of Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla; Dilla actually started my love for sampling. It’s just the way that he flips the sample, there’s something about it, back then that I’d never experienced, and also the swing, the loose feel…
Maarten: I think one of the amazing things about a Dilla beat, you have this simple boom-bap and it sounds so amazingly complex, like something you could never produce.
Lars: …and that melodramatic side really appeals to me. That’s why I love sampling and that’s why I love using soul or jazz or hip hop even to use in our tracks.
5 Mag: There’s not much sampling on the new album though right…?
Lars: For the album, there’s almost none. There’s one track on the album with a sample in it. But normally, it depends on the track… I would say in every track there’s something sampled, if it’s a little percussion thing, a slight vocal, a texture… I love that, I love sampling, finding this little bit somewhere that enriches the whole track.
Maarten: For the album we sampled ourselves, we had recordings which were nice and then we started chopping it up and resampling and doing all sorts of weird reversing and suddenly it comes to life, so it’s a super-nice way of approaching any source material.
5 Mag: So out of all your productions do you have a personal favorite Detroit Swindle track?
Lars: I think I got the most enjoyment out of the early ones, like “The Wraparound” because it was the beginning, and I was so happy that we were finally making music.
Maarten: I think what I like about “The Wraparound,” I love the simplicity of the track, just a few elements and a really loud kick and a really loud bassline, and the mistakes we made in mixing and the bluntness of the concept of the track make it what it is.
5 Mag: So turning to your label Heist, there’s a very clear design element to everything you do across all your physical products. Is the visual/design side of things important to you?
Maarten: Yes, if you get a chance to make a physical product, it’s just too good of an opportunity not to put the effort in to make it look nice, to make a product you’re really proud of. You can just throw out anything, press a white label and live with that, but we both really enjoy something that’s visually appealing as well as sonically.
Lars: Maarten comes from an advertising background, I come from a promoter’s background where I did a lot of graphic design myself as well, and I think we both share a very specific idea of what works and what doesn’t work. With everything we’re very… control freakish, almost.
5 Mag: What kind of sound are you looking for with Heist?
Maarten: “Wordly electronic music!”
Lars: We’re always looking for a bit of angle, it really has to resonate with both of us. We’ve had artists send music that you knew in advance would sell but it was just… just not for us. Or stuff that is really well produced but is not interesting enough. It has to have that little edge…
5 Mag: What is that edge?
Lars: …that stupid x-factor thing…
Maarten: You know what it is. It’s originality. Ideally it’s timeless, it’s something that you can play in ten years and it will still sound good.
Lars: It’s hard to explain what makes a record a good record, it’s just – when you know, you know.
5 Mag: So looking forward to 2019, how do you see the house scene developing?
Lars: It’s going to be more electronic again. I think the sample house revival era is over and I think we’re going more into an ’80s/early ’90s revival, where trance is a big thing again, but also proto-house is making a big comeback.
The only thing I’m a bit afraid of is that a lot of DJs who are getting big now play very hyped up sets, fast mixing, a lot of effects… I hope that won’t be the thing! They need to take their time and know you can leave the record for five minutes… I’m hoping it will go in a more musical direction rather than a very practical way of DJing to get everybody with their hands up.
Maarten: I concur!
5 Mag: And finally, what’s next for Detroit Swindle?
Maarten: Even though the album is done, it’s only part of the journey, this is just a chapter.