Diane Theunissen

19 Sep
Music

On Our Radar: Oton Sheds Some Light on Techno-Breakbeat

A few months ago, we launched ‘On Our Radar’, a series through which we highlight up-and-coming artists with a clear vision and undeniable talent. Today, we put the spotlight on Oton, who just released his EP ‘Malibran’ under his very own label Alliance Club. We caught up with the producer in Brussels’ Botanical Garden, squeezing through banana trees and lavenders to discuss the rise of the Belgian techno-breakbeat scene, the power of collaboration, and the artist’s longing for clubs to reopen.

You unveiled your EP Malibran a few weeks back. How did you first get into music?

When I was young, I did lots of skateboarding. I used to watch plenty of skateboard videos with mad soundtracks – I discovered Daft Punk, Moby, Eminem, Dr Dre, Tupac, things like that. My parents played an important role too, there were records everywhere at home.

A few years later, I set up my own band. I sang and played the guitar. The other members went to college and we didn’t have time to practice that much anymore, but I was really into music and wanted to keep on doing it. So, I turned to electronic music: I was able to do it by myself, but I was also more motivated, on another level of ambition. It was just me and an Ableton controller, I started everything on my own. After I graduated from school, I decided to spend a year in Brighton to discover the British musical landscape and culture. I met a girl there and followed her to Barcelona, where I studied music production and sound engineering. I had a clear objective in mind: entering the music industry. You see, back then I had no contact whatsoever: I grew up in a small town in the south of Belgium, near a former steel plant. At that time, there weren’t any YouTube tutorials to learn how to use softwares or downloading samples. If you didn’t know someone who knew someone, it was a nightmare. So, I struggled, and that’s why I studied sound engineering and production: I wanted to learn about it all and get a foot in the music business.

Did it work? 

Yeah pretty well! After I finished my studies I moved to Brussels and started working as a sound engineer. I made my way into the scene, but quickly decided to give it all up so that I could focus exclusively on composing and producing music. As a sound engineer, you spend 16 hours of your day in the studio without seeing the light of day, it’s a very complicated job. It’s also very ungrateful, as you’re working like a dog on something that is not directly for you. I said to myself “If I’m willing to put that much energy into a project, I might as well do it all the way through and have a direct impact.”

At that time, I didn’t share my music much. I had a SoundCloud page which I was only showing to my friends (laughs). Afterwards, I collaborated with the singer Sasha Vovk, and started to promote myself as an artist. I gradually moved onto the techno side of things. Then again, it took me three years to really create a name for myself: I experimented, tried things out, performed live. I do less of that now, the project is much more controlled. It took me a long time to develop my own sound, create my signature and identify my scene.

How would you define your music? What’s your scene?

I’d say my music lies at the intersection of techno and breakbeat: the rallying point is a BPM that’s between 140 and 150. I usually start my sets at 135 or 140, and I finish them at 150. Through this range, you can combine so many styles and genres – it’s crazy. Again, I could never limit myself to one style in particular. There are so many cool things to explore, I believe it’s way more interesting and enriching to just have a look around and gather the elements you like, create your own sauce, and develop your signature sound. I’m not saying it’s easier, it can be tricky and you can get lost, but it’s a nice thing to try.

When I kicked off my musical project, I was always on the hunt for new elements so that I could build my own sound. Sadly, people who listened to my tracks could never tell they were mine: “your music’s great but we can’t hear your touch,” they said. A friend of mine who already had a great experience with music once told me “take a sheet of paper, and write down everything you love most in music. Make a list, and every time you make a track it has to be in it”. I took his advice and it became a reflex, some sort of an automatic process: now, I have the same movements in my drum programming, I use the same samples, I make little winks.

Can you give us a defining element of your sound?

There’s always breakbeat samples in my music: the Amen break and the Lyn Collins, which are jungle’s classics but were also used in hip hop and trip hop. I used to be a huge fan of trip hop – Portishead, Massive Attack and all that –, so breakbeat was omnipresent in my life and that’s why I love to include aspects of it in my tracks. There are also a lot of acid and trance influences, more like Belgian trance like The Age of Love. Post summer of love, after the new beat, when Belgium was the place to be in the electronic music scene.

Does Malibran fit in that scene too?

It’s a little slower. The tracks on side A – “Malibran” and “Gore-TXT” – are at 135 and 137, because they were made a year ago. Back then, I was a little bit more bridled, less in the extremes. The B side is at 140, though if I had done it now it would have been 150.

I’ve got new ideas all the time, which is why I’d like to set up a new release strategy and drop an EP every month. Everything’s moving so fast in my head, I’m producing so much stuff, but I also understand it’s really tricky to release music: it can take up to a year. That’s one of the reasons why I set up my own label: I want to have freedom regarding both the distribution and the promotion, whilst working with a team who can organize and concretize a release in a very short period of time. I believe that’s the only way to be in line with the music you drop. It’s almost instantaneous: you do it, you’re proud of it and you release it. Contacting a label, organizing promotion and putting things in place usually takes time. Now that I have my label, I’m lucky to be able to do all that with the help of a distributor and a press agent who’s able to plug me on a lot of stuff and feed all these negotiations with the media so that I can have good press support. At this rate, you can release something every month and please your fan base.

Can you tell us more about your label?

I launched it in February with the release of my first EP Weligama. Before the pandemic, I had plenty of gigs coming up but I was still very restricted in my experimentation. Then it hit me in the face: I said to myself “I’m just going to work on music that I profoundly like and stop pleasing others”. I believe it’s the only way to be authentic, and therefore to convince others that your project is worth it. If you’re not yourself, you have less of a chance to touch people. So, I composed a lot of songs and decided to launch my own label. Catching a label’s attention is one thing, but closing negotiations and signing a deal is another. Especially with a lot of distance, with everything moving so fast and the market being so saturated.

How did you set up the label?

I developed the label with one of my childhood friends with whom I started music – remember, the garage band thingy (laughs). He’s a civil engineer, a brilliant dude. He’s been following me for quite some time and always helps me around. When I set up the label, I made an ASBL where I gathered my best friends, people I trusted the most. So here I have a buddy who has a startup. I have another buddy who is deputy director of the financial department of a hospital in Liege, which clearly has nothing to do with music (laughs). But all these guys are passionate about music, and they all told me: ” the day you do something solid, we want to be a part of it”. So, we created the Alliance Club collective, something people could relate to. It doesn’t stop to music, we also make clothes: we made a limited series of t-shirts, and we’re planning to drop some caps, sweaters, and hoodies. We’re heavily influenced by the Golden Era of the skateboarding age from 1998 to 2003.

You’re really creating a community, aren’t you?

I’m trying to! When you think about it, this techno-breakbeat community doesn’t exist in Belgium yet. Right now, it isn’t tangible yet. Also, I notice that the new generation wants something much rougher, much faster, it’s another extreme. We are completely over the era of house music at 125-128 bpm in quiet mode; young people don’t give a fuck about that anymore, we’ve fallen back into more extreme stuff and I find it more interesting, because it’s more rebellious.

I believe this mirrors what’s going on in our society, where the youth lives on with a total lack of reference points and a desire to blow everything up. You can even see it in the aesthetics: with the new wave of graphic designers, there is no aesthetics anymore. The youth breaks the codes. During a period of crisis, it all comes back to rebellion and rawness. Through Alliance Club, we want to bring people exactly that.

Did Brussels influence your project in any way?

It’s a bit tricky to answer this question without sounding pejorative, but I had so much trouble finding my scene here that it encouraged me to do something different, and to keep going. For a long time, I tried to restrain myself, I tried to adapt myself and to polish my music in order to be successful. A lot of people around me did that and I had the impression that it was my only access to success. Then again, I was only looking at Brussels, whilst I’m not originally from here. I had kind of forgotten about that. When it came back, it reminded me that Brussels wasn’t the only city on earth, there were a lot of great things elsewhere. I gathered elements of music I liked, created my own thing and felt the urge of bringing it to Brussels. It’s my scene, I find it incredible, and I’m sure a lot of people here will love it too.

What are the other plans for Alliance Club?

Besides I’m planning to organize parties with my label, it has been my goal since the beginning. Originally we wanted to throw Alliance Club parties, which is why the URL of our website is allianceclub.party. I’m currently working on line ups with artists from Denmark, Germany, England and Easter Europe. I really want to introduce the scene and regain the spirit of raves: performing a mix of jungle, breakbeat, acid, trance, techno, as well as bringing people together.

Thanks to the LGBTQ+ community that advocates tolerance, everyone is attentive to the protection of diversity and safety. People pay attention to others: there’s a notion of caring that characterizes these parties. Whether it’s stopping a guy who’s harassing girls on the dance floor, or helping a person who’s taken too many drugs, people are paying attention whilst being more benevolent on the dance floor. Raves are now partially characterized by tolerance, diversity, peace and positive energy. I think that’s really cool: kindness is one of the most important values in our society, and it’s all we have left!

 

It’s interesting that you mention diversity. Brussels sounds like the perfect city to introduce a new scene, don’t you agree?

That’s actually what I aim to do (laughs). I don’t want to sound arrogant and say I’m going to be a gatekeeper or anything but I’m clearly positioning myself as a pioneer to open doors and introduce the scene to others. Brussels is a breeding ground for this kind of thing.

What’s your main motivation for the label?

As a label, our motivation is to create a synergy around the techno-breakbeat scene as well as carrying it. As I said I’m fairly active in the skateboarding scene too, and I often meet up with 18-year-old kids that I skate with. I hear them listening to crazy stuff: the other day one of them played “Formula 98” by DJ Visage, a trance track from the 2000s. I was so amazed by the fact that the younger generation was listening to that kind of music; there seems to be a huge return to rave culture these days. And clearly, young people are asking for it. All we want is for COVID-19 to go away so that we can start organizing events and introduce our scene to Belgian people.

What message are you trying to convey to your audience?

For me, the most important dimension of the project – and the one I’m the best at – is the live show. When I perform live, I’m totally into it. I do my absolute best, and it always ends up in a glorious mess (laughs). I always get caught up in the fact of playing my own stuff and communicating all these sounds. As I dance a lot and I’m really communicative with my music, the crowd’s uninhibited, and they all start dancing too! My message is purely energetic.

That being said, my music also has an intellectual aspect, especially regarding drums and the rhythm section: I spent hours and hours producing, I have lots of production automatisms. So, there’s a very sophisticated side to my productions, but it’s still very rough and organic. There’s always a melodic aspect too, I obviously don’t want my music to be purely silly and nasty. I need to build, develop my sound and have a relatively musical structure. But I’m not trying to get a message across.

At worst, you’ll perform at an illegal rave! 

If only you knew how right you are! I actually just picked up an old computer – it’s my first MacBook, I bought it in 2008 when I started making music. I formatted it with Ableton and a midi controller so that I could use it for live shows. There’s some illegal raves going on at the moment, I’m thinking of performing there, and if the cops show up I’m going to run and leave the MacBook, I don’t give a shit. I wouldn’t even organize raves, I don’t have the balls for that and I don’t want to put myself in danger. I have too much to lose. But on the other hand, I’d definitely go and perform.

What’s the next step in your creative career?

I have an EP coming out. I’m currently working on the artwork. I have a meeting with a graphic designer soon. I took care of developing the visual identity of Alliance Club but it’s very DIY, as I’m not a graphic designer. But I realize I need help, it’s too big of a project. I try to put some time aside to do some research, fill in some calls for projects, so now I’ve got a meeting with two collectives that will support the whole graphic impact.

What can we expect music wise?

Music wise, I’d like to release a double single every month.That way I can keep all the turnover with my fan base, and above all keep on feeding the media behind it – whether it’s the media doing my premieres or Rinse FM where I usually play unreleased stuff. There are a lot of actors in the scene who are in the process of creating a name for themselves. I’ve noticed a strong community spirit and mutual respect between us, which is great. I usually play unreleased tracks from other artists, there’s a strong desire for mutual help and support.

Photography by Constance Canat

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