If there's one theme that fills Canada-born Marc Houle's life, besides music, it would be his affinity for fun. When we catch up with him to speak about his latest album, Cola Party, he uses the word to describe just about everything - from his musical upbringing, to the parties he first attended and played in the '90s, to interacting with his followers on Facebook. This is not an exaggeration, Marc Houle uses the word “fun” just about every two minutes.
In regards to the upbringing that brought him to where he is now – a world renowned producer, live performer and joint label head of Items &Things, alongside Magda and Troy Pierce – it was his parents who passed their instrumental inclinations onto him and his siblings.
“My mom really liked the idea of us making music. Her uncles would all get together and play piano and violin and stuff like that, so she really loved having music in the house. She and my father gave us freedom to do whatever we wanted.” Although his sister went to school for piano, Marc, “was given instruments with freedom to figure it out myself. I played music, my brothers played music, and it was just a big part of our life. When I was four, I got a drum set for Christmas. My brother plays guitar.” Although they aren’t classically trained and no one in his family “went to university for it or anything like that,” he presses on, “we're a musical family,” and one that views “music as fun kind of family.”
In addition to making music at home with his brood in Windsor, Ontario, many of Marc's earliest and fondest melodious memories are associated with outings absorbed in the acoustics of Michigan's Pine Knob amphitheater - since renamed DTE Energy Music Theatre. He fondly recalls seeing his all-time favorite show, Spinal Tap, telling DJ Mag “It was incredible. I love Spinal Tap the movie, and to see them play on stage and do all their jokes and stuff, it was pure fun for me, I really loved it.” He mentions a couple other seminal concerts he saw at Pine Knob, including Ozzy Osbourne on his No More Tours tour and Depeche Mode.
When it comes to the electronic side, nothing compares to the time he saw Kraftwerk. He tells us, “When I first got into electronic music, I really got into Kraftwerk. But at that time, they were on a long hiatus after their In the Mix tour. [They were] not really playing or anything. And then all of a sudden, out of the blue, they said, 'Hey, now we're gonna start touring again.' I was lucky enough to see them in Detroit. It was really cool to see the people that had been in my head for the last 10 years, right in front of me playing. It was really exciting.”
For a couple of years in his earlier electronic days, Marc co-ran a night called Atari Adventures with his friend Scott Souilliere at Richie Hawtin's 13 Below in Windsor. From what he tells us, they were an absolute blast. “On Wednesdays, we would set up games all around the club. We had Atari and CalecoVision and others, and people would just come in and play them. I would be in the DJ booth playing music that went along with the whole video game theme, artists like Kraftwerk, or more new wave bands. People would play the games, and then when they wanted to play a different game, they'd bring their cartridge up to the DJ booth, where we had them all, and swap for a different one. It gave me a chance to talk about the games, and to the people playing. It was kind of like DJing, but with old video game cartridges. It was a lot of work, a lot of upkeep, because the games break, the circuitry breaks. And so beforehand, while we were setting up, we'd have to solder together a new UHF converter, or fix old joysticks, stuff like that. But it was fun.”
It's no secret to anyone who has followed Marc's rise to success that he has his mentor, Richie Hawtin, another Windsor export, to thank for much of it. Although Marc split from Hawtin's M-nus label with Magda and Pierce in order to start up their own stamp, Items & Things, it's clear the camaraderie they share has not been abandoned. These days Houle plays many of the ENTER. parties, Richie's most recent undertaking. Marc explains them as having the same enterprising spirit as those, which Hawtin helmed in '90s Detroit.
Back then, before Richie made his way into the party market, “There would be a warehouse with some standard soundsystem hooked up, and maybe a light bulb hanging. People would go there, [party], then leave. Then we'd do it again. Rich came on the scene and started throwing his Plastikman parties and it was all different. He put so much work and effort into it. He would get top-of-the-line sound systems, super light systems and ambient rooms. He put plastic all over the walls and decorated the outside. He would spend maybe three days really prepping the environment and the mood, and it changed the way people started doing parties in Detroit. He changed everything. He made more of an overall feeling. So it wasn't just about the music anymore, it was about the whole concept. It's changed the way people are starting to do parties in Ibiza now too. You can't just go to a club, have a couple DJs show up, play, and call that a night. You have to now do something eventful that people are going to talk about. He started bringing LEDs years back, when it was still difficult to get them, and do these crazy stage set-ups. And now you see more people doing that. You almost have to, in order to be at that level. He's raised the bar. That's what he's done with ENTER. He's raised the bar to separate it from regular nights.”
For Marc, those renowned rave days remain unparalleled, a time and a place that can't be replicated. He retells how he realized what a privilege it truly was to be part of: “When we were growing up, and going to these Detroit techno parties and underground warehouses, we used to go there every weekend. Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, party, party, party. And growing up you just think that's normal, that everywhere else in the world is doing the same thing. And it wasn't until I started going on tour and seeing other cities that I realized, 'Holy shit. We had something really super special in Detroit.' And then I feel really fortunate to have been a part of that. There's nothing like that '80s/'90s scene in Detroit. There was nothing like that anywhere else in the world.”
In terms of changes in the make-up of Motown since those formative forays, he says, “Detroit is Detroit. It's kind of always been the same. It changes here and there, but the big picture doesn't really change. I think people are getting less scared of downtown, so there's more people coming. There's more suburbanites hanging out [in the city]. There's a lot of cooler restaurants opening up now. Where before there were maybe one or two good restaurants, now there's a whole bunch of them with young bistro chefs with tattoos cooking cool stuff. It's like the first step of gentrification when those restaurants open up, so I think it is slowly changing. It is a lot different than before, but if you look at the big picture it's pretty much the same. The only thing is that there aren't as many parties as there used to be.” For Marc, those early days in Detroit “were just walking around exploring, hanging out, having adventures with friends [and] finding cool techno parties.”
Nowadays, he always looks forward to attending Movement, an annual affair he says he is really proud of. He enthuses, “Once a year we have one of the most incredible festivals in the world right in downtown Detroit. It gives everyone a chance to come home and do what we do. There's nowhere else in the world that you have that many stages with all those great techno acts in one.” He goes on to muse that every year on the Made in Detroit stage specifically, there are so many new acts introduced, on top of those who have always been around, that the event could go on for weeks without exhausting all the talent the town can tout.
Marc's own music is something of a ménage à trois of sound, melding house, techno and new wave into a mold all his own. When he set out to put the new album together, his intention was “to make a strong statement with a whole bunch of tracks that would do well, so that people could hear my overall sound. I was kind of hoping that people can judge anew what my sound really is, and it's not pigeonholed into how I used to make music 10 years ago. I had a statement in my head that people usually categorize me as minimal, but I don't really make minimal [anymore].” Cola Party proves Marc's bleep days are bygone, putting his most musically fun foot forward with a collection of tracks destined to do damage on the dancefloor.
Teetering on a tightrope between light and dark is a must for Marc. He says, “I have a couple worlds going on at all times. I have a very serious, dark studio session going on, and then the next day will be fun and light. If you go back to my Drift album, that was very serious and moody, and the whole thing was emotional and dark, and then this one is not.”
In addition to constantly switching up his sound, Marc is regularly rearranging his studio, and always applying new processes to his tunes. “My style is kind of always the same, but the way I make tracks, and my approach to making songs is always different. My favorite thing is to go into a studio with a puzzle in my head, or an idea in mind, and I love to experiment and try to do something different. I can't just go in and make the same song, or stick to a formula. I'd go insane. So, for me, the studio is more like a playground, and so it's always changing. My methods are always changing. So, naturally, every song I do is going to be different, and made a little bit differently.” He says he didn't employ any especially revolutionary techniques to make the tracks on Cola Party, just all his favorite synths. From past confessions, these include the Juno-60, Korg mono/poly, ARP2600, SH-101 and DX7, some of the most supreme synths on the market.
With a serious stockpile of over 4,000 original productions to his name, Marc is fully equipped to get any crowd going, and keep fans surprised at the selections. Not one to be deemed a DJ, you'll never hear Houle drop anything other than his own tracks in his sets, which are always performed live.
With Cola Party out, and the festival circuit in full swing, what else does Mr. Houle have his hands in? “I found this box of cassettes at my dad's house, so I've been encoding all those and putting them into my computer, and finding all kinds of weird old stuff that I used to make. There's a lot of good stuff in there that I'm thinking of cutting up and maybe playing live. Then in the other room, on another computer, I'm doing some videos for the album. And then on my kitchen table is this synth project that I've been working on. It's something I've been wanting to do for about five years, so I'm programming a lot, and trying to get that going.”
Whether he's dropping bombs from the booth, busy busting out tracks from the studio, or cutting up long-lost cassettes, one thing we know for certain is that he will be having a ball doing it. Marc approaches all aspects of his career as something of a game, and it's clear he's still a number one player.
WORDS: Reisa Shanaman