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Fort Romeau: searching the past for personal sonic futures

For his first album in nearly seven years, Fort Romeau drew inspiration from past eras, and places that have lingered in his imagination. But, he says, he never lets nostalgia be a stylistic trap

It’s easy talking to Michael Greene. The English beat maker, best known as Fort Romeau, speaks in calm tones — warm, inviting and thoughtful, like the music he’s discussing, in and among wider thoughts on culture and creativity in 2022. 

This month, his third LP, ‘Beings Of Light’, drops on prized US label Ghostly International. A second full-length for the imprint, it packs new material, but the content, at least in part, was inspired by pictures from the past, real and imagined. The cover is one example: it’s The Power Of Grace, a 1984 artwork by Salvador Dali protege Steven Arnold, whose assemblage resonated thanks to the DIY processes involved, with found items creating otherworldly situations. 

“I’ve made tracks just completely all in the box,” Greene replies when asked if complex tableaus built from everyday things reflect his own methods. “In 2018-19, I had a very large space that was a studio with a lot of gear, some I borrowed from other people. So there was quite an elaborate setup. I’ve also worked in professional studios, especially mixing things down, like on my last album. But in terms of the bread and butter of what I’m doing, it’s a pretty pedestrian setup.

“I don’t think I have a single piece of equipment worth more than £500. I used to think if I had this or that, it would sound better. The first part may be true — it might sound better with certain hardware. But does it make the music better? No,” he continues. “At the end of the day, that comes from ideas and experimentation, craft. The tools can give that extra five or 10 per cent, but it’s a luxury, not a necessity.”

At least two tracks on ‘Beings Of Light’ were made with specific places in mind, and what stands out is how neither really exist in the present. ‘Spotlights’ takes its lead from fantasised memories of the bygone age in which Arnold worked. Meanwhile, ‘Ramona’ pays homage to an address currently stuck in a kind of cryonic state, frozen in time by the pandemic, waiting to thaw.

“‘Ramona’, and the minimal house kind of style, just really made me think of Robert Johnson, particularly the early days, and the Playhouse label,” Greene says of the new LP’s first single. Unveiled in October, it’s an ode to the iconic German club which has barely opened since March 2020. “I’ve released a few records with the [Live At Robert Johnson] label, and played several times, so I’ve already got links with the club. That sound has obviously had a bit of an influence on the record — groovy, minimal, bouncy, slightly alien percussion.

“Usually I’m making a track and an idea like that will pop into my head, and the image, the idea, gets attached to the track,” he says of how pictures become guiding rods for tunes. “[‘Spotlights’] comes out of the imagery of the album itself, and Steven’s work overall. He was based in New York, for at least part of his life. I was reading a piece on him, and thinking about the city in the early/mid-’80s. I feel we have this ideal of New York, because it has been so heavily represented in TV, film and books. It’s almost a place that exists as much in our imaginations as real life...  [The track] is just a very light reference to that era, a very bouncy bassline that made me think of classic house.”

"I always want to progress, get better, change what I’m doing. I think that’s what it’s all about. If you start doing the same thing and stagnate, it’s no good"

Some might think these nods to addresses and eras represent an artist tackling today’s universal experience head on. We’ve all been guilty of looking back and lamenting life pre-Covid, now seen through the lens of a time in which so much remains out of reach. But for Greene, nostalgia is a perpetual human condition often masking what reality was like back there or then. And it comes with significant risks, especially for musicians working with genres like house or techno — stylistically and structurally inherently repetitive. 

“People are always looking back to find something,” Greene says. “The danger is repeating the past. Especially with electronic music, there’s a danger of getting into that place, because you have to take influences, but you have to cross-pollinate, otherwise you’re just regurgitating. Nobody is going to make Jeff Mills’ music better than Jeff Mills. That’s something I’ve always been aware of, wanting to take these different parts that I like and put them together in a new way. Not because I’m clever, just because I have my own perspective. We are all individual people with a different melting pot of influences.

“I guess to some people it would all sound the same anyway,” he says of how his output has developed since he first pricked ears up with 2012’s debut album, ‘Kingdoms’. “In terms of how I see it, there are some core ideas that have always been in the music I make, threads, even though some would be described as deep house, others Italo, some disco influenced. But they are always dancing around the same core ideas. And those are things that I don’t think I can change because it’s about how I make music and put it together. I use vocals, not a lot in terms of songs, but I use a lot of vocal sounds and sequencing, and that’s always been something quite consistent in the music I make. And spoken word. I think having that human anchor is important.”

As far as records go, ‘Beings Of Light’ has been some time coming. It’s the first long-player we’ve had from Greene in almost seven years, and work began in earnest around 2018. More so, deciding on the final track-list involved whittling down eight pieces from around 67 tunes, the majority of which were very nearly complete. Finishing the process in early 2021, pressing plant delays then set the project back significantly. Nevertheless, despite the aforementioned influences and protracted journey to get here, the end result sounds fresh enough to soundtrack the immediate future, whatever that may bring. 

“The focus is always trying to move forward personally in terms of music, and what I’m making. I always want to progress, get better, change what I’m doing. I think that’s what it’s all about. If you start doing the same thing and stagnate, it’s no good. Half the fun for me is developing,” quips Greene, before we quiz him on what the year ahead and beyond might look like, and how the pandemic has changed his attitude and professional perspective. 

“It’s easy to get lost in [dance music’s] own little world and forget what’s important to you about what you do. I think for a lot of people, especially DJs and musicians, there’s a fear of what happens when it all stops. But we’ve now lived through our worst case scenario. I think going forwards, I won’t bow to pressure, will be inclined to do things on my own terms, and not accept things that don’t feel like a good fit. I think the situation has been good in terms of giving people confidence to know what they want, and decide their own boundaries.”

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt is a freelance writer, you can follow him on Twitter @martinghewitt