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The gospel according to Tchami

He’s spent the last seven years honing an undeniable sound. Now Tchami will unveil his first full-length album, ‘Year Zero’

The collar that Martin Joseph Léonard Bresso dons while performing on stage as Tchami is a meaningful accessory. It is symbolic of the spirituality he’s found in house music. “To me, the art you’re giving to the world has to be a sublimation of the person that you are,” Bresso says. “Everything you see as Tchami is based on something that I am.”

When DJ Mag sits with him in his suite at Manhattan’s Hotel Indigo, he explains that he’s an avid meditator, making time for two 15-minute sessions per day. It’s a practice that keeps him grounded, and promotes the honed focus he brings behind the decks, which sit high upon a custom altar that’s been a signature of his tour setup for years.

“That’s what a good performance is for me — when I’m able to give what I want to other people,” he says. “It’s not just about the music I’m playing. It’s about my attitude on stage, if I feel right, and if I feel close to the people.”

Even his moniker is a testament to that fact. Tchami is the name he acquired while exploring Cameroon on a leisure trip he took with his best friend during his formative years. There he met the relative of his travel companion — an older woman with whom he bonded. By the end of his month-long vacation, she referred to him only by an old family name, “Tchami” — and it stuck.

"I like music that has a groove. It doesn't have to be the best sound design ever, but I need to feel something in my chest"

“She really liked me. I think maybe I was like the son she never had,” Bresso reflects. “I believe that everything related to Tchami should come from true experiences. Sure, other projects are based purely on fantasy, but for me, I only care about presenting the truth.” The woman who gave him his namesake passed away last year, but he said he kept in touch with her long after his rise to fame. It’s a heartfelt anecdote, that falls in line with Bresso’s down-to-earth attitude.

Though he stands at six-foot-three, the Parisian producer has a gentle presence that is inherently inviting. He’s calm and attentive, with a soft voice and kind, blue eyes that sparkle behind gold-rimmed glasses. He speaks slowly with a French accent that’s been mellowed by his five years living in Miami.

He became known as the “father of future house” in 2013 after he unintentionally coined the term in an attempt to categorise the sound of his remix of Janet Jackson’s ‘Go Deep.’ The fateful interview sparked widespread use of the phrase, and he’s been considered a pioneer of the booming genre ever since.

“I said ‘future house’ because I wanted to describe it as a type of house music that hadn’t been invented yet,” Bresso says with a laugh. The quote inadvertently made him the face of a movement that would provide the much needed missing link between classic house and modern EDM.

“Sure, [that moment] was good for my career, but I feel I have way more to offer than just one type of house.” He’s proven that point by demonstrating a constant evolution. Finally, this May, after seven years defined by chart-topping hits and high-profile tours, Bresso is ready to unveil the first full-length Tchami album,‘Year Zero’. It’s a body of work that sees his vivid basslines and lingering melodies turn more progressive.

The forthcoming LP pushes components of that iconic Tchami style, especially vocal hooks that carry enough pop weight to appeal to the masses; however, this time (perhaps more than ever) he reveals a compositional prowess that goes far beyond his future house roots.

Bresso was born in a village in the southwest of France, where he lived with his parents and his two younger sisters. They moved to the outskirts of Paris when he was eight years old, but his musical education began well before that.

“I have amazing parents that put me in front of a piano at four years old,” he shares of his classical training. “It sounds generic, but I always loved music. Music has been a good friend throughout my entire life.” Being born into a creative family led Bresso to develop a respect for the craft in his adolescent years.

His mother is an accomplished guitarist and sings in a choir to this day. “I like the way she sings,” he says warmly, and with an air of gratitude that suggests she taught him well. His passion served as a conduit for coming-of-age friendships that would prove long lasting, and advantageous. Around the age of 16, he became acquainted with William Sami Étienne Grigahcine, better known today as trap producer, DJ Snake. Mercer (of ‘Neo Disco’ fame) became a part of his pack around the same time, and the young friends would spend their weekends crate-digging in the Châtelet, an area in the center of Paris known for its record shops.

“We always used to hang out there, and then [DJ Snake] got a job at one of the shops, and that was one more reason to be there every week and spend all our money on records,” Bresso says. “We built up quite the collection.” He snapped up 45s from West Coast funksters like Zapp, and Prince’s soul collective, The Time — two acts he says continue to influence his productions today. “I like music that has a groove. It doesn’t have to be the best sound design ever,” he says, taking his hand to his heart. “But, I need to feel something in my chest.”

Bresso’s first break came via Fool’s Gold Records in 2013, when his cut ‘Promesses’ featuring Kaleem Taylor (who has become a frequent collaborator) was picked up by label boss, A-Trak. But it was his self-released remixes of the aforementioned ‘Go Deep’ and AlunaGeorge’s ‘You Know You Like It’ that further introduced his new brand of house music to the world. Fast moving and tinny, with an infectious groove, his bold take on house made dancefloors and festivals come alive.

“As a remixer, I want to make a track for me,” he explains. “I want to say, ‘This is kind of my song now.’ It’s a little egotistical, but I need that connection in order to push my sound forward. It’s not a factory.” His reimagining of Marshall Jefferson’s club anthem ‘Move Your Body’ further cemented his reputation for turning tried-and-true classics into verified hits all over again.

As Bresso was developing his own style in the wake of America’s EDM boom, so were his closest friends. In 2013, DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s party anthem ‘Turn Down For What’ (for which Bresso also shares producer credits) catapulted trap music’s popularity to even greater heights. That’s when doors began to open everywhere he looked.

Experiencing their own individual successes, the childhood friends relished an opportunity to exercise strength in numbers. Along with Mercer and Malaa (a latecomer to the group), Bresso and DJ Snake launched Pardon My French in 2015. Doing so provided an avenue for the quartet to bolster each other’s distinctly different styles, during a critical time when electronic music was becoming the new mainstream. Sharing a collective entity also gave the talented pals an excuse to stay connected amid busy touring schedules and other obligations.

“We are still close, but physically we are not because we have careers, and we go everywhere in the world, but not at the same time,” Bresso shares. “It’s hard to catch up sometimes, and so we had to make these events.” He says the Pardon My French takeovers, which have taken the companions to stages like Holy Ship! and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, come in addition to regularly scheduled studio sessions. “Maybe twice a year we lock ourselves in a house or an apartment somewhere in the world to make music,” he says.

As Pardon My French gained traction globally, his discography as Tchami continued to grow. Bresso launched his own label in 2015, CONFESSION, with the release of ‘The Afterlife’ EP. The title track (which features a powerful vocal by Grammy-nominated songwriter Stacy Barthe) was an instant win for the imprint, and has amassed more than 12.3million listens on SoundCloud to date. Later came his ‘Revelations’ EP, home of the smooth and soulful ‘Adieu,’ in 2017.

While pumping out his own dark and dulcet tunes, Bresso continued his plight of discovering emerging names. “I wanted to be that guy to provide opportunities for the younger generation — that’s what CONFESSION is all about,” he says smiling, indicating his interest in helping others find similar salvation in production.

Since its inception, the CONFESSION imprint has served as a reliable springboard for future house newcomers, with names like Cazztek, DLMT and GODAMN all racking up impressive numbers in the past 12 months.

“Right now it’s a small team, but I think we are quite efficient,” Bresso shares of CONFESSION’s operations. “[With the releases] I need something fresh to hear. I want CONFESSION to be the label that brings something new to the landscape.”

In 2018, Bresso and Malaa released their collaborative ‘No Redemption’ EP via the label as well. Standout tracks like ‘The Sermon’ meld the very best of Malaa and Bresso’s sensibilities, resulting in something funky for audience ears. This “holy union” was a hit, leading the duo toward a dual headlining tour that included b2b appearances at Tomorrowland and Ultra Music Festival, among others.

However, after five years of building the label and touring extensively, Bresso was ready to take the next step in his career. Audiences will get to experience the fruits of those labours when he reveals his highly anticipated debut LP.

“For this album, I discovered a new me, in a sense that I felt really good being in a studio with other people, which wasn’t really the case before,” Bresso shares of his experience crafting ‘Year Zero.’ “I used to be the guy who’d send you a beat and you do something hopefully good at your place and then you send it back to me, but this process was different. I spent some time in LA, and we set up some studio time with many people. That was great for me. I really enjoyed it.”

On 25th February, Bresso dropped the lead singles ‘Proud’ and ‘Ghosts,’ introducing fans to the next wave of his sound. ‘Proud’ features emotional lyrics about living without regrets, performed by hip-hop songwriter Daecolm, who has made a name penning words for major names like Trey Songz. It’s a pleasant groove, carried by a steady piano line and an upbeat breakdown. ‘Ghosts’ has a noticeably different feel. It’s a progressive track that boasts airy vocals, compliments of Los Angeles-based singer, Hana.

Though the underlying beats mark a departure from the early Tchami dance tracks, he says the album still represents his undying appreciation for songs that feature a strong human element. “This has always been a focal point — to have vocals — which I know is not the trend right now in electronic music. But I’m not changing that. It’s just who I am,” he says. 

The style of both tracks falls more in line with that of his effervescent 2019 single, ‘Rainforest’ (which will likely not appear on the LP), rather than the club-ready works that people have come to associate with the French producer. He’s prepared for the possibility that some fans might question the new direction, and feels it’s another chance for him to change the narrative around his seemingly inseparable tie to future house.

“I don’t want to fight their expectations,” Bresso says. “If they don’t rock with the new sound, then I’ll find people that will,” he enthuses. “I need to evolve. As a fan of others, I can’t say that I like an artist’s entire discography. There are always some holes for me.

“I don’t talk a lot on social media,” Bresso continues, taking time with his words to ensure his message is crystal-clear. “I’m not very outgoing — not that I’m not approachable — it’s just not my temper. At the end of the day, I just have so much to say through music. This is how I express myself, and it can’t be just one sound. Expect many types of feelings on the album.”

And ‘Year Zero’ does cover a wide spectrum of sounds. ‘Buenos Aires’ and ‘Take You There’ each bear timeless qualities that evoke memories of French touch’s finest hour. Rapper Gunna lends his hip-hop flair to ‘Praise,’ a g-house stunner that pumps at a perfect pace. Then there’s ‘Born Again,’ a brash dancefloor filler that fuses classic ’90s club elements with the big, bold basslines that have become a Tchami hallmark. And there’s another collaboration on the album that has been years in the making. A recognisable falsetto breaks through the ambient, lo-fi intro of ‘All On Me.’

“I was in LA, and I told Zhu, ‘Dude, I think we should make a track. Come on, this is my first album! I know you’ve already made a bunch of albums, but this is my first and I would love to make something with you,’” Bresso says, reenacting his proposition. “The next day, he was in the studio with me and we made some fire.” The track bears a minimal mystique, and a steady rhythm that lets Zhu’s ethereal tones really shine. It will likely hit a chord with those who were fans of the duo’s techno-laced B2Bs, like the one Bresso and Zhu played together at HARD Summer back in 2018.

When he meets DJ Mag, Bresso is on the North American run of his Elevation Tour, which made stops in major markets like Montreal, Boston, and New York City. It’s a highly visual show that uses layered LEDs to bring sacred imagery to life (his 2017 Prophecy Tour saw him perform ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ with a full gospel choir, so he’s keeping the aesthetic onbrand).

Fanfare aside, the performances have given him an opportunity to play out most of the forthcoming tracks before they reach streaming platforms. “For me it’s a hard thing to do, not knowing what reaction to expect from the crowd,” Bresso shares. “But it’s been great so far. I feel that I need to present this album in such a particular way to the fans.”

Bresso says his experiences on tour have had a profound impact on the final shape of ‘Year Zero.’ “As creators of dance music, we need feedback from the dancefloor,” he says. “I don’t have a Funktion-One soundsystem at home... maybe that’s an idea though,” he grins. “It’s never the same sound when you have a club empty, versus a club filled with people. It’s always a different feeling, and the hardest [task] is finding a way for the track to translate well on every soundsystem.”

He treats every night as an opportunity to make his debut LP better and brighter. “I barely go out of the green room,” he explains. “I’m just there mixing and making the last edits the day of the show. The moment we arrive, I just go take a shower, take some lunch, and then sit and work on the album until the [set], and then it’s on to the next city.”

Instead of letting the hustle exhaust him, Bresso says it only gets him more fired up. This tour season in particular presents some interesting challenges. Traveling at the beginning of a pandemic is obviously an unprecedented situation for him. Massive festivals like Ultra Music Festival and Coachella, where Bresso had been booked to play, have already been postponed at the time of our interview due to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. “Yeah, it’s concerning, I won’t lie to you,” he says in a serious manner. “We have big talks on the bus, but I still want to do the meet and greets and hang out at the merch booth. This is a time for us to practice compassion.”

He is eventually forced to postpone the remainder of his tour dates until later in the year, but that doesn’t mean work will come to a standstill. When Bresso is not on the road, he lends his skills to pop artists. Scroll through the modest number of accounts Bresso follows on Instagram, and you’ll see the usual Pardon My French crew and CONFESSION labelmates — but there’s another big personality that might stand out, too, Lady Gaga. The current queen of pop has been a champion of the Tchami sound for years now, ever since Bresso produced her smash hit, ‘Applause’ — the lead single off her 2013 Platinum-selling album ‘ARTPOP’ (he also lent his talents to ‘Sexxx Dreams’ off that same album).

“When you’re in France and you try to do something with big artists in the US, it’s not easy. You have to go through several people to have your music heard. That was quite a hard process for me the first time,” he says with a huge smile. “But, I finally met her and she’s a really good person. I love her.”

The two share a friendship that brought him back into her world recently. Bresso, Boys Noize, and BloodPop collaborated on the background music that plays in the viral video advertisement for HAUS Laboratories, Lady Gaga’s new beauty brand. And for her forthcoming album, ‘Chromatica’ (set to drop on 10th April), Bresso says he and Gaga collaborated on a handful of tracks. He doesn’t expect all of them to make the cut, and he’s perfectly content with that notion. “Whatever the ending is, I’m still happy to be in the same room as these amazing people. Lady Gaga and her engineer Ben Rice, and BloodPop. He’s a genius too.”

Bresso also promises there’s more to come in 2020 following ‘Year Zero’. For starters, he’s currently shooting his own web series, titled CONFESSIONS, in which he puts others in the hot seat. “Basically, the concept is me [holding] confession, and asking some questions about things like spirituality and other aspects of life that I think anyone can relate to,” he explains. “I don’t want to limit it just to DJs, the common theme [of guests] will be people I really have a connection with in real life. I’m not a real interviewer, so this is hard for me to go to a place where I can share some intimacy with a person,” he continues.

This kind of project requires Bresso to step outside of his comfort zone, and he’s embracing it with open arms. The premiere dates for the CONFESSIONS episodes are still to be determined. However, when they do hit the web, they promise to lend some insight into his own philosophies, through back-and-forth discussion, and the real-life experiences that Bresso is committed to bringing to his Tchami persona.

So, with all this talk of living his truth, some might want us to set the record straight: Is Bresso actually a clergyman? “It’s a question I get a lot,” he laughs. “People say, ‘Tchami, are you a real priest?’ And my answer is always, ‘No, but I could have been.’”

Amen to that.

Want more? Read our recent DJ Mag North America cover story as David Guetta returns to the source as Jack Back.

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America’s commissioning editor. Follow her on Twitter here.