“I'm a straight guy,” says Ten Walls, aka Lithuanian producer Marijus Adomaitis, also known as Mario Basanov, as he fixes his gaze directly across the table in a quiet South London cafe. It's already dark outside where we've decamped, following this month's cover shoot, to talk about the incredible rise of Ten Walls and the launch of his own label, BOSO.
“I always say what I feel, I'm a Capricorn,” he goes on, turning to the flow state-like procession of singles that have propelled him, in a little over a year, from an originally anonymous act into electronic music's hottest property. “I knew that 'Requiem' would be big. On some tracks you think, 'OK, for the B-side',” he wisecracks. “It's a good track, but it's not that one. With 'Gotham', 'Requiem', 'Walking with Elephants'... it was that one.”
Indeed, it's difficult to overstate the influence that these three releases have had both on Ten Walls' career and in tying together the various scenes built around house music's latest, moodiest incarnation, that have rallied around the virtuosity shown in his seemingly effortless skill at turning out epic hits.
It started in May 2013 with the debut Ten Walls 'Gotham' EP on Âme and Dixon's Innervisions' label, a three-track EP whose undoubted focus was the title track. Darkly majestic like its namesake (though actually named in honour of the baroque music of the gothic period), 'Gotham' was the kind of tune that an entire set built up to, a nine-minute epic built around a distinctive horn bassline and almost trance-like arpeggios. Dominating festivals such as Movement and Sonar, the mystery around who Ten Walls was also kept people talking.
This was followed in December by 'Requiem' for Life And Death, another three-track EP confidently shouting the strength of its title track. Again using a bass lead and arpeggio, this time the mood was jubilant, propelling it into the Top 10 of the Beatport chart, at first glance an incongruous anomaly amongst the usual EDM bangers but on reflection a sign of how popular the 'underground' scene has become.
This was proven by his next single, 'Walking with Elephants', BOSO's debut release in September of last year. Honing all the most distinctive elements of his previous two singles, it opened with sweeping strings and continued to swell, rising synths adding an ever-building tension to the bouncing tuba bassline. Combined with its abstractly captivating video, whose narrative has black and white figures racing to jump into the sea, before continuing this race propelled by jets of water, this time Ten Walls hit the UK Top 10, the track peaking at No.6. For a purely instrumental electronic record this was almost unthinkable, the track only beaten by the major label heavyweights of Iggy Azalea, Taylor Swift and Sam Smith, and the poppier dancefloor fare of Robin Schulz and (who else but) Calvin Harris.
While Ten Walls' Facebook page was created as recently as April 2013, one month before his debut release, the foundations his music is built on go back much further. Most recently there was his career as Mario Basanov, the name he used while producing disco-influenced records for labels such as Needwant and Future Classic. Despite still going by the Anglicised name Mario when we meet, however, this is a topic that he wants to avoid. “Coca Cola also have Fanta, but in advertising they cannot be together on the same table, yeah?” he shrugs off when we approach the topic. Instead, we go back further to the unlikely mingling of elements that form the solid bedrock of Ten Walls.
“I should start from the beginning,” says Mario, revealing that he's spent the past 17 years producing, not just music for release, for himself or others, but also for advertising and TV, something that has led to him winning three M.A.M.A awards, the Lithuanian equivalent of a Grammy. “When I was a child my father was a violin player, my brother was a violin player, so music is very important in our family. I grew up with classical music because I studied and I finished music school.
I also like Motown soul music. My father had, and still has, many vinyls of Motown soul.” Yet even this description of a life surrounded by melody and instruments seems to underplay the importance of music over everything else, as he later reveals. “When you finish music school you go to music academy and nobody cares about maths or chemistry or physics. If you're a good musician, you're a good musician.”
Playing in an orchestra, singing in a choir and studying the history of famous classical composers, there's no doubt that this is what Mario is. It's what makes Ten Walls' tracks so powerful, each element melodically in tune with every other part, his vision powered by the grand emotions of the masters that he studied, such as Sebastian Bach. Indeed, he gives short thrift to those now trying to copy his sound without this requisite knowledge. “You need to be a musician if you're going to do epic musical house. Not like groovy [house], when it's only one chord. But if you need to do harmony, you need to know harmony.”
Being an accomplished musician still doesn't necessarily equate to making good electronic music for the dancefloor, or even wanting to make electronic music at all. So it was a formative moment while growing up in Kaunas, Lithuania's second biggest city, where he lived before relocating to the capital of Vilnius, that formed the genesis of his interest. “When I was a teenager I found Deep Forest. It was in 1997,” Mario recalls of the French duo whose eponymous debut album mixed recordings of indigenous peoples of central Africa with electronic beats — a hugely successful project that was also shrouded in controversy for uncredited cultural re-appropriation.
It was their Grammy-winning second album 'Boheme', however, which drew heavily from Hungarian folk song, that he listened to every night for a year before going to bed. “They used many folk sounds, which is why you can sometime find them in Ten Walls' music. For example, in 'Mongol' [one of the B-sides to 'Requiem']. If you listen to my live show, I use a lot of Afro sounds. I like these kind of things a lot. It's not just two chords,” he says, suddenly singing the melody to some typical house keys. “There are amazing harmonies in Deep Forest's music.”
This love of melody seems to have always been pointing the way to Ten Walls' debut release from afar, the youthful Mario falling in love with Jazzanova's 2002 'In Between' album. This then led him to their Sonar Kollectiv label, who put out Innervisions co-founders Âme's huge breakthrough single, 'Rej', a classic slice of melodic minimalism that Ten Walls' sound echoes.
Hearing the rest of his diffuse history, which includes producing soulful house, progressive and new rave for various artists “to survive”, it makes sense why Mario now wants to concentrate on Ten Walls. But these years of extensive studio experience seem to be why he's yet to put a foot wrong.
“I always tried, and still try, to be universal. I don't want to stick on one style,” he says, signing off on this past. “I'm always trying to find a different sound. If 'Gotham' was more underground, 'Requiem' was more housey, pumpy and uplifting. If 'Walking with Elephants' was more epic orchestra, 'Mongol' was very underground ethno. I'm always trying to do different tracks.”
Like many of dance music's great shape-shifters, Damian Lazarus, Andy Weatherall, it seems that this comes from an instinctive level, inspiration and boredom the carrot and stick driving him in the direction of personal fulfilment. “When you go to sleep dreams come, I'm flying, I'm driving a Bugatti, you cannot control it,” Mario tells us to reinforce this. “It's the same with music, I come to the studio, I don't know what kind of track that I'm going to do. The same with the name. It just came. I should be... Ten Walls. I'm very happy with it.”
Deciding three years ago to stop working with clients on their music, and to concentrate solely on his own, 'Gotham' was offered to Innervisions as a track that would perfectly fit their sound, soon becoming the biggest tool in the label heads' DJ arsenal.
Is there an element of trance in there, we ask, the sound that's been infusing deep house alongside more progressive elements? “Trancey in the breakdown, yes, but in a a good way,” replies Mario, heading off on a tangent about the difference between a trance arpeggio and an Italo arpeggio, proudly telling us how he recently got to meet Giorgio Moroder, “Grandfather of Italo”, in LA.
“One guy asked me, 'What do you think about trance music?' I said, 'I hate trance music, EDM, what they do only for business and money'.
If we talk about trance music, for me trance music is Hare Krishna, [the] Maha Mantra. When you do two hours non-stop meditating, this is trance. The music, atmosphere, everything. It's trance because you go somewhere and it's melodic.”
Now considering himself a non-churchgoing Christian with an ongoing interest in spirituality as a whole, the 15-year-old Mario was fascinated by Hare Krishna, going to the local temple for an hour a day to eat lunch while he was at school, and one summer spending every day there. Though this led to friends branding him “crazy”, Mario was able to draw the experience back to music and his breaking down in understanding of what this means and how it's built.
“Sanskrit is very melodic and our language is very melodic,” he explains, singing the musical intonations of Lithuanian and explaining that as an Indo-European language it's descended from the same lineage. “So you can say that this is trance music. Because I think that music isn't only sound. Listen to how little children speak, they talk like...” he says, firing off more melodic glossolalia. “So this is music also.”
It's this idea that led Charles Darwin to propose a “musical protolanguage”, various scientists now hypothesising that song came before prose. Mario perhaps has an edge at intuiting this innate musicality, his own sense of melody and colour tied together with synaesthesia, a condition whose study has been used in evidence of the theory.
“'Ankaris' maybe came about because I'm a big fan of the Antarctic,” he tells us about another of the tracks from his Life and Death EP while we're still talking about inspiration for names. “I see white colour. In all tracks, I see some colour. If you ask me how I see 'Elephants', I would say yellow. If you ask me about 'Requiem', I'd say red and burgundy. If you ask me how 'Gotham' looks, it's blue in colour. All the time I see colours. I have it with all tracks. I don't know if it's a problem or if God blessed me.”
You don't need to be a believer to be moved by the power of Ten Walls' music, something which is now being focused on his live show and label BOSO, so far home to two more Lithuanian artists, Gardens of God and Few Nolder (see box out), and German artist Johannes Brecht. Its name, derived from bosolinija, the Lithuanian word for bassline, similarly casts light on Ten Walls' roots.
“Why is the bassline important?” asks Mario rhetorically. “I finished school with the bassoon. It's a wind instrument. You can play very high of course, like in Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring', but usually you play it like a bass.”
Using the bassline as a melody has so far characterised all of Ten Walls' releases, this link to his past encouraging Mario to start digging out and dusting off the instruments and the skills of his youth. At the end of last year he gave away a free track via his SoundCloud, 'Chains and Shackles', a project that started when Mario decided to record himself singing.
“In the beginning you hear a sound like a train, that was me playing the bassoon. For me, it's like a flashback to all this orchestral stuff. For a long time I was only working in the studio,” he says, running through a list of kit that includes a “Soundcraft 600 built in 1984” alongside a collection of synths, some old Soviet era. “Now, with 'Walking with Elephants', when you hear the strings it's very nice to come back to the days that I spent just with classical music.”
If the releases have been few and far between, it's because Mario has spent his time either flying around the world to play, clocking up around 400 flights in 2014, or locked up in his studio honing both his spectacular live show, which features the original, more stripped down version of 'Walking with Elephants', and his debut album. As it turns out, these aren't one and the same.
“The album I want to be quiet, I want to show my story. Not the same thing you hear live, it's a different story,” he explains, telling us that he currently has 20 or so compositions to choose from. “Some tracks are ambient, some tracks are impressionistic, very classical. It won't make sense live.”
While the release date is pencilled for spring or autumn, what is sure is that it'll be as considered as his previous output, placing quality over quantity. “Sometimes I listen to the track and it's bad,” he says on the process of screening demos for BOSO, feeding this back to prospective artists. “And he says, 'Don't worry, I'll send you the new one that I started just today'. How can you do a track in one day? You need to spend, like we did in the past, three weeks, one month, trying to find your sound.
And now guys do a track in two days? What kind of track is it going to be?”
To this end, Mario says he's employing lots of live instrumentation to bring the Ten Walls sound to life, including multi-award-winning Lithuanian piano player Gintaras Januševièius. “He's an amazing creator,” he enthuses, happy to have someone able to reach and even exceed the heights of his own musical aspirations. “Not just on piano. He can play jazz amazingly, he can play the best classical in Lithuania, but he can also find some expressionistic sounds.”
Amongst the proudest moments so far was the chance to do an Essential Mix in September of last year. Not just an opportunity to highlight BOSO, Mario also used it as an opportunity to showcase some of the tracks that helped inspire him, like Plastikman's hazy 'Consumed', from his 1998 album of the same name, or John Tejada & Justin Maxwell's Aphex-esque 'The Friction of the Day'. It's the intro and outro to the mix, however, taken from the Hans Zimmer composed soundtrack to the Assassin's Creed game series, that sets Mario off on another of his passions.
“First, I love that track, I finished all parts of Assassin's Creed,” he says. “I also thought, all producers like to play games these days and I hadn't heard, checking podcasts and Essential Mixes, anyone using it. Everyone was like, 'Damn, you did it'. You used our favourite track.”
There's no less consideration when we ask him about his favourite games either, this seeming to pip his other passion, Lego Technic — something brought up when talking about the hulking mining machines that dominate the site of Germany's Melt Festival. “That's difficult to say because we need to talk about the style.
It's like saying, 'Which one do you like, beer or wine?' If we talk about arcade games, 2D old school, I would say the number one is Castlevania. I finished, not all of them, but I'm doing that now. If we're talking about shooters, there are many games. Dead Space is amazing, beautiful. If we talk about third-person adventure I would say Assassin's Creed. I don't like sports games, maybe sometimes I play NBA with friends. But I like storylines more.”
Having already scored one Lithuanian film, he's keen to do more — as well as hoping to soundtrack a game too, something that avoids the genre constraints of dancefloor orientated music. “When you do music for a movie or a video game you need to create emotion of character. So you don't care about BPM, about distortion, you just create emotion and mood. This is really interesting.”
It's this power to move people, both internally and externally that characterises Ten Walls' music and is illustrated by his performance from last year's Unknown Festival in Croatia. “I played 'Walking with Elephants' as my last track and there is a breakdown. When it started to play just the strings I went like this...” he explains, crouching down behind the table in front of us. “I looked out and 1000 people were also on the ground. When I play a live show I can play a track for one minute or for 10 minutes. So I started to tease them, when, when...” he mimes, extending the break almost unbearably before the track's triumphant drop. “This was unrepeatable, it was magic and legendary.”
It's something that the UK can soon experience up close and personal. Ten Walls' appearance at January's Bugged Out weekender is followed by UK club shows in February, March and April, as well as an appearance at Field Day on the 6th and 7th of June. There are also plenty of European festivals within easy reach, including DGTL Festival in Amsterdam and Sonar in Barcelona.
As for the immediate future, “I have two or three tracks now which I really believe in, but we're trying to decide which one first,” says Mario. “Not something super dark, but maybe more serious, more monotonic, but still in the Ten Walls style. Maybe one in another style. We're trying to think.”
Whatever does come, it already looks set in stone that Ten Walls has scaled heights that other producers can only gaze up at.