Photo by Raymond van Mil
The rise – and rise – of Detroit Swindle has shocked none more than flying Dutchmen Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets themselves. Barely three years in, and they've gone from a debut EP on Huxley's Saints and Sonnets — only the imprint's second release — to touring Asia and launching their own label, stuff many producers might take twice or three times as long to achieve.
And it was mostly thanks to an intervention. Otherwise, they might still be procrastinating over whether what they were making was actually good enough to let anyone hear.
“We didn't think the tracks were ready,” says Maarten. “But a friend of ours did. He knew Huxley and sent them to him without us knowing. We got a message from him out of the blue, saying he really wanted the tracks on his label.
We were like, 'Erm, how did you hear these tracks?!' We quickly found out what had happened. We discussed whether we should sign the tracks for a while, because we took it seriously straight away. We thought, 'Well if they think the tracks are ready, then they're probably ready'.”
The EP focused on 'Wrap Around', a pulsing garage jam which they, self-critically, now see the flaws in. “This was the first music we'd ever made, apart from a few edits. So for us it was a big deal,” says Lars. “Maybe if we'd have worked on the track longer, it might not have been as good.
As it is, it's quite a harsh record, very harshly mixed. The bassline is super-loud and the kick is way too loud for any trained ear. But because of that, it hit the spot for a lot of people. People would ask us early on, 'Oh, what hardware do you use?' to get this gritty sound.
But it was mainly just samples, plug-ins and bad mixing!”
Adds Maarten: “I think all the imperfections are a large part of what people like about our music. Still we say to each other that it's the mistakes and imperfections which give a track life.”
But a bit of faith from Huxley, and also the buzz around him as an artist at the time, persuaded them now was the time to take the plunge. Luckily, they had more music that was ready to go too, something that has clearly also contributed to their somewhat meteoric trajectory. In the space of barely six months, they released another four sterlingly good EPs for the likes of Dirt Crew and Murmur.
Before all this, Maarten was working as an advertising copywriter for major brands, and Lars was a jobbing — but “fed up” — DJ and promoter around Amsterdam.
Maarten had been a promoter some years before too, throwing parties with an Israeli friend under the name Electronation, featuring the likes of Dixon and Tobi Neumann. They were “interesting... and rough” years, he says, peppered with both success and failure.
They brought over a new act called Hot Chip for one of their first-ever gigs outside the UK, in Utrecht. 50 people showed up, and they ended up losing their shirts. But there were good times too, hosting tents packed with 10,000 ravers at some of Holland's biggest festivals. But ultimately, it wasn't for him.
Lars also promoted parties, but had started to consider it a “rat race”.
“Something just didn't feel right,” he says. To make sure bills were getting paid, he'd find himself having to play commercial club music to posh crowds in Amsterdam. “My musician's heart was bleeding a bit.
I made the choice, and said, 'Fuck it, I'm going to make music for two years and if it doesn't work out, I was a cook before, so I can always go back to cooking', which I love. Or go back to DJing. Happily, it worked out.”
They had met some years before, while Lars was DJing with an organisation called Girls Love DJs and Maarten was promoting Electronation, and both were programming music at the same club in Amsterdam. Years later, they crossed paths, while Maarten was doing a
little DJing on the side at a club Lars was overseeing the music for. But the night was going badly. “He was playing way too serious music for the venue. It was a gay club,” says Lars. “I either had to fire him or just talk to him about what he was playing.
“The conversation went, 'Start playing something more commercial or stop playing here',” says Maarten. “So I said 'fuck it', I don't like the commercial music. But then we got talking about the music I was playing.” They realised that they both loved the music of Detroit
(hence the name). Not house and techno, however, but the hip-hop, soul and classic R&B of the Motor City. Soon enough, they'd decided to start making music together. The only problem was that neither had any experience whatsoever in either writing or making music. But they knew that the music in the Amsterdam club scene had gone very serious,
dominated by heads-down, dark, tech house. They wanted music for the “funky people”, and thought “why not make it ourselves”?
“Fun was the starting point,” says Maarten.
“We get into a studio, drink some beers and see what came out. We had an ultimate goal, and it was to release one record. And preferably on an amazing label. We thought of Freerange. That was the target. We didn't plan on reaching that target within a year of starting.”
Confident they were on the right track after 'The Wrap Around' and the 'Guess What EP' on Dirt Crew, they took the plunge and emailed their track 'Creep', all jarring Detroit synths, to Jimpster at Freerange.
He loved it, and asked them for two more tracks to make up an EP. “We're still deciding what our next target is,” jokes Maarten. Lars adds: “It's like when you're a kid. You want that new bike. And you'll get it if you're doing your chores”.
More releases came on Tsuba, then further tracks on Freerange and Dirt Crew, through which they released their first album, 'Boxed Out', scarcely two years after their first single. Their second live set, after just six months together, was at Berlin's feted Panorama Bar.
They toured the US too, hitting Detroit among those first dates. Some have failed to see the tongue-in-cheek nature of their name, assuming some kind of co-opting of the city's reputation. Not in Detroit, however. “The guys that booked us gave us a demo. It said on it
'tracks actually made in Detroit', with a smiley face,” says Lars. “Of course there are people who don't understand it, think we're hitch-hiking on the whole Detroit legacy. Which is obviously not at all what we intended.”
Such was the rapid ascent, they hit a bump in the road last year when things got too busy and it had stopped being fun. “It was the secondary work,” says Lars. “The financial work, doing mixes, social media stuff. A lot of things were happening at the same time.”
“We've learned after three years how to say no a bit more often,” says Maarten. “Before we just said 'Yes! We're gonna do this! It'll be amazing!' to everything. Who knows how we managed to hit deadlines and keep everyone happy? It cost us all our sleep and free time. We were just working non-stop.” Since then, they've employed a manager,
and clawed back both their sanity and their sense of this whole thing being fun, as it should be.
They've now gigged in Japan, through Asia, South Africa and Australia, and played alongside heroes like Kerri Chandler, Todd Terry, DJ Sneak and Tyree Cooper. Their label Heist is now consolidating the crew that is growing around them, the likes of wunderkind Max Graef, Fouk and Nachtbraker. “It's your baby, and it's a different beast,” says Lars
of the label. “It's really fun to do.” Things are going well, though that's something of an understatement. And there's that word again, 'fun'. Keeping things fun seems to have served them well thus far.
“It's quite a selfish thing, in a way,” he adds.
“We're doing this to make ourselves happy. In the process, luckily, we're making other people happy with it. We're the luckiest guys on earth.”
Catch Detroit Swindle at DJ Mag Sessions Present The Great Escape with Seven Davis Jnr live and Glenn Astro on 25th July at EGG LDN...