WHP FEATURE 027
MANO LE TOUGH
MANO LE TOUGH
Recent years have seen huge swathes of the house and techno scene succumb to nostalgia for the golden age of dance. The names of Chicago, New York and Detroit have become talismanic, a one-size-fits-all shorthand for that long lost time when dance music was young, samplers were new, and authenticity was a given. As today’s producers emulate the house and techno of the early 90s – even layering fake hiss over their drum patterns to try and capture the grainy hype of those primordial jams – they’re often missing one crucial thing. Almost all the producers from ‘back in the day’ were bound together by one driving urge; the desire to sound like nothing that had been heard under the sun, the desire to sound like the future. And you can’t sound like the future if you’re trying to write a record that sounds like it was made 25 years ago. Mano Le Tough, on the other hand, has no such problem. As he quickly points out, he wants to sound like the future and nothing else.
“I want to be at the vanguard of what’s new or exciting.” Mano – Niall Mannion to his mum - is speaking from his studio in the Swiss countryside, a relaxed cubbyhole he stays in during the week that offers stark contrast to the clubs and warehouses he finds himself inhabiting almost every weekend.
“The thing I like about electronic music, house music, techno, whatever, is that it’s progressing all the time. Y’know, when you’re a DJ and you’re kind of successful at it you should feel like you’re at the vanguard of where things are going. That’s maybe why I’m not so into playing new versions of classic house or techno stuff- there’s nothing wrong with it, but I’m not really a revivalist. I see this music as futuristic. Electronic music gives you a great freedom to look to the future, and to be able to develop. Obviously a 909 is still a 909, and an 808 is still an 808, and the music has a framework of what works in the club, and what people want to dance to, but I always hope I’m spreading my wings a little bit in what I play and where it’s going.”
Mano is a friendly, unaffected interviewee. Whilst he may self-deprecatingly refer to himself as ‘kind of successful’, his loyal fanbase have voted him into the Top 20 of Resident Advisor’s worldwide DJ poll for three years running. And when he talks about ‘hoping to spread his wings’, a cursory listen to his recent Essential Mix shows you exactly what he means. Mano’s sound is built from meticulously crafted journey-sets that take the familiar and twist it down weird new paths. Steeped in melody, his track selections lock together, evolving with a dynamic that reveals itself over time; glistening riffs emerge from gloomy tunnels, rhythms switch between strident 4/4 kicks and glitchy electro breaks, and passages of space-age euphoria slowly blossom into cinematic vistas. The one common theme is his penchant for tracks built from mutated palettes, where well-worn chord sequences take on alien textures. With this in mind, it’s little surprise that he’s an enthusiastic advocate for the leaps in sonic manipulation being enabled by the rush of new synths and more powerful computers. And as he ruminates on dance music’s continued evolution, he starts to consider that we may be living in something of a new golden age;
“There have never been more small companies,” he starts, “making instruments that are geared towards independent electronic musicians. Just look at all the modular synths that are being made now, or the way computers can be used compared to ten years ago. In the ‘80s and ‘90s electronic music was moving forward because Roland and a few other boxes made some boxes that were relatively affordable, but there was still nowhere near the democratisation there is now. You see new products coming out almost weekly for electronic musicians – it’s never been like that before. I think it’s never been healthier than now, even the creativity of people making music with machines has really changed..!”
Mentioning Roland throws up an interesting idea – if Roland’s magical synths and drum machines are amongst the most iconic production tools of the 90s, what are their simliarly era-defining counterpoints today?
“Well, most people are making music on their computer,” Mano responds “You can do stuff with Ableton Live or Logic that you could never do before. When people look back in twenty years, they’ll see how that’s changed production so much- it’s even changed it over the time I’ve been making music. So that’s what going to define this era; it’s not one synthesiser or drum machine, its computers. You’re just limited by your imagination. Before an 808 made a sound like an 808 – now when someone has a great idea they can just express it in a way that has never been possible before. Computers are the most amazing, enabling things.”
For a DJ and producer so enamoured with technology, it could be seen as something of a surprise that Mano has often filled his own productions with that most human of elements – his own singing. When asked about this contrast, he’s almost more baffled by the idea that he wouldn’t sing, instead considering it the most natural thing to do,
“I just express myself.” He says, simply. “I’m inspired by the stuff that I’ve experienced and been around. I’ve always written stuff down since I was a teenager, so it’s a natural part of the process for me. When I’m making music I sometimes just start singing stuff because that just feels like the element I want to put in the tune. And maybe I’m too lazy to collaborate with other people or to ask them to sing.”
He then switches back into the self-deprecation, laughing that “a lot of the singing’s crap… It’s getting better now because I’m a bit more experienced in the studio and know what I’m doing more. That was something I was really unsure of when I started. You never really know what will happen, you just write stuff and put it out. In terms of the content, it felt weird that people latched onto the Primitive People lyric. People’s reactions can be completely unexpected.”
The number of truly great house and techno lyricists can probably be counted on one hand – two if you’re feeling generous. Lyrically, Mano’s inspiration comes from elsewhere, from the rock balladeers he listened to growing up in Ireland, the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the recently departed Leonard Cohen, and, as he reveals, from growing up in the lyrical culture of Ireland itself.
“The Irish are poets and writers - everyone’s a songwriter in Ireland… The stuff I was really massively influenced by when I was growing up was James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, the poems you learn in school. Even the way Irish people talk; my friends are always telling stories all the time. That exposure to stories all the time is something that gives you a certain lyrical thing which was of huge importance – it’s a massive reason for why it feels natural to write songs. You go to the pub, one person tells a story, then then next, it leads onto another, people are telling stories constantly, its something that’s part of the culture. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story..!”
Out in his fairly remote Swiss chalet, you might thing Mano would miss the banter that’s been so integral to his sound – but apparently not. After dealing with the solitary transience of touring alone when he was first making his name, his profile has now got to a point where he travels with a team of Irish friends –and as he’s DJing almost every weekend, he’s hanging with them almost every weekend. This solves the loneliness problem, but a non-stop tour schedule has a whole load of pitfalls of its own, something numerous shell-shocked and over-toured DJs can testify. Mano reckons he’s seen the darker side, but has got it under control.
“Yeah, the first couple of years you go out and think you’re invincible, you just go out more and more. In the last year or two I’ve got better at managing it, I think I’ve struck a good balance of doing quite a lot, but not doing so much I got pissed off with it or depressed. I think I’m in a pretty good rhythm, so I want to keep that going as long as possible. I really enjoy it.”
And why would he not? As well as having a series of releases lined up for his own Maeve label (both from himself and “a lot of other artists we’re really excited about”), he has made enough new productions to be talking about working towards a new album. And above it all, this DJ who is striving to keep dance moving forward is remains constantly excited by the new sounds dropping into his inbox.
“There’s just so much good music at the moment, I switch up my set all the time, every day pretty much.” He pauses to consider his role.
“That’s what I love about DJing, that it’s new every time. If you’re in a band you’re playing the same tunes all the time, maybe for years, but DJing you’re channelling the whole culture, the whole music scene you’re involved in. It’s not just you saying ‘here’s what I’m doing’, you’re channelling everything around you. You’re part of an organism, you’re just one facet of it. I love it.”