In the lexicon of music journalism, few words are thrown around with as much scorn as ‘derivative’. Implying a lack of imagination and creativity, it stands as a particularly scathing jibe in the world of electronic music – where innovation for its own sake has often been the name of the game for the last twenty years or so. ‘Graceless’, John Barera and Will Martin’s debut long player for Panorama Bar resident Steffi’s Dolly imprint, will score few points for innovation – in fact some people might even chuck the dreaded ‘D Word’ at it. Those people however would be missing the point entirely. Certainly the component parts of each of the record’s eight tracks have more than a little dust on them; from swooning Disco strings to insistent Deep House sub bass, but its the way in which they are put together that makes them really pop – with the resultant collection one of the most breezily enjoyable listens of recent times.
Speaking to the pair from their shared studio cum living space across the pond in Boston over Skype one crisp autumn morning, they personify the easy going charm of their music – despite being up outrageously early by DJ standards. They met nearly three years previously in the city’s tight knit House and Techno scene, when John’s friend Brennan Wesley put him onto, “this young, upcoming talented DJ called Will Martin”. As the co-owner of Supply Records and with a few years worth of Discogs entries to his name, John is – in relative terms, the more experienced member of the partnership, not that he’s entirely comfortable with making that distinction. “What people don’t realise about Will is that he’s a really dope producer”, he says in defense, going on to add – with tongue firmly in cheek, that theirs is a fully democratic partnership. “Its like ‘Lennon and McCartney: Written and Produced”, he laughs.
Musically, they come from a shared perspective of appreciating House and Techno but listening to pretty much anything and everything outside of those two genres. Asked about his inspirations, John tilts his webcam to the right and sets it on a shelf stacked with records. “On the top shelf are the ‘hall of fame’ records for me: J Dilla, Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk, D’Angelo, Gil Scott-Heron, Funkadelic, John Coltrane, Prince, Dopplereffekt. Those are like my heroes”. Will for his part offers up jazz legends Pharoah Sanders and Eddie Russ as inspirations. When they do listen to or play electronic music, they tend to draw for producers, “who know how to play their asses off”. Summing up this shared focus, Will explains, “…we like musicality and songs that are musical, not just like tracky with the same thing for six minutes.”
That philosophy can be heard all across the record, with John’s “background in writing songs” meaning that the tracks go beyond repetition and into an “A B A, breakdown, coda” structure that sets them apart from the crowd. The likes of ‘Afterthought’ and ‘In Passing’ career about with the abandon and excitement of a live jam – whilst managing to carefully walk the tight rope between spontaneity and indulgence with aplomb. Despite the ease and (ironically) grace of the album, its clear from talking to John and Will that this was the result of a lot of careful deliberation. Recorded in a seven month period at their home studio, there were plenty of times when living and working in the same shared space erred towards exasperating. “We almost lost our minds making this”, John exclaims before they both laugh and he adds, “…towards the end of the album we were both going crazy, not because we don’t get along or because we don’t trust each other but because we were doing a tremendous amount of work every day. We had a deadline.”
With ‘Graceless’ the first full length for either artist, they were motivated by an eagerness to deliver a strong musical statement – but also by a strong respect for their label boss Steffi. After her and a couple of the Panorama Bar residents charted tracks of John’s, the two had a chance meeting at famed record store Hard Wax in Berlin. This led into John and Will’s track ‘Reality’ being featured on the Dutch producer’s ‘Panorama Bar 05’ last year, with that track going on to be regarded as the highlight of the mix by many critics and fans. Everyone stayed in touch, with Steffi later booked to play at one of John and Will’s friends parties in Boston. There John offhandedly remarked that him and Will should put together an album for Dolly, something Steffi was immediately interested in.
Although Steffi and her label’s association with ‘Graceless’ will help mean John and Will are booked up all round Europe’s most esteemed underground clubs, the pair’s enthusiasm for going on tour is tempered by a desire to represent and continuing growing their local scene in Boston. Never afforded the same importance as its midwestern neighbors Detroit and Chicago, it still seems that John and Will are just the latest examples of a growing community. Disco edit king DJ Kon and vinyl loving mischeif makers Soul Clap are two of the most famous names to hail from Beantown, but as well as these John and Will make sure to shout out their friends Ali Berger, Anton M, Bob Diesel and Audio Prophecy amongst many others as ones to watch. They’re keen to praise the hardworking DIY nature of the scene in Boston – a town where there aren’t “a lot of top tier, professional clubs” – a less than ideal situation that’s put a glass celing on Boston night life and meant the likes of Motor City Techno luminaries such as Derrick May and Jeff Mills have rather incredulously never played there before.
However, where there’s a will there is most definitely a way, and the calibre of artists visiting and coming out of Boston looks to be higher than ever before – something which will no doubt only be helped by John and Will. Their fantastic debut aside, they’re also in the process of fine tuning a live set to debut at Chicago’s Smart Bar towards the end of the year. They’re characteristically modest about their hopes for it, but with a carefully chosen arsenal of hardware set to be used with the same carefree approach to playing as can be found on ‘Graceless’, they’re sure to make an engaging proposition as a live act.
Its only as the interview draws to a close that the easy-going pair become rather more serious in tone. Asking for the meaning behind the record’s title – John explains, “…its about getting treated like shit by a lot of people around me coming up as a DJ. I’ve been working in the music business for a while and this shit can be really fucking rugged. I’m just doing my thing and I’m fucking broke as shit along the way and its not easy and I’m encountering these people along the way who are Graceless and I just wanna be Graceful.” This moment of rather profound reflection is only a fleeting one, as normal cheery service is soon resumed – and rightly so. Listening to their stunning debut you feel the formerly hard done by pair have very much had the last laugh.
‘Graceless’ is out now on vinyl via Dolly. Buy it here.