Following on from the release of his incredible new record, 'Music for the Moon Room Gecko', we caught up with Tristan Jong to discuss all things Gratts, from the moniker's birth through to the dynamics of DJing, his move to Australia and how he crafts his spell binding take on house music.....
It's amazing what can be achieved when you spread yourself out far and wide, in search of excellence through rhythm and melody, and for Tristan Jong his career has been an exercise in exploring into the furthest reaches of Dance Music. A DJ for the better part of 20 years, Jong has always worn his heart on his sleeve with everything he looks to accomplish, be it as the head of the Ensemble, Cashminus Music or Una Vida Del Barrio imprints, or running the Consulate Record shop in Berlin, through to crafting supreme house and leftfield cuts under a number of monikers. Gratts is perhaps his most enduring creation, the name which began it all and that has seen Jong DJ all over, bringing his eclectic excellence to many a floor. The Pandemic changed everything for everyone, and for Jong it provided some time to sit down and focus on material that had been moving around for a while, and this new phase saw the birth in 2021 of 'Brighter Future', a collab with the iconic vocalist Robert Owens. Written within a dire global context, 'Brighter Future' points, quite simply, to sunnier, social times where loved ones, friends and strangers can be at one once more, and for us it remains the house anthem of last year.
Keen to continue the success of that slice o'wax, Gratts was busy this year pulling together the tracks that would make up the 'Music for the Moon Room Gecko', a record inspired by a room in his home in Australia which often has a wee gecko come visit. Outside from the highly inspired name, its a record that shares a very similar DNA with 'Brighter Future', with exquisite vocals laid over undulating polyrhythms and enchanting melodic structures. A all star cast is recruited on remix duties, and this allows for everything to come together superbly. In light of his new release, we sent over some questions to Tristan in order to learn a little bit more about everything Gratts, the art of DJing, the origins of his sound, why House is more a 'context' than a genre, and his wonderful new record....
Hello! Hope things are well with you. How is Australia treating you?
Very well indeed, it’s been lovely down under. We got here in late January after 8 years in Berlin and are finally getting more or less installed. I was just overseas for a wee Euro stint last month, taking care of our apartment, studio and the record shop The Consulate in Berlin. As well as playing a few gigs here and there! Special mention to Heideglühen in Berlin which was an absolute belter and to my gig with the Inner Balance family in Lisbon. I’ve been back in Aussie now for the last few weeks, reunited with my family, dj’ing and working on some music.
First things first, you have been using the Gratts name for a good while now - what does the name mean to you? Has its significance changed over time, even as you released music under other names?
Gratts is my main guise. Some of my oldest friends back in Belgium even call me by that name. I started playing house under it more than 20 years ago. I still love the music as much as when I first fell in love with it. I was recently reading an interview with Mr. Louie Vega and I thought he summed it up rather well: "What keeps it fresh is there are really no limits to what you can do within house music. There's uptempo, mid-tempo, downtempo, so the BPMs can vary, then you have so many styles whether jazz, Brazilian, African, soul, R&B, gospel, soulful house, techno and dub-driven tracks. It's experimental freedom. There is so much you can do with house, it never gets boring for me."
To me, house music is a context more than a genre. That’s what it was like when it first came up: a bunch of different things that made sense together… whether disco, boogie, European electronic music, African drums or whatever fit the vibe. That’s also what I like to bring across as a dj.
Considering Gratts has been your primary channel for mixing records, how would you say your DJing has evolved over time? And if so, has it informed the way you approach producing music?
I would hope that my selections would have become increasingly coherent and meaningful. I believe dj'ing is one of those things where experience is one of the most important factors at play. A good dj should be a musical encyclopedia, with a strong vision. As far as how I’ve personally evolved, my own musical library has obviously grown over the years. (And I’m still as hungry for music as ever. In only three months’ time, I fished about 80 records out of dollar bins down under.) I still put my time in, do my homework. While dj’ing, I’m always looking for ways to connect dots - I love to make certain records work together, contradict each other, draw off each other, to create a dynamic, a storyline. And it’s also about having balls and doing what you believe in, sometimes.
I've been lucky enough to be dj'ing regularly in Australia these last few months which has been great. I'm a pretty restrained dj nowadays in the sense that I like to let the music do the talking most of the time, though I do enjoy taking things up a notch when the time is right :) As of music production... I'm not a very technical producer and I’m very result driven (due to a lack of time for endless noodling). Ian Pooley once gave my partner Emma this great piece of advice: “be more radical”. I’ve always remembered that. No need to spend two hours on a hi-hat. The main idea behind my output is that it’s music that I'd enjoy playing out... Whether house, more discoey things, deeper stuff or more balearic leanings.
What encouraged you to begin producing under the Gratts name? Did it just feel like the time was right?
The pandemic allowed me to finally spend some time working on solo stuff. Making music takes (lots of) time, which I had never had, until life slowed right down - we were stuck in Adelaide with no flights back home to Berlin early 2020, no gigs to play. I could finally sit down and work on some ideas.
With some of the music I released under different guises before, people weren’t always aware I was behind them, and that was fine - I was honing my skills, trying things out. Now I do look forward to releasing more Gratts bits in the near future and start building a discography of my own.
Your Gratts’ debut, ‘Brighter Future’, which featured Robert Owens on vocals, was quite the statement - tell us a little bit about the key elements which came together and inspired the making of this record....
I lay down the bare basics of the track at my in-law’s kitchen table. Robert and I first met in the streets of Kreuzberg back in 2015 and became friends, but I had never sent him any music - nor had I really been working on anything then. Early 2020 I was finally back to writing stuff. I was chatting to him one day and sent a few things over. He was very supportive straight away and liked what he heard. That’s how the collab came about. The track title was already there - I wanted it to be a track with a positive message in the good house music tradition. Working with Robert has been a lovely experience. We have a second record in the works actually, more about that later. First a fair few other Gratts records should see the light of day :)
Is the style you conjured up on the debut something you saw as a long term basis for the Gratts sound?
More or less, although it is always evolving. “Brighter Future” is quite raw and I still stand behind it, but my upcoming records are a bit more organic and musical - perhaps less dancefloor oriented. Pretty mellow stuff, really. I must be getting old :) These days if my mum likes a tune, I find it a pretty good indicator. But whatever the music sounds like: it has to be raw, real and convey emotions.
Let's move on to your new record, the stunning ‘Music for the Moon Room Gecko’. First off, what inspired the name for this record?
The record was named after the “Moon Room” in our house in South Brighton near Adelaide, which is shown on the artwork. It’s got lovely big windows and it’s where I often hang with my sons, where we listen to music. When it gets dark outside (it’s winter in Australia) it’s a great spot to gaze at the moon. And the gecko… he’s a visitor. There you have it.
The music, like with your debut, was written in Australia. Did the context help influence the music being made on both records?
I do think that things like your personal state, the place you’re in and the way you feel always influence what comes out. It’s all quite autobiographical - there is no other way.
Breaking things down to a track by track basis, let's begin with the opener ‘Euphoria’, which features the beautiful vocals of Brian Ruiz. The vibe is certainly leaning towards that dreamy 90s slow burner Garage House sound - tell us a little bit about what moved you towards this kind of style, which is very much akin to your first release...
I wrote the first incarnation of “Euphoria” around the same time “Brighter Future” came about. As so often, the first demo had my own vocals on it (rest assured, no one will ever get to hear them). I was looking for a distinct soulful voice and found it in Adelaide’s Brian Ruiz. One afternoon, I drove down to his house in the hills, we recorded a couple of takes and that was that! The result was surprisingly close to how I had the vocals in my head.
At the time, I had Groove Armada’s 2001 “Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub)” album on repeat in the car, driving through the hills, by the sea. When the LP first came out, I used to play the shit out of the “Superstylin” 12inch. I think music that you’re exposed to when you’re in your teenage years always has a lasting influence on people. Revisiting the album, I felt like it stood the test of time rather well and influenced what I wanted to release. These days I chat to Tom from Groove Armada from time to time and it’s very cool that he’s been supporting my music.
Brian and I actually went live on the radio in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago to talk about the record in Sam Walker’s long running “Raw Like Sushi” show on Three D Radio. If you’d be interested in hearing a bit more about it, check it out here:
Méditation Nocturne’ comes next, and this one moves things into deeply melodic territories, with swirling chordal sweeps and a more driving rhythm section. It contrasts so well with the opening track - so tell us a little bit about what inspired this track and its marvelous tone and feel...
“Méditation Nocturne” is French for “nocturnal meditation” and that’s basically what it was - an exercise in creating a minimal, meditative piece. While “Euphoria” was dreamed up for sunny rides, this one was made for night drives. My friend Paul Jextra was of great value with his help on the mixdown. A certain Mr. Garnier had very kind words to say about this track - maybe cause the title’s in French?
Moving onwards, we have two wonderful remixes to get through, the first of which is PJ Principle’s disco orientated take on the opener. The contrast to the original is brilliantly handled, and at its length keeps things going on strong for ages. Tell us a little bit about why you asked PJ to do the remix, and how you felt it turned out...
The DIY collective out of Nottingham had always been a huge influence on me musically, particularly on my dj’ing. Their dj-sets are legendary. I also have quite some records on the DiY Discs / Strictly 4 Groovers label in my collection. I always like to link past and present, so I decided to ask DiY Discs regular Peej for a rework - this was back in 2020. Luckily he said yes, and he absolutely nailed it! It’s a true extended 12inch disco version that I probably like more than my original. My sons love it, too. His take is so good, in fact, that we created a radio edit of it that was pushed forward as the EP’s single. It’s been getting some radio play here and there which is nice indeed.
If you are interested in the DiY collective, it’s worth mentioning the book “Dreaming In Yellow” which came out recently ((https://velocitypress.uk/product/dreaming-in-yellow-book/) that looks back on the origins of the crew, their free outdoor raves and adventures.
Finally, there’s a remix from the always excellent Jenifa Mayanja, who takes the wondrous tones of ‘Méditation Nocturne’ and puts her own amazing take on things. As before, tell us a little bit about why you asked Jenifa to do the remix and how you felt it turned out...
I love how Jenifa does things her own way and continues to explore the deeper shades of house music. She also balances a life between music and raising kids which created an understanding straight away. I adore her version.
Overall, the balance found in this record is harmonious between a number of styles. Is this something you looked to achieve when you started work on it, to get that completeness in sound and style?
I feel like I hit the jackpot with the remixes. PJ’s mix is straight up disco whereas Jenifa steers things into almost Perlon territory… I could imagine her remix sounding great on a dancefloor like Berlin’s CDV, for instance. The EP’s definitely a mixed bag but it’s nice to showcase different things that you might hear in my dj-sets.
Finally, to wrap things up, how do you feel this record will help inspire future releases? Because all we see is good things to keep coming out from Gratts....
There are about three or four records ready, but as you probably know, releasing vinyl takes a minute… But since I still mainly play wax, it’s worth the wait for me :) I look forward to sharing some more new sounds with you soon - watch this space!
We would like to thank Tristan for his wonderful answers. You can listen to and purchase 'Music for the Moon Room Gecko' here, on the Flexi Cuts Bandcamp page:
Keep an eye on the Gratts' Insta page for up coming DJ slots, both in Europe and in Australia!