Purple Disco Machine: Soul Deep

By  | 

Amsterdam, The Netherlands – I’m running a tiny bit late for the pre-arranged 4 p.m. interview with Tino Piontek –  the German DJ/producer professionally known as Purple Disco Machine – when I quite randomly run into a small cadre of American pals.

The cell phone rings. It’s Piontek. “I think I’m just a block away,” I tell him, as I simultaneously pantomime hellos to the wide-eyed trio, genuinely surprised at the social collision. Nonetheless, I make all-too-quick pleasantries and rush off because I’ve learned that it’s rarely a good idea to keep a German waiting. And as it’s Amsterdam Dance Event week, I’m reminded of a cultural difference I’ve noticed between the Germans and the Dutch: Though both are fanatically opposed to tardiness, it’s only the Dutch who tend to have a sense of humor about it.

Luckily, Piontek is fairly chill when I arrive in the hotel lobby about 90 seconds later. Despite the full day of press, he seems to brighten quickly when we begin to discuss old-school music, his artistic process, his Dresden roots, and especially when I offer some genuine appreciation for his work. “I can tell if I’m going to like [one of your tracks],” I say, “within the first five seconds because the groove is usually so strong.”

And it’s true, if you spin through Piontek’s prolific artistic career – he began making music as Purple Disco Machine in 2009 – his attention to detail remains impressive. No matter if it’s a bottom-heavy remix for a top act like Gorillaz or Jamiroquai, a sampled-up groover like “I House You,” or a sleek collab like “Set It Out” (with Boris Dlugosch), Piontek’s mega-rhythmic tracks grab you right away, not unlike the irresistible hits from the touchstone acts that initially influenced him. James Brown, Giorgio Moroder, P-Funk, Salsoul Orchestra, The Gap Band, Black Box, Daft Punk… it’s all there.

For many, PDM’s gospely groover, “My House,” put Piontek on the global-clubland map. And since its 2013 breakout, it has become an evergreen cut for the soul-loving Defected/Glitterbox crowd because it delivers a supple soul-and-groove combo, mixed with modern clubland precision. Of course, he followed up with plenty of dancefloor winners and began to travel the world as a much-in-demand DJ.

Just after our Amsterdam conversation in late October, Purple Disco Machine released Soulmatic, his full-length artist debut on Australian indie imprint Sweat It Out! As one would expect, it’s loaded with PDM’s trademark Deep Funk sound and it’s peppered with juicy collabs and features with Dlugosch, Lorenz Rhode, Kool Keith, Karen Harding, CeeLo Green and more.

At its best, Soulmatic drops plenty of hip-shaking grooves, like the commanding “Body Funk,” the sweeping “Love for Days” (with Dlugosch and Harding) and deeper, Italo-house-leaning title track. Also, “Devil in Me,” which is essentially a reprise of “My House” featuring Joe Killington and Duane Harden—slays as hard as anything on the album. Vaguely ethereal, yet insistently funky, “Devil in Me” is an earworm that’ll haunt you for months.

For anyone who grew up listening to much of the funk and disco records that also inspired the 36-year-old Piontek, it’s hard not to be impressed with his output and his ability to take those original sounds, then tweak and translate them to current club and festival audiences. But when you hear him recite those influences – whopping funk, Italo-disco, shiny pop, French house – with such reverence and, perhaps more crucially, when you realize the difficulties he found in getting that music on his side of the Berlin Wall, it all makes much more sense. Here’s Tino Piontek, aka Purple Disco Machine:

DJ Times: I read that your father had a big impact on your early musical influences.

Piontek: My parents, in general, really. My mother was a music teacher, but my father was collecting a lot of vinyl records back in the day. Coming from East Germany, it wasn’t easy to get these vinyls. Most of these artists were banned by the government—it was pretty difficult to get good vinyls from good artists like Queen or Genesis. But he spent all this money and drove to Hungary to buy these kind of vinyls on the black market and bring them back home.

DJ Times: Sounds like he made some great efforts.

Piontek: That’s why I grew up with good music and a good vinyl collection. For me, it was a start and we were always listening to music, not so much listening to radio at the time. My father took me to concerts by people like Phil Collins and Moby when I was 13, 14, 15.

DJ Times: Over the years, we’ve interviewed several DJs who grew up in East Germany – people like Paul van Dyk and the Modeselektor guys – and they all told me that because it was so difficult to get music, it made them appreciate it even more. True?

Piontek: That’s true. Now you can get anything anywhere anytime. I was born in 1980. I was less than 10 when the Berlin Wall came down, so I’m too young to realize how hard it was to get good music. But my father told me these stories about going to buy music in Hungary, and sometimes he’d be stopped at the border and he’d lose all of his vinyls – and money. Sometimes he had luck [with the border guards], sometimes he didn’t. It was always a gamble.

DJ Times: What were the first tracks that made you want to create super-funky music?

Piontek: I started with Italo-disco. I was a really big fan of really cheesy Italo-disco. Even in Germany, we had a lot of good guys, like Giorgio Moroder, but also Patrick Cowley. Moroder was in Munich and started his career there. So that was my start, but then I got more and more into this old funk and disco, this kind of weird disco music I could get at that time. A friend of my father was a DJ playing this old disco stuff and he burned me a CD of his favorite disco songs. That was my first experience with disco music.

DJ Times: Did Dresden have a music scene?

Piontek: Dresden is not a city well-known for music, but back in the day we had a little scene. I had to wait until I was 18 to go to the clubs – I looked much younger, so that’s why I had to wait until I was 18 to get into the clubs. We had a really cool club called German Club – it was just for house music. It felt a bit like Studio 54…

DJ Times: Was it fancy?

Piontek: Really fancy with a lot of mirror balls, dancers, dressed-up people. But they booked these house guys, like Terrence Parker and the older-generation guys like Joey Negro. So, this was the first time I had this experience in my hometown with this type of music. Before that, I went to these illegal techno parties, but it was not my cup of tea, to be honest. I had a lot of friends who liked that music and that’s why I went to these techno parties, but then I found this German Club. Mostly, I went alone to this club because none of my friends were listening to this music. But I was this kind of nerd, standing in the corner, writing down every song…

DJ Times: But that’s the story of many successful DJs…

Piontek: Just being focused on the DJ, I think it was a bit nerdy. But in the end, it worked out. [laughs]

DJ Times: How did you begin DJing?

Piontek: I started DJing at this school. I had two friends who were interested in music and we started collecting CDs. We saved some money and bought some turntables. Then we did some high-school parties. Those were my first gigs in front of an audience.

DJ Times: What were you playing?

Piontek: It was a little bit of everything. It was house music – and this was at the end of the ’90s, beginning of 2000s, so it was the French-house, the disco-house…

DJ Times: Daft Punk, Cassius…

Piontek: Right, Daft Punk and that kind of thing. And I realized this music for the first time. I had the Homework album from Daft Punk – a friend had brought it to me. It was totally different from what I’d heard before. I was so inspired from it, from the art of sampling and everything. All of that music – Daft Punk, Cassius, Étienne de Crécy – that’s what we were playing.

DJ Times: I’m always taken by how funky your grooves are. On a lot of your tracks, I can tell if I’m going to like it within the first five seconds because the groove is usually so strong. How do you manage to make it all so authentic?

Piontek: Of course, my influences are from the old funk and disco generation…

DJ Times: Parliament, James Brown…

Piontek: Yeah, yeah, this kind of sound with the real, organic drums. So, for me, it’s really important that my harmonies and drums are really organic and warm, and not synthetic. All the shakers and percussions I record on my own. It’s not always “on time,” but it feels more real. The groove is the most important thing for me. Usually, when I start producing I start with an 8- to 16-bar loop, then I start jamming. But a strong groove is the most important thing to start with.

DJ Times: And that seems to me to be your strength. The groove is always there.

Piontek: That’s what you said… if you have a good groove, it gets you in seconds. Then you’re in a good mood, a positive mood to make music and then you can start playing with basslines or with chords or stuff like this, but the groove is necessary.

DJ Times: What other instruments do you play?

Piontek: I play a little piano, I can play some guitar riffs, but I can’t read notes. I never went to music school. I was just learning by myself over the years, so I think that’s why my harmonies sound a bit more simple. But for me, I think it’s an important thing to keep it simple, being direct and focused on one element.

DJ Times: What’s your studio evolution?

Piontek: I started in 1996-97. I bought one of the first versions of Steinberg Cubase and then the Korg Electribe series, but it took me a while to figure out how it all works, especially with Cubase, which wasn’t easy. I was disappointed to learn how long it took to make a track. I had a lot of ideas in mind. I started with sampling all the disco and funk songs, like with the French-house sounds. Then I moved into drums, but it took me awhile to work with Cubase. But I’m still working with Cubase and Steinberg for 20 years now…

DJ Times: Do you have some hardware? Or is it all in the box?

Piontek: I think it’s both. I have a few synthesizers. I have the [Dave Smith Instruments] OB-6. I have the [Roland] Juno 106. I have some old [Roland] TB-303 and [Roland] Jupiter 8. For me, it’s cool to play around with the knobs, instead of doing everything with the mouse – for me to be more creative. It’s better.

DJ Times: Let’s get into your process. How do you collaborate?

Piontek: This depends on the other guy, my collaborator. Usually, I’m a bit nerdy. Back in the days, I never met anyone that I could really get it together with – back then, it was really difficult for me to work with other guys. I couldn’t be creative if other guys were waiting, sitting next to me, so…

DJ Times: Tapping their feet…

Piontek: Yeah, and saying, “Yeah, that’s OK, but what’s next?” But in the last few years, I met a few guys like Boris Dlugosch and Lorenz Rhode – we are really close friends now. With these guys, from the first second, it was so easy. We had the connection to each other.

DJ Times: And Boris is certainly one who understands groove…

Piontek: Absolutely. We love the same kind of music and that’s why it’s easy to produce together. That’s why I invited these kinds of guys for my album. Usually, the guys come for two or three days to my hometown. We sit in the studio from the morning until the evening. It’s sort of a celebration – we’re making music. In the evening, we have a really nice dinner. Lorenz and Boris like food and like wine, so it’s very comfortable.

DJ Times: Why an album? These days, it seems like we only see singles and EPs.

Piontek: The first time I had an idea for an album was four years ago. I always thought that I would do an album as Purple Disco Machine. I never felt like I was one of these guys who was just a club act, just releasing club tunes. I thought an album was the best way to look left and look right, to show another side. I can be more creative on an album if it’s not so focused on the dancefloor. All my songs before, I released for the dancefloor and for DJs and things like this. But for an album, I had the idea to do something different… to go more pop, to go more Italo, to show all these different sides of disco with my own Purple Disco Machine flavor for sure, but yeah, that’s the reason why I started working on an album and collecting ideas.

DJ Times: When did you know that you were finished?

Piontek: Two years ago, I thought I’d finished my album. I had some good ideas, a couple tracks, a few collaborations already, but I spoke to my management and my label and we decided that it wasn’t the best time to release an album. We needed a few more good collaborations. We needed to grow the fanbase. But now it feels like the right moment to release an album. But I know how hard it is to release an album nowadays with all these streaming services like Spotify. Usually now, everything’s just track by track. Not everybody cares about a whole album, but now it feels right.

DJ Times: Well, some of us remember albums… even albums on vinyl… it was a different experience.

Piontek: I think we’re from the older generation [laughs]. I’m still just listening to albums. When I hear music from Spotify, I’m listening to albums, not people’s playlists.

DJ Times: What DJ gear did you begin with? What do you use now?

Piontek: I started with vinyls. I saved for years to buy my first turntables. Then I worked in a record store for a couple of years, and I spent all my money in the store. I think I was my best customer there [laughs]. But it was a good time and I still have thousands of vinyls at home. But as I was traveling more and more outside Germany, it wasn’t easy to travel with record cases and to fly with them, so then I moved to CDs and now I use USBs. Now with [Pioneer DJ’s] rekordbox, it’s so easy. When I do this, I work with playlists – it’s like collecting vinyls in a record case back in the days.

DJ Times: So, it’s a Pioneer DJ situation all the way for you?

Piontek: It’s the classic set-up for me – two CDJs and a DJM-900nexus mixer. I never played with these controllers with Traktor or Serato. I mean, it’s OK. I know a lot of guys who do use it and you have some more options. But for me, it’s just not the way I want to work. I still don’t use the sync button. OK, you check the BPM, but I would never use the sync button.

DJ Times: When you were younger, which DJs impressed you?

Piontek: These guys from the older generation, like Carl Cox and Sven Väth, are really good DJs. It’s not always their music, but the selection of songs… it’s like they’re telling a story, going up and down. That’s what I miss a bit nowadays with the EDM generation…

DJ Times: No attention span?

Piontek: Yes, every DJ is playing 100-percent. When you go to a festival, everyone is playing 45 minutes or an hour, but you’ll have five or six hours in a row of these DJs playing 100-percent/peak-hour sets… just drop, break, drop, break… it’s so stressful.

DJ Times: Many younger DJs and fans come from a culture where they find their music online and have their most-impactful music experiences at festivals, not from clubs or raves.

Piontek: Right. I had a residency for five or six years at a club in my hometown and, for me, that was the most important years to learn how to learn how to DJ. I was supporting bigger DJs, like DJ Hell and Sven Väth. It was 2003 to 2005. Every second Friday, I played from the beginning, then the headliner, then sometimes I played all night. But, for me, it was the perfect time to learn how to play a set, to start the music slow. You watch the people come in, have a drink, start a few conversations. No DJ is coming in at 10 or 11 in the evening and playing hard immediately.

DJ Times: There’s an art to being a good opening DJ, right?

Piontek: It’s much more difficult to be a good warm-up DJ than it is to start at 1 a.m. When everyone is dancing and the energy is good, usually you can’t fail. But to learn how to warm up is more important.

DJ Times: What is the perfect DJ situation for you?

Piontek: Usually, I like the small clubs rather than the big festivals. If it’s intimate, you’re close to the crowd and you can get the energy going. For me, it’s important to get something back from the crowd. My sets are so different from weekend to weekend, but I need direction from the crowd. So, I don’t have a plan, even my first song… it depends on who’s playing before and what kind of music. So sometimes, it’s better to go down and start from scratch, and then you build up.

DJ Times: Usually, you have an idea of where you wanna go, right?

Piontek: Yes, you have an idea, but sometimes it happens that it’s not working and then you have to have Plan B. You need reaction from the crowd. If you have no reaction, I start to get nervous. You start to go from the left to the right, and you play too eclectic and lose everybody.

DJ Times: What have been your favorite nightclubs?

Piontek: Space in Ibiza. Unfortunately, it’s closed now. I started really late playing in Ibiza –only four years ago. But over the years, I’d heard a lot of stories about Space. The energy there was special. I played the terrace and it was a Glitterbox night, so it fit perfect to my kind of music. The first night, I remember I played with Joey Negro and Dimitri from Paris. Everyone who was there came to listen to house music and disco music, and for me it was a perfect moment that I could play this special venue for the first time. I heard a lot of weird stories about that place.

DJ Times: Another venue?

Piontek: I played two times at The Standard in Los Angeles. It’s a rooftop party with a really nice view of the downtown. I was a bit surprised. The first time I played it was a Sunday afternoon. It was so packed and had such a good energy. I thought it would be a little more chill, more like, “Let’s have some drinks and listen to good music,” but everyone was dancing and everyone was going crazy. Then with the sunset going down and the view over the city Los Angeles… that was really amazing.

DJ Times: Anything in Germany?

Piontek: Um, nope.

DJ Times: [Laughs] I would imagine Berlin, for example, might be a little difficult for you.

Piontek: To be honest, Germany is not my best place. Germany, in general, is Berlin-influenced and it’s so techno and tech-house. Actually, there is one club in Germany I like – it’s called 102 and it’s in Düsseldorf. They have two floors – the main floor is more techno, but they have another floor that’s cozy and small. They open the second floor after 2 a.m., and I played two or three times now. When they open it at 2, five minutes later it’s so packed and the energy is 100-percent.

DJ Times: They’re there for the music.

Piontek: It feels a little bit like back in the days, in the ’90s, as everything was new and the people came just for the music. It’s like what you said… back in the days, we came to the club to hear music we never heard before. Nowadays people are upset if you play too much music that they’ve never heard.

DJ Times: A lot of your influences come from the States. What did it mean to play there?

Piontek: For me, it was a dream to go to the States, like a once-in-a-lifetime thing just to go. And New York, I love to just go around the city. Before my music career started, I came to the States, along with a friend of mine. I saved my money to go to New York as a tourist, and I spent two weeks there. That was so amazing. We went to some weird clubs in the basement somewhere in Brooklyn. Then we went to places like the Blue Note jazz club – so amazing.

DJ Times: For most people, it’s a fast city.

Piontek: Absolutely, and then when I got my first offer from New York… it was such an honor for me to play for the first time in the city. It was one of the moments for me when I realized, “OK, the music career is going to the next level now.” I always had good parties there and always got good reaction from the crowd. The last time I played there was a big festival on an island… Governors Island?

DJ Times: Near the Statue of Liberty? That’s Governors Island.

Piontek: Yeah, it was the Pinknic party with 5,000 to 10,000 people. It was in the afternoon and everyone was relaxing, having a picnic – and I played really chilly disco [laughs]. I had a lot of fun. It was an older crowd, so they were really into this music. We did it for two days.

DJ Times: When I first saw the name Purple Disco Machine years ago, I thought, “Wow, this guy must love Prince,” or something.

Piontek: To be honest, when I started Purple Disco Machine was just a fun project. I never expected this kind of success. I just wanted to do music that I really loved. When I first started, I didn’t care about what genre it was, and I didn’t care if the music was played in the clubs or not. So, my first tracks were 112, 113, 114 BPM, so it was really slowed-down, chilly.

DJ Times: How’d you land on that name?

Piontek: One of my favorite acts back in the days was Miami Sound Machine with Gloria Estefan. I thought about a name like this and purple – it was pretty fancy, color…

DJ Times: But it’s a little mysterious…

Piontek: Yeah, yeah, but the name still gives it room to be creative. It has disco in the name, so people know what they can expect music-wise. It sounds pretty fancy and cheesy maybe [laughs]. I think it describes the music, so it works.

DJ Times: Any advice for DJ/producers who want to succeed and perhaps make a career of this?

Piontek: I think the most important thing is patience. It took me almost 10 years to get on this level. You need patience, and passion as well. So, follow your dream and don’t give up. I never had a Plan B, so that’s why I never gave up. For me, the only way was making music. I had a lot of good years, but I also had a lot of poor years. But even when I had poor years – and I had no money – there was no way to say, “OK, I’m done.” I had no choice.