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Daniel Testas [Interview]

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Amsterdam based Daniel Testas has been working as a composer and producer for quite some time. His first little steps into the world of music creation were made at the beginning of the nineties. Inspired by progressive, pioneering people like Brian Eno, Juan Atkins, Pump Panel, Afrika Bombaataa and Kraftwerk, he felt the urge to take the path of music himself. After lots of experimentation in home studio’s, Daniel teamed up with his brother to form the Brothers Testas, creating and releasing house music on illustrious UK labels like Sperm Records and Jam Records, and playing big clubs and raves in Amsterdam. Next up was Project2000 this exotic (live) drum & bass band had huge success at the beginning of the new millennium (releases on Universal Records). After that came many lounge and chill albums with Praful and Adani & Wolf (Therapy Records) and more recently the Balearic house scene was entered with the group Bo Geste (releases on Prison entertainment and Jalapeno Records). But... blood runs thicker than water, so Daniel has gone back to his production roots and his old, but first love: house music. Besides these activities Daniel has always also composed a lot of electro-acoustic music. That could be either autonomous or for film, dance and video projects. In these projects almost everything that inspires Daniel in composition and production come together in an imaginative symbiosis: sampling and synthesis, abstraction, accessibility, musique concrete, soundscape-design, sound and melody counterpoint, spectral and spatial processing, beat-creation, etc. This week sees Daniel returning to Canada's Deep Down Music for a new single entitled 'Topaz' backed by a remix from progressive veteran Ewan Rill.

Progressive Astronaut caught up with Daniel to learn more about the release of ‘Topaz’, his studio process, musical background, future plans and more. Enjoy.

Hi Daniel, thanks for joining us. What is your current mood and what was the last piece of music you listened to?

Hi…, thanks for having me! My mood is really good. Every day I am just grateful for the small, beautiful things of life. I try not to be influenced too much by all the daunting things that are happening around us in the world. It’s a bit ‘the head in the sand technique’ I know, but it works for me.

The last piece of music that had an emotional impact was ‘Wild is the Wind’,  the Nina Simone version. I always knew and liked the David Bowie version, but this one is also really special. I am also listening quite a lot to Fred Again lately, love his stuff.

How was your holiday and what are your plans for the coming week?

The holiday was very nice. Relaxed, chilling with family and exactly the right amount of partying too. Balanced, so to speak. The coming week I will be firing up the studio again. There are quite a lot of projects that are waiting for some attention and some cuddling from me. So they will get it asap!

How did growing up in the Netherlands influence your music taste and direction? Or did it at all?

I think it did, although it is probably the first time that I am thinking about it. But I’ll have a go. Dutchmusic, before the arrival of house and techno music, didn’t have a strong appeal to me. There were no local bands that I liked. My friends and I were always more interested in what came from the outside world.

In the beginning of the 80s, we listened to ‘pirate radio’ stations like WAPS radio. They played only imported music – hiphop, electro, space funk etc. We absorbed that music like sponges.

That music was really inspirational to me. I remember the track “Clear from Cybotron”, I was blown away, it was a game changer.

I thought; “this is what I want to do, make that kind of music”. So it was the absence (in my opinion) of good local music that influenced me to look further, and that did sort of shape me.

Of course in the mid, late 80-ties house music arrived, then everything changed. There was an abundance of good local producers and DJ’s. That had a huge impact on me too.

Absorbing the music in raves and clubs like the Roxy or the It. Wow what a time that was! All that liberated spirits, it was amazing. I think that this vibe has always stayed close to me, even today.

 What are your favourite venues to play or attend events in the Netherlands and why?

To play, I must say Paradiso in Amsterdam. I was fortunate enough to play there many times. It is a great, almost holy place, music-wise. So many, I mean really uncountable, amazing artists have played there, history oozing from the walls. To be part of that universe, is amazing. You could feel that every time you’d play there, just magic. I think that feeling also lives with the people attending because you could always feel the energy sparkling and buzzing.

When you were first getting started in production did you have someone help you or are you completely self-taught? And what would you recommend new producers do to help with the learning curve of production?

When I started it was so different; for instances no internet (yawn…boring – old people talking alert). I had to figure out a lot myself.

My first steps were all self-taught. It was fine, but I had the feeling that I wanted to go deeper. On a musical level as well as on a production level. So I went to art school. There was newly developed department called Music Technology.

Back in the 90s it was pretty new. But it was heaven, I learned so much. Every day was a celebration of inspiration, something new learned, something new to try out.

I think that for me this was the best thing I could have done. A truly strong and solid foundation that stayed with me for the rest of my musical career. The teachers were so good handing you all the tools, steering you into new undiscovered territories. That is what a good teacher can do.

Today of course there is a lot of information online. Tutorials on every aspect of music you can think of. It can actually  be really confusing; there is so much, where to start?

You need a lot of discipline and drive to get through that, by yourself. It’s not that easy. But you can, definitely. There are a lot of self-taught people out there.

Having said that; it can be hugely inspiring and super-efficient to learn from real people, one to one so to speak. I think that still would be my preference, and my advice; if you have the time, the energy and the space, go study, at a school, or a course. Dive in deep. There is so much to be learned, there are so many people who can help you, who can share their skills.

You released as The Brothers Testas on Sperm Records back in the day, which for a time was a favourite label of mine, I’m curious what tracks or artists from the time period would you say influenced your sound back then? And is your brother still making music today?

Wow mate, it has been a long time since anybody asked me about Sperm Records, and it was also one of your favourite labels! That’s pretty amazing! I have to dig deep to come up with names. I really liked Derrick May and Juan Atkins. But also Laurent Garnier, Richy Hawtin. Stuff released on Jamm Records. A group called Pump Panel- they were fantastic, a track called Ego Acid, that was a banger. But also Underworld, Leftfield, Dutchies like: Dano, Eddie de Clercq, Dimitri, DJ Per, etc.

My brother is no longer in the music business, he found different trails to wander.

You also spent time in a Drum & Bass band and had periods of writing Balearic House and lounge Music but you eventually found your way back to melodic and progressive house. What was it that led you back to what are essentially your roots?

Since the end of the 90s I have worked very closely with my friend Roberto Adani. We formed the downtempo chill duo Adani &  Wolf. We have done so many albums over the years.

In 2016 we worked on ‘The Irresistible Dust on the Floor’. It was a really intense album process. This was a first. Our prior albums came together easily. But now there was so much discussion in the studio. Over everything, over every little decision, it made us both really crazy.

We stuck to it and finished that album (funny enough it turned out to be our most successful album so far), but we said : ‘I am done for now’.

Working together is really great. It can be a very inspiring and Roberto is a really super talented musician/producer.

The sum of the parts can be more than the whole, and that was definitely the case with us.

But after this album I really wanted to do something else. Something solo, no more discussions, everything is my own decision, wrong or right (if music can be either one of those)

I am making it!

I thought; why not go back to one of my first love; house music?! Let’s just make a couple of tracks in the sound of ‘today’ and see if I can sign them somewhere.

Now I am 5 years along and still doing it, having released many tracks and I absolutely love it. I find it super inspiring.

And the good thing is, Adani &; Wolf got back together again and made a new album and another one on its way. The duo is great and the solo stuff too. Best of both worlds!!

Looking back over this thirty year electronic music journey what are a couple of your fondest memories? Maybe a gig? Or a particular release?

Oh man, there are so many great adventures, quite blessed in that area.

Some things come to mind: In the Netherlands, May 5, liberation day, is always really special. Lots of concerts and festivals everywhere. We got chosen with our drum & bass group, Project2000, to do a helicopter tour through the country: 5 big shows in different cities on one day. Transport from one city to another with a huge army helicopter. Flying back from the north of the Netherlands to do our last gigs in Amsterdam and Rotterdam with the sunset. The guys from the army wanted to show of, flying really low over the North Sea. We pinched ourselves in the arm. Wow… that’s definitely in my top 3!!

The recording for one of our albums with a full symphony orchestra (from Sophia, Bulgary) felt really amazing. To feel that whole organic orchestra come to life with your music is something incredibly special.

But also my first steps back into the house genre felt really good. That was my first progressive release on Ready Mix Records (thanks Big AL for believing in me). That inspirational feeling of stepping into something new and feeling that you can do it. Even though I had so many releases already in other genres, It felt really exciting, you always remember your first time right!

You have a new single ‘Topaz’, out this week on Deep Down Music, tell us about the track and how it showcases your current sound?

Topaz is the kind of track that has all the elements that I really like if  I may say so myself. A solid and elegant groove, punchy bassline, warm chords and melodies, the right textures of deep progressive sequences and arpeggios, all topped off with a generous amount of shimmering pads and strings. It’s rich, it’s groovy, it’s deep, it’s melodic. Yeah, I like it!

This is your second release on the label and the press release states you are a core artist. This must be a great feeling to know you are an integral part of a new and exciting imprint. Why do you feel the label is such a good home for your music?

Yeah that gives me a great, warm feeling, I really like that! First of all it’s their taste of music, that is so good, it’s quality, no compromises in that area and there is so much common ground between us.

Second; it’s their approach and communication to the artist. Super personal and super warm. I haven’t seen that often with other labels. It touches me. I find that really important. I love to build a sustainable working relationship if that’s in any way possible.

I believe strongly in loyalty, even in this somewhat fleeting business, and I really feel that Deep Down has that same kind of attitude. We seem to like that in each other.

What does your set-up look like? Do you favor physical gear over digital? And what studio tools featured heavily in the writing of ’Topaz’?

Analog synths are a really important part of my setup and are key for the sound that I am aiming for. It’s the analog imperfection, it brings something different to the table. It is sort of human, although it’s funny to say that about a machine, but it feels sort of that way.

I am the proud owner of a Mini Moog built in 1972 and I can honestly say that nothing can beat this synth. My father tipped me off on an auction where it was for sale. To my huge surprise I won the bid. Thanks dad!!

Especially when it comes to basses. It is solid, massive and enhances the bottom end of my productions enormously. It just lays a crucial foundation. But it is definitely not limited to that: lead sounds, arps and sequences all that stuff comes out fantastic.

Then I have a modern Moog, the Sub37, also a great monophonic synth.

The Sequential Prophet 6 is my polyphonic analog synth. So I have got it covered with these synths.

But having said all that, I am definitely not a hardware purist per se. I am also working in the box and I love plugins.

I have a powerful, custom-built PC with an RME soundcard. I have invested a lot in the Universal Audio Design platform, which comes with its own DSP card. So most of my EQ´s, compressors, effects and saturators etc. are UAD. I really love the quality of these plugs.

I have worked with Cubase all my life, but have recently been working with Ableton as well. I am absolutely inspired by the sound design possibilities of the DAW.

For Topaz the usual suspects were on duty: bassline – Minimoog, arps & sequences – Prophet 6 and Sub37, plugs – Kontakt, Omnisphere, Arturia synths etc.

Let’s talk about production for a moment, where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play? And was there anything that inspired ‘Topaz’?

Yeah, that’s a good one… I don’t know exactly, but it’s a strong urge. It’s a big part of my personality, my identity. I have such a strong passion for music.

When I was young I was searching for a goal, for a long time. I didn’t know what to do at all, but then when I finally found music (or it found me) I took off, bang. Never came down.

It’s quite a blessing to have that. Music is endless, there is always music. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be aware of it, be open. You have to go and look for it.

I am not much of a believer in the romantic idea of inspiration being like a lightning strike, the composer sitting and waiting until it hits. You have to actively search for it. Open your mind, look around it can be everywhere. Indeed in things you describe; dreams, art, feelings, books, and of course other music.

The beauty of a Topaz ( I came across it somewhere), which is a gemstone, is that in perfect condition it is colorless, maybe even a bit boring. Imperfections are what gives the stone its colors, blue, gold, orange etc. How cool is that?

Isn’t that with all things? Imperfections makes art, music, and people interesting & beautiful. Perfection is quite boring.

I think that with that image in mind I created this track. Not that I was trying to create a gemstone or something when making this track, that’s too literal. It was just a thought in the back of my mind, something that I found interesting. With that lingering on the background, I let my intuition do the rest, that’s for me how inspiration can work.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

I have my rituals, but they are not mind blowing, I am afraid.

I do not start working so early. I will first do meditation and then some sports in the morning . My mind and body strongly need that.

When I am done, I will do the more boring things I have to do. Emails and phone calls that kind of stuff. Then I will go to my studio.

My studio has to be really tidy, I mean I love it clean. I can’t work when it’s a mess. I will now and then light some incense.

Then I work on music for a long time straight, really in the flow. Only stop for a quick coffee, no long pauses. This will go on into the evening (when a good glass of wine is served).

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you’re satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice? And who is someone you share your new music with first for feedback?

Yeah that is really important. After a long time of working, getting ideas down, not thinking too much about how much sense it all makes, you and your ears will need the time off. They need to reset so you can honestly judge the work you have been doing.

I know, for instance the next day, often instantly if it’s any good. That’s the advantage of listening after a break. You are fresh, you are listening with the right amount of detachment. It’s very important.

I can go a long long way in getting it right, I am sort of a perfectionist, which totally kills the answer I gave earlier about Topaz and imperfection. :) . But no, if I feel that something doesn’t sit right, it doesn’t resonate with the sound image I have in my gut I will go on until I have it right.

It needs to be like I hear it in my head. There are no shortcuts, It needs to be as it needs to be. It means that when I think it is more or less where it needs to be, I’ll leave it for a while. Take a bounce of the track and play it everywhere else: car, laptop, earplugs etc. I play it when walking around, doing the dishes.

I’ll hear every detail, I will know what to do.

And I’ll play it for my wife; Miss Dominguez. She is also a very talented DJ and producer.

Always a confronting moment. She is honest and knows her music. I trust her judgment. I won’t always like it, or agree with her, but it is really valuable.

What is the task you enjoy the most when producing and what would you prefer someone else to do?

Oh I really really like that first composition stage, that’s when it happens. Bam bam, putting it down, being really excited; oh yes this is going to be super. That vibe. It can happen so fast, you better catch it, get it down.

Then… the real work starts, the arranging, making it work over a time span of 7 a 8 minutes. That’s an effort, it needs to be done, but it’s not my favourite part. You can lose some of the initial enthusiasm, thinking; what was so nice about this??

Once you are through that, it becomes great again. At some point it all comes together.

You are hearing it; that was why I liked it so much, it’s back! That final mixing and polishing stage, I love that too. It’s a feeling of satisfaction. Yeah, I did it!

What would be a musical extravagance for your studio you would pay for, if you were very wealthy?

The studio itself probably. Room treatment. It is such a difficult thing to control, the sound of your studio. I work in my attic. It is a lovely workspace spiritual-wise, I just love to be there. But it was never designed to be a studio. It would be interesting to see how far a real acoustic designer could go in making it sound really natural. For the rest, I must say that I am pretty happy with the way my studio is equipped right now!

Now let’s talk about DJing for a moment, it’s a unique discipline at the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation to an extent. How would you describe your approach to it?

I would say that as a DJ I believe in creating a flow with my musical taste. Taking the people on a voyage, telling a story. For me song selection is really important, more than manipulating other people’s tracks into something else.

Maybe it has to do with me being a producer as well. I know that when a producer brings out a track, it’s already got so much in it. The buildup, all the layers, the breaks, drops etc. It’s all so thought out, I don’t necessarily feel the need to change all that.

But the way you select the tracks, put it all together, position yourself as a modest moderator of a stimulating hypnotic evening is so important.

Having said all that, I am, and have always been, really interested in playing stuff live. In the beginning with The Brothers Testas (no Ableton around) we  literally dragged all our studio out on stage. Improvising all our studio tracks live on stage. It took us a day to rebuild the studio each time, but it was worth it!

Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening to tracks and perhaps also, your work as a producer?

Dance music has a clear function: take people on a dancing journey. DJing has influenced me strongly when I am producing that kind of music: everything in the track has to have that goal. But not all elements in the tracks have the same task in that goal.

For instance: the low-end has to supply the ancient sort of primitive fundament, the snare drum has to supply the groove framework, the hihats and cymbals give the extra euphoria and the speed. The melody gives the emotions etc. That’s what I found out during DJing.

You have the tools during the creation stage to shape emotions, and I mean that in a really good way; it’s a form of manipulation, but one for a good cause.

If you could set up an event with a line-up of five artists of your choice, who would you book and what set times would you ascribe to the artists?

I would say: Hraach, Miss Dominguez, Nōpi, Guy J, Beckers & D-Nox,in that order. It’s going to be a long night, as I will give every one 2 hours to tell their story.

Current top five tracks?

Dowden & Essco – Submerge

Tripswitch – Box Fresh ( Emi Galvan)

Cherry - Euphoria

Oibaf &; Wallen – Atlante

Qdream & Bondarev - Amathusia (Dmitry Molosh remix)

What’s a book you’ve read or film you watched that has left an impact on you, and why?

There are so many good books out there and I love to read, so making a choice here is quite difficult.

One book that I read recently comes to mind, it is called ‘Le Otto Montaigne’, or ‘The Eight Mountains’, from Paolo Cognetti. It’s a beauty, loved it!

What is one superpower you would like to have and how would you use it?

I would love to be ‘The Great Kind Connector’, We could do with some kindness and some connecting in this world, I believe!

Apart from music, what makes you happiest?

My wife and my Cat, I am a simple man! Oh yeah, and an occasional gin-tonic. :)

What does 2023 hold for you? Anything you can share with us?

I have a couple of cool progressive releases coming up on cool labels (of course starting on January 2, Topaz on Deep Down), and I am working on more. My plan is to see if I can get at least one release a month in 2023, well let’s see if that’s gonna happen!

There will be a new Adani & Wolf album coming out on our German label Chin Chin Records, probably early spring. Another sprout on the ever growing Adani & Wolf tree.

And, I am really excited about this: I am working now on finalizing an ambient album. I it is so nice to create this music, I love it. The working title is: ‘The Interpolation of Organized Sound’.

It will be in the spirit of one of my great heroes, Brian Eno but also time transported to the age of today. A fantastic voyage into unknown sonic territories.

I have been working with a visual artist for more than 10 years now. Her name is Irma de Vries and she is brilliant. Her specialties are video mapping buildings and filling interior spaces with lights, visuals, projections and here is where I come in, with music. It is such a cool collaboration, we just love working together. I really enjoy composing this kind of music; more abstract, soundscape, ambient, downtempo. Irma’s work is so inspirational. We are going to do a huge project in Brussels this march. A huge space is going to be filled with all this overwhelming art stuff: a superb visual musical interactive experience. So yeah, that’s also something to really look forward to!

'Topaz' is available now via Deep Down Music: https://bit.ly/3Gc1G3w

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