Interview: ORIGINALS… Quenum
Switzerland is well established as a bastion of electronic music (home to Sonja Moonear, Deetron, Thomas Fehlmann and Yello’s Boris Blank, among others), and over a 30-year career, Philippe Quenum, aka Quenum, has proven himself to be one of the most influential artists to emerge from the mountainous nation.
Having immersed himself in the French hip hop scene as a teenager, Quenum rose to prominence in the mid-90s as one half of Access 58, alongside Paulo Nascimento, before teaming up with fellow Swiss producer Luciano to launch Cadenza Records, one of the stand-out labels of the past 20 years.
Indeed, such is Cadenza’s influence, that to this day, it has been associated with a ‘Cadenza sound’, and while Quenum is no longer running the label, he continues to bring this lushness to the fore in his productions.
His latest release is Fast Action, released as part of the Sum 8 compilation on Pan-Pot’s Second State label, alongside tracks from Secret Cinema, Japanese artist Risa Taniguchi, Glaswegian DJ and producer Fraz.ier, and Greek duo Bleur & MB1.
To pre-buy the EP, click the image above.
As part of our ORIGINALS series of interviews, 909originals is delighted to catch up with Quenum, to discuss the past, present and future of his musical career… 🙂
Hi Philippe, thanks for taking to us. First question, how are you finding life in lockdown – what have you been working on?
To be honest, I’ve been working nonstop, perhaps even more than before since I have no distractions. I’ve been working on my music, working with my team on many things, taking care of stuff that I had neglected or didn’t have time to do before. In one way I’ve been super busy, especially with my music production.
Life in lockdown is difficult to manage over time. You can’t go out, you can’t see your friends, and after three months I feel I am in a routine that can get a bit heavy at times. It’s a crazy situation that our generation has not known before and I hope we come out of this.
Do you think that the dance music scene will change as a result? What do you expect will be the lasting legacy, if any, on the industry?
For sure, there are many promoters and other people in the business who have lost lots of money, but I still think that when we get out of this, people are going to want to party and go out.
I think everything will restart. It might take a bit of time, some people might feel scared for a while, some people will be facing hard financial situations.
On the other hand, I believe we could learn from this experience and change some things in our business that were not so good. For example, we’ve realised it’s not a good thing to earn your living just on gigs.
If we were more like the movie business and we made sure music was assigned its correct value, that would be good for artists, and many would not be living in fear, as they are now.
Also we could do more to re-value local scenes. I get it that artists want to travel and share their work with people around the world, I feel like that too. But maybe we could travel a little bit less and give more importance to local artists.
Let’s go back to the beginning – you started DJing back in the 1980s. Did you see this at the time as the start of a long career in music?
Not at all. I saw it as a game, as a way to party and spend my time doing what I loved, which was listening to music and making people dance. I was going day-by-day and I had no career plan. If I had a job one week to the next I was happy.
You got to experience the first house music ‘wave’ first hand – when did you notice that something different was happening in music?
At first it was all about small venues, clubs, and then it started growing into something else, expanding into big spaces, like raves. Little by little, people neglected the clubs.
Also, there was a lot more about house music in the press and magazines, everybody was talking about it. I think pirate radio stations also played a big part in helping the scene to grow like it did.
What clubs and/or recording artists had a big influence on your musical career, when you were starting out?
I was especially thrilled by Mr Fingers [Larry Heard] and Tony Humphries, among others. When I first discovered their music I was really into house. I admired their production, I followed them and when I went to the record shop I looked out for their labels, as well as other artists they released.
Looking back now, I realise what incredible careers they had and I still admire them for how they remained so passionate and humble through it all.
How did the Access 58 project come together? Do you feel that the project has unfinished business?
Paulo and I met in a studio in Brixton where we worked, in 1994. What we mostly did was smoke joints and eat pasta – the studio owner was this Italian-Ethiopian guy who cooked really well!
Eventually we decided to get a bit more serious, so we started working out of Paulo’s basement flat in Queens Park. We signed our first EP on Pacific Records. After that, we established our studio in Bethnal Green, followed by our label.
We did that because we wanted to bring out our music whenever we wanted to, even though we also released our production on other labels, such as MusicMan.
I’m still in touch with Paulo, so who knows? I have only good memories about Access 58 and about being part of this great London scene of the late 90s. I’ve got to say a big thank you to the people who supported us, especially Colin Dale and Colin Faver.
How did you come to meet Luciano, and set up the Cadenza label?
In 2001, I moved to Switzerland with my family. I immediately connected with the music scene there, especially through Mental Groove and its boss, Oliver. Oliver put me in touch with Luciano and we just hit it off. We started working together in his studio in the Swiss mountains. Actually, the studio was in the local priest’s flat, in the village where Luciano’s father still lives today.
We had good times, working together composing what we thought were great tracks, like the famous Orange Mistake. Unfortunately, when we tried to find a label to release it, nobody liked it! So, we decided to create our own label and then we could bring it out, without any problem.
On top of that, Luciano’s sister Amélie is a graphic artist, and she helped us with the logo and cover and everything to do with graphics. So we just got on with it and founded Cadenza, and the rest is history.
Cadenza became associated with a certain house ‘sound’, that resonates to this day – was that the intention when you started the label?
Our first intention was just to release tracks that nobody else wanted. But you have to remember that Luciano was very close to Ricardo [Villalobos], and so I got interested in that particular sound thanks to them.
There was a strong influence, and it’s true we were guided by a specific type of sound. Cadenza was really founded on that vision, and it has become associated with a certain sound that was sought out by many people.
What is the future for Azimute, your project alongside Cesare Marchese?
That has come to an end, we’ve kind of each gone our own way. I’m proud of what we did together and we had a great time doing it.
Your releases have been a bit more sporadic in recent years. Do you see yourself taking a more ‘behind the scenes’ role these days?
Actually, I have travelled quite a bit these past few years, sometimes doing long tours. I spent two months in Asia and Australia. Of course I was there to play music, but I have to admit that I also got very passionate about traveling, and I enjoyed discovering all these new places and meeting so many new and interesting people.
I had never travelled like that in my life, so I’m really happy I did that.
This year, Quenum is back in full force! I’ve been very busy in the studio, also working on many collaborations. I’ve just released an EP on Squillace’s label, This And That. This month, I’m bringing out an EP on Rebellion. As well as a lot more stuff in the coming months.
I was especially happy this year to work in the studio with artists like Mathew Jonson, who are not only very talented musicians, but also good mates. So keep your eyes and your ears open for what’s coming up this year.
Tell me about your latest release, Fast Action – had you worked with Second State before?
No I hadn’t worked with them, but I knew them – we’ve known each other for a long time. Fast Action is quite an intense techno track. They really liked it and wanted to release it right away.
I’m really happy because I have a lot of respect for their work, so it feels super good to be part of Second State.
What excites you most about house music these days? Are there any artists or labels that you think are doing something really unique?
In Africa, there’s a good house scene, especially in South Africa. I love the work of Culoe de Song. There’s a lot of new and young talent in Africa.
I love what they do when mixing rhythms, percussion and melody. Maybe it speaks to my African roots – my father was from West Africa. What moves me is that in Africa there’s never music without dance. Sometimes I watch video clips of Kuduro [a dance movement hailing from Angola]. The dancers are incredible.
We’re now at the start of a new decade – what are your hopes for the coming years? Beyond the coronavirus situation of course..
My hopes personally are to be able to complete the projects and goals I’ve set for myself, and to meet interesting people. I hope for all of us that we have better years ahead and that we come out this crisis stronger.
Thanks to Philippe for the interview. Photos by Dan Reid. Quenum’s latest release, on the Sum 8 compilation, can be purchased by clicking here.
V/A – SUM 8 Tracklist
1: The Reason Y, Tømas Sinn – Trip Tales
2: Secret Cinema – Zürich
3: Risa Taniguchi – She
4: Quenum – Fact Action
5: One Track Brain – Triathlon
6: Jos & Eli, Magit Cacoon – Tropical Heart
7: Joran van Pol – Derelict
8: Frazi.er – Sleep Deprived Vibration
9: Eme Kulhnek – Efforts
10: Duss – Kevin The Second
11: Bleur & MB1 – Humans
12: Blackrachas – Five O’Clock