Interview: ORIGINALS… Mark Richards, Solardo

Few dance acts have experienced such a meteoric rise as Solardo, the Manchester-based outfit comprised of Mark Richards and James Eliot, which burst onto the scene less than five years ago and have since become festival stalwarts, as well as headlining some of the world’s biggest venues.

Having broken through with 2016’s Tribesmen, recently the duo have turned their production nous towards more old school beats, encapsulated by their latest release, Enough, alongside Happy Monday’s vocalist Rowetta, as well as their recent rework of the classic Move Your Body alongside Marshall Jefferson.

They also recently announced the launch of Sola Nauts – “a label born out of lockdown”, according to Mark – which delves more into experimental house and techno; a more ‘underground’ sister to their successful Sola label.

Prior to Solardo, Mark crafted a lengthy career as a dubstep pioneer (before the genre even had a name) under the pseudonym MRK1, with productions dating back to the late 90s. He also, as 909originals discovered, used to be a regular at Kelly’s of Portrush as a teenager, sneaking through the fire escape to spend time in the back room. “I was a bit scared to go into the main room,” he says.

As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with Mark to chat about the duo’s latest release, the musical path that led him to form Solardo, and one of the unfortunate legacies of 2020, ‘plague raves’.

Hi Mark, thanks for talking to us. The year 2020 is finally coming to an end. How has it been for you?

It’s definitely been one to forget. One upside has been the chance to make music, because I usually don’t have any time to make music, and when I do, I don’t have time to work on a quantity of tracks, and choose the best ones. When we’re touring, we make a tune and think, ‘yes, this is it, let’s put this out’. But now we’re making so many tunes, I feel like only one in ten is good enough.

I’ve got to do some cool collaborations, with people like Loco Dice, and with Calvin Harris on his Love Regenerator stuff, which is kind of 90s sounding, lots of acid and things like that.

There’s a whole early 90s revival thing going on in music at the moment. Do you think that’s partly a reaction to everything that’s going on in the world? Or is it just a case of people looking to the past and trying to reinvent it?

It’s a mixture of things. When I first used to go out to to listen to rave music – actually, jungle was more my thing – I was 16 years old. I used to sneak into clubs, and I was massively into The Prodigy. Liam Howlett was like the god of producers to me.

I think that for Solardo, as time has gone on, we’ve been able to choose what sort of music we want to put out, and it will get listened to. A few years ago, if we had put out a breakbeat track, it would probably have got lost in the ether. Now, we can put out a rave track and I know it’s going to be appreciated by today’s generation.

Also, I don’t like to keep things sounding similar all the time. I’ll keep the same sound for maybe a year or so, more or less, and then try to move direction – all the time keeping the same sort of ‘big bassline’ undercurrent.

When you first got into production, you were making drum and bass and breakbeat, weren’t you? Before you got into dubstep, I mean. Is the music you are making now sort of a return to those early days?

I was listening to my old stuff, and there’s a tune in my first album – which was on Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label – which is called Stargate 92. It’s kind of a rave revival sort of thing, half way through it goes into some bleepy breakbeat.

I thought it would be cool to make some more music like this – I had the sounds, and I had the breaks, and it kind of came together.

Are you using new equipment, or ‘digging out the old Akai sampler’ and things like that?

Back then, when I first started making drum and bass, I was using Music 2000 or something like that – one of those really simple to use programs – and then I started working with Reason. It was only when I started doing well that I could afford to buy some equipment for the first time.

These days, a lot of the basslines and sounds are on Moogs and things like that; back then it was a case of sampling something with Wavelab and sticking it into Reason.

Ha ha, Music 2000! That brings me back.

It was all these little blocks, and you put one block after the other. You could bring in samples through Wavelab and cut them up yourself. Once Reason came out, that was the first time that I was able to put music together properly, and then I learned the basics of Cubase, and that’s how I really got into it.

Let’s chat about the current single, Enough. Is that the first time you’ve worked with Rowetta?

We worked together on a few dubstep pieces in the past, and I thought I would give her a shout again. I know her through Bez’s son actually – this is going back a few years. I hadn’t seen her for a while, so I thought it would be quite cool to work with her again.

The title of the track is a statement of sorts. Is that the position you’re going for, ‘enough is enough – let’s start talking about getting clubs open again’?

The idea behind the title is that people can draw their own inferences from it. If you listen to the lead vocal, the last word is ‘enough’, so we picked that word out and put it as the title of the track to get people talking. Obviously some people are thinking ‘enough of lockdowns’, ‘enough of not being able to go out’, but it doesn’t really have a direct meaning. It relates to whatever position you are in.

It’s a tough balance, though, isn’t it? During the year you’ve had this whole ‘plague raves’ debate going on, and Solardo was caught up in that a little bit – there was an event in Croatia, for example. What was that like to go through?

On the ‘plague rave’ side of things, I understand it, but I think a lot of people were just taking the words and using them to have a go at people. We’ve not played any raves in England, or any of these alleged ‘plague raves’.

But if you go to a different country, where they don’t have the same coronavirus levels, and have socially distanced events? That’s not a ‘plague rave’, unless you want to start an argument for no reason.

With Croatia, there was an event that was cancelled because the travel corridor was closed, but we were going to be there anyway, so we turned it into a reduced capacity outdoor event, with social distancing.

There were a few social media accounts that were adding fuel to the fire as well – creating this sort of ‘us vs them’ undercurrent’?

It was sad to see. Massively sad. I think that during times like these, there’s enough going on in the world without the need to cause more stress. Some people agree with going out and doing so in a safe way, and other people don’t – each to their own.

I fully understand that we need to keep coronavirus at bay, but a lot of people are suffering from mental health problems as well. You don’t know what people are going through.

Next year marks just five years since Solardo started, which is incredible – I remember reading a story about you spending eight months in the studio trying to define your sound. What was the approach when you started Solardo, and how has that changed in the years since?

When we first started there was a degree of desperation! I wanted to put everything into it to make sure that I did the right thing, because I thought it was a sort of ‘last chance saloon’ for me. I’ve been making tunes since 1998, I’ve been through a career of making dubstep and seen that disappear, and I’ve tried other things in music that didn’t work or didn’t take off.

I was 34 at the time Solardo started, and I said to myself ‘this has to work’. If it didn’t work, I was going to have to start thinking about doing something different.

In my early career, when I was working on things, I didn’t think too much about what I was putting out, I just did it. But having seen trends come and go over the years, I sat down and thought about it for a long time – how are we going to make Solardo work, and make it work properly.

So, it was a case of looking at what the current trends in music, and in social media, and how people were creating tracks that people liked. I’ve always made tunes with big basslines, really impactful sort of tracks, and originally I wasn’t that much into house music, because I thought it sounded the same. I didn’t really know any different.

That’s when James came along, and he opened my eyes to different things. Before Solardo, I was just listening to dubstep, and drum and bass, and hip hop. He made me realise that there was a lot more out there.

I went and listened back to The Prodigy, the Experience album, trying to work out what made those tunes work, and what made them timeless. If we took the best bits from that, and the best bits from other genres of house, maybe we could come up with a new sort of sound, which would hopefully work. If it didn’t work, we were f**ked.

Luckily it did work, and then it was a case of spending 18 hours a day at the studio trying to perfect that sound. Even then I was thinking ‘I can’t get to where I’m trying to be here’.

One of things that really inspired me about the old acid house tunes if that they have a feeling to them; they’re not just the sound of some kid at home making tunes on his computer from sample packs.

There’s a rawness to them as well – occasionally someone plays a wrong note, or the sound goes a bit fuzzy. People are trying to re-create that sound through technology.

It gives them character. That’s hard to recreate in the modern day, especially to do it well. I wanted to emulate the sound of people like DJ Pierre and Armando, where it sounds rugged, and really raw.

I was on a bit of a pilgrimage of trying to find out how to make a good house tune, and I went to a studio at Beehive Mill at Sankey’s in Manchester. There were lots of old pieces of equipment there. The engineer had an old Jupiter, and he told me that a good trick was to sample the white noise from it and run it underneath the track, really low, so that it ‘fills in the gaps’ between the beats.

If you listen to our older tunes, there’s this subtle hiss at the start, which is from that old Jupiter. You don’t hear it once the beats come in, it just ads warmth to the track. We don’t use it any more, but we were doing that for a while.

There’s obviously a willingness on your part not to rest on your laurels as well. A lot of artists get pigeonholed for putting out the same stuff all the time, but you believe it’s important for the Solardo sound to continue to evolve?

Some people describe our sound as ‘tech house’, kind of in a dismissive way – to say that it all sounds the same. But to me, tech house is a very broad genre that covers a lot of areas. If I was to continue to create the same sound all the time, it would be very easy for people to dismiss it. But there are so many different directions you can take it.

I was playing with Green Velvet in the US, and we were sharing a taxi, and I asked him, ‘what do you think of tech house, and how people look down on it sometimes?’ He said ‘tech house has been around since I started, all of my tunes have been tech house’.

Yes, it’s at the more popular end of the spectrum now, and it’s the go-to sound that people want to play in clubs, but within the genre, you can have sounds that are completely different. It’s like when our rework of Move Your Body came out, with Marshall Jefferson – you wouldn’t describe that as a typical tech house tune.

Was that a special collaboration for you – a sort of ‘meeting your heroes’ kind of moment?

Yes, it was amazing. We met Marshall a few years ago at the Ibiza Awards – we both got an award – and we were chatting in the car on the way to the event. He told us that he was living in Manchester, not far from where we lived, so we should do a tune together.

A couple of years later, Ultra, the label, contacted us to see if we wanted to collaborate on a track with him, which turned out to be a rework of Move Your Body. He replayed all the old parts from the original, and we did our thing and that was that.

With a track like Move Your Body, you don’t want to do much to it. The label wanted us to change it up a bit, but it was me that put my foot down and said that we had to keep the main part intact, otherwise people wouldn’t appreciate it.

What sort of scene will emerge after the coronavirus crisis – what will have changed?

Hopefully it won’t be too long now that there’s a vaccine on the way. I think it’s going to be completely mad for the first few weeks, and then after a few months, it’s going to go back to normal. Those first festivals are going to be some of the best times you’re ever going to have in your life.

It’s like when you start university, and the first couple of months are absolutely mad, and then things sort of go back to normal. Not that ‘normal’ is boring, of course but the first few weeks are insane.

I have this vision of playing Creamfields and there are thousands of people there, and I get on the mic and shout something like “We’ve waited all this time!” I’m not going to do that though, don’t get the wrong idea..!

[Thanks Mark for talking to us. Enough is out now, click here to buy/listen.]

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