909originals meets Ten City’s Marshall Jefferson and Byron Stingily – part two

Few Chicago house acts are as influential as Ten City, who recently announced their return – this time as a duo, featuring Marshall Jefferson and Byron Stingily.

A new album, Judgement, is set to land on Ultra Music this coming June, which includes eight new compositions, including recent single Be Free, as well as the seminal That’s The Way Love Is and Devotion. In addition, a Louie Vega remix of That’s The Way Love Is has just been released (buy link here), with the MAW legend adding some disco house flair to the original.

Following on from part one of our interview with Marshall and Byron last week, in the second part we chat about recording the new album, why Ten City’s music has retained its allure over the years, and life after the pandemic. We start by asking whether there was ‘something in the air’ at the time that some of their biggest tracks were recorded.

At the time of their release, could you see the potential of songs like Devotion and That’s The Way Love Is? When you wrote them, did you think ‘we’ve got something special here’?

Marshall: With That’s The Way Love Is, everyone that heard it that it was going to be a hit – at least everybody that I played it to. I remember Earl Young came over from Philadelphia to play on it. He heard the bassline and the drum machine and keyboard that we had, and he said ‘this is number one. This is a hit – we’re going to get some gold on the walls’.

Byron: When we did Devotion, I knew that it would be a hit record and I remember telling Marshall that I think it’s going to be a record that people will still be playing 30 years from now. When it’s played here in Chicago toray, people still throw their hands in the air. To have a record that people do that to 30 years later feels really good.

With That’s The Way Love Is, Marshall said it was going to be a hit, but I didn’t necessarily think so. But he was right.

Actually he was also right about one other thing – when we went into the studio to record the first album, Marshall said ’30 years from now, we will be able to record in different cities’. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?‘. As he said, I could be at home in Chicago doing vocals, and he could be in Europe, and we could have strings and horn players in other cities. We could have the baddest people in the world playing on a record, and we’re going to be able to do it in different cities.

The way we recorded this album was exactly how he predicted – that 30 years from now we would be able to do an album like this. When we were recording the new album I was tripping out because he actually said all these years ago that we would be able to do this.

Marshall: It’s because of the pandemic, right? He could do vocals in Chicago, I could do the music from England, CeCe Rogers did some keyboard work from New Jersey and everybody else did their part. Nobody was in the same room.

Byron. The string players were in Virginia, the horn players worth in Chicago, one of the bass players was in Florida. Then we had people in England doing backgrounds and different parts. It was crazy.

Byron, what you were saying about the music having longevity, that in 30 years people would still be listening to it. There’s something about Ten City’s music; it’s got topics that everyone can relate to – ‘boy meets girl and they fall in love’ – but it’s not a cliché. There’s a lot of thought that has gone into the music and the lyrics, and a lot of positivity – it’s music to feel good to. Is that one of the reasons why you think the music has retained its allure over the years?

Byron : We tried to do positive songs with positive feelings. Even That’s The Way Love Is is a song about breaking up, but it’s saying ‘look, maybe you will break up with someone, but another love will come along, and that’s the way love is’. You might have it one day, and you don’t have it the next. People go their separate ways.

But it’s also a song about hope. I have had people come up to me over the years, and say that song gave them hope through a breakup or divorce, or a difficult time. Or that the song Devotion meant this or that to them. I’m just like ‘wow, our music really means something to people’.

I did a show a couple of years ago – it must have been a couple of years ago because of COVID – and this guy walked up to the stage with a cane. He was really struggling. But as soon as the strings came in for Devotion the guy dropped his cane and started dancing. It froze me in my tracks on stage. ‘I’ll be doggone,’ I said. The power of what music can do –  in that moment, that guy felt like he was young again; he was able to dance again and do his two step.

When the song was over, he leaned down slowly and picked up his cane and went away. I said to myself, either he’s getting some insurance money from somewhere, or it must be the music. It made me feel overjoyed that our music has meant that much to people and touched people’s lives. To give people good feelings like that makes it all worthwhile.

We’ve had times over the years where the music business got away from us – I can’t speak for Marshall, but sometimes it was like over the years that we felt we were doing good music, positive music and it felt like it was not fully received in the way I would have liked it to have been received.

But then, one time somebody asked me to submit a discography, and I started writing down all the tracks – this one got the number 8 in the pop charts, and this one’s got to number 13 in the pop charts in the UK, this one came in at number 20. When I started looking at all the numbers, I said ‘wow, we’ve left a legacy’.

Marshall: I just want to jam with my boy, you know? It’s funny that he mentioned the dude with the cane; with a friend of mine, I was playing Devotion at a party and she was on crutches. When the song came on, the crutches were gone! I think she might have held onto one of them.

There you go, the healing power of Ten City! In terms of the new album, was there ever a though to reach out to the other guys in the group – Herb Lawson and Byron Burke – and get them involved?

Byron: I honestly don’t know if at some point they will be brought back into the fold. They’re kind of open to it.

People don’t know this, but originally Ten City was supposed to be just me and Marshall. Atlantic asked us if we could form a group with just the two of us, but Marshall didn’t necessarily want to be part of it. He already had his group, On The House, with Rudy Forbes and Curtis McClain – the guys he did Move Your Body with. So I brought the other two gentlemen in.

But to be honest with you, they both have things that they are dealing with in their lives at the moment, and they’re not really fully available to be part of this. But we both have open minds and maybe later we will get to do some shows together. We’ll see.

Marshall: Herb actually plays guitar on Come Together and Devotion, so he was involved in a couple of the tracks on the album.

So the door is open, as Byron said.

Marshall: Actually, when we first went to Atlantic, they wanted to sign Byron to a solo deal. He decided to turn into a group, because he was like, ‘I always wanted to be in a group’. I said, ‘man, it seems like a good idea now, but you’re gonna have to split the money four ways!’

Byron: In hindsight – I’m an introverted person and a thinker, and I’m 6-ft 3; some days I say I’m 6-ft 4. So I’m a big guy singing in a high voice. I didn’t think that as an artist, at the time, I was interesting enough. I was just one of the guys, I’m an average guy.

At the time, there were artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna and I didn’t really see myself as Michael Jackson, Prince or Madonna. I felt that a group would be much more interesting. Not to be funny, I knew I was a pretty good songwriter, so I wanted to put this mythical group together. I thought that would be more interesting.

But then, as it went on, I felt I became more confident, and I was thinking ‘you know what, I don’t need a group, I can stand on my own two feet’. I am an artist who has a lot to say and I am just as interesting as anyone else. But I guess that in the beginning, there was a little self-doubt.

Marshall: Someone told me once that every single musical group ever created breaks up. Every single one of them.

Byron: No, what about Frankie Beverly & Maze, or the Four Tops?

Marshall: They’re the exception, but you’ve got very few exceptions. All groups break up. It’s evolution. Personalities change once you get successful. It’s just a natural progression – a group will break up for whatever reason. These things just happen when you have different different personalities.

Marshall, it sounds like you would have given Byron advice not to do a group, just to do it on his own?

Marshall: I did at first, but once the group started I was pretty much silent on that part. I wasn’t going to turn around and say ‘dump these dudes’.

Byron: Yes you did! But no problem, you remember it differently.

Byron Stingily: “I am an artist who has a lot to say and I am just as interesting as anyone else.”

I can picture Marshall just sitting there, waiting for things to fall apart [laughs]. Obviously you’ve both been involved with house music since Ten City broke up, and you’ve probably noticed that the sounds are changing – the kids are going back to using analogue equipment, and they’re going back to real instruments. There’s an appreciation of the sort of house music that Ten City fits into, at the moment.

Marshall: Yes, because they’re more scientific now. They found out that all those old analogue instruments actually sound better then what they’re making now. There’s a resonance in the sounds that digital can’t duplicate right now. It’s getting closer. But if you want really good sound, you’ve got to buy one of those old keyboards because the new ones just can’t duplicate them. They’re not sounding good. You have those old oscillators and stuff like that.

You see some people now with these big synth boards, going right back to basics. There’s a real rediscovery.

Marshall: There’s science behind it. But if you’re trying to duplicate the resonance and the extra sounds now – it’s getting closer but it’s not quite there yet. They need to go full on analogue.

Byron: I’ve been on break and I just took a 10-hour drive somewhere, and I was listening to a lot of old soul music. I was listening to one of the Isaac Hayes albums, with Before I Get To Phoenix on it, and I was listening to the strings and the way they were led. It took someone to sit down and create that soundscape – the strings and the horns, and you can even hear the actual room that they recorded in, the microphones that are being used, and the reverb and things like that.

I think on some level, people studied for years how to get a guitar a certain way. Now, people study how to turn a knob.

It’s a bit different when you have that human feel and human element. As genius as someone like Stevie Wonder is, I listened to some Stevie Wonder vocals recently – some raw vocals – and I could hear the imperfections in certain notes. It might be slightly off. And that’s Stevie Wonder you’re talking about.

When you have a choir of 100 people, that’s 100 voices, and not everyone in that choir is a perfectly pitched or perfectly tuned singer. It’s those people that are slightly off that adds the human spirit. Or, when you hear Miles Davis – what’s the difference between Miles Davis and others? You might have some people who are technically as good, but it’s his spirit that’s in that music.

Together we have a kind of spiritual connection – when me and Marshall do music together – and a connection that we have with the musicians that we use, and us coming into you each other’s lives. I was telling Marshall yesterday – I was being a bit corny – but it’s it’s not by accident that we happened to cross paths in life at the time that we did. It’s a spiritual connection.

Marshall: I’d like to add that it’s 7am where Byron is, so we’re both still waking up – that’s why he’s getting all philosophical.

It looks like a beautiful day where you are Byron by the looks of things, the sun is shining.

Marshall: He’s just come off a 10-hour drive, so he had time to appreciate the beauty and the spirit in the music he was listening to.

Byron has always been very spiritual. I wrote two songs with him in the car. The first one was Devotion, that was when we were out on a double date, and the second one – we were in the car and he just said the words to Open Our Eyes. I was like ‘oh man, Byron, that is dope!’ I got the spirit hearing the words right there in the car, so I had to rush home and do the music.

Things are starting to look a bit more optimistic now, with the pandemic starting to dissipate – we can be a bit more hopeful that in the second half of the year there’s going to be a return to normality. What do you think will have changed as a result of the pandemic – is there anything that will stay the same, or are we looking at a bit of a reset?

Byron: I think there’s going to be a dance music Renaissance, because what’s gonna happen is that the people are going to want to have a good time. And they’re going to want to get get out and listen to some really good music. I think dance music will be as big as it’s ever been once this is all over.

Marshall: What happened after the last pandemic, 100 years ago? Right after that finished you had the Roaring 20s and everyone was going crazy doing the Charleston and stuff like that. Everyone came out their homes and had a party. That’s what I’m expecting now. I’m expecting a dance music explosion – people will want to go out and party and have a good time, just like back then. And that was a much worse pandemic than this one – I’ve seen figures where 100 million people died. In this one, we had five million or six million. That’s bad enough, but nowhere near 100 million.

So when we come out of this one, it’s going to be pandemonium. People are just gonna go crazy.

From ‘pandemic’ to ‘pandemonium’, then. Is there anything that you think will have changed – some people have been talking about places like Ibiza, where you had this VIP culture, and maybe that’s going to go, and everyone can join in the party now? Is there anything that will be fundamentally different to what was there before?

Marshall: I think people will explore ways of doing parties remotely. You can have a party in Ibiza, and a party in Germany at the same time with the one DJ. I see that happening. Maybe the DJ will be in Paris. You could have Carl Cox playing in four different places at the same time, and you could show him the crowd in Germany and Switzerland and America. As long as you can see the crowd and the response you’re getting, you could do some interesting things.

Let’s wrap up by talking about the new album, Judgement. The release date is June, is that right?

Byron: Yeah, that’s right. There are 10 tracks on it.

So that’s eight original compositions. Maybe not at the moment, but do you see a plan to take this on the road in the future – will we see Ten City live?

Marshall: Yes.

Byron: We’ve got on already one place booked that I’ve never played before, and we had an offer about doing a concert with Ten City, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies in Las Vegas. People have been calling us about various festivals, so we’re just looking forward to getting on the road together and having adventures on the road – and getting an all-star house music band together, you know?

We have people like Josh Milan working with us, he’s singing on one of the tracks on the album. We have CeCe Rogers – maybe people like that could join us for a few shows. We’re just looking forward to having fun.

Any festival that has Ten City is going to have the party going, and we need that sort of positivity. If we’re all going to get caught up in the ‘pandemonium’, as Marshall was saying, maybe this would be the perfect soundtrack for it?

Marshall: Wait until you see those people when they’re able to party again. It’s going to be epic.

Thanks to Byron and Marshall for chatting to us. Part one of this interview can be found here. Ten City’s Be Free can be purchased here, while That’s The Way Love Is can be purchased here. 🙂

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