Purple Disco Machine has been putting the funk back into house music for more than a decade now, with the producer behind the pseudonym, Tino Piontek, a regular on the international festival circuit, as well as boasting nine million monthly listeners on Spotify.
He’s just released the latest single, Playbox, off his forthcoming second album; a Hi-NRG disco house cut that’s certain to bring positive vibes as we emerge from a long COVID lockdown. You can purchase/stream it here.
The Dresden-born DJ and producer has had quite the musical journey, growing up in East Germany listening to his father’s smuggled black market records, falling in love with house music in the mid 90s, and finding initial success with his previous pseudonym Stereofunk, before deciding to rip up the script and start again – a path that led to the development of Purple Disco Machine.
Hi Tino, thanks for talking to us. Your second album is coming out in October, and you’ve released a couple of tracks from it already, including Playbox. Because of the pandemic, how long have you been sitting on these tracks?
I actually had aimed to finish the album pre-COVID. I started it three years ago and the plan was to finish the album in March of last year, but then COVID came, and we were locked down. So, I decided to work a bit more on songs, work with other musicians and dive deeper into my sound. It was actually a good thing that I had another 12 months to work on it.
The first album came out in 2017, and I think I started working on the second album at the end of 2018. I’m usually pretty quick in writing demos and writing songs, but now on the second album I decided to work more with musicians and other artists – everything remotely, of course, because of the COVID situation. This meant it took longer than expected.
How was the lockdown period for you, on a personal level?
In the beginning it was quite challenging. I was touring the time, playing something like 200 days a year, and when the first lockdown started, I realised that it was going to take some time before things got back to normal. I actually quite enjoyed the first lockdown, because I have a family with two small kids, and I was able to have the weekend off every week, which is very different to only having 100 days a year at home. My kids have started asking me ‘when am I going back on tour?’, so I think they’re starting to get quite annoyed with me being at home every day.
I got a bit lazy. I’m usually quite productive and quite structured, because in between touring I have a few days in my studio. I don’t like working on tour. As I found out, when I was here every day, it sort of stopped my creativity; I wasn’t that productive because I could always do something ‘tomorrow’ or ‘the day after tomorrow’. I need deadlines. Maybe that’s why the album took so long in the end.
So your usual production cycle was to tour at the weekend and then have a couple of days in the studio during the week, and then on to somewhere else the following weekend?
I need structure. I need an organised plan. If I have two days a week in the studio, and a deadline for something is in three days, I know what I need to do, and I can finish it. But knowing that there’s no deadline for the next six or seven months, and no touring, you’re like ‘ok, let’s see what happens’.
From a production point of view, some of your current singles are quite upbeat. Was it difficult to get into that headspace, to produce tracks that were going to work well on the dancefloor?
That’s the most challenging part. Usually, I need to road test my songs. It’s one thing to sit in the studio and finish something, but when I’m producing songs I always look at it from the DJ point of view. So when I do an arrangement, everything is looked at from the DJ perspective. Is the intro too long? Where would it fit into a set? I road test my songs and sometimes change the arrangement. But without any shows, it was a bit different – I had to trust my feelings.
You grew up in East Germany, and were quite young when the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed. What do you remember about what it was like to live there, and experience music there?
I was quite young when the Wall came down – I was 10 – so I actually can’t remember it very well. Thanks to stories from my parents and from my grandparents, I knew we had problems, particularly if you were a music lover. Most of the music was banned by the government; there was no chance to get The Rolling Stones or artists like that.
The only way to get vinyls or tapes was on the black market, so my father would drive to Czechoslovakia or Hungary to get them. There was a 50/50 chance if you would make it back home with your vinyls or if they would get confiscated at the border.
I remember, a week or two weeks after the Wall came down, we drove with our old car to West Germany for the first time, and after we set off, we realised that everyone in East Germany had the same idea. The highways were packed and there were traffic jams everywhere.
We drove to Bavaria – we had friends there, so we could stay for a couple of days – and the next day, we went to a record store. It was huge. It was a store called Media-Markt, they did music and electronic equipment and everything. There were walls full of vinyls and CDs, I was in heaven. It was the first time I realised ‘I have access to everything!’
My father wanted to buy a CD player, because he never had one before, and I was given the equivalent of €10 to choose a single. It was the most difficult hour – trying to select one single from this huge collection.
Do you remember what single it was?
I think it was Inner Circle – Sweat, or something like that. I don’t know why I chose that; it was probably something to do with my love for positive vibes in music. But I was in long with music from that day on – I wasted all my money on music, buying CDs and vinyls.
What sort of records was your father buying on the black market?
My father wasn’t really into rock – he listened to East German bands like Karat and The Puhdys – but he also bought stuff like Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. He was really into that.
Actually, I was also a huge fan of Phil Collins when I was 12 or 13. He was sort of my idol – it was the first concert I went to, in around 1994 or 1995. I really liked his early music, all his work with Genesis from the late 70s to early 80s, and then his later solo stuff.
Dresden obviously isn’t very far from Berlin, which developed an underground music scene in the early 90s, not long after reunification. Did that influence what was happening in Dresden, musically?
The problem with Berlin was it was all about techno. I was never really into techno, which is the reason I never went to Berlin in those early years. A few friends moved to Berlin and came back years later, totally wasted.
Dresden is around one and a half hours from Berlin, and the Dresden music scene back then was quite influenced by Berlin – all the DJs that played in Berlin also played one or two days later in Dresden. So you had techno, and tech house, and all these illegal parties.
The first parties I went to were illegal warehouse parties, because there was no proper house music around. That changed when a club called German Club opened a bit later, in the late 90s. That was the first time that I went to a club for the music, not just for the experience. It was the time that French house and filter house were really big, and it was being played in German Club. It was like a paradise.
I think the owner was a big fan of Studio 54, so there were dancers and acrobats, and the décor would change every few days, so that each time you went, it was a totally new experience.
Not all my friends were into house music – most of them listened to techno – so I went there on my own sometimes; I was the nerd in the corner writing all the songs into my notebook, trying to read what the label says as it is spinning on the turntable, and trying to understand the handcraft of DJing and playing vinyls.
So that was the first club that moved away from playing techno to offering something a bit different. Who used to play there?
The resident there, DJ Tokn, he was one of those guys that really got me into music He worked in a record store and I was in there every week, after the show, with my piece of paper, trying to get all the vinyls. That’s how everything started for me. Years later, the record store was sold to another friend of mine and I worked there for a couple of years.
When did you start DJing – was that after going to German Club or was it more of a slower-developing thing?
I think it was more slow moving. I started DJing around 1996 or 1997. I remember, along with some classmates, we had a school party in the basement of the school, and a friend of mine brought along Daft Punk’s Homework album. I think we played that for three hours in a row, non-stop. Everyone apart from us was totally annoyed about hearing the same songs again and again, but it was our party so it was our decision what we played.
After that night, I said ‘ok, I want to be a DJ’. I started off with one turntable a CD player, with a small mixer, trying to mix things together, and then I saved up to get another turntable.
It was a belt drive turntable; it was the worst! But I couldn’t afford Technics, because they were so expensive. When I think back, it was probably best to learn on the belt drive turntables because you need to be really good, to understand how it works. I’m quite happy that I started with belt drives.
So, you started to build up your record collection and then got a couple of residencies, correct? Where were they?
I stated making mixtapes and sending them to different clubs. A few more clubs opened, because German Club had been so successful. There was one under construction, about 500 metres from where I lived so I went there and became friends with the people behind the club. That was a club called Grotte.
I became the club’s first resident, which was really important for me because the club turned out to be quite successful. I had the possibility to book other DJs as well, and then they would book me to play in their clubs. That was the first time I had the chance to work professionally in the industry, and get paid for it, and start to build up my connections. It was a cool time.
It’s around this time that you started to think ‘I could make a career out of this’?
After I finished school, I knew I wanted to work as a freelancer – I never had a plan to get into a proper job. My parents forced me to work as a chef in a kitchen for three years, to make money and have a plan B in case the music thing didn’t pay off. I can always go back and work as a chef if I have to.
Around 2004, I had this residency, and could pay my bills – although at a low level – which enabled me to start thinking about this as a business.
There’s a bit of a leap, then, to you starting to make music as Purple Disco Machine? When did you get into music production?
The production started at the same time I started DJing, around 1996. I started with Fruity Loops and then went on to Cubase, which I still use now. As I mentioned earlier, it was the time that French House was really big, so I was taking my favourite disco records, chopping them up and making my attempt at French House music.
Everything was trial and error, nobody gave me any lessons. In my hometown, I think was the only person making this sort of music, everybody else had moved to Berlin. That was never a good enough reason to leave, for me.
Because I was connected to other DJs, and also because I was quite shy, I started making ghost productions for them – I produced house records for most of the residents at German Club, for example, and for other DJs in my home town.
Also, before Purple Disco Machine started, I had another alias, Stereofunk, which ran for about 15 years.
What else were you doing at this time?
As well as ghost productions, I was making music for advertising and TV spots – it was a good way to make money. This was around 2005 or 2006, when house music started to decline – it wasn’t as big any more.
Techno was big, and then EDM came along. I hated it. There was pressure from my agency to make EDM and to play EDM festivals, but I just wasn’t able to do it. It’s the worst music ever; I would rather sit at home and make no money instead of playing rubbish music to stupid kids.
With Purple Disco Machine, it was a case of ‘let’s go back to basics’ and start a new chapter?
The only idea was to make the music I really liked. Beforehand, I was making music that the label liked, or the agency liked, or make music to get DJ bookings. With Purple Disco Machine, there were no expectations, I could go back to my roots, and make music that I cared about. It didn’t matter if nobody else liked it, or if I wasn’t able to get bookings from it. If I wanted to release anything, I could do it on my own label.
The first tracks I made were really downtempo – 110 BPM or 112 BPM – really sunset, chill, groove music. It wasn’t suitable for peak time clubs. It was perfect for me.
That sort of 1980s, proto-house music sort of sound? Slower tempo stuff?
Definitely. And then this new deep house sounds started to emerge around 2011 or 2012 – I would never call my music ‘deep house’ by the way – and became quite big, and I was suddenly one of those artists that made this kind of music, and this was the new hype.
People said I was a ‘pioneer’, but that felt a bit weird. I was just making music with no expectations. I could send them to labels, and if they said no, it was fine, I would release them on my own imprint.
The first gig that I played as Purple Disco Machine was really cool; it was a sunset party, outside, and not some party in a dark warehouse at 3am in the morning. I really prefer to play next to a beach or pool, with a nice cocktail in hand.
Was the name Purple Disco Machine ever intended to be a long-term thing, or was it only supposed to be for a few of your own productions? Where did the name come from?
I was hanging with friends and we joked about names, and that’s how it came together. It actually started as a fun project, I never thought that I’d be playing under this name ten years later, with gigs around the world.
We were listening to Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, and that’s where the ‘Machine’ part came from – and then ‘Purple’ was influenced by Prince, and of course Purple Rain. ‘Disco’ was the music I wanted to make, in a new way of course. All together, I came up with Purple Disco Machine, and I remember that the first logo I had had a palm tree on it, to show that this was summer music, summer vibes.
Casablanca Records used to have palm trees in its logo as well…
Yeah, I was borrowing from things I liked. It was never the plan to become a professional DJ under Purple Disco Machine, but it’s been quite fun. Sometimes I think it’s not the best name I could have chosen, but I’m fine with it.
Around 2013, you broke through with My House. That was eight years ago, and obviously you have a new album coming out soon. What are you doing differently now to when you originally started making music as Purple Disco Machine, or when My House came out?
It’s hard to describe how my sound changed, obviously the influences are still the same. The tempo hasn’t really changed, I think My House is the same tempo as what I currently play – 120 or 122 BPM.
I guess I went more from late 70s funk to more mid-80s hi-NRG, electro funk and Italo Disco of course. Actually, Italo Disco was a big influence on me, because it was the only music genre that was allowed in East Germany when I was growing up. I think that’s because there were no political issues with the music; all the radio stations used to play it. I heard Italo Disco before I had got to experience Michael Jackson and the late 70s disco sound.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
I expect that I’ll play a few shows during the summer, of course open air shows, with maybe 1,000 capacity or something like that. Most major festivals and shows have been postponed to next year, and I don’t expect any indoor shows for more than 1,000 capacity this year.
Do you think that anything will be ‘different’ about clubbing post-COVID? Or will things just go back to the way they were?
I don’t think so. I see how it is in the United States right now now when I scroll through my Instagram, and it looks like the ‘normal’ has returned – people just want to have fun.
The reason I love disco is that it’s made for people to dance to, and have fun, and enjoy life. I think people want to get out and share the feeling with others – they don’t want to sit in their living rooms, or hooked up to their VR headsets, and experience a ‘virtual festival’. They want to go out with their friends and enjoy the music.
I expect that next year, everything will be like it was before, I don’t think anything will change – well, at least not that much.
[Thanks Tino for talking to us. Purple Disco Machine’s latest single, Playbox, is out now]