Competitive creation: How Maceo Plex took over the dance music mainframe
He’s blazed a trail for the underground in the megaclubs of Ibiza, dominated Miami Music Week and this year brought a new dimension to Time Warp
For a few days in April, Mannheim’s Hotel Dorint feels like the hub of the wheel around which techno revolves, the place where all the key players in the genre reconvene ahead of their sets at what is one of the world’s finest techno festivals. And Maceo Plex is very much one of those key players. For sheer thrills, pills and 24-hour techno bellyaches, Time Warp is hard to beat. In 2019, Maceo Plex sits firmly alongside those house and techno big hitters (on the main stage – just before Sven Väth, to be precise) – and then some.
Mixmag and Maceo have circled each other’s electronic orbits countless times since he first appeared on the cover back in December 2013, most recently in Leeds earlier this year when he shared a bill with Gerd Janson, Daniel Avery and 2018 Essential Mix champ HAAi at a particularly cheeky all-night rave. He’s not only been a key part of the electronic club and festival mainframe for the past decade, but an Ibiza and Miami mainstay, who’ll be playing B2B with another techno titan, Carl Cox, at this year’s Exit Festival. He’s also an artist with more alter egos than the Spiderverse, playing festivals and clubs spanning the globe as Maceo Plex, Maetrik, Mariel Ito and occasionally even Estornel. Though these days, he admits, they are starting to blend into one: “I think it’s becoming less important, slowly but surely,” he says. “In my sets, I always sound a little bit like all of them. If you come listen to me, you’re going to get a bit of everybody, all the personalities.”
The aliases do, though, give him a certain flexibility; he’s playing the main stage at Time Warp tonight as Maceo Plex and Glasgow’s tiny La Cheetah next week as Mariel Ito. “It’s like there are three ways of getting their [the fan’s] attention.” Like three different scoops of ice cream? “Right! Neapolitan ice cream.”
This year’s Miami Music Week, he says, saw him able to express himself across his full musical spectrum. “For me, it was probably the best Miami yet. First of all, Space is hotter than ever, the new owners have done a fantastic job of booking it, and with the 24-hour license you can just DJ for hours and have fun, and this year everything seemed to line up perfectly. I played Get Lost, and a few hours later I was playing Space for many, many hours. I played back-to-back with Tale Of Us as well, and also played my own set. Then I went to Ultra and played my own set, and went back-to-back with Adam Beyer. We went back to Space just to party with The Martinez Brothers, so it was very complete, and that was where we ended.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Miami is his original home town (he now winters in the US, then spends summer season in Europe). “I was born there, and my mom and my family is there so I go there a lot, and I don’t care about the restaurants and all that crap. I just want to get in, party hard, and get out. And that’s what I did!”
Music Week’s also, of course, the ideal warm-up for Ibiza, where Eric has also been making moves for the best part of a decade. His first proper residency, Mosaic, was at Pacha in 2016, and today he looks back with pride at the impact his party had on the island’s oldest club. “It was a learning experience in a good and a bad way. I was probably a couple of years too early, inviting people like Joy Orbison and Jon Hopkins as guests, and we did really well considering the artists we were getting, but bottle service... not as much.”
While his style may not have fitted in with the overall vibe of Pacha at the time (“Michael Jordan and Paris Hilton were there, and Michael Jordan asked me to play hip hop! The people on the balconies were into it, but the big spenders don’t know what they’re there for”) since then the club has arguably been made over since in Mosaic’s image, with a redesign that puts less emphasis on VIP and a change of musical direction. “When we called it quits, Pacha was ready to try out Cocoon, and we were both on the same page. Cocoon had a fairly similar line-up [to Mosaic] and now Dixon [new at Pacha this year] has a very similar line-up too. I now feel like we turned it upside down, we paved the way.”
He feels good about playing inside the club again, and this year he’ll be doing a Sunday in August with his DIYnamic buddy Solomun. “I said I wouldn’t step in there again when I called it quits. Now I’m much happier. It’ll be a fun party.” He’s also playing DC10, “which I play every year”, Hï Ibiza, and curating a night for Resistance at Privilege. Only the choicest of clubs, then, but beyond the music, Eric’s favourite place to hang is refreshing: “I like San Antonio! Going to the bars along the strip and doing cheesy things like the bouncy castle; it reminds me of home, of the US. The accents are different but there’s more kids stuff to do. Cheesy bars with bad fried shrimp!”
Eric’s parents first moved from Cuba to Miami in 1962. Born 16 years later, Eric inherited his father’s love of salsa, as did his brother Alex, and together they joined a local dance studio, attending for free and getting so good at it that they eventually travelled nationally, winning competitions along the way. “My dad would give me salsa tapes and I’d set up three different stereos, trying to synchronize tapes and dance between them.” In 1992 the family danced all the way to Dallas, Texas, where young Eric would imbibe all the music he could from local record stores and make mixtapes for the dance troupe to warm up to. The roots of his career as a mixologist can all be seen in this piece of Plex history: it wasn’t long before he built his own studio above his parent’s garage, and then a chance gig warming up for Green Velvet led to him leaving behind the life of a dancer, while his brother kept the family tradition going, even appearing in Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ video.
For Eric, becoming an electro DJ was the start of the journey he’s still on now. He’d go and witness Detroit legends like Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson and, inspired by their brand of deep, emotional techno, started his own radio show on Club Edge. His first moniker, Maetrik, would soon follow, and his debut album for Crosstown, the excellent ‘Life Index’ as Maceo Plex, would follow in 2011. Eight years on, it remains a Mixmag favourite, especially the none-more-DC10 ‘Your Style’ and the surging vocal house anthem ‘Vibe Your Love’, which remains a timeless classic eight seasons later.
Tonight, though, Ibiza can wait. His attention is firmly on Time Warp, perhaps the only place where you can see Sven Väth, Ricardo Villalobos, Amelie Lens, Helena Hauff and Nina Kraviz on the same spectacular bill. Consequently, over 25,000 techno ravers have made the April pilgrimage to worship at the techno altar.
It’s also the festival’s 25th anniversary, and Frenchman Laurent Garnier is the only DJ to have played at the very first festival and also the latest. Unsurprisingly, he’s a hero of Eric’s. “I send him new music periodically whenever I finish it,” he smiles. “And there’s only maybe two or three DJs who I’ll send things really early to. Laurent has been important to me since I was little. When he did that ‘Acid Eiffel’ stuff, that was it, I was hooked. ‘Acid Eiffel’ reminded me of a European version of ‘Final Frontier’, which came out on Underground Resistance, and he made like a similar pad-y, chord-y version – and from then on that’s what I made. I make stuff that’s like strings, or cool futuristic sounds plus strings. There’s always strings!”
Next to land in Laurent’s inbox is a huge new Maceo single, ‘When The Lights Are Out’, which looks set to be one of his biggest potential club crossover hits to date and boasts an unforgettable – and intriguing – vocal. “I have no idea who the singer is!” he laughs. “I actually sampled it from an obscure funk record and then my trusty management went and got the rights. The original is literally funk music, it’s not really even house, it’s like nu-funk or something. Over my track it suddenly sounds pretty, and it kind of goes really well with the strings, and it sounds like I actually worked with a vocalist on it, but I didn’t.”
He knew he had a hit when wife Christine, a key part of the Maceo Plex success story, told him so. “When she heard me working on it, she was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be big’. You never know how these things will go, but she’s usually right.”
He’ll release it through his own label, Ellum Audio. “A lot of big labels like to discover artists and grab them while they’re hot, and then develop them. So a lot of them were like, ‘Well, you’re already big and established so... no,’ and that’s kind of what I get a lot.” Crossover appeal, as always, is a priority. “I did do a garage mix of it. It’s huge in a speed garagey-type of way!”
Over the course of our hour-long chat, Eric discusses everything from his yearning to work on a movie score to his desire to work with New Order. But he also stops the interview at one point, because a musical idea pops into his head and he’s eager to get it down. After a short break for room service, he does the same again. “I do this to all my friends!” he grins, suddenly locked into a musical motif he’s keen to hone on his laptop. And he’s still making minor musical adjustments minutes before we jump in a car to the festival site.
Is it perfectionism, or a sign of a competitive streak? “I’m trying to one-up other producers,” he confirms.” I’ve done my fair share of small innovations that you kind of hear in other people’s music and stuff, and that’s cool, that’s what I like. In that way I am very ambitious, but it can be more like competitive maybe. I think people like Adam Beyer are ambitious in an almost entrepreneurial way. They build a business, they continue to build it, they’re really good at branding. But in the business sense, that all bores me.” Whether he’s playing to 300 people or 30,000, what shines through is his passion, and his productions – all of which, whether house or techno, are super-deep and super-distinctive.
Versatility, though, can have its downsides – even when you have four aliases to release or play under. “Let’s take Ben Klock or someone like that. They stay very, very consistent with the sound that they are doing, so they build up a following of proper Berghain techno, and everywhere they play it fills up with people who want techno. My following is mixed. There are people who want some techno, people who want some house, and so, in a way it’s more difficult for me to get my fans or crowd of people to dance all at the same time, unified. Some want me to play the Drumcode record I did, some are going to want me to go deep and housey. By not staying consistent, you don’t have a consistent crowd. I get there and there’ll be some people who are like, ‘Oh, I hope he plays some Maetrik stuff,’ or, ‘Oh, I hope he plays some of that deep, groovy stuff’.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he still gets nervous. “I’m still very insecure. I’ve learned how to socialise more in the past ten years, and I’m more confident talking to others, though – I used to be much more nervous. But I think the best producers are often very insecure people. I’m glad I am; if I was really secure with everything I did, well, then I wouldn’t make very good music sometimes.”
And despite any pre-match nerves, come 2:AM in Mannheim, Eric is causing serious havoc to the hungry hordes, some whom will have followed him from the hotel to the front of the stage. As always, he brings another dimension, a richness, to the relentlessly angular atmosphere. One new custom-built track deploys Maxi Jazz’s timeless vocal from ‘Insomnia’ and he also throws in some Double 99 speed garage vibes inspired, he says, by those legendary 90s garage mixes by Armand Van Helden. He helped underground culture infiltrate Ibiza, and now he’s infiltrating techno’s temple with a taste of the White Isle. Enter the Maceoverse.
‘When The Lights Are Out’ is released on May 31 on Ellum Audio
Ralph Moore is Mixmag's Editor-at-large. follow him on Twitter