5 Minutes With… L’Étranger

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L’Étranger, translates to “The Outsider” and relates to Ben Thomas’ musical approaches as an Englishman producing French inspired house music.  Thomas‘ upcoming release ‘Single’ has been in the construction process for a number years and features his own vocals, impressive songwriting and expert nu-disco focussed production skills. ‘L’Étranger has played alongside Cherokee, Moullinex, and Riton since putting out his knock-out debut EP; 1997 was released via Sharooz’s label La Bombe and topped the Nu-Disco Beatport charts. Whilst Thomas’ main focus has always been production, his talents are multi-faceted and genre-crossing with 2013 seeing him play as the lead guitarist with Spectrals and releasing an EP of B-sides on his own label, Thomorrow.

We caught up with the man himself ahead of his release to find out more.

Hi there, how are you and what are you up to today?

I’m good thanks. Today I’m working on the single of my upcoming release on Thomorrow Records. I’ve also been planting some sweet basil, although its pretty hot for this time of year. Hopefully one of the two will be a success!

To those not familiar with you, how would you describe your sound?

I started out writing French House inspired tracks back in 2010, but my sound has evolved since then. I’ve been on somewhat of a hiatus over the past couple of years, producing other artists, honing my engineering skills. I’ve had a totally open mind to new genres, and because of that my songwriting has become a lot more honest. In terms of chord progressions, my sound is heavily inspired by Jazz and R&B, my latest tracks are very much songs as opposed to club tracks. The beats are inspired by the polyrhythmic nature of Juke and Chicago Footwork, and I also use a lot of rhythms originating from Dancehall. Tie that with some timpani hits, dusty old drum machines grooves and some live hi hats and you’ve got 2015 L’Étranger.

What are the 5 albums and artists that have influenced you the most?

I’m also obsessed with the LP as a medium, the best ones are a ‘record’ of a specific period of time in an artists’ life, a snapshot if you like. I love concept albums and feel the record is to be listened to start to finish, uninterrupted.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Brian Wilson fanatic. The most important album of all time for me is The Beach Boys’ Pet sounds. Wilson wrote harmonies and chord progressions like no one else, and the orchestration of Pet Sounds; the harpsichords, timpanis, the soaring harmonies.

My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Kevin Shields is renowned for his other-worldly guitar sounds and the production on this record sounds like nothing to date.

Weather Report’s ‘Heavy Weather’. Truly incredible musicians, especially Jaco, but musical prowess aside this is a truly great record start to finish.

J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’, what a journey. Probably the best example of sampling as an art form. Recently Stone’s Throw re-released the album on 45s as a tribute to Dilla‘s love of old soul singles. The inner labels are made to look like donuts too! Such a great reissue.

My favourite house 12″ is Stardust‘s ‘Music Sounds Better With You‘ which was released on Thomas Bangalter‘s label Roulé. I’ve got most of the label’s catalogue on vinyl. Even though at its core is a 2 second loop of Chaka Khan‘s ‘Fate’, it never gets old.

Which other artists are you into at the moment and why?

I’ve been into Jersey Club for a couple of years now (down to Sam Tiba‘s mixtapes) and luckily I’ve had the honour of working with some of my favourite Jersey Club artists. Thump recently did a 3 part documentary about Jersey Club music, and this year some of New Jersey’s finest are taking their state’s sound to the rest of the world. Its truly heartwarming to see these guys get the success they deserve. These guys are true innovators. My favourites are Big O, ClubHeadSLiiM, Fiine$$e, Gutta, Irresistible, J Heat, Jayhood, Kiff, Lilman, Mike Gip, Sega, Sliink, Tameil, Tray, Tim Dolla, Nadus, Prep, R3ll, Uniiqu3 and my bro TR!CK$. Shout out to Brick Bandits – the movement that moves everything!

I’m a big fan of DJ Paypal‘s work, he dropped 30 Drake edits last year, and released a white label on LuckyMe back in February, both well worth checking out.

I love Norwegian quartet ‘Rytmeklubben‘ especially one of their members ‘Hi Tom‘. This guy’s bootlegs are something else, I can’t wait to hear more original material from him and the rest of the group.
Welsh duo ISLAND are on another plane, I don’t even know how to describe their sound. They dropped an EP on Crazylegs last month called ‘Nokia‘ and its concept comes from the old sega dreamcast discs. For anyone who grew up in the ’90s the concept is hugely nostalgic. One of their members has a side project ‘DJ J‘ and his material is like listening to a cassette of 90s house at the bottom of a swimming pool.
All these guys are really pushing the envelope.

What are some of the key pieces of gear you use to write your tracks?

For my most recent tracks, it would be my Gibson ES-135. I string it with flat wounds and I play with my fingers, its by far the warmest sounding guitar I own. I run that clean through a Fender Vibrolux or Bassman. Sometimes Vox AC15.
I love Blue microphones, tie one with a decent tube preamp and whatever you’re recording, be it vocals, guitar, horns, strings will sound super lush. Very versatile microphones indeed.

What’s the best gig you have ever done and why?

I couldn’t pick one, but some of my favourite shows have been in Paris and Barcelona. Paris is my favourite city, its always such a pleasure to visit. I love finding a typical Parisian bistro after wandering through Paris in the daytime. Sitting down to some excellent wine and cheese with some friends and then going to play a set in the evening.

Barcelona is another great city. The crowds there are always really receptive. If I’m playing Barcelona I’ll try out new tracks or genres I wouldn’t normally play, its always a great night.

What’s the worst gig you have ever done and why?

I try and take something from every live experience whether its playing in a band or spinning records. Whatever the venue or turnout its always an honour to play for people who have shown up just to see you.

What are your opinions of the following…

Soul?

Incredible. I love everything from the early Motown days, anything Phil Spector produced sounds massive. Right through to Marvin Gaye‘s ’70s stuff (rest in peace) and Bill Withers late ’70s material. I’m a HUGE Tavares fan, their early ’80s material like Love Uprising and Loveline are a massive influence on me. The list could go on and on…

Dubstep?

Never been a fan. I automatically think of guys like Skrillex. Boring formulaic stuff for people at summer festivals, poorly mixed, poorly mastered. No dynamic range, it typifies digital music – its either on or off; no middle ground. Sadly the ‘real’ early 2000s dubstep from the UK passed me by. I never got into it I’m ashamed to say, but I think I’d really like it.

Hip-Hop?

I’m a big old skool guy, anything from Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang right up to the end of the golden age in the 90s. Nas’ Illmatic has to be my all-time favourite. The production and sampling is so so good, and lyrically Nas has the best vocabulary in the game.

My all time favourite producer has to be J Dilla (rest in peace) he was a genius.

Folk?

Like nails on chalkboard for me. There’s an annual folk festival where I live at the moment. I’m always dreading that time of year when my local is rammed to the gills with fiddle players, accordions and morris dancers. *shudders*

Trap?

Trap can be dope. When I first heard it back in 2011 I thought elements of it were fresh. I mean like anything it can be very formulaic, but the odd track here and there in your sets can be really refreshing. Jersey Club producers have been incorporating elements of trap into their genre, and these tracks I LOVE. But you can fuse Jersey Club with any genre and I’d love it. Probably even folk…

If you weren’t a musician what would you be?

Most likely doing some sort of musical therapy. Being an artist is quite a selfish profession I find, there’s something about selling oneself that makes me feel uneasy as I’m very down to earth; basil n that you know? Its important to do good in your community; it keeps you grounded, and you meet some of the best examples of humanity. Its important to remind oneself of the good people out there. Especially since we live in an age where people can be so negative.

Do you have any information regarding upcoming releases, projects, DJ mixes or collaborations in the pipeline that you would like to tell us about?

My next release will be out on my label Thomorrow in August. I do a lot of mixing and mastering as well as production for other artists too.

I’m currently mastering TR!CK$’ debut Jersey Club EP which features a couple of collaborations from him and myself.

I’ve also been working with spanish producer Vallès on his next record. which will be coming out on Thomorrow later this year. I produced his debut EP St Lucia.

I’ve got a lot of material in the pipeline which I’m very much looking forward for people to hear.