If you grew up before the Internet, you might remember how desolate Canada once felt for fans of dance music, especially if you lived outside of a major city centre in the '90s. Sifting through local music stores gave off a Fargo-esque desperation, with shops full of Bruce Cockburn anthologies and second-hand copies of Ratt records with unidentifiable stains on them. In that time period, getting your hands on underground dance music was nothing short of transcendent.
Montréal-based Turbo Recordings were there for me in my youth, building connections between the frozen hunk of tundra I called home and the rest of the house and techno universe. The Montreal-born label has released records from a global cast of dance music outcasts over the last sixteen years, from Finnish cosmonaut Jori Hulkkonen to nihilistic Russian civilian Proxy, to releases from puzzling pseudonyms like "Rainer Werner Bassfinder" to ZZT's seminal chaotic anthem "Lower State Of Consciousness" (which, to this day, still has the best one-sheet of all time).
I spoke with Turbo's two frontrunners, Tiga James Sontag and his brother Thomas (better known by the names Tiga & Thomas Von Party) about the rewards and challenges of fifteen years in the business, two-second media attention spans, white label fetishism, and the label's legacy; past, present, and future.
"It's hard to imagine now a time where you couldn't just go online and find all the answers" Von Party begins, talking about his brother Tiga's beginnings as a DJ "but there was a time when you basically had to travel to buy records, and find out what little bits you could and maybe make a few contacts." Indeed, Turbo wasn't born overnight. Before the label was even conceived, Tiga was running a self-operated record shop in the back of a Montreal clothing store; still a teenager, collecting dance music and making connections. "It was an obvious move seeing as "'we" had nowhere to call our own" Tiga admits. "It was place to buy techno records, tickets for events, rave flyers, and it had a general clubhouse feel. Early on we sold mostly 12 inch techno, trance and drum and bass, also lots of import CDs (at the time even things like Portishead were exclusive to our shop) and mix tapes. It was my first real business, and it was actually very difficult: long hours, and far more responsibility for a 19 year old than I had actually wished for. It was always very labor intensive, but there is NO way to get better records than owning your own shop."
Tiga's record store led to the opening of Montreal nightclub SONA, described by attendees as the kind of place that was "always wrapped in a sheet of darkness." Through SONA, Turbo began expanding its tendrils, with mixes from European house-heads Jesper Dahlbäck and Jori Hulkkonen appearing alongside Tiga himself. The transition from club space to record label "was purposeful from day one" Tiga insists. "It was simply a case of taking small steps, and taking the steps that seemed possible at the time. When I had more connections to individual artists, and felt better capable of actually handling their music, then I started signing tracks and albums."
Von Party adds that back then, mixes were the standard for musical consumption. "People who were into dance music and going to parties, they weren't all wannabe DJs, and they just wanted to hear that music in a format that made sense…" Thomas pauses—"and I think it's a bit of an underappreciated format now, it's a bit devalued because you can get so many free mixes on Boiler Room or SoundCloud, but, there's still nothing more special for electronic dance music than a really great DJ mix. They're timeless too, when they're done right and you connect the dots and weave a bit more of a narrative than with just one track. If you do it right, it'll stand the test of time."
From those humble beginnings, Turbo's catalogue has grown in leaps and bounds, and the responsibilities with it. "I remember my job in the beginning was so relaxing compared to what it is now" Von Party laughs. "Back then, it was like, managing the Tiga.ca forums and listening to demos. And then very quickly it just sort of expanded and expanded to taking over most operations." Today, the label's range is staggering, spanning over 300 releases in total, including experimental offshoot labels White Leather and the all digital, club-focused Twin Turbo label. Even Von Party has lost track of the label's output. "It's funny, I haven't done a real count" he admits. "We made an attempt about two years ago, where we wrote down a list of every artist that had appeared on Turbo, and I have to say, once you include remixers, I would stack us up against anybody just for the sheer scope of artists we've included. It's staggering how many people we've actually had appear on the label."
Turbo has the mutual blessing and curse of showcasing artists before their big breakouts—before Tiga starred on Top of the Pops, before Duke Dumont's tracks were topping UK radio, before Gesaffelstein was sound tracking Lynchian war flicks. For Von Party, this isn't a problem, as running a label is somewhat of a paternal affair: "Obviously it's great when guys go onto massive success. That's what you want for your children. It's also weird to see guys you worked with for years also just stagnating or not getting real success. It's a funny business" he sighs. "It's not easy to sustain it across a lifetime career."
Sustaining a career in Canada seems to be even harder. Contemporaries of Tiga's like Windsor-born Richie Hawtin and his equally successful Plus 8 label have long-abandoned Northern turf, opting for Berlin's techno-friendly nightlife instead. But both Tiga and Von Party insist that it's not an option for them. "Almost everybody that I grew up with left" Tiga tells me. "It seems that's the default pattern, but I never really felt the need to leave. I travel so extensively, that I'm fine to have my home in Montreal. I always liked the sense of isolation and the ability to slowly incubate ideas."
For Von Party, part of the key to the label's continuation is learning to not chase the next big thing. "Right now it's a funny time because as we've seen this massive explosion of E…D…M", he adds, sounding the syllables out slowly as if just mentioning them is treading on thin ice. "And not just the cheesy, being-kind-of-obvious Avicii side, but just a pretty massive overall growth in dance music—there's such a feeling of such saturation. There's so much music out there, the shelf life for things is so short, and things that are great get buried and swallowed up because of the volume."
But despite shrinking attention spans, Von Party maintains utmost confidence in the material that Turbo's camp is releasing. "Rather than it always being about the next new thing, I think it's important to reach into the esoteric areas or forgotten moments, things that might of slipped between the cracks." Tiga adds his thoughts on what's kept Turbo afloat where so many other hot sounds of the moment have come and gone: "Diversity is essential. The fact that our tastes have evolved and changed while still having some common thread…. and the fact that our passion is 100 percent real. We only put out music we really love. It also helps that I never really cared about making money" he admits.
The late 2000's were a particularly brutal time for digital record labels. The "blog house" boom of nu-electro such as Crookers and Justice (both of whom also appeared on Turbo before their big breaks) ignited a frenzy of torrenting and bootlegging, one that big labels such as Turbo must have felt the sting of. But when asked about label challenges, both Tiga and Thomas are fairly tight lipped. Despite Von Party's assertion that the music business is "in some ways, just a comedy of errors," both brothers insist that there haven't been moments where profit and passion have clashed. "We're very personal and idiosyncratic in our decision making, and it's usually just dancing to our own tune and definitely not doing things in a calculated way to make profit" Von Party states. "Anyone who runs a label knows it is not something you're driven to do for profit."
But Turbo's certainly not afraid to explore different avenues when it comes to making their bread. Their recent Warehouse series is an excellent example of flexibility and innovation—a limited series of rough—edged techno cuts from upcoming producers like Gingy and Bordello, paired with techno legends like Detroit's Robert Hood. Aesthetically, the 12 inch releases are a throwback to days of rave flyers, each release featuring a photocopied neon sheet of paper with smudged black and white graphics. They seem oddly out of time—like they could've been stuffed in the back crates of Tiga's first shop.
I'm curious if Turbo's return to stripped-down vinyl releases is a response to the crowded world of digital sales, but Von Party seems of two minds about it. "It's undeniable that there's been a resurgence of interest in vinyl—my personal feelings on it are a bit mixed. In my own life as a DJ, vinyl's a bit of a lost cause" Von Party admits. "But the exclusivity factor is really important, and I think when labels and artists have the discipline and conviction to say 'this is my work, it has value, I want it to be tied to this physical format that I love, even if it's a bit archaic,' then things get interesting, because that process sort of creates value for the music itself."
Vinyl creates a different physical experience for Von Party, but also comes with cultural connotations. "When you're in a record store and you put a record on, and even how you preview it is different than how you preview an mp3, you can see where the break is, you can feel it with your hands. That gets lost in the digital world of promo. Flipping through an mp3, you might miss the whole fucking point of the record. But I think that the challenging thing is that it's also something that's related to certain institutions that support that sort of thing, these small, tiny little stores like Hardwax and Phonica, when you look at how many records get sold worldwide, they're pretty powerful. There's an irony to it that these underground record stores and clubs ironically end up selling more than less underground sounding vinyl releases."
Don't get the wrong impression though: Von Party talks about these scenes with the well-meaning fascination of a scholar and lifetime dance music fanatic. And for all the sobering reflections on the dance music industry that the brothers have offered during our conversation, there's clearly no other life they'd envision for themselves. When asked about the legacy that Turbo will be remembered for fifty years from now, Von Party plays it humble: "The truth is that I really believe we're kind of lifers in this, and it's easy to have a trendy label that's RA's favourite for a year. It's not easy to run it as long as we have, and it's less easy to keep going and going… but that's the ambition—that we keep expressing different sides of our musical personality and keep finding great stuff. When I look at the overall scope and contributions over the years of what we've done, I'm still motivated. We're still building, and hopefully the best is yet to come."
Up next on that "best-is-yet-to-come-list" is "Fever," a blistering slow-scorcher from Tiga's upcoming album, accompanied by Maetrik, Tom Trago, Acid Arab and KiNK remixes. Von Party's offshoot label Multi Culti, which takes more of a psychedelic, world-music influenced route to dance music, will debut with a compilation called New Jack Tribal, aiming to bridge Turbo's sensibilities with perhaps the one genre it hasn't touched yet: Trance. "I like the tribal vibe because it enables trance dancing without it being any kind of goofy, overt trance" Von Party admits. "I try not to trade in nostalgia" Tiga adds, "but there are a few styles and forgotten eras that are now SO old, they are ready to be re-explored."
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