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The Journey Home for Carlo Lio and Nathan Barato

From Toronto after-hours to global showcases to back-to-back at Canada’s biggest dance festival.
June 26, 2014, 11:00pm

Ask Carlo Lio and Nathan Barato where they first linked up and you're not likely to receive a precise response from either.

"My memory blows," admits Carlo with a smirk. "I used to go watch Nathan play almost every Sunday at Comfort Zone. I was a super fan. So I'm sure we met there or possibly on a boat cruise. I was DJing, but only in my basement and Nathan was this big-time Toronto dude. We clicked super well."

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From what Nathan remembers, "We met at Sky Bar on the rooftop of The Guvernment. Manzone & Strong were playing. Joe introduced us. I met Carlo along with those two pretty boys, The Junkies. We all became good buddies from then… I think."

You could excuse the pair for possessing a foggy recollection. It's been a long journey since then, one that has its roots in the Toronto after-hours circuit where they made their names together. Ten years later, both are smashing premiere international platforms across the globe, while carving out reputations as two of the most playable producers in the industry.

And it's a journey that comes to a head this weekend at Toronto's Digital Dreams festival, where they reunite for a back-to-back performance at Echo Beach. It's a fitting showcase because make no mistake about it: the story of Carlo Lio and Nathan Barato is a distinctly Toronto one.

It goes back to a different time for techno in the city from early-to-mid 2000s. Back then, not everyone, their mother and their pets wanted to be a DJ. And simply bringing ten people to a party didn't mean you had a gig. It was an era in Toronto where you really had to earn your spot. And to be honest, Carlo liked that. "It meant only good DJs were playing these great venues. I remember partying at Comfort Zone before I ever played there. I would stay for 24 hours and I would hear 24 hours of good music. It made things that much more special."

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So in 2006, when longtime stalwart of the Toronto scene Addy Ranh first booked the two newcomers as a duo to play a 4-deck, 2-mixer set for his weekly Friday party at the legendary Footwork, they recognized the high standard the city's techno community would be holding them to.

They didn't disappoint. "We hit it off and got some more gigs playing back-to-back," recalls Nathan. "We also thought of remixing Carlo's track "Everybody" and that led us to thinking that we needed a name. We went with the Roaches because we viewed ourselves as underground. We played the shit out of that record DJ-wise and got popular pretty fast. We were just killing parties. It was a lot of fun."

Carlo and Nathan's styles worked well together. Stylistically there were differences but nothing too varied that they couldn't flow. In fact, they always seemed to be in sync. And as the union—which extended to their boys, The Junkies—continued to take off, the Roaches spent a good three years rocking Toronto inside and out. Gigs were booked all over the place, opening slots for massive DJs were secured, a label Nathan and his brother originally founded called Rawthentic (which Carlo eventually took over) was established and a Footwork residency was confirmed. "You name it, we did it in the city," Carlo proudly enthuses. Eventually they got their own four-hour block every Sunday night at Comfort Zone, which they dubbed Weird Science. Nathan looks back on it as a watershed moment. "I think that's where we really showed the depths of our abilities. We kind of built an army."

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It was around 2009 when things changed and the Roaches went their separate ways. Carlo was quick to point out that it wasn't so much a case of taking different paths, but it was the things that were happening to them at different times. A natural producer who Nathan proclaims was "Whipping out bombs from the first day I knew him, pretty sure quite a while before that too," Carlo went on an amazing roll that saw all the big names (Carl Cox chief amongst them) playing his music from continent to continent, gaining him great international exposure on a solo level.

It didn't take long for Dubfire to come knocking on his door, who had an eye out for him and his sound. Carlo was signed to SCI+TEC and within the blink of an eye found himself touring heavily with the man in black by February 2010. To this day the chain of events remain difficult to process. "One minute I was a local DJ and the next I was worldwide. It was kind of nuts for me."

As Carlo's profile exploded, Nathan began to find himself at a crossroads back home in Toronto and he took a self-imposed leave from the business. But they remained close and with the encouragement of his fiancé, he found himself slowly drifting back towards a scene he thought had passed him by. He got back to playing gigs at Footwork and Comfort Zone. And although late to the game when it came to producing, he took the time to develop his craft to the point that it became an addiction. From there he was in the studio everyday, plugging away at it non-stop and shopping out his tunes daily.

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And just as techno royalty came calling for Carlo years earlier, it came back around for Nathan. In 2012, his "Hard Werq" began receiving major play from Marco Carola that summer at Music On in Ibiza. Then Loco Dice started playing it and soon more followed. "I was losing my mind! Seeing them playing it at insane parties was numbing." In no time, he was invited to meet the Music On crew, they signed him to their agency and he got placed on several of their events in Ibiza and abroad. The next thing Nathan Barato knew… he too had gone international.

They may have taken separate routes and done it on their own terms, but the Roaches have at last caught each other again. Only instead of in a Toronto after-hours, you are now more likely to catch them together in the Amnesia Ibiza main room. Or any pick of the festival roundabout. Or whatever world-class destination for house music may fall in-between.

But that doesn't mean home is never too far from their heart. It's a sentiment they share with fellow homegrown success stories such as Art Department, who also helped put Toronto techno on the map. No matter how far any of them go, Toronto will never be too far behind.

"Something about seeing anyone from Toronto brings back a special feeling," remarks Carlo. "This was all a dream we shared years ago and now we are living that dream together. It's some crazy shit!" Nathan also puts it in decidedly colourful terms. "It's almost like we all now know this secret. Like how a Jeep owner beeps at another Jeep on the road. That's kind of how it seems for me when we run into each other. There is definitely a vibe between us all."

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With their Digital Dreams gig just days away, you get the sense that, as far as the Toronto chapter goes, Carlo Lio and Nathan Barato have finally come full circle.

"That's really the best way to put it," Nathan concludes. For his part, Carlo can't disagree. "From playing three to five gigs a weekend together for four years and then to not playing together for another four. And now performing at big festivals side-by-side in countries all over the world is mind-blowing to me. It really shows that everything happens for a reason and what's meant to be will be."

They may not be clear on their beginnings. But ask them in another decade where they will be performing in front of 40,000 plus strong of their hometown friends, fans and admirers. Chances are that this time, you'll get a definitive answer.

Keep reading and watching…
Full Circle with Richie Hawtin, From Ibiza to Canada
10 DOs and DON'Ts of DJing in Canada

You can follow Christopher on Twitter and Instagram at: @theCMprogram

Check out Toronto-based photographer John Mitchell's latest project at Derinkuyu.ca