American house producer Ron Trent has come a long way since his 1990 club anthem Altered States released on Armando’s iconic Warehouse Records.
Whilst working alongside key house VIPs such as Maurizio, Anthony Nicholson and Chez Damier, Trent took sole ownership of Prescription Records in the mid-’90s, leading it to become one of the genre’s most influential labels. Raised in Chicago and one of the architects of the Chicago house movement, Trent’s vast knowledge of music and proficient production skills have sealed his standing as a world-class purveyor of soul-infused house.
Under the concept ‘WARM’, Trent’s reputation precedes him on his latest album What Do The Stars Say To You. Paying ode to the vinyl long-player, he not only plays guitar, drums and keys, but recruits some serious star power, including violin maestro Jean-Luc Ponty and mastering engineer François K.
Your father was a DJ and musician. Would you have gone into music if it wasn’t for his influence?
“Music gets into your DNA and becomes part of what you are, so becoming a musician was a natural evolution. When I was young, I’d be the person in the room playing records for the family, but my ear training came from my pops and hanging out with my mom and listening to what she was playing. Originally, I had an interest in archaeology and architecture and music was like a family member, but I was always playing around with instruments. I had a xylophone set and percussion and the family wanted me to get involved in playing keys. I resisted at first, but as I got older and more interested in production and creating tracks I wanted to do it.”
You grew up in an era where mainstream music was more diverse and your dance music influences had multiple generic touch points…
“That’s right. We figured that there was no genre called house music, which was a shortened term for Warehouse because it was the music Frankie Knuckles was playing at the Warehouse. He was a student of David Mancuso and Nicky Siano during a period where there was a necessity to create a new direction and vision. Mancuso was like a shaman or tribesman who would guide people into a different kind of force field.”
What’s your opinion of today’s dance music scene?
“Because of social media, popular music is a fast-paced marketplace where everybody is reaching for the next new thing. There’s a lot of diversity but I don’t see a lot of substance because that stuff doesn’t have much staying power. Innovation is few and far between and when I browse the internet there is a big move to look back in order to move forward.
“Being a label owner, I noticed how everybody was leaving vinyl alone and moving to MP3s, but I knew they would go back to vinyl eventually because people want to collect music and see the value of holding something that has substance. Right now, everybody’s searching for something and that’s what I hear in the modern music.”
How have you balanced your commitment to vinyl in a world oriented towards digital consumerism?
“When I transfer something from vinyl to a WAV file the idea is to get the best representation of the original rather than some low-grade, compressed MP3. Those things were created for people to use while they’re out jogging but not on a club system because they sound terrible. I’m really into sound and that means quality sound. The bottom line is that if I want to play a digital file it has to be high quality, so my files are normally high-format WAVs.”
Do you still collect or have the same feel for vinyl as you did when you grew up or entered the Chicago house scene in the early ’90s?
“Absolutely, I’m a record collector and I still need more room. I like discovering things and maybe even rediscovering them because as you get older your palette gets more developed. Over the past decade I’ve been collecting a lot of Krautrock and new age stuff. People think of commercial Krautrock artists like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, but Krautrock actually had a big affinity with the Balearic sound. You can hear that in what I’ve created for this new album, along with a lot of music from the early ’80s because all of that lives in the same constellation.”
Do you still DJ with vinyl decks?
“It depends on the situation. Nowadays, if I’m only going to play for a couple of hours I’ll try not to bring the vinyl because it’s precious to me and I don’t want to put a needle on a record that’s feeding back. Having a sound check is absolute, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the music is going to translate properly on said system. There are some audiophile aficionados that have setups especially for vinyl, but today’s technology has also created DJ interfaces where people can bring laptops and use vinyl plates. People like the idea of looking cool. They got turntables, but the bottom line is that the venue is not tuned and EQed for vinyl, so despite the aesthetic it’s not what I would call vinyl-friendly.”
It’s rare that we get to talk to artists that were there at the conception of Chicago House. How do you think the genre has developed over the years?
“Let me clear up a misconception. Today, the commercial canon that we call house music is not a full representation of the sophistication that house music once possessed. There was an art component, a sonic component and a fashion component – it was a whole culture. Deep house actually comes from a term that we used to describe the music that Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy used to play. Why? Because they were playing deep cuts and things that were obscure. It was more along the level of the jazz heads and deep groovers than the mutated electronic robot music that we have now.
“I create electronic music too, but it’s related to an organic origin that’s got feelings, not some formulaic, four-on-the-floor, 909-type thing. There’s been great commercial music in the past, but today’s music doesn’t give you anything to carry with you. You might remember a melody or a stupid line, but it doesn’t evoke feelings. For me, that’s the origin of house music – transporting people from one place to another.”
It’s not just about ‘the drop’…
“Not only the drop but standing up there creating hand gestures with hearts and shit [laughs]. I don’t want to sound like some old dude who goes on about what happened back in the day, but you can tell this stuff lacks substance because it doesn’t stay around that long. How many of the tunes that became big records 20 or 30 years ago are even played today? I’m not going to name names as people get sensitive, but it’s hard trying to describe some of the more minimal styles of dance music.
“Maybe I don’t know the language, but they can’t be compared to the classic records that were created with heart, feeling and soul. There’s a reason why we still play and sample that music to this day. Everything’s got its place, and I’m not knocking any of that, but if you want to talk about longevity and staying power, I can’t say that today’s music is at the pinnacle of what’s out there.”
Is there a reason why producers no longer seem to make tunes that possess that longevity you mention?
“You want me to be honest? There are a lot of lazy people. At some point in time we got hold of the electronics, but even when that was a rare thing to get hold of there was a level of study that enabled artists to portray the art versus simply creating an electronic component just to get a rise out of people. It’s about how you can create momentum, drama or a nice piece of music that evokes feelings that will leave the listener with something, versus how many drops you can put on a record.
“I’ve trained a few producers that are in the game now and I start from a place that allows them to ask themselves who they are and what they are trying to say. That’s the most important thing and what I don’t hear now. Now, I just hear machines talking and spouting off sounds and loops and shit.”
You set up the SODA foundation in 2015 to help preserve underground music culture. Is that specific to house music or all music?
“SODA was set up to be more of an events-oriented educational platform. I try to curate a lot of those elements and tell the story of what I’m trying to do to preserve the energy of what we’re talking about today. One of my clients, Mr Robert Williams, is the owner of the original Warehouse before inventing the Music Box, so a lot of the events that I’ve been doing have been focused around him. We’re also working on a documentary and a book based around Robert, Ron Hardy and the Music Box. People have an idea about that period but don’t really know the true story, so I try to deal directly with the source.”
Do you fear that message is getting lost over time?
“The classic records hold their own because they’re so dynamic and the energy is heavy. I don’t think they’ll lose their potency, but history has a tendency to distort how they’re interpreted depending on who is behind the pen or running their mouth. That’s why it’s important to do impactful talks with people who were behind the scene to talk about the energy contained on these beautiful pieces of music. Whether people give reverence to it or not, what we heard growing up in our households is sitting with us all of the time and informs who we are and the moves we make. We’re talking about sonics and vibration, which is a whole other conversation, but have a major influence on our lives.”
Is WARM a collective of musicians that has worked with you on the release of your latest album What Do The Stars Say To You?
“WARM is more or less a studio band with intentions to be a live performance band, so you’ll see a rotating assembly of musicians. Right now, it’s pretty much me playing all of the instruments such as guitar, drums and keys along with collaborations with different artists like my guys from Azymuth, Khruangbin, Gigi Masin, Jean-Luc Ponty, and my man Lars Bartkuhn from Needs who also played on one of the tunes. WARM is actually a name, sound and concept that I created back in the ’90s but I was just figuring out the right time and situation to make it happen. When that spirit arrived, I went right in. This first release has 14 or 15 tracks but I probably created 40 or 50.”
The album is far removed from the release of your house/techno hit Altered States back in the ’90s…
“What Do The Stars Say To You is a room of sound that I’ve created for a particular aesthetic and mood and it’s definitely more leftfield and alternative than people might be used to from me. It’s about the search to find my artistic side and expound my creative voice, which has evolved over the years alongside my skillset as a musician, producer and engineer. What you’re hearing is all of those elements culminating in one project, although there are a lot of other things going on that people will eventually see.”
Without vocals, the music is left to convey a feeling or message, and for you that’s the principle of paying homage to the long player?
“It’s definitely designed to be more of an audiophile listening type of record. The original idea was to dedicate it to David Mancuso, who was one of the original audiophiles. This man created his own sound system and designed new types of sound equipment. He was really into sound and is the godfather of what we do today, but his musical taste was vast. He was into psychedelic rock, Krautrock and other ethereal pieces of music, so I was influenced by that whole avant-garde element, which has a certain level of fidelity.
“When a DJ is playing in a space he is trying to transport people’s minds and imagination. It’s about letting people escape and maybe being healed, because this pandemic that we’ve witnessed has left people stuck in their homes so the idea of being somewhere else has become very important. It’s about creating a desire for you to be wherever you want to be – a personal inner sound system designed for you [laughs].”
You’ve mentioned various inspirations feeding into the album such as Prince, but Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and Trevor Horn are perhaps less obvious. How do you view their influence?
“I’ve been exposed to these things and now they’ve filtered through me and something else has been created at the other end. In that respect, I suppose I’m acting as a medium for those things that have influenced me or whatever energy was stirred up at the time I was creating a particular song. I’ll often use mood lighting to get into the true essence of the muse, working with colours and sound to add layers and tell the sonics of the story.
“Tangerine Dream, Trevor Horn, Pat Metheny, Azymuth – when you listen to their records they’re so well recorded and multi-layered you can almost put your hand on them. So the idea was to do a Ron Trent creation that releases that and evokes warm feelings. I’ve also got to mention the whole Island Music era of the early ’80s. Wally Badarou was a great influence. In fact, I was working on something with him for this album that we couldn’t fully facilitate at this moment, but I need to honour that brother.”
You’ve mentioned the ’80s being a misunderstood era, but from what perspective?
“When people think of the ’80s, they think about the commercial stuff: people with big hair, certain types of clothes, snare drums and shit like that. But the truth of the matter is that the ’80s was a period full of free-form thinking and out of that experimentation came a lot of beautiful stuff. You can see it in the fashion and the art that was being created where the underground and commercial world mixed together.
“Musically, there was a live and electronic thing going on that was powering a new kind of innovation, so you had the introduction of a lot of synthesisers and human technologies – it was the ultimate! People laugh when I talk about it, but Miami Vice was a big inspiration. That was the first time a TV show was introduced that was shot like a movie. It was a cop show, but it had a combination of eye candy, high art, fashion and underground music all mixed together. There hasn’t been a TV show like it since – it’s unique like a motherfucker.”
Are people too afraid to take risks now?
“People get hung up on the idea of something instead of letting their imagination run wild and capturing it after the fact. Of course, we’re not saying you should let some child go in a room with a paint gun, but why not do something stylised and play with it?”
Did your choice of collaborators reveal themselves as you were recording the new album or right from the start?
“There were some serious spiritual moments like working with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who is also one of my muses. When I wrote the song Sphere, I thought this is Jean-Luc Ponty right here and started creating it with him in mind. At the time, I didn’t know whether I could get hold of him but I definitely wanted to show his influence. Funnily enough, his camp were looking for me to do something else, so we free-styled with Jean’s people, sent the track and he immediately said yes.
“I was elated, obviously, because the guy’s close to 80 years old, but he still sounds like Jean-Luc Ponty from 1981 or 1982. It was the same thing with Alex Malheiros on Melt Into You. I finished the track at about six o’clock in the morning and felt I could hear Alex on it doing the bassline, so I created one as a guide, hit him up on Instagram and told him about this tune that I thought he’d be great on. Within 48 hours the dude had sent me back six bass passes, so it all happened like that.”
Were you happy to file exchange with artists?
“File exchange is fine for me because that’s the part of the technology that I can fuck with. Necessity is the mother of invention, so sending files is the easiest and most efficient thing to do, especially when you think that back in the day you’d have to send a whole two-inch tape or a DAT. Anything we do right now is part analogue and part digital, but the spirit of analogue lives in the power of the content and that denotes what you will get on the other end. For example, if I’m playing in a DJ environment and using WAV files, you’ll still be able to feel me because it’s me.”
Did you build up the tracks rhythmically before adding all of the other musical elements?
“For most of my approach on this project I started at the keyboard or guitar before laying all the other things around it. I still use classic old drum machines like the Roland R8 and the Akai MPC60 but I mainly played electronic drums on this album so everything was played live. I try to give people as much of the human element as possible, even though some of the synths I used were more virtual analogue than anything else. I have some keyboards, but I’m not sitting here with a whole bunch of gear – if you see my studio it’s more based around percussion instruments. I have six congas and two drum sets, but also have a lot of heavy virtual libraries in my computer, like Arturia.”
The album is a good advert for virtual synths…
“Well I can get what I want and need from the virtual variety, but at the end of the day I’m the commanding force. If you listen to the album you’d think I have a whole analogue world down here, but all I did was plug in a MIDI keyboard. Let’s not get it twisted – synthesisers all exist in the electronic world and it’s cool that you got the latest keyboard, but as long as the sound is clean, sounds great and you can transmit the feelings, what else do you need when you’re the driving force? I’m just a man in a room with sounds, channelling, capturing, refining and letting the vision and the sonics lead the way – everything else is secondary.”
You enlisted François K for mastering?
“I know how to produce and mix and I sometimes do my own mastering, but François K did the mastering on this one. He’s a friend of mine and one of my mentors, and he’s also witnessed first-hand some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about. He actually went to the Slave To The Rhythm sessions when Trevor Horn was recording the parts and used to work with Island Records. We both sat in his studio in New York and probably spent a whole week on the mastering and everything else.
“Although we had some conversations about it, François is one of those guys that I don’t have to explain too much to. He gets it immediately and we both appreciate a certain level of fidelity. I was blessed to have him be able to touch the project in that way, especially as we did a special long play sequenced version of the album featuring interludes where everything is woven together. The vinyl is one thing but there’s going to be a CD and streaming version that’s going to be a totally different experience. This is just the beginning.”