Interview with CHRISTOPHE CHANTZIS, producer for Ian Van Dahl (UK Top 3) - Jul 22, 2002
"Record companies are going to invest more and more in dance music, because it' s much cheaper for a dance act to make an album than it is for a rock band."Christophe Chantzis, together with Erik Vanspauwen, make up Ian Van Dahl, who have recently scored a Top 3 hit in the UK with “Castles In The Sky”. They work within a Belgian production & management team, W64 Music. Chantzis' other credits include Absolom and Dee Dee.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a songwriter and producer?
I've been in the music business all my life. My father was a DJ, my brother is a DJ, my grandmother was an opera singer, my uncle was a finalist at the Queen Elizabeth piano contest...everybody in my family plays an instrument. The only difference between me and my brother and previous generations is that we're the only ones who are into dance music. But you can trace that back to my father, who was into disco in the late 70s. He was already playing Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Hernandez, Earth Wind & Fire...stuff like that; that sound influenced me a lot.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a dance producer?
To be a producer, not specifically a dance producer, involves about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. A good idea alone is not enough, you need to work on every section of the music. You need the good idea, the sound quality, and the talented people around you. The company you work with, the team, the promotion, everything is important, and it's the same for every kind of music.
What are the key lessons you’ve learnt since you started producing?
We try to be aware of what our weaknesses are, and we work hard at correcting those weaknesses. Take the example of our national swimmer, Frederik Deburghgraeve, who swam the world record at the Olympic games, even though he has asthma. He wasn't the best swimmer, there were many swimmers more talented than he was, but he did it!
Most of the time, people who are less talented get further in life, because they have to work that little bit harder. I think it's the same with our productions. We know that we're not the most gifted people in the business, so we work even harder: instead of stopping, we'll work one or two weeks more to get to the same level as other people.
How does your production company work?
We work for W64 Music, which is a management & production company, and A&S Productions, which is a label. W64 has a deal with EMI (through Antler-Subway), but we have the possibility to sign our records to different record companies in the different countries. We are not exclusively bound to EMI. Since our kind of music first needs to get recognised in a new territory through the clubs, we are looking for good club labels in each country that are well connected with a major record company. For Ian Van Dahl for instance, we chose NuLife in the UK, who has a deal with BMG.
Artists that work for W64 are Erik Vanspauwen and me who do Ian Van Dahl, Dee Dee, Absolom and other projects; Peter Luts and David Vervoort who are behind Lasgo, and a couple of other people.
What work pattern do you follow in the studio?
Erik and I generally work on the music and then make it into a song by adding the vocals in collaboration with the singer. In dance, the music is very important, so we prefer to work on that first, although we have sometimes written a song and then made it into a dance track, which is harder. Erik is more the sound wizard and experimental guy, so he starts on loops, comes up with sounds, and that gives me the ideas to work on; then he takes over again, and we continue like this, exchanging perspectives, until, at a certain moment, I take over to finish it off.
Then, when we've got the music, we write down some words, some vocal lines, and we bring in the singer, and we ask her to help us with it, because we want the song to fit her too. We do everything ourselves, the engineering, production and remixes, although we generally go to other people for the mastering, because we do like to get a second opinion.
Do you have your own studio?
We have our own studio in Bilzen and we only go to other studios for mastering. It's a pretty basic home-based studio, but we have all the synths, about 80 in total, so that’s not a problem. We have everything we really need, but the accommodation is not optimal, so we're actually moving to a different studio.
What kind of equipment did you start out with?
An Atari 1040 computer, a Korg M1 synthesizer, and an EMU ESI-32 sampler.
What pieces of equipment do you value most?
All of them really....but a sampler is one of the most important parts of the studio; we have three now, and we're thinking about buying another one. Samples are basic in dance music, so you definitely need a good sampler. We use the Emu Ultra, and the sound conversion is so good that the samples keep their warmth, which is very important. Lead synths like Roland JP 8000 (or 8080), Nordlead 3, and Access Virus C are some of our favourites.
But we'll use anything, including very strange instruments that are not commonly used in dance music, which we use to make records that sound a bit different. For example, we've used the Korg Triton , which not many dance producers use, but other producers who make soundtracks or other kinds of music use a lot. We like the depth of it. And then we have a limited edition Sherman Filterbank; he's a friend of ours, and I have one of the first.
What's behind your current success?
We try to strike a balance between different perspectives: how we want a record to sound, what we like about it and what makes it commercial. My cleaning lady, for example, listens to all the demos I make, and I value her comments, because if you want something to be mainstream, it has to be something that everybody likes.
The current popularity of the "Belgian sound" has also helped; everyone seems to be looking at what's coming out of Belgium.
What do you think about dance producers' situation within the music business: what's good and what could be better?
When we make a record, we're trying to improve the overall quality of dance music, because we think it's important to do so. But there are producers who are in it for the fast money, and who give dance music a bad name. The singers whom we work with in the studio are the same girls who appear on stage and they sing live; we try to break with that playback stuff.
I think dance is still going through the phase that rock&roll was going through many years ago; it's finding its place. People are still scared of the new, although in Europe things have already changed: if you look at the Belgian or German charts, it's obvious that dance music has become the pop of the 21st century. But then in America dance is so small it's practically meaningless.
How important is it for a dance act to have people who can front the act on stage?
Very important. That’s the missing part in dance music, the face of the act. Dance acts are still anonymous, and to become really popular, to become mainstream, you need to have a face, you need to be recognisable. Kids and clubbers all over the world might know your records, but if nobody recognises the face then you can't be hugely successful.
Ian Van Dahl proved this: the reason why every time we release something in UK we really sell is due to Annemie's (IVD's lead vocalist - Ed.) growing fame. She's done Top of the Pops, all the TV shows, the radio and magazine interviews; everybody knows her face and that's created a fanbase. In some other countries, where there isn't this hype, our records sell, but not as much as in UK.
What’s the story behind Ian van Dahl, your biggest-selling project so far?
The name came from a Dutch expression for an average kind of guy, "Jan van Daal, Jan Modaal", because Erik and I are neighbours, we live across the street from each other.
We just had that one song, “Castles In The Sky”, for Ian Van Dahl. It was first released in the Benelux and then in Germany, where it was a minor hit, and then it was picked up in UK by Dave Pearce, who played it on BBC Radio. It took seven months after the release in Germany for it to be signed in UK, because they were sceptical about the song. As Europeans, the UK market is very hard to get into, because they're a bit chauvinistic.
What do you think of the current dance scene?
It's the same as with every scene, there are good things and bad things. I think that, in the end, with all these changes happening in the music industry, with earnings on records getting lower and lower, record companies are going to invest more and more in dance music, because it' s much cheaper for a dance act to make an album than it is for a rock band. And this is going to make the quality of dance music improve. Amateur stuff won't be wiped out, but there will be less of it.
Do you also produce other artists or do you concentrate on your own projects?
We would like to do other stuff, but right now we don't have the time for it, although we do do dance remixes from time to time. We did a remix of the LeAnn Rimes track, “But I Do Love You“, which was on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack, which was Top 20 in UK. We also remixed Kelly Llorenna, the singer from N-Trance, her cover of the Taylor Dayne track, “Tell It To My Heart“. Dance music is a stage in our evolution, it's not that we're ashamed of making dance music, don't get me wrong, but we would like to work with a wider range of styles in the future.
How much do you normally charge for doing a remix?
I think it's around £10.000-£15.000. But best is to contact our management who take care of everything.
Do you accept unsolicited material from aspiring artists, songwriters, and producers?
It usually comes from people we know or have already worked with. For example, we're now working on a new Dee Dee album, so we've asked friends to let us listen to their demos, and if we like them, they'll get onto the album.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for unsigned artists?
It depends on who the producer is, because I know many producers who'll throw demos straight into the dustbin. We are different. Of course I can't provide instruction to young kids on how to mix a record, because they have to learn themselves, as we ourselves have learnt over years and years. But when people ask for our opinion, we'll give it; we'll tell them what we do or don't like about the track, whether the mixing could be better etc., and we'll tell them honestly.
Some people might not like what we say, but it's just our honest opinion, and not the gospel truth. But hey... just because we don't like something doesn't mean it can't be a hit !
Do you think artists might soon be broken via the Internet?
No. I think the only thing the Internet does is boost the energy that's already put into the big bands. When record companies have already spent large amounts of money on promotion via traditional media, like videos, radio and TV, then the artist might become even more popular on the Internet. But starting from scratch and making somebody popular via the Internet isn't possible, because there's so much stuff on the Internet already.
The Internet is ok and we like it, but 80% of it involves illegal activities. I don't think people really understand what the consequences are, and I don't know if the music industry understands how big the problem already is. The measures that are being taken now, like artists protecting their songs by scrambling their mp3s, are measures that should have been taken 5 years ago. Back then, I talked to companies about the issue, and they said, "But nobody has a computer. It's not going to be that big. There's only a few freaks who are on the computer all day."
But look at it now, go to any school, and you'll find the kids are swapping CDRs all the time. We've even had people come up to us with copies of our album, asking us to sign them! I just grab my hair and say, "O my gosh!"
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
For Erik, I think it was “Castles In The Sky“, because it was the first real record he released, and it was a big hit. That brought him financial independence, which is very important. When music stops being just a hobby and becomes your livelihood, it's a very liberating feeling. That's when you get the chance to grow; lots of people stay at the same level because they're financially stuck. I got that opportunity with a previous project, Absolom, in 1996. We went Top 10 in Belgium, Top 30 in Germany, No.1 in Spain, which allowed me to quit my job and just make music. That's one of the best feelings!
But because we are not as successful in Belgium as we are abroad, we don't experience it as other people do. These results, these positions in the charts, are, for us, more like virtual success. We could go to UK now, and see 60.000 people at a big festival shouting and screaming for our song, but we don't really experience it like that, because we're always in the studio. It's a shame, but, on the other hand, it keeps us down to earth.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years time?
Still producing, but we're open to other styles of music and other types of artists. We'd really like to do soundtracks, stuff like 'Blade', 'Fight Club' and 'Matrix', which we really love.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would find ways to restrict free downloading of music. I would also change the status of the artist here in Belgium. It's just not regulated; we have social security but we don't get a pension, and if an artist gets sick here in Belgium, then it's bad luck.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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