Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Laidback Mr Woox

Syed meets one of the most interesting producers in the Vintage Remix scene, Croatian born Mr Woox, aka Milan Vujnovic, whose unique take on swing-hop has earned him a reputation as a maker of some of the most evocative retro beats. In this wide-ranging interview, which is reproduced verbatim, we find out what makes him tick.

Recently, I wrote about the specific journey that I went through, which started from songs of Jennifer Lopez through to UK Garage swing. The journey has continued. I have been listening to a lot of Swing House and Swing n Bass but a Vintage Remix artist made me curious about slow jazz music with soft downtempo beats. I looked more into it and also found some similar songs by Boogie Belgique and Neroche who also specialize in blending Jazz music and hip hop beats. I started searching for similar music and found myself listening to a lot of Trip Hop, which originated from Bristol. UK. I asked on the public Electro Swing group on Facebook if the birth of electro swing had anything to do with much older trip hop sound.

In my last post, I mentioned how I was able to connect to electro swing music because of thousands of movies I’ve seen since moving to Canada in 2004. However, only certain kind of music could give that warm vintage feeling evoking New Orleans and New York City: music by Mr. Woox and Laidbackz.

Mr. Woox is a Croatian producer and DJ, who is known to make really warm jazzy, yet funky, beats which I like to think as ‘porn of electro swing’. Recently, I had a pleasure of speaking with him:

Milan: Hey man. Can you hear me?

Syed F: I can… Thank you so much for giving me this time. I really appreciate it.

Milan: No problem, no problem.

SF: I guess you don’t have a lot of time so I will get right into it.

Milan: Actually, I do have some time. We can have a casual Sunday conversation. By the way, it has been a great Saturday. The gig was really good.

SF: I saw your Facebook post.

Milan: It is actually…do you know the city where is the city I played? Do you know where I am now….besides Serbia? Do you have any idea?

SF: I don’t know.

Milan: Actually, there is a really big world famous festival called Exit Festival. Do you know about it?

SF: No, actually no. I wish I did.

Milan: It has been going on for 10 years now. It is one of the major festivals in Europe.

SF: So, people from all over the Europe were there?

Milan: Yeah, yeah. If it is the festival and it is during the summer then everybody comes to it. It is right beside the city where I am now. I just wanted to tell you that.

SF: That is amazing. I am sure many people already knew and some did not. Thank you for letting me know.

Milan: No problem.

SF: I know exactly what kind of music you make so my questions will be very specific.

Milan: Yes, sure.

SF: I know you represent a specific sub-genre of electro swing which is why I think your music has been really unique. I am going to be very careful when I use the term “Electro Swing” because I know you prefer the term “Ghetto Swing and Swing Hop”. So, I know, instead of using the term electro swing, you say that you make Ghetto Swing and Swing Hop. What got you into this music? Did you start your music career with this type of music? What were your early influences?

Milan: Basically…I think you were also in that conversation where we discussed…I think Michael Rack from Dutty Moonshine had some post regarding…I think you actually did comment on that. We mentioned the Trip Hop and whole Hip Hop, the roots of Jazz and Swing. What can we say about that? My late mother introduced me to the whole Jazz records…Jazz and Swing story and also funk and soul. She introduced me to the good stuff – the classic and original stuff. When I was 11 or 12 years, she played Aretha Franklin’s records, she played Billy Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald for me. I listened to a lot of that music when I was a little kid. And then, of course, there is Tom & Jerry music. I kind of grew up on that. Later on, you know how life goes and you meet with certain people in your life. A really good friend of mine, who is older than me, introduced properly. I listened to a lot of Hip Hop before by myself of course. When I was growing up….how old are you? I was born in 1988.

SF: Same here. I was born in 1988.

Milan: So, we are from the same generation. Then, I don’t have to tell you how we grew up. There was not so much internet. We really had to dig in order to find the stuff. It took half an hour to 45 minutes to download one .mp3. You had to really connect with people, from the music, to actually gain access to the quality stuff. Then, he introduced me to the labels like Ninja Tune and artists like Kid Koala, DJ Krush – all that Trip Hop/Hip Hop stuff. And, then, when he introduced me to those artists, we told each other to listen to songs, I was like: “Man, this is really good stuff”. That was like the melting pot of the music. I was introduced by my mother and this was like the upgraded version where it combined those styles. And, then, you have all these…you can probably tell by my music, I am a huge old hip hop fan – the golden era sound of the 1990s. (Some of the) hip hops groups were House of Pain, Funkdoobiest, Cypress Hill, DJ Premier  - that is the sound I was after.

SF: You had a very specific journey to get to this point, that’s is amazing. In your opinion, why do you think that revisiting vintage sounds, by an electronic music producer, work so well? What makes it so effective? Why do you think it works so well?

Milan:  You asked me about revisiting vintage…I can tell you why I started with production of that music. I needed that sound. I needed to hear it. I heard it from other producers and I liked it. I really needed to put my imprint on this. I liked the story of electro swing. It was a totally new genre which was representing the combination between old and new which was really….I was like, “Oh my God, this is it!” This is what I do. This is what I like. I like the classic stuff. Now, we live in 21st century. That really brings me back. It gives you a feel that you live in that time because I am really a huge fan of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. I can see (some good material from) 1950s but that would be like mid-1950s. Till the end of 1950s – that is it for me as far as Jazz and Swing is concerned.

I just wanted to mention a couple of things I have in my mind about this subject. For me, I love that organic and warm sound. For me, jazz and swing were warm music. When it is Christmas time and it is winter, it has that something… I love (that) romantic dreamy abstract vibe. Of course, I love to dance. I played some dance tunes yesterday. That is not what I, Mr. Woox, am trying to do as an artist. L’Orange is one my favourites. That sound, he is after something – of course, I am going to do my style, my imprint but that is the vibe I am after. I love the noir. I love noir movies. I have seen The Godfather 500 times. When I was 11 years old or younger – Casino and those movies, I really loved. It is kind of like natural thing (for me).

When I was starting out or, I shall say, when I joined the electro swing circle about four or five years ago, I found it mega-dope. I listened to UK Garage-based electro swing bands which I found to be good. After a year or two, I could not really dig it. I was searching for certain vibe. That music was too aggressive for me. I am not all that bass heavy or dubsteppy. I want you to get a feel what vintage revival means for me. It is about keeping the warmness and authenticity of that era through organic drums, etc. but not too much electro stuff: crazy synths, etc. It has to preserve that (warmness).

SF: I understand what you mean. If you watch the older movies, they captured it really well. When I listen to your music, I really go back in time. Literally, I feel like I am there.

Milan: Thanks. On the other hand, I understand that every genre has to go pop at some time. Same thing happened to hip hop. Look at the hip hop now. It is fucking ridiculous. The trash, they call hip-hop these days, make me sick.

On my Soundcloud, I have this saying, “Swing is maybe the only music where suffering looks glamorous. We think that a certain song passed through our life, but it's actually the other way around. We passed through its eternity." This is where I have the moment of inspiration. This is what really matters to me. I do music. I did all my stuff ever since I made my Soundcloud account. I did this from the heart and my soul. I really wanted to do that so they can be eternal and classic. I don’t want hype. Of course, positive hype is good but I will not follow the trend just so I can be: “SUCCESSFUL DJ BIG MR. WOOX” who needs to play Trap Swing to be booked. I like to be honest. I like to say what is on my mind.

SF: In your live sets, do you play any other forms of electronic vintage/swing music, e.g. swing and bass, swing house, glitch and swing?

Milan: I wanted to clarify that when I say “Ghetto Swing”, I know the term “ghetto” is used in “Ghetto Funk” but actually “Ghetto Swing” should be like heavy bass sound.

SF: I know what you mean. I did hear a song on your Soundcloud page labelled as “Ghetto Swing”.

Milan: I just took the term “Ghetto” because I feel that this term is about ghetto music: I think of Brooklyn, I think of Bronx. (I think of) old neighbourhood (and) old ghettos. Then, this would be my soundtrack for that (setting) when you see it in a movie or music video. It is from the ghetto or for the ghetto. It does not necessarily have to involve heavy basses. It is kind of my own interpretation of that word.

(To answer your question), in the beginning, when I was doing my first mix, I was messing around with Swing and Bass and everything. As I told you before, I am not getting too old but I think of myself as a prolific listener. I make music. I play my music. I play music from other people. I am still a listener. I can dance to it (new music) but, as I am growing older, it is not my vibe anymore. In my hometown, my crew (from Yugoslavia) is known for doing some really good drum and bass. I went through that phase. I feel like it is for kids (laugh). It is like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare stuff (laugh). I am not saying that this is bad music. On the contrary, every now and then, I can listen to jungle but this is not something I like in terms of production and DJ sets. I play hip hop, house tempo and everything in between: from 80bpm to 126bpm maximum. I don’t like 128bpm – the standard club BPM.

For sets, I can tell you what I played yesterday. I started with classic stuff: jazz and swing records. Then, I went into my production which was jazzy and swingy. Then, I played some unreleased beats which were soulful, funky and jazzy. They were not deep and jazzy but more like funky and jazzy. Then, I constantly was raising the tempo up and then I finished up with funky/deep/jazzy vibe. I love to do a special intro song and a special outro song. It is very important to me – which song I begin with and which song I close my set. I did it all night yesterday but it was not for 8 hours. I played for four to five hours. You can tell a story, man. I had five hours. I had so many tracks I played. It has ups and downs. It is not like that I am playing a deep house set and I have an hour and the half, and I am going to drop bombs at you. It is all quality music but it has a story.

SF: I like the way you think. Where does your name Mr. Woox come from?

Milan: My last name is hard for you to pronounce but it is pronounced as ‘woo-i-no-vich’. It has that ‘woo’ in the beginning. I know you guys cannot pronounce it. My nicknames are “wooky”, “wooxy” – in high school, I was “wooxy”. Then, I thought that this could be really nice. I imagined it visually how would it look like on a billboard. Then, I thought that everybody has that prefix “DJ” in front of their name. “DJ <this> DJ <that> He is a fabulous DJ <blah blah> or DJ <flamingo>”. There are too many DJs. Naturally, I am a DJ. Also, one of my biggest influences was Mr. Oizo, who is a French electro pioneer and really dope, and, of course. Mr. Scruff. I had a pleasure of meeting him two years ago. We were playing at a festival in Croatia which had nice music and good crowd. I admire him a lot and it was an unbelievable feeling when I met him. He is down to earth and a really amazing person. I had a chat with him. I told him that I had “Mr” in front of my name partly because of him. He was cool. Everybody has “DJ’ who play techno or tech house music.

SF: “Mr” sounds classy.

Milan: Yeah, I am trying to get that vibe. So, I thought that I could take that and take something from my last name. Does it sound good to you?

SF: It does. It sounds very cool to me. Your name has that vintage vibe in it. Woox is derived from your current nickname and “Mr” has that vintage vibe. In my opinion, it perfectly describes the genre itself.

Milan: Yeah. If you look at my soundcloud profile picture and see the cover… of course, I could put out a picture of me DJ’ing as shown on Skype (the picture of Mr. Woox DJ’ing on a boat). This was like paradise. It was a cruise shop floating on Croatian islands. My friend, if you ever come, it is unreal – it is like Eden. For example, If I put that picture, many girls would like it (laughs). I don’t want to achieve that. I want you to listen to music and not look at me.
If you look at the guy (in my soundcloud profile picture), I like that shadow. Do you know the game, Fallout?

SF: Yes, I do.

Milan: Do you know the story of it? The whole sound is jazz and swing. You also have Bioshock and some other good games that use jazz and swing music. I am trying to get that abstract feel. You see the guy with a coat and a hat, and there is a clock. I talked about eternity before and this guy (in the picture) is trapped in time. Then, you look at the cover and you see this big city from the future but it is from the past. It is all blended together. Then, the music is the soundtrack for my imagination I have/had.

SF: You mentioned earlier that the (music) genres die eventually. There was swing. Then, there was rock and roll. Then, there was disco. Then, there was house. Even house music is unrecognizable now. I am a huge house music fan.

Milan: The track you linked me (Sisko Electrofanatik - Cocaine (Original Mix)) was awful. I need to link you good stuff. Of course, there is bad material. I tell everyone that you have to dig. There is so much dope music that you would not believe. You just need to dig. Of course, you need a proper source. I have tons of great music coming out. I am most grateful of my Soundcloud stream. Whenever I am down, I go there and I find gems. Also, I can tell you that, for my productions, I use hardware but, at the moment, I don’t have turntables at the moment which I want to change, of course. I am going to get me a pair of those. I download the original tracks. I found really cool sources where I draw my samples from. Also, I find such great things which I cannot find anywhere except fucking YouTube (laugh). By listening to my music, it is hard to tell where the samples are from. You listen to it and like/dislike it.

SF: Where do you think this scene is heading in next 5 to 10 years?

Milan: There is a small digression. I am optimistic generally in life. I like the movement which started electro swing. But, as we discussed many times before, I think it is starting to maybe run out of the good ideas. Let me break it down so you get a proper feel of what I am trying to say. I think most of the classical stuff has already been sampled. Now, worst producers will try to flip that sample and it gets worse. In most cases, I rarely come across something which is new and makes me go, “this is the track I want to have in my set”. Soundcloud had groups before. Nowadays, they are related. Now, for example, when I click on my track, on the right side, it says “related tracks” (not groups anymore). I think those tracks are listed by the tags. I would not agree that they are listed by tags because if you listen to those tracks, they don’t have any resemblance. They are not the same vibe but they are being put as related tracks.

Before, I was really following and was active in those groups. You had groups like “Swing Hop”, “Electro Swing UK”, “Ghetto Swing” and “Swing House”. Producers would upload their songs in those groups. As far as I am concerned, it was better. If I wanted to listen to Ghetto Swing, I would go into that group and pick good songs. I think that nowadays it is really hard for me to come across (good songs). If you take a look at my sets, Nick Hollywood said under one of the songs: “Really good work…” I think that the obvious was being missed here that the tracks in my mixtapes are rarely online. For example, I played Parov Stelar yesterday. I will do the afterparty of Parov Stelar. He will do the concert and then he will be in Belgrade. I will play in the after party. I am just going to try and not be better than him. I love him. He is the godfather of electro swing. Now, he has gone to pop (music). He is doing filling up the concert rooms. He has 5000 people, minimum, when he is doing the concerts. I think industry does that to you. At some point, you have to (play for) masses/wider audience. My stuff is for concerts.

I think this scene has potential but it lacks some really unique and fresh production that will be constant so that, in one week, you have at least seven dope beats to play. There is that lack of tracks. I played so many times where I was booked for electro swing. If I play for more than 2 hours, I have to mix it with something else. It feels boring. It started to feel boring especially those happy trumpets for those crazy drunkards who just want to dance (laughs). Sometimes, I am not happy. For me, Jazz is that mellow shit when I am in love or broken-hearted or when I want to dream.

SF: I do get that feeling. One time, I said that your music is like the porn of electro swing.

Actually, one of my favourite comments I ever received was from Mexico. He said, “Dude, this is awesome! I got laid to this shit” (laughs). For me, this is the feeling of (watching) football in Europe. In the Champions League, the feeling you get when the striker hits a goal, that is why I like music.

SF: That was a great comment and very funny.

Milan: That kind of emotion is what drives me to make music. Somewhere or some part/corner of the world, two people in love are making love to my music. Now, I am immortal and can die (laughs). That is my biggest ambition actually: to become immortal and die.

SF: Do you have any new stuff coming soon or any surprises coming?

Milan: Well, with regards to what is going on in my life music-wise, I will be heading to Belgrade in two to three days where I am going to meet with my partner in beats and my good friend: The ROA. We are Laidbackz. He is the other half of Laidbackz. We called ourselves that because we did not want to put “Mr. Woox and The ROA”.

SF: So, Laidbackz is you and The ROA working together, right?

Milan: Yes, yes. If you look at my Facebook wall, you will see that he is a really dope graphic designer. You can check what he did. We were sitting and talking about music. We are both big fans of Gorillaz. We wanted to do that too with Laidbackz. We are trying to get that. He is the left one and I am the right one. It does not necessarily have to be like that but I have seen it a lot that, when you are on stage, it is good to have something which makes you unique.

If you look at the actual swing scene these days, everybody puts suspenders [that’s braces to us Brits. Ed.] – the stuff which hold your pants – and immediately, you are an electro swing DJ. I am trying to somehow stand out from all that. I am trying to be very unique and I know it is hard because there is always something which cannot be avoided.

SF: I think your music is going to last longer than the current electro swing trend because you are very unique. Whenever people join the Electro Swing group, they are looking for mostly swing house. When they see something different…

Milan: Yeah. They are looking for the stuff that is already being put out there. I don’t understand either. They want to listen to Parov Stelar and Caravan Palace. Goddamnit, we have been listening to that stuff for six years. I understand that some people are new to it but it is fucking crazy. They don’t need you to like them. They don’t need you to repost their tracks. They have made it. I will always support and will return the comment under my songs. I love to find many people in my hometown and other places who come to me because they know I am about music and respect my work. Many rappers ask me about opinion and I always give honest feedback. I never lie to them. I won’t call them dope if I don’t think they are dope. If you ask for an opinion, I will give it to you and will give it honestly. This is how it should be done...

I am enjoying this conversation.

SF: Where are your future gigs? Are you going to play in other countries?

Milan: Today, I am going to head to Belgrade. I am going to spend a day with my partner. We are going to finish a couple of tracks. We have a 7-track EP which is so good. I think, you will be blown away. I am being modest, they are very good. Each of them is a story for itself. It is unbelievable. If I do an EP, it is seven tracks. In most cases, (for example) House EP has 3 tracks and that is it. Their lengths are different but you hear the same kind of sound. I love that we can make soundtrack EP and all tracks are connected in a certain way but they are all telling a different story. We have that EP ready. I am waiting for C@ in the H@ to respond. We talked about releasing it on his Ragtime Records. I feel it is a very good label to do it especially because they don’t have such kind of vibes on their label yet. C@ in the H@ told me that he liked the tracks very much. We are waiting - he has sent a couple of tracks to High Focus Records. They are really big. We are waiting for the answer in general to see who will do it. We are going to record that and master it. I hope it will be out in some day in April (2017).

Then, after Belgrade, I am going home to Velika. I think I am crossing my towns. I should be a resident DJ at a very nice location at sea during the summer. If that comes in, I will be settled for an entire summer. However, they are very backed up. I think they liked my story because they have that lounge bar and I am the guy for them (laughs). If I become a resident there, I would give my best to the owners and to bring somebody as guest to do sets – so we can do a good story. For example, Kiwistar comes from France who makes really cool stuff. By having an international guest, you can make a story with it. He popped up in my mind because we are friends. I will play at some festivals maybe and some single parties every now and then.

SF: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Mr. Woox and his partner in crime, The ROA, have been making some really unique and sexy music, which is guaranteed to make you all travel back in time and to the old streets of New York City and New Orleans.