George FitzGerald is reconnecting the dots between house and garage with a string of killer productions and DJ sets. We caught up with him a few hours before his debut at Panorama Bar in Berlin.
Words: Damien Morris
Photos: Kevin Lake
It’s a balmy autumn evening and the hobos and hustlers are out in force around Kreuzberg’s renowned Kottbusser Tor. Joining them are groups of Turkish lads loitering outside late night kiosks and, outside a supermarket, a bunch of ravers – one dressed as a crocodile – bouncing along to Cameo’s ‘Word Up’ as it splutters through the speakers of a ghettoblaster.
So far, so Berlin. We’re on our way to meet Englishman-abroad George FitzGerald (the second capital G is mandatory) who despite only releasing a dozen or so singles and EPs on a handful of labels has found himself approaching the vanguard of UK dance music. His boundary-blurring blends of deep house, 2-step, techno and US garage – the ridiculously catchy ‘Child’ or his remix of Kimbra’s ‘Build Up’ for example – have made him one of the most exciting producers of 2012 and resulted in a string of high profile DJ gigs from Fabric to Ibiza to Berghain.
We find George in the candle-lit interior of a typically breezy Kreuzberg bar. He’s recently made the city home for the second time in his life and is currently nursing a hot chocolate and peering into his laptop. With his neatly cropped hair, slightly unbuttoned checked shirt and smart silver watch, he looks more like a hip city kid than a DJ/producer, perhaps none too surprising given he recently completed a post-graduate degree in law.
Hailing from Watford, his friendly, slightly unassuming air is underlined by a fresh-faced demeanor that wipes a couple of years off his already youthful 27; a characteristic that didn’t exactly work to his advantage when he was a teen trying to gain entry into North London garage nights. “I was a gawky looking kid with a brace,” he laughs after switching to drinking Pilsner more or less immediately. “To be honest, most of the places back then were house parties anyway, but we did go to spots like Eros [a club in Enfield] to watch people like DJ EZ, who I followed religiously at that time, along with Tuff Jam, Wookie and others.”
This was the turn of the millennium, when britpop and Cool Britannia were in decline and the airwaves and even TV were ruled by the sound of 2-step and UKG. George’s older brother was also responsible for his early musical education, introducing him to record shops like Soho’s Blackmarket, where he’d later work himself, leaving only recently to pursue his musical career. As 2-step “died on its arse”, George went to university and flirted with US hip hop but since he mostly enjoyed genres with a UK twist, he was relieved to hear the emergence of grime and dubstep.
Around the mid-noughties, George made his first move to Berlin. Working then as a translator, he was still DJing and buying records from the legendary Hardwax store, located right over the canal from where we’re sitting. “I was lapping everything up,” he says. “There wasn’t much coming out at the beginning but I was buying it all, stuff on Tectonic, Hotflush, DMZ, Tempa and Hyperdub. Hardwax had all of it. If you went to Blackmarket they’d sold out, but there were always two copies in Hardwax as there was just a small English contingent buying it. To be honest, it killed my DJ career back then, playing this stuff to a couple of people in tiny bars in Friedrichschain.”
George kept the faith by hopping over to London regularly, attending seminal dubstep nights like FWD>> and DMZ and helping co-promote events for ManMakeMusic. At that point he was mostly still a fanboy with no connections to the scene and no urge to produce. But the more he listened to DJ/ producers like Loefah and Mala, the more he realised there was a blank canvas he could make his mark on.
“It was much more dubstep than garage that motivated me into the studio,” he states. “I realised that the most immediate way of integrating with the scene was to make music myself. I hate the word ‘minimal’, but that was what the music felt like back then: a kick, a snare, a few hats. There was so much space in the music, so few elements being used, but it was still huge. Obviously after a while it started going off in different directions with people like Mala and Digital Mystikz, Appleblim and Shackleton, all bringing their own elements to the main framework.”
Armed with a bunch of software and a rudimentary knowledge of the piano (grade 1), George started experimenting with his own music around 2006. In 2009 he moved back to Bethnal Green and around that time sent a track to Hotflush head honcho Scuba (Paul Rose) via his Myspace page. He heard nothing for six months before Paul finally wrote back, asking if he’d written that specific tune and asking for more. George responded with a ditty called ‘Don’t You’, a bright, spacey house track that showcased his love of garage with a nifty 2-step shuffle and catchy, choppy vocal. Scuba promptly slapped it on his ‘Sub:stance’ mix and George’s production career was underway.
“I felt that my stuff was a bit amateur, but at the same time not totally shit,” he smiles. “I’m not the sort of person to send tunes to everyone so I really lucked out. Paul signing stuff was the central thing in getting me started and he’s been backing me ever since.” More house/2-step hybrids followed on Hotflush, most notably a pair of somber steppas ‘The Let Down’/‘Weakness’ (2010) and his ‘Shackled’ EP (2011), which featured a trio of tracks that sounded sharper, yet breezier, than ever, especially ‘Feel Like’, which nodded to the old-skool sound of Tuff Jam but updated with a dubstep aesthetic.
The other label George has been affiliated with, aside from his own ManMakeMusic, is Will Saul and Fink’s Aus Music, which released his ‘Child’ EP earlier this year. While the simple house cut ‘Lights Out’, with its subtle sense of drama and repetitive male vocal, became a firm DJ favourite, it was the title track, all jacking Chicago vibes and irresistible whoops, that catapulted him to pole position.
“That track was also the result of working at Blackmarket for a year,” he reveals. “I’d always wanted to work in a record shop since the old days and I found a way in when my friend James (Sigha) was leaving. I was listening to all this amazing American stuff by NY Stomp, Todd Edwards, T Bone, Ron Trent… I finally saw the link between that stuff and the UK garage I used to listen to. ‘Child’ was my attempt to remake that link and update it. It’s the first track I’ve done that’s crossed over. I had mates calling me from the Panorama Bar saying ‘Nick Höppner is finishing his set with your track!’ through to Loco Dice playing it in big rooms and even the UK scene, which I thought would spit on it.”
His latest EP on Hypercolour, ‘Needs You’, sees him taking his house/garage crossover sound to another level. The silky, synth-driven title track carries an even tougher edge and a killer bassline and is matched by the sultrier ‘Every Inch’, which has been remixed by Swiss producer Deetron on the flip. Even bigger is his forthcoming remix of Jessie Ware’s ‘No To Love’, where he joins fellow Berlin expat Ewan Pearson and Todd Edwards in crafting a big room club banger from the original pop track.
“The Hypercolour tracks are kind of where I’m going with my sound,” says George. “The lead track has a slight bump to it, so it doesn’t totally conform with house. It’s got a drop and more of a dread element, a bit of darkness and evil. Ben at PMR [Jessie Ware’s label] approached me to do a remix largely off the back of ‘Child’. I think he felt I could do something interesting with the track. PMR have done an amazing job with the remixers they’ve chosen for Jessie’s stuff, so it could have been a daunting task. To be honest though, when the original parts of the track you’re remixing are of such high quality, I’m thinking in particular of her voice, it makes life much easier. It was probably the easiest remix I’ve done, which is always a good sign.”
This leads us naturally on to the looming question of George’s debut album. What’s the news? “We’re looking at after the summer for that and it’ll be on Hotflush,” he states. “I have lots of ideas and concepts in my head but none that are worth sharing just at the moment. What’s certain is that I don’t want the album to be a set of 12 club tracks. On the other hand, it also definitely won’t be one of those terrible albums that underground producers often release which features too many singers and is basically just a terrible pop album!”
We chat a bit more and finish our beers. The bar has filled up a little bit but it’s still dark and cosy. In around 12 hours George will be waking up and heading to play his debut at the Panorama Bar. He’s played the big room at Berghain before (at Sub:stance), but never the Pano and he admits it’ll be a bit of a test. Though the club famously caters to long, meandering sets, the crowds can be notoriously narrow minded when it comes to a certain type of techno or house.
Still, he’s fairly confident, an attitude born from his perfectionist approach to DJ sets. “I was a DJ before I was a producer,” he says. “In some ways it’s almost the pleasure after the hard work of producing, because not all of producing is fun. It’s amazing for the first hour then everything after is a slog until the last five minutes. I haven’t been DJing for long enough to stop thinking it’s a massive privilege to turn up and do something I really enjoy for decent money. Even when I was starting out I used to hate it when people turned up fucked or surly and not do their best.”
And, of course, he slays it: his deft mergings of house, techno and 2-step keep the crowds going right until lunchtime. When he drops ‘Feel Like’, the shutters open and light is allowed to spill into the room for just a few minutes, notching up the euphoria a couple more levels. The massive grin on George’s face is almost as bright.
George FitzGerald’s ‘Needs You’ EP (with Deetron remix) is out on Hypercolour on November 19