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Words: Joe Muggs
Photos: Shawn Brackbill
Published in Mixmag July 2011
"Life is short.” says Alphonse Lanza, intense behind his pitch-black shades. “If you think with any degree of relativity about the size and duration of the universe, life is short, and it always ends. There’s no hope to cling to – the harder you cling, the harder it is to let go and admit the truth of how fleeting your existence is – so stop being scared. Do what you like. Obviously you have some restraint, in that you want to maintain a good quality of life, but there’s no point trying to protect yourself from everything in the hope you’re going to live for ever, because it’s not gonna happen.”
“You’re gonna die!” cackles his bandmate Fritz Helder.
“And that,” says Christian Farley, softly, “is what Azari & III is about.”
It might seem a straightforward hedonists’ view of the world, but Azari & III’s (it’s pronounced ‘Azari And Third’) philosophy helps explain what sets this Canadian quartet apart from modern dance acts – and they are definitely an act apart. Records like ‘Hungry For The Power’ and ‘Reckless With Your Love’, richly laced with the raw vibe of vintage house, are already anthems for club DJs spanning generations from Laurent Garnier to Annie Mac, Erick Morillo to the Numbers crew. But their songwriting is now also getting them support from bands like Friendly Fires, with whom they’ve forged a strong alliance.
Having found a sweet spot somewhere between the serious house revivalism of Hercules & Love Affair and the goofy retro-isms of countrymen Chromeo, they look like a good bet for crossover success. And crucially, as Mixmag witnessed at a London gig the night before our interview, they are now a fully-fledged live band – not just a dance ‘project’ with vocalists – ready for world tours and an all-out assault on the festival circuit this summer.
At that show, supporting Friendly Fires at Shoreditch’s XOYO, Azari had their work cut out. Starting as the punters were still filing in, well before 9pm, they had to deliver songs full of the glamour and mystery of nightlife to a crowd that ranged from East London hipsters with ‘impress me’ looks on their faces to mainstream indie fans who looked like seeing Faithless at V Festival was about as deep as they got into club culture. They threw themselves into it, though. Not only the dynamic double act of Cedric, aka Starving-But-Full, in cheesecloth shirt and neckerchief and the bare-chested, woolly-hatted Fritz up front, but Christian and Alphonse, applied to their respective drum pads and tables full of vintage analogue kit – wired into an iPad – with rock star intensity. And by the end of their slick but intense set, the difficult crowd belonged to Azari & III.
“That was actually our first live show,” says Cedric casually, as we sit in a coffee house the next morning. Mixmag does a double-take, genuinely surprised. “We’ve done shows with four turntables and vocals before, hip hop style,” he explains, “but that was the first time we’ve ever played really live.”
“And that was 90% performed live,” Alphonse interrupts. “There were sequencers but no backing tracks. We were switching beats, looping the vocals, adding fills; we couldn’t play the same set again if we tried.”
“It feels good to know we can do it,” says Fritz. “I didn’t know if that crowd were ready for it. We all had to work hard to reach them...”
“We made them ready!” says Alphonse with a half-smile.
That the band’s four radically contrasting personalities and looks work together is a real achievement, and they seem to know it. The front-line alone makes for a radical contrast, with Cedric immaculately poised like an aristocratic soul diva, while Fritz, fond of shedding clothes to show his wiry frame, is like a more grungey Andre 3000, often looking and sounding possessed as his voice is electronically processed to weird degrees. “We represent the angelic and demonic,” he says, “and we emphasise that with the vocal effects, so I am differentiated from Cedric’s beautiful voice.” He’s being modest; on the rare occasions he sings lead, he reveals a stunning soul voice too.
Alphonse, meanwhile, is a glowering presence, his intense rockstar demeanour both onstage and in person and tendency to make dramatic pronouncements belying a dry wit. He has a way with anecdotes, from his bohemian mom renting him ‘Blue Velvet’ when he was eight, to being a cameraman on Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ video (filmed in a mansion, complete with its own nuclear bunker, owned by Prince in Toronto); a knack that seems to make him the band’s de facto spokesman. Christian, finally, is a perfect foil, his friendly and diplomatic air and north American collegiate look hiding a passion for underground music and partying as fierce as any of his compadres. “We’re like a family of problem children,” says Fritz.
“All bad apples!” echoes Christian, as Cedric looks mock-shocked (Cedric speaks little and softly, but says a lot with a single glance).
“But we stick together like an Italian family,” says half-Italian Alphonse. “We have differences but we work them out in pursuit of a common goal.”
“We’re like a utopian social experiment,” grins Christian, in a way that suggests he’s half-serious.
The four realised their common goal almost the first time they recorded together. They all knew one another from Toronto’s music scene, and came together to try and create some soulful club tunes in reaction against the harsh electro-house that dominated in the mid-noughties. The scene was quite self-contained, revolving around after-hours house parties and warehouse raves. As Christian puts it: “It’s really a conservative town, it’s got a lot better in the last ten years or so, but everything still closes at 2am, so you have to find parties where you can drink, smoke, anything goes.” Christian and Alphonse both DJed, as Dinamo Azari and Alixander III respectively – hence the band name – and Cedric and Fritz were faces on the scene.
“We’re both people who like to be looked at, so we would turn up wherever, really,” deadpans Fritz. Their aim was to take the heartfelt vibe of early house and add singer-songwriter complexity to the lyrics and structures.
The success of their sessions was obvious instantly, influenced not just by 1980s Chicago house but by classic techno and leftfield pop, and struck a chord with DJs worldwide.
“I am a massive fan,” says Marco ‘Tensnake’ Niemierski. “They brought back the early house vibe without repeating or copying history, with the right feel between dark and happiness and a touch of pop that I really like. When [their 2009 debut single] ‘Hungry For The Power’ came out I had it on repeat for weeks!”
DJ Jackmaster from Numbers says: “They’re one of the best new bands of the last few years – I love the techno elements of course, but there’s a lot that reminds me of other movements I’m fond of, like the fiercest Chicago house divas and 80s electro-funk from dodgy breakdance movies.”
Since that debut the story has been one of getting management, record company contacts and, of course, a steady accumulation of fans. The in-your-face video for ‘Hungry...’, featuring sex, drugs, high-camp performance and the band feasting on human flesh, served as a statement of intent, helping barge past lazy perceptions that they were simply a fun, fizzy retro-dance act. The Friendly Fires hook-up, which began after Cedric saw the FF DJs play A & III songs at a party and introduced himself, has already led to a track (‘Stay Here’ on FF’s ‘Suck My Deck’ compilation) and is taking A & III to new crowds constantly, from indie rockers to, as Christian says, “old ravers in their 50s who were at the Paradise Garage or Haçienda”. They’re now gearing up for dates to promote their album that will see more live instruments added and include sets at Glastonbury, Lovebox and the Sydney Opera House. Pretty decent going for a band with four singles and one live show to their name.
The band don’t like to admit to being ambitious, but little things give away a bigger game-plan. “We didn’t write this album to get chart hits,” says Alphonse. “You don’t get chart hits by accident,” he continues, suggesting they’re giving careful consideration to how mainstream success is achieved. Likewise, when questioned about how much they improvise on stage, he jumps in with: “I just want to be clear, we’re not making it up as we go along. We worked this out and we know exactly how to do what we’re doing. If it didn’t work we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Talking about whether dance and urban music can ever be as close together as they were in the 1980s, Christian says: “Well... everyone in the US charts is produced by David Guetta now, so maybe there’s some opportunity for us to get in there.” Their remixing skills are in demand, and there have recently been requests to write for bigger artists, so that opportunity is already knocking. But what is their immediate ambition?
“We want to play the party for the end of the world,” smiles Christian. “New year, 2012, whenever, we’re ready. We’ll build a bunker like Prince.”
“You have to be ready,” says Alphonse intently, spotting a favourite topic. “Like the new-agers always say, you should meditate on the end of the world, so when it comes you’re ready.”
Fritz looks deep in thought. “I sometimes feel like the world ended already,” he muses. “Like we’re in...”
“A new world?” asks Cedric with a beatific smile.
And Alphonse is away. “That’s it,” he says. “That’s what we were talking about last night, you die every day, your world ends every day. The 11-year-old boys that we all used to be are all dead, we’re each someone else now. If you really think hard about your life, you fall into the void because it’s impossible to comprehend, and then you die and you’re born again and come back like the phoenix.”
That’s all pretty straightforward then. Now let’s dance.
Azari & III’s debut album ‘Azari & III’ is out on Loose Lips Records on August 1, 2011