Dollars to Pounds: Fort Romeau

Fort Romeau talks club nights, playing keyboards for La Roux and slowing it down. His Stay True EP is out now via Ghostly.

September 26, 2013

On club nights, playing keyboards for La Roux and slowing it down.

Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

“Most of the time, you’re not going to know what something is. Sometimes it’s just a case of finding something with a good sleeve. Something intriguing.”

Mike Greene, aka house producer Fort Romeau, is thumbing through records in the basement of Music & Video Exchange on Berwick Street, Soho. He’s not looking for anything in particular, but this isn’t idle browsing either. The crate he’s parked at right now is marked “easy listening,” but it doesn’t take him long to move through prog rock to soundtracks to post-punk to Chicago house. As he digs, he reacts to the sleeves that stare back at him, offering thoughts on subjects ranging from his sampling technique (“I don’t like to take massive chunks of stuff, mainly because I’m scared of getting in trouble”) to David Lynch’s choice of album art (“It’s got to be the worst LP sleeve I’ve ever seen. Is he doing it on purpose?”) to Dolly Parton (“It’s not that far away from Nicki Minaj, is it really?”).

Greene invests an awful lot of time into record shopping, but his relationship with the medium isn’t simply fetishistic. He is somebody who takes things steadily, who steps back and slows down in a world that seems to be constantly accelerating. Taking his time to go out and make his purchases is an extension of this. “I’m just trying to have a more active relationship with the things that I’m doing,” Greene says, “For me, because music is the thing I care about the most, it’s what I’m putting the most time and effort into.”

Following a further excursion to neighbouring stockist Sounds of the Universe, we settle in a nearby coffee shop where, among other things, we talk about smartphones, playing in bands (Greene was La Roux’s touring keyboard player at the height of their fame) and slowing down. As we wait for our flat whites to arrive, Greene looks through some of his acquisitions. Beautiful new sleeves from the likes of Pharaoh Sanders and Cray76 sit next to bargain bin items by Clannad and raggedy no-frills wax from Morgan Geist and Kyle Hall. There’s a rare Orbital record here that set him back £25. To Greene, they all seem to hold equal importance, and they all belong to him.

Stream “Stay True,” the title track from Fort Romeau’s new EP for Ghostly, below, then read our chat.

When did you first go start buying records? On and off my whole life. My dad’s a really big record collector—he must have maybe 10,000 records—so I grew up with vinyl as the predominant medium for listening to music. My dad would come from work—because I lived with just my dad—and he would stick a record on, usually AC/DC, and listen to records all night. That’s how I got into music to start with, and I used to buy 7-inches and 12-inches at car boot sales as a kid. It was similar to what I do today, where I had no idea what it was [I was buying], but thought, “that looks fun, I’ll buy that”.

What was your first ever purchase? I can’t be sure if it was the very first one I bought, but the first one that I can remember is Kate Bush, a tune called “Army Dreamers.” I had that on 7-inch. I saw a picture of Kate Bush and thought, “she’s cool.”

And you’re using a lot of these that you’re buying now for sampling. I like to get a bunch of records, take them home and listen to them through. Not with any agenda, saying “these are now just a library bank”—I’m trying to give them a fair shot as music. Sometimes it’s terrible, but sometimes you might find a complete gem of a track that you’d never have found before that has something charming or interesting about it. Almost all of the drums I’m using are samples. That’s a big thing for me. You can get some really nice interesting tones using prog rock or country records, sounds you don’t get if you’re just using a 909 [drum machine] on every song. That adds something interesting straight away: you’re curating a little bit more if you’re choosing specific sounds because you like them. They add an extra layer of personality; you get something unique and personal.

"I saw a picture of Kate Bush and thought, 'she's cool.'"

Let’s talk about that article you wrote for FACT. You write about buying vinyl, but it was less about analogue and digital and more about slowing down. If you go to a shop and buy a record, it costs £8. You have to go to the shop, go through the records, decide what you want to buy—already, before you’ve even got the music, you’ve engaged with it. It makes you a more active and discerning participant in the process. Even if you think it’s shit and you wish you hadn’t bought it, you’ve totally engaged with it.

When did you start making music? I started off playing guitar, aged 13 or 14, just because it seemed like the most accessible way to make music. I was listening to stuff like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Radiohead, and heavier stuff like Nine Inch Nails and the digital hardcore kind of stuff: Atari Teenage Riot, KMFDM. Super industrial stuff. I was always interested in electronic sounds, recording guitar and doing loops and experimenting with that. A friend of mine at school sent me a link to this modular synth plugin, which I didn’t know how to use obviously, but it had some presets on there and I used to play around.

What were those teenage bands like? I was in a band with my friend Alan. He’s a producer now on Planet Mu: Ital Tek. We were friends in school and used to do Muse covers and Radiohead covers. I lived in a village between Oxford and Banbury, and he lived in a village near there. I was working in a guitar shop in town, and we met through a friend and formed a band together. We both went to university in Brighton. He’s been releasing records for a while now, since we were in our first or second year at uni. It took me a lot longer to get there.

And you started DJing when you were down in Brighton, right? Yeah, we used to go to this club called The Vault. That was 2006, 2007, when dubstep was taking off in its full grloy. We were listening to a lot of dubstep at the time. A friend of mine put on a night down there, and he’d let us play. That’s how I started DJing. At the time, a friend of ours was doing a night there—this was when guys like Bok Bok from Night Slugs were just starting to do their thing as well. And he [Bok Bok] would DJ at my friend’s night and he’d DJ at their night.

See, I didn’t know you were connected to any of that at all. Your past releases, with 100% Silk and with Ghostly, put you a little outside of some of the more established scenes. Well, it’s a small country, isn’t it? If you’re into music and you live in Brighton or London, it’s not long before you’ll run into people who are similar. People would be surprised how linked certain things are. I certainly was away [from a scene] up until I released my first record, because I was doing stuff with La Roux. I was in a separate world.

How did you end up as part of La Roux, anyway? It was through that same friend that ran those club nights in Brighton. He’d heard about them through a friend before they’d kicked off, and they were looking for session musicians for touring. I’d just finished university and didn’t know what to do, and he said “why don’t you just go audition for that.” So I thought “fuck it, why not?” So I did that. I got on really well with Elly [Jackson], the singer.

How is playing in a band for you? Do you prefer doing your own thing? Playing in a band is fine. You’re doing someone else’s thing, which is cool. But I’ve mainly been DJing. The reason I like DJing is because it’s so much more centred around the music, rather than a performative element, or a notion of celebrity, which I don’t like. Obviously now there are megastar DJs, but at the heart of it, it’s much more about the music and the moment rather than looking at somebody as an icon.

I find it weird facing a stage when I’m dancing, it makes my neck ache. I really dislike playing anywhere with a raised stage. I prefer floor level.

So you don’t like being at the front, but I guess you still got the chance to see that side of things touring with La Roux. I feel grateful that I got the opportunity to do it, because it’s given me a very good perspective on the entire music world. Lots of people have a romanticised idea of what it might be like to be in a big band and do lots of tours, but when you do it… It’s still great, and I’m glad I got to do it, but you realise that it is what it is. It demystifies it, which I think is really healthy.

Healthy in what way? Lots of people crave attention—they’re very interesting in getting recognition, and they’re thinking that they’re somehow gonna be legitimised through external forces. But what you realise when you’ve had the opportunity to do big shows and be around and meet lots of very famous people, you realise they’re all just people and they’re all just as sad, insecure and messed up as everyone else. If not more. Perhaps people think being successful is a fix to the problems of life.

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Fort Romeau