Making Chill Music On An Island Is Just As Amazing As You’d Imagine
Mark Barrott traveled the world and ended up centered. Hear how he did it, before a new Sketches From an Island comes out this summer.
Vinyl shoppers wise enough to buy Mark Barrott’s 2014 album Sketches From an Island might notice a sticker, affixed to its tropical bird cover art, that reads “MUSIC FROM IBIZA.” And it’s truly that, though Barrott’s tranquil spin on the Spanish island feels miles away from the fizzy rave-Gomorrah that probably first comes to mind. In fact, he is miles away—25 miles down Ibiza’s only road, living in the fertile countryside beyond the famous clubs.
Brimming with New Age arpeggios and field recordings of local wildlife, Sketches was the first thing that Barrott, 48, ever released under his given name, but his career had been illustrious long before. He came of age in England, making zoned-out drum & bass, before moving to Germany, where he founded a music consultancy firm that almost single-handedly introduced the world to chill-out lounge music. When business life started to drive him crazy, he decamped to the beach—first Uruguay, then Ibiza. As he explains, sometimes a little distance can make a world of difference.
Read up before July 1, when he’s releasing Sketches’ long-awaited, just-announced followup.
MARK BARROTT: As a kid, I loved to look at maps. I grew up three hours north of London in a very insular city, surrounded by seven hills. My father was a world-renowned vintage car restorer, and he would always travel around Europe in old cars, but we didn’t really travel as a family. School holidays were taken in England, and rarely further afield.
My own travel started when I got my first record deal, in 1996. I was making ambient music with breakbeats under the name Future Loop Foundation, inspired by polyrhythmic stuff that Steve Reich was doing with Ghanaian drumming, and Brian Eno, and I started getting a lot of gigs around Europe. I remember playing a gig in the shadow of the Alexanderplatz and going to Eastern Europe in the middle of the Iron Curtain. It was almost mind-expanding. I don’t care what anybody says—there’s nothing like that feeling of coming off a stage, having a spliff, and you’re half-stoned, half-deaf, and full of adrenaline.
And then I met a girl on the airplane. That was in October 1999—we’re still together all these years later. Often the best things in your life don’t happen out of planning.
I moved to Berlin to be with my wife. It wasn’t like today, where every electronic music producer lives there and it’s become gentrified and safe. It was exciting, it was dangerous. There was a sense that anything was possible. The maps I was looking at in my bed as a kid under a torchlight suddenly jumped out and became real. There were bullet holes in the wall from the second World War, and I could walk past Jungle, which was a club that Bowie would go to. I was 30 years old, and I felt like my life had just begun.
At that time, hotels were all trying to copy Hôtel Costes in Paris and do their own compilations, and one of my tracks ended up in the hands of a hotel in Milan, which was putting a CD together. Out of courtesy, they sent an invitation to all the artists for their launch, and I went. They had this beautiful botanical garden, and I thought, “Shit, if I’m going to DJ, I want to DJ this, not a sweaty club in Poland or somewhere else nuts.” So I made a deal with the manager to DJ there once a week, and over the next year we built an incredible party: Berlusconi before he was prime minister, the footballers, the models, the politicians.
I was earning pretty good money, so as a present to myself after years of destitution, I bought a first-generation iPod. If you’re DJing and want to get to the toilet, you’re either going to have to find a very long song or do something like an iPod. I started to use it practically, and then one day the manager said, “Hey, this could be you when you’re not here.” We put playlists into it, built a little case, and sat it behind the bar.
“Ah! I’m in Ibiza. Ah! A sunset. Ah! Es Vedrà. Ah! The campos. Ah! Another sunset.”
The hotel manager where I DJed had a friend at a new Hyatt opening in Milan, and he needed music, too, so I set him up with his own iPod. Then Sheraton wanted to pilot eight hotels. I didn’t have any grand plans about putting chill-out music into hotels—it just exploded. Hyatt came back and said, “We want you to be our music consultant for the entire company.” All of a sudden I had a list of 300 hotels.
For five years, I was taking full-on flights 51 weeks a year. I’d go on eight-week Asian trips. To give you an idea, one time a Black Pearl multimillionaire was building a hotel in Bora Bora. I got flown Berlin-London, London-Tokyo, Tokyo-Tahiti, Tahiti-Bora Bora for a three-hour meeting. Got picked up by a boat—“Watch out for the sharks!”—had dinner, then spent two days flying home.
But I was living in anxiety-land all the time. I’d fallen out of love with music. I got refused entry to the Hyatt executive board meeting in Chicago because I was wearing flip-flops. The tax situation was a mess, the licensing situation was a mess, and the accountant was tearing his hair out because I was throwing bunches of receipts at him. I could tell that five years of this was the maximum, or I’d end up with a divorce.
Luckily, I found a buyer for the business fairly quickly. At the same time, the rental on our house in Berlin was coming to an end, so on my 40th birthday we said, “Let’s go to South America and take a look around.”
Really, I can’t explain it to this day: we go to South America for two weeks on holiday, come back owning a house in Uruguay. I know that sounds really nonchalant. We were like, “How the fuck did that happen? We bought a house?” But the next thing we thought was, “Well, we might as well go and live in it.”
“Music is about having a blank page and going forward. If I was to go and make a track this very minute, and I wanted some cricket noises at night, I can tell you now I’d still probably want to go out and record some new ones.”
Our house was a five-minute walk from the beach. It was very quiet off-season, and it was very detached from what was going on in Europe. Whatever scene that was going on was a scene in my head. I could invent the scene.
I wrote a song called “Hands of Love,” but I couldn’t get a deal anywhere, so I decided I’d start a record label, and I’d do it really fucking well. I’d use all the experience I garnered owning that music consulting business, and give myself the artistic freedom. That’s how International Feel started. There was no Machiavellian subplot, no big plan—I was just sat on my ass in Uruguay, enjoying the coast and making music to fill the time.
After a few years, my parents were getting old and needed me nearer to transition to the next period of their life. And my cat who had been with me since England died, age 17, so all of a sudden we could travel. We decided to go to Europe. We got to Ibiza, and we were in a taxi, and we were like, “Could we live here? Fuck it, let’s live here.” Went back to Uruguay, sold everything. I had a Minimoog synthesizer and I gave it away. We wanted to live as best we could without possessions.
In Ibiza, we live in the center of the island, in the countryside. It’s incredibly quiet. As people say here, it was only 30 years ago that Ibiza was a priest on a donkey. Even now, there’s only one road. It’s a good road. But because of the topography, Ibiza feels like it has massive amounts of space. It has lots of microclimates. What goes on in the west coast of Ibiza, with the madness of the party scenes, might as well be New York. It could be a different continent.
My album Sketches from an Island was recorded here on a big long table in a rented house, where I had a laptop, a MIDI keyboard sat on my knees, and a pair of headphones. The overarching concept is a Leonardo di Vinci saying: “Sophistication through simplicity.” It’s a very delicate album, and I think it was very influenced by being here: “Ah! I’m in Ibiza. Ah! A sunset. Ah! Es Vedrà. Ah! The campos. Ah! Another sunset.” There’s something about this island that draws you in, and it’s not just me being mystical.
I was talking to a woman here recently who teaches people to ride horses, and I said, “What’s the secret?” She said, “Time in the saddle.” I’ve been a professional musician for 20 years, but there was no child prodigy thing with me. It was about learning a craft, putting in the hours.
All of my experiences came together in Sketches—including field recordings. In Uruguay, we also had a farm in the middle of the interior. It was so isolated you couldn’t drive the last seven kilometers. There were wild animals running around, and there was a stream in the bottom. I always took a recorder with me. You do these things because why not, and you use them when you use them.
If I was banned from making another field recording, I’d be good for 20 years. You want Barcelona airport? Bora Bora sunset? Tokyo bullet train station? The interior of a fucking boat? I’ve got enough. But music is about having a blank page and going forward. If I was to go and make a track this very minute, and I wanted some cricket noises at night, I can tell you now I’d still probably want to go out and record some new ones. The weather’s just right tonight. I think I might just do that.