A dance act is on fire when they release a handful of stellar records not only one after the other, but on different labels. Only two years into their joint recording career, D.C.-based house duo Benoit & Sergio are coming up not only with good records, but records that turn into anthems. It started with January’s “Walk & Talk,” on Visionquest, and picked right back up in June, which saw the issue of both “Principles”/”Everybody,” on DFA, and “Let Me Count the Ways,” on Spectral Sound. They also issued a very ’80s-soundtracky (and rather good) version of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” in July.
Anyone wishing to understand DFA’s position vis-à-vis the current hipster-matrix (and retromaniac) musical landscape should acquaint themselves with Benoit & Sergio’s January DJ set for the XLR8R Podcast. Even though only “Principles” and LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” are on DFA proper, the set is canny enough to work as an album, with Talking Heads, Ariel Pink, and Atlas Sound into the disco-savvy groove set by Lee Foss, Jacques Renault remixing Midnight Magic, and a trio of B&S cuts. I spoke to Benoit a week before Sergio, both on the phone, in July.
Benoit, are you from Paris originally?
Benoit: I’m born in Paris. I moved to the U.S. nine years ago. It was in Boston first, and now I live in D.C., and that’s where I met Benjamin and started Benoit & Sergio.
What brought you to Boston to the first place? Were you already making music and DJing?
B: No, it was work originally. I was working in speech synthesis and speech recognition—telecommunication stuff.
That’s interesting to hear because there are so many processed vocals in your music…
B: [Laughs] I guess! I never really made that connection.
Sergio: That’s interesting. That might been some subconscious sort of thing—I didn’t even know he did that. I thought he was doing other sorts of things. I think that we’ve found that you can make some very beautiful effects on top of the vocals and we were exploring that. I think it’s really nice. That’s all there is to that. We’re really deep on this Vocoder stuff right now.
B: Actually, I made a Vocoder myself when I was in school. It took a while.
S: We don’t use it all the time. Our Boy Trouble EP, all the voices are raw, and on “Principles” and “Everybody” the voices are raw as well. The only time we really started exploring it was in “Walk & Talk.” But on some new tracks we’re exploring it a little bit as well.
How did you make the leap from doing speech pathology to doing music?
B: I’ve always been into machines, early electronics like Casio. I’ve always been playing around with stuff, just for myself. When I arrived in the U.S., I discovered more of the analog sound there, and went on and played more. At the same time, with work, I always geared towards sound. I was working on mp3 stuff, voice recognition, and always trying to revolve around this sound-world. The leap, really, was when I met Benjamin, who had some ties to the scene. He had been playing around and had already put some stuff out. We met really casually. For months we just hung out. Then we went one time in the studio and it went well.
Sergio, are you originally from D.C.?
S: I went to high school in Iowa in this little town called Fairfield. It’s kind of a new age-y, strange community that my parents were into. My dad was a professor. I went to [college] at Chicago, and then I moved out to the East Coast to study Renaissance literature at Johns Hopkins. I was a working towards a PhD, so I was out in Baltimore for five years or so.
My best friend who was a DJ got me into this whole scene, five years ago: “You’ve got to come out to Berlin for the summer.” It was a really transformative experience for me. I needed to get out of graduate school if I was really going to be able to focus on music. It was like a trial: If I quit graduate school and worked on music without the guilt that came with not working on my dissertation, and started making headway on music, then I was going to be like “Let’s go for it or not go for it.” And I decided I could go for it.
D.C. was this incubation period. I was teaching English at a prep school, but it allowed me to feel like when my day was over at school, it was over and I could go home and focus on music. I met Benoit about six or seven months after I moved to D.C. We were just hanging out for a year, getting to know each other. Then we went in the studio.
Whose idea was it to make music? Who approached whom?
B: It really came out of both of us. I went to his place for him to show me music. He didn’t know I already had a studio and stuff going on in D.C. So, it was like, “Come to the studio and maybe we’ll try to jam.” I went to his place so he could to show me some tracks. And then I was like, “I’ll show you some stuff.”
Did you click right away or did it take a while for you to find your groove?
S: It was immediate. Every day after school, I was at the studio with Benoit. We realized that we were drawn to similar things musically. We both liked catchy hooks but simple stuff. Not nerdy and overly intellectual.
B: Originally we were trying to make minimal [techno]. But we were happy with the product because it was fresh and new and weird.
S: Two months after starting on working on music, we wrote “Full Grown Man” and “What I’ve Lost.” That was really quick.
What was the D.C. scene like when you started going to clubs there? Coming from someone who has never been to D.C., I always think of Thievery Corporation and Deep Dish.
B: Thievery Corporation have kind of monopoly: this world sound, this kind of reggae sound. The place that they own though, the DJ has a very good selection of funk and disco. Then you also have the tacky clubs, the very commercial stuff. When we arrived, it was really growing in terms of better acts coming to town. These days it’s miles away from there. There are weeks where there are three very good acts where you almost need to choose. If you don’t want to get crazy every night, it’s perfect.
The two artists I named are known for being pretty straightforward. It seems like you guys are sneakier than that definitely the vocals and lyrics. Was that intentional?
B: Not in relation to the city, for sure: we were pretty much in a bubble in DC, so we’re free to play and joke around a little more. I think that could be one aspect of the city that comes into our music. There’s a little bit of what we call a provincial freedom, maybe.
Do you DJ together?
S: No, we play live. So I’ll do the vocals and then we’ll do effects and all that sort of stuff on top of the laptop.
At the beginning of the year you put out “Walk & Talk” on Visionquest, which has become a go-to record for a lot of people.
S: Yeah, I was surprised by it. I thought the vocal melody was really nice, and I loved the way we made the voice itself sound. I think its super rich and beautiful sounding. I had no idea it would catch on like that, sort of a zeitgeist song. Everybody was into it. We thought we were just putting out a nice little track on this new label and then it just blew up. We really weren’t expecting it.
It probably caught on in part because the person you’re describing is what a lot of club people know in some way: “My baby does K all day.” Was it inspired by a real person?
S: No, it wasn’t. Everybody asks, “Who’s the girl?” I always say, yeah, there’s no girl. I made it up on the couch in the studio. The closest person I know to that person was me sitting there singing it on the couch. But there’s no basis, there’s no one in reality.
B: We know people but there was no direct inspiration. I think it’s about what this specific substance does. Not idealizing it—the opposite, actually: trying to make it sad eventually.
We were preparing a live set and jamming and Sergio laid down those vocals. I wouldn’t say it was really modeled and planned originally. This track there’s typically a thin line between humor and [being] tongue-in-cheek. But really Sergio came up with the vocals very quickly and did this amazing job of being in between the lines where you don’t know where you really stand. I don’t think there was any intent. It’s almost a little parodic and open to interpretation. There was no goal or model at the end.
Were you sober when you were making it up?
S: Yeah totally. You know, I always try not to be [high] when we make music because you think everything sounds good. I should have got into that a few years ago, before I was even working on music with Benoit. [I’d] get in the studio with friends and 10 hours would pass and you have a 45-minute jam session that was horrible the next day. You’re wasting time. I always like to be sober. If it’s good sober and it sounds good on MacBook speakers, then you know you’ve got something going, you know?
You also just released a cover version of Daft Punk’s “Around the World.” Benoit, were you into dance music in Paris when that record was out?
B: I started in ’95, when Daft Punk started growing famous. Friends and I would go to the Wake Up bar in Paris. So it started with French house. Another friend opened me up to the darker side of electro. It was very exciting: you’re young and in Paris and you have all the time to listen to tracks, and go out and enjoy new fresh sounds. I guess in France we [have] this kind of disco-cheese love. We used to call it filter disco. That was really perfect, exactly what people wanted, and fun to dance [to]. I remember I got the Homework album in advance. I put the needle on the track “Around the World.” I listened to two seconds and I got the record.
How did you end up covering it?
B: We did. It came out in a very different way. We laid the track first. And we thought, “Hmm,” very playfully and harmlessly, “let’s just put the ‘Around the World’ on top of it.” I knew the notes. Here in France—it’s not very hard to find anyway—I have a talk-box, which is actually the thing that they use. We laid down the vocals with a Vocoder in the back, not the real thing. It was fitting very nicely, kind of angelic and a little bit dreamy. That was a very unexpected cover.
You’ve been on DFA for a couple of releases now. How did the courtship process with DFA begin?
S: Benoit and I finished “What I’ve Lost” and “Full-Grown Man,” B-side to the Boy Trouble EP. We gave it to this guy Bruno Pronsato. I was born in Seattle, actually, so Bruno and I had that connection as well. Bruno heard those tracks in June 2009—I went to Berlin [that] summer—and freaked out when he heard them. He was just starting his own little label called TheSongSays. He’s like, “I’ll put these out.” We were thrilled: Bruno’s a hero to me, musically.
Bruno and I worked on tracks all summer. He had put out his debut, The Make Up The Break Up. It was an amazing record. And Jonathan [Galkin from DFA] wrote to Bruno: “Hey, do you have any music?” Bruno said, “Yeah, I have this stuff that I’m working on with Sergio from the summer.” And he sent him this track called “Since We Last Met.” And they said, “Oh we love it.” That was [credited to] NDF. That’s how I got connected to DFA.
B: When our first EP, Boy Trouble, was done, Bruno sent it to them. They loved it and wanted to put it out.
The more recent DFA single is “Principles”/”Everybody,” both sides of which have been popular. You’d already previewed both of those tracks on your XLR8R Podcast, right?
B: Yeah, yeah.
How far back does “Principles” go? When did you make it?
B: “Principles” is old. This last version is not, but “Principles” is a track that evolved. We have five major versions. It was old in a way, but we always worked on the sound to make it big and funky.
S: It took us a very long time. It’s the longest that it’s taken any track for us to make. If you hear the versions, the only thing that I think that has remained constant throughout is the deep “Principles” voice that comes in, that down-pitched vocal sample. If you heard the first version without the “Principles” voice, you would hear nothing related to the final version. We were chipping away at it for about nine months.
Talk about some of the earlier versions. I really like the track and am curious about how it evolved.
B: The first one was organ-based, very late-’80s/’90s, very groovy, lots of shuffle in the bass, drums very shuffling, too. Not as strident and heavy-funky. The hook was more relentless and rave-ish on top. The rapping, kind of preaching voice at the beginning was not there. Then I think some chords came in in place. Basically, the turn was when this Jupiter-8 bass laid down and we got the rapping voice on top of it.
S: I was in Berlin that summer with Bruno and we were in Club Divisionnaire. Seth Troxler—he runs Visionquest [which released “Walk & Talk”] – he played this track by Danny Tenaglia called “Elements.” I’ve never seen a crowd go so nuts. Kids were flipping out on this track. That vocal in “Elements” was the seed for “Principles.” I wanted to make a track that would make people flip out like the Danny Tenaglia track, but it took us forever to figure out how to make it big and bouncy and intricate and catchy. We were lost on it for a long time. It had all these weird permutations. Then in the spring it came together and we figured it out, finally.
To be honest, it’s not like I’m a Danny Tenaglia fan. I was just blown away by Seth’s track selection. I love that he was playing a Danny Tenaglia track at Club Divisionnaire. All the hipster Berlin kids were flipping out, having no idea it was Danny Tenaglia. And I was like, “If we could just capture the energy of that moment, that night, it would be amazing.” I think for Benoit and I that’s often how the seed forms for a track. We’ll be out at Napoleon in DC and a DJ will play a track and the crowd will flip out for it. And we’ll try to recreate, not the track, but the energy that it produced. I think we’re inspired a lot by those moments rather than, “Let’s sit down and write an electro funk track.” It’s more, “Let’s try to capture energy.”
How about “Everybody”? Had you conceived of these two songs as being a single when you were making the songs?
B: Originally, when we were making “Everybody,” it was again when we preferred the live set version. We had the background. It was us, playing around with the live set. We knew we wanted this voice, this “Everybody needs somebody to pretend” thing. Both of them had this very simple organ kind of party thing. We made the structure so they could go together: deep, fun party tracks. The timing made the decision.
S: Compared to “Principles,” it wrote itself. It was simple to write. I think we got the music down for that in one or two days. It took us two days or so to sequence. It felt like this was clear.
It’s still not a big banging big room kind of record, but it sounds like it could be. The ingredients are there for it to be that, but you lay off of that side of things.
S: I was talking to somebody in Croatia and they said, it still has a pop feel to it even though people could play it in Ibiza you could also play it on the radio or roof party. I think that’s good that it doesn’t have that gross Ibiza big room feel even though it could be heard there. It’s not stuck to that location.