Fran Hartnett is possibly one of Dublin's best-kept secrets. Frequently featured in Surgeon's mixes, including Fabric 53, Fran's work is white hot. Here, he lays down an exclusive mix featuring his own jams plus the track 'Mutant Substance' soon to be released on the Midnight Shift album.
Fran Hartnett (definition): long-serving Irish producer/DJ who takes his job in equal measures of seriousness and passion. While born, bred and currently nestled in his hometown Dublin with wife, two kids and cat; Hartnett also happens to have that one other committed relationship - with techno music.
His is a two-decade long story that is as bare-knuckled, introspective and true-to-life as it gets - so word to anyone into music out there: peruse this page with care, and you will walk away for the better informed and inspired.
Hi Fran. Tell us about the influence of growing up in Dublin.
I grew up in Bray, a small coastal town on the outskirts of Dublin, and all of my first musical loves are connected to that place. Electronically, I first encountered music by The Prodigy, The Orb, Orbital, and all the more underground stuff around the time of 1992.
So as a teenager then, my life was somewhat centred around music. I was pretty young when I got into DJing, and it had the effect of giving you an awareness of what music is popular, and also makes you concerned with the task of supplying music to the people.
How has the club scene changed since you first started partying?
When I first started going out to clubs in Dublin, around 1994, there were only a few spots in the city that catered for real underground dance music, and there were probably less than half as many across the rest of the country. Over the years since then, the scene has grown, but the establishment has always made it hard to run an underground music club in this country.
I have heard countless stories of club owners being harassed by the Gardaí (Irish police) until they get rid of the offensive promoter and change their music policy (of course rock/pop music is acceptable). Some of the greatest clubs that Dublin ever had are long gone (often closing down when they were at their busiest and really kicking off), and many of those buildings aren't even standing anymore - demolished to make way for apartments, or whatever.
Thankfully, in recent years, most promoters have taken to organising things very cleverly, working within the law, but refusing to be trampled on by the establishment. These guys know the rules and how to turn them around in their favour. I'm constantly impressed by the determination and balls of many of Ireland's current promoters who organise legal events - ones that have all the attitude and excitement of the illegal events of days gone by, with not so many of the risks (such as arrests, fines, and confiscated sound systems).
Sounds like the powers that be aren’t too keen on Ireland having much of a nightlife.
Unfortunately the club scene in Ireland is (and has always been) crippled by the licensing laws. Nearly all clubs must close at 3am, which is just ridiculous and drastically needs to be changed. It means that you can usually only put 2 or 3 acts on in a night: so if one’s an international guest there's not much room for local support acts, the first of which will probably play to an empty club anyway. This still happens despite the fact that everybody knows they must leave the club at 3... It's very hard to get everyone in before 1am, because people like to stay in the pub until after 12, and the pubs are often some distance from the club.
It's frustrating to be restricted by such a ludicrous system, but that's the way it is. Annoying. So far, all attempts to get clubs to stay open late have been shot down by nonsense arguments from the Gardaí (and backed up by the pubs) like "there would be too many people on the streets late at night" or some other bullshit.
Has the situation been affected by the Irish recession?
I think it has made promoters more cautious about who they book, which is a pity. We may be missing some vital new music here simply because the promoters are afraid a less well-known international artist won't draw a crowd.
DJing back in the 90s versus DJing in 2011. Discuss.
I think it was very different (then)... The Internet has changed everything so profoundly. It used to be a real hunt to find that special track - a physical hunt. Ok, you may have to ‘hunt’ through lists and lists of tracks on the Net, but if you find something amazing, it's not like some massive accomplishment on your part.
I remember going from shop to shop looking for a particular record and it could take you months to find what you were looking for, if you found it at all! When you did find that record, it really would be like finding treasure. I remember somebody at a party offering me a whole bag of records (about 80) in exchange for my copy of DJ Hell's 'My Definition Of House' (before it was re-released).
You wouldn't get that today. Even when it comes to vinyl, you can use the Internet to buy whatever it is you want, as long as you have the money. Back in the day, that didn't matter, there were some records that just couldn't be bought! But so many DJs just buy digital files now. I think that's a shame, though I understand the convenience. Personally, I'll always buy vinyl; I think it's something special, something worth having, something to keep forever... now where did I put those (digital) files?
However, from an artistic point of view, it's not important what medium the DJ uses. What's important is what the DJ communicates, and if that's something interesting, inventive and unique, then it's worthwhile. If the technology has made things easier then that means the game needs to be played harder. I'm happy to see that some DJs are pushing the latest technologies in new ways, but it's also frustrating seeing some making little or no effort and getting away with it for the most part because the computer is doing the mixing for them.
From the bedroom to playing out alongside famous names like Joey Beltram, Kevin Saunderson and Rolando. When and what was your big break?
The real break for me was when I managed to get on the DJ roster at a techno night called Genius in The Kitchen, held in Temple Bar. It was a Tuesday night gig but it used to be packed every week with queues going down the street outside. The venue was owned by Bono from U2, so it was pretty fancy: it even had a little river running around the dancefloor!
More importantly it had a pretty decent sound system, and I was free to play the music I wanted. I was a DJ for that club for about two years ('97 - '99), and it had such a good reputation that me playing there led to other gigs around the city supporting international techno artists.
All this going on, and you still graduated from college...
Well I spent a long time in school. In fact, it wasn't until my third attempt at college that I managed to finish my course work! Through my first few years I was a typical poor student, working all kinds of odd jobs to pay the bills, and not to mention being a mad raver as well! I often missed class or fell asleep when I did go in.
By the time I got to the point of doing a masters degree, I was lucky enough to be eligible for a government grant, and mature enough to take the whole thing very seriously, which I did - I even got away with my crazy thesis idea and managed to get a first class honours!
… with a degree in Music and Media Technology, no less. Was this a conscious choice to help get you started with production?
I was more interested in learning for myself than in any kind of 'career opportunities'. At the time I was already teaching myself the ins and outs of production in my home studio, and this course looked like it could offer some expert knowledge that would assist my productions. I also heard that the course covered Max/MSP (a user-defined audio and MIDI programming environment), which I was really excited about, as I knew that Autechre (perhaps my all-time favourite electronic duo) relied on Max heavily for much of their productions.
Has it always been about the harder, faster, darker side of techno for you?
Well certainly since my first proper club gig as a DJ (back in 1997), yes, it has always been techno. Back then I was playing a slightly different style than I'd play now of course, but I still remember playing some really serious techno in there - Steve Stoll, The Advent, Lekebusch, DJ Rush, Michael Forshaw, etc... Having said that, I do listen to loads of other music and always have. If it's original, interesting and made with love, I don't care what genre it is. I enjoy music, that's it. But in the club, it's all about the techno! (and maybe a bit of electro ;)).
What would you do about someone who thinks ‘Techno’ = cheesy euro-dance-trash?
I would say that they haven't heard proper techno then... I might make them listen to Jeff Mills’ ‘Live at the Liquid Room - Tokyo’ (React, 1996)... "get that into ya!", I'd say!
Any non-dance music favorites of yours that have creatively influenced your sound?
At the moment, I don't think so. My music is the result of experimenting and exploring the depths of my machines, pushing them to make the sound I want. It would be different if I made more melody based music, where I might be able to find an example of some chord progression that is influenced by an artist. But usually, when I arrive at a familiar sound, the first thing I do is push it away from there.
The only non-dance music favourite of mine who I can say has definitely influenced my productions would be Steve Reich. His use of phasing, particularly in a rhythmic context, fascinates me and I sometimes use two or more phrases together, each with a different loop length, to create an evolving poly-rhythm.
In the music of Thom Yorke, Beck, Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Coil, or Joy Division - all 'non-dance music' artists that I love - there must be plenty of tonal qualities that I subconsciously take with me into the studio when I'm going to make some banging techno... but how those qualities manifest themselves in a given percussive techno workout, I don't know!
What’s your secret when it comes to music production?
I think that simplicity is important. It's very easy to get carried away with the limitless amount of channels/sounds/effects available now with computers, but if you look at all of the greatest electronic music, it's usually very simple, in terms of how many elements there are. There might be three elements combined and it sounds like a wall of sound, or like some intensely complicated rhythmic soup, but when you step back from it (or lean closer and listen!) you find it's just a small group of simple components. And how those few elements are used, rather than how many elements there are... that makes the difference.
You first emerged with a stream of remixes back in 2009, including one for Orlando Voorn. How did you approach that?
The Voorn remix was something a bit different for me. I thought I should stray away from my comfort zone a bit when making it, and it turned out to be the 'nicest' techno track I've made so far... I don't usually do 'nice'!
I focused on the lead sound of the original and recreated the notes in MIDI from the audio samples I was given, so that I could play those notes with my own synth patches. I have to admit I felt honoured to remix one of his tracks, even though I hadn't been following his output for quite some time. His track 'Flash', as Fix (KMS Records, 1992), was one of the first real techno records I ever bought, and I must have played that hundreds of times over the years!
As of now, you have five original releases to your name – modest output compared to other producers these days, who come up with a track every few months or so.
I think it was around '98 when I first started to learn some music software and how to make tracks, but I spent a few years trying to get things sounding like how I heard them on the records I was buying. I just couldn't get 'that sound'... until one day I borrowed my mate's Yamaha Rm1x drum machine, and with very little effort put a beat together that I thought was near enough to what I was hearing on tracks by Adam Beyer, Speedy J, Surgeon, whoever... so I thought to myself: "I have to get some hardware".
I know it's possible in theory to use software only to get a sound as good as hardware does, but for me it just never happened. I bought myself the Yamaha Rm1x, an Access Indigo II Virus keyboard synth, and a DBX 1066 compressor, and finally started to make music that I was happy with.
But yeah, you could say that I have only had a modest number of releases in the past few years, but a number of those years were spent heavily immersed in my studies, and often the only work I got to do on my techno productions was in preparation for upcoming gigs, not recording new material. Having said that, I'm just about ready to start increasing my production rate, as I have just moved into a new studio, and I have my gear set up better than ever, and a much faster workflow in place these days. I always used to wonder how producers like Jeff Mills, or Cari Lekebusch (when he was at his most prolific) could knock out so many tracks so quickly, but now I think I'm not too far off being able to start doing the same thing myself.
It's like you spend years learning how to get your system set up and your workflow worked out, and then once you've done that, you can actually finally get to work properly... that's where it feels like I'm at now. I'm excited about that!"
Your live setup looks fairly complex, could you walk us through the equipment used?
Well I just love Elektron! This Swedish company went and designed the most versatile drum machine ever (Machinedrum), and after a few years drooling over the specs on their website, I finally got enough cash to buy one, and it was everything I hoped it would be and a whole load more. After about a year I swapped my non-sampling version to the sampling one, and after a couple of years of that machine just getting better and better the more I used it, I decided to swap my Access Indigo II Virus for Elektron's synth-sequencer, the Monomachine. The Machinedrum and the Monomachine are made for each other (quite literally I'm sure) and they are all I need to play live (nice to have no computer on stage!).
For my live performance, I also use a little controller called a Minicommand, which is specially made for the Machinedrum by a German company called Ruin & Wesen. This little magic box does a whole lot more than what I use it for at the moment (mainly to access the FX on the Machinedrum) but I'm gradually getting more comfortable with it, and I think, like the Machinedrum and Monomachine, it will just keep getting better the more I use it.
Actually one of the things that most attracts me to all these music machines is that they always do the same thing, so you get to learn them as an instrument. You get to the point where you aren't even thinking about it as you reach for that knob or button. I have had various midi controllers in the past, but because I would assign a different arrangement of controls every couple of months, or use them with different software, I never got to be familiar with them the way you do with a hardware drum machine or synth.
How different is Fran Hartnett the live performer and Fran Hartnett the DJ?
As a DJ I play the kind of music I aspire to make, which is basically as good as techno gets, and something I couldn't honestly say when I play my own music. I'm not there yet! But I feel like, as a DJ, I'm just trying to put this great music out there that other people have made, more than I'm trying to be the best DJ out there.
When I take my productions into a live setting, it's hard to be as sure about the music, because it's raw out of the machines as I have made it, basically unmastered, and I can be very critical of myself, like how the balance of a mix is, or how effectively the live arrangement is worked out. Also, my productions are influenced by my instruments, which at the moment is just drum machine and synthesiser, and I currently don't have anything to run large samples. I'm hoping to get a new sampler (yes an Elektron one) sometime soon, and that will allow me to put a more textural edge on my sound which I'm really keen to do. But at the moment, my productions are mostly constructed of synth and percussion.
This means that a live set from me will have less of the kind of dense textured atmospheres that would feature, via the work of other artists, in my DJ sets.
Now for your DJ sets... chart the records you consider to be your most reliable weapons, ever (click for YouTube link):
Function - Montage [Infrastructure New York]
The Advent - Bad Boy [Internal]
Surgeon - Death Before Surrender [Downwards]
DJ Hell - Hot On The Heels Of Love (Dave Clarke Remix) [Disko B]
Neil Landstrumm - Tension In New York [Tresor]
Chris McCormack - Locked [Materials]
LFO - Butterslut [Warp]
Johannes Heil - Paranoid Dancer (DJ Hell Remix)
Paula Temple - Miyako
Hell & Richard Bartz - Rock My Body To The Beat [International Deejay Gigolos]
Any up and coming artists that you think will be making waves pretty soon?
Actually I know of so many outstanding local talents that I just wrote a list and found myself wondering where do I stop! I recommend a listen to the music of Rory St John, Defekt, Ed Devane, Swarm Intelligence, Sunil Sharpe (deservedly voted 'Ireland's best DJ 2011'), Bit Treader, Adam Kelly, Kachanski, and for something a bit sweeter and more downtempo, Euphiophone.
“Techno means the sound of the future. For me, techno is a concept, as opposed to a formula. It usually takes the form of club music, with its beats carrying interesting tonal and rhythmic experiments to an audience who are there to dance as much as to listen. But the same kinds of sonic experiments could be made with different tempos, or no beats at all, and once the sound describes the same futuristic vision, then it's still techno. To me at least.
For that reason, because it's not defined by a particular beat, and the fact that there really are no rules, proper techno will be around forever, because it's continually evolving. The minute it stops evolving, as soon as someone tries to create simply a copy of what has been done before, instead of trying to invent something new, then that's when it's not techno anymore, but some formula called [insert latest trendy new genre name here]. And the real techno moves forward, not caring about that new genre that was created and (will soon be) forgotten about.”
Check out Fran Hartnett's latest charts here.
Midnight Shift Podcast 001: Fran Hartnett
Hartnett's first ever ‘hybrid’ mix (he has only ever recorded pure live or DJ sets), exclusive to Midnight Shift. Featuring his own productions interspersed with live studio machine jamming, it is a powerfully stark and incisive excursion into the Fran Hartnett sound - one that duly moves us forward, storming, into the future.
00.00 Fran Hartnett - No Undo (sample) [Subsist/Orbis Records]
00.30 Fran Hartnett - Picture of a Thousand Tones [Audio Assault]
04.20 Rory St. John - 13 Bullet (Fran Hartnett Remix) [Limetree]
07.48 Live Section 1
33.14 Fran Hartnett - Mutant Substance [forthcoming on Midnight Shift]
36.47 Live Section 2
44.12 Fran Hartnett - It was Written in Vapour [Audio Assault]
47.59 Live Section 3
51.24 Fran Hartnett - Sword and Shield [Stasis]