Dan Watts aka Fractal Architect is one of those artists who has crafted his musical skills from getting into the very heart of techno and house by spending his younger days watching as the old Chicago and Detroit movements trickled their way over to England. Understanding the music and the science behind it has been one of the reasons his compositions stand out from the rest. Blurring the lines of intelligent dance music, electronica, melodies and techno, Dan has spent many of his years in the studio composing technically difficult tunes, which blow you away; showcasing his ability to combine so many different styles into one single track.
His work, noticed and signed onto Paul Hazendonk’s Manual Music label, was really the onset of his production journey even though he had been producing white label vinyl for 15 years. Over the years he has released tunes on the like of Traum Schalplatten, MNL, INLAB, Miocene Records to name a but a few and he has played alongside stalwarts such as Carl Cox, Nick Warren and Colin Faver. While pursuing his degree in the summer of 2012, Dan’s life suddenly took a grave turn when a severe spinal injury left him with restricted mobility. However, this injury was a kind of a blessing as the fire and the passion for composing new and exciting music was re-ignited.
In 2014, he underwent surgery which in fact just made him move his studio into his bedroom, where he continues to weave his magic. With a beautiful family extending their full support, he talks to us at Decoded about life, his journey, and what the future holds
Hello Dan. Lovely to sit and chat with you. I trust you’re doing well?
Hello. Yes I’m very well thanks, really nice to meet you.
As a teen who has witnessed the early stages of Chicago House and Detroit Techno, was this the catalyst that made you get into it?
It definitely had a major effect on me. I had always been into electronic music, listening to bands like Kraftwerk, Tubeway Army, Front 242, and Depeche Mode, and I suppose I was in my final years at secondary school when the whole electro and breakdancing thing hit, this really caught my attention. I used to listen to tracks like ‘Hashim’s Al-Naafiysh’ (The Soul) and Man Parrish’s ‘Boogie Down Bronx’ on crappy old C90 cassettes, but I was mesmerized by the skill of the DJs spinning these amazing new sounds I was hearing, and the overwhelming coolness that surrounded it all, so I knew I had to learn how to mix. I was just beginning to get the hang of it by the time I left school, and I used to travel up to Tony’s Records and Revolver Records on Park Street in Bristol, and this is where I discovered imported white labels from Detroit bands like Underground Resistance and Richie Hawtin and John Aquaviva’s F.U.S.E. (I still have these beauties somewhere) I never looked back.
So I’m curious, as many of our readers are – where did you come up with the name “Fractal Architect”? Is there a particular reason you chose such a moniker for yourself?
I am actually a qualified Landscape Architect, and I adopted the name Fractal Architect towards the end of my postgraduate studies at University. I was researching for an essay on fractal geometry and self-similarity as it occurs in nature, and writing songs at the same time on Cubase and the name just sort of evolved from there, a bit like a fractal (sorry).
Many of our readers may or may not know that you were one of the founders of the “Sketch Crew”. Could you tell us a bit about what you did and how it shaped the underground scene in the UK?
Ok, so I was 19-20 ish living in a run-down little seaside town. I had a set of 1200’s (the silver ones) and we were buying all these amazing tracks from labels like Plus 8, Tresor, and R&S Records and we were looking for venues to start a club night. We started small, running techno nights at a little back street club and things grew from there. At the same time we were using the one thing Weston Super Mare did have to offer, the enormous beach! We would stage increasingly large free parties on the beach during the summer months, and on occasions we had several thousand people turn up. We usually knew when it was time to pack up and go home when the tide started to lap around the bass bins.
The Sketch Crew really took off when I hooked up with a couple of guys from nearby Burnham on Sea and we took over a ramshackle old manor house in the Somerset countryside. The parties we had there were legendary!
We would have around 1500 lunatics from all over the South West and South Wales turn up every Friday, it was mad! We had jackin’ house in the front room, and I ran the techno room at the back which could best be described as a strobe lit bunker with sweat dripping from the ceiling. Great fun was had by all!
Your music, which has combined melodies with techno, is unique. How did you manage to combine both those sounds to come up with your own individual style?
Well, I was really into music as a kid, playing the keyboard to a reasonable standard, so melody has always been really important to me. When I started DJing I was always drawn towards the more melody driven stuff. I always start out any song by just improvising on the keyboard, laying some tracks down and creating harmony parts, then adding beats, effects tracks and automation.
Was breaking into the dance music scene difficult when you started out?
It was definitely more difficult to make a name for yourself before the internet! I had several white labels pressed back in the 90’s, but it was something I did myself, and then sold out of the back of my car. The advent of internet based labels like Proton, and platforms such as Soundcloud has opened up the market considerably, which allowed me to have a second bite of the cherry. My tracks ‘Crystalline’ and ‘Hologroove’ were spotted by Paul Hazendonk, who signed them to his Manual Music label and I have had a string of signings and releases on numerous labels since, so I feel very lucky and happy that people like my sound.
Growing up, which DJs were your biggest influences?
Early on I guess it would have been Electro DJs such as Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, but once I started to play techno I became a massive fan of Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Joey Beltram, Richie Hawtin, Westbam to name but a few. My early sound was quite hard and much faster than I play now, but then I guess I’m older now and my whole sound has slowed down quite a lot.
You usually ‘pen your own sounds’, is this a combination of software and hardware or one or the other?
I run a pretty compact studio. The advent of VST software has really revolutionized the way I approach music production. Most of my sound generation is digital, however I have recently acquired some new analog gear and am currently in the process of integrating it into my creative process.
Let’s talk a bit about your music. You’ve released on labels such as Manual Music, Callote, Miocene, to name a few. When you’re composing a track for the above mentioned labels, are you given the creative freedom to make each track your own or do you have to cultivate your sound to match that of the label?
I very firmly believe that you need to “write your own song” even if this means that it doesn’t appeal to any particular label. I think the moment you begin to tailor your music, you run the risk of producing staid and formulaic songs that conform to a pre-requisite template. Creativity should be something that cannot be contained or categorised.
Your latest release, “Daydreaming” on Callote has some beautiful melodies that are almost ambient but tie in perfectly with the techno beats. Could you tell us the technical process of putting this release together?
Ok, this release followed my usual process of developing a strong melody first. I improvise a lot, and maybe just set up a piano sound whilst I jam and record tracks. I then return to sections of these tracks that I particularly like and cut and edit them into manageable segments, then I consider which sound I might like to use. The beats follow, and usually I like to chop up sounds from a variety of sources then multi track them with a range of delays and reverbs. Knowing when a song is finished is really key to being a successful producer, and this is something that I believe all producers grapple with on every project.
You underwent a major spinal surgery, not too long ago. Firstly, I hope you’re feeling much better now, and secondly did this have any effect on your music and how you approach your compositions?
Thanks! Yes, I am improving slowly but it is a very long road! I slipped a couple of discs about two years ago, and unfortunately they didn’t go back. The resulting nerve compressions became so acute that I lost most of the use of my legs. I underwent a spinal fusion in April this year, which confined me to bed for nearly six weeks, so my wife Julia moved the studio into the bedroom for me and I produced some really nice work! We’re a bit of a fatalistic bunch, and looked at this as an opportunity rather than a drawback!
You are a family man with four children. If you had the choice of travelling and DJing 200 days of the year how difficult would it be to be away from the family? Would you ever want to be away for such an extended period of time?
My family comes first, always. It is not negotiable! I would not consider being away from my wife and children for an extended period for any amount of money. This may hold me back professionally but that’s just something I have to accept.
Say you’re going to be playing an extended set in a club with an intimate group of 200 people. How would you build your set and would you build it based on the crowd’s reactions or go with the flow?
It depends on the crowd and the general feel of the venue I suppose, and also whether I am playing a live set, or a DJ mix. I think there has to be an amount of flexibility and responsiveness with any live performance or one runs the risk of losing the crowd. I think a general set of rules apply in terms of builds and breaks, but these should be flexible and not set in stone. I come from a vinyl background, and this often meant that sets were put together ‘on the fly’ so I guess this thinking has stuck with me to some extent.
The dance music industry, for the most part has gone through a shift and the sounds are now much more mainstream than before. If you had to use some of those mainstream sounds in any of your own compositions how would you tie them in with the sounds you are such a firm advocate of?
It’s difficult to define mainstream, it’s quite a subjective thing, and I try not to pigeon hole great tracks that have enjoyed commercial success as mainstream. A great song is a great song, no matter where it’s being played, and there is quite a lot of snobbery within ‘underground’ circles, which is a shame as it often means great club tracks are overlooked as they are perceived to be ‘not cool’. I have written what I consider to be pop songs that sit very well alongside minimal techno compositions, so I think it’s just a case of mixing it up a bit!
If there were any producers that you would want to work with in the near future, who would they be?
Wow, difficult question! There are so many great producers out there. I really like PHM, Teho, Lanny May, Olaf Stuut, Microtrauma… the list is endless!
Now that 2014 is well underway, what can we expect from you? Any future projects you can tell us about?
Yes I have been pretty busy in the studio lately, and you can expect some big releases from me over the next few months. I have a massive four track EP coming up on Mirabilis Records which showcases my sound really well, mixing up more mainstream progressive house with deep and moody melodic techno, so look out for that! I also have a mini album lined up on Paul Hazendonk’s MNL label which contains an eclectic mix of very tuneful music ranging from a melancholic and trippy piano driven track to full on main room techno, and all stops in between! I also have several releases and remixes coming out on INLAB Recordings, Callote, PHW Elements, Abstract Space and Clinique amongst others.
Lastly, to any of the new and upcoming producers, what would be the one piece of advice you would give them so that they can really build their career?
Can I make it two pieces of advice? Thanks! Don’t be an asshole! People don’t like assholes. You will always be one of many in the eyes of the record labels, so make sure you are remembered for the right reasons! Always write your own song! Doesn’t matter what it is, just make sure it’s straight from the heart and you’ll always be ok.
Great talking with you, Cheers
01. Fractal Architect – Equilibrium (Callote)
02. Fractal Architect – Stars (Unsigned)
03. Fractal Architect – Airlock (Coming soon on MNL)
04. Fractal Architect – Vespertine (Coming soon on MNL)
05. Fractal Architect – Desire (Coming soon on Callote)
06. Fractal Architect – Disco-rd (Disco Balls Records)
07. Fractal Architect – Overcome (MNL)
08. Fractal Architect – Near to Me (Callote)
09. Fractal Architect – Coming Home (INLAB Recordings)
10. Fractal Architect – Tough Choices and Dissenting Voices (Coming soon on INLAB Recordings)
11. Fractal Architect – Soundsystem (Callote)
12. Fractal Architect – The Switch (Unsigned)
13. Fractal Architect – Daydreaming (Callote)