cover image: Cybele Malinowski
“There’s never been a better time to be writing dance music – there’s such a hunger for it…”
Meeting up with Vance Musgrove and Mikah Freeman, aka The Aston Shuffle, on one of the hottest days of the year, somehow feels less like an interview appointment and more like reuniting with old mates – even though we’ve never met. The boys from Canberra have such an easy going air when we meet at an East London coffee shop that we could be hanging out in their back yard; rather than asking them to take time out from the studio they’re working away in upstairs, a few days before they head to one of the biggest electronic festivals in the world: Tomorrowland.
As you might expect from two guys who have been in the music world for 10+ years, and known each other for many more, the pair bounce off each other, finishing each other’s jokes: Vance at a thousand words per minute, bubbly and grinning in his snapback; Mikah in his drier way, taking his time to mull over his words. Or perhaps it was just that Vance had been indulging in the comforts of their temporary office that morning: ‘It’s a good location, and it’s a big nice comfortable room. And having avocado toast and coffees right beneath you – it’s been tempting! You could easily take a bath in coffee.’ ‘Dangerous really,’ interjects Mikah, ‘all the new music’s going to be really fast.’ ‘Yeah anxious music is coming out!’ laughs Vance, for the first of many times during our chat.
It’s clear from the outset that this is what the guys are keen to discuss; even with such a massive festival around the corner, they’re all about the new music. ‘The pre-Tomorrowland headspace is definitely extremely excited. We played at it for the first time last year and it was incredible’, starts Vance, ‘but we’re trying to keep our momentum going with the new music leading up to it as well. We just had a new song out on The Magician’s label a couple of weeks ago, and we want to have the storage banks of new music replenished as soon as possible, and have a stream of new stuff coming out. That’s the plan – no more prolonged gaps of new Aston Shuffle music coming out’.
Is it the same for Mikah? ‘Yeah pretty much, I didn’t get to do Tomorrowland last year, so I’m really looking forward to it. Plus it’s just nice to be out here working for the week, we’re hooking up with a lot of new writers – so I think Tomorrowland’s going to be a nice little celebration after being in the studio for a week’. It certainly looked like a celebration judging from the short after-movie the boys released a few days ago, which you can check out below.
The last couple of years have brought one or two changes to The Aston Shuffle: while Mikah is still located down under, Vance has relocated to the States, and since their second album ‘Photographs’ dropped in 2014, they’ve hooked up with new labels, and changed their approach to their work flow. ‘Last year, we let a lot of stuff we were working on build up, rather than letting it trickle out’ Vance explains. ‘It’s one of the hallmarks of the new era, how music kind of gets churned through streaming: just consistent quality output. As opposed to – we’ve done two albums at this point, and [doing another is] something we’ve discussed before – but it’s a very risky proposition to literally go away for the years that it takes to make an album’.
‘I think a lot of the new music we’re working on speaks to just releasing singles’, Mikah points out. ‘It doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily a body of work, connected. That said, it all feels like Aston Shuffle music, but it all feels like party music; not necessarily an album. The vibe will be to release consistently’. Does this mean the focus of their music is changing? Not exactly: ‘It’s very club focused – I think there’s a lot of features in there in terms of vocal stuff, and there’s a few collaborations. It’s all house music, but you know stuff you could listen to on Spotify, dance at a rave to, at a festival, or in a club too. So we’re still very much dance music based, and I think we’ll always have vocals on our music’.
photo: Christina Boemio
Are they aiming for a wider appeal? ‘Yeah, but at the same time, we’re not trying to make a pop record. I think it’s easy when you’re working with vocalists to let the elements and evolution of what you’re doing to become a full pop song’ Vance notes. ‘It’s a fine distinction – but a lot of records that have done well in the last little while have been ‘vocal club records’, that have then found a broader appeal from there. We’ve done a lot of stuff that’s been firmly focused on being pop over the years. Right now – we want to be making club music. And it’s got vocals, some more vocals than others, but club music is where the focus is’. Mikah adds, ‘We’ve done a record with TCTS that we’re putting the finishing touches on, we did a record with Fabich when we were in LA – he’s a German producer but he’s based in London funnily enough. And yeah, we’ve got a lot of UK songwriters coming in for this week as well’.
This partly explains why they’re working in London then. ‘I think over the years our sound has kind of veered on a UK tip really’ says Mikah. ‘A lot of the collaborators we’ve worked with, a lot of the singers and songwriters have all been UK based. I think we have a real affinity for what’s going on here musically, without it being intentional’. Vance agrees: ‘A lot of the records we have done in London have done disproportionately well for us! So we’re just going with it’.
The same focus on natural evolution is how the pair hooked up with The Magician and his Potion Records in the first place. 2016’s ‘High With You’, ‘Only 1’ and ‘Make a Wrong Thing Right’ were all released on the label, as well as the previously mentioned ‘Everything I Got’ which dropped at the end of June and made its way straight to Spotify’s ‘New Music Friday’ playlist. ‘It was the first release after our last album – we put out a couple of club tracks ourselves’, Mikah starts. ‘Yeah he basically hit us on Soundcloud and said “this is great, can I put this out? I really love what you guys do, so let’s work something out”, and we knew his music super well, his brand I feel is pretty strong, pretty cohesive. He’s such a tastemaker as well, you know his Magic Tapes break records – so for us it was just like, man’.
Vance adds, ‘He’s been really good to work with as well. He’s got a good ear to sprinkle into some stuff, if there’s comments or whatever that we need. And playing, supporting his shows in America and Europe a little bit, that’s our audience, that’s the audience we’re trying to speak to with our stuff. Pretty much every main single we’ve put out since the last album has been on his label’. So it’s a good fit then? ‘Big time. We have an affinity for the other artists on the label, as well’.
At last we can talk about their Tomorrowland appearance. Appearing on the Core stage on Sunday July 29, the line-up was curated by The Magician’s Potion label, featuring mainstays and friends Boston Bun, Pete Tong, Idris Elba, MK, Claptone, and more. ‘As a music lover, that’s the stage I’d want to end up at. So to be playing on it is pretty sick!’ Mikah says. Alongside the artists appearing, the location and vibe of the stage appeal to them as well. ‘That stage – apparently last year was the first time they did a stage in that section of the site. It was really good because every other stage is, you know, the crazy theme park animatronic stage kind of production, it goes a bit wild. But this is kind of off to the side, it’s in the trees, it’s a little more picturesque. Yeah, I like the vibe of that space a bit better than a giant field’.
Which presumably matches their sound a bit better? ‘Yeah exactly, it matches the aesthetic. Like a big animatronic dragon blowing flames on every drop… it’s literally what they have on one, I think it was the hardstyle stage last year. But it works if you’re a hardstyle fan! Who knows, maybe we’ll love it, maybe I’ll have an epiphany and want to write hardstyle!’ Vance laughs. Mikah looks unconvinced. Is there a danger Vance could go AWOL for 3 days in Belgium, and return with a love for 160bpm? ‘Oh god…’ Mikah laughs. ‘Let’s go sit you in a quiet place – no more music for you, let’s get some waters…’
Other than the music, and festivals around the world, Vance and Mikah hold down a weekly slot on Australia’s triple j radio station for three hours every Friday – a show that’s going into its 8th year. The Friday Night Shuffle not only gives them ample space to plug their own records, but pay close attention to the musical world around them. ‘The radio thing has been awesome, because it’s forced us into knowing exactly what’s going on within the other parts of the dance world, and scenes that come and go’ says Mikah. ‘That’s been awesome. In fact the opportunities of breaking artists on radio in ‘straya is so cool – like telling the big dogs of radio ‘oh hey, you need to know this record’, and they’ve started playing it on the radio and then you see that artist’s territory blow up? You think, ‘fuck we had a hand in that man’, that’s really cool! It’s nice to have something other than just being really focused on the Aston Shuffle. But that said – we need an intern so badly! To go through all the music we receive!’
As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, they also put out a monthly mixtape ‘Only 100s’ as well; which, you guessed it, focuses purely on the top bangers to hit their inboxes. ‘Only 100s has been really fun and exciting’ says Vance. ‘I think it’s just a huge gift for us, still being able to do what we do. Still paying our bills! And we still have that same hunger and drive that we had way back then’.
Given their packed schedules, do they ever have trouble finding a healthy balance? ‘Oh it’s something I’ve personally struggled with over the years, to try and have that balance you know. When you’re young, I think you’re just so wrapped up in just party life, tour life… I think being a duo, it’s great to have someone there to kind of share your feelings, or if one’s struggling you can open up and talk about it’ Mikah muses. ‘Tour life can be an extremely lonely existence – it’s full of extreme highs and lows. You spend most of your time travelling, or in a hotel room by yourself, and then all of a sudden you’re in a nightclub with hundreds of people. It’s the best job in the world, but it’s very easy to get caught up in it all, and just burn yourself out. It can have real detrimental effects, if you’re not aware of what can happen.’
Vance agrees: ‘It’s insulated us from how bad it can get. Because two of you are travelling, it takes the edge off a lot of that. I physically don’t know whether, in the extremely concentrated touring part of our career… if I would have dealt with it if it was just me. I think I would have partied a lot harder! But I don’t think I would have had someone there to just say ‘hey man, you know we’ve got shows tomorrow! We’ve got deadlines next week!’ They’re not tempted by a desk job then? Perhaps building up their label, taking the A&R route… ‘Not right now!’ laughs Mikah, ‘My experiences with A&R people aren’t that great, so…’ Vance is even firmer: ‘I have no aspirations of being involved in the business side of the music industry. I’m just not that guy’.
What have been some of their highlights from the last few years? ‘Man there have been a lot over the years – our first ever live show we ever did was with Armand Van Helden, and David Guetta right at the start of the peak of his career, in front of like 20,000 people! This was Bondi Beach, New Year’s Eve 2010…’ remembers Mikah. ‘Having a gold selling single in Straya is not something that every dance producer can say they’ve been able to achieve.’ However, they’re not prone to habitually looking back. ‘You can’t help but reminisce every now and again – still to this day, our twitter feed gets jammed with people tagging us because they’re listening to ‘Sunrise’ on their Spotify or whatever, and that’s all well and good…’ ‘But we’re just trying to think of what’s next’ finishes Vance, ‘It’s exciting – there’s never been a better time to be writing dance music. There’s such a hunger for it. We’re not nostalgia inclined – there’s no Sunrise remixes coming next week! Having said that…’ ‘The guy we’re working with did the vocals’ points out Mikah.
‘Let’s get Patrick Topping in here, and get him to do one!’ giggles Vance. You heard it here first.