Agent Orange – Exclusive Feature Interview – Issue 5August 31, 2017
Agent Orange has lived a more colourful life than most in the electronic music world. A veteran of over two decades of service, he’s spent that time honing intricate soundscapes aplenty, playing gigs around the world and has had steady studio output, the likes of which have seen him turn out remixing for Carl Cox and many releases on Toolroom, 1605, Deeperfect, Nervous, Terminal M and much more. A DJ, a live act, a producer and Gotham Grooves label owner, it’s also fair to say that he isn’t a man who takes half measures with his dedication to Techno and House music.
Agent Orange (Ara) has brought his energetic, captivating sound to dance floors across the planet. His passion for blending cutting edge Techno, Tech-House and House beats, with groovy, soulful, deep, dark and even ethnic vibes, has led him to perform at places like the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, the Zoo Project in Ibiza to countless clubs and parties on the global circuit. His dedication to writing music and carving his own niche as a world-class producer supported by industry giants: UMEK, Monika Kruse, Stefano Noferini, John Acquaviva, PVD and even 50 Cent. We hooked recently with this Techno Newyorker and got the low down
Mike Mannix: Thank you, Ara, aka ‘Agent Orange’ for talking to us at iconic underground. After nearly 3 decades of spinning and plying your trade across the globe can you tell us looking back, what initially attracted and influenced you onto the decks, how important was New York to your sound?
Agent Orange: Yes, I really have been doing this for a looooong time haha! I’d say what initially attracted me to the decks was my love of the early electronic music. House Music and Latin Freestyle were taking over the planet around 1986. They were still fairly new and very exciting genres at the time. I spent the summer of ’88 in Los Angeles, going to several of my cousin’s friend’s sweet 16s. I remember being totally captivated by how the DJ could mix anything they wanted together and the positive reactions of the crowd. I remember being most impressed by the element of surprise, pulling out that unexpected track just at the right time or perfectly blending 2 things that wouldn’t normally go together to create something new.
I also remember hearing these Extended Club and Dub versions of songs that I knew from the radio, that totally freaked me out and I wanted to have them all.. it was like a secret world! These are still my favorite things about DJing. When I got back to NYC after that summer I told my old brother Deekron about what I experienced and he encouraged me to start to DJ. He even introduced me to some of his DJ friends that gave me a few pointers here and there and helped me get my start. He even went out and bought my first 3 records for me. Most of the electronic music at that time was influenced by the New York, Chicago, Detroit, LA or Miami sound -> House, Freestyle, and Electro.
the world was doing their own interpretations of the sounds coming from these cities. New York’s Todd Terry quickly became my favourite producer then Louie Vega and Glen Frisca (Hot 97 FM) became my favourite club DJs. I was also really into the amazing, timeless music coming from Chicago and Detroit at the time… Lil Louis’ French Kiss, Green Velvet/Cajmere, Hot Mix 5, Fast Eddie, Tyree and the DJ International Sound. Kevin Saunderson’s Inner City with Big Fun and Good Life were def favourites for me. It wasn’t until later on when the rave movement began and I started to travel for parties that I was introduced to Techno with the sounds of Joey Beltram, T-1000, Richie Hawtin, Adam Beyer, Cari Lekebusch, Josh Wink etc.
MM: Walk us through the usual process Ara of when you are in the studio creating a new track from the analogue outboard, midi, samples and DAW you use and why. What is key in the whole production process?
AO: I think the key to getting the most out of a session is to have everything in place from the get go and to know your tools very well. I get that reading manual is boring but I do it sometimes and have learned so much from them. I highly recommend others do as well!
You need to learn the rules so you can know how to break them!
Also, it’s crucial to have great sounds ready to use right up-front, so you don’t have to fool around looking for simple sounds that take you away from your creative moment. Plus the cleaner, fatter sounds that you use up front, the less you need to do later on in the mixdown stage.
The less you need to use EQ and other processing the better. What I like to do is make a rough sketch as fast as possible.
The moment of inspiration only lasts an instant and it’s really important to capture that vibe in that moment.
You can always adjust stuff later once you have your main ideas and vibe down. So I’ll get a good 16 beat loop going where a lot of stuff is in the pocket and then usually I’ll put it away until the next day and work on a different one in the meantime. If I listen to it looping for too long I’ll get tired of it and either trash it or just not know where to go with it.
Always best to listen back with fresh ears
. Right now I’m using Ableton the most but I’ve used everything over the years, Pro Tools, Cubase, DP, Reason, Logic. They all have their pros and cons. I feel Ableton gets “dance music” production style more than the others. If I was going to be tracking bands in the studio, I’d def use ProTools or Logic. I find it helpful to set up a rough mastering chain on the main channel to A/B back and forth and use as a reference of how the sound will be after it’s done.
For outboard gear, I sold most of it before I moved to Barcelona in 2006 but since moving back to NY I got a few pieces again. A Knight 3D eq, Joe Meek compressor, Fat Man compressor, some Behringer fx units, Roland 880 for old school sounds, UAD Apollo Twin Duo, RME MultiFace. As controllers, I have Maschine MKII and a basic midi keyboard. As far as samples I have over 5000 vinyl I can use for that, plus I like the grainy record noise that comes with it.
MM: You remixed for Carl Cox, tell us about that?
AO: That was for the legendary BUSH record label. I was the second place winner in their Beatport remix contest. I think they liked it a lot because they had a hard time choosing which track would go on the release. They were originally only going to put only the 1st place winner in there but I guess they liked my remix so much that they included it as well. Was cool to hear Carl play it in some of his sets back then. He has always been a huge supporter of my music, which I’m very grateful for. The first place prize of the contest went to Micky Da Funk and J&S Project, who I didn’t know at the time but connected with them a few years later and now we are good friends. Always cool when that happens and one of the reason love about working in the music world. There were also other top artists included in the release, Steve Mulder, Tom Hades & Roel Salemink, who are also friends now.
MM: You’ve released tracks on some serious labels like Toolroom, 1605, Deeperfect, Nervous, Terminal M, what was your stand out releases and why?
AO: The Terminal M release came out in 2004 and was my first big label release. I’d say it was around this time that I had the first peak in my DJ career. I was playing gigs all over the world: Colombia, Venezuela, Korea, France, Italy, Belgium and more. In the USA I was a resident DJ at New York’s legendary Sullivan Room and also playing regularly for Christian Smith’s Tronic parties in NY, Miami, and Detroit. I got to meet the Terminal M’s really cool boss lady Monika Kruse while I was on tour in Europe and she has been a friend and supporter ever since.
Also at this time my label Gotham Grooves (only vinyl back then) was doing very well too, pulling in great names like Valentino Kanzyani, Bryan Zentz, Tim Xavier, Danilo Vigorito, Adam Jay and more. While working at Satellite records in NYC my friend Dijon and I came up with the label’s slogan
“Stay Young. Love Techno.”
which is still the philosophy I live by today and incorporate that into what I do. You will often see me wearing the T-shirt as well. In 2013 I released my first 2 tracks with 1605 and that year it was probably the hottest Tech-House label to be on for new producers. I’d say that was the second big peak in my career. I’m happy to say I’ve been able to ride that wave ever since! The first 2 tracks that I released, the really pumping “2 turntables and a MIC” and the mellower and mental “Need U,” got some great attention straight away. They received big support from label owner UMEK, a chart position by Groovebox and many others as well. A lot of producers and DJs reached out to me to tell me how much they liked them and I feel it opened a lot of doors for me. I had a bunch more stuff released with them after that and a lot of them ended up in many DJs playlists.
My first track out on Deeperfect “How We Do” followed right after 1605 one. Those 2 releases back to back were definitely a good 1-2 punch and even more, people started to take notice. I had a bunch more tracks come out with them later on as well. When the first Toolroom release came along it was a special moment for me since I wanted to release on that label for a long time. I feel they release a lot of high-quality music across many genres and really run a tight ship as far as a company. I’ve had 6 tracks out with them so far and Mark Knight has played 4 of them on his really awesome Toolroom Radio show.
I definitely felt a warm, fuzzy, and proud moment driving on the highway with the radio on and hearing my tracks announced and played live on the radio
. A lot of those tracks charted high on Beatport getting up to #20 on the Top 100 Techno chart.
The Nervous release was with my homie Anthony Velarde. It’s something we were working on with some cool tribal drum samples. They picked it up right away. Of course, we said yes to release with them since it’s such a legendary label. I own so many of their old releases on vinyl. They really helped shape the global House and Techno sounds back in the day.
MM: Who would be your ‘dream’ collaborator in the studio and on stage and why?
AO: Well I’ll start by saying
I love the “studio” part of making this music.
I’ve worked in many studios over the years as a mix engineer and mastering assistant. The mix down stage is probably one of my favourite parts since you can really be creative and experiment in the “physical world” by manipulating frequencies and sound waves. My dream collaborators in the studio would have to be the Eddie Kramer and Jimi Hendrix duo. I think they were a real power house of creativity together and accomplished so much in such a short time.
As far as dance music, in the studio, it would be Jay Lumen. He crosses over into different genres with such ease and always gets his tracks sounding super huge! He has a good balance of popular sounds but not too cheesy, which I respect. The hooks are always just right and always blow up a dance floor when played out. There really are so many others but for a quick rundown, I’d also include:
Christian Smith, Ramiro Lopez, Carlo Lio, Spartaque, The YellowHeads, The Filterheadz, Laurent Garnier, UMEK, Danny Tenaglia and Peter Bailey.
As far as on stage… it would have to be Carl Cox and everyone already knows why! He is the BOSS! Such a stage presence and such knowledge and passion for the music. He always puts the music first and is such a role model as an artist, entertainer, and businessman. I learned so much from watching him play every month at his residency back at Twilo in NYC in the late 90s. Our styles would jive so well together since we both like dark sound with a more groovy edge. Second up would have to be Ben Sims as I think he is technically the best DJ that ever was. To name a few more after that I’d say Derrick May, BORIS, Victor Calderone, Roger Sanchez, Derrick Carter and Hardwell……. hahaha no not really Hardwell that’s just not my style!
MM: Back in the day Ara, a DJ really had to put in some seriously long hours and dedication to learn the beautiful art and skills of using their ears to beat match and mix vinyl. Now with the advent of digital decks and beat matching software, are today’s electronic DJ’s at a disadvantage or creative advantage?
AO: The eternal vinyl vs digital debate aahhhhhhhhh noooooooooo! But really… in a nutshell,
It’s all about HOW you use what you have,
not so much WHAT you use. I have heard amazing DJ sets and terrible DJ sets across all formats. I agree there is beauty in the art of beat matching in its own right and I’m glad I learned that way when I started. Some people say learning that aspect first helps you gain a deeper understanding of the flowing music. If people want to focus on that aspect of DJing and perfect that skill, much respect. If others want to leave the beat matching to a computer and focus on other areas of DJing that’s cool too. I just hope those people are filling up that time with things like live remixing on the fly, looping, efx, 3 and 4 deck mixing etc. If sync is handling part of the job don’t get lazy and stand there with one hand in your pocket looking bored! (I’ve seen this a few times ugh). When calculators were invented we didn’t lose the need for accountants, it just automated that part of the job for them which let them get more/other work done, which they had to do since they were still on the clock. When you’re hired to perform as a DJ put your time in and break a sweat, earn that check more than the next guy!
I learned on Technics back in the day because that’s what we had. When the digital programs came around I put my hands on them for while to try them out. I used to bring my laptop out to gigs but I don’t like to look at screens while I DJ. I spend most of my life looking at screens, my desktop, my laptop, my phone, my tablet, my TV… the last thing I want to do when I’m trying to connect with a crowd of human beings is stared at another screen! I actually don’t like seeing them in the booth at all. Put that thing off to the side or under the table if you want to use it. Right now I prefer CDJs and beat matching without sync. I like to hear small fixes and adjustments a DJ makes while in a mix, I don’t consider those mistakes unless it’s a total train wreck, of course, choooooo choooooooo!! Just be on top of your game no matter what you use.
MM: Any advice would you give the aspiring DJ today / Producer on how to be creatively original in an already saturated market?
AO: When inspiration hits and you’re not in the studio, record a voice memo on your phone or email yourself the idea so you don’t lose that creative moment! Furthermore, don’t steal, be original. You will learn later that it’s your own personal style and quirks that set your sound apart from the rest. That’s what people notice the most and will come across the best. Be different but not too different! You still have to respect certain rules if you want to be recognized by DJs that play a certain sound. At the end of the day you want your stuff stand out but also to mix well with other tracks close to your style You can be creative by doing something unique and surprising, like using that weird sound your phone makes, when it gets too close to your speakers, in the breakdown of a track or making that church bell I recorded on my phone in Armenia into a crazy rising atmosphere.
Since I worked at Satellite Records store in NY in the early 2000s, I had a bad habit of wanting to put a label or genre on everything as soon as I hear it. Doing that automatically files things in an imaginary box in my head and this distracts me from perky listening to it. Lately, I’ve been trying to think of things less in terms of genre and more in terms of the overall vibe of a song and how it makes you feel, this has helped me creatively.
MM: Tell us about the New York underground today and where do you see it evolving?
AO: Well the Brooklyn scene is really buzzing at the moment with Output, Analog, TBA, Schimanski, Teksupport and some great afters like Brooklyn A/V, The Rise and more. I’d love to see it continue this way and keep growing. In Manhattan, you have Flash Factory, Cielo and more. As far as festivals we’ve had Awakenings and Time Warp come here from Europe, unfortunately, they aren’t coming back this year. I think there was too much red tape for them to deal with. There will be an Awakening area at the Electric Zoo festival this year. I’m curious to see the line-up for it. I’m not as involved in the NY scene as I should be because I travel for most of my gigs and my wife (DJ) Becka and I also have our daughter Violet and I love spending time with them when I’m home on weekends. I have some stuff in the works for this summer around the city so stay tuned! I always look forward to that as it’s always fun to play at home and have my friends and family come out.
MM: If you ended up trapped on a godforsaken island with only your decks, a crate of spirits and your vinyl fly case to your name, what would be the top 10 essential cuts that you must have to survive and why?
AO: That’s a shitty situation to be in! I mean if I would only have 10 records to listen to over and over I’d end up hating them all. I suppose I’d quit DJing and take up building an arc to get the F off of that island. OK…now that my basic survival instincts are out of the way, I will hit you a whole mess of Techno & House records that I’ve loved over the years, off the top of my head and in no particular order: Jeff Mills – The Bells & Alarms, Joey Beltram – Energy Flash & Forklift, DJ Rolando – Knights of the Jaguar, DK8 – Murder Was The Bass, Inner City – Big Fun & Good Life, Daft Punk – Homework, JayDee – Plastic Dreams, Renato Cohen – Pontape, Richie Hawtin – Minus Orange, Spokesman – Acid Creek, Lil Louis – French Kiss & Blackout, Raze – Break For Love, Adonis – No Way Back, Goldie – Inner City Life.
MM: With your successful DJ career bringing you to clubs and studios all over the world what were your stand out moments where you thought ‘Fuck’ this real??
AO: At Ultra Miami, EDC Vegas, Electric Zoo in the US and Electro Paz in Colombia all definitely had their surreal Holy Crap moments for me as far as large scale events. When you play on a big stage there are so many eyes on you and the sound systems are so huge that they totally rattle your insides.
At times it’s felt to me like a slight turn of the bass EQ can change the course of the planets trajectory in outer space!
There are a lot of good things about big festivals but I feel that some of the nuances of DJing get lost at events of that size. It’s fun to do those from time to time but for me, I prefer a more intimate setting. When I was a resident at Sullivan Room in NYC in the early 2000s was great for me. Playing every 2 weeks somewhere, you can really experiment and take chances with the crowd and the sound system. A medium sized club with a dark room of around 500 people and a really good sound system is where it’s at for me. You can make a much more personal connection with the dance floor like that and those moments can stand out and be even more plugged in and spiritual.
MM: With Techno becoming so popular around the world is it in danger of becoming like the EDM scene?
AO: Seems like it already has. People will always try to make a quick buck off of a cultural phenomenon and when that element comes into play it can really suck the soul out of something and change what made it cool/popular in the first place. The Techno and House music scenes started from a sort of marginalized counterculture type of mentality. People that were looking for something more than what was fed to them on the radio or in the typical pop media world. For these styles to be given the limelight, it seems it would be going against its original principles. If the influx of new attention and money is used correctly I think it can go in a positive direction, sort of how Hyte or Awakenings are doing it.
I see the big festivals are starting to break off the more underground House/Techno stages from the rest of the festival like Resistance from Ultra, Factory 93 from Insomniac, and Sunday School from Electric Zoo. This tells me that
Some of the fans of dance music have “grown up” and are moving away from that over the top main stage sound
The question is will the current artists buy into it or just get disappointed and go to a different place musically? Hopefully these companies do it right and it keeps a sort of integrity and purity to preserve the main principles, otherwise, if they water it down too many people will sense that and will fade away for something more real.
MM: What drives and motivates you, Ara?
AO: My love for the music and the live performance aspect. Also, my wife, daughter, fans, and friends that are always so supportive. I appreciate that so much! A lot my friends that I used to go raving and clubbing grew out of the scene and have moved onto “normal” lives but every time I get a good booking or drop a big record release they get so happy for me. It’s like we are in this fight together and it’s a win for all of us. I would never want to let them down! That helps drive me in times of frustration. And as cliché, as it may be I still love the feeling of getting people all types of people together on the dance floor and how music can transcend social barriers.
MM: Does dance music still give you a hard on?
AO: Haha Every day! There is amazing music coming out every day which is an endless source of inspiration. Sure there is probably more crap coming out but you figure out ways of cutting through that to find the gold. I think clubs can still be such cool places to hang out in. Good sound, lighting, vibes. Just make sure you wear your earplugs and protect your hearing… I can’t stress that enough!!
MM: What are your next big planned events and projects?
AO: I have worked on some really exciting projects this summer, stuff that I’ve been working on under wraps for a while. My EP on Bitten Records “Overshadow” featured a remix from legend Joey Beltram in May. I signed a track to one of my favourite labels of all time, Christian Smith’s Tronic which came out in special VA in June. Also an EP on Funk’n Deep Black, a remix for Full On Funk, and a DJ mix compilation for Bitten records as well. as gigs in NewYork, Chicago, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and more and I’ll be at ADE for a few gigs in October.
Interview – Editing – Design – Mike Mannix