Swiss-born producer Cyril Hahn made a name for himself with some choice reworkings of R&B classics. Two such classics were Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body" and "Say My Name" by Destiny's Child. Much of his career has involved vocal arrangements, whether they're original performances recorded for one of his own productions, bootleg accappellas, or editing original productions. Hahn's new Voices EP is the culmination of this intensive period of study, an oddly cinematic approach to house music that takes as many cues from Howard Shore as it does from Andrew Weatherall or Masters At Work.
Voices is a different kind of club music: Hahn freely admits he's somewhat of an outsider when it comes to house. Entirely self taught and without a scene to be a part of, he quietly sculpted a style all of his own and at the forefront of his influences are cinematic soundtracks, where mood and atmosphere steer the direction of the sounds. His wistful take on these modern classics is the embodiment of postmodernism, casting a harsh and critical eye on some of the more frivolous corners of pop and R&B. Meaning and context are subverted beyond recognition, turning facile pop songs into sombre, inward reflections.
Interview by James Keith (@JamesMBKeith)
You made a name doing remixes of R&B tracks. You put quite a different take on it, by making them sombre and downbeat. Do you think that's something that R&B lacks? How do you feel about R&B at the moment?
I'm not sure. I can't say I follow Top 40 R&B stuff, so I'm not too much in the loop, but there's definitely some interesting stuff coming from the underground—at least in the world of electronica which is giving it a whole new dimension. There's some stuff out there which is pretty interesting. But that was quite a while ago so the landscape then was very different to how it is now. But with the Mariah Carey one I did, the original was obviously very upbeat so it was interesting for me to juxtapose those pretty ridiculous lyrics with a darker melody.
You've remixed a range of people, it's not just R&B. Like Sigur Ròs, for example. How do you decide who you're going to remix?
There's two different remixes. There's the first kind which I sort of seek out myself and create bootlegs, which obviously are not necessarily official, which as you know is how I started out. Then you have the other remixes, where they've actually sought me out and asked me to remix them. Growing up, Sigur Ròs were definitely one of my favourite bands, so there was absolutely no way I was going to say no to them! That was really special to me.
Would you say you're more influenced by bands rather than DJs or producers?
Yeah, for sure. Growing up, I was into punk and hardcore and post rock and ambient. That was all stuff that belonged to these really small scenes in the underground. Back then, I sort of rejected anything that was remotely pop. So it's only been in recent years that I allowed myself to branch out more and appreciate anything that's good, no matter who wrote it or what kind of scene it's coming from. I don't really have a background in R&B or club music. I never really knew about DJs, I was always more interested in electronic producers. I would always go to concerts, as opposed to raves or club nights.
What brought about the change in attitude for you, then?
I think just growing out of that teenage phase where you have this very distinct, black and white view of the world. When I was that age, I had a very stubborn belief about what was cool and what wasn't. But I think you just get more relaxed as you grow older and you stop caring about what's cool and just start enjoying yourself.
When I started listening to more club music, I was never into the harder stuff. I always needed to have a melody in there. I always preferred the mellow stuff, and still do.
You started producing in high school, before you took a break to study art history at university...
I guess I did, but was very rough! I don't know if I'd call it producing, but that was when I first started playing around with sounds and recording my own stuff. It wasn't electronic or anything like what I'm producing now. I can't say music was ever my focus, at that time. Before the remixes got some exposure online, it was always just a hobby. Then when I started university it became even less of a hobby, just because I was so busy then. After a while, I just started playing music again and getting inspired by different sounds. It was still just a personal project for my own enjoyment, to learn the theories and techniques so that I could produce my own electronic music. The first few remixes that ironically put me on the map were just me learning still, so it's pretty funny to me how well they ended up doing. When I was remixing Mariah Carey or "Say My Name", they were pretty rough in terms of how they're mixed. They’re very amateurish so it's funny how they struck a chord with people.
So did you hold off on producing your own music while you were still remixing until you thought you were ready?
I started remixing just because you can find accappellas online so easily. They're just everywhere, especially stuff from the nineties. I just like chopping up vocals, it was just for fun. And I didn't really know any vocalists so that was just the perfect way of practicing that and learning how to manipulate vocals for different effects. I'm sure if I had a friend who had given me a bunch of their vocal tracks, things would have turned out differently. That was just what was at hand.
Your music is quite a subdued take on club music. Is that something you look for in music?
When I started listening to more club music, I was never into the harder stuff. I always needed to have a melody in there. I always preferred the mellow stuff, and still do. When I'm at home, even though I DJ, it's still a lot of ambient stuff or just bands. That's why my music ends up with a strange sort of mix of sounds and influences.
How did remixing a track, where you have lots of elements already in place, compare to writing and producing your own music from scratch?
Writing original is definitely more challenging for me, but it's also way more rewarding in the end once you have an original. It's just completely yours and you know exactly what you've created and that it's something new. What's really exciting to me, though, is that someone might end up sampling your music. And, for me, as someone who started out by remixing, I really love that idea. With remixes you have a starting point which is super fun and it definitely makes things easier if you can start out with a vocal sample or a guitar sample. Having that starting point really helps but if you’re creating an original you have a lot more freedom. So there’s kind of benefits and downfalls to both approaches.
Your new EP, Voices, was just released. Tell us about some of the ideas and influences you brought together for that.
It's pretty vocal-heavy. Even though I'm not remixing anymore, working with accappellas is still my favourite way to work; chopping them up is something I just really enjoy. That's definitely a theme that runs, not just through Voices, but through all my work. Calling the EP Voices ties that theme together on the EP. I think songs like "Slow" are more like pop songs rather than house songs. That's a bit of a change from earlier releases. Even then, when I started remixing, I didn't know much about house music I just liked steady kick drums and then everyone started calling my music deep house but I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about [laughs]. With a lot of house music producers, they're DJs as well and they've got a massive house and club background, so that very much drives their music that when they're writing a track they're thinking, "How is this going to sound in a big room? Is the kick drum loud enough? Will it make people move?" Whereas, I had never really thought of that; I would just do it without thinking consequentially. So, that's the main fundamental difference between me and a lot of house or club DJs and producers.
You're relatively early on in your career. What are your plans for the future? Do you have any milestones you want to reach?
I haven't thought about it too much. I'm just taking it release by release. I think one thing that is always at the back of my mind is that I'd love to score a soundtrack. I'm really into ambient post-rock and a lot of instrumental music, so it'd be nice to tie back to that. I'm sure that could possibly happen. That would be really fun!
Voices is out now via PMR Records.