Imagine going from unknown middle-aged music production hobbyist to international dancefloor sensation, literally overnight. That is exactly what happened to Swiss DJ-producer Michel Cleis in 2008 when his track "La Mezcla" became Cadenza label boss Luciano's favorite new weapon.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Cleis is enjoying all the trappings of his newfound success as an international EDM star. Besides getting signed to Cadenza, he's released work on top labels like Strictly Rhythm, Buzzin' Fly, and Supplement Facts.
Crossfade caught up with Mr. Cleis ahead of his performance with SAFE at the Electric Pickle this Thursday to talk about his love of Latin music, getting away with an illicit Peter Gabriel sample, and his breakthrough success.
Crossfade: You got a bit of a late start professionally, being in your 40s now. What can you tell us about your musical development leading up to your breakthrough success in the last couple years? At what point did it become a serious career path?
Michel Cleis: [Laughs] It never became serious, even right now. I'll tell you the truth, I never expected to have a career in the music panorama -- I was doing music just for my own pleasure, trying to find a nice balance in my life and keep passion alive. I was totally free and without pressure, having an interesting job and traveling already quite a lot -- for holidays. Then came "La Mezcla" and it was so big, kind of a big revolution. I had to change my life and adapt myself to another reality. Of course, after that tune, I had to confirm and to show that appearing in the electronic music scene was not just a lucky circumstance, so I worked quite a lot those last two years to build up a credibility, as a producer and as DJ. I started to work on nice projects with people I like and respect -- from Radio Slave to Gilles "Jazz" Peterson or Masters at Work, or DJ Koze, Gotan Project or Skunk Anansie, Tracy Thorn -- so many different colors and new great experiences in my day.
So did you have a feeling "La Mezcla" would become such an international hit when you first produced it?
No, I did not have this feeling. I was happy with the track but could not imagine which kind of impact it could have on the dancefloor. I finished it at 8 p.m. and the same day at 11 p.m., I gave it to Luciano. That weekend he was playing in Romania. He played the track three times in one night and he sent me straight away a message to tell me that that was a universal hit. That night I started to feel that something special had maybe happened in my studio during the weeks before. Anyway, the release was problematic. At the start, we did not receive the permission to release the track. Peter Gabriel's label did not want to clear the samples. So we decided to take the risk to release it without their OK, which was the good move just before the WMC. My life totally changed -- I'm just living of my music, traveling a lot, doing what I love and I'm a little bit busier than before.
You seem to have an affinity for Latin and especially Andean sounds. Where does this fascination come from? And what else influences your production work?
Yes, I love percussive things, that make me shake. I like to try to adapt Latin music to dancefloors. Most of the time, I have the impression that music was already made to dance to. I love that kind of energy -- positive vibrations that most of the time remind me of friends, people, holidays, sun, fiestas -- fun life for dancers. This fascination comes from my travels. I always try to discover new music when I'm away, everywhere. I started to listen to Andean music because of my ex-girlfriend and her family which was supporting me for a long time. I discovered Totó La Momposina because of family things.
We hear you're currently working on your debut long-player. Can you give us any hints of what to expect?
[Laughs] I do not know yet. But I'm sure there will be some dancefloor stuff too. I already have one of the singles. I'm working with some friends who have different perspectives. No direction for the moment -- just pleasure.
You were a practicing psychologist earlier in your life. Do do you think psychology plays into the way DJs read a crowd, yourself included?
I think empathy is something important -- to pay attention to what happens in front of you is maybe one of the keys. I do not know if my studies and earlier work are something determinant, but they are surely part of what I am.
Back in 2008 you correctly predicted the return of house for interviewers. So where do you see EDM going next? Do you think this recycling of retro sounds can last much longer, and is there new ground to cover?
I do not know if there will be a recycling of retro sounds, but there is certainly a quite new scene that is working on deep stuff that reminds me of the '90s Robert Owens, Bang the Party and more. Real vocal deep house. I'm thinking of Art Department's new stuff, for example, or people like Hot Natured or Tale of Us. I like very much that sound -- let's see what's next.
What does the future have in store for Michel Cleis?
I would like to take some holiday after this summer. August was full of nice things and September will be the same. After Miami, I will stay in Mexico for a week, chilling and loving, then back to work. I really want to push the work on my own album and I will have some great collaborations and remixes on Pampa (DJ Koze's Label) and Compost. I will have an official for Jamie Woon, and an EP on More Music. Different colors again and again.
Michel Cleis with Levon Vincent, Jonathan Cowan and SAFE residents. Thursday, September 15. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 10 p.m. Call 305-456-5613 or visit electricpicklemiami.com.