Belgian by birth, a resident of Berlin for 8 years and now living in South Australia, Gratts has been making music under the guise of “various projects and alter egos” for years. I don’t know what the others are, but at least under this name, and over the last few years, his productions have truly shined. “Brighter Future” featuring the vocals of Robert Owens & released on our friend Jorge Caiado‘s Inner Balance label, sets the tone. It’s sunny and consciously optimistic music, crafted by an artist with serious songwriting and arrangement skills. “Sun Circles,” released earlier this year, is a composition so bright you can feel the radiant chords as well as you can hear them. Synths rise & crash like waves, and woven through them is an innate sense of soulfulness and a rich musicality. Due to sophisticated songwriting, Gratts’ music is genre agnostic; it’s not hard to cram into a genre but it’s damned hard to keep it there. With a soft touch, they can be played in so many contexts and alongside so many different other types of records and they still work.
“I think of house music more like a framework,” he says, “a context — like it evolved at The Warehouse, before it was a genre: it could entail African drums, disco, italo, European electronic tracks, industrial, anything could work as long as it fit the vibe, the narrative. I find it a bit dull that people are still making the same old boring sampled tracks. So I try to be a bit more ambitious.”
I have such a deep appreciation for Gratts’ music, artistically ambitious as it is, and was thrilled to meet him and share some of that music with you.
When “Sun Circles” came out, you announced a move from Germany to Australia. This is the opposite move compared to what we usually report here. Why?
Well, I moved to Berlin at the end of 2013 (after quitting my job in Brussels and traveling around that whole year). The move was never really planned, I was visiting friends in town and (like so many) ended up staying. Rents were still kind of affordable then and I was ready for a new chapter.
I met my partner at the time there, who happened to be from Adelaide. Both our sons Leo and Ziggy were born in Berlin. After the pandemic (and quarantining every other week in a small Kreuzberg apartment with two young kids), we decided to move to where we would have some family support. Meaning Belgium or Australia. I was up for the adventure down under, and now we’re all here.
Which do you consider home: Belgium, Germany or Australia?
I feel connected to all the places where I’ve spent a decent amount of time… I love chatting to people so I’m usually out and about (must be my journalist background hehe).
It’s hard to say where I consider home, but I think it must be Belgium, as it’s where I grew up and where all my family are still based. I’ve found that being away has made me miss it more. Isn’t that what family is like? You miss them when you’re away, and when you’re with them they drive you up the wall, hehe.
My hometown is Leuven, an old uni town in Flanders and only about a 25 mins drive or train ride to Brussels. (Leuven was always a very house music centered city when I grew up, we had the legendary Silo club that was well known all over the Lowlands.)
I definitely have a lot of love for Berlin, of course. I spent 8 years there and worked as a tour guide for a while (when my oldest son was born), so I got to know it rather well — it’s a special place with an incredible history. (I don’t suspect I’ll end up living there again, but I look forward to visiting again in April.)
And Australia — I don’t quite consider it my home yet somehow, I am still getting installed. But I enjoy learning about it, meeting people, exchanging ideas.
Do you think Berlin is good or bad for creativity? To put forward a couple of arguments: artists are always motivated to uproot themselves and move to a capital, and Berlin is sort of a super-national cultural capital where people who are serious about their career can network with other people who feel the same. On the other side: it can be ridiculously fashionable. What do you think?
I don’t think there’s a straight answer to this question, because what gets one’s creative juices flowing is different for everyone… Is it lots of input, parties, musical encounters? Or is it a beach walk? I guess it can be either, depending on the day. I can say this, though: for me, being 38, I’m happy to be where I am. (Though I would not have been 10 years ago.)
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what it is but you have a really cool name. As someone with a very boring name who came up with elaborate noms de plume my whole life I am always curious when people go the other way and work under a monosyllabic alias. Where did “Gratts” come from?
Ha. First of all thanks, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say I have a cool name! (I was never so sure myself but always felt like it was too late to change it, haha.) I do get the question quite regularly, and it’s a pretty daft story, really. I don’t mind telling but it’s not very interesting. When I was 17, I met the Touché promoters in my hometown Leuven, who were putting on amazing house music events. One of the guys, Ben, asked if I wanted to get involved. Of course I said yes, he asked what DJ name he should use for their next flyer. My MSN Messenger name was an anagram of my name at the time: “Jonni Gratts.” So Ben just put that on the flyer.
That’s how it unwillingly became my DJ name (and could be found on many posters and flyers from then onwards). (With Touché, we hosted parties for many years with guest DJs from the likes of Joshua, Inland Knights, Diz, Littlemen and many more.)
My records are quite personal. It’s all about emotions. Whether it’s more house, disco or balearic leaning, the common thread would be that there is a storyline.
Someone then shortened it to just “Gratts” on a private event flyer and I thought that sounded cooler, so started using that. Some friends back home still call me “Gratts” to this day, as some people in Australia have started doing, it’s kind of become my nickname.
How would you describe your output as a producer? Or how would you describe your records if they were made by someone else?
My records are quite personal. It’s all about emotions. Whether it’s more house, disco or balearic leaning, the common thread would be that there is a storyline.
I know that’s not something that people usually associate with “dance music” (from which I’m probably deviating further and further anyway, must be my old age) but there’s a lot of background and meaning, if you listen closely.
Describe my music if it was made by someone else? Interesting perspective.
The reason I make the records I make is mostly to play them in my DJ sets. (That doesn’t mean they need to be dancefloor tracks — I play a lot of slower, mellower, weirder, deeper stuff out.)
If anything, my music is potentially a bit hard to place… Even though most of my musical blueprints stem from different eras, I aim to come up with something fresh.
I don’t try and be cool and fit into trends (I’m too old anyway), the goal is to release music that will hopefully stand the test of time.
(Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, to be successful, it’s more strategic to be a one dimensional cliché, so people can easily categorise you and put you into a box. But that has never appealed to me.)
I still love house music as much as I did 25 years ago. The appeal to me has always been that it’s such a broad genre, anything goes: so many different vibes and tempos can be found within it. Which is why it’s so sad that people narrow it down, like only play a certain subgenre.
Most importantly, I try to release music that would hopefully work in different environments (the club, the radio, etc) which is an interesting balancing act.
Jorge Caiado recently told me the following, which meant a lot to me: “Each of your records so far have been special, and even if people don’t realise it right now, they might when they look back into your discography.”
As a producer you’ve worked with a few vocalists now, Robert Owens of course on “Brighter Future” but I also thought Ellie Beale was brilliant on “Sun Circles.” That is a very different experience than working alone on a track, isn’t it? And you’ve worked with live musicians often now, right? What do you like about that experience?
Regarding the live musicians: as a DJ, I’ve found myself playing more and more organic music the last few years, whether it’s disco, boogie, pop or balearic stuff. And as I mentioned earlier, I write music so I can play it in my sets. So it was a natural evolution where I wanted to come up with stronger material, since I’m very picky with what I play. I wanted to do it properly, and working with musicians was the way forward. (Having said that, I still enjoy making raw house tracks solo.)
I still love house music as much as I did 25 years ago. The appeal to me has always been that it’s such a broad genre, anything goes: so many different vibes and tempos can be found within it. Which is why it’s so sad that people narrow it down (like only play a certain subgenre).
I think of house music more like a framework, a context — like it originally evolved at The Warehouse, before it was a genre: it could entail African drums, disco, italo, European electronic tracks, industrial stuff, anything could work as long as it fit the vibe, the narrative.
I find it a bit dull that people are still making the same old boring sampled tracks. So I try to be a bit more ambitious.
In regards to working with vocalists… The main reason is because I write songs, but prefer to hear someone sing them properly, haha. (Most of my tracks had my own vocals on them at some demo stage — believe me, you don’t want to hear.) The way I write music is very much linked to words, concepts, vocals. A few of my upcoming tracks actually do feature my voice in different ways. But I’m not there yet to do a full vocal thing. So I ask people who have a beautiful and captivating voice, so they can elevate the tracks.
And another perk of getting proper vocals laid down is that you can make a few alternate versions and dubs of course, which I very much enjoy doing. That’s the stuff I grew up with.
You’ve worked with a bunch of labels I like that are scattered all over — Inner Balance in Portugal, Flexi Cuts in Italy, Wolf Music of late. Are you working the demo scene or are these folks you knew before you sent them music?
I love releasing music with people I have a personal bond with. I met Jorge Caiado many years ago when I played my first ever Lisbon gig (at Lounge) and visited his shop Carpets & Snares. Early 2020, I had finally started working on music again (I had gotten stuck in Australia for half a year after a tour in Asia as the pandemic broke loose, the world was on pause, there were no gigs.)
One of those first tracks was “Brighter Future” with Robert. I thought it might be up Jorge’s alley and sent it over, he signed it for Inner Balance and that became my first Gratts record. Thanks Jorge.
With Wolf it was similar: I first met Matt and Stu back in 2012 when we all played at a Tief night at Corsica Studios in London. We started talking again recently and they suggested we’d do a record together.
The exception is Flexi Cuts out of Bologna, but I look forward to meeting Simone at some point.
Contemporary pop music, which is usually our frame of reference for all music, is now deeply influenced by the mechanics of streaming — from release strategy to the actual arrangement of the song itself. How much are you thinking about streaming when you’re preparing a track for release (or at any point in the process)?
Not much at all I’m afraid. I wish I had ventured more into the streaming world when it first started going, but I’ve basically been trying to avoid it altogether, haha.
I still play vinyl! I don’t even have a Spotify account. (For that matter, I don’t download mp3s illegally and I don’t use Rekordbox when I DJ… Total dinosaur.)
Of course I know streaming has become increasingly important. But for people of my generation, I think unfortunately most of us will always be hopelessly behind. I do value radio — that one you listen to in the car. Since a lot of my tracks are song structured, I make the effort to release radio edits, which actually also come in handy for Spotify (and for music videos, which I like to do. It’s a bit of effort, but I grew up in the MTV days.)
I’d rather focus on producing records than on doing the whole streaming business thing… When you have a whole team behind you, sure, but as a one man operation (with two young children in the mix) you can’t have it all.
5 Mag Issue 208
Out July 2023
WE STILL CALL IT HOUSE: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #208 featuring the story of Chicago house music collective 3 Degrees Global, a tribute to DJ Deeon, a cover mix by and profile of Gratts, Detroit vocalist Diviniti, John Davis of the disco’s scariest orchestra, the great vanishing of pirate sites more. Help keep our vibe alive by becoming a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!
You launched a new label for “Sun Circles.” Is that going to be something you revisit or was it a one-off? How easy is it for you to handle all of the admin things in addition to the creative side of music?
This very much follows up on the last question… It’s all a lot of work, especially if you want to do it properly. Since I still play vinyl, releasing on the format is still important to me. (I’ve called off a couple of releases recently when labels “suddenly” felt they just wanted to do a digi-only release. It doesn’t mean much to me, honestly, but each to their own.)
But to answer the question: absolutely, my new label “Be Strong Be Free” has many releases lined up and will be my main vehicle to send music into the world. On vinyl, with the tracks, mixdowns, mastering and artwork that I like.
I was very much into the DiY label from Nottingham at the time — I think some of their sleeves used to say “if you want a job done right, do it yourself.” Still rings true.
What is the must un-house music that you are obsessed with? What artist or album totally outside of the genre inspires you?
I quite enjoy listening to all sorts of different things (mostly in the car), especially stuff that’s bold, ballsy, intentional — whichever genre. I love big ’80s radio hits that I grew up with. Lou Reed albums. Trip hop. I enjoy reading and listening to poetry. Very eclectic… I love scouring the FM dial, seeing what we land on.
I revisit a lot of stuff, music, to me, is nostalgic like that. I’ve found myself playing lots of childhood songs from Belgium at home — again, probably because I’m far away. They also help me teach my sons Dutch (my mother tongue, and the language I speak with them).
On one of my digging trips, I found an alt country CD album that a friend of mine from Adelaide released back in 2012, that’s been getting a lot of play an singalongs in the car. It’s never ending.
How do you find new music as a DJ? How far does your search extend beyond the inbox?
The search doesn’t even really reach my inbox, as I still mainly enjoy digging for records (and CDs) in the real, offline world the most. I find it exciting and rewarding as you never know what will cross your path, and you find interesting and truly off the radar stuff. Sometimes not even on Discogs. Also, ever since I co-ran The Consulate record shop / space in Kreuzberg (where I mostly sold doubles from my collection) I’ve decided to only buy cheap dollar bin stuff.
I’m still digging most days and am obsessed with instrumentals, dubs, B-sides. Anything from italo or disco instrumentals, bonus drums, cover versions, goa trance B-sides played on -8… There are amazing things to be found if you look.
I play a lot of records at the wrong speed (must be my Belgian roots, new beat style).
I still love buying double copies to extend tracks, go from the instrumental into the vocal, etc. I love playing long sets and taking the time to go places, musically speaking.
The move to Australia was interesting DJ-wise, as my collection didn’t travel here with me. Before moving down under, I ended up selling about 2,000 of my records in Berlin because my collection was too heavy to transport to Belgium in a normal van. In the end, I kept about 3,500 records that are currently in a storage unit near my family’s house. I only took a couple of hundred records to Australia and must have about 500 here now. So I’ve been digging like crazy since I arrived and it’s been really fun.
Although having said that, I’ve really started missing my collection recently and I’m still debating what I should do — ship more records over, or not.
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What do you have coming up?
There is quite a lot in the works. Be Strong Be Free 1202 will see the light of day this August. It’s called “Jour De Fête,” with a tasty dub version by Conrad Idjut on the flip. Next up, Be Strong Be Free 1203 will be “Rhythm Of Love,” again with a flipside reinterpretation. Mr. Robert Owens and I also have a follow-up to “Brighter Future” ready. Mr. Beale (who sang on “Sun Circles”) and I also did a new record. Then I’m wrapping up an EP for Canadian label Bienvenue, plus a follow up EP for Lisbon’s Inner Balance. And even more music is ready to be sent into the world — stay tuned. Apart from those, there’s a new little V/A project I’m working on for my label with choice cuts from friends from around the world (named “Mellow Magic Sampler”).
I’m also planning to spend more time trying to battle climate change, raise awareness and being nice to our planet, animals and our fellow humans. We’re all in this together, aren’t we?
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