Shades of Gray
There’s an undeniably unique electricity in the air that one can’t help but pick up on, standing in one of Australia’s numerous clubs as 2am hits, and everybody present is sweaty, grinning and dancing for their lives. Clubbers, you know that vibe I’m talking about? As one of the men running Australian imprint Beef Records – home to releases by artists such as Robert Babicz, Mike Monday, Timewriter and plenty more – it would be sensible to say that Michel Ruzicka has a particularly keen understanding of what it is that makes a party so unforgettably welcoming. Not to mention his reputation as a fearsome DJ and party promoter in his own right, and one half of the duo Shades of Grey with his co-director Nick West, whose debut album Soul Machine has been welcomed with open arms across borders by institutions that include Resident Advisor, DJ Mag and Clubstar Records among many others. No more appropriate time, then, to take a look at the illustrious history of Beef Records and the man behind its inception, Michel Ruzicka, it seems.
Soul Machine is a thoroughly distinctive effort, the title summarising the sound of it perfectly – the steely, captivating sound of its house beats tempered by a decidedly human warmth.
“We have always had a very analogue approach to producing,” explains Ruzicka. “We have a large collection of analogue synths including Moog Voyager, SH101, Juno 106, Nord Lead, Korg MS2000 and the list goes on. In terms of ideas or genres we never know what we are going to do when we enter the studio. We never stick to one technique or bass preset. We actually go to great lengths not to do that. It's all about pushing the boundaries for us but at the same time hopefully making the kind of music that is going to get the dance floor going. And to answer your question about the human characteristics and warmth in our sound, that is the fabric that ties it all together for us. We use a lot of rare disco and soul samples to add that human feel and are not afraid to work with vocalists or musicians to get the story told.”
The old-school sounds of disco and soul permeate many of the tracks of Shades of Grey; re-contextualised and given new life. It’s a deliberate movement, as Ruzicka explains. “I think for us the future of house music is actually taming the machines that are the metronome for this music. Adding that human feel and recycling our culture through the lens of house music is what keeps the genre relevant for us.”
As for the reception of Soul Machine, it’s been deservedly praised internationally. “It’s nice to see that people actually like what we did,” Ruzicka muses. “Getting feedback from other people is a big part of being an artist. It’s not about ego or anything like that, it’s simply about knowing that what you do is well received.”
Given Ruzicka’s long and illustrious history of working with Beef Records partner Nick West, it might seem a little odd that it took the duo almost six years to finally release an album together – but the decision was one that made perfect sense. “We wanted to be confident with our production skills first. Also the timing played an important role. Releasing an album three years ago wouldn’t make much sense. Before the album we did a lot of singles and remixes and a lot of them were quite different. When we started producing we were more focused on the minimal/techno sound which slowly evolved into a more sophisticated, deeper and housier sound. When we started working on the album we decided to do something you can listen to at home but also dance to in a club environment. This can be quite tricky to get the blend right but we did our best to achieve that. The whole process from start to finish took more than a year and we are happy that we didn’t have to rush anything. A lot of albums and singles (especially on the digital market) are not as good as they could be because people simply don’t have the time and patience. This wasn’t the case with us; we were not tied up in some stupid record deal or tight deadlines.”
The release of Soul Machine coincides with the upcoming sixth birthday of Beef Records, and the celebrations for such a momentous occasion include the upcoming debut of the Shades of Grey live show – and it’s sounding equally as singular as their sounds. “We are actually working on it right now,” he says. “We try to cut up all the finished songs and translate them in the live environment so we can jump through the tracks as we feel like or keep some parts looping for longer as well as adding extra stuff on top. We try to keep the live show very flexible and kind of random as well. With our set up it is totally impossible to play the same show twice. We are not one of those ‘press play and dance around the mixer’ kind of live acts.”
Beef Records was launched back in 2005, straight after Ruzicka’s relocation from Prague to Australia. Asked whether it was intimidating at all, throwing everything he had into launching his own record label, he sounds surprisingly relaxed about the way it has all panned out. “To be honest, I had no idea what would happen. I had no business plan, investors, big plans or proper management. I had some experience with running Tribal Vision records back in Prague but that is all. Beef Records was an experiment which grew into something quite big and exciting. Also thanks to Nick who joined me a few years later.”
Their role in shaping the musical careers of many a now well-established artist is undeniable, as he points out. “By working with these artists and supporting them we got an international recognition. When we work with someone we try to establish some kind of friendly relationship and help each other. For example with gigs and touring which we do quite a lot lately.”
Asked what it is that makes an artist fit into the Beef Records roster, it seems the parameters for an artist’s fit into Beef Records delightfully eclectic roster are just as flexible as he is. “Our sound is always evolving and shaping, as is the whole music scene,” he points out. “There are no reasons. It’s about the quality and the music we love and believe in. We are not trying to pigeonhole ourselves into some sub-genre. We just love underground house music as well as lots of other interesting stuff. Of course we are not going to release drum and bass on Beef because that would make no sense. It’s all about the music – if the music is good then we are up for it. Most people we work with are really nice and have a good understanding of what we do. You can feel that from the very start, first meeting or email conversation.”
We feel it too, Ruzicka.
BY MIKI MCLAY
Shades of Gray [AUS] plays the Beef Records Night – 6 Years Of Beef at Brown Alley on Friday February 17.