Before EDM exploded and began to dominate the festival, social media and tour circuit, most of the early artists in the genre toiled in relative obscurity. Sure, there were a few faceless giants like DJ Shadow and Tiesto that had huge (mostly European) followings, but the majority were relegated to grimy warehouses and corn fields. Attendees raved to heavy bass and flashing lights while the rest of the country gave them and their “computer instruments” weird looks and went back to bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots.
One of the groups who have been there since day one is Terravita. After growing up together and brushing shoulders in Boston’s early electronic scene, friends Chris Barlow, Matt Simmers and Jon Spero decided to go all in and open a record store together. Simultaneously, they dreamed of becoming professional musicians in a genre that didn’t seem have a place for them yet.
Good Times sat down with Chris and Jon to find out how they’ve navigated so many twists and turns over the years.
Before you guys decided to open the record store and make music your thing, what were you doing? What types of music did listen to growing up?
Jon: We kinda came up in the music scene together. Chris was promoting shows, I was promoting shows, and we were all playing music. We were all in that house/warehouse rave scene together since around 1999, but we didn’t start playing together until right before the record store. I got invited to a wedding and ran into Chris there, and he asked me if I was still making music. I wasn’t really, but I went and played a show with them. It turned out pretty well and we just kind of continued on from there.
After opening the record store, were there times where you guys were like, “Why the hell did we do this?”
Chris: The record shop was less of a grind than Terravita at first, to be honest. During this time, there weren’t really serviceable DJs playing in mp3 like we were, so there wasn’t really a market for that yet. The shop itself was fine for a few years since people were still buying loads of records and CDs. The electronic scene was not then what it was now. The methods of promotion weren’t there and the crowds weren’t there, but they were still buying stuff from the shop.
Jon: I don’t know if I ever really thought about quitting, but there were for sure some nights I spent sleeping on the record shop floor that weren’t super fun.
As Terravita, you guys are considered legends of the DnB genre, but your other project, Hot Pink Delorean, has an insane catalog of dance/house/pop beats. Did you plan to branch off into that genre?
John: A little bit, we were really enjoying the genre at the time. We wanted to branch off and have fun, We were pretty locked up in the DnB. We didn’t really have an outlet for other stuff.
Chris: We weren’t really thinking about it. HPD took off. Everything at the time was blog related, and it lit up online. Next thing you know, we’re playing more HPD shows than Terravita shows. Then Terravita came back in the combined dubstep/drum and bass, which people named drum step, which is what kinda breathed new life back into Terravita. This was in 2009 when the bass music that you see today kinda had its huge burst onto the scene. It was also the start of the decline of the blog house, Hot Pink Delorean, trash electric kinda thing. The decision on which project to really purse was made for us.
Terravita has hopped around a lot of labels from the get go: Technique, Bad Taaste, Subsonik Sound, and Beta just to name a few, before finally ending up with Buygore who is presenting your new “Fallen” EP and your current Tour. Was it tough hopping around labels so much in the beginning?
Jon: Actually it’s the opposite. Having more places to put out your music allows you to be more creative. We learned a hard lesson. We signed an exclusive deal with Technique for a certain amount of EPs and they were not taking any of the music we presented to them, so we were totally stuck until they basically decided they liked something. A lot of labels at this time were using this to shelve artists, not saying that this was their intention, but we weren’t the only ones it happened to around that time. Now we have an outlet for pretty much any style we want to make. If we want to release a track that is “tear your face off dubstep”, we use Buygore. For house music we use Muck. It’s great having places to go with your stuff when it fits a certain label better than another.
Chris: All of these smaller labels have treated us very well, especially in between Technique and what we are doing now. There was a period where we released some of our biggest songs on Rottun who were very good to us.
You’ve been around since 2006. Not that you guys are old men by any means but electronic music sure seems to be a young man’s game these days, How do you stay relevant?
Jon: You tend to get inspired by stuff that’s happening around you. Somebody makes a new sound and you hear a new sound design, you hear a new way somebody is laying down a vocal and you kind of go and take your little stab at it and incorporate it into what you do. The hardest thing is keeping your base sound and not turning into something you don’t recognize. We’ve changed so much and we try to keep our original sound, but at the end of the day you do what inspires you, and that helps you stay relevant. I think that’s the best way to make new fans and keep old fans.
Chris: We get feedback from the crowd that is coming out to the shows, so if we notice people are really feeling an artist or genre, we can do our own forward-thinking Terravita twist on it. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure musical journey. We listen to the fans that come out to the shows, not the ones online that always tell us to do our old stuff. I mean, we always make what we like, but we definitely want to cater to the fans who are coming to see us live. Our main focus is the fans. As they got older we went with them and that helped.
What do you think has changed the most about the electronic/DJ scene?
Chris: You don’t have to hand out flyers or advertise in a magazine. Before, electronic music was very faceless. Now you are a brand, almost more so than the music. They want to put your face on the flyer. I think in the end it’s definitely better because there’s more access.
Jon: People are more interested in people’s personalities, what your life is like. People take social media very seriously. It’s interesting to look at all the techniques people are using to promote themselves these days since all we had back then was flyers and the newspaper pretty much.
With so many producers and artists in the game there’s a lot to listen to, is there anyone you’re really into right now or would want to work with?
Chris: Collaborating with another trap or dubstep artist, it’s always cool to do and you can always hear a little bit of a style change, but you can really tell when you collab with a vocalist, for example, that’s when things really start to change. A voice can change chord progression, everything about the song, whereas another dubstep producer can be hard to distinguish. I love doing collabs like that.
Jon: There’s always people you wanna work with, but you can’t make it happen. When it comes to making music it would be amazing to work with FKA twigs, Atmosphere, RNTJ, Ed Sheeran, or even someone like Big Daddy Kane. The cool part of our genre is we kinda have carte blanche to do weirder stuff. We’re not limited, which is a blessing and a curse.
How is touring now different than your earlier days?
John: At this point we’ve done it all, and figured out what works best for us. We were sick of being on the road for months at a time, missing loved ones and not handling business. We just wanted to do weekend jaunts this tour and head home. We have shit to do.
Chris: We’re also playing a lot of festivals this summer, and you have to link shows up in between. We are about to announce a lot more festivals, so if you don’t see a date in your area, keep an eye out.
If someone is on the couch and iffy on coming out, what would you say to make them come see you guys live?
Chris: If you wanna come out and have a dance party in an accepting and inclusive environment, this is the spot. Come out and here some really interesting stuff. We’re not gonna get up on stage and re-play Taylor Swift.
Jonn: Well, we actually have played Taylor Swift…
Terravita plays The Catalyst on Saturday, May 7. Tickets $25 in advance/$30 at the door.