Lee Foss Examines Creative Catharsis and the Importance of Narrative
A passion for creativity is a devotion that serves the ego selflessly and modestly. Just ask Hot Creations label boss Lee Foss.
Foss has inspired a dramatic impact on modern dance music culture quickly, efficiently, and honestly, demonstrating that reaching the top is much more rewarding when you can share it with others. Often found alongside Hot Natured partner Jamie Jones, Lee has found admirable success is both his solo and collaborative work. From releases on labels like No. 19, Culprit, Wolf+Lamb, and his very own Repopulate Mars, Foss has injected a unique influence of disco, hip-hop, and Chicago house into his productions. While the underground house and techno scene boils to the surface, Lee Foss maintains form.
“My happiest moments are making music with other people, in a group, and the moments where…you know you’ve done something that’s gonna make other people happy.”
I had a moment to chat with Lee right after his set at The Fonda Theatre where he opened up for Nora En Pure. We talked about the importance of creative outlets and how they inspire each other, how genres are essentially moot, and why humility is imperative. Needless to say, now I know what movie brings tears to his eyes and the imperative nature of storytelling that goes into Lee’s music.
I’ve been trying to ID a track since your set at Oregon Eclipse…you gotta help me out here before we get started!
Okay cool, which one?
Something about “this pop story of 1988 continues to be an epidemic of drugs dancing and general debauchery called acid house.”
Oh! That’s Versus ‘1988’. I actually remixed that song. They just debuted my remix on Radio 1 this last week. Yeah Versus ‘1988’ I think the original’s gonna be a big song. I tried to make like an ‘acid-y’ different remix.
What’s something you don’t usually get to talk about in interviews? Let’s talk about it!
I mean, obviously I don’t enjoy repeating myself but it’s not like there’s a particular question that is more important to me. There’s lots of things that interest me. I’m always, you know, it’s cool if people do their homework and they’re interested in what interests me about alchemy or the metaphysical stuff. Like what’s behind the lyrics? What’s behind the ideas behind all these songs? I write the majority of the lyrics for any of my bands touring with me and on my collaborative solo releases outside the band. I feel like I’m a strong songwriter and it shows. So it’s interesting if people are interested in that. The concept behind why I use the samples, why I wrote the lyrics or picked concepts in the songs that I’ve released. That stuffs great for me. Or what I like about the collaborative process. If I pick a vocalist and we write a song together and we spend the time. That stuffs interesting to me.
Where do you find such inspiration for creativity or collaboration?
Two of my favorite movies are about the creative process like that. Prince ‘Purple Rain’ which is about him giving up the control to work with a group and how that pays off for him at the same time that he’s having his family problems.
Then there’s ‘Sing Street’ which is an Irish movie by the guy who wrote and directed ‘Once.’ It’s about this kid who’s a high school student in Ireland and his family goes broke so they send him to this public school. Basically, he’s getting picked on and one of his first days he sees this girl sitting outside her flat and she says she’s a model. So he says he’s in a band and he has a music video to shoot so that she’ll hang out with him. So he has to create a band!
This is in the early 80’s right when like synthesizers first come into music and new wave is first new in the UK. So he creates this new wave band to make music so he can create a music video to hang out with her. Things about the creative process like that, I love. I like talking about that. I like seeing music, things like that…Prince ‘Puple Rain’ brings me to tears. That interests me. My happiest moments are making music with other people, in a group, and the moments where you stand up and you’re just like, you know you’ve done something that’s gonna make other people happy. The times where you feel it in your heart. When you’re really like, “Oh shit, we’ve got something going.” That…that’s what matters to me. That’s what feels great. If I’m excited to play something that I made, that’s a big deal.
Do you ever wish you had another creative outlet? Like maybe instead of expressing through music, is there a form you don’t really have down but would love to be able to express something in that way?
Yeah, I mean, I went to school for writing. I plan to write and show-write for TV and movies. I plan to step into other outlets. I plan for Repopulate Mars to be a lifestyle brand that includes like a magazine, a fashion line, so yeah I plan to be a designer in that respect. I certainly won’t be the physical designer of the clothes. I can make copies of my favorite shapes, but I don’t know how to make patterns or anything like that. I plan to own a magazine, own a fashion line, to write and create TV, to have a content channel. So, I mean there’s lots of things in the cards that I think are all, you know, health and entertainment based that I have a skill set and knowledge base for. But, if I were to go back to school and do something better it would be music. I’m not classically trained. I’m never gonna go to school for film making, probably. I’m never gonna go to school for fashion. Like, I’ve already gone to school for writing I don’t need to do that I know I do it as well as anyone. But like if I had to go back to learn more it would be for music. But I will definitely be doing more in entertainment for sure in other outlets. I look forward to it and some of them are in the process of starting so, that’s a question I’m interested in. That’s definitely something that we’re doing and I’m doing and me and Jamie have plans for outside of that too in terms of films and television as well.
I’m glad you mentioned the creative process. That’s a really important thing to have and you kind of brought it up already. What makes it so important to have a creative outlet or a process of sorts for you? And, why?
I love narrative. I feel like I give narrative in my DJ sets. I feel like people…it’s more than escapism…people want catharsis. I feel like I can deliver that in a lot of outlets.
I feel like I am the bridge when it comes to catharsis between dark techno, tech house, deep house, pop. I feel like I can be the bridge, ya know? And all it takes is more hard work and sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. I have a lot going on. But I feel like I have the ear, the ideas, and the stage presence to be the bridge between all the credible and interesting genres. I think people are bored by one thing for a whole anything. A whole one-hour program. A whole two-hour set. People are bored by one thing. They need peeks, valleys, narratives. And narratives require instincts and truth, ya know? Narratives require the same way that music theory and music…there’s a right note and a wrong note…I mean it’s all subjective to an extent.
But there’s right and wrong in narrative. There’s right and wrong in playing the correct series of notes or tones and stepping to the next, ya know, whatever. Stepping to the next chord. Stepping to the next scene. So I feel like…I hope that we can do this in multiple forms of entertainment. But even if its just music and I sharpen that I definitely have plans to sharpen my writing. I feel like I’ve really sharpened my DJ’ing in terms of being focused, being prepared without playing my set at all. Being extremely prepared.
Whereas, ya know, five-six years ago no one had the music we had. No one. And I didn’t have to be prepared, honestly. I really didn’t. No one was playing anything like what we were playing and I didn’t need to prepare at all. And to an extent we’ve been a part of a big genre change and I think we’ve been rewarded for that even at times that we weren’t as active and we’re extremely active now (Jamie and I). But like I think being prepared now on top of working hard just makes DJ’ing a joy again for me like it was in the beginning.
‘Cause it’s tough that point where everyone copies everything that you and your friends are doing. It’s physically and mentally draining and the hate that comes after that. So to step out from that and realize again how much you love music. And make the effort and know that so much of the difference is in you, ya know, I’ve made those steps and like I said, there’s always more to learn, always more to do, and I plan to do a lot more learning this winter in terms of music writing to step up my game. But I’m happy about music.
What makes a show “worth while” for you to go to now? For lack of a better phrase.
I mean I can’t look at it that way they’re all worth while and if some are great then it’s a fuckin’ bonus. I’m paid to be there. To play well for anyone and not every crowds the same. You don’t have the luxury of making that call. You have the luxury of enjoying the ones that are great. It’s your job. And if the fuckin’ crowds awesome, amazing! It’s my job to recognize if a crowd isn’t that nuanced, how to play to them and to make them go off with a nuanced style. That’s my responsibility and it’s something I’m great at.
I like that take on it. So how would you describe, say, techno to a noob versus a genre snob?
Techno? I mean first of all I wouldn’t qualify myself as a techno DJ. I’m not much of a…I don’t believe in genres anyways. But I know what techno is and I play an occasional techno song, but I know I’m a house DJ. I’m from Chicago. So I’m not a techno DJ. So anyone I told about techno, I wouldn’t be coming from an honest place. I know what it is and I play it sometimes, but ya know, from my heart I’m based in hip-hop, disco, funk, house, I’m from Chicago. I’m not from Detroit. I’m not from Berlin, like I’m not gonna pretend I’m a techno DJ. I’ve learned how to bang out my sets and bring the funk to everyone, but I’m not a techno DJ. So describing techno…describing genres to me is made up. But I will admit that techno is different – different than house. That’s valid. Is tech house different from what they call deep house two years ago? Different from what they called electro house before that on Beatport? I mean that stuffs made up for people who don’t know how to make music to make money off of music. These genres are made up to review, to categorize, to make something cool and un-cool by people who don’t know how to do it. Is it my place to discuss genre? No. Like techno is definitely different than house. And if I’m able to tie in something that’s a little alien to me and learn it and build it into my sound – and I do like weirder, darker things. But ya know, my take on it is I’m no one to discuss techno. But I do like techno and whether or not these many genres are made up there’s definitely house and there’s definitely techno.
So then how would you describe genre to someone who maybe isn’t as well versed in the types?
If you look at Beatport or Mixmag and it lists dozens of different genres – to an extent they’re valid but to another extent how things are probably sold at any given time is calculated by a formula. What will sell the most at that time and what will make people look cool and make media outlets look like they’re breaking things. And they’re not valid. But outside of that techno is real and exists. House is real and it exists. Some of the microcosms are kind of different for the most part. What’s called something at any given time is based on a system of building things up to break them down. To crown the next thing so that people who don’t make music can be the ones who are cool and make other things cool.
I saw this question come up in a previous interview of yours. You were asked, “What’s something you never get asked?” and you replied with, “How do I stay humble?” And so I ask…how do you stay humble?
I have friends and a girlfriend who keep me honest. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had a good group of friends since I started my career. People like Jamie Jones, some of my friends from the UK, people who never let my head get too big. So, we’ve always been fortunate and I think that’s why I’ve looked at a lot of electronic groups and collectives (pretty much all of them since the time we’ve started getting big) separate, and we’re strong as ever and communicate as well as ever. We keep each other honest and we don’t let each other get a big head. And I think that’s important.
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