Saturday, 5 January 2013
Gridface: What did you study at the Art Institute? Did you have formal musical training?
Merwyn Sanders: I was primarily focused on painting, drawing. And then I was in their fashion department for a year. Then I got out of the department and just kept with the basic studio studies, which was painting, drawing, illustration, and even some photography.
My dad was a musician. It’s just in my family. So all of that came from in-house. I would play drums at church. I was a back-up drummer at church when I was growing up. The music was just always there, way before college.
Merwyn Sanders: I remember when we first started, we were still young, we thought, well let’s number our tapes and get really organized and know what songs are on what tapes. I think after tape 200 we stopped even writing it down. I don’t know how many tapes there are now. If you figure 60-minute tapes, there’s gotta be at least one decent song on an hour tape, plus how many tapes, there’s gotta be some good songs in there. So that’s what we’ve been doing lately, tryin’ to go back through all that stuff and try to make it somewhere release-able, like getting it on iTunes or something. Somewhere, a site for it, even to just download it and check it out.
When the golden era of Chicago house gets mentioned nowadays, people will be quick to mention people like Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Larry Heard, but Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders? Although they might not be household names, the duo's small discography is highly rated by connoisseurs of the deeper Chicago sound, and some might go as far as to say that their debut EP from '89 as Virgo Four is arguably the finest house music 12-inch ever created. I'm inclined to agree, and if you've ever heard the strutting space-age bleep-house of "In a Vision" or the euphorically melancholic reggaematics of "Take Me Higher" before (the latter of which I would rate as one of the best electronic music tracks of all time), it's likely that you will too. Virgo compiles the aforementioned Do You Know Who You Are? EP with their Ride single from later that year, much in the same way that it was licensed to UK-based imprint Radical Records back in its original year of release.
Speaking in the reissue's liner notes, Merwyn Sanders downplays the amount of thought that went into making the material on Virgo, stating that it was "really just song 'ideas,' somewhat unfinished in a sense," but that really doesn't do justice to the timeless melodies and luxuriant sound design that they managed to achieve during these live jams. Sanders may lament the simplicity of certain aspects of the Virgo sound—such as their rudimentary but commanding drum machine programming—but it's this characteristic that gives their music so much charm. Take the effortless but irresistible groove of "Do You Know Who You Are?" or "Going Thru Life"'s lolloping piano riff, for example, both of which embody the duo's visceral approach to music making.
With quality tracks like these at the start of the record, Virgo was always going to feel front-loaded, but the Ride material should really be looked upon as a different entity to the first half. Showcasing a darker and more vocal-led direction to their first EP, Lewis and Sanders cycle through skulking low-slung house ("School Hall"), jacking balladry ("Never Want To Lose You") and even a bit of moody slap bass ("All The Time"), but it's the title track that really stands the test of time. As close to menacing as you'll hear on any of their records, the oft-overlooked "Ride" could easily slot into a set of contemporary techno with its crisp rattling hats, urgent vocal and positively evil modulating bass line.
The geeks say Virgo is the greatest house album of all time, and you know what? They’re right. Never has house music sounded so warm, so natural, so resonant. Rush Hour’s remastering job isn’t particularly radical, but then Virgo’s production is so crisp and fat in the first place, it doesn’t need much extra oomph. Still, unless you’re lucky enough to own mint copies of the two original Trax 12″s, this is probably the best opportunity you’ll ever have to own these tracks cut loud on pristine vinyl.
Virgo‘s deep, melancholic but drum-machine-heavy sound has a great deal in common with the best of Fingers Inc and Armando, but really it stands alone, and its cerebral but generously groovy evocation of the urban nightscape has never been matched for elegance or acuity.