Interview: The Reflex on revising history
This is an extended version of an interview done for Now Then magazine. Thanks to them for letting me reproduce it here. Read the original .
The Reflex takes his cue from the original remixers, using only the original sounds from the master tapes to rearrange, extend and breathe new life into music. Nicolas Laugier moved to London from France just before the new millennium hit, and has recently had his work brought to light by the likes of Gilles Peterson and Craig Charles on their respective radio shows. His ‘revisions’ of classics such as Michael Jackson’s ‘ABC’ and ‘Rock With You’ are rapidly becoming the go-to versions for DJs across the world to play out.
How would you describe your sound to those unfamiliar with it?
I would say they are essentially remixes of classic songs done for DJs, with the particularity to be only done using the same sounds that were on the tape in the seventies, or whatever year the song is from. Anything you see called a ‘revision’ has nothing added, has been processed in a way that sounds good for the club with a new arrangement, but I haven’t added any drums, or keys, or sounds.
Were you a DJ first then?
Yeah, of course. I’ve been in London for 16 years now so I’ve been DJing all that time, starting as a hobby then becoming more serious. Back in France I had loads of records so I would DJ in bars there, but there was no thriving scene.
Did you find a DJ community in London?
It took forever, really. Me and a mate were doing warm up gigs in bars and pubs for free, or for a couple of drinks or 20 quid to share between the two of us, just learning the trade really. From then on you get to meet a few more people and do parties here and there. It took a long time in my case for things to happen, there was no given contact that was a magic wand. It took quite a while to get something going but I got there eventually.
At what point did you start making your own edits?
When I started to switch to CD DJing. Before, with vinyl, you’d have to cut dub plates, there were no CD players in bars and clubs. Once you started to use CDs, if you made an effort to personalise your DJ set it was a lot easier to play, just burn it on a CD. That was the start of it really, because of technology.
I did some training with Seiji from Bugz In The Attic. We had a chance encounter and I told him I really needed some help to get somewhere. He became my mentor in a way, then through him I met other people. I did some training with Toni Economides, a mixing engineer who’s done a lot of The Reel People stuff, Joey Negro, all sorts of house. I just tried to learn as much as I could. There wasn’t any particular studio where I went for months and learned, it was more or less by myself with some input from other people, and me doing my research and all that. Before I even got to that stage, I had a sampler and an Atari, really basic stuff I was learning how to use.
What sampler and Atari?
It was an EMU sampler, an Atari 1040ST or something, and a crappy Behringer mixer. I was sampling all kinds of things, from the records I had left then. I had to sell all sorts of things to keep my life going in London. I did a couple of singles, more like Afro-house type things.
At what point did you become The Reflex? How did that first release on Mad Mats’ GAMM records happen?
I turned full time four and a half years ago. I decided to go for it and gamble everything I had – I didn’t have much. I wasn’t even The Reflex then. All I knew is that I was going to be a full time DJ and producer. I hired a studio for a year, with all my savings. A proper space where I could make noise, a really good soundproof space. I started to do stuff and I was all over the place – house, hip hop, edits, this and that. I was always tweaking tunes to make them fit in my DJ sets, little edits, and I realised that if I wanted to do that really well, then it was actually quite time consuming and I wouldn’t be able to do as much of everything else I wanted to do. The first thing I did for Mats was ABC with I Feel Good by James Brown, he liked those and decided to put them out on GAMM. Obviously I was aware of the label for years, but I had never met Mats. I only met him properly at Southport last month. I met him once before but he was so drunk he didn’t remember me.
ABC took five weeks, why was that?
I didn’t have a clue then how to do that stuff. It was just done by instinct and by ear. I knew I had something that was working, but I didn’t have the techniques and experience like I do now. The whole mix down process, I’ve learned so much since then. Now I can do something like that in a week, probably.
Are you tempted to go back to your earlier versions?
Yeah, actually I’m going to do that. For the end of the year, I’m gonna do some updates, some mix downs. Just to make them sound better, because I’ve learned such a lot since then. I know that I can make them sound a lot better.
Have you had any trouble with Soundcloud recently?
Not really actually, they only took a couple of things down. They took ABC down, a few months ago.
So it’s still a useful tool?
I really don’t know how it’s worked, to be honest, because some people are affected, some less affected. I think one of the things to do is not put shedloads of stuff on Soundcloud all the time, just a few good things and make sure that they’re getting the exposure that you want. One of the things that really helped me, without knowing it, is the fact that a lot of my tracks have very different intros to the originals. Now I only put snippets, with fades in and out, otherwise it’s akin to giving the tracks away.
How do you feel about comments on social media?
Well, YouTube is the gutter of social media. People incite you and feel like they’re free to do what they want. Random guys tell you they hate you, whatever. I don’t really pay that much attention because you shouldn’t take things too literally, but it is still a good way to get more exposure because it’s the first port of call that people go to, before Soundcloud.
Are you a person that looks for that criticism?
Well, like any artistic job you’ve got to take it on the chin because some people will like it, some people won’t. People can be quite mean, because they’re often jealous, envious because you’re getting exposure or recognition, but they don’t and they think what they do should get that kind of exposure. For some reason they don’t, usually because the stuff ain’t that good. That’s the way social media goes, you like, dislike, there are haters, there are trolls, there’s always someone who ‘could’ve done that better’. If you can do it better, I’d be the first one to say. I posted a Chaka Khan thing the other day and I was a little bit pissed off – people were saying it’s easy, what I do. I said you can tell me you don’t like it, or it’s shit, or you don’t like what I do – but you can’t tell me it’s easy. Because it’s not. If it’s easy, just do it and then give me a call. Sometimes you have to stand by what you believe – not everyone will agree with how you say it. There were hundreds of comments on that post, good and bad. You work hard for what you do, you’ve got to defend it. Without saying you’re the best, it’s no Kanye West thing.
Have you heard from artists that you’ve revised?
Yeah, Kid Creole, who even allowed me to put out a twelve, that’s really cool. He really loved it as it’s actually one of his favourite songs from his whole catalogue. The remix I did for Nile Rodgers was an official remix, so that’s different. I do have other things Chic and Sister Sledge related, which I’ll definitely send to him.
Which of the artists you’ve worked on would have liked to have produced at the time?
So many of them. Stevie, probably. Earth Wind & Fire’s stuff is great as well, with all the layers and harmonies. MJ, got be MJ. Back then, it was done for the times, not for the use we have of now. They did remixes and stuff back then too, but it was a different era. Something like Burn This Disco Out, which is the next GAMM one, that’s a less famous MJ track. It’s nice to be able to put that back on the dance floor. The original version’s great but you can’t really play it next to more current stuff. That’s what’s cool about those parts, because you can play another MJ that people are familiar with, not everybody’s gonna remember it as well as the others, but we can enjoy that as well. Recently, I’ve got some less well known things, and you have a bit more freedom with those. If it’s a song that everybody knows then it’s more of a challenge.
Have you ever found, when working on a track, that things just aren’t working and you’ve had to discard it?
Oh yeah, of course. Loads of times. Sometimes you get an idea… you always learn something in the process that will help you for your next mix. I’ve spent ages on Listen To The Music by the Doobie Brothers, but using only the original sounds can be a bit of a mammoth task at times. Sometimes I push it as much as I can and have realised the end result is not that great.
Do you play new stuff to friends or is it just the dance floor that’s your measure of its effectiveness?
I do have a couple of close friends I play works in progress to but ultimately it’s when I play it out to test the arrangement and the sound, see how I can mix it with other tracks. Sometimes it’s months. Love Hangover, that I’ve just done, I started that in September. I’ve played it out for months as a rough version and then I finally got round to finishing it off, but it was a lot of work. Sometimes I’ve got an idea that I’m not in a rush to finish off. Bad Luck took 18 months, from first starting to work on it. I mixed it in Paris two or three times, tweaked it again and still wasn’t happy with it. I’ll just keep pushing it, until I’m happy with it. I don’t do that with every track but sometimes it’s just nice to see how far you can take it, and try different things.
Greg Wilson’s been a big supporter of yours. He’s talked about having a need to share as a music lover. Is that true of you too?
My goal really is to do versions of classic songs that you’re going to be able to play in years to come. I want people to think, ‘this is the version to play in the club, the one that respects the integrity of the original, the one that’s got the sound’. Not a housed up, cheesy vocal remix. That can work for lots of people in different contexts. A lot of people say Rock With You and ABC is THE version to play, I hope that some tracks are really regarded in years to come as good pieces of work that do the job on the floor. A lot of songs are very dated and you can’t really play the originals anymore. I don’t really like those tracks where there are loads of drums added… sometimes they’re really well done, don’t get me wrong, but with a bit more work you can get more interesting results, more truthful to what it was but for today.
Did Greg’s interview with you open a lot of doors?
Every time someone well known digs your stuff and says it, that opens up doors. The same way when Gilles (Peterson) played Rock With You and made a big thing out of it, or when Craig (Charles) played ABC – almost every week he plays a track of mine. The other day I heard an amazing story from this guy in the States who was a good friend of Frankie Knuckles, he sent me a message saying that one of the best memories he had was of staying at Frankie’s house in Chicago, where he went onto Soundcloud and played him a dozen of my tracks. He said that Frankie just loved them, went crazy and was dancing – just the fact that I know that he listened to it and he liked it, it’s cool. There are loads of stories like that from people. A friend of mine spent an afternoon with Nile Rodgers at his place, and he played him September, Jungle Boogie, Bad Luck, Rock With You… he didn’t believe that the strings in Rock With You were in (the original version).
That’s what you want!
Exactly! Listen, for me, if it manages to surprise Nile, who’s, for me, the most amazing musician… (my friend) played him September without telling him it was September. He said, ‘the guitars, the layers, I’m going to have to play this to my band because we’re working on a song and this is exactly the sound I’m after’. He just couldn’t believe everything was from (the original sources) and it was as rocking as it was. That was cool.
I guess you couldn’t have done this, say, 15 years ago with the lack of internet to source stems.
Not just the internet, but the software and music technology. All I do is process audio, 15 years ago it was all midi really, so there’s very little audio there. You need a computer that can process audio the way I need it to, and that’s been possible the last ten years, less than that maybe. Before that it would have been a lot of hassle. I was talking to Joey Negro about his Love Hangover mix, twenty years ago, and it was all chopped up into a sampler, it took forever. To think about that now is crazy.
So what are your next moves?
I’m going to do remasters and updates, probably a big pack of stuff, for the end of the year. It will be self-released, and probably limited to a couple of weeks. There are loads of mixes on the net and I’d really like, if people are going to have it, with the best sound. I don’t want to be like lots of people, churning out loads of stuff and only one out of ten is decent. Then you end up with a huge amount of tracks which is a waste of time really. I’ve recently completed remixes for Simply Red, for the new album. First I try and see if I can do my thing with just their sounds, and often I don’t really like that because it’s modern sounds. So, I’ll just do a normal remix where I’ll add stuff. So that’s not called a ‘revision’, it’s called ‘The Reflex remix’. I try and add my arrangements and sounds. I’ve done one for Quantic, something from his forthcoming album. As well, I’ve done a mix for The Kooks, the indie blues band. It’s nice to come out of your comfort zone and try to put a twist on something. It’s not gonna please everyone, but it’s work and you’ve got to be able to show what you can do. I’ve also done (UK funk outfit) Speedometer, a remix for them.
Can you see yourself, further down the line, producing from scratch with a band?
I’m no good at recording. I hate recording musicians, it does my head in. I think what I’m good at is putting it together after and mixing it down, so I’ll probably end up in a mix down engineer’s chair rather than do the whole thing. Or even get people to record musicians – get people who are good at that to do that then do what I’m good at. Next year, I’ll be working on more original material, kind of club stuff, still with that Reflex sound. Now I’ve got four years experience of DJing around the world and playing my tunes and other people’s tunes, now I’ve got this huge database of sounds, I’m just gonna do my stuff because it’s great to be able to remix a song, but it’s also great to have fun and play with other stuff.
Will you be working with vocalists?
I think at first it will be short vocal samples, maybe someone i’ve record a session with. I’ve also got plans to get some singers that I want to work with, but we’ll see what’s possible. I’m always open-minded to what else we can get to. There will definitely be a moment where I want to do less revisions, that are more special. With parts that no-one else has, because there are a lot more people on it now, which makes my job harder. If I get some parts, it usually means that someone else has got them before me. Then they have a mix of it coming out, and even if it’s lame, then I’ve lost the novelty factor – or you have to find another angle.