Their gothic electronic bomb ‘Without You’ was one of 2010’s biggest tunes. With a debut LP full of the same moody genius, Art Department have arrived...
It’s fair to say that Belgium’s Fuse club is pleased to see Art Department. The crowd’s attention is firmly focused on the DJ booth and the duo who’ve just entered it. Jonny White is in the centre, setting up the decks and making room for a bottle of tequila that’s just arrived. The crowd clutch at them like devout believers who’ve finally met their messiah. A blonde girl, slightly the worse for wear, tugs at Kenny Glasgow’s arm from the side of the DJ booth, attempting to get him to dance with her. “I’m sorry, am I bothering you?” she asks. Kenny smiles accommodatingly and shakes his head. She backs off, seemingly satisfied, and declares, “Look, it’s fucking Art Department. Woohooo!” They’ve not even played a tune yet.
The reason for this Belgian crowd’s excitement over a Toronto duo with a handful of releases to their name? Art Department’s debut single ‘Without You’, released late last year on Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown label, was one of the smash tunes of 2010. Combining a dark, electro bassline with Kenny Glasgow’s haunting and emotional vocal, it sounds like a meeting of Depeche Mode, Laurent Garnier and Edgar Allen Poe, and it was just pipped at the post in our top 100 tracks of 2010 by Tensnake’s monster ‘Coma Cat’. It was huge with the likes of Jamie Jones, Soul Clap, Seth Troxler (who contributed vocals to its B-side, ‘Vampire Weekend’) and, naturally, Damian himself. “It’s got that balance of coolness and emotion without the cheese which you can’t learn at school,” he tells us from his base in Los Angeles. And despite (or maybe because of) its underground, atmospheric feel, ‘Without You’ found its way into the sets of everyone from Erol Alkan and Jaymo & Andy George to Laurent Garnier and The Revenge.
A few hours before the gig at Fuse, Art Department sit in their Brussels hotel room drinking a cup of English tea. Both are visibly tired from touring (Kenny missed dinner with the promoter due to fatigue and a stomach upset), but still friendly and accommodating.
Despite their seemingly overnight success, the duo, who have only been together since the beginning of 2010, have both served their time in the Toronto electronic music scene. Kenny, who sits on the side of the bed, is the older of the two, at 41. He’s extremely thin, a fact made more obvious by his tight T-shirt. He’s softly spoken and a touch nervous at first, but he soon perks up as the interview progresses and his flashing grin soon comes to the fore as he explains how he got into dance music. “I didn’t have a father figure growing up, so my mom would send me to stay with my uncle during the summer, to instil good values in me,” he explains. This was during his early teens, and he started hanging out with his cousin a great deal. “He used to buy disco and garage records and so that got me into playing records and DJing.”
Soon Kenny was dodging school and hitting the record shops in Toronto. “I used to just go in there and hang out, I didn’t even buy records,” he says. “Then I met two very cool guys called Jeremy Beckman and Mike Sitchon and they really liked my taste in music, so we got together and started to play and throw parties together. We became a crew, JMK – Jeremy, Mike and Kenny – and we started getting the most bookings in the city.”
In the early 90s, as the rave scene hit Toronto, Kenny’s musical direction changed – with a little help from a certain publication. “I got a copy of this Mixmag CD – a techno CD by Richie Hawtin – and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best thing I ever heard’, and so my style progressed from there. It changed my life!” he recalls. Kenny went on to become one of the main players in Toronto nightlife, just as his future musical partner was spreading his clubbing wings.
“I used to pay thirty bucks to go and hear Kenny when he was a resident at Industry [one of Toronto biggest and best clubs during the 90s and 00s],” says Jonny White. “I wasn’t so much into the music and the DJs, it was more about the culture and the scene. But I always knew who Kenny was – everybody did. He was pretty much the biggest DJ at the time.”
At 31, Jonny is the younger of the pair and the more laid back, sprawling across the bed and sporting thick long hair and an even thicker beard. He grew up on the outskirts of Toronto where his father was an A&R man for Polydor Records, and he always knew he wanted to work in the music industry. “At first I didn’t want to be a DJ, I wanted to work more behind the scenes,” he explains. In his late teens he dropped out of school and started going to the clubs in midtown and downtown Toronto. Almost immediately, he started putting on parties himself. “I started hanging with these older guys when I dropped out of school,” he says. “I was making good money promoting and always did quite well financially, and the DJing and production side of things was a natural progression.”
The guys have known each other properly for seven years, since meeting in Toronto’s ‘Play De Record’ vinyl store where Kenny worked. They were both producing: Jonny had his own label, No 19, and Kenny released under his own name and a number of guises such as Sick Puppy and The Talent. He’s behind the lead vocals on Art Department’s album: “I’m from a gospel background and so was vocally and musically trained from a young age,” he says.
Back in Fuse Club and Art Department are mid-way though their epic three-hour DJ set. They continually drop huge slates of house and techno rife with throbbing basslines that work in tandem with their own musical production. Out on the floor, the crowd are only too happy to declare their adoration for the duo. “I flew all the way to hear them play at Fabric a few months ago. It was amazing and well worth it. The energy both the guys and their music has is unbelievable,” says one perspiring punter. “I can’t believe they’re here in Brussels!” exclaims another. There’s also a palpable excitement and curiosity about the new album ‘The Drawing Board’. Suddenly a behemoth of a bassline sweeps across the room: “This is our new remix of one of Damian Lazarus’ tracks,” Kenny says, grinning.
“I’ve not even heard that yet!” exclaims Lazarus later, on the phone. Renowned for his hats, his brilliantly strange podcasts and his uncanny knack of nurturing and developing new artists, if it wasn’t for Damian there might not even be an Art Department. “I’ve been playing Toronto for many years and it became very clear they have something a little bit special going on there,” he says.
“I kept missing my flight home and partying with these two characters, Jonny and Kenny, who were working separately from one another but were always together. They both kept giving me demos, so it made sense for me to suggest that they team up. They were both on cusp of something so I suggested they did a remix for us.” The track was Riz MC’s ‘Don’t Sleep’ and hit the streets in November 2009 under the name Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow. With other labels sniffing around their music Damian immediately locked them down for an album.
“Art Department was fully born on January 1 2010 when we decided on the name while out mangled together,” explains Jonny. ‘The Drawing Board’ only took about 10 months to nail, the guys bringing together their respective studio skills. “I use Ableton more and Kenny uses Logic, so we were able to use both,” says Jonny. Now complete, it’s a fusion of electronic grooves and Kenny’s soulful vocals. “They’ve delivered an album that’s full of beautiful melodies and catchy tunes that aren’t cheesy,” says Lazarus, “I couldn’t be happier.” There’s also a live show.
The guys are also very proud of their home city and the current electronic scene, and how it’s blossomed over the last few years with artists like Caribou, James Teej, Azari & III, My Favourite Robot (both artist and label) and Nitin. “We have a great little crew there. I think that Nitin will make waves this year as a producer, and it’s My Favourite Robot’s time to shine as a live act,” Jonny says. “People should already know James Teej because of his album [‘Evening Harvest’, on Rekids] but he’s really going to blow some people away this year with his live show at spots like Fabric and Panoramabar.”
Right now, though, it’s Art Department’s time. With ‘The Drawing Board’ one of Mixmag’s Albums of the Month in the last issue and as well received as any dance music release of the last few years, the duo touring endlessly, the live show already debuting in Miami, and great clubs like Fuse and Fabric full of people losing it to Kenny and Jonny’s DJ sets, there’s really only one thing left to say: “it’s fucking Art Department! Woohooo!”
Art Department’s debut LP ‘The Drawing Board’ is out now on Crosstown Rebels