The Making of Inimitable Dutch Producer A Made Up Sound

An interview with A Made Up Sound on the occasion of his label’s retrospective compilation and final release

Catharina Gerritsen

Despite being heralded by a wide range of fellow artists and listeners, the music Dave Huismans makes as A Made Up Sound still feels somehow underrated. His productions are capable of making listeners stay longer at any party while also boasting a stickiness capable of frustrating whatever funk they inspire. Balancing rhythmic diversion and melodic malfunction on releases for Trilogy Tapes, Delsin and Clone Basement Tapes, Huismans is an understated expert at total immersion, and the new retrospective release of transmissions from his own label, A Made Up Sound 2009-2016, is ample testament to his sui generis style.

At once narcotic and explosive, the compilation’s two-plus hours overflow with outsize personality, with elusive moments of melancholy and cinematic sweep that are often as stunning as they are short-lived (Huisman is as frugal with good ideas as he is fertile). His music has mastered a sort of backwards sprint, where movement isn’t impeded by the unorthodox mechanics. 

A Made Up Sound 2009-2016 is a fitting coda to Huisman’s label, featuring subtle revisions of prior label releases alongside unreleased track “P.P.B” as well as “Bygones” and “Peace Offering” which are getting their own separate release as the label’s final 12-inch following the compilation. Each track has been remastered by Huismans with an eye on subtle improvement, a process he called “therapeutic.” Ahead of the release, Huismans spoke to Aaron Gonsher about the difficulties of being an innocent listener, his production process, challenging dancefloors and the necessity of making every record in his label’s seven year lifespan truly count. 

Was there a specific gig or DJ that you saw that really triggered your interest in electronic music, or did it start with a record?

It started way before I actually had reached the age where I could go to clubs. It was in my early teens, I think. When I was 12 or 13, or maybe even earlier, I used to check out the hit charts, as you do when you’re a child, and the club charts were in the same paper. That was very intriguing to me, because that was all titles that I’d never heard of before. That triggered my interest and my imagination, and I was keen to find out what that music was and what kind of world was behind that.

This is where my age shows a bit, because I grew up in the ’90s, when CD stores and compilation CDs were still a big thing, especially in Holland, where I was born and grew up and live again nowadays. There was a huge market for compilation CDs that were focusing on dance music. You had these series like Turn Up The Bass and House Party and lots of other ones that sometimes would feature the kind of cheesy club tracks that would cross over to the Top 40, but sometimes also bona fide tracks that we now know as cornerstones of proper house and techno music. It was pretty easy to have access to that kind of music even as a teenager.

What were some of those cornerstones?

Think Reese/Inner City, Royal House, MK, Speedy J. In some cases they’d be rubbing shoulders with hip-house like Fast Eddie, or local hero Tony Scott, or Belgian new beat.

One example that was particularly inspiring to me, even though it was a bit later than the period I just described, was Derrick May’s Mix-Up Vol. 5, which was on sale in the huge warehouse store where I used to work as a teenager. I just loved the track selection and fast-paced mixing on that one. It had the infamous first Convextion release, early Jeff Mills and Green Velvet tracks and some early Basement Jaxx stuff, when they were still a fairly unknown, underground act with their own Atlantic Jaxx label – which was only available on vinyl – and stuff like that.

Derrick May - Mix-Up Vol. 5

Before that, these House Party CDs, for example, would feature a lot of club classics, amongst others, from then-popular Dutch labels like Fresh Fruit, Work or Outland. Some of those records are borderline cheesy, but just on the right side of it still. Some of them I even still play out in my DJ sets when it’s a good time for it, and it’s nice, because they are not as well-known anymore. For some of my audience, this is music they never heard before. I get people who come up to me and ask me, “Hey, what was that track you played at the end?” and it was one of these that I bought as a teenager in the mid-to late ’90s.

Another formative one for me, a bit earlier again, was the Manic Monday mix CD from Amsterdam’s long gone Mazzo club, mixed by DJ Dano and Jeroen Flamman of Fierce Ruling Diva fame. This came out in ’94, and even back then was already presented as “oldstyle” – meaning the harder, more ravey side of techno from only two or three years earlier, from just before it would become faster and splinter off to become gabber, basically. As a youngster this was a perfect education about that era I had just missed. I totally rinsed my tape of it in my Walkman as a paperboy.

Do you think you could hear a difference in the attitude of the music that was coming from Dutch producers versus, say, Detroit producers like May? Was your knowledge of the music advanced enough to sense a difference, or was it all just so fresh and new that you could consume it without any sort of that prejudice in mind?

By and large I consumed it with a lot less knowledge than I have nowadays, with a certain sense of naiveté and a lack of prejudice. I just didn’t think about it as much at the time, about brackets and genres and what influenced what and what was there first. I came at it with a really wide-eyed type of open-mindedness, which is really nice, because you find records that maybe weren’t seen as credible at the time but were actually quite good still.

Even though you try to be an open-minded person and you perceive yourself as that, it doesn’t always work that way in reality.

Looking back, I think some of those records certainly had a character of their own, even though they were initially influenced by Detroit, Chicago or New York. Rotterdam, for example, had their own thing going on with the early work by guys like Jeroen Verheij, who did some great early stuff – Secret Cinema and Mengz Hauz and Grooveyard – some of which I still play out.

Touché from Haarlem was another important one for me. They were maybe one of the earlier labels that successfully made a crossover between house and techno at the time when that wasn’t so obvious yet. Nowadays, you think, yeah, obviously you switch between house and techno in your DJ sets and production. It’s all normal now, but in the early to mid-’90s, not so much. These scenes were still evolving and growing together and meeting in the middle, and they did a great job. They made records that were kind of techno but still very soulful in a way that, looking back on them, I think made them timeless.

You mentioned the wide-eyed innocence with which you were approaching this music. Are there steps that someone like you has to take in the position that you are now as a DJ/producer to preserve that innocence?

Knowing more can be both a blessing and a curse. With the internet informing anything and everything, you can make a much more informed choice as to which records to buy, because you can infinitely check them out online before spending your hard-earned cash on it, whereas in the late ’90s, as a teenager you would only have what was on offer in the record store and what the clerk in the store would give you. You would sometimes come home with records and play them at home and think, “Hmm. This sounded a lot more exciting in the headphones in the store.”

That’s definitely an advantage of our time. But knowing more sometimes means you also have prejudices and you’re more aware of the image of certain types of music in the back of your mind. Even though you try to be an open-minded person and you perceive yourself as that, it doesn’t always work that way in reality. Subconsciously, I think these things are still on your mind. Like, you would automatically not check out records on certain labels or by certain artists, because you think “These are usually not my cup of tea.” You miss out on interesting stuff that way. I was talking about this with a friend who’s not active in music at all. We had a conversation about how we consume music these days, and he was telling me, “Yeah, more often than not, I have no idea whose music I’m listening to because I just play them on shuffle in my old iPod.”

This can be really refreshing sometimes, because you get to hear music without any of these prejudices. You don’t know who it’s by, you don’t know what label it’s on, you don’t know what image it has, don’t have that sort of context. Funnily enough, it’s happened to me a few times that some work-in-progress of my own came on randomly like that and I didn’t even recognize it, at least not immediately. Those are probably the only moments when you get to hear your own music objectively.

How long does it take you to make a track starting from a raw idea and deciding, “Okay, this is ready to put out”?

It depends very much on the type of gear that I’m using and the way I’m working, how much I’ve thought it out in advance. Sometimes, it can go really fast when I’ve already done a lot of the legwork in advance. Sometimes I would spend weeks or even months just sampling for days on end, digging for old kinds of music.

[“Take The Plunge”] inspired me to keep doing the label, because I’m not going to end it when I’ve just struck something interesting.

I’ve spent weeks and months just sampling and tweaking those samples and making them my own, building a sample kit. Once I’ve done that, I can make music really fast because the samples lead the way, and I can throw them together and transform them further. It’s just a really fun and intuitive way of making music. Once I’ve done that, I can make a couple of sketches a day.

It’s a lot more difficult when it’s just painstaking work of finding the right pieces of hardware that go together or the right sounds from them. Sometimes it takes months to get a tune done and sometimes it takes hours. It really depends on the sound sources and the mood that I’m in and how much of an idea I already have in advance. Usually the less ideas I start with, the faster I work and the more fun it is.

What about “Half Hour Jam on a Borrowed Synth”?

That is pretty much the most literal track title that I’ve ever used. I had borrowed a synth from a friend with the option of buying it. I thought I needed to spend some time and really pull the synth inside-out and see what kinds of things it could do. I quickly wrote a melody that had as many variations in parameters as possible – single hits and progressions, individual notes and chords, short notes and long ones, across several octaves.

I used pretty much all the effects it had within the space of just that one jam of half an hour. It was mostly a test case, really. I didn’t even have the intention of making a song there, let alone putting it out. I did trim that half hour jam down to four or five minutes, because I thought it was kind of interesting and I could use it in my live sets I was playing at the time. I thought, “This is just some nice interlude that might surprise a couple of people.”

That’s what I did. I tested it out live, but it still took me three years to become comfortable with it. It’s probably the first and the only time in my life where reactions from other people convinced me to put something out. Firstly, some of my peers that I respect the opinion of told me that they were really into it. They were asking me after seeing the live set, “What was that thing in the middle with the weird synthesizer stuff going on?”

A Made Up Sound - Half Hour Jam on a Borrowed Synth

People in the audience would do the same, come up and ask me about it. I thought, “Well, if it’s the one that jumps out at people, even though I’m still not sure if it’s the type of thing I would normally release, then at least there’s something special about it and that’s valid enough reason to put it out and see where it goes.” After three years of ifs, ands and buts, I thought, “Okay, let’s just bite the bullet and put it out and see what it does.”

A half hour and three years.

Exactly. It was the quickest tune that I ever made and the longest I ever doubted whether I should put it out. The irony.

When you first started your record label, did you already have an end date in mind? Did you know it was going to be just ten records?

When I started the label, I already knew that it was going to be something that wouldn’t last forever. I think one-artist labels, where you release only your own music, are better if they don’t last forever. Otherwise you run the risk of it becoming stale for everyone – for yourself and for the people who listen to it. I kind of knew in advance it would be either five or ten records, because I think those are nice numbers to end the label on. I just had to see where it goes to decide which it was going to be, and the first four, they came in really quick succession. At the time I made music a lot quicker than in more recent years.

“Take the Plunge” was the fifth one. That was quite painstaking to make, but it was also quite a rewarding record. I guess I wasn’t shy of experimenting with the first four records, but with that fifth one, I could tell from people’s reactions that maybe I’d pushed my sound a step further, which was a bit of a double-edged sword. It inspired me to keep doing the label, because I’m not going to end it when I’ve just struck something interesting.

One the other hand, I put a lot of pressure on myself to take it further from there, which made making music a lot more difficult and sometimes a lot more frustrating. You can see this in the release dates of the records of the label. The first four came in pretty quick succession. They all came in 2009 and 2010, I believe. Then “Take the Plunge” came in 2011. I think it then took me two years to come up with “Ahead.” By then I had decided I wanted to make ten records. I don’t know if anyone picked up on it, but the “Ahead” 12" already hinted at this, with number 00X – the Roman numeral for ten – and a B-side called “Endgame.”

From there on I really took my time, because when you know you only have four records left to make, you really want to make sure that it’s the right records for the label, even though I’ve made a lot of music in between and released it elsewhere. Not to say that I’m less satisfied with those records, because I’ve worked with labels that I really respect and appreciate, like Delsin and the Trilogy Tapes and Clone. I’m fully behind all of those records as well; it’s just I felt that was music that was not right for what I wanted to do with my own label.

A Made Up Sound - Take The Plunge (Beat Mix)

Who did all the photography for the label releases? Is there any significance to the images that you chose for certain releases?

I did all the photography for the labels myself, but the design was done by Lamanchanegra from the southwest of Holland. The concept is so simple that it’s not even a concept, really – it’s just pictures from landmark objects or buildings close to where I was when I made the music. It starts out with the energy plant close to the house where I was living at the time in The Hague in 2009, when I was making the first record. Later records were made in various other cities and places, like Amsterdam, Berlin, New York and Schiermonnikoog, which is a small island up north in Holland where I just happened to stay for a week, to have a nice and quiet time to work on my music remotely without being disturbed by anything.

The Berlin one is “Take the Plunge,” number five. That’s the one with the water on the label. It looks like a sea coast or something at night, but it’s actually just the pond in Volkspark Friedrichshain, which is close to where I lived at the time, and the park that I hung out in quite a lot.

When I started the label, and took that first picture, I didn’t know that I would be a rolling stone so much, and I would be living, or at least working, in six different cities across the ten records that I was going to make. Maybe this is not even that interesting to the people who buy or receive the records, but it’s more a thing that is nice to me personally, because it makes the whole label like some kind of personal diary, connecting the records with my own personal history, like souvenirs of where I was living at the time, and thereby reminding me of what I was doing at the time and what state of mind I was in when I made the records.

All of the label’s tracks are being remastered for this compilation. In some cases, that means you’re going to be remastering things that came out within the last year or so. For those ones that are more recent, what did you want to accomplish with that remaster?

I’ve done all the remastering of the catalog and the tracks that I’ve picked for the compilation myself, which was an interesting challenge. You would normally always get the advice, “Don’t master your own music,” because you will really benefit from someone else doing it who has an objective view, and fresh ears, and who hasn’t lived with the tracks like you have. Someone who comes at it without any prejudice, and just makes them sound as good as he or she can. That’s very true, and that’s why, up to now, I’ve never mastered my own music.

Because it’s a retrospective, though, some of these tracks I’ve known for such a long time in their initial versions, and I know them so well, that I also know very well what their shortcomings are, even though it’s details that a lot of people probably wouldn’t even hear. I’m really a detail nerd myself, so even if it’s just for my own benefit, when I do a retrospective like this I think it’s a great opportunity to leave the music behind in a way that I am personally the most satisfied about.

Sometimes I ask myself this either when I make a record, or about my own music in general: Would I dance to this?

For those reasons, I thought this time it is actually interesting to do this myself. Also, it’s twenty tracks, which is a lot, and I just wouldn’t want to do it to any mastering engineer, to master twenty of my tracks, because like I said, I’m very much a detail guy, and very picky. More often than not, mastering my music takes two or three or four rounds before we’re both satisfied, and that would just be a long and laborious and maybe even frustrating process for both the mastering engineer and myself. Costly, as well. I would rather spend that time doing it myself, even though I was kind of scared of it, because it means being confronted again with all my own music that I’m not always that comfortable hearing back. Having this not always pleasant habit of being a perfectionist, you hear things that you’re not happy about anymore, rather than just enjoying the tunes for what they are.

It was actually a much more pleasant experience than I had feared it would be, to the point where I could almost call it therapeutic. It’s just a nice opportunity to make your music as good as you possibly can. The practical advantage of doing your own mastering is that when something is off in a way that you can’t fix in mastering, you can go back to the mixdown and change it there, because I still have all the parts and all the stems of all the tracks. I have luckily always backed up all my archives, even on my old studio computer. That’s up and running in a corner of my studio and I still have access to that. With the earlier works, I had the opportunity to go back into the mixdown and make new mixdowns or new edits of them, which again can be both an advantage and disadvantage. When you have that opportunity you’re bound to use it, and it’s very temping to use it too much, which you don’t want to do. You want to improve it in a subtle way, but you don’t really want to change tunes that much, because they were like that and a lot of people know them like that, and you want to respect that as well, not suddenly make them sound entirely different.

I feel like a lot of your music as A Made Up Sound is similar in that it can be quite surprising rhythmically. Is that sort of sense of being off-kilter something that you consciously aspire to with your productions?

Sometimes I ask myself this either when I make a record, or about my own music in general: Would I dance to this? Sometimes, maybe rightly so, my music is perceived as being a bit difficult to either dance to or to work into a DJ set. But when I ask myself the question, “Would I dance to it?”, probably my own answer would be, “Do I care?” It’s not necessarily the purpose of what I make. It’s just personal expression. I make the music that comes naturally to me. Sometimes it comes out pretty straightforward and danceable, sometimes almost purposefully frustrating to dance to, like wrong-footing the dancefloor and its conventions but in a lighthearted way, like, “Hey, check this out. See what moves you can make to this.” Now I find myself trying to analyze what I was thinking when I was making the music, when these things just happen as they happen. But yeah, sometimes it’s nice to make something to try and throw people off-kilter, both for myself and to see what happens on the dancefloor.

By Aaron Gonsher on October 21, 2016

On a different note