Artist of the Month: Kerri Chandler

Kristan J. Caryl sits down with house music icon Kerri Chandler to learn more about his ambitious 24-track album Spaces and Places, the 24 clubs he visited to record each of its tracks, and the depth of love and realness that permeates through every aspect of his music and life.

16 min
October 2022 Kerri Chandler
Oct 10, 2022
Kristan J Caryl

Kerri Chandler is launching into a story. It’s the ninth or tenth so far, but barely half of the total he shares over 90 minutes. They are all generously told, filled with love and warmth, memories of a life distilled into music. Breakups, turning down a Michael Jackson remix, first dances, cowbells at afterparties, Harrison Ford dolls, sending his music into space, collaborating with Roy Ayers… This one, though, is the tragic outlier that made all the rest possible. Before it begins, he gathers himself and nervously adjusts his backward cap.

More than 30 years have passed since Chandler’s then-girlfriend Tracy Jones was raped and murdered outside New Jersey’s legendary Club Zanzibar, but it clearly still hurts the now 53-year-old. Events that fateful night not only shaped his personal and artistic life, but the course of house music itself.

Before then, Chandler was making hip hop. It was in memory of the house-loving Jones that he switched genres for his heart-breaking and break-out debut single “Get It Off.” Since then, house has remained the perfect vehicle for his messages – a therapeutic outlet for whatever he has going on, good and bad. A lesser artist might struggle to imbue such real meaning in music. But Chandler, ever since that first track, has managed to marble his tunes with personal truths and speak to us through his machines.

“I remember Quincy Jones saying if an instrument can say something, that’s what you should make it do,” he says in his friendly, gentle New Jersey tone. In particular, Chandler found great resonance in the imaginary conversation between the bassline and the trumpet in Miles Davis’s seminal track, “So What.” “I wouldn’t make music for the sake of it and I never have,” says Kerri, explaining why he hasn’t released an album since 2008’s Computer Games, which was an ode to his love of computers and technology.

Check out Kerri Chandler’s ‘Artist of the Month’ chart on Beatport.
Kerri Chandler smile 1536x1024

But then, one day, around four years ago, he had an idea. “Why not make some tracks in the club?” It was something he did early on as Gate-Ah with “The Shelter,” a tune made when Timmy Regisford and Merlin Bobb asked him to make an anthem for their soon-to-open New York club, Shelter. This time, though, he has done it on a frankly epic sale.

Oftentimes, it’s the intense and youthful fire of a debut record that towers over an artist’s discography, rarely to be bettered no matter how hard they try. But in Chandler’s case, Spaces and Places is likely to prove career-defining. It’s hard to imagine he could better it at any stage, past or future, such is its mix of technical achievement, musical know-how, logistical planning, and emotional richness.

Each of the 24 tracks on the album is a love letter to the clubs that have shaped his life. “This is me pretty much saying thank you,” says Kerri with his signature gappy smile. “I have grown up in these places, I really have. I have been to them a million times. I know all the engineers. I know the systems so well.”

He digresses into yet another story about the time he played Ministry of Sound after a drum & bass party had blown all the speakers. He mapped them and offered to swap the drivers himself before his set. There were none about, but the club soon closed for a month to make extensive sound system repairs and renovations. “Then they called me back to get me to help install the Dolby Atmos in the roof,” laughs Kerri. “That’s just the sort of relationship I have with these clubs.”

Dolby again reared its head during the album writing process. “I really wanted to make sure I learned new things while I was at home in the pandemic,” says Kerri. “So I worked with them again because that first time at Ministry, it was life-changing for me.” This time, he was excited about making the album suitable for Dolby Atmos-enabled headphones, which use breakthrough spatial audio. “They said, ‘you’re an engineer, you’re technical enough, you can mix it yourself.’” So they sent over the renderer and Kerri got to work mixing the entire album in Dolby Atmos. With childlike excitement, he says Dolby has since promised to send him over a plaque to say he is now “Dolby Certified.”

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Spaces and Places could have been so much easier than it was. Chandler could have stayed put in his famous basement studio back home and just made the music he thought might capture the vibe of the clubs he plays around the world. But then, it wouldn’t have been such a living and real-world document with so many stories to tell. And anyway, that approach would never be enough for this meticulous and self-confessed “nerd” who grew up in a house packed with his father’s audiophile-quality sound systems.

He had to “let the club influence what the music was going to sound like, from anything acoustically to just the room to the people.” He had to bounce the sounds off the walls of the actual spaces. He had to mic up the room and record the actual vibrations of the club. He had to catch the diffuse neon glow of Watergate’s famous LED ceiling in the melodies that define “Sunrise.” He had to consult with staff about which kick sounded better on their dance floor (true story). He had to record the bingo callers in the space above Sub Club, and the sound of the rattling trains which pass by, then pan them throughout the resulting tune, “Subbie (The Jackpot Mix).”

One thing he didn’t have to do during the making of “Change Your Mind” [District 8] was almost knock a staff member off a ladder. “That club in Ireland has this ridiculous Function One system in there. They had like 24-inch drivers and about 18 subs at the front. I hit one 808 sub and the kick drum shook the room. This poor guy on the ladder was putting decorations up high, and he was holding on for dear life! I was like damn, this kick drum is insane!”

In the case of “Never Thought” [Printworks], he had always known about a battered yellow keyboard in the London club’s green room. It’s signed by everyone who has ever played there. One cold night before a gig, he asked permission to jam out some keys so he could use them in the tune. “It’s a little out of tune but it has its own character,” remembers Kerri. “I took the recording downstairs and EQed the piano to fit the room, then built around the track that way.”

But that’s not all: the speakers in Printworks run in a column away from the DJ booth, so Kerri “took the tempo and matched it to the echo in the room. It was 125 BPM, so when I made the track up, I put time delays on so it would match the tempo of the room so it sounded like the tune would zigzag from the front all the way to the back. I kind of used the walls as percussion, in a way.”

Kerri Chandler Printworks 1746x2048

Despite the detail and technical skills required to pull off all these tricks, none of the tracks were ever prepared in advance. They started only when Chandler sat at a makeshift desk in the middle of an empty dance floor. Some took a few hours, some took a few days. In most cases, the tracks were all but completely finished before he left. But one track in particular was, in a way, many years in the making.

It involves DJ Deep, one of Kerri’s “best friends,” and his son, who had gotten a guitar for his eighth birthday and liked to play the Blues. “I heard him jamming and it blew my mind,” says Kerri. “He was some sort of prodigy, so when his next birthday came up he was talking about getting some Gibson Starburst clone. I went and bought him the real thing.” When Kerri was next in Paris, he took Deep and his son to the legendary Rex Club, plugged in the guitar, and told the young guitarist to jam. “I played keys, and it was one of the most beautiful times I have ever had.”

Little did Deep and son know, Kerri was recording and turned it into “Dirty” later that night, then surprised Deep by playing it in the club the following evening. “The crowd went nuts. He loved it and went home to do an edit that I liked so much I included that version on the album.”

Chandler is generous with his time and just as open to inspiration. For example, the track “Who Knows,” which he made at Croatia’s Barbarella’s club, was done after everyone had left following the festival he had played. He got the urge to jam and asked the remaining staff if they knew any singers. They suggested one of the team, a local named Dora Dora. “They got her down and she did the vocal, one take, right there and then. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.”

Kerri Chandler Keyboard 1536x1024

There is a similarly beautiful moment mid-way through our interview. Kerri is, of course, deep into a story about how he took time off DJing when his daughter — and again when his son — was born. He didn’t want to miss anything, not a word nor a footstep. “I sat in the house and got to know this little person I was responsible for.” When he eventually went back on the road, she would greet him at the airport and jump into his arms. “It was the best feeling in the world, so I made a song just in case anything happened to me while I was on the road. I just wrote about our days, about getting shit all over my clothes, that sort of thing. I wanted to leave her some sort of memo to say ‘I love you always’.”

At that exact moment, Kerri holds his phone to the screen. It shows there is an incoming call from “Lil’ Kerri.” He answers, initially to explain that he can’t talk, but he immediately senses a note of disquiet in his daughter’s voice, so the call goes on. He solves the problem, signs off with “I love you too,” then says, “She’s 26 now. I can’t imagine life without her. She loves music and we jam, so I bought a bandstand for the backyard, and we just go out there and just play. It’s one of my favourite things.”

That enduring realness, depth and love is why there is a universality to Chandler’s music that means it has never been out of fashion. If it weren’t so authentic and honest, it wouldn’t get the reactions it does on dancer floors. “I just put all my feelings into sonic things,” he says at one point, adding that he only collaborates if he has a relationship with someone and “would have wanted to get to know Beyoncé properly before agreeing to work with her” had she called about working together on her latest album. Why she didn’t is quite a mystery.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, chase clout, or kowtow to current trends, Chandler’s new album still sounds very much like him. It has the majestic chords, the rare musicality and the signature kicks that kick like no one else’s kicks in the game, partly because he makes them on a self-modified 909.

“They are the heartbeat, the meat of the song,” he says before going into yet another technical breakdown that makes it clear he is an obsessive engineer at heart. Eventually, he comes back around. “But the music has to be right first. People have to dance. It still has to be fun.”

With Spaces and Places, it’s very much mission accomplished.

Kerri Chandler’s album Spaces and Places is out now via Kaoz Theory. Buy it on Beatport.

Kristan J Caryl has been a freelance music writer for more than a decade, with bylines in RA, DJ Mag, Mixmag, Bandcamp, Attack Mag and RBMA. He’s based just outside Leeds, where he started community station KMAH Radio in 2015. As well as music, he’s overly obsessed with trainers, gardening, boxing, and his two children, who he raises with his wife. Find him on Instagram.