Artist of the Month: Chez Damier
Artist of the Month: Chez DamierFebruary 13, 2023
So many people have great stories about Chez Damier. But they’re never typical DJ antics about messy afterparties or too many drugs. They are meaningful human interactions. Ours involves him sitting down with a gurning promoter friend to ask about his long-term life goals. An intimate 15-minute discussion ensued before Chez drifted off to the decks and gave another kind of lesson. He belly laughs when we tell him. “That sounds like me alright.”
Speaking to us from home in Chicago, he recalls a time in London when a girl came up to him and said he saved her life. They had met at a party a few years before. She was in an abusive relationship and Chez offered her some advice which she ended up taking. “That’s what I do, man,” he says in his famously soft and gentle tone. “It’s not just the music. It’s about the whole experience. I’m almost offended when artists are unapproachable. I’m offended when I hear DJs are too arrogant to shake a fan’s hand. It’s such a turn-off.”
No one is more approachable than Chez. He’s a bear of a man with a heart to match and an aura so calm it’ll slow your pulse. He’s wise and philosophical but never self-righteous. He dreamt up the Chez Damier alias aged just 16 and pronounced it “Chaz Dam-ear”. Only when he started playing in Europe years later did he learn ‘chez’ was a French word with a meaning and quite different pronunciation. “It turned out more beautiful than I thought because, of all the places I visited, Paris was the most beautiful. It became a home from home, so it was like I had created a character and then ended up living it.”
Chez and Anthony Pearson — as pretty much no one has called him for decades — are “completely different people,” he says. “Anthony is a homebody. Chez is more people-oriented. He doesn’t get much sleep, but they both enjoy having separate spaces, for sure.” Today, fresh back from a weekend gig in New York, he’s sitting with a single crutch resting on his thigh. It helps him walk when his sciatica flares up but, as bad as it gets, it won’t stop him from touring the world. “Life is good, I’m not complaining,” he says. “You get so addicted to traveling after doing it for so long that it’s just as natural now as brushing my teeth.”
Like any addiction, though, traveling takes its toll, and Chez has a sleeping disorder which doesn’t help. “You give so much to the people on the road that when I come back, I don’t even want to open my email or talk. That’s how intense it is.”
When we speak, Chez’s wearing a black t-shirt printed with the words ‘The World Is Mine.’ And it is because, over the course of a 40-odd-year career, he has achieved several lifetime’s worth of success. Below those words is a giant, brightly-coloured butterfly. It’s an accidentally poetic choice really because, like butterflies, Chez has been through many different life stages.
As young as 13 years old he was working in a record store. Back then, he was always tuned into the radio and DJs like Herb Kent who played everything from punk rock to disco. Chez would go into his local store and ask the owner if she had this-or-that record so often that eventually she started buying what he was asking for. When it sold, she asked him to help out for a few hours after school.
In his early 20s and the late ’80s, he co-founded the legendary club The Music Institute in Detroit which went on to become a fertile breeding ground for early techno. Rather uniquely for the time, he went from playing there to being an internationally touring DJ almost overnight. As well as living in Chicago which “taught me the music,” he lived in New York “which taught me the understanding of it” and Detroit “which taught me the technical aspect.”
Chez Damier also worked as A&R at early influential labels like Kevin Saunderson‘s KMS before starting his own impeccable label with Ron Trent: their imprint Prescription is still universally revered for defining the deep house sound with a faultless run of records from 1993 to 1995. Amongst some of Chez’s most enduring works are “Morning Factory” with Ron Trent, a steamily intense deep house mediation written the morning after an inspirational night at NYC club Sound Factory. Or there’s “Forever Monna” alongside Detroit’s Stacey Pullen, a beautifully optimistic track with wispy melodies dancing like fireflies above shuffling house drums. “Can You Feel It (Club Vocal)” meanwhile is a perfect example of how Chez works vocals into his grooves and brings that signature sense of soul.
But you get the impression Chez Damier doesn’t really care about legacy. He’s proud, sure, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He hasn’t dined out on any of it, instead, he has moved on. In fact, his career has always had the feel of an anti-career. At the point when he could have cemented himself as a global superstar with headline residencies at Ibiza’s biggest superclubs, he left the scene. He was scared of what he would have to sacrifice to scale up his sound. He knew that, in the words of fellow Chicago house legend Adonis, there would be no way back.
“I’m not opposed to change and evolution, but to feed 500 people, and then feed 5000 people, is a big difference. You will have to stretch some things, add some preservatives, change things to keep them all engaged. Those crowds are trained a particular way. When you come into my house, people are dancing in their own world. I don’t want people dancing like robots, waiting for a three-second peak. It’s not right for me. There is no fulfillment in that, it’s just a parade. Music has the power to heal, to deliver people, to calm people. When I see movement but don’t see people really taking things away from what they hear, it lacks something. When they said house is a feeling, they didn’t lie.”
So, from 2000 to 2009 he didn’t DJ and didn’t make any music at all. Instead, he became a music buyer for a gospel store. It had a “million-dollar” annual turnover and despite knowing nothing to start with, within six months Chez was flying. Around 2009, he got a call from his publisher about reissuing some of his older material. “A light bulb went off,” he remembers. The fire inside him was relit and he felt ready to “continue my mission.”
Like with every stage of Chez’s life, the next chapter was defined by a close personal relationship, this time with French house artist Brawther, who had reached out over email. They immediately got on and Chez Damier put him in charge of A&Ring for his Balance label. He got himself back in the game and has remained there ever since.
Right now, he’s turning the page once more. The catalyst was a friend from Seoul sending Chez Damier an edit of his classic tune “I Never Knew Love.” It was by French techno artist Ben Vedren, and Chez liked it so much he released it. A year later, he was playing in Paris and one person’s endless energy on the dance floor stood out. “This kid was with me from the beginning to the end, and then he came up to me and said, ‘I’m Ben.'”
The pair met up the following day and had instant chemistry. Within two hours they were in the studio and coming up with names for the project. “We were so sure right from the start. There was such amazing energy between us.”
As H2H (aka Heart 2 Heart), they have since made “between 50 and 60 tracks.” Chez Damier only writes in Paris so since 2018 has made the trans-Atlantic trip five or six times a year for a week or two at a time. 15 of the tracks make up their debut “collection,” which Chez is keen to point out is not the same as an album. Albums, he says, are “pretty much in the same room, there’s a sound.” This collection, though, wasn’t bound by such conventions. “I’m blessed to still be getting royalties for music I made 30 years ago,” he says. “I’ve lived that part. I’m not trying to catch up with myself. This was a chance to try something different and it was the freest I have ever felt in the studio.”
It shows, too: when we first hit play on “The Collection” we quickly have to check back to make sure the right thing is playing: the first few tunes take in sleazy indie dance grooves with filthy guitar licks and almost gothic vocals coated in reverb, as well as as what sounds a bit like a rework of Stone Roses’s “Fools Gold.”
In places, Verden’s techno side rubs off and Chez, and in others the Chicagoan’s innate warmth and soul somewhat softens the Frenchman’s sound. There are dreamy and rolling tech house cuts and deeper techno pumpers, but also many tracks are heavily influenced by jazz and broken beat. Lots of ground is covered, with musicianship at the heart of it all and plenty of thoughtful vocals, “99%” of which Chez recorded live in one take.
“No More” is about turning away the wrong kinds of highs in life. “You want pleasure but you don’t want joy,” he sings next to sultry sax motifs and whimsical late night melodies. It is a signature bit of gentle but meaningful Chez philosophy. The slow, suggestive house shuffle of “Begging Bread” borrows scripture from the bible, while the spiritually uplifting and jazzy house of “Sign Of the Times” is all about capturing the moment.
“We didn’t want to be boxed in,” explains Chez Damier, who was more keen than ever with this album to be adventurous and represent his background. He grew up listening to Prince, soul, funk, Motown, new wave, jazz, dance and rock. “Most producers try to stay in one room, but there is too much I haven’t seen. I can’t go back to what I once did. There is too much I haven’t done because house is a building with many rooms.” He adds that the concept here was to write some “nice material” then give it to the next generation to remix. “We didn’t want to focus on the club, or be hipster, we wanted something with some timelessness to it.”
Although it is his most stylistically diverse work to date, The Collection has the same energies as everything Chez Damier has done before. It is the dynamics which are different. “I felt with this album like there was nothing to prove but to have fun. It wasn’t about getting stressed out by measuring yourself against what is going on. I stay away from all of that. I could have done country & western I felt so free.”
Chez says he has the same approach to making music now that he did 30 years ago. “We listen to it, dance, laugh to it, we cry to it. I lived every track on this album.” Although he says he hasn’t found some secret recipe to success, he reckons that staying out of the scene “can help you develop so much as an artist. There is no pressure surrounding you, no need to work out if something is hot or not.”
It’s another sage piece of advice in amongst a stream of endlessly quotable thoughts, many of which come back to the next generation. “It’s important to balance the music out,” he says. “Get some other distractions. To be an artist who stands by what you believe you have to really go against the odds. There will be times when you’re not popular, when people don’t get you, but you have to truly believe in yourself and it will come around.”
Now, having “lived my life,” Chez Damier wants to open things up for those coming through. Enter House of Chez, his brand new label, named in homage to the fact that before he wanted to be a producer he had dreams of being a fashion designer. “I want to hear kids that have different points of view and to be a part of that. I want to develop them, to make personal relationships and to inspire people on their journey.” But don’t try and send him your demos. “My life is by appointment only, ” he jokes. “I’m blessed and thankful that people just appear, and really I prefer to encourage them in person.”
This past weekend’s gig in New York sums up the challenge Chez Damier — and anyone that is lucky enough though often unhappy to be deemed a ‘veteran’ or legend’ — faces when DJing. Many people expect to hear his classic deep house sound. He is comfortable with giving it to them once or twice but mostly wants to focus on where he’s at now.
“For me, it’s truly about, can I change this whole room? I am trying to produce a feeling in the room, an emotion, not just play the records.” That said, of course, the records do matter, and Chez confirms that despite so long in the scene he still has the same curious passion for discovery that he always has and is trying to pass that on. “In New York, I played music like it was played to me when I was young, so like I played a few things twice so it really stuck with them.”
Over the course of a far-reaching conversation, we touch on satellite subjects such as what Chez does when not on the road (“relaxing, doing graphics and video editing”), why house music has never been fully captured by the majors (“it has too many different styles!”) and why he thinks so many artists struggle to have long careers. “There are so many people like writers and managers around these artists that it leaves them not knowing how they got there. There are so many components making up their energy that they cannot do it when they’re left alone.”
Although he’s made several inseparable creative bonds along the way, Chez’s journey has ultimately been a journey of his own. “I was happy to not get the hype from the industry because I see that when that happens, death is around the corner,” he muses one last time. “This thing is far more elegant to me than being in today and out tomorrow.”
Chez Damier’s new label House Of Chez will be releasing new music via Beatport soon.
Read also Beatport’s Definitive History of House Music.