Artist of the Month: Purple Disco Machine
Artist of the Month: Purple Disco MachineJune 14, 2021
Purple Disco Machine doesn’t want to hear “Body Funk” again, but the euphoric reaction from the crowd makes it worth playing every time. Spreading joy through funky sounds and getting a crowd grooving together is what the German DJ/producer, born Tino Piontek, is all about, and something he’s been striving for since his teen years DJing high school parties in Dresden.
During the summer of 2017, “Body Funk” sounded off everywhere, getting dancefloors going at festivals and in clubs across the globe while solidifying Purple Disco Machine’s status as an in-demand DJ, producer and remixer. It was the best-selling Nu Disco track on Beatport that year, and is currently number 42 on Beatport’s Nu Disco / Disco Top 100 chart (with 16 total Purple Disco Machine originals and remixes on it at the moment). It wasn’t his first club banger (that would be “My House” in 2013) and it wasn’t his last.
With dancefloors slowly opening back up, and his sophomore album, Exotica, due later this year on Sweat It Out Records, there’s plenty more to come. Released in summer 2020, “Hypnotized,” featuring UK singer Sophie and the Giants, was the project’s first single, and snagged platinum and gold record status across Europe. The sun-soaked, dancefloor-ready Club Dub Mix has also performed well, currently ranking at No. 24 on the Beatport Nu Disco chart and No. 7 on his Top 10 tracks. And while the buoyant, synth-driven Purple Disco Machine touch is almost instantly identifiable, he’s always marching forward towards new sounds, while looking to the past for inspiration and guidance.
At the start of 2020, Piontek was 70 percent done with the new album he’d been working on for the prior two years, and took the first three months of the year off from shows to finish it. Then, in the blessing and curse that the lockdown was, he suddenly had the rest of the year to spend in the studio, and decided to nerd out researching and investing in more synthesizers to get an authentic Italo disco sound. It also allowed him time to collaborate more extensively than before, which came in handy when his creative inspiration began to diminish after about six months in the studio with no time commanding the dance floor.
“I spent a lot of time with my synths, diving into and creating sounds. This was the biggest part of the last 12 months, working on and, especially, finishing songs,” Tino says over Zoom. His new toys include some Italian-made synths like the Solton, the Roland Jupiter-8, and a Moog, all of which he acquired to tap into the rich, shiny pool of Italo disco.
By harnessing the power of his new analogue synths and the creative challenges of 2020, Tino feels like his sound has undergone “an evolution” from his 2017 debut album, Soulmatic. “I spent almost three years working on the new album. This time it’s more Italo, high energy, mid-’80s electro funk, but also still a lot of disco vibes and clubby basslines and beats. I’m really excited.”
“I think the song ‘Exotica’ is the best example of what I mean with evolution,” he adds. “It’s not a revolution from my last album, but it’s an evolution and this song shows what I mean. It’s more ltalo disco, high energy influenced — it’s actually sampled with a song from the ’80s [1985 Italo disco gem ‘Void Vision‘ by Cyber People]. I always loved the original song and always wanted to work with it. Once I got some of the synths [producer Alessandro Zanni] used in the original song, a friend of mine, [keyboardist] Matt Johnson from Jamiroquai, and I played all the sounds, and then I started working on the song. It’s this kind of energy I really like, this up-tempo Italo disco, high energy groove, which is what I also really like and play in my sets, and what I feel right now. It’s a really good example of what people can expect from the album Exotica.”
While he still uses a mix of analogue and digital synths, mainly because of ease of use (some vintage ones don’t have a MIDI input), he acknowledges there is undeniably more magic in creating with analogue, even if he feels “nine out of 10 people won’t hear any difference.”
“For me, I’m way more creative working or playing on analogue synths, with all the knobs and features, instead of using the mouse and scrolling through the VST plugin. Sometimes with trial and error [on analogue], you create a sound you actually never wanted but you feel, ‘Okay, this is amazing and wasn’t what I was looking for but it’s really cool.’ That would never happen using a VST plugin because you know the presets.”
As he recently named Donna Summer’s 1977 disco smash “I Feel Love” as “one of the most important and iconic records ever made,” I had to ask how the legendary Italian producer who crafted it, Giorgio Moroder, has influenced him.
“He just tried something new. At that time in the ’70s, everyone was making music with a band, using organic instruments, a guitar, a bass. And Giorgio Moroder made music, disco music, with a synthesizer. This was really inspiring to me, especially the mix of this organic band sound from the ’70s mixed with synthesizers. This is the music I really liked [since I was young], and maybe it’s also the music I try to make. My sound is also a mix of the pumpy groove from my computer and the funky groove or baseline from an analogue synth or a bass guitar to get the right balance; the organic and the plastic sound.”
While the extensive time off the road offered more room for creativity, it also left a void of human interaction, energy and feedback playing shows naturally provides. This forced Piontek to trust his intuition on this project, as he had to work in isolation from the people he makes the music for. “I really missed road-testing songs… I really need the reaction of the crowd when I play my new [unreleased] songs. So, I had to trust myself.”
While he’s testing to see if there’s anything he wants to change in the tracks, he admits he rarely ends up reworking it afterward, and the moment of truth does often happen in the studio. He’s even learned to delete songs that don’t deliver that feeling with a Marie Kondo efficiency.
“What I learned over the last 15 years is when I’ve worked for two or three times on the same project, and I still don’t have any idea how to finish it or if I don’t have this goosebumps moment or this as a smile-on-my-face moment, I just delete the project. Because if I don’t feel it’s good enough, I would never release it, because if I don’t get this moment in the studio, I don’t think people will get it on the dancefloor.”
“Usually when I work on songs, I’m quite quick,” he continues. “For example, ‘Hypnotized’ was made within a week or so. I can’t listen to the same demo over and over for weeks, because I’ll get really bored of it, and once I’m bored of my own song I know I will never finish it.”
As much as a PDM release must be something he loves, it really is for the people. “It’s really tough when you have a song that gets successful and you have to play it every weekend, and you actually already hate this song…On the other hand, it’s always nice to see the reaction. It’s the reason why I make music, to see the smile on people’s faces, to see the joy.”
“And of course, I play the songs,” he continues. “I think it’s totally stupid, there are so many DJs out there, they’re really famous for their releases, but when they play DJ sets, they never play their own songs. I mean, that’s the reason why they get booked. For me, it’s so much fun to play my own songs and see the reaction. Especially after releasing ‘Body Funk,’ I realised it’s senseless to play music from other artists in my sets, because people just wait for Purple Disco Machine songs. So, usually when I play DJ sets, I would say 80 percent of the music is my own.”
“Body Funk” may have been massive, but he also cites “My House” as his first game changing song. Not only did it become the one everyone knew him for, but its success led to many more bookings, especially internationally. However, those are far from his only two big songs; pretty much everything he’s put out since “Body Funk” is devoured by his ever-growing fan base.
“I’m lucky my career isn’t based on one song; people request many different songs,” he says. “In my career there are many songs and remixes, this makes me really happy that I don’t have to play just ‘Body Funk’ 10 times in a row and then leave the stage.”
His remixing power is seemingly endless and has spawned countless tracks he’s also known for, ranging from funky updates of dance classics like Fatboy Slim‘s “Praise You” to dance pop anthems like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me.” Whatever he touches is guaranteed to be danceable and funky, and is clearly what the people want.
When asked what it means to him to remix big pop stars like Gaga and Dua Lipa, he’s humble (but that seems to be his general state). “I’m always surprised when I get the request. Doing remixes has been a part of my career since the beginning. I really love remixing. For me, it is really inspiring to work on other people’s songs.”
Yet one of his big remixes, his edit of Fatboy Slim’s 1998 classic almost didn’t happen.
“It’s a funny story about the ‘Praise You’ remix. They asked me to remix one of the new songs, but I always wanted to remix ‘Praise You.’ They said, ‘We have so many ‘Praise You’ remixes and we’re not looking for another one.’ But I asked 10 or 20 times over a year because they sent so many different songs but I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, no. ‘Praise You.’’ Twelve months later, they sent the stems and when I sent the demo they loved it. So yeah, it worked,” he explained, smiling.
Dance music has been the driving force of Piontek’s life since high school in 1996, when he and his friends saved money to buy turntables and vinyl together to throw parties for their classmates. When French touch took over the European airwaves at the turn of the decade, he was hooked. He got his first synth, his own turntables, and, like his idols Daft Punk, began sampling his favourite disco tracks. By his early 20s, he was working in a record store and cutting his DJ teeth at his first residency, in Dresden, where he played for 10 hours every Friday.
“It was the best and worst time, every Friday I had the chance to play music with my friends,” he says. “Music was the only thing I wanted to do. In the end, it paid off. It’s important for staying in the business, I made all these mistakes already.”
It would be a disservice to talk about the success of Purple Disco Machine — or the existence of disco and house — without highlighting the support of the queer community. His synchronicity with the gay community feels organic; there is a shared passion for upbeat and joyful music, enthusiastic dancefloors, and spreading love, and so much of his music provides a perfect soundtrack for a gay club or Pride event.
“My best parties are at gay parties like Glitterbox, which are so full of joy and love and positive vibes. The crowd doesn’t care about things like what religion you are, they just want to enjoy the music. That’s what I feel as well, I just want to enjoy the music.”
Soon, finally, we’ll be reunited on the dancefloor and perhaps Piontek won’t mind hearing “Body Funk” again. He definitely won’t mind setting the crowd off, that’s for certain.
“I just can’t wait to play festivals. I really need the energy back from the people, the energy I put in my songs. I usually get the energy back when I play my songs and see the reaction and the happiness and the joy on the dancefloor. It’s really important for me because the energy I get back, I can put in my next songs.”
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a Staff Writer for GRAMMY.com and a freelance music journalist based out of Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter.