Detroit Swindle: Life On Top

With their hit-making imprint and globe-trotting tour schedule, Detroit Swindle are fast becoming house music royalty. Cameron Holbrook hears their story so far.

In 2018, footage of a Japanese saxophone player riffing over Motown Sounds’ 1978 disco classic “Bad Mouthin” went viral. The 20-second clip amassed nearly 30,000 upvotes on Reddit, and quickly spread through various dance music meme pages, techno Twitter, and well beyond. It was so popular that someone uploaded an 11-hour loop of the video to YouTube.

The clip managed to do what the vast majority of similar clubland videos never will — appeal to a mainstream audience. But it also succinctly summed up the sound and character of the duo behind the decks that night — Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets of Detroit Swindle.

“It was not a particularly busy night,” Lars recalls via Skype video chat. “It was a tiny, tiny club, but the Japanese always make it fun. There was this guy just standing in the crowd with his saxophone on the floor. At one point, Maarten and I just pointed at him, and we’re like, ‘Dude…go! Do something!’ Once he started up, I just grabbed my phone and started filming. It only lasted for a moment, but it was so fun, and everyone there went crazy!”

Hailing from Amsterdam, the pair’s path as Detroit Swindle can be traced back to 2011, and a conversation neither one of them wanted to have. Lars was working as a programmer and promoter, and booked Maarten — a former promoter himself — as one of the full-time DJs he would send to clubs around the city. After Maarten played music considered “too serious” for a gay bar by Lars’ former boss, Maarten had to go. Lars disagreed, but decided to follow through with the demand, and met with his future DJ partner to fire him.

It was the first time they’d really talked. And soon the firing devolved into a heavy drinking session as they bonded over their mutual love of music. “We found out that we had a lot in common, especially with our taste in music,” Lars says. “I invited him into my little home studio, which was basically a laptop and some speakers, and we started making music together. That’s when it clicked.”

While the pair hold a deep appreciation for music from across the spectrum — house, techno, jazz, funk — it’s music from The Motor City that connects them above all else. The name Detroit Swindle was conceived to pay homage to that fact, with “swindle” acting as a tongue-in-cheek means of letting listeners know they’re not actually from Detroit. To their disappointment, some Detroit natives took offense, sparking cultural appropriation debates. Lars and Maarten have acknowledged this perception and remain open to the conversation, while also hopeful that their moniker be understood as a sign of respect.

Just a year a year after forming, Detroit Swindle released four EPs, including their breakthrough debut The Wrap Around on Huxley’s newly formed Saints & Sonnets label. Lars refers to it as “the one that broke the bank,” and “the gift that keeps on giving,” because, to this day, fans are still hungry for it. “People were still trying to figure out who we were,” Maarten says. “At the beginning, many thought it was Huxley’s new alias, but then our second EP came out two weeks later, which was followed by another one shortly after.”

From that moment on, the Dutch duo began releasing a torrent of chunky and vibrant four-to-the-floor belters, which splashed onto dance floors across the globe. The smoldering basslines, talkative keys, silky-smooth vocals, and swinging grooves of the duo’s productions are impossibly infectious; put simply, the formula works. And with a total of 25 releases under their belt, including two albums and dozens of remixes for acts like Hercules & Love Affair, Kerri Chandler, KiNK, and more, Lars and Maarten are undisputedly two of the world’s busiest and most sought-after house music producers. They’re no slouches on the road, either, having played about 100 shows a year in 52 countries since 2017, including festivals like ADE, Expedition, Soenda, Exit, MUTEK, Boxed Off, Into The Woods, and more. Another essential factor in Detroit Swindle’s appeal is the group’s ability to play live. Unlike their initial releases, however, their live show didn’t start with a bang.

“Back in 2012, our first live show went terribly wrong,” Maarten says, shaking his head. “Our laptop overheated, froze, and crashed mid-set.” Lars chimes in: “I threw up just from sheer nervousness and stress of it all!” Around the same time, Detroit Swindle’s agent booked them for another live set at the world-famous Panorama Bar in Berlin. “He called us up and told us, ‘Guys, I got you a gig at Panorama Bar and it’s happening whether you have a live show ready or not,'” Lars says. After their trial by fire, the swindlers hunkered down and started fine-tuning their live show, with Maarten on keys and Lars handling the sampler and sequencers. Not even half a year after their first release, they delivered an outstanding performance. “It was an amazing start to our career,” Maarten says.

Today, their live show is a well-oiled machine that delivers the same revelry and power as their DJ sets, if not more. “Lars loves carrying equipment. It’s his thing,” Maarten says, as Lars jokingly flexes his biceps beside him. Maarten makes it clear that he doesn’t share Lars’ passion for lugging gear around, but finds that the end result is worth the effort. “It’s a lot more work than DJing,” he explains. “A lot more stress, cables, and hours spent on bullshit, but the reward of playing your music live and making choices on the fly in front of an audience is exhilarating.”

Following the release of the duo’s soulful 2018 LP High Life, Lars and Maarten recruited the help of Lorenz Rhodes — an established German artist and “basically the third member of Detroit Swindle,” as Lars puts it — to play the keys alongside the duo during their lengthy album tour. Showing off their instrumental chops while playing mostly their own material, they do leave plenty of room for improvisation and surprises. “We always try to do an extra little something that’s connected to where we are,”Maarten says. “In France, Lorenz learned how to play Daft Punk’s ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ on the talkbox, and the crowd went nuts. And for the US, we learned tracks like Mr. Fingers ‘Can You Feel It’ and Lil Louis’ ‘French Kiss’.”

When they aren’t playing live, the Dutch duo specialize in classic house, obscure disco, African funk, and soulful techno. And their free and easy back-and-forth behind the decks only makes their breezy blend so much more enjoyable. It’s loose and fun, and about as far from staid, somber techno as one can get.

“On our rider, we have all the ingredients [to make an] old fashioned, because we like to make them ourselves,” Lars says. “Sometimes, people think it’s a bar. It happened to us just last weekend. We were mixing our cocktails, and a girl came up to the DJ booth asking for a gin and tonic. I had to tell her, ‘This isn’t the bar, darling.'”

But it’s probably Detroit Swindle’s fantastic Heist Recordings that best characterizes the duo’s perpetual enthusiasm for house. First launched in 2013, the label has acted as a catalyst for highly-regarded acts like Max Graef, Nachtbraker, Frits Wentink, Brame & Hamo, and Fouk.

“A lot of these guys are now starting their own labels and really wrestling through their unique sounds,” Lars says, with all the bravado of a proud father. “It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do as a label when you start them off with a promise, and then suddenly, that promise becomes a reality. Not every artist has that same drive. There’s a lot of people that come into the studio to make a track or two, and they’ll just see what happens. But the artists we’ve signed on Heist really go for it. They do all the groundwork, which makes our job way easier.”

After 42 releases on the label, Heist Recordings is still going strong. Detroit Swindle released their most recent EP, The Life Behind Things, on Heist this past October. And 2020 will see releases from Nebraska, Kassian, and Makèz, a new promising duo out of Holland.

While the lives and careers of Detroit Swindle have been blessed in more ways than one, in May of 2019, they almost lost everything. Lars, who has a passion for vintage motorcycles, was riding in Amsterdam when he slipped taking a corner, totalling his bike and severely injuring his face. 

“It was pretty serious,” Lars says. “My lower jaw was broken in three places, my upper jaw was completely shattered, I broke my palatine bone, and all my teeth were broken. For some reason, it all went by like a dream. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. The heavy medication probably played a factor.”

Maarten released a statement about the accident on social media, which was met with an outpouring of support from the global dance music community. While Lars recovered at his mother’s, Maarten carried on running the label and performing at gigs without his partner. Despite the severity of the accident, Lars was eager to get back on the road.

“I started touring three months after it happened, which I would say is pretty quick. My surgeon was not so sure if I should do it, but I was like, ‘No, man, I have to work,’ and I’ve been touring ever since. I was traveling for quite a long time with my broken teeth, so it looked like I didn’t have any. Smiling was a bit of an issue. But as you can see, it’s all good now,” Lars says, showing off his new grin. “I’m still not out of the woods yet. I have about six teeth that need to go, and then I have to get permanent fake teeth. It’s probably going to be another two or three more years to go before I am all the way better.” Keeping the mood light, Maarten interrupts. “The silver lining is, he gets to buy a new motorcycle.” 

Picture by Raymond van Mil

Back in the saddle and riding high both on stage and in the studio, Detroit Swindle capped off the decade with both The Life Behind Things EP and a remix of the 1980s afrobeat gem “Yamona” by legendary Ghanaian musician Pat Thomas. Despite the long road to recovery that lies ahead of Lars, both he and Maarten insist that 2020 is going to be a big year. 

“We were just going through the projects that we have lined up, and we realized that we need to get started now, otherwise we’re going to be super stressed before summer even begins,” Maarten says. While they couldn’t divulge much information about what’s coming, they confirmed plenty of new originals and remixes, lots of live music, and another EP on Heist Recordings. One thing is for sure — Detroit Swindle are prepared to keep their funk machine grooving well into the future.

Cameron Holbrook is a staff writer for Beatportal. Find him on Twitter.

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