Gratts is otherwise known as Tristan Jong. The Belgian-born DJ and producer has now settled in Australia after having spent several years in the thick of the Berlin scene. He recently dropped a stunning new release on his own fledgling imprint, Be Strong be Free, that housed a remix by Alex Kassian. Following up on WOLF Music, Gratts puts a deeply soulful step forward with his new collection on the London label featuring the honeyed vocal of Brandon Markell Holmes and the remix expertise of Dublin’s Glenn Davis, with an appearance from the inimitable Robert Owens. On the week of the release, we sit down with him for a little talk.
WWD: Thanks for taking the time for a little talk.
You’re most welcome. Thanks for having me.
WWD: It’s great to see you up on Wolf Music. Have you been a fan Wolf Music in the past?
I first met the Wolf duo Matt and Stu back in 2012, when I played at a Tief night at Corsica Studios in London. Our paths crossed a few times since, and we’d talk occasionally. I don’t know the label very well, but I know the guys have the heart in the right place so it’s great to collaborate on this record more than a decade after!
WWD: Your recent release out on your own label Be Strong Be Free was simply stunning. It featured man of the hour Alex Kassian.
Thanks for the kind words. It was lovely to see the record travelling around the world. Alex is one of my oldest Berlin friends, we met shortly after I first moved there in 2013. He was one of the only people that I could imagine doing a version of ‘Sun Circles’, so it was very natural to ask him.
WWD: He is certainly making some great music right now. Who else do you think is making good records these days? Who do you keep your eyes on?
I usually play quite a bit of (fresh sounding) older music but have been enjoying quite a few new releases. A few things that have been in rotation: cuts off the upcoming Palavas album, new EBTG single ‘Nothing Left To Lose’, Club Soda’s ‘Basso E Batteria’, Conrad Idjut Boys’ take on Cantoma as well as new music by Murrin, Joseph Malik, Faze Action and Secret Witness.
WWD: How long have you been producing? What was the first record you put out?
I first started working on sketches in Sony Acid in around 2003. It was nothing serious at that stage. The first record I’ve ever appeared on was with a remix that my pal San Soda and I did, this was back in 2011. Throughout the years I’ve released records through different projects and monikers such as Icarus Traxx, Cashminus and more.
WWD: You are from Belgium originally, and after some time in Berlin, you have worked your way down under. Where are you in Australia exactly?
I live by the sea in South Brighton near Adelaide. The mother of my two sons Leo & Ziggy is from Adelaide so after meeting in Berlin, we moved here in early 2022. It’s quite different to Kreuzberg as you could imagine, but I’m enjoying life here.
WWD: Is there a vibrant music scene where you are and are you involved in it?
Compared to Berlin it’s obviously quite a bit more restrained, but Adelaide’s got a great core crew of music passionates. I’m also lucky enough to travel a bit to play records, so you’ll also find me in some other cities regularly. I’m heading to Asia again later this year too (the last time over was early 2020, just as the pandemic hit the world) and will finally be back in EU/UK around April next year.
WWD: What kind of vibe might we hope to hear in a Gratts set?
I’m still digging for cheap records most days (I still mainly play vinyl) and in my sets you’ll hear tunes that I consider timeless, whether old or new. I love raw, captivating music that evokes emotions, whether that’s Ron Hardy type jackers, dreamy Italo disco instrumentals, acid trax or ravey breakbeats. I like contrasts and adventure, the element of surprise. Anything goes. I let different rooms, environments and crowds invoke different vibrations and inspirations.
WWD: Are there some challenges in trying to release music there as opposed to being in Berlin?
Not really. My South Brighton-run label Be Strong Be Free’s distributor Juno is based in the UK so it works well.
WWD: Do you miss anything about Berlin?
Mostly the ability to wake up on a Sunday morning, have coffee and head out to a club (or outdoor rave) to immerse myself in loud, underground music, have a daytime dance and arrive back home Sunday evening, cleansed, ready to take on a new week.
WWD: You have worked with a lot of great collaborators on your new EP. Brandon Markell Holmes does some killer vocal work on Pretty Lights. Was he a natural choice for you?
I sensed that he could elevate the track. It’s a bit of a breakup song essentially – when I first sent the instrumental and lyrical ideas to Brandon last year, he was immediately into them. He has such an incredible and powerful, classic voice. When he sent me his first recordings, I was immediately blown away. ‘Pretty Lights’ also once again features the ‘Sun Circles’ line up of musicians aka Belgium talents Leîto aka Levi Wynants (keys), Jasper Hautekiet (bass) and Frederik Kühn (percussion).
WWD: How did you manage the process in different countries?
I tend to work with the same group of friends a lot, people I have known for a while or that I at least speak to very regularly.
WWD: And Tee Amara too. Such a great choice. A lot of your tracks contain vocals which isn’t the norm these days. What is it you love about working with vocalists and why do they form a key part of your productions?
Tee Amara is a friend of a friend. She’s a Spanish vocalist that lives in Berlin, which is how we met. One day she passed by The Consulate (the record store / space in Kreuzberg I co-ran) when my friend Tiarnan and I were working on the bare basics of the track there. That was the skeleton that became ‘Polaroids’. This was mid pandemic. I wrote the nostalgic lyrics and she delivered them fantastically.
The main reason I work with vocalists is because I write songs, but prefer to hear someone sing them properly, haha. Most of the tracks I release had my own vocals on them in demo stage. (Believe me, most of those you don’t want to hear.) The way I write music is very much linked to words, concepts, vocals. A few of my upcoming tracks feature my voice in different ways. But I’m not there yet to do a full vocal thing.
And of course, collaborating with the right people always brings out something extra to the table.
I also love creating alternate versions like a dub or reprise, like MAW, Mood II Swing and Murk did in the golden days.
WWD: You have worked with Robert Owens a few times. What’s he like to work with?
Obviously, Robert is a total legend and an incredible talent. But most of all, he is a sweet soul and a lovely friend. Working with him is a dream – he has so much experience and is a total pro. He and I have a new record coming called ‘Today’, the follow up to our 2021 record ‘Brighter Future’.
WWD: What are you most proud of in this new EP?
The gentle, positive and unhurried vibe.
WWD: This record is timeless as it doesn’t follow trends. What are the key elements to timeless music in your opinion?
Zoom out. See the bigger picture. Good taste and vision comes before anything: certainly, before any technical prowess. It’s all about concepts, ideas, inspiration, context, ambition. You don’t even need gear or a studio. It all starts from a feeling. When I dj I try and connect with people, and with my records I’m trying the same…
WWD: When you are not making great music, what might we find you doing?
Spending time with my sons, walking, hiking, biking, taking photos, chasing great coffee and food, dj’ing.
WWD: What else are you working on that you can share?
There is quite a lot in the works. After the Wolf EP, BSBF1202 will see the light of day this August. It’s called Jour De Fête, with a tasty dub version by Conrad Idjut on the flip. Next up, BSBF1203 will be ‘Rhythm Of Love’, again with a flipside reinterpretation. As mentioned above, Robert and I also have a follow-up to ‘Brighter Future’ ready. More about that soon.
Mr. Beale, who sang on ‘Sun Circles’ and I did a new record that will come out on 10inch. I’m also wrapping up a record for Canadian label Bienvenue, plus a follow up EP for Lisbon’s Inner Balance label. And even more music ready to be sent into the world – stay tuned. Apart from those, there’s a new little V/A project I’m working on for my label with choice cuts from friends from around the world. The name is ‘Mellow Magic Sampler’.
WWD: What are your next ambitions as an artist?
To write a song that resonates with many people on this planet before I leave this planet.
WWD: Thank you Gratts.