Mixmag (December 2005)
How the world’s biggest star was rescued by the dance music’s finest.
A soggy morning on an average street in West London. A dump of autumnal leaves sticks to the steps of the doorway of an otherwise unremarkable house. Around us the world battles to work through the grimneess as an imitating drizzle begins to fall and the doorbell sounds out the house’s owner.
This definitely isn’t LA. And it’s definitely not the Hamptons. Hell this isn’t even London’s impossibly posh Chelsea. For the best part of this year though, a living legend has wiaited on these steps, as wide-eyed passers-by stare in disbelief. Through the hallway, up the stepladder, and into the cramped attic, conversion is the studio that’s spawned the album that’s reinventing music’s most reinvented woman over again. At the corner is one of dance music’s most innovative producers and gifted DJs. A skinny, effervescently friendly guy from Reading called Stuart.
Under a batch of pseudonyms like Jacqes Lu Cont, Paper Faces, Thin White Duke, Les Rhythmes Digitales and Zoot Woman, Stuart’s been behind some of dance musics biggest moves and shakes. As plain old Stuart Price he’s conjured an album out of a pop music icon that could eclipse the sales of her LPs of her quarter-of-a-century-long career.
Madonna’s last album, ‘American Life’, limped out of the charts so lamely the critics figured her for a has-been. On her new album ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’ she goes back to her dancefloor roots to coin one more pop dance gem. At 47, for the once chart-dominating erotic rebel and sex kitten (now mum and Kabbatah convert) this could be Madonna’s last chance to convince us of her sex icon status. It could even be the last album she dominates the charts with.
When you can work with any producer in the world, choosing a 28 year-old dance music nut from Reading is a nervy decision — especially on such a make-or-break album — but Madonna is certain she’s got the right man.
“Stuart is the perfect counterpoint to me because I make dance music and he’s a classically trained musician, who happens to be a DJ with excellent taste.” she told Mixmag. “The combination of our respective skills make for, in my opinion, the perfect music to make people get up and dance.”
‘Confessions..’ is unashamedly pop, but produced with a dancefloor in mind. Spliced together amid the mess and piles of records and machines in Stuart’s tiny studio it’s a return to her younger days, blagging DJ mates into recording her demos. Right now though, we’re sat on Stuart’s white couch sandwiched between a triangle of vintage synths to find out just what life’s really like inside the eye of the Madonna hurricane.
What’s your first memory of Madonna?
“I wasn’t really a fan when I was growing up. I was aware of her but the pop music I loved was stuff like The Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. Those were the people who made me go and get my first keyboard. My parents were both pianists and they taught me the musical bit but didn’t like the pop side of things. Madonna didn’t have any relevance to my life growing up.”
Have you ever told her that?
“Yeah, she knows. There was a point that I did start listening to her, roundabout ‘Justify My Love’ when it became obvious she was using these good producers and coming up with unique music.”
What do the world’s biggest pop star’s friends call her?
“Some people call her M but I just call her Madonna. Making the album was a very relaxed process. Normally she’d get round to mine around 3pm. At this time making a cup of tea is about the only thing I’ve managed to get done. Madonna on the other hand has been up all morning having meetings with her publishers, publicists and accountant, so by the time she gets to mine it’s like the end of her day. She hasn’t got time to waste so you get used to working fast You don’t fuck around.”
Do you still have a double-take reality check where you think, “Shit I’m working with Madonna!”?
“People forget we’ve actually been working together for five years now so it doesn’t faze me at. It never fazed me in the beginning either.”
How come you ended up making the album in your bedroom and not in some flash studio?
“It wasn’t really anyone’s idea. More just that we wanted to experiment with ideas and seeing as I do all my other music here it made sense for her to come over. But once we started working here we didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else, so we just stuck with it. She likes the vocal sound here and I like being able to get up in the night and have everything there, much to my neighbour’s amusement I’m sure! When you work out of your flat you’re less concerned about the money you have to spend on a studio, and more relaxed because you don’t feel silly messing around with ideas in front of people you don’t know. Most dance records that I like aren’t made in commercial studios. Theyre made in rooms like this, by someone with a little bit of equipment but the desire to get something they like out of it, and that mentality was an important part of the process. Don’t get me wrong, we went to LA for the final mix but that gives you some objectivity that things sound good outside of the world you know. It was the same when I was taking rough mixes out and DJing with them. You know within the first 10 seconds if the mix is right and the first 20 if the track is good at all.”
It must have shocked your neighbours when they spotted Madonna on your doorstep?
“The guy next door says. [adopts an African accent] Was that Madonna going into your house yesterday?, I said, ‘No its just my friend.’ “Nice car,” he said, and I said, ‘She really does well for herself. They haven’t quite cottoned on.”
When’s the last time you hit a club together?
“A few days ago. I was paying this dub in New York called MisShapes. It’s a bit like Trash or Nag Nag Nag and full of 300 screaming young gay kids, so when Madonna turned up the place was bedlam. You could feel the floorboards going. It was so crazy the security said Thanks for but don’t ever come again!”
Did she perform?
“Yes, but there was no band – just her singing and dancing and me on the decks. She asked if she could DJ at one point. She got behind the decks and I started showing her which channel was which. She looked at me and said, ‘I know how to DJ’.”
Can she go to a club anymore without getting mobbed?
“The poor girl can’t go out and be the anonymous girl she once was in New York. When she first moved to New York in the early 80s she used to take a book along to a club and read it until the night was getting good, then dance with all these weird and wonderful gay characters. It was in that she saw what she liked about dance music.”
Is there any part of that early Madonna in the Madonna of today?
“What we’re doing now is what she was doing at the start of her career. She said, ‘I used to hang around the DJs long enough to force them to make records for me’, so nothing’s changed there. When you hear her old records there’s no bullshit. On ‘Into The Groove’, if you solo the vocals you can hear the cars going by outside in Manhattan. These records weren’t manufactured pop records, She was literally going around a DJ’s house and saying ‘What’s the best music you’ve got?’ and singing over it”
We’ve been fed so many different image changes throughout her career. Which one is the real Madonna?
“She’s an extreme intellectual and a very deep thinker. That’s why her career has taken all these different turns. People want to find fault with her for that but I think you can’t knock her for being so honest in what she does. She’s very genuine.”
Is she the Kabbalah obsessive the papers make her out to be?
“To that I’d say. what’s the difference between someone saying ‘It’s seven o’clock on Friday night and I have to go to the Kabbalah centre’ and someone else saying it’s seven o’clock and I’m going home to watch Lost?”
Is she a religious bore?
“She’s not particularly religious. She’s the first person to have said, ‘I’m a student of Kabbalah, not a follower of Kabbalah’ and from my point of view I don’t know what the big fuss is about. She’s just interested in something that helps her life.”
What’s she like to work with in the studio?
“She’s the greatest hands-off producer ever. Most people think producers should be pressing the buttons but she doesn’t pretend to do any of that. She sits on the couch and listens to it and tells you when you’re not being very good.”
I’ll bet she doesn’t mince her words…
“When something’s not sounding good she’ll say, ‘That’s rubbish, that’s rubbish and that’s rubbish’ and you’ll be like, ‘I know, I’m not trying to be rubbish!’. In terms of being a songwriter, she has this thing where she can turn the microphone on, open her mouth and one of those melodies comes out and you go ‘Blimey! That’s how you’ve done it!”
Is she an easy person to disagree with?
“Yes She can take disagreement but a good collaborator is someone who tells you when something’s not good. It’s the same for me – when she’s telling me that my keyboard parts are stupid I have to say to her, ‘Your melodies are not very good’. If you sit there being a ‘yes’ man all day you’re going to end up with a bad record.”
So does she have a lot of ‘yes’ men around her?
“A lot of people interact with Madonna to further their own career and I find that quite crass. On a positive note, you see people who’ve become really inspired by being around her. Her enthusiasm is infectious.”
Does she have an English sense of humour?
“Yes, she has a very English sense of humour. We spent the whole of rehearsal for the last tour quoting every line from The Office. When we were at Live 8 I went up to her and said. ‘Quick, look! There’s Ricky Gervais over there’ so we ran over and she went ‘Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, we just wanted to come say we know all your lines, we’ve seen all your shows and we thnk you’re really funny. He turned around and said, ‘Sorry, what’s your name?’.”
What went through your head when you went on stage at Live 8?
“My experience went exactly like this:’Shit shit. shit, shit, yeeeeeeeeeeeeah! Phew!’. It was brilliant. A worldwide audience of about 400 million is as big as you’re ever going to do, but the day before it was turning into a tragedy – everything was going wrong. Everyone was shitting themselves, but when that stage finally revolved around it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had.”
Being around her must have introduced you to the LA celebrity circuit. Do you find that scene tedious?
“The glamour side of DJing has no relevance to me. When DJs are more about who they’re hanging out with, who they’re shagging and what champagne they’re drinking, to me that’s the beast of dance music. I hate driving around Ibiza seeing DJs posing on billboards. It makes me cringe because that means it’s become more about them and less about the people. The reason I like dance music – without wanting to sound too pretentious – is because it is people’s music. A nightclub is only as good as the vibe inside it. The DJ is supposed to be making that vibe, not flying into the club flanked by security.”