In Argentina, where Hernán Cattáneo grew up, the way they cook meat is to place it 25 centimetres away from burning charcoal and let it bathe in the heat for one-and-a-half hours. Slow, steady, smoothly flavoured and not overpowering. It is pretty much the way the el maestro of progressive house perceives his music. Trippy, melodious, nothing too harsh—after 30 years, it stays untouched by the fast fire of everything we’re fed with. Known as the founding father of the underground house scene, Hernán has on him 30 years of DJing, 11 albums, 30 singles and 50 remixes, and is going stronger than ever. What makes his music distinctly powerful is that it is rooted in the soul—it is raw, emotional and universally connected to what he feels is an all-pervading human vibe. And that is a quality not easy to keep alive in the age of a technological tsunami that has reduced a lot of electronic music to mere manipulation and special effects. But it is not just this honesty that has won him millions of devoted fans—it is his dedicated effort to give back to the community by supporting young artists.
One evening at a Delhi club under a white strobelight with his face shining as his disposition, he took me over his journey, inspirations and pulsating life in progressive house before his sounds cast an all-night spell.
“One thing is the change of the sounds of the kind of music you play. But the style and elements remain the same—never too hard, never too fast.”
What is your first memory of music?
When I was a young kid, three or four years old, I remember I grew up in a house where there was a lot of music playing all the time. My mother used to hear in the 70s and 80s the old, big bands from America, Frank Sinatra and melodic music, and my sisters were more into progressive rock like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and also some of the pioneers of electronic music. And I guess that’s why, years later, I got so much into house music because it was the best combination of the soul and feel of sounds from America and sounds from Europe.
How did you find your sound?
The music I write is a combination of all that I have been hearing through my younger years. I really like melodic music that I get from my mother; I really like progressive music that I got from my sisters—long, hypnotic sounds. I’ve never liked hard music or hard rock or fast techno. I was more into subtle, more cinematic, hypnotic sounds…more organic, and I think all the elements of the music I’ve been playing in the last 30 years have that common denominator of the music I used to hear when I was a kid. I have a long career and the good thing about electronic music is that the dynamics are big, so it changes all the time. One thing is the change of the sounds of the kind of music you play. But the style and elements remain the same—never too hard, never too fast.
Electronic music changes fast, as you say. How has your music evolved over the years?
I think it was Chanel who said that fashion changes but style stays. Music is somewhat same in that regard. One thing for a musician or DJ or artist is that you have to have your own personality. Your own identity. I don’t care about trends; I don’t pay attention as well. Of course I don’t mind—people need trends, but I cannot be paying attention to them because that would mean having to change my style every two years, and I really believe that your music personality is very important. And once you get people to identify you, your sound, this is when you can really develop more as an artist.
There are two things. One is the evolution within your own person, and the other is that the whole music and DJ-ing story has been evolving side by side. Technology has changed and helped music a lot. I started by playing vinyl where you had two turntables. And very non-professional turntables. Then there came professional turntables where you could do more. Then the computers came, and you could start manipulating the music you would play. You could start getting the music into the cover and do so many things—chopping, changing, then CDs came and with the CD you could make a lot of your own stuff on your computer and put it on play directly. It was all much easier as you could manipulate and rearrange and tailor-make music to your own likes and pleasure, or your needs. For example, there are places where people like really long breakdowns within the music and there are places where people would not like that. So you could make your own mix with a longer or shorter version which you could play according to the situation. Then there came the digital version that we use these days. You can really, really make a lot of changes while you play the music which allows for a lot of fun—to change loops and stuff according to the crowds that glow in the night. I’m old school, so I like to do that hands-on.
Of course, if you hear the music I play today and the music I played in 2001, it is not the same. But the common denominators are the same. So things change with time. I don’t play the same sounds and am always incorporating new elements—evolving, evolving, evolving—but your spirit, your soul, is always there.
In the past I saw a few big DJs completely changing their style and that was normally a very bad idea. Because you’d lose your followers and the new ones wouldn’t understand. A lot of DJs follow trends but trends are lost after one or two years, and then what are you? If you are honest in the way you incorporate new things and if you do it in a good way, it will work. So if at some point I start playing harder music than I do now, it is always going to have my soul.
“It doesn’t matter if you play with vinyl or CDs but what is important is that you have to find the way that you are going to get the best of you.”
Describe your creative process.
I come from the time when you used to do it all on your own, live. And I like that feeling. Honestly I’m an open-minded person, I don’t mind digital music, and I think what is important for people is what comes out of the speakers. It doesn’t matter if you play with vinyl or CDs but what is important is that you have to find the way that you are going to get the best of you.
If I’m playing live with my hands I feel like I’m much more into it, but it is fair to say I know all the DJs who play with a computer and do it amazingly so I’m not against computers—this is what it was for me. And I think the future is going to be computers only. And I don’t mind that. I feel now if I have to choose from all the ways of doing it, I like this way.
I’m from Argentina. We cook meat in a way that is mellow. We put charcoal 25 centimetres away from the meat. The heat cooks the meat over one hour and a half, and it is very tasty. The Americans use flames—they grill it—the flames touch the meat. For them, that’s the way. For me, that’s not the way. For everything, there’s a different way of doing things. Each one of us has our own way.
How would you define progressive house today?
I think the best way of describing it is melodic music with a great groove. Because these days, styles in music are a bit confusing. There are tracks that you would play and a Berlin guy would say this is melodic techno, and a guy from America would say no, no, no, this is progressive house. So I think a better way to describe it is finding which elements are part of that style and for progressive house, it is always a good driving baseline with some melodics. Of course it is bigger than that, but as I said, never too hard, never too fast, groovy, sexy, a bit darker, emotional. And it has to be organic. It has to flow. If it feels forced, it is not music. You can tell when you see a DJ going that way. The crowd can tell.
Where are the most passionate crowds you’ve played to?
I’m from South America where people are very passionate about everything. Whether with football, sports or music. Then Eastern Europe and here in India, the people who are into it are really into it so they are really, really passionate, or they really don’t care. Probably because the scene here is not as spread as in other parts of the world, so when you get the right crowd, they go crazy about it. Then you can see when there are people who just come to drink. Normally in other parts of the world when people want a drink, they don’t come for house music. It’s more like a niche. You get a more dedicated crowd. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it is just a process. The first time I played in Blue Frog in Mumbai, eight or nine years ago, it was amazing. But I came last year and it was so much more insane!
Over the last three years, the guys at Ankytrixx & Friends Entertainment [AFE] told me the scene here was great and so when I came, and I had a blast. And what I like is when people get really emotional about what you play. In Pune, I played at a small club but it was madness and you really like it when you can feel you could look people in the eye and see you touching them in a great musical way. I don’t want to get too epic with my words but you really touch some nerve in the people here. In all the other places people come, they dance, which is fine, after all, this is just entertainment, on Monday you go back to work again.
But luckily because I have more offers than I have dates available, I go to places where they like what I do. For example, in China they don’t like what I do. They are very respectful because they have been told I’m an important DJ, but you look into their eyes and you can’t find the connect. I go a lot to Japan, and they love it, they really love it. There are a lot of great progressive and techno producers from there. In India too, there are a lot of great producers.
Some places have a tendency of something, and others have a tendency of something else. For example we Argentines, like Greeks, Mediterraneans and Sicilians are a bit chaotic, unorganised, always have economic problems and that is great for creativity. Then other places are more serious and organised, but they’re cold. If I’m in Argentina and I open a show and it rains people go crazy and enjoy it. In other parts people go home. But that’s part of the richness of difference.
“I guess in a way, in a humble not arrogant way, I have a musical message and I want to spread that message all over the world and within the people that are interested, and the key is sharing with honesty the sounds you like and throwing your best to give people a good time.”
What do you have to say to young folks on the Dj-ing scene?
I think the most important thing for any artist is to have your own identity. Especially these days, because there are one million DJs, one million photographers—so the ones that they really get the head out of the water are the ones who have something special to say. Again, it is not easy to achieve. But is very, very important.
What is the biggest challenge of your craft?
I’ve always been a bit stubborn in that way that I really like people to have a good time with the music I like. There are certain DJs who play to please people. For me the key is to get people having fun with my sound. And it is a nice challenge every night. There are places where you play every night for 20 years and people know what you do, and sometimes you go to new places…so I don’t know how it is going to be. These days it is easier than before because we have the internet, we are well known, but earlier it was a big challenge because you would never know what to expect from the crowd and you would have to win them. But I guess in a way, in a humble not arrogant way, I have a musical message and I want to spread that message all over the world and within the people that are interested, and the key is sharing with honesty the sounds you like and throwing your best to give people a good time.
Things don’t always go as you are planning, you have to manoeuvre this way and that, and that’s why I told you that the dynamics of music changes all the time, every day these days. Because of technology, you get two-three new tracks every day…so may be after I go to my room after this interview this guy from Israel would have sent me this new track and I’d add it to my list…but how cool is that!
Who is your biggest critic?
My wife. Hardcore! In this world, a lot of people tend to put you on a pedestal and offer you all the luxuries…this and that, five-star hotel—you need someone who brings you down to your senses and say, you are nothing. My wife is number one. I’ve been very very lucky to have her. Not only she keeps great balance with our family and my three daughters because I’m travelling two weeks on two weeks off, it is very demanding and she balances everything in a great way.
I have a label called Sudbeat as a platform to introduce new artists to the world. DJs like me who have been around so long got a lot of help on the way. I didn’t get here on my own. So it’s good to give some help back to kids who are at the same place I was, 30-40 years ago. So I’m really grateful. It feels very rewarding to help new DJs get to where you are. And this year, I’m touring the US, Europe, and in July, Barcelona.
Text Soumya Mukerji