music • 29 Dec, 2014
Interview: John Morales and Alton Miller at the Observatory
Foundation figures face off for the very first time
The word 'legend' gets flung around more times than the spins of a disco mirror ball. But when John Morales, with almost 40 years in music and time spent at era-defining clubs like the Paradise Garage and Studio 54, sits down next to Alton Miller, with 120 plus releases across 3 decades for the labels in dance music, it's tempting to go searching for a stronger word.
It's a meeting of styles - John Morales' disco edits and Alton Miller's pioneering house experiments - as much as it is of musical capital cities - John's New York and Alton's Detroit. And of two different people with the strongest connection possible: they live this music.
So it's safe to say that when the former has worked with everyone from the Temptations to Tina Turner, and the other’s a Derrick May collaborator and co-founder of the near-mythical motor city club The Music Institute, and they just met a year ago, they're going to have plenty to say to each other. ‘This is like only the second time we’ve actually spoken!’ John announces.
DJ Alton Miller
And you never played together before? Is there a problem here we need to sort out?
Alton: No, I been playing his stuff for years.
What’s the one record of John’s that means the most to you?
Alton: Oh man. His edits. I’m a big Leroy Burgess fan. Teddy Prendergrass.
You’re playing together for the first time tonight. What would a collaboration between you sound like?
Alton: Oh that would be very interesting.
John: It’s a good question.
Alton: I really can’t call that. Obviously John has lived it; I was there in spirit. I caught the last days of the Paradise Garage. I even think I was singing and humming tunes before I could actually speak.
John: The magic of it is? The creative process is something you don’t dictate. It’s like rolling a rock off the top of a hill and it takes you places.
What were your first records?
Alton: Oh man. I’m gonna say ‘89.
John: Wow. I’m really old. My first record came out in ‘76!
Alton: Mine was a piece that came out on Serious Grooves called...It’s a bit cloudy actually. I’m gonna say ‘I like having you’.
John: My first record was the Universal Robot Band’s ‘Dance and shake your tambourine’. And I just kept going.
What are your survival tips that help you keep doing this?
Alton: Pacing yourself! You have to listen to your body. The worst is to turn up for a gig and you’re wiped out. You can’t deliver. You got people there to see you. That know your work. I like to be 150% for the most part. I try to eat right.
John: I don’t do anything. I don’t stop to think about any of it. Haha. Years ago my rider said ‘Burger King, McDonalds, fried chicken’!
And now what does your rider say?
John: It just says ‘low-maintenance’! Beyond the right equipment just five bottles of water and a towel.
Alton: And I don’t listen to loud music. Not outside the club, man. Even when I make music.
John: Oh, I bang it up loud.
And has how you produce music changed in these digital days?
Alton: For me it’s the same.
John: I mix records the same way today I did 40 years ago. I always been an engineer so making something sound good has always been important. A lot of today’s MP3 producers don’t know what instruments sound like. I still have that old school mentality.
John signing his records
You described yourself as a ‘studio rat’ back in the day, John. You’d stay up all night just for a bit of recording time.
John: I still do. Well, it’s worse now. I got a studio in my house. I get up, go into the kitchen, throw on a pot of tea, then down to the basement. And sometimes I’m there till 5am the next morning. Have to force myself to go to bed telling myself ‘I gots to go to sleep.’ But the beauty is, it wasn’t like that back in the day - you had to finish what you were doing. They’d be like ‘Yo, we got another session coming in!’
What have you done, Alton, that’s beyond what people would normally do for music?
Alton: Err, recently?!
John: Today! Haha. I remember playing 10 or even 12 hour sets. Now you’re playing two hours and the next DJ’s standing there with his headphones waiting. And I just took off my shirt. I’m just getting started!
Alton: Letting your hair down. Only just feeling the system. Haha.
How else are you different to modern producers or DJs?
Alton: I don’t do any set planning. No man.
John: I saw someone get lost playing a Serato set. They had it in a playlist. Then I find out from some guys he’s been practising that for a week. There is no bigger disaster waiting to happen than go to an event with a preconceived idea. You can never anticipate who the people gonna be. What they’re going to react to.
Alton: I think a lot of DJs don’t get chance to cut their teeth. Even just opening a night.
John: Yeah, my biggest problem is having a guy before me just want to slay the room.
Alton: He’s banging like it’s 5am in the morning….and there’s two people on the floor!
John: I did a gig in Austria.
Alton: Oh my God. Sh&t is in the red?
John: And I looked at the promoter...
Alton: Promoter should know better too.
John Morales at the controls
People here already get serious talking about this place, The Observatory, and its importance to this city. Which clubs have meant the most to you?
Alton: Oh man, that’s easy. Music Box. Chicago. And how would I describe it? It was energy, it was passion, it was decadence, it was apocalyptic, it was church.
John: Most people would say the Garage - as a place to visit. But as a DJ? I only played there three times, but a place in Manchester called the Soup Kitchen. It’s a no frills room. Don’t have no fancy lights. But the people who go there. There’s no better feeling playing somewhere and the people are just howling all night.
Give us an example of when it didn’t go right.
John: One of my big records was Candi Staton’s ‘Young hearts run free’. I’ll never forget this lesson. Winter music conference, Miami. I drop it and the floor just whoosh clears. The mix is banging. Right place…
Alton: Wrong time! And knowing that takes years, man. Years.
How’d you balance that solitary life in the studio with suddenly being in front of a big audience?
Alton: I don’t look at it that way. It’s seeing the fruit of your labour manifest itself in front of people.
John: Alton’s similar to me. We’re making a style of music we’re out playing. I test stuff on the road all the time. A track I did, Third World’s ‘Now that we found love’, I must have tweaked 50 times! There’s a satisfaction when you drop that track. The place lights up, and you’re like ‘Yeah, I hit it.’
Alton: That’s 5 o’clock in the morning. Haha. The process is a joyous thing,
Dancing to the original ‘Disco Don’
John: Now, let me ask you a question, Alton. How’d you feel about about being expected to play your own stuff?
Alton: No. I never felt like that. I only recently - the last 3 or 4 years - started to play my own stuff. Thing is I’m from Detroit. Detroit’s known for techno.
John: That’s a hard cross to carry. I’m known as ‘The Disco Don’, but in order to stay relevant you have adapt what you do. Our function is to entertain the people in the room by any means possible.
And what keeps pulling you back to Asia?
John: The nice thing for me is reconnecting with the people you met. And spreading the message of the music. You go where the river takes you.
Alton: I love to come to Asia, especially Japan. I just get engulfed in music.
What’s the secret of remembering everyone’s names?
John: I don’t remember them all the time. I just let them introduce themselves.
And how’s your first time in Vietnam, John?
John: I have no idea. I just got here. But I’ll let you know.
Check out more photos from the Observatory party below
Words by David Kaye
Photos by Quang Blue for AnyArena.com