When house music was born in mid-1980s Chicago, it arrived as ground-breaking urban machine music - but its parents were disco and soul. The best house producers never forget the human warmth of that heritage. It’s no surprise, then, that the scene’s contemporary leading light, Citizenn, has entitled his debut album ‘Human Interface’. From an early EP called ‘Trax’, after the seminal Chicago imprint, through deliciously classy remixes of Maya Jane Coles, Adele and Hercules & Love Affair, to his recent blissful ‘Tied’ single, featuring a rerub by original Miami house masters Murk, Midlands-born producer Laurence Blake’s output has been effortlessly approachable, futuristic and classic. In short, he’s a musician-DJ who fits in as well at the tech-mecca of Sonar as at more intimate Secretsundaze parties.
“I’ve always been completely infatuated with technology,” says Blake, “The western world's obsession with augmenting our natural abilities runs deeper than just allowing us to move things quickly from one side of the world to the other. It allows us to manifest complex ideas and emotions in an artistic context. It’s that aspect of technology that fascinates me.”
Taking his name from a passing visual reference in the Manga film Akira, Citizenn originally arrived via releases on MadTech, the label owned by New Jersey house don Kerri Chandler. Within a year, after singles on Waze & Odyssey’s Street Tracks, as well as on the label extension of Love Fever, his favourite underground party, Citizenn had been named DJ Magazine’s Breakthrough DJ of 2013. He was only just getting started.
Growing up in Nottingham, Blake went to university in London. He dabbled in fashion and marketing and later achieved some success as a video director for the likes of Aluna George and Little Boots. Musically, he’d started out as a drummer but, a self-confessed control freak, he soon progressed to computer-based composing.
“I wanted to be in full control of the music I was making, rather than being the rhythm behind it,” he explains. “If I’m not being creative, I feel lost.”
Working alone allowed him to fully unleash this creativity and he also began putting on his own night, Glastique, at Bungalow 8 and the Dalston Superstore, the initial platform and showcase for his DJ skills. The music policy was “mostly acid, new jack swing and old house joints… basically nothing post-‘95”. It was a very loose blueprint for the R&B-tinted smooth sci-fi house that is now his core interest.
After seeing the video for Bicep’s ‘$tripper’ he decided to send a demo of ‘Room Service’ to the Love Fever label. It was a breakthrough cut, all sweet driving percussion and silky wisps of vocal. With another tune already signed to MadTech, he was starting to make an impression. Since then his output has consistently pushed at the boundaries, especially more recent work, including a pared back reimagining of Ellie Goulding’s ‘Burn’ and singles for Ralph Lawson’s 20:20 Vision label, such as the techno-flavoured bounce of the ‘Climax EP’ and the bass-bubbling alt-garage of ‘Be’, featuring S.Y.F. on vocals.
“I'm getting myself into that headspace where not every track has to be a banger, working with artists who are blowing up – vocalists,” he says, “pulling in all my influences and making it into a unified whole.”
Nowhere is this more evident than on the album, ‘Human Interface’, forthcoming on Damian Lazarus’s ever-influential Crosstown Rebels imprint. Citizenn delivers eleven tracks that stay the distance and will be welcomed by those who enjoy dancing and/or listening to Scuba, Theo Parrish, Maceo Plex, Seth Troxler and the like. Yet these tunes are pure Citizenn. He’s found a place where house music’s bubbling soulful warmth blends into a starker android pulse, flecked with vocal contributions from his friends Aisha and Py, music that runs the gamut from the melancholic space-house of ‘Control’ to the spooked tech-groove of ‘Lady’, with its admonition that “I’ve got to be wiser in the future”, via the superb driving dancefloor sound of ‘Down For Whatever’.
“Nothing in life is linear or binary,” Blake ventures, “even technology deviates from its programmed functionality. This record explores the idea of humanity infusing technology with themes and textures, using digital and analogue synthesis alongside human oral and physical input. Each track on the record is based on a particular theme of human emotion or a technological-mechanical attribute.”
Never one to remain stationary for very long, Citizenn’s ambitions stretch beyond immediate success, and his plans to evolve his sound - and the sound of house - have started to reach fruition. His DJ travels take him all over the world, from big festivals such as Hideout in Croatia to the techno legend that is Berghain, and his productions match these destinations for sheer underground class and diversity, yet never lose their humanity.
“The new album has been an affirming process,” he reveals, “and more than anything I I’ve grown and allowed myself to be truly personal with the machines I use. In essence, the original concept of the record has become a self-fulfilling journey of awareness and ownership.”
Citizenn has found a clarity of vision within the circus that is life as a successful musician. He is now leading where others will undoubtedly follow.