US musician/producer John Beltran is already well respected for his previous releases. The music on the Sky EP, John's first release on Exceptional occupies the space that Beltran has become known for, the predawn state between the dancefloor and the duvet.
Following the success of the Sky EP we got together for an album project. The first single from the album "Caboclo" is driven by a beautiful sax riff set against a breezy backdrop of delicate funky instrumentation and as always with Beltran. You can hear many different stylistic influences where jazz meshes with latin elements sitting along more overtly electronic sounds.
The NME once reckoned there was a clock inside John Beltran's head stuck fast at 5 am. It was because his music appeared to inhabit a pre-dawn state between the dancefloor the soon to be sex or dream-soaked duvet, a special area where soft rhythm and ticking sensuality were neatly intertwined. And they're not alone in rating this US producer. Tracks from his first three albums regularly turn up in freestyle and chill out sets from DJs like Mixmaster Morris, Gilles Peterson and Andrea Parker, whilst Patrick Forge listed Beltran's "The Cry" (recorded under Beltran's Placid Angles pseudonym) as second in his chart of all time classic albums.
Still based in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan (famous only for producing The Verve Pipe and Magic Johnson) Beltran explains that he leads a quiet, but athletic life. He makes music influenced by his attitudes towards life and listening habits, plus trace elements of dancefloor experiences both past and present. So far he's produced four LPs and earned himself rave reviews, and a cult following amongst those ready to look for something beyond the dance within so-called ‘dance music culture’. Saying that, the beats, breaks and bass of the floor usually bubble up through his tracks no matter how reflective they might initially seem.
Brought up on classical, jazz and latin at home (early sonic memories include John Coltrane, Tito Puente and Bach) a decisive element in his musical make up includes being given a cheap synthesizer as a teenager, and visiting Detroit club The Music Institute where the resident DJ was Derrick May. "I guess that's where electronic music really won me over" recalls Beltran, "where I developed my love for what people began to call Techno music. And it was weird, there was a true sense of underground, you'd go to small clubs in alleyways and strange places, but the vibe was so powerful it's something I've never seen or gotten since."
And of course Derrick May and Detroit's reading of Techno was something very different from the European versions of the music that followed it. Their Techno was produced by a bunch of drug free cats buzzing on Kraftwerk, Chicago House, electro and, at times, an almost mystical vision of their place in the history of American Black music. This was an intense music scene and Beltran's first record "Aquatic" released under the name Open House with its liquid chords, dolphin samples and deep house bassline was quickly snapped up by May cohort and fellow Detroit talent Carl Craig. " I played it to him on the phone" smiles Beltran, "and Carl said 'I want it'. That was my first release".
A couple of meaningless jobs and a growing collection of equipment pushed him towards writing his first LP 'Earth and Nightfall' released on R & S in 1995. "I dropped out for a while," he recalls. "I stopped writing music for a time. I got a job with Consumers Power educating people about energy conservation. My record collection is really diverse- it covers everything from solo piano stuff like George Winston, Latin and Salsa, even New Age- so when I started writing again I guess all those influences came through".
Didn't they. In many ways 'Earth and Nightfall' was a landmark album with its mixture of acoustic (guitar and human voice) and electronic sources, basslines from Chicago House, Detroits innovative beat sense, distinctive samples (like looping and mutating Bach's Orchestral Suite No 2) and ambitious song-eyele or fugue like structure. And all of these elements were subjugated to projecting a seemingly virtual 5 am, reflective or chill out state which became Beltrans keynote theme; all of his music is a dusk-dawn blues soundtrack for in between times, black coffee, red wine and cigarettes and the thread of urban romanticism runs through his music.
"That kind of thing is my life," reflects John. "I like simple things, simple pleasures. I don't need a lot of money. I'm not looking to have that mansion. I like sunsets, the morning light, chilling at my window in my bedroom or going out with my friends, drinking some wine and it really doesn't get any better than that for me, my music really is my life."
His second and third LPs, 'Ten days of Blue' and 'The Cry' released on Peacefrog (sometime home to Luke Slater and Fretless AZMs Max Brennan) marked a rhythmic progression from his debut album, as Beltran increased the breakbeat pressure and introduced spikier percussives. But these albums also saw him finessing his distinctive use of keyboard sound. If you listen to 'Ten days of blue' it's sometimes impossible to know if you're hearing a harp guitar, dulcimer or some synthesized version of these instruments. It's a teasing experience these sounds are at once calming and even blissful, but also sneakily alien and a touch unknown. "When I make melodies or patches or string and chord sounds I try and keep things as warm as possible. But I like using factory pre-set sounds, I like to go through keyboards looking for sounds, seeing what's there, I'm not so interested in making my own sounds maybe because I've got music flying through my head and I like to get on with it, look for sounds that express my feelings or emotions and get on with it. I'm always looking for that perfect sound or patch that will inspire something even better in me and help me rise to another level."
There aren't many artists that admit to using let alone even liking pre-set sounds. It's usually fashionable to generate your own and it's to Beltran's credit that he makes these pre-sets sound unique and personal. Beltran seems to have familiarized himself with the new language of rhythm: chopping and cutting breaks and essentially taking up the challenge of making music in a post drum 'n bass environment.
"I always want to progress as a musician. I like trendy things and I'm not going to lie. I love Detroit but I've been getting into all sorts of other things and I've tried to do it my way and keep my musical language intact". Not that he needs to justify himself, "Ten days of Blue" witnessed Beltran's dropping breaks before such a move was fashionable and anyway arch drum 'n bass hero Photek sampled his Aquatic tune for release on LTJ Bukem's Good Looking imprint.
Whatever the future may hold one thing’s for sure. Beltran will still be out there, experimenting, unafraid to try something new, maybe mixing it with something borrowed and something blue. And as always it will be a case of:
FADE OUT….DRIFT….FADE IN…..THEN BOP
exec05 Watercolour Dreams
Moving Through here (R & S)
The Cry (as Placid Angles) (Peacefrog)
Ten days of Blue (Peacefrog)
Earth and Nightfall (R & S )
The Sky EP No 2 (exceptional)
Earth and Nightfall (Synewave)
Aquatic ( Retroactive)
Tracks by John Beltran available on the exceptional Jukebox:
here to launch >>
Titles available on exceptional by John Beltran:
Americano - CD
Americano - Double LP
Watercolour Dreams - 12"
Caboclo - 12"
Human Engine - CD
John Beltran Press Cuttings:
7 Magazine - Sky EP
7 Magazine Americano
MixMag March 02
DJ Magazine Jan 02
DJ Magazine, Human Engine album review, Jan 07
One Week To Live, album review, Feb 07