To the early trance adopters, the name of Solarstone might take them right back to dancefloor frenzy with the sounds of his biggest hits resounding, such as ‘Seven Cities’, ‘Solarcoaster’ and Scott Bond collab ‘Naked Angel’. But in between the creation of the Solarstone project – which initially started off as a trio - and today, an entirely new and musically evolved fanbase has come to life. Today, and for the past 10 years, Solarstone has been the project and life of Rich Mowatt. His distinctive, diverse and undeniably melody-driven sound continues to move today’s generation – united under the Pure Trance movement. Pure Trance is Rich’s very own record label, chain of worldwide events, radio show, and a home for those that love a good trance record – no matter the BPM. We had the privilege of asking Solarstone all about it.
Hey Rich, thanks for taking the time to have a chat with us. How’s your summer been?
Rich: Pretty hectic mostly, with a few traumatic episodes, like trashing my car and fracturing my ankle, but summer is actually only just starting in Wales. The best weather seems to usually happen in September these days and I’m going to be back home tomorrow after 2 weeks away in Rome & the USA, so hopefully the sun will be shining when I land in Manchester.
You’ve spent quite some time on the road, travelling from festivals to clubs and back. How do you balance your time in the studio and being on tour? Do you ever work on the go?
Rich: Producing on the MacBook is something I struggle with, I find headphones a very difficult place to create sounds and do detailed production – however I am able to transfer my projects from studio to MacBook so if there is a track which is at the arrangement stage, I can do that, but it doesn’t happen much. Things like the radio show and guest mixes are possible on headphones. It is bloody hard to keep things balanced, any busy DJ will tell you that. What’s most challenging though is actually having any time off – where most people who work 9-5 during the week get weekends off, I find myself DJing at the weekend and then it’s straight into the studio on Monday morning, then off again on the following Friday, with no tangible day off. Booking agents seem to face a similar work schedule, we always seem to be in work-mode. I mean, I’m writing this interview on a flight from Guatemala and Los Angeles when I could be sleeping!
Most people will know your name from some of the most legendary trance classics in the genre, such as ‘Seven Cities’ and ‘Solarcoaster’. Despite these tracks still rocking dancefloors today, does it sometimes bug you that the first thing a lot of people think about is something you’ve done more than 15 years ago instead?
Rich: To be honest with you, these days it is only people over a ‘certain age’ that mainly know me for those tracks, the new generation of fans are more aware of everything post ‘Pure’ (2012). The whole ‘resurgence of trance’ thing is based almost entirely upon a new generation of fans who are discovering trance for the first time, they don’t know or particularly care what happened in 1999 – and thankfully the opinions of aging journalists (who were there in 1999 and joined in the trance-bashing which ensued) are not of interest to those new fans either. It’s a new era, which I feel damned fortunate to be at the forefront of.
In fact, when comparing Solarstone around 2000 and Solarstone now, what is the biggest difference? How did your sound evolve and what are some of the things that haven’t changed?
Rich: There’s not much difference actually, other than experience. Musically I’m still interested in the same things; melody, emotion, being creative. I’m not sure my production methods have changed that much, it’s certainly easier and faster to produce music these days, that’s for sure, but I still write & produce in the same way, with similar, but in some ways better tools. Maybe my influences come from slightly different places now I’m older, maybe I approach things in a more focused and structured way… Looking back on Solarstone 2000 in those days I had no management, I did everything myself, these days I work with a small team of people, so that is certainly different. Also, it was written differently then – Solar Stone as opposed to Solarstone.
Solarstone used to be a trio, but you’ve been doing the project solo since 2006. Did that represent freedom to you mostly, or did it take some time to get used to it – facing the challenges of production alone?
Rich: Freedom is definitely the best part. Officially it’s since 2006 but a lot of Solarstone material from the period before that was almost entirely my work. The initial trio was fun for a short while, then as a duo with Andy it had its good points, but it went on way too long. I’ve found after conversations with other artists who were also the main, creative part of duos - that it’s a familiar story for one person to be doing most of the work where the other is more of a ‘sounding board’ for ‘whether or not something is good’ – and that situation is really bad news for a creative person. You start to doubt your own judgement. I shelved so many great ideas in that period because my ex-partner dismissed them as ‘not good’ – bear in mind this is someone who didn’t even like trance towards the end. We had some good times but I would never recommend that setup to anyone. Working with Giuseppe in PureNRG is completely different, we’re equal partners, we respect each other and we’re also friends – the fact that we’ve each been around for a while and have both experienced the ‘duo’ problem previously makes us both keenly aware that we have something special as PureNRG.
What a lot of people don’t know is the amount of pseudonyms you’ve used, from Young Parisians, to Liquid State and Z2. Why did you choose to do so?
Rich: Purely the issue of being signed exclusively to a label at the time. Pseudonyms can be useful if you’re experimenting with a different sound and don’t want to alienate your core fans, but otherwise, they just dilute your impact. Also, they can be a real pain in the arse when you are making artwork tiles for a record label and the artist is credited as ‘DJ Person & Other DJ presents Pseudonym featuring Random Female Singer’ – it looks a right bloody mess. Gabriel, Dresden & Jes had the right idea: ‘Motorcycle’. My pseudonym ‘Z2’ was created because the sound was tougher and more raw than Solarstone was at the time, and we wanted to release something on our own label ‘Deep Blue’ but Hooj Choons had exclusive rights to the name ‘Solar Stone’ then – despite refusing to release most of our music. ‘Young Parisians’ was supposed to be an 80’s sounding pop project, but ended up being regarded as a trance project because the mixes of the singles that blew up were all trance. There are a couple of unreleased Young Parisians singles actually that might see the light of day some time. There are a bunch of other names I used too for various reasons.
It feels like you’ve embraced that diversity by kicking off the Pure Trance movement. Despite being labelled trance, it really is much more than the average 138 BPM sound, isn’t it?
Rich: Pure Trance is nothing at all to do with the bpm of the music; it’s about the sprit that the music conveys, the way it makes the listener feel, and of course also the fact that there are no external influences from other genres taken on board. There are plenty of #138 tracks that have nothing to do with what Pure Trance is about. There are also releases by major artists – take Deadmau5 ‘Saved’ for example – that’s a Pure Trance record through & through. Countless records tagged as ‘Progressive House’ are undeniably Pure Trance records.
We’ve read somewhere in an interview that, right before starting Pure Trance, you were close to giving up on music. That must have been a tough period in your life?
Rich: Yes it was, the toughest, I was in a really hard, horrible place at that time. Everything was on the line, my music, my family & my health. It could have gone either way in all honesty and it was / is extremely hard work getting through it. Career-wise I’ve had several distinct ups and several distinct downs – these days having had those experiences I now know what to expect. I see artists regularly who, having had the initial blast of ‘Next Big Thing’, start to take a dip (having been replaced by the latest ‘Next Big Thing’) & seem to start to panic – or even worse, throw a social media outburst fuelled by a misguided sense of entitlement. But once that has happened and you can see it for what it truly is – a phase – you really start to appreciate the reality of this business. If you can get through the lows there’s (almost) always a high to look forward to – not just career-wise but that applies to life in general – but I guess everyone knows that, although having that knowledge doesn’t make experiencing it any less hard.
Let’s look ahead now, though! Pure Trance is one of the fastest growing movements in trance land. What, do you think, makes it as successful as it is? Has trance become ‘cool’ again or has the decrease of popularity in EDM made a big difference?
Rich: It’s actually really the only ‘movement’ in trance, because it’s not some genre that is ‘here today & gone-tomorrow’; it’s something way bigger than that. It’s a counter-culture if anything. I wouldn’t call this movement’s growth ‘fast’ either – to get to this point has taken 4 years! As for being ‘cool’ – I don’t think trance ever was. Trance isn’t cool, and it knows it isn’t – but doesn’t care – if there’s anything ‘cool’ about it, it’s that fact. If a style of music is ‘cool’ then it must have been ‘approved’ by the music fashion police – journalists etc. – the very same people who attempted to dismiss it by claiming in ‘uncool’ all those years ago. The word ‘Cool’ and ‘Trance’ are not good bedfellows, and are better off apart, in my opinion.
Back to the studio. What equipment do you have in the studio and which piece is indispensable? Which DAW do you use and which plugins are your favourites?
Rich: I’ve always been a Cubase man, all the way back to 1995 and the Atari ST. I use Ableton too for the radio show & mixes, but not for production – I can’t bear the look of it, all those little dots everywhere, it’s not a pretty thing. Cubase on the other hand is beautifully designed and easy on the eye. My studio is pretty streamlined these days, I’ve dispensed with most of the hardware over the years either because I stopped using it (outboard gear like compressors & FX) or I needed the money. A lot of things got sold around 2011! My favourite bits of hardware are my Virus Ti, my Nord and my guitars. My favourite bits of software are my UAD Satellite, my Sound Toys suite, Granite & the Fab Filter suite. For instruments, my Arturia things, Omnisphere 2 and my Native Instruments stuff. I’m not much a fan of having too many tools, I uninstall things that I don’t use – or understand! Hardware is creeping back in slowly, I miss the hands-on nature of it – I’ve been intending to buy a Native Instruments Control surface for a while to see if that makes the VST instruments more usable. Giuseppe & I were rinsing the Nord 4 on our latest track ‘Epic’ last week, it was so much more fun than clicking with a mouse, you can be so much more creative & expressive with physical knobs.
When you’re stuck with a certain track, or face writer’s block, what’s the thing that usually helps to overcome it?
Rich: Time away from it. I’m good with deadlines, if I need to get something finished then everything flows, but if I have time to procrastinate then it can be endless. Sometimes, though, it’s great to keep going back to something over a relatively long period – take the new Solarstone single ‘Herald’ for example – I played an early version of that 18 months ago, and kept going back to it over the following year, because until the version which is being released now, there was always something not-quite-right about it. It’s quite an unusual track, with a quirky time signature and unusual sound-palette, so it had to be ‘just-so’. It was changing the kick and bassline that finally cemented the thing together for me back in April – after more than a year! Having said all that, I’m now in the position where I have countless tracks which are ‘work-in-progress’ for the new album, with only 8 completely finished & mastered – because I’ve been ‘going back’ to too many tracks for too bloody long!
Are there any sample packs you like to use, or do you sample a lot of stuff yourself? How do you select sample packs, what’s the criteria?
Rich: I’m not a fan generally, but I do use the occasional sample. It’s probably because I built up such a huge archive of my own sounds over the years that when I’m looking for something like a Fill or a Sweep or something unusual, I just trawl through my own archive to find something that can be processed. I spent a huge amount of hours over the years creating sound, grooves etc. that I don’t need to rely on sample packs. I’m not dissing them at all, I totally get why artists use them, but it is so much fun creating your own sounds I think many producers don’t have that skill, which is a shame. From another angle though, It’s disheartening when I get official releases – often from big names – which use identical sounds to each other from well-known sample packs. I want my music to sound unique, to sound like Solarstone – not like Dave Parkinson (bless him) or whoever. Dave Parkinson’s sample packs are amazing for sure, he is a very talented guy – but there seems to be a whole section of trance producers now who all sound exactly the same, because they use the same sample packs! I can’t tell the difference between most of them, to be honest. I think a healthy balance is the answer.
Is there a particular track of yours that you’re most proud of? Which one and why?
Rich: Not really, I tend to get the most excited about the unreleased stuff I have coming up – seeing the reaction of people in the clubs when they first hear them. Once something is ‘out there’ it’s no longer my own, everyone has an opinion then. If I did have to pick one that stands out I’d probably say ‘Lovers’ – purely for the fact that it’s one of the few complete songs that I’ve written and which have been released. I usually manage a chorus or verse then struggle lyrically with the rest, but ‘Lovers’ practically wrote itself. That’s the great thing about hard times – they can be very inspirational for artists! All of my best songs are the result of either falling in love, infatuation or utter heartbreak.
Last but not least, we’d love to know - what’s coming up in Solarstone land in the next few months?
Rich: Pure Trance Vol. 5 soon, and then the new Solarstone album early next year, those are the biggies!
Thanks again for the interview, Rich – keep it Pure!
Rich: Will do.