Marc Francis was a 20-something DJ running around Philadelphia when he started making house music as Intergalactic Faerie Funk (IFF) in the late 90s. By the mid-2000s, after years of touring North America extensively and putting out a series of CDs and 12″ vinyl, Marc put IFF on indefinite hiatus to focus on other projects. Since moving to Montreal several years ago, he has re-established himself as a DJ with a long-running rock and blues-focused Friday night residency -- a far cry from his house roots.
But demand started to grow for those old IFF records, and last year, he was approached with an offer to re-release his music to satisfy a growing appetite for early-2000s house. The Levitate EP -- which features songs initially released in 2005-2006 -- came out in March on the NYC-based label Releisure, and to his complete surprise, Marc has found himself back in the house music world, resurrecting Intergalactic Faerie Funk for a new generation. He is back this month with another stellar EP called “Save The Robots“.
So let’s talk about this material that’s on the record “The Levitate”. When did you originally produce it?
The oldest songs are Ottawa and Levitate, I think they were from 1999. I was living in Philadelphia, where a lot of it was made, then I moved to San Diego and made a bit more.
And you lived in New York for awhile, too. You moved around a lot! Which house music scene did you identify with?
Philly, definitely. I started out DJing house music as DJ Hug, and I found a little place to play, a warehouse venue called Killtime, so I started throwing parties there. When I was planning the very first one, I came up with the somewhat silly name of “Intergalactic Faerie Funk” because whole scene was starting to take itself so seriously and I felt like I needed to push back against it. The parties were full of art and good music, with tons of malt liquor fueling everything. I kept the cover charge low, because it was the late 90s and raves had started moving to clubs from the warehouses and charging $30 to get in. They were rowdy parties, rowdy as fuck.
Aside from your parties, give me an idea of what the Philly scene was like back in the late 90s.
Philly was crazy. They had the big ridiculous raves, but there was also this club called Fluid, and a gay bar called the Black Banana which always had amazing music. Philly has an incredibly vibrant and important Black community, and their house scene at that time was just so great. I was going out a lot; my friends and I all had different nights, and we were definitely inspiring one another. Two of my friends were a duo called Flowchart: Sean O’Neal, who went on to make minimal techno as Someone Else, and Erin Anderson. They both had nights at this place called the 700 Club, where you could hear these no-beat tones or some guys just fiddling with an old Korg. We were just all in love with what the others were doing and would collaborate and play together. I remember one IFF show I did, Erin joined in onstage and DJ’d over me while Sean played loops. And I never sounded the same before or after that night.
That’s really interesting, what you said about never sounding the same before or after. It’s amazing how these smaller scenes can reverberate and everybody carries a part of it with them. What were you listening to in your day-to-day life that influenced your music?
As much as I part of the Philly house scene, going out and dancing to King Britt and Rob Paine and Hollis Monroe, at home I was listening to bands like Stereolab and I had also gotten really into the sound design of David Lynch films, so those were just as much on my mind when playing around with tones and textures. There was Beck… Johnny Fiasco… a guy called Funk D’void from Glasgow, who made really beautiful house music, but it seemed to be really fast, like 135-140BPM. Locally, Rob’s label was putting house music that was more dubby, and Hollis was putting out a lot of very soulful house.
I think there are two kinds of music that DJs and producers listen to in their day-to-day life: What you listen to the morning after a gig that reminds you of the previous night and you feel the energy; and the music that has nothing to do with what you spin or produce, it just speaks to you. So how were you able to apply that to your own music-making?
I was lucky to have this apartment for a time in Philly where I rented the second and third floors, but the first floor was an empty storefront that was basically mine as well. It was kind of a playground for me. There was enough space that I could have friends visit, and they would set up a tent and stay for two weeks. If I was out at a good club night and heard some beats or a ridiculous bassline, I would feel energized by that. But I’m going to bring up Stereolab again, because what I loved about them was that they could take one or two chords and make you get lost in them. That repetition… when you first hear it, your mind focuses on the actual loop, but the more it repeats, your mind starts to search for what’s in between those loops, and finally new sounds begin to reveal themselves, and that has always been such a part of my process. What I used to do in my home studio there was listen to one song for twenty-five minutes and find little parts, and augment little parts. Then I got to a point where I thought “Huh, maybe I should be recording all of this.” I had all these songs that could work, but it finally came together once I had moved out of that apartment on South Street and into a place that was much more conducive to focusing on music. You can’t really focus when you have friends showing up at 10 PM and staying til 8 AM.
What were the main instruments and tools you used to produce back then, and why did you choose them?
I started with a Roland MC-303 groovebox. It would play drumbeats from the inside, but I could set channels to external and use it to control the E-MU sampler, an ESI-32. The E-MU was great! There was this function that allowed you to combine two separate samples and create a new sound of out it, and I would just do that over and over until I landed on one that I liked. For playing live, I found an inexpensive second groovebox and bought another sampler, and I had a mixer in the middle, and I used them like two turntables. I’d load a floppy disc onto one and have the song going, and then I’d decide to go another way and load the other floppy in -- and have to wait two minutes -- and start mixing them like turntables. That all changed when I found Ableton, of course. I still use a sampler, but Ableton is like having forty of them.
You can travel lighter, too!
How did audiences react to your setup?
That was definitely something that would blow people away, whether they were gearheads or just, you know, high. I’d have a couple of grooveboxes with blinking lights, and I’d also bought an old gun case -- the type that was used to carry rifles -- because it could fit all the grooveboxes, and I’d sit it on top of the samplers, plus there was the mixer, and if I had a guest bassist, which was often, there would be all that gear. And the wires! There would be so many wires coming out of all the boxes: Power cords, midi going in, midi going through… I actually had a box that had one midi in and six going out. Most nights there would be a cluster of people at the front of the stage just staring -- either thinking “What the hell is all this?” or “Look at all the pretty blinking lights!”
In last 15 years, after IFF stopped being active but before this rerelease, it’s obvious that you were still focused on producing music, because you had other projects. How do you think your approach to producing has evolved over time? How has the way you used to make music informed how you’ve moved forward as a producer? How have your different projects influenced one another?
After IFF, I definitely moved away from four-on-the-floor house and embraced breaks and broken beat. But with the rerelease, I went back and listened to what I had done as IFF and could hear sounds in “Lantern Light,” in “Feather Forward”, the brokenness, the squelch, that I ended up exploring further in subsequent projects. And it’s fun, because it’s not something I set out to do at the time, it’s just a direction that my music took post-IFF because I wasn’t trying to make that kind of music anymore, yet in retrospect I can hear a direct connection.
House music was really on a downturn for awhile, and just in the last three or four years it’s really come back. The new kids are really into lo-fi production -- and I’m not saying you’re lo-fi, but there’s been a big return to analog…
I can relate to house again, that’s how I feel. It almost feels to me like “back to basics.”
Back to basics how? Simpler production?
Back to the good ol’ days. “Make House Great Again!” [laughs] No, no, I just feel like the decline of house music coincided with the rise of EDM, and so a lot of the music just wasn’t interesting to me.
And seeing some of your past releases in such high demand on Discogs, selling for a lot of money, how does it make you feel about how you produce? Because you’ve never stopped producing, right?
Actually, production-wise, in the last few years I had stopped. I don’t want to sound dramatic and say it dried up, but between how the scene has changed and how many years I had put into it, I felt like I wanted to do something different. And I did -- I’m a rock&roll DJ, which I never saw coming
Would it be right to say that your production, I think, benefited a lot from you just being in the right place at the right time? That all the cities you have lived in -- Philly, San Diego, Brooklyn, Montreal -- have shown up in your music?
Absolutely, and I should also mention another city: Toronto. As DJ Hug, I got booked to play this festival in Ontario called the Om Festival, and the second year they approached me, I asked if I could play the set as IFF. They agreed, and people were really into what I did. They kept booking me for years after that, and instead of going for one night, I’d just stay for 3, 4, 5 days and take in all the acts -- and they brought in some incredible artists, like Matthew Herbert, really early on. What I saw there had just as much influence on me as Philly or San Diego.
So all these years pass and you find yourself in 2018, and you’re approached by a guy who wants to reissue your old records. How did that happen?
I started getting messages via Bandcamp from people who wanted to buy vinyl copies of the Ottawa EP and the Green Couch EP. Over the years, I had just given them away to people, but as you mentioned, online they had started selling for quite a lot. And then one day I got an email from a guy in New York named Ivan who was launching this label, Releisure, and we began talking and I realized how committed he was. Levitate was supposed to come out last summer, but Ivan was very determined that the reissue sound better than the original, so we went through test pressing after test pressing and nothing sounded right. Ivan was getting pretty frustrated, so I gave him the name of the guy who worked on the original recordings, Tim Xavier from Man Made Mastering. He contacted Tim, who agreed to remaster the songs. It was a lovely little surprise! When the test pressing arrived, it was shocking how good it sounded. I thought to myself “Goddamn, I hear shit I forgot I put in there.”
Now that the record is out, you’re in a great state of mind. Have you had a moment in all of this where you’ve reflected on how this music you made over 15 years ago is being rediscovered and appreciated, and wondered how you can make the most of this opportunity? How is it making you feel about how you want to produce your new music?
There were about a half-dozen songs that were anywhere from near-finished to finished-at-the-time that I’ve been able to go over. When all this started last year, I found a spindle of 60 CD-Rs full of sounds I used to use when playing live, and I imported them all onto a laptop and have been cataloguing them. It’s led me to reassess songs that I thought were finished at the time, even if it just means adding a new note to build three more notes out of.
As far as new music, I’ve made three brand-new songs, and I have a bunch of new sounds that I’ve created in the old IFF tradition, and I’m just playing around with them to see if anything comes out of it. And if that isn’t enough, there are also a few old songs that Releisure is putting out as an EP for its fourth release.
You must be excited about that!
It’s amazing! I’m honestly shocked that all this is happening. I’m so happy and kind of blown away. I’m starting to play some live shows, and I bought a new piece of gear, an Arturia Beatstep Pro. After a lot of research, I determined that it can trigger my old E-MUs but also work with Ableton, because I still want to walk that path of the convenience of new technology but the unique sounds of those old E-MUs. There’s a sludgy “oomph” to them that makes me never want to let them go.
So you’re still committed to using the same sounds, the same tools that you did back in the day?
If something new came out that promised to accomplish the same things, I’d try it! But as a DJ who plays vinyl and digital, I know the digital aspect can do so much more, but that vinyl aspect allows me to keep a certain level of warmth. And those E-MUs, man…
I went shopping at this crazy electronic store that sells everything from Betamax tapes to MP3 players for cars, and even they didn’t have floppy discs. I had to find them online so I could continue to use my old samplers.
Looking back at your IFF catalogue, is there anything you would change about your production style?
There are two answers to that. The Green Couch EP was the closest I came to balancing the digital and analog in a way that worked for me. That was great for me and I would stick with that. On the other hand, there are definitely some questionable high-hats and some drum tracks that I would correct, even though they came off of a piece of analog gear. But is it worth it? It belongs to a certain time and place.
I can’t help but think, though, about a remix I did one of my own IFF songs years ago, as a separate project, and the remix has become the definitive version to me. The original was good… but when I went back to it a few years later with some better technology, with a fresh perspective, it became truly great. It just goes to show you that you never know when something’s time will come.
Order his new EP “Save The Robots” on Releisure here.