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Apollonia: The Kings of the White Isle chat the revolution of the underground

Apollonia are the gods of groovy, stripped-back underground house music. The French trio — consisting of Dan Ghenacia, Shonky and Dyed Soundorom — have been slowly but surely bringing the sound of the after-party to the biggest rooms and stages on the planet. DJ Mag joins the Apollonia brotherhood for an extended stay in Ibiza to talk boats in Paris, the evolution of the underground, DC-10 family, the golden age of electronic music, long-lasting friendship, living for the weekends, and much, much more...

It’s late May 2017 in Ibiza, and the end of a long week of opening parties on the island. Shortly after Apollonia close the terrace on the first night at Hï — the all-new White Isle superclub opened on the former site of Space — Shonky, of the French DJ trio, is hosting an after-party at his apartment in the hills overlooking Talamanca Bay just outside Ibiza Town. He’s been spinning for hours with his Apollonia band-mate, Dyed Soundorom, on the set-up on his dining table — made up of two Technics 1210s and a DJR 400 portable rotary mixer from Parisian audio design company E&S.

Work by American artists Jim Dine and Georgia O’Keeffe adorn the walls, while a small collection of close friends sit outside on scatter-cushions soaking up the sun that’s risen high above Dalt Vila in the distance. Vinyl litters the area surrounding Shonky and Soundorom, and both smile as they dance to the hypnotic ‘Where Do I Go’ from mysterious ‘90s Chicago house producer, Gemini. Watching them spin, it’s clear — even 20 years into their love affair with deep and trippy minimalist house music — that their desire to play hasn’t wavered.

“It’s always an important moment for us to be back on the island,” Soundorom beams as he sits down during a break from the decks. “It’s the time that you can finally take off your jacket, grab your mojito and enjoy the parties again. The vibe at the opening events is very special, and we’re excited because there are more big gigs coming.”

Openings began exactly a week previously for the Apollonia trio at DC-10’s Monday shindig, CircoLoco, at the beginning of a summer that follows the year they became kings of the White Isle — loved by the underground while conquering the island’s most cavernous spaces.

Forming their three-piece back-to-back-to-back DJ outfit and label in 2012, made up of Shonky, Dyed Soundorom and Parisian house stalwart Dan Ghenacia — who each had formidable individual careers before forming Apollonia — the trio are long-serving residents of CircoLoco, a bastion of the underground on the island.

But last year saw what once might have seemed unthinkable happen, with their alternative sound of Ibiza taking over the main rooms. Booked by Marco Carola’s Music On to play Amnesia’s famous Terrace for six dates throughout the summer, they also span at ANTS at Ushuaïa Beach Club. And this year looks set to be even bigger, with an all-night-long gig planned for July at Hï, as well as more dates booked to play extended sets at Music On — alongside, of course, regular bookings as part of the DC-10 family.

Ahead of CircoLoco’s opening party, DJ Mag sat down with the trio at the Fish Shack — the back-to-basics restaurant hidden away at the end of Talamanca Beach that’s a favourite with island regulars. “For us, the mission was always to bring the after-hours sound we play to the biggest rooms,” Ghenacia explains as he sips a glass of wine, looking across the water. “But without compromising our taste. It was complicated to export what’s been happening at DC- 10 to different clubs, and it takes time, as what we’re doing is different to playing loops and effects to rock the dancefloor, so it was a slow evolution.”

“We loved to party at places like Amnesia,” Shonky interjects. “But always dreamt about hearing the music we love there.” And that’s a dream that’s become a full-on reality for the trio. “I could never see the evolution that’s happened now, though,” Ghenacia smiles. “That the music would become so big.”

IBIZA

All three members of Apollonia now call Ibiza home for the summer months, and say the island may be more relevant to electronic music than ever before. “There’s an intensity in the clubs in Ibiza that exists in only a few places in the world,” Ghenacia explains over dinner. “It’s very influential at the minute, but it also has a strong commercial image, which means it’s easy for people to hate if they’ve never been to the island. But once you come here, you get it.”

It’s not just Apollonia that have emerged from the underground in Ibiza this summer. Cocoon welcomes the likes of Raresh, Rhadoo, Nastia, Sonja Moonear and Zip, while Unusual Suspects has locked Thomas Melchior, Ion Ludwig, Mandar and DeWalta in a season bringing many names not closely associated with Ibiza to the island.

Underground, the long- standing haven for more minimal house and techno alongside DC-10, also has arguably its strongest season in some time, with residencies from tINI & The Gang, Raresh and Rhadoo, as well as performances from Praslea, Mathew Jonson, Molly and more. Being in Ibiza this summer, it’s clear the underground has truly taken over.

Apollonia’s road to becoming mainstays on the island didn’t happen overnight, however. Far from it. With the trio having known, partied and played together for almost two decades, one of electronic music’s most enduring relationships started at a small but seminal after-party in Paris — the city they all used to call home — in the late ‘90s.

It was there that Ghenacia played as a resident at the now-famous Kwality after-party on a small red boat permanently docked on the River Seine called La Batofar. It was here that he would spin to a small, tight-knit community on the venue’s intimate dance floor, a party that would still be going strong come the venue’s close at midday.

At the time, French touch was morphing into filter house, and the likes of Daft Punk and Cassius reigned supreme. But the deep and trippy house that selectors like Ghenacia, as well as Jef K, Jerome Pacman, D’Julz and DJ Sonic were playing at the same time began to permeate Parisian dancefloors.

Dyed Soundorom was then running PR for the club Les Bain Douches — where Ghenacia also played — and met Shonky as a club-kid while running the door there, before taking him to see the Kwality resident at La Batofar.

“I first went as Dan’s biggest fan,” Shonky laughs. “We went every fortnight as it was special what was happening there, and a different way of playing: deep house in the realest sense, but because of the system it had an energy I’d never heard from it before.”

La Batofar paved the way for the continuing trend of parties on a boat we’re still seeing in Paris today, led by the jewel in the crown of the French capital’s current house and techno scene, Concrete. But the music being played at the Kwality parties also forms the blueprint of the sound Apollonia still play today, immortalised by the ‘Kwality Batofar’ compilation, which demonstrates that the music the French DJs were playing at the time had one foot (if not more) rooted firmly in the sound of US house music.

LA BATOFAR 

Before starting his Kwality residency in 1998, Ghenacia had just returned from living in San Diego, where he moved to learn to speak English. There he would meet Mark E. Quark, who was working as the buyer at a record store in the city. He would serve as Ghenacia’s mentor, introducing him to mixing the sounds of deep and druggy house music coming from Californian labels like Grayhound Recordings, and soundsystems like the Wicked Crew, with music from Chicago house imprints like Cajual Records and Guidance Recordings.

“It was funky, freaky and psychedelic,” Ghenacia says affectionately of the music. When he returned to Paris he opened Traffic Records, where he peddled the deep house he brought back to the city. “You couldn’t buy music on the internet at the time,” he continues. “So record shops were the only place you could get the music.”

He’d start mixing his US influences with English labels like Music For Freaks and 20/20 Vision at La Batofar, and the party would often carry on elsewhere after the venue closed — and it’s there the trio would first spin together. “What we’re doing now, we used to do in an apartment for hours at an after-party,” Soundorom explains. “It’s just more people are listening now.”

And the music they’ve come to represent encapsulates the sound the three artists have played through their history, mixing the deep house of La Batofar with newer, techier cuts. All of this music — whether it be stripped-back house with punchy kicks, druggy rhythms and intricate percussion, or peak-time tracks from their sphere more  fitting for Ibiza’s main rooms — falls loosely under the tech- house banner, despite it becoming a dirty word in recent years.

“I have no problem with the phrase,” Ghenacia smiles. “We say we play quality tech-house, though. Just the good ones,” he laughs. And something the trio keep returning to when they talk about the music they play is maintaining a focus on the dance floor. “We like to party and we like to dance, so we want to see people on the floor enjoying the music and giving a good reaction,” Shonky adds. “There’s no point in playing the best new record you bought that week if you feel you’re going to lose half the crowd.”

The trio all agree that the space and system also directs the music they play. “You learn that you might have an ideal world, but tracks don’t sound the same everywhere,” Ghenacia explains. “You have to adapt yourself to the system, and learn to know what you need to play to make a space work.”

It’s this ability that led to Marco Carola giving them the honour of staffing Amnesia’s hallowed Terrace for their series of all-night-long dates last summer, a booking that surprised many when it was originally announced. “Maybe on paper it looked a bit weird that we got booked for Music On,” Ghenacia says. “But Marco figured out that we’re good at longer sets, so they gave us the space to play — as they knew we’d deliver.”

The balance between long and short slots in bigger and smaller spaces on the island is what they say is best for their dynamic as a trio. At DC-10, they are usually tasked with playing individual sets of 90 minutes, whilst at Music On — where they also played the after-party at Cova Santa last summer — they could spin together for up to 17 hours across both venues.

“That was the cherry on top of the cake last year,” Shonky smiles. “If we stay for that long, it’s the sign of a good club. We’re not like Duracell bunnies, just running for hours, but if the party has an intensity and vibe, it’s nice to have those long sessions.”

ROMANIA

Before the week of Ibiza’s opening parties, DJ Mag met Apollonia in Romania in late April, where they’re at Sunwaves to play an all-night-long set at a festival famed for its DJ marathons, with a line-up of selectors from the minimal house and techno scene that are well versed in extended performances. “The common thing they have with us is that they all love to play a journey,” Shonky says as he relaxes in his apartment ahead of the show. “They like to move from point A to point B, which is a shift that can last for a long time.”

Despite long sets usually being reserved for the more discerning end of the dance floor, there’s something universal about Apollonia’s all-night-long stints. When the trio did their BPM Festival live stream in January, concurrent viewing  figures peaked at just over 9,000 while live — more than NASA gained for their moonwalk — and total 497,000 views at the time of writing.

“What we do is versatile,” Shonky continues as he sits in front of a window looking out over the festival site. “We play with the groove, and that’s what we try to transmit to make people dance. At first you must capture the crowd, but once you’ve done that, you have more time to experiment and express yourself.”

Apollonia spin right through until morning at Sunwaves which, despite their love of extended sets, clocks in at a grueling 11 hours. But Shonky says that often DJing to a tough crowd for a short length of time is harder than a long set to a responsive dance floor. “Marco [Carola] is the marathon man, though,” he laughs. “He does what we do between three of us on his own!”

Back on the island, DJ Mag meets Apollonia again at DC-10 after they play CircoLoco’s opening party, where Soundorom and Ghenacia spin b2b on the iconic club’s packed-out Garden, with a set that mixes their bouncier, more percussive side with playful interjections of tracks like Wildchild’s ‘Renegade Master’. Shonky, charged with controlling the Terrace as the sun goes down outside, opts for techier club tracks that give the venue’s revered Void Acoustics system an early season work-out.

The trio first visited the venue in 2000, after Ghenacia played Ibiza for the first time at the opening year of David Guetta’s F*** Me I’m Famous party. While on the island he first encountered Tania Vulcano at DC-10 — dubbed the First Lady of CircoLoco.

“I realised we had a chance when I came here,” Ghenacia says as he relaxes back-stage. “When I saw Tania playing, I had that feeling because of the music. DC-10 isn’t for everyone, but for DJs playing a deeper sound, it’s the club that gave an opportunity to express yourself in front of a lot of people.” Ghenacia went on to meet Vulcano, and would give her a copy of the ‘Kwality Batofar’ compilation when it was released in 2002. “They called me the week after and asked me to play,” he smiles. Ghenacia played twice that year, including at the closing party, before becoming a more regular fixture the following summer.

In 2004, they told him whenever he was on the island, he could play the club. On that premise, Ghenacia moved to Ibiza for the season, becoming an early resident at CircoLoco. Soundorom was the next of the Apollonia trio to play the club, at the end of 2009, before Shonky began to become part of the family in 2011.

“The idea was that they didn’t want to have a star DJ, but residents instead,” Ghenacia continues. “But then they became bigger. DC-10 helped develop a style which now represents the evolution of clubbing, and for that reason it’s one of the most important clubs in the world to help underground music grow.”

UNDERGROUND

And the surge of Apollonia has come in the middle of a boom for the entire underground electronic music scene. The quality and breadth of house music has arguably not been as strong since the trio’s formative years in the late ‘90s, whilst the industry continues to grow at an alarming rate.

“Everything is getting bigger,” Ghenacia explains. “There’s more huge parties, and the underground is very strong and very underground again. And people aren’t just into one sound any more. Before, one style would be on top — like electroclash or minimal was — but now there’s space for everybody, and a lot of genres are more stable and have a scene because of that. We’re in the middle of le âge d’or [the golden age].”

The trio stay into the night at CircoLoco, with Shonky seen lifting his shirt over his head in the booth behind DVS1 in the main room long after the end of his set, and the trio playing charades with Joseph Capriati in the office at the back of the venue in a moment of downtime. “The opening party is a big reunion,” Ghenacia smiles. “We know all the doormen, bartenders, drivers, it’s a family here. It’s always good to feel at home in such a big club, and being here means the season is open for us.”

It’s being residents at DC-10 that served as a springboard for Apollonia to become some of the biggest stars on the underground scene. During the opening party a fan shows the trio a tattoo of their logo that she’s had emblazoned on her forearm, while in the booth there’s barely room to move as they spin. “Openings isn’t a time to bring vinyl,” Ghenacia laughs. But they still say it’s something that’s vital to the party. “You have to learn to manage the stress, because it’s about the vibe, there’s no good party without that.”

Later in the week we meet at another of their favourite spots on the island, La Tana. The small Italian restaurant lies just outside Dalt Vila’s walls in Ibiza Town, and as the trio laugh and chat there it’s clear that friendship is the key element that lies at the heart of their success.

“You can’t play for 10 hours with someone you don’t like,” Soundorom says as he drinks a Peroni. “We see each other a lot. It’s not like we just play together as work, we spend time together outside gigs too, and that makes a huge difference. We wouldn’t have done as much as we have if it didn’t work like that.”

They agree they never argue too. “We just don’t have that side to our relationship,” Ghenacia smiles. “We are conscious that a lot of what we do is about the vibe between us. If we have an argument, it will kill that. But it’s very easy. We don’t have to make an effort.”

They live just walking distance from each other on the island, with the Fish Shack, where we met earlier in the week, the halfway point between them. And it’s in that laid-back environment that any Apollonia meetings tend to take place through summer.

“We’re conscious that it’s a blessing to be where we are, as there’s a lot of competition,” Ghenacia explains. “So we’re professional and have serious conversations to make sure everybody is happy before making any decisions and share ideas.”

As the trio eat, they are more than happy to have their dinner interrupted by passing fans asking for photos, and it’s clear they have adopted Ibiza as their second home.

Shonky — who, like Soundorom, spends the winter in Berlin — recently bought his apartment on the island, whilst Ghenacia, who moves to a new house mid-way through opening week, also throws a regular beach party in Ibiza through the winter months. Much like they know every member of staff at DC-10, they know every waiter in the restaurants we visit through the week — the island is very much part of their makeup.

The friendship Apollonia is built on is what they owe much of their career to. Before embarking on the project, Ghenacia ran his seminal Freak n’ Chic imprint along with French DJ/producer David Duriez. It would press the debut EPs of Jamie Jones, David K, Sebastien Bouchet and Djebali, and it was through the label both Shonky and Soundorom would both see their first material released too.

Around the same time, Ghenacia started the T Agency to support artists around him. “It was a DIY thing,” he explains over dinner. “There was a lot of friends sharing the same passion in Paris, so I wanted to make it fast and easy for our crew.”

After a falling out between Freak n’ Chic’s investors, the label folded, and the concept of Apollonia rose from its ashes.

The agency morphed into Lola ED — which has gone on to represent established artists including Chris Carrier, D’Julz and Terence :Terry:, as well as newer names likes Diego Krause and Traumer — and with it, Ghenacia established himself as something of a mogul of quality French house music and the artists that circulate its sphere, looking after a significant proportion of the scene.

Shortly after, in November 2011, Cassy invited them to play together at her birthday party at Panorama Bar, where they would realise their loose rule of one record at a time — starting with Ghenacia, then Shonky and then Soundorom. “We realised having that discipline worked better,” Ghenacia explains.

“When we play now, we can have drinks or a quick chat, but the fact that there’s a certain rhythm means you know your time is coming.”

Following that, Apollonia was formalised as a DJ trio at Lola ED’s party at the next Amsterdam Dance Event, where selectors on the agency played to represent their labels — Le Loup and Seuil span as Hold Youth, Djebali as his eponymous imprint, and Ghenacia, Soundorom and Shonky under the banner of their new label. With it, the band was born.

APOLLONIA (THE LABEL)

Right from the beginning, their label has been a musical melting pot of the minimalist house music the trio spin, and has now established itself as a buy-on-sight imprint amongst discerning selectors. But Ghenacia says times have changed since his Freak n’ Chic days. “You can’t live solely from a record label now,” he tells DJ Mag. “But it’s a good way to show the music you represent and create a brand for your gigs. Because sales aren’t crazy, there’s less financial risk, which gives you more freedom to run weird and obscure music.”

Early releases saw Ghenacia and Shonky’s ‘Close To The Edge’, a pseudo anthem on an underground scene that doesn’t operate on a hit formula, as well as a repress series featuring Point G’s classic ‘Underwater’ and Kerri Chandler’s ‘Sunday Sunlight’. More recent releases have seen iO (Mulen) with his ‘Letters & Numbers’ EP and Shonky’s ‘Tyrolien’ EP.

“We want to make sure we don’t follow the same style,” Soundorom says of the label. “So people are prepared that Apollonia (the label) can have an element of surprise. Our only rule is that it has to fit into our DJ set, whether that be warm-up, peak-time, late-night or at an after-party — we have to want to play it.”

It’s clear that the Apollonia project has created a renaissance in their careers. “That’s how it works in this scene,” Ghenacia smiles as he finishes his pasta. “When you reach a certain point, it’s very difficult to jump to the next step. If you’re still there after 10 years, you have to do something to become bigger.”

And they say the energy of watching three friends together on stage has played a huge part in their resurgence. “It’s entirely different to seeing one guy play,” Ghenacia beams. “It isn’t intentionally a show when we’re joking around on stage, but it’s how it comes across.”

Returning to the theme of balance, the trio agree that recently midweek has become their solo time, where they take days apart and hit the studio. Shonky keeps his in Berlin, where Soundorom is also currently adapting his own to incorporate more analogue gear, while Ghenacia is building a small set- up in Ibiza to compliment his main studio in Paris. Their last joint production was Apollonia’s ‘Tour À Tour’ album that landed in 2014, but since then they’ve developed a new b2b2b production method where they work remotely and move the production between them.

“It’s a very Apollonia way of working,” Shonky observes as the bill arrives. “We’re experimenting to see if it works in the same order as we play, but it’s interesting as when you’re alone in the studio you can completely release yourself, which gives more feeling in the music. When you listen to the tracks we have so far, you can really hear a bit of each of us in them.”

The trio plan on road-testing the material they’ve been working on through summer, before deciding on three tracks for an EP they hope to release in early 2018. But there’s plenty of new material landing in the meantime, with Shonky’s ‘Tyrolien’ followed by five remixes by Ghenacia and Carrier, including a rework of Guti’s ‘This Must Be The Future’ and Madrid Inc’s ‘My Sunday’s Love’, whilst next up on Apollonia is Laser’s ‘Body’ EP, a repress of an Italian rarity from the ‘90s that lands in July.

The morning after we meet, the trio board a flight off the island to play solo gigs before hitting the UK together to spin on Saturday night at We Are FSTVL. It’s that circuit that they feel offers them their next big challenge. Alongside Sunwaves, the trio played the inaugural edition of Marco Carola’s Music On festival at the beginning of May, as well as having established themselves as regulars at BPM Festival and Time Warp.

“We’re three years into that network now, and that’s where we have to build a lot,” Ghenacia explains. “We didn’t know the limit of our music until we played in front of an audience of 10,000 people, but when we realised it worked, we were super-happy.”

The night after We Are FSTVL the trio are back on the island to close the main room at Hï’s opening party. Playing together in a booth with more space than they were afforded at DC-10, the trio seem at ease as they let loose while working the stacks with their minimalist tech-house. The 20 years it’s taken Apollonia to conquer the island’s biggest venues maintains a realness to them as individuals, as they haven’t lost the essence of what made them who they are.

The bottom line is that Apollonia is a brotherhood built on a love of digging for house music in its purest form. It’s taken them from masters of the after-party to the world’s biggest stages.

“Sometimes when you know a new record is good, I just wait to see their faces when I play it as it still gives us a buzz,” Shonky smiles at the after-party at his apartment following Hï’s opening. “But that’s because we’re party people. I caught the nightlife virus at an early age, and then I was fucked,” he laughs. “Even after a huge weekend, by Thursday we’re always ready to go back, as 20-years later the weekends are still the most important thing in our lives.”

 

Want more? Check out DJ Mag’s feature on the French house renaissance and watch Apollonia’s short tour documentary from December last year below.

(Pics: Tasya Menaker)

Rob McCallum is DJ Mag’s deputy digital editor. Follow him on Twitter here.