‘I’m always trying to add a little twist’: Talking Tech with Fort Romeau

It’s been a decade since Mike Greene released his first solo album into the world. The tracks that formed Kingdoms were written on the road while he was touring as part of La Roux, and became the springboard for Mike to continue his musical journey under the guise of Fort Romeau.

The inimitable 100% Silk was the home of that debut, and since then his stirring blend of sounds that include, but are not limited to, house, electronica, techno and ambient, has formed releases for an enviable list of labels. We’re talking the likes of Running Back, Permanent Vacation, Live At Robert Johnson and Spectral Sound, and that’s not to mention his long-running partnership with Ghostly International – the home of his newest long player Beings of Light – and musings on his own Cin Cin imprint, run alongside Ali Tillett.

As the sonics on Beings of Light freshly ring out, Mike takes us on a tour of his bedroom studio and tells us about the importance of flexibility, working with the gear you have and not comparing your music to others.

Beings of Light is out now on Ghostly International.

What’s your musical education?

Nothing really formal, I started to teach myself how to play guitar around age 13, then started using Cubase on an old desktop PC to record guitar loops and just mess around with sounds. There was a free modular synth VST, I can’t remember the name of it, and that was really the first time I tried using any kind of synthesiser. Obviously I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

Then later when I went to university I studied Music and Visual Art together, but this was really far more about sound art and fine art than music in any traditional sense, but I was also making my own tracks and playing some keys at the time. After that I was playing in the band La Roux – the band got so popular so quickly that I was really learning a lot of stuff about playing and organising big shows tours right off the bat. At the same time I was always making my own tracks on tour on a laptop, and those are what became my first LP. 

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

It’s really not too much different from how it is now. Well OK I have a few more boxes, but obviously the main thing is the computer. The first bits of equipment I bought were the Yamaha TX7, which is a tabletop version of the DX7 – I’ve owned a couple of DX7s in the past but they are so big and heavy that it’s just so much easier with the sound module version. Also one of the DX7s I had set on fire once so that kind of put me off a little bit from buying another one! Then there is the Moog Minitaur, which I use for lots of my bass sounds. Those two are the real constants across all the music I’ve made, with other things coming and going over the years. 

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

I guess a Marshall JCM 800 which I bought when I was a teenager playing guitar a lot, but in terms of electronic music equipment I think it was a DX7 – if you don’t count the computer, which was definitely the first.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

Well things really come and go. I’ve owned lots of different pieces of gear, some really coveted things like an MPC60 and nice polysynths like a Juno 106 and Polysix, but as I like to move around a lot, it becomes really inconvenient to own these big beats, that’s why I tend to prefer sound modules.

I have to say the main ones these days are the TR8 – because although it’s a little ugly, its just so quick and convenient for all your bread and butter Roland sounds. I don’t like to lean on them raw too much as it’s just too boring, but I really love the Roland open hats particularly. It’s so much quicker to just record a long pass with some small variations than laboriously go through and tweak the velocities and decay times on the computer.

It’s not very flashy, but really the big workhorse for me is the UAD Apollo and the 2 X satellites that I have. I’m very much plugged into the UAD plugin ecosystem, hence having 12 cores of DSP to run it. They make emulations of all the classic mixing gear which I really love and use all the time on every production. 

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

It’s in my bedroom at the moment so very private! I’ve had home studios and big proper rooms in the past. I moved out of a big studio space just before Covid with the idea of moving house and setting up somewhere new but that hasn’t happened yet with the endless pandemic situation. Having it in your home has pros and cons definitely, I can’t decide which is better to be honest. 

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

Well as it’s in my bedroom right now it has to be as compact as possible. Saving space, at the moment, trumps ergonomics. But even in bigger studio spaces I’ve rented over the years the big one that always gets me is the furniture, it’s so ugly! Finding a nice antique unit to hold your rack gear is no easy feat let me tell you. 

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

It’s gradual and always changing, I’ve bought and sold a lot of things over the years. For example the Eurorack stuff, I go through phases where I hate it and think it’s a massive waste of time and money and sell all the modules and then six months later buy them all back haha. It’s fun and it looks cute but honestly it doesn’t represent value for money, so if it’s a hobby that’s cool or if you have some hyper specific ideal for a system then it works, but otherwise I think for most people it doesn’t make sense from a productivity standpoint. The only thing I can’t really do without is the Moog, I have all the VSTs and emulations but the real thing just always sounds bigger and better. 

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

Yeah like I said it changes alot, usually I find that a piece of gear will gift you a few new tracks, and then usually I get bored. I got the little Elektron Cycles FM box recently which is great fun and has a fantastic sequencer, but I’m not sure how much I’ll use it in the long run, so instead of having a load of gear I’m not using, I would rather get rid of it. Same thing happened with the MPC60, amazing iconic piece of gear that loads of people think they want, but really the practicality of using it in the modern age just didn’t make sense for me – I didn’t want to keep it around as just a fancy paperweight so I sold it. 

If money were no object what would you add?

It would be a well restored, early run Minimoog and I would also like a Maestro EP3 and or a Binson Echorec. These are sounds that I use constantly and at this point they would always find a place in my productions so I would be confident in adding them if I really fancied splashing out. 

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

It’s not very romantic but the Apollo Interface, it gives me access to all the UAD plugs which I would really miss a lot. 

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

I’ve always had the habit of just spending all day non stop making tracks, but these days I’m trying to change it and not force it when I’m not in the mood, as I really think it’s not a productive way of doing things and honestly isn’t good for your mental health. I generally work best during a very small window of time between around 4pm and 9pm, unless I’m trying to mix or do something a bit more technical and problem solving, then it has to be early before I’ve really listened to any music at all – the first 15 minutes is the most important time in that scenario. 

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

It’s a mixture and it depends what I’m working on. With remixes I usually have an idea about what to do before I even say yes to doing one, sometimes it changes but if I don’t have an ideal immediately when I listen to it, usually it’s very hard for me to come up with something. When I’m doing an LP there’s more of a vibe or context in which I’m working, so then it tends to be more focused. A lot of the time though I will just be messing around looking for some idea to present itself.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

I totally flip flop between the two. With some tracks I’ll be really bothered about small details and pull my hair out trying to fix them, but other times I am way more lazy and if the general idea or vibe is working then I don’t worry too much. There’s a lot of common arrangement and production “tricks” that are prevalent in electronic music that I very rarely do and this is often just as much about laziness with details as it is a wilful choice!

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

I think the best thing to do in this case is try something new. Just doing the same old things over and over it’s very easy to get in a rut. I think that’s why I like to try out lots of different equipment or plugins etc. I find that the best work comes from facilitating as many accidents as possible. 

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Loads of things. I’m probably more inspired by images, movies and art than music, particularly electronic music because I find it really counter productive to compare what I’m doing to anyone else, I just really don’t see what’s to be gained by doing that. I mean maybe once the tracks are made and you want to check some more technical reference points, but even then I’m not sure its hugely helpful, if the goal is to create your own music. If you’re just looking to make say pure “genre” music then maybe its helpful, but I’m always trying to add a little twist to things to make them my own. 

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new release, and why?

In terms of hardware, the Minitaur and TR8 were used the most used. In software, maybe the Roland Juno 106 plugin. Honestly the one thing that makes a big difference for me is modulating and routing LFOs to almost everything. With this LP I wanted there to be only as many sounds as were absolutely required, rather than filling the space with too much stuff, which is easy to do, so it becomes more and more important for each sound to modulate over time, even if it’s very subtle. I think the track where this process is most noticeable is on ‘Ramona’. There is a lot of modulation of the sounds and effects perimeters which are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the character and dynamics of the sounds. 

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

Well the prospect of DJing and hopefully traveling again after a long break is the main thing! I’ve also got some more music and releases on my label Cin Cin, so lots to keep busy with! 

Beings of Light is out now on Ghostly International.

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