Light on the Horizon

How a chance meeting between Tristan Jong & Robert Owens led to a house anthem for optimists

Words By Alex Rennie
Photos By Mario Heller

Every record tells a tale. However, once in a while one comes along with a timely message and brilliant backstory to boot. Brighter Future – Tristan Jong’s debut release under the name Gratts – has bags of both.

After a chance encounter with dance music legend Robert Owens on a Kreuzberg street, the two ended up going to work. The result? A dazzling house track born of 2020’s woes that’s at once deeply nostalgic and unashamedly forward-thinking. Here’s how it came about…

I’ll be your friend

We link up with Tristan and Robert on a dismal Thursday afternoon. Berlin autumn is in full swing as we seek refuge in The Consulate, Tristan’s office-cum-studio nestled in a quiet Kreuzberg hinterhof. Shutting the door on the storm brewing outside, the vibe is instantly chilled. Tristan makes us at home, offering around soft drinks and snacks, whilst Robert looks completely zen amongst the floor-to-ceiling shelves brimming with Tristan’s vinyl.

Though our two protagonists have two very different histories, they’re both seasoned artists who share a love for house music. Tristan has been in the business for 20 years. Having started out DJing back in his native Belgium, he’s since played gigs all over the world, releasing a slew of tunes under different aliases, though never under his main moniker, Gratts (we’ll come to that later).

For many a dance music aficionado, Robert needs no introduction. Often lauded as the voice of house, the Ohio-born artist first found fame alongside Larry Heard and Ron Wilson with Fingers Inc. back in 80s Chicago. Since then his career has seen him produce and feature on a number of heavy-hitters, including early classics like ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ and ‘Bring Down The Walls’, as well as Photek’s noughties smash ‘Mine to Give’.

Before the interview gets underway, it’s clear Robert and Tristan are very comfortable in each other’s company. We sit for a while, trading pandemic war stories and catching up, something that only adds to the relaxed atmosphere. In fact, when we do eventually reach the prepared questions, it comes across more like a chat between old pals than an interview with two established musicians.

The story starts with both charting how they landed on Berlin’s shores. Tristan moved here in 2013, citing a reason familiar to many adopted Berliners. “I had no idea what I was doing,” admits the Belgian. He came to visit a friend and never left, drawn to the city’s (then) cheap rents, marathon club sessions, and free spiritedness. Now settled with kids and long-term partner Emma (aka DJ-producer Eluize), Tristan reveals that “moving to Berlin was an escape”. “I didn’t have to think about real life, I could just play gigs and go clubbing,” he adds.

Robert’s arrival in 2015 was borne out of necessity. After falling out of love with London, the US house stalwart needed to find somewhere central so he could fulfil a busy schedule of European dates. “It was a toss up between Berlin and Paris,” says Robert, “it just boiled down to knowing more people here, I knew nothing about the city. When I first got here I was just walking around by myself.”

Robert’s solo wanderings would eventually result in the chance 2015 encounter between the two artists. “I actually bumped into Robert with my friend, the DJ Toby Tobias,” recalls Tristan. “That’s right, we bumped into each other just off Wrangelstraße, that’s how we first met,” adds Robert. After a chat and a coffee, Tristan invited Robert to watch him play at Chalet, marking the start of a friendship that would flourish into the record we’re here to discuss.

Naive melody

There’s something characteristically Berlin about a random meeting resulting in something tangible, like a piece of art or, indeed, a record. However, Brighter Future wasn’t conceived in Berlin, that happened down under. “We’d travelled to Australia to visit Emma’s family and planned to stay for a few months, but then the pandemic hit. We were trapped in paradise!” says Tristan.

Before the EP, Tristan had approached music production with a just-for-fun attitude, releasing bits and bobs with Emma and other artists, such as last year’s excellent Una Vida de Barrio compilation. However, pandemic downtime allowed him to focus on pulling together a debut tune. “I sat down and wrote ‘Brighter Future’ at my father-in-law’s kitchen table. Everything was very doomsday, George Floyd’s murder was in the news, coronavirus was happening, it seemed like everything had turned to shit. I just wanted to make a naive, utopian, and positive song,” says Tristan.

Simply put, the record’s title track hits those criteria. Tristan’s arrangement is peeled back; rhythmic drum patterns, underscored by a potent kick, meld with euphoric synths, giving the track its optimistic feel. Robert’s vocals, drenched in those oh-so familiar goosebump-inducing tones, lend a mesmeric texture to the track. In some ways it sounds familiar, harking back to the house emerging out of 80s Chicago. Yet it’s a timeless tune, charged with a lightness welcome in the sludgy times we’re all facing.

On the B-side two club-ready remixes await, one put together by Lisbon-based Inner Balance boss Jorge Caiado (whom Tristan insists we give a shout out for the support), the other a double by Tristan called ‘New Visions Dub’. Both are moody and highly danceable, packed with the kind of party vibes you’d catch on an early-90s New York garage house banger. All in all, it’s a damn decent three tracker.

I just wanted to make a naive, utopian, and positive song.

So how did Robert end up getting involved in the track? Tristan explains: “I felt quite disconnected stuck in Australia. I was chatting online with Robert and I asked him if he’d like to check out one of my tracks. I couldn’t believe how supportive he was, he just said he’d be up for doing a vocal on it. It was already called Brighter Future, he came up with the whole concept for the lyrics. I remember the morning he sent the stems, I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited. I opened the email and was like, ‘holy shit’!” Asked whether he felt intimidated working with a household name, Tristan replies honestly: “It took me more than five years to send Robert some music. I mean come on, he’s Robert Owens after all!”

Robert responds to Tristan’s praise with utmost humility: “I’m the gardener next door,” he says, “I’m just one of the boys, or at least I try to be!” Given Robert’s voice has all but defined an entire genre, where does he get his inspiration from when penning a  new vocal? “You’re hearing pain. I’ve lived struggles, seen a lot of things, and overcome them. I pour all that emotion back into the creative process, and try to convey that,” says Robert. That said, Robert admits Brighter Future is much more upbeat: “This one isn’t melancholy, it’s much more optimistic. I’m not singing sad on this one.”

At this stage the conversation meanders into the past. As Robert regales us with tales from the 80s, remembering mischievous moments with the likes of Larry Levan and DJing with Frankie Knuckles at Chicago’s infamous Warehouse, Tristan, still listening in, stands up and starts rifling through a row of records. He eventually finds what he’s after and pulls out a copy of Fingers Inc.’s Another Side. “You’re the guy on the records, Robert,” says Tristan, smiling as he points to the sleeve.

Our house

As darkness dims the soupy afternoon, the wind picks up, noisily battering The Consulate’s double doors and lashing rain against the windows. Still, even the tempestuous weather can’t disturb the calm inside. Sticking with the nostalgic tip, I ask Tristan whether he felt like he knew Robert before their Kreuzberg rendezvous. “I was listening to his voice a lot, that’s why it makes it even more special to release this record together.” 

Robert chimes in: “It was us meeting in the street that made the difference. When two people create something it’s automatically unique, it’s two individuals from different backgrounds getting together. The key thing is that you walk through the door as one.” Having worked with so many artists over the years, Robert has some solid advice for making the most out of each collaboration. “You’ve got to treat people with respect. If you treat people equally, you draw the best out of each other. Act like you just met a sibling you didn’t know. Now they’ve come into your life to take a step on this journey together. The other thing is not wasting people’s time, if you say you’re going to do it, do it.”

Robert’s outlook resonates with a theme he returns to regularly throughout our chat – the idea that house music rests on a community of like-minded souls. Talking about his experiences at the start of his career, he remembers how it was all “just one big family”. “You had people like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, we were going from house to house. A lot of our crowd would go to Frankie’s, some would go to Ron’s, then they’d come to mine. We’d always check on each other to see what we were playing. It was a little family unit.”

It goes back to house music being a feeling. If it feels good and playing it for other people makes them feel good, that’s what it’s all about.

Robert goes on to explain how in those early days, this familial bond fuelled the emergent house scene. “Whether you were at the Warehouse, Music Box or Paradise Garage, you were surrounded by this extended family. You were removed from any negativity. The whole vibe was about escapism. That’s why I said a lot of vocals talk about pain, it was an escape from whatever made you unhappy, you went there and lost it within the music, it had a healing power. It was about the people too, you got a sense of security being around others who felt that same way. You’d be going to work on a Monday humming some of the melodies you heard just to get you through the week.”

I shoot Tristan a glimpse across the table, we’re both in awe of Robert recounting golden eras, legendary clubs, and their infamous residents. With a wry look, Tristan pipes up. “It’s crazy, we’re a different age and come from such different places, yet we’re sat here listening to you talking about the Music Box. What am I even supposed to say next!”

Although the two men have wildly different backgrounds – Tristan growing up in Belgium on a diet of Orbital, Coldcut, copious amounts of drum and bass, before finding house, Robert honing his voice at the same church choir as Aretha Franklin and Shalamar, before establishing himself on the Chicago club circuit – the common denominator that unites them is a deep appreciation for the happiness house music brings about.

“I enjoy seeing people happy, it’s an overwhelming feeling for me to look into a crowd whilst I’m performing and see a collective of happy people. Once you’ve figured out the balance of feeling happy in your own life, you want to give that back. Whatever you accumulate in this life that brings you happiness, you should want to share that with others,” says Robert.

Tristan listens attentively, before expressing how his own musical motives are in sync with Robert’s perspective. “My music is really positive and talks of better days, that’s what I look for in music, so that’s what I want to do as well. There’s so much misery in the world, that’s why I love playing optimistic music that touches people and makes them happy. For me, that’s where house music comes from.”

As our chat comes to a close, and with the autumnal winds dying down, Tristan pauses for a moment then reflects on his own journey. “Apart from a career, music has become more of a therapeutic thing, it makes me happy. I don’t care about seeing music like a chess game or wondering which gig I’ll get next. I’ve played good and bad gigs in my life, I don’t expect to blow up, I’ve got two kids and I’m happy. I get happiness from music by making it.”

With that Robert smiles, before imparting one final bit of wisdom. “It goes back to house music being a feeling. If it feels good and playing it for other people makes them feel good, that’s what it’s all about. The main thing is that you’re happy. If you’re happy, then someone else is going to feel that happiness.” Aside from almost fainting at hearing Robert confirm house music is in fact a feeling (fanboy soundbite: check), after such a beautiful conversation it’s impossible not to believe that even on the darkest of days, a brighter future is waiting for all of us around the corner.

Brighter Future is released on 22 November, on vinyl and digital. The music video will be out on 7 December. For those feeling for a boogie, head down to Golden Gate on 3 December for the launch party.