Ask Chicago's disco visionary Felix Da Housecat. Six years after he glammed up dancefloors with Kittenz And Thee Glitz - 20 since he first stepped into a studio - one of modern pop's great outsiders is about to embark on the next phase of his remarkable career.
"To guys like Justice, Digitalism and Boyz Noize, I'm more of an 'old school contemporary' guy," says Felix Stallings. "I leave it up to them to make the noise, 'cos I've done that. Now I'm more into making songs, telling stories and good melodies - sorta like how Prince was."
As you'd expect, Felix believes that his new album, Virgo Blaktro & The Movie Disco, eclipses all his previous work. Listening to it, hooked, for what must be the fifteenth time this weekend, goosebumps all over, it's hard not to agree. A dab hand at producing killer singles, Felix has finally made a classic album. Even Dallas Austin, in whose studio Virgo Blaktro… was mixed, calls it Felix's Purple Rain because, simply, "Every song is amazing."
Felix's last album, 2004's Devin Dazzle & The Neon Fever, had its fair share of magical moments, but circumstances beyond his control meant he couldn't build on the runaway success of 2001's Kittenz And Thee Glitz. That album, its Miss Kittin-voiced lead single "Silver Screen (Shower Scene)" in particular, unwittingly sparked off electroclash and propelled Felix into the mainstream on the crest of a champagne wave. After a decade of underground acclaim and jetset DJing, Felix found himself in fashion, much to his amusement. "When Kittenz And Thee Glitz came out, I was living the glitz, I was wilding out, partying, you name it, man," recalls Felix. "I was kicking it with everybody in the industry, from L.A. to New York, I was out there, I was gone! But I burnt myself out from partying, man."
Like Kittenz…, Virgo Blaktro & The Movie Disco is a pleasure-rush from start to finish, but this time the highs are natural and the tone is cooler, more reflective. A masterclass in sugar-frosted vocal pop, soulful synth-funk and pulsing electronic disco, it's comfortably the most satisfying record he's produced. For the first time, Felix has written songs rather than tracks, and sings his own lyrics too. It's also different for another reason.
"This is the first record I've done with black folks," says Felix, "but to me it's not a colour thing, it's more like a roots thing. This record has a black, soulful groove, it's more like Sly & The Family Stone. With this album I wanted to go Parliament, I wanted to go Prince, and at the same time I wanted to go like George Michael and Pet Shop Boys, only them being black. This stuff is all black-influenced."
"Shit, where are we, 2007?"
he story of this album begins Down Under. After the label that put out Devin Dazzle… closed, Felix found himself in Sydney at the end of 2004, without a deal, making an album called Son Of Analogue with a programmer from England named Klaus Heavyweight Hill. He also worked on a project called Darkstar which was intended for Marilyn Manson, but that didn't happen. Nor did the planned hook up with Thom Yorke, who'd declared Kittenz & Thee Glitz one of his favorite albums of 2001, and for whom Felix had penned some songs. Felix also worked on tracks with his pal, P Diddy/Puff Daddy. Ever the nomad, Felix was without direction at this time.
That all changed when he got to Barcelona. One of the Spanish promoters who'd booked Felix to DJ there owned a studio off the Ramblas, in an old cinema called Movie Disco. Felix, who loves Barcelona, asked if he could record there. Sure, came the reply. Felix picks up the thread: "With this album, I said I think I know what I'm going to do. It only takes one song to know where you want to go and that song was 'Something 4 Porno', the first song I did. So I based everything around that.
"I said, it's going to be a sexy, black, electronic disco record and I'm gonna call it Virgo Blaktro & The Movie Disco. Why? 'Cos I'm a Virgo - August 25th - and back in the 70s they all used starsigns, and I recorded it at Movie Disco studios in Barcelona." Vowing to keep things simple, Felix limited his studio personnel to two: his Belgian producer, BC, and his attractive new vocalist, Zahna, an opera singer from Eastern Europe he met in Barcelona. "This is the first album I've recorded stress-free," he says. "This is the first album I've felt like an artist making it. Everything was flowing because it was just the three of us."
Felix is the first to admit that Devin Dazzle… suffered because he allowed too many singers and producers to get involved. The result, an attempt to do Kittenz & Thee Glitz with guitars, lacked focus. On that record, Tommie Sunshine wrote the lyrics.
This time, Felix wrote all the words and music, although 'Night Tripperz', pays tribute to the melancholy melody of Giorgio Moroder's'. Daft Punk's 'Veridis Quo', meanwhile, sets the mood for 'Movie Disco'. If nothing else, Virgo Blaktro… positions Felix as a gifted songwriter with a knack for crafting addictive radio-friendly pop. He indulges his obsession with '80s synth-pop on 'Lookin' My Best', 'I Seem 2 Be The 1', 'Sweetfrosti' and 'Monkey Cage', but anchors these tunes in a rich and soulful funk groove.
After recording the songs in Barcelona, they headed to BC's studio in Antwerp for more production work. Felix was introduced to BC, a hip-hop producer with a well-equipped studio, by Junior Jack five years ago. If, say, Felix wants a song to sound like Swing Out Sister and the Pet Shop Boys and have the kind of lyrics George Michael would sing, he turns to BC, and together they come up with 'I Seem 2 Be The 1'.
The recording sessions completed, they figured the record was ready. Then, last summer, Puffy invited Felix to a party on his yacht in St Tropez. On board, Felix ran into his old friend Dallas Austin, who he's known since 2001; he'd always bump into Dallas at Puffy's house in Miami. Dallas is one of the world's leading R&B and pop producers, having worked with TLC, Kelis and Gwen Stefani. Felix says to Dallas: "Let's hook up. You've got all these people doing something crazy, like Gnarls Barkley, so let's do something crazy!" Dallas says: "Gimme a call, come to my studio. When you see my studio you won't believe it - it's like a rocketship." Felix and BC arrived at Dallas' studio palace in Atlanta.
They mixed one song in his studio and it sounded so ridiculously good that they re-recorded and mixed the whole album there, fleshing out the synth-pop with an earthier feel. Felix liked the place so much he even moved into one of the rooms.
As an indication of how far Felix has come, it's worth mentioning that in the '90s he was recognized as one of the second wave of Chicago house producers. As a young man he used many aliases (23 according to discogs.com) such as Aphrohead, Thee Maddkatt Courtship, Electrikboy and Rocketmann, to name four. If you went raving anywhere during that decade you would at some point have seen him DJ or heard his wild-pitch house tracks. Incidentally, Virgo Blaktro's almighty kiss-off, 'Future Calls The Dawn', inspired by Madonna's star producer Stuart Price, updates Felix's 'Thee Dawn' classic, smearing it with some searing Daft Punk-style brutality.
What's also notable is that Felix is still only 35 years old. Twenty years ago, this teenage Prince freak was taken under the wing of acid house pioneer DJ Pierre in Chicago. Their studio tinkering resulted in 1987's 'Phantasy Girl', an hefty underground hit, and, with college out of the way, Felix's star-bound course was set. "I used to be like, fuck all the mainstream stuff - I just wanna be underground and do cool stuff!" chuckles Felix. "But now I've got a family. Not only that, I'm evolving. I stopped doing underground when I turned 25 and decided to make songs." Ten years on, under his latest alias, Virgo Blaktro, Felix is in the finest form of his life.