Mihalis Safras: Greece's Techno Philosopher

Words by: Stephen Flynn
Posted: 23/11/11 10:38

Mihalis SafrasAs the man behind one of techno’s most alluring modern imprints, Mihalis Safras is well equipped to tackle some of the many debates engulfing electronic music. A prolific producer - and indeed, remixer, - Safras has sprinkled his magic on tracks from Britney to Dubfire, while also lending his talents to seminal imprints such as Trapez, Saved, 20:20 Vision and more.

With a new LP on the horizon (the aptly titled 5 Years of Material Series), I-Voice felt it a good time to catch up with the Athens native, with subjects such as vinyl, Berghain and Greece’s economic conundrum all on the agenda....

How did it all start for you music wise?
I started playing around with vinyl in 1987, and in 1990 I got my first mixer. So from then on I began mixing in my bedroom while friends my age were out playing football; which explains why I suck at football!

A hobby soon became an obsession, and soon my productions were noticed as I DJ'd alongside major producers of the period such as Jeff Mills, Carl Cox etc. I was a resident at one of the biggest clubs in my region, so DJ'ing next to those guys was not only a privilege, but also an opportunity to pick up new production tips. Then, in 2006, a man called Mark made an appearance in my life.....

Yes, how did you first hook up with Mark (Broom)? How influential has he been on your career?
We're two good looking guys so you shouldn't be surprised we hooked up! I can't expand on my answer unfortunately, as I'd be revealing our bed-time secrets. No, just joking! Well Mark was, and still is a gentleman and a very good friend of mine in music. We've DJ'd and produced together for many, many years now and while he continues to be an excellent influence, I've met so many of the scene's great techno artists than by now each and every piece of advice - or quote I hear - affects what I do in some way.

Your label, Material Series, recently celebrated its 5th birthday. Who else is behind the imprint's run?
I'm really proud of the label. Over the years we've stuck to our principles and released some great music. Much thanks much go to the artists who've contributed so much, including Luciano (Esse) and Toni D, to NoiDoi and Samuel (L Session). Recently, we were also named in the Top 100 of the RA polls, which was the icing on the top of our birthday cake. But Mark was the main man behind so much of our support. I've personally ran the label for three years, but in the last two years we've taken the bold step of hiring staff. Then there are also our non-working mates who support the label, with guys like Stephan Mossman endlessly supporting our cause.....

Yes, we're one of the few labels still pressing vinyl. The thing that worries me is sales figures though. In 2004, a record could easily sell up to 4-5000 copies. Now, if you sell 500 copies you are in the top 10....What piece of advice would you pass on to those hoping to do the same?
If you are concentrated, determined and are in it for the right reasons, you're chances of failing are much lower.

Material still release every release on vinyl. Can you see why some labels don't?
Yes, we're one of the few labels still pressing vinyl. The thing that worries me is sales figures though. In 2004, a record could easily sell up to 4-5000 copies. Now, if you sell 500 copies you are in the top 10. It's an unbelievable fall in sales, and this of course, is the main reason that vinyl labels are shunning the format. It is like a circle: if 99% of artists imitate Richie Hawtin, then of course vinyl will die. I remember when I met Mistress Barbara some years ago, she told me that she “hates seeing DJ's playing like nerds on their laptops”. I couldn’t agree more, and I personally DJ with vinyl - and vinyl only!

I see that your latest release features a pack of loops, “designed to give the DJ “hours and hours of fun”.....
This vinyl (1 out of 3 in the Material Series anniversary vinyl pack) was based on the idea that (Richie) Hawtin presented in 2004 with his DE9: Closer to the Edit. I loved the locked grooves, so I always promised myself I'd one day offer people a chance to do something similar.

You're quite a prolific producer. How often do you get to the studio? Do you prefer touring or producing?
I live a few steps from my studio so almost all day I'm sat in front of a screen - with the missus forever complaining! It's an addiction though, I absolutely love producing. It is impossible to separate the two mind, since whenever I DJ ideas comes into my head that later on I want to produce in the studio. Plus, when you make a tune the first thing you want is to listen to the tune while the crowd is dancing. You can't separate Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street...it’s exactly the same!

What do you make of your home country's economic situation? Could more have been done to avoid it?
I don't even know if I have the time to answer such a complex question, but what I will say is this: There are rumours’ floating around right now that Greece is responsible for the financial mess of their country – and in some cases - the EU. Let’s be clear: this is a huge misunderstanding.

Over the past 37 years it's been ran by three generations of the one family (grandfather, father, and child: all prime ministers). Huge mistakes were made by all three, particularly financially. There was corruption too – national money that was supposedly for development suddenly disappeared, just like at the Olympics, and none of the guilty parties were ever brought to jail.

So in this period, when Greece has since hit rock-bottom, the only thing I feel can be done is for us to leave the EU and stop paying for bank profits. There's no simple solution, but I feel this one would be best for our lenders and the Greek people, who will still owe millions, even by 2020. What could have been done to avoid this mess? Simple: We should never have voted these bastards in to parliament, and by “we” I mean our fathers and so on. Just thinking about the situation makes me angry.

Mihalis SafrasHas this had an effect on the country music wise? I read an interview with Argy recently who seemed to claim the country is in an odd state as regards clubbing and electronic music?
Argy is right. Of course, economic crises are felt throughout a country, but even so, while the talent is obviously there, Greek producers seem to lack a momentum, a drive: as though they don't realise they have to work hard of they want to make money.

So production-wise, it is very hard to find talents capable of withstanding an international career, meaning that in a country of 11 million, the relevant artists can be counted on one hand. Regarding clubbing, I must say that I really don't know, since I never DJ in Greece.

Why is that?
The last time I played in Greece was back in 2004, and despite offers, I've chosen not to since. I guess there are some good promoters in the country, but good club owners are few and far between. Plus, in my view, Greece has traditional folk music called mpouzoukia, which is the king of night life. In Greece, it's the stylish girls, expensive cars and cheesy music that always attract the crowd, and that's not something I feel part of.

I saw on your Facebook page that recently you asked: “Is 126 BPM a lot”. Did you come to a conclusion?
The back story to that question goes like this: I was with a producer friend recently, listening to some of my latest tracks (which are out soon incidentally, on Great Stuff) and he proposed I change the BPM from 126 to 122. When I did, I noticed the track was granted a whole new groove, which really, spurred the question. Back in 2000, 135 was the norm for techno. How things have changed!

                       Mihalis Safras Latest Sets (DJ & Live) by Mihalis Safras
You've also said that “the techno scene is lacking artists that will push boundaries”. What exactly did you mean by this and is that still true?
Here's a suggestion: Visit a digital platform, or even better visit your local record store. Start listening to the latest weeks releases. You'll be very lucky if you find releases that really stand out from the pile of music that is released these days. Of course, that includes me too.

I just feel that 90% of tracks released are sounding the same now. I don’t know if producers shall make a turn to Detroit roots, but I know that I'm starting to feel a little bored. This is why I love Mark!

Is that why you remixed a Britney Spears track? To break with convention? Or was it approached with an ironic point-of-view?
Ironic?! No way! I love Britney’s productions, but I hate her voice. It's like William Orbit with Madonna? I'd never thought about remixing “Breathe” before, but I'm glad I did, when I got the parts first I was amazed!

Here's a suggestion: Visit a digital platform, or even better visit your local record store. Start listening to the latest weeks releases. You'll be very lucky if you find releases that really stand out from the pile of music that is released these days...Same goes for your Michael Jackson edit?
Well, the MJ edit is not an official release. Instead, that one was released on a bootleg, vinyl-only label called SAF, where I release some of the prime tracks I've used over the years.

Are both your sub labels (Playmobile Series and SAF Series) still going strong then?
Actually, Playmobil closed last year. It was a nice label, but I preferred to shut it down rather than turn it in to a digital-only label. It’s been replaced by Material Limited, which represents the ‘housier’ sound of Material. SAF, though, recently celebrated its 18th vinyl release. The idea behind SAF is that it acts as a platform for tracks that I really like to play in a club. It's been running for 4 years now, hosting artists such as like Lee Van Dowski, Amir, Mark Broom, Uto Karem and more, and I'm hopeful this year that we'll release some of the tracks we showcased at Space Ibiza in the summer just gone. Wally (Lopez) knows what I'm saying!

You're perhaps the first producer I've heard mention Uto Karem alongside Wally Lopez....
I've also played Berghain and am friends with Wally yes, so make of that what you will...

How best would you describe the feeling of Dj'ing at Berghain?
Well, obviously it's widely considered as the best club in the world. Indeed, the sound system there is pretty remarkable! But it's not always about the look and sound. For me, the crowd is what's most important. I love Berghain, but every time I've DJ'd there, I noticed it was full of drugged-up punters, which I must admit, I didn't like. Besides that, all the club's personnel are just “GEIL”!

MaterialWith releases on Soma, Trapez and Great Stuff, am I right in thinking your sound could also translate to Panorama Bar also?
It gets worse mate - I've forthcoming releases on Snatch! , and Viva too, so Panorama it is!

You've also recorded mixes for Tresor in the past. Is recognition of your talent in Germany and the UK important to you as a techno producer?
Germany is techno's biggest market scene and its undoubted capital, while the UK is the leading country in terms of generating new ideas. Italy is the most enthusiastic country and Spain is the smoothest and coolest.

So all those countries have something to offer, and I try to take what's best from every country. I remember one of the first vinyls I bought, a Tresor release by Blake Baxter. To think he's now released on Material is quite remarkable.

Yet – Material Series aside – you're probably most renowned for your works on Trapez Limited. What is it about that particular label that appeals to you?
Riley (Reinhold), the owner of Traum and Trapez, was one of the first people to support my work, and over the years both labels have released some amazing music and I still love their sounds and Riley’s ideas regarding music. So as we say in Greece, you don't change a recipe that tastes good.

Back to being “commercial” in two senses of the word: I believe a track of yours was once used in an iPhone advertisment? Were you given any free stock?
La Samba” is the track that was used for the commercial, but did they give me free stock? I'll leave the answer to your readers but will say this much: God bless Steve Jobs!

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