You’d think that Eric Estornel would be just a teeny bit tense. After all, the Miami-born, Dallas-bred and Barcelona-based artist best known as Maceo Plex is clearly a very busy man.
For starters, he’s just put out the highly anticipated Solar, a years-in-the-works album named for his young son (yes, his son is called Solar—that’s him on LP’s cover). But dealing with the hoopla of an album release is far from the only item on Estornel’s to-do list. His Ellum Audio label, founded in 2011, has been firing on all cylinders lately, releasing a steady output of clever, club-worthy house and techno; he’s an in-demand remixer; and he’s constantly on the road, traveling the world to play at the world’s top clubs and festivals.
And there’s more: This summer, Estornel’s back at Pacha Ibiza to helm a second season of Mosaic, his weekly Tuesday-night throwdown devoted to the kind of underground, creative dance music that’s something of an anomaly on Spain’s party-hearty White Island. This year’s wide-ranging lineup boasts Detroit’s Moodymann, Norway’s Röyskopp, aural explorer Jon Hopkins and acid-house freak-out combo Paranoid London, along with techno heavyweights like Ben Klock, Adam Beyer, Rødhåd and Anthony Parasole.
But when, right on schedule, Estornel rings up DJ Times—“Hey, what’s up? You’re in New York?”—he exudes an air of good-natured calm. He’s quick to point out that, despite outside appearances, he leads a fairly ordinary life with his family: Besides Solar, there’s his wife Christine Maars (who, with Brian Oswald, serves as one half of the Odd Parents DJ-production duo) and her teenage daughter from a previous marriage. He’s on the road most weekends, of course. “But during the week,” Estornel claims, “it’s really normal. A little bit of work in the studio, some family stuff, taking them to school every day, making sandwiches… things like that.”
It’s doubtful that his life is quite as traditional as he claims—not every dad pops down to Ibiza once a week to headline at a superclub, for instance—but then again, Estornel’s had over two decades to acclimate to the clubbing lifestyle. Starting in the early ’90s as an underage DJ in the then-burgeoning Dallas rave scene, he quickly turned his head to production. Some of his earliest electro-tinged, IDM-esque tracks, confident in sound but only hinting at his more streamlined later work, came out under the Eric Entity handle. Later, the Maetrik persona came into being for his techier work, while Mariel Ito was the name used for his more electro-centered material.
Around the turn of the decade, Estornel adopted Maceo Plex as his nom de guerre for the deeper, more house-oriented tracks he was beginning to focus on. Since the 2011 release of the hugely successful Life Index, an album that pulled off the trick of appealing to both serious-minded purists and ready-for-action club bunnies, that’s the alias that’s been the main thrust of the prolific producer’s career, with a string of well-received records coming out on such respected labels as Kompakt, Minus, Drumcode and, of course, Ellum Audio.
And now comes Solar, released on Estornel’s newly launched Lone Romantic label. First announced in 2015, the collection of tunes is a departure from the typical druggy, yet hard-charging Maceo Plex sound; instead, it’s an emotive, rich and rhythmically varied album, produced with machine-tooled precision yet bathed in Mediterranean warmth. Most of it isn’t really club music at all; it’s a subdued record that, to a large degree, is geared toward the inner pleasures of one’s headspace, rather than toward the overt joys of the dancefloor.
Over the phone, Estornel opened up about the album, playing in Ibiza, and his ambivalence on finding success as a dance-music artist.
DJ Times: We first started hearing about Solar a couple of years ago, but it’s been released just recently. Why the delay?
Eric Estornel: I was actually originally planning on putting out different music on this album. But when it was almost ready, I started thinking that it didn’t really sound like a proper album. I took a lot of the dance stuff out and kept working on some of the slower stuff, and that really started to snowball. Finally, I thought I had enough of an array of electronica tunes, tunes that weren’t for the club, that it really felt like an album.
DJ Times: What happened to the dance music that you took out?
Estornel: They ended up on the Journey to Solar EP, which came earlier this year. They’re a bit more tracky than what’s on the album.
DJ Times: But you did include few dance tracks on the new album, right?
Estornel: Just a couple, but I wouldn’t consider even them to be “throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air” music. The rest of the album is more like a mix of electro, dubstep and breaks.
DJ Times: Still, despite that rhythmic variety, there’s a very unified sound to the album.
Estornel: Yeah, it’s weird. I always think my tracks sound really different from each other, but other people seem to be able to tell what’s me and what isn’t. As soon as I’ll play something that I made, even if it’s something that’s maybe a little slower or more electro than my normal stuff, they’ll say, “That’s yours, right?” I’m like, how could you know that? I can’t hear it, but there must be something about the sound or the way that the song is put together that gives it away. And specifically on this release, everybody told me that it really was cohesive enough to call it an album.
DJ Times: One of the LP’s unifying factors might be that it feels like there’s a comforting touch of warm distortion that blankets the tunes. Or is that the sound of my crappy headphones?
Estornel: It could be! [laughs] But no—it’s probably because I use a Fat Bustard, a summing mixer with a pretty cool saturation knob on it that can give everything a bit of crunch. Most of the tracks are run through that. Also, I engineered the album, but it was mastered by Mandy Parnell in London, so maybe some of what you’re hearing comes from her as well.
DJ Times: She’s worked with Björk a lot, right?
Estornel: Yeah, she’s pretty famous, and her studio has done a lot of other electronica kind of stuff. She personally is pretty picky about what she masters—besides Björk, she’s done the last couple of Aphex Twin albums, the Jamie xx album, stuff like that—so I was pretty honored when she agreed to take on my album. And she really takes her time. Sometimes, when you send something in to be mastered, you’ll get it back in two or three days, but with this, it took her a few weeks.
DJ Times: Besides the Fat Bustard, are there any favorite pieces of hardware that you rely upon?
Estornel: To tell you the truth, I don’t have an amazing amount of gear compared to some people I know. I don’t have a humongous modular wall or anything like that. I just have some synths and a mixer—and some tracks are more computer than others. But there are a couple of pieces that I use a lot, like my Alesis Andromeda [synthesizer]. That’s definitely one of my favorites, along with the Pioneer TORAIZ [SP-16], which is like an MPC with a touch screen that’s fun to sample with. I have a few older synths that I use sometimes, but right now it’s mainly the Andromeda.
DJ Times: You’re mainly known for your instrumental tracks, but you feature vocals on many of Solar’s cuts. What was the reason for that?
Estornel: Well, I think there are only two or three tracks with what I would call proper vocals, and then there’s another two or three with vocodered, tripped-out vocals. The idea was basically to add some kind of human element to most of the tracks.
DJ Times: Who were your vocalists?
Estornel: One of them is a guy from London, Jono McCleary from the Ninja Tune label – that’s him on “Indigo.” Three of the tracks are my friend from Manchester, Duncan Jones, who just got signed to the Skint label. I’ve known him since 2001 or 2002, and we’ve always wanted to work together.
DJ Times: Did you name this album for your son in order to leave something for posterity for him?
Estornel: Kind of. It would be cool if 10 or 15 or 20 years from now, when he’s starting to care about this kind of music, that he’s proud that this album with his picture on the front came out.
DJ Times: Not many kids have that.
DJ Times: Not that Solar is a dance-music album, per se—but it seems like many of your dance-music peers don’t believe it’s as important to release albums as it once was, at least career-wise. What are your thoughts on that?
Estornel: It probably isn’t as important as it used to be, to be honest. Someone, I think maybe Renaat [Vandepapeliere, from the seminal electronic-music label R&S], recently came out and said the album was dead… which is a little weird, because they still put out albums [laughs]. He’s right, though—for the most part in the dance world, the album is dead. It’s all about the latest hyped-up single, and people forget about whatever else you’ve done. But as an artist, I don’t think of myself as someone who just makes tracks to dance to; I have other ideas and other things that I’m into. I want a little more than just being able to play a record in Ibiza and have people throw their hands into the air—so artistically, it was important for me to do this. But I’m not sure that it’s necessarily going to be a huge commercial success.
DJ Times: And you’re OK with that?
Estornel: Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t even worry about it.
DJ Times: What’s your songwriting methodology? Do you go into your studio with a pretty good idea of what you want to do, or are your songs more the result of experimentation?
Estornel: For this album, specifically, nothing was really planned ahead of time, but there were some general rules that I tried to follow.
DJ Times: Such as?
Estornel: Just to avoid 4/4 beats, and try to experiment as much as possible with sounds and rhythm and vocals. It all kind of flowed out from that.
DJ Times: How about when you’re working in full dance-music mode?
Estornel: In general, I’ll have more of a vision of what I want to do before I start, and I’ll just work towards that vision. That’s another reason why it was cool to work on this album; it was nice to be able to just let go, and not be concerned with whether it was going to work in a club or not.
DJ Times: And judging by the fact that you scrapped a lot of the original tracks and largely started over, I’m guessing there wasn’t a real deadline to worry about, either.
Estornel: There actually was for a moment. When I first took out the dance tracks to concentrate more on the broken-beat music that I was writing, I had showed some of it to Monkeytown.
DJ Times: Modeselektor’s label?
Estornel: Yeah, they were really into it, and they wanted to release it. And they have a release schedule, so it was kind of a rush. But I got slowed down a bit by various things, and Monkeytown ended up having a slightly different vision for the album than I had.
DJ Times: How so?
Estornel: I had thought that they would want it to be a little more out-there, but it seemed like maybe they actually wanted it to include a little more dance music. I’m not sure, really—but for whatever reason, it ended up not working out. So once I knew I wasn’t going to release it on Monkeytown, I decided to start a small electronica label for it. And then I could take my time.
DJ Times: Why launch Lone Romantic, rather than simply release it on Ellum Audio? Is it going to be a more album-oriented label?
Estornel: Lone Romantic won’t only release albums; I’m thinking of it as more of a place for developing albums. For instance, if I come across a new artist who I think has a lot of potential, we could release a few singles from that artist, with the idea of eventually working towards an album. Or if there are artists that I’ve known for a long time who want to start a new project, then we could put out a few tracks from them with the same goal.
DJ Times: Will there be any stylistic theme for the new label?
Estornel: It’s not going to be dance music, basically. It will be more for electro, IDM… just general broken-beat stuff. And Ellum will still be for all the dance music.
DJ Times: Given the new label’s name, do you picture yourself as a lone romantic?
Estornel: I definitely used to, all through high school and college. [laughs] I actually had used the name many years ago, for an electro track made under my Mariel Ito moniker, but I had always had wanted to use it as a label name. And it’s kind of perfect for this kind of music.
DJ Times: How so?
Estornel: Because even if people are in relationships, people that like it are kind of lone romantics on the inside.
DJ Times: You’ve sometimes come across as having a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards clubland, and towards your success as a DJ and producer in that world. Is that actually the case?
Estornel: Yeah, I’m a torn soul.
DJ Times: “Torn Soul” could be the name of your next label.
Estornel: It could be! I mean, there are plus sides, of course; there’s definitely a fun and even glamorous side to it. But there are downsides to it as well. You can get a bit trapped.
DJ Times: I was thinking of that infamous incident Amnesia’s closing party in Ibiza two years ago, when you played Four Tet’s remix of Eric Prydz’s “Opus”—which is essentially one extremely long breakdown—at the climax of your set. It flummoxed the crowd, and you got some “what-the-fuck-was-that?” online commentary afterwards.
Estornel: Really, I don’t even know why that incident got so big.
DJ Times: Was that you rebelling a bit against what was expected of you?
Estornel: Well, here’s the thing: Specifically talking about Ibiza, there are so many things that are expected of you there that have nothing to do with music, things that wear you down pretty quickly. The island is more for what I would call performers than DJs.
DJ Times: How’s that?
Estornel: I mean, there are plenty of DJs who come in and play good stuff, and can help to fill the clubs. But the guys who can really last forever, the guys that can sell a lot of tickets, are the ones who get the most wasted and are… I don’t want to say clowns, but they’re the ones who will perform for the crowd more. Like, “What do you want to see me do now? Stand up on top of the decks?”
DJ Times: That doesn’t sound like your style.
Estornel: No, and when you are experiencing the cheesier side of the island on a regular basis, it gets a bit tiring. There are great people who go to the island with really good taste in music, of course—but there’s that other side that can wear you down over the course of a whole summer. So I end up having this kind of anti-DJ attitude at times. And some of the ambivalence also comes from the fact that I’m a dedicated producer in addition to being a DJ—while, honestly, a lot of the guys out there are not making their own music.
DJ Times: Does that frustrate you a bit?
Estornel: I wouldn’t say that, but those people have a whole different outlook from what I have. They love stardom, they love to get wasted and all that. And to me, none of that is really so important. But I think that sort of “DJ/anti-DJ” attitude has kind of worked for me, and helped me get to the point where I am.
DJ Times: And you obviously return to Ibiza each summer.
Estornel: I do, and I’m not trying to talk bad about the island. Going back to that Amnesia thing, I played it even though I really know what people are expecting at a party like that: a big track with a breakdown where they sit down, and then jump back up when it’s over. But they probably weren’t expecting a breakdown that’s as long as that track’s [laughs]. They didn’t know when to stand up. And I knew what was going to happen; if you watch the video of it, you can kind of see me laughing. It was kind of a joke.
DJ Times: As a bonus, you got a bit of publicity out of it.
Estornel: In hindsight, yeah, it was pretty cool.
DJ Times: And you’re back at Ibiza this season, hosting your weekly Mosaic party at Pacha for the second year. Is Mosaic your attempt to play Ibiza on your own terms?
Estornel: Yes—which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Pacha is great, because they are really into pushing DJs who are different than the usual Ibiza DJs, at least one or two nights each week. It’s a great club, and they’ve been great to work with. But at the same time, I play differently than a lot of the other people on the island. I don’t really perform in the same way that they do.
DJ Times: Does that present difficulties?
Estornel: Honestly, I don’t know if Mosaic is ever going to be a tremendous runaway success, with huge lines trying to get in. But I’ve accepted that. I know I don’t have the kind of hype for something like that to happen. On the other hand, a lot of DJs who normally would never want to play in Ibiza at all do want to come and play at this party. Nobody puts any pressure on them; nobody is asking them to play these huge epic sets.
DJ Times: With the result being a really interesting lineup of DJs…
Estornel: And we don’t put any limitations on of them. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but a lot of the other parties on the island seem like they’re designed to just be another tech-house party. They might book some really good artists who aren’t among standard Ibiza DJs—but then they’ll put them on early in the night. Then the rest of the night will be loopy tech-house, which all kind of sounds the same.
DJ Times: But with Mosaic, those early-night artists are the stars.
Estornel: That’s what separates us from the rest of the parties. Like, I did a back-to back set with Joy Orbison at Mosaic’s opening party, and I realized that we went 30 minutes without playing a 4/4 beat. And as the night went on, we started just not to care anymore and we’re playing really weird stuff.
DJ Times: The crowd accepted it?
Estornel: I think after having done Mosaic for a full year last summer, the people who come to our night are OK with it. They expect it. They’re really supportive—even the VIPs who come and buy a table.
DJ Times: I’m guessing that’s not always the case—bottle-service types aren’t always known for their musical open-mindedness.
Estornel: Just because somebody has a lot of money doesn’t always mean they have bad taste. At Mosaic, they want to hear something different. Just like anyone else, they know what they’re going to get at Mosaic. They want to have a night that’s a little bit different than the rest.
DJ Times: What’s your DJing methodology nowadays?
Estornel: Mostly USB. I’ll occasionally play with vinyl, but that’s mainly for certain parties. There are some clubs where you’ll know they have a really good vinyl set-up, so I’ll bring some with me. I do bring vinyl with me to Pacha; I helped design their set-up, so it’s obviously good for me. And if I know a guest DJ is going to bring vinyl and I’ll be doing a back-to-back set with them, then I’ll definitely bring records so the audio is consistent.
DJ Times: Are you still buying records?
Estornel: Every week! I’ll just walk in and ask what they’ve gotten in that’s vinyl-only. Then I’ll just rip as much of them as I have time to.
DJ Times: Is that how you mainly find out about new music?
Estornel: I also get sent a lot of cool stuff from friends, both big DJs and smaller DJs who I’ve met along the way. And my friend Brian, who’s a DJ as well, has a key role. He organizes all the promos I get in, filtering out the overly commercial ones and sticking the rest in a zip file.
DJ Times: That sounds like a dream job.
Estornel: He loves it, and he’s really good at it. He knows what I like, but he’ll also push stuff on me that he thinks I should be open to.
DJ Times: Do you have a big team behind you?
Estornel: I don’t really have a team of managers or anything. I do have an administrator, but he’s not somebody out there trying to sell me, to get me the best remix deals or whatever. He sets things up for me—like, “OK, you have to do this interview today.” He organizes my e-mails, helps out with flights, stuff like that. I also have someone who takes care of booking DJs for Mosaic; he’s the guy who makes sure they get paid, among other things. Of course, there’s my wife; she’s the one who breaks my balls about the decisions that I make. And there are the people on the island who are taking care of the day-in, day-out things, like decorating the club or dealing with the sound.
DJ Times: Do you plan your sets ahead of time at all?
Estornel: Not really. I’ll just get together some of the styles that I like—some techno, some electro, some house, some whatever. But by the end of the set, I’m always getting weird and playing a bit riskier music. Especially if I’ve been drinking through the entire set [laughs]. The idea is not just to please the crowd, but to have them join you. You want them to go on a trip with you.
DJ Times: What kind of music did you grow up with?
Estornel: When I was growing up, my older brother was really into breakdancing I used to hear music like Soul Sonic Force, Newcleus, all kinds of electro-bass and 808-bass stuff. That led to Miami bass, 2 Live Crew and all that stuff. That music really stuck with me. Then when we moved to Dallas, I was listening to a lot of late-night radio there, and began to gravitate toward the music I was hearing them play—they’d play a lot of electronic artists who were doing breaky or electro kind of stuff.
DJ Times: Once you were old enough, were you going out to clubs in Dallas?
Estornel: Not much. Once I turned 18, I would go here and there, but I was still pretty scared of everything. Also, I also came from a very strict house…. like, Latino strict.
DJ Times: That can make things a bit difficult for a young clubber.
Estornel: Yeah. There was no experimentation allowed, and definitely no drugs. So what I became was kind of a music nerd. When I did go to a rave or a club, I’d just be in the corner listening to the DJ, while everyone else was getting wasted and dancing around. I just wasn’t that much into nightlife. What I really was into was going to the record store every two days and annoying the people working there until they gave me the records I wanted. It was pretty much the opposite of what I am now.
DJ Times: Except for the record-store part.
Estornel: Yeah, I’m definitely still into music—but it’s different when you’re young and everything is new. Everything is so exciting. Now I feel like I’ve heard everything, and there’s not much that can surprise me anymore, even in the experimental world.
DJ Times: Do you think of what you do as a job, or is it more than that?
Estornel: I think of dance music as a career, but back then it was really thrilling.
DJ Times: When did it first start to become a career? What were your first DJ gigs?
Estornel: Soon after I moved to Dallas, there was a kid at school who helped me to learn how to DJ, and like I said, I was buying lots of records. When I was around 17, around ’94, there were these people who were throwing parties who wanted to promote young Dallas DJs. There was this one guy who used to go by the name Kidd-E—who later became known as JT Donaldson, the house producer—who had been the youngest Dallas DJ, so everybody was booking him. But then I came along, and they were like, “OK now, you are the youngest DJ!” So I was playing a lot of raves and clubs the early ’90s. But I still had to be home by midnight—so I would open up a lot of parties, or maybe I’d be the second DJ if I was lucky.
DJ Times: When did you start producing music?
Estornel: That happened pretty soon, maybe two years after playing my first party. Back then, before you could find the value of everything on the Internet, there was this book that pawnshops all had—kind of like the Beckett price guide for baseball cards—that had prices for all kinds of stuff, like lamps or whatever. But gear? Nobody knew what that was worth, and you could get an 808, for instance, for $50 or $100. Nobody knew what that stuff was worth. So I got myself a beat machine and one keyboard, and I was already making tracks. Then I bought more equipment and some software, and by ’97 or ’98, I was already putting out records.
DJ Times: You mentioned that you look at what you do as career—but you’ve now been doing this for a long time, and it must wear you down. Is there something more than the fact that it’s your job that keeps you going?
Estornel: I just don’t know how to do anything else! I mean, I quit school for this. But more than that, I really love it. But sometimes you have to step away from it a bit. Sometimes you take time out to write something that’s not pure dance music.
DJ Times: Like Solar, for instance?