Carte Blanche is a quite fitting name for the powerhouse collaboration between two of electro’s finest DJ/producers: France’s DJ Mehdi and England’s Riton (a.k.a. Henry Smithson). With their massive, Chicago-house-flavored Black Billionaires EP released earlier this year, the duo has spent 2010 slaughtering dance floors worldwide, creating dark-and-dirty remixes for the likes of Scissor Sisters and Chromeo, and continuing to fulfill their respective solo duties. With an in-progress 15-date fall European tour and a just-announced remix EP featuring contributions by Laidback Luke and Green Velvet (as well as a new original Carte Blanche track), it’s clear the pair take the band name literally. Here, they discuss how they decided to collaborate, what it's like to work together and what else is on the horizon.
You obviously knew each other before you decided to do this project together.
Riton: We got to know each more in the process. I can safely say I know this guy very well now. [Laughs.]
How did the idea to work together first come about?
Riton: We often get booked to play similar parties, so our paths cross that way. I’m terrible at remembering, but when was the first time we really met? Was it the Soulwax thing? [Mehdi nods.] Yeah, the Soulwax Christmas party in Belgium. I think I saw Mehdi get undressed underneath a DJ booth halfway through Justice’s DJ set, and I thought, “Oh, who is this guy?” [Laughs.] So we met, bumped into each other a few more times, and realized we were pretty much peas from the same pod. We both love each other’s music, so we got in touch over the Internet and made some dates to work together.
Mehdi: It’s kind of a digital love.
What was your original plan for the Carte Blanche project?
Riton: The start was to be a mix tape. We wanted to sample a lot of our old favorite house tunes, not really make too much original music ourselves, and make it quite special. [We] just ended up knocking some ideas together and realized we were actually making music. We made quite a few songs and then just chucked away the less good ones.
Will there be a full-length Carte Blanche record at some point?
Riton: I think we’re definitely gonna do more in the future. I don’t know whether the most important thing for us to do an album. I think doing another EP would be a good idea. We can say what we need to in like four tracks at a time.
Mehdi: What was the last house music album that you actually bought?
Is there an expiration date for Carte Blanche or will you just continue making music together indefinitely?
Mehdi: Who knows? It wasn’t supposed to be how it is now, so who knows?
Riton: Things keep coming -- offers and remixes. Always something to do.
I read somewhere that Carte Blanche was built on a mutual love for Chicago house music?
Riton: That was our starting point. Obviously, we didn’t want to replicate what had already happened. Our favorite thing about dance music would probably be the dancing part of the music, so we want to just make sure it’s not just, like, kids pumping their fists. We want to have people dancing a bit more. I think that people are into that now.
How does your working process as Carte Blanche differ from the processes for your individual music projects?
Mehdi: I wouldn’t do that kind of music by myself, because I don’t really have that kind of knowledge. The thing about making music is keeping it fun to do. If it starts to be like a job, it’s not interesting, for me at least, anymore. The fun that you have with a partner is never the same as when you’re by yourself. You tend to think about what kind of music you’re going to do before you actually start doing it, so it’s for sure not going to be the same as if I was by myself.
Riton: I think we do edit each other more. When we work together, we scrap things and restart a lot more, which I think is better for the end product.
Musically, how do you complement each other?
Mehdi: I bring the hummus, he brings the pitas.
Riton: The yin and the yang. And the wang.
How would you describe each other?
Mehdi: He’s blond, long hair, ponytail, huge, shiny, big, charisma. [Riton, for the record, has neither long hair nor a ponytail.]
Riton: I just love this guy, what can I say? Just everything I could want in a BFF!
Mehdi: And I’m solar-powered. I have the means to prove it.
Riton: He’s my solar-powered best friend. It’s just fun. We’re having the time of our lives!
What are you doing for your gigs?
Riton: Well, it’s four decks with a 909 drum machine, which is kind of the fundamental instrument of all the early house music. We do a little jam with that halfway through, some a cappellas, and then we try and have some kind of mixes we’ve worked. We’d like to try and do it using all of our influences. Instead of being as wide-ranging as Soulwax or something, we want to be a bit more genre-specific with it.
Mehdi: It’s just a DJ set with two very handsome DJs, basically.
What are Carte Blanche’s main musical influences?
Riton: I’ll give you a few names. Green Velvet. Armando. Inner City.
Mehdi: Armand van Helden.
Riton: Definitely. Just these really great guys from the ‘90s mainly, who still do their thing now.
Why did you name the EP Black Billionaires?
Mehdi: It’s really stupid names. “Gare du Nord” wasn’t even our idea, it was Busy P’s, just because it has those train sounds. It’s really stupid names.
Riton: Mehdi is a big fan of Wikipedia, so he’d be looking and go, “Did you know there are only four black billionaires in the world?” Which is incredible. Is Oprah number one?
Mehdi: Two, I think.
Riton: It’s kind of bizarre.
Mehdi: Now there are only three, because last year the owner or CEO or whatever of BET who was No. 4 got divorced and his wife took half the money. One is from South Africa, doing diamonds, one is from Nigeria, in the oil business, and the other is Oprah. There’re only three or four black billionaires in the world. Can you imagine?
Although the video for “Gare du Nord” looks like a super-authentic clip from an ‘80s dance-music TV show, I heard somewhere that the entire thing was actually recreated. Is that true?
Riton: No. Basically my ex-girlfriend Heidi -- she’s a DJ from Canada and does a Radio 1 show in London -- turned me onto The New Dance Show [a Detroit cable access TV show that ran in the ‘80s-‘90s]. She’s from Windsor, Ontario, but over the water is Detroit. This is just at this time when this house-music craze was [starting], and it was really black people into it. She would get home from school and watch this dance show with her sister and do all the moves. She showed it to me and I thought, “This is amazing footage.” We thought about trying to recreate it, but it would never be as good as that genuine thing. Plus we come from music where we’re not afraid to sample, and sampling video to us is the same as sampling music.
What’s happening with your individual projects?
Mehdi: I don’t really have anything going on right now other than Carte Blanche. I have another band with my friends from Cassius and Ed Banger called Club 75, but it’s only a live thing that I do from time to time. It’s a serious project, but it’s more live DJ’ing than anything else.
Riton: I have a few things in the pipeline. I’m gonna try and finish an album this year of my own stuff. I’ve got a few tracks ready. For example, I did some stuff with Primary 1 that came out on Erol [Alkan]’s label -- I have a couple of tracks in the vaults that I’ll probably use. I work in the studio every day because I don’t have a wife and girlfriend -- I mean girlfriend-slash-wife-slash-son like Mehdi, who’s got a life -- so I just collect samples. [laughs] I’ve got every single breakbeat, ever!
Henry, what’s the latest on Die Verboten, your krautrock project with Soulwax’s Steph and Dave Dewaele and Fergus Purcell (a.k.a. Fergadelic)?
Riton: We’ve got about another hour’s worth of music we’ve done, but we’re so busy touring it’s just super hard to do the last hours’ work. The Soulwax guys just never stop touring, ever. And Fergus does a lot of my artwork. He’s the drummer in the band, and he does all their video stuff, plus his own fashion line, loads of freelance graphic stuff, and just generally being the most cosmic man ever, which takes a lot of time.
Electro is such a small world and everyone seems to know everyone, play the same festivals, collaborate with each other, and so on. Why do you think the scene is so close-knit?
Riton: I think we’re all like the same age, we’ve done the same things pretty much to get where we are, and we all have the same lifestyle -- which can be a bit weird, living out of suitcases. So, we’ve always got something to talk about, not to mention our love of mastering and compression, which always kills a couple of hours at lunch. Plus I think pretty much everyone that you will have heard of is a good guy. They’re all funny, have a similar sense of humor …
Mehdi: Except for Busy P.
Riton: [Quoting Busy P lyric] “What the fuck?”
Mehdi: It’s a nice scene, it’s true. I come from a hip-hop background. It’s less friendly, there’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of competition in our scene too, but the fact that everyone is pretty nice and polite makes it more gentlemanly. It’s easier to make friends if you see the same people all the time. Let’s say, for example, Steve Aoki, who’s not exactly from the same scene, nor the same continent – he’s from L.A., I’m from Paris. He’s somebody that I see more often than I see my childhood friends or people I went to school with. It’s part of our lifestyle to make friends with the people you sort of work with. It makes for a nice scene, even if sometimes you’re not on the same music page or whatever. And you’re reaching an age, especially if you’re that busy, you don’t really have time for unnecessary tension, so it might as well be cool for everybody. There are a couple of guys I don’t really like, though, in the scene.
Riton: If you had to ask me who I don’t like, I’d have to think about it for awhile.
Mehdi: We should start a little envy/hate movement in the scene to make it interesting.
Riton: You know, it is a bit too nice …
Mehdi: This Brodinski guy, for example. What’s up with him?
Riton: He had sex with Shakira, bastard. I am a little bit envious of Brodinski. He’s handsomer than me, and he might have possibly fingered Shakira. [Both laugh.]
Mehdi: I’m part of the Cool Cats community, it’s true. It wasn’t my idea -- it was Pedro [Busy P]’s idea to invite me into this. I didn’t need it, but I really enjoy it since I love to write.
Riton: I love it -- I really enjoy it. I just wish I was inspired to do it every day. Sometimes I’m working in the studio and my mind’s completely on something else, but when I’m inspired to do it I love it. It’s really nice to look back across what you’d done over the last few months as well, like a diary. I think definitely people who are into your music like it.
Mehdi: To be honest, Busy P and SoMe wanted me to actually highlight a Wikipedia page every now and then. They really wanted me to be random, not necessarily music-oriented, but I did it my way, to quote Paul Anka. I do enjoy it a lot.
Riton: This guy’s got an extremely great memory of facts and figures. Citation needed, but Mehdi’s quite intelligent.
And finally, what would people be most shocked to know about Carte Blanche?
Mehdi: The most shocking thing? I’m probably the biggest Rick Ross fan, and Henry is the best dressed DJ in Britain. One of the most shocking things is my pronunciation of Britain, which is controversial.
Riton: That’s all we can talk about now.
Mehdi: I really want to thank my mother. I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for her. My record label, my music teacher in sixth grade who told me I’ll never make it ...