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Making Friends With is our series that sees us get to know DJs in some of their favourite hangouts
Tough Love are one of those artists that are difficult to sum up in a snappy intro. The duo of Alex and Stef have been working together for almost a decade and they've accomplished a lot in that time. Depending on your music tastes you may know them as the producers of a bevvy of radio-smashing hits - tracks like "Pony" and "So Freakin' Tight", or you may know them as stalwarts of the UK house music circuit, DJing at clubs and festivals across the country, with some big club-focused tracks including "In The Name Of Love" and "Perfect Love".
Along with creating their own music and performing, they've also helped nurture a dazzling array of talent with their label Get Twisted. Now at over 100 releases, Get twisted has championed music from Hannah Wants, Chris Lorenzo and Lee Walker. They're regular faces at Amnesia's Together and have a long association with Ministry of Sound club, tours and label.
I'd been following their career for a while, so when they hit me up at the start of summer asking if I fancied some Ten Pin Bowling I jumped at the chance. As it turned out my bowling skills were rustier than I expected but between gutter balls and a single strike(!) I got to know a lot about their journey to date, what it's like working as a duo and their refreshingly honest views on the music industry.
MoS: Are you guys quite competitive?
Alex: We both played a lot of sport before we did music, at Uni. Stef was a footballer and I was playing rugby. It's a weird combination, but we still like each other!
Stef: Yeah, it's unusual, but we got on!
What made you take the leap from sport to music?
Alex: Injury to be honest! I always loved music and was always messing around with that, I grew up in a really musical household. But I always wanted to play pro rugby, but my body just couldn't tolerate it. I had a dislocated shoulder, ripped ligaments in my knees. I moved to London and kind of fell into running clubs. Running the doors, promoting, that sort of thing. I learnt that side of the industry and I'd always do the opening set. Then I bumped into Stefan, maybe nine years ago?
So you got to know each other from DJing on the same circuit?
Alex: We came up in the house scene together, we talked about getting into the studio forever and then eventually we just did it. When we started out it was a really good moment for house music, around about 2011.
Stef: There was a real resurgence around then. It's when Creche and Half Baked were really having a moment.
Do you share a studio?
Alex: We're lucky, we've got three setups, one each and one joint. That means we can crack on anytime day or night. Then three or times a week we sift through what we've done and scrap the rubbish ones and keep the ones we like.
How do you decide if one of you likes a project and one doesn't?
Stef: It's never happened. We roadtest our stuff a lot, so we'll always try and work new ideas into sets and see what kind of reaction it gets. There have been times where there have been records that we might not have been blown away by, then we roadtest it and that spurs us on to finish it.
Alex: We don't like leaving tracks either, we always think 'we've started, we've seen something in it, let's finish it'.
When you’re making music, are you conscious of wider music trends?
Stef: Sometimes you do have to be aware of what sounds are popular. You want to be aware, but not compromise your own sound.
Alex: I think a lot of guys have definitely got caught in that in the last 18 months. People have said 'right tech house, I'm tech house now'. Then they start calling themselves a tech house DJ. The guys at the forefront of that were playing it when it wasn't a trend, four/five years ago. We're not those DJs, we don't make that music. We like elements of it, but we would never fully switch. I think one of the things maybe we got wrong in the last 18 months, was not being allowed to do what we wanted.
Was that due to label pressure?
Stef: Yeah, completely. We were still making the music we loved, but we just didn't have the platform to put it out. We'd play it in our shows, but labels didn't want to put it out.
Alex: There was a definite disparity between what we enjoyed and what we were making. We had to make a conscious effort to kind of pull it all back and almost hit the reset button. It's definitely paid dividends. I think you can hear it in the music. The first release was the 100th release on Get Twisted with Todd Terry. Then the more recent one, "Boom Boom Kick" on Simma Black, I think it's all just a truer representation of us. Rather than going into the studio and thinking 'we've got to make this' it's going into the studio and thinking 'what do we want to make'. We do that every time now, and we ask ourselves, 'would we play this out?' because if the answer is no, then we shouldn't be doing it.
Stef you're really smashing both of us at bowling
Stef: Well I lived in the states for a while and all the strip clubs would have bowling alleys and DJs and it'd be a real party. It was like the most social thing you could do was go to the strip club and bowl. You used to see some amazing bowlers there, so I reckon I've picked up a few tips.
So, was it label frustrations that led you to start Get Twisted?
Alex: Yeah, in the beginning, definitely. It was just like constant rejection. We thought, 'well we think these records are good, and other people are sending us records that we think are good.' So we decided to go for it and start putting them out. We had to learn, very quickly, how to run a label. It blew up really quickly. Within two/three years we had different deals with Universal, Sony and Ministry.
Stef: We were very aware that some of our acts were really picking up steam. The first release had Chris Lorenzo, Hannah Wants, us, Denney and Lee Webster. Every single one of them has gone on to do really well.
Were those acts experiencing similar things to you?
Alex: I think so. There was a general frustration. It hasn't changed - the house scene is full of snobbery. People will hate on us for saying it, but it's very cliquey and it's full of snobbery. If you're not part of that clique or that scene, you've really got to graft to find your feet. We've never really been one to play the game as such. We just like putting out records and trying to find the right home for the right record. We hope that's what Get Twisted is for the artists that work with us. We never thought we'd get legendary acts coming to us to put records out, which we've had, which is great, and long may it continue.
Do you have any new artists on the label you're excited to debut?
Alex: Ernest & Frank have just signed with Marco Carola and they've got something coming out with us. We've got Mr Kavalicious bubbling along nicely. We've got another one with Roger Sanchez coming up as well as some huge singles from Dateless & under_score that we’re really pumped about!
Stef: The Trutopia boys.
They're the ones who do the streaming house party right?
Alex: The Night Mayors, yeah that's them. We met them at their flat and I think they remind us a bit of us from six/seven years ago. So, we want to help guide them, make sure they're in the right places, working with the nice people and not the sharks.
Stef: They’re like us in that they’re doing their own thing. That’s the thing when those doors closed, we were very much like we'll start our own party, or we'll start our own label.
Alex: I think every success story is the same, it's the exact same formula: own label, own party, own crew.
Do you think you would've had the same confidence to do that had you have been just solo artists?
Alex: I'd say we'd have had the confidence, but it wouldn't have worked as well. We both work flat out and there's no way I could do that by myself. There aren't enough hours in the day.
Stef: We had separate careers before Tough Love, so we had a good understanding of the industry, but we just both add a different dynamic to what we do as a duo. Our work ethic is that much higher. It makes it more enjoyable too. Even with touring, doing it solo is good, but having someone to bounce off and experience it together is a million times better.
And you’ve got a new record out?
Alex: Well we recently dropped ‘Keeping Warm’. Soul Divide sent it to us. We thought it was wicked. We asked if they had the sample cleared. They didn't, so we've been working on getting it cleared for almost a year and finally, it's cleared. Then we did our own mix on it, sent it over, they loved it and we decided to do it as a Vs mix, that gives it its own identity. We've been playing it out loads and its been going down really well.
That last third really kicks off.
Alex: Yeah when the piano comes, it really starts picking off. Hopefully, it'll do well. Then we're relentless from that point on - we've got a single on Sweat It Out called "Platinum Gold" and then our first single on Warner, One More Tune, called "Rain Dance" then we're also mixing the new Pure House album. It's a super busy summer.
What about gigs?
Alex: We've been doing all the usual island spots, Marbella, Mallorca, Malia. We’ve got four shows for Cutting Edge and Moments of Ibiza at Eden, a couple more for Together at Amnesia, a few more unannounced Ibiza dates, SW4 and Butterfly Effect Festival. I'm sure there's some more. Once summer season has slowed down we’ll announce our UK tour.
What's been your favourite moment of being in Tough love so far?
Stef: I think it's the journey. Like the first big festival you do, you get overwhelmed by the crowd in front of you. Then the first international one you do, seeing a crowd that knows your music and appreciate how it's travelled ahead of you. It's the progression I enjoy the most.
Alex: I think I've enjoyed the past sixth months because I feel like a lot of people wrote us off. I love being the underdog and I love proving people wrong. We definitely got written off. Our touring has never stopped, we still did over 60 shows last year, America, Europe and heavy festivals across the UK. After being written off, we've got a track at No.4 on Beatport, we've got a big tune out this Friday, we've signed a brand new deal with Warner, we've got records coming out on all sorts of labels with all sorts of people. We're in probably the strongest position we've ever been in, but because we don't shout about it on Instagram every single minute, like everyone else, it doesn't get seen. Maybe that's a sign of our age.
Stef: We're not the biggest fans of social media in general. We prefer to let the music do the talking. Unfortunately, the way the industry is now, it's all about social media. We understand the pros and cons of it, but we don't get carried away with it.
Alex: I think, for us, the second time around feels that much sweeter. Doing a deal with a major and having hits at clubland, the first time it's overwhelming and you don't know what to do with it. The second time you can actually absorb it. If we never did anything more than this, I'd be happy. We've done a lot. It's blunt, but I am blunt, there are no grey areas with Tough Love haha!
Stef: We are very honest and it can occasionally rub people up the wrong way. If we're talking to the head of a major label, we're just open and honest, but sometimes people can take that the wrong way. It can rub them up a little bit.
Yeah, there's a surprising amount of politics in dance music.
Alex: No Shit! haha
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Stef: Do as much as humanly possible yourself, before you rely on somebody to take hold of your passion. Everything we do is because we love it and we can never expect somebody else to love it as much as we do. So when you hand the reigns over to someone else to do your publishing or your bookings, they're never going to give you as much as you would yourself. If you can do it, try and do it as much as possible.
Alex: Also be patient. Take your time, develop your sound, develop your brand, don't rush it. Work out who you are and what you want before you start running. Shifting your brand in different directions 100 times is not healthy. And also ask for advice. There are a lot of good people out there who will sit down and have a chat and guide you in the right direction.
Stef: And you've got to be thick-skinned. There's a lot of rejection and it's not always for the right reason. It's not always for the wrong reason either, sometimes it's just not right for a certain label. If you get rejected from one place there are tonnes of others that might like it.
Alex: Don't take it personally. Anything artistic, that rejection feels personal, but it's not. It'll feel personal because you've spent a month perfecting a mixdown, or whatever. You can't let it get to you. You need a lot of mental strength and you need an outlet outside of music. Big time.
What you guys do outside of music?
Alex: Drink! No, I'm joking! We're both very active, we're really into the gym and sports.
Stef: Even when we're DJing we hardly drink anymore. It's important to have a good life balance. There was a period of time where we went very hard. It was gigging, studio, gigging, studio. It was relentless.
Alex: I was almost in hospital. We did 21 flights in ten days. I burnt out. It was a real wakeup call.
We've seen that a lot recently, with DJs burning out from punishing tour schedules.
Alex: It's all the extras as well, it takes its toll. We've got so many friends that we watch doing it every night. It's going to catch up with you eventually.
Finally, if you were to audition for a third member of Tough Love, what would you be looking for?
Stef: I wouldn't mind someone that could sing, actually.
Alex: Oh, you're treating this seriously!
Didn't you sing on some of your previous tracks?
Alex: He said someone that could sing!
Stef: We’d just like someone who’s hard working, down to earth and fun - you got to have fun doing this. I mean what's the point in doing music if you're not having fun? Also, someone who's not scared of flying - there’s already one of us who’s scared of flying.
Alex: I'm not scared of flying! I just don't like the crosswinds!
Pure House Mixed By Tough Love is out now, listen to it here.
Photos: Jake Lewis