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John Beltran

Interview for Dekmantel
March 2022

Feature for Dekmantel 2022

I talked to the wonderful John Beltran ahead of a one-off live performance of his classic album Days of Blue, during the 2022 edition of Dekmantel Festival in Amsterdam.

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Photo: Piere Zylstra

Finally, Dekmantel's long-awaited 2022 edition approaches. And on Thursday night, the Muziekgebouw aan 't Ij will play host to one particularly special set, originally billed for 2020: an exclusive live performance of John Beltran's classic 1996 album Ten Days of Blue.

Now 26 years since its release, Callum McLean caught up with Beltran to return to the origins of the record, and to catch a sneak preview of what to expect from this one-off show. They talked about how Ten Days of Blue went from being an unambitious, lo-fi record to becoming an ambient techno classic – and how Beltran is revisiting the album for this once-in-a-lifetime performance.

For an album that has inspired multiple generations of electronic music fans, Ten Days of Blue has fairly humble origins – and some unexpected stylistic influences. So tells its creator John Beltran, dialling in from his hometown of Lansing, Michigan. "At the time I was in the middle of this new age, ambient phase," he tells me. "Like, I was really into CDs of just whale sounds! Seriously, that was a thing in the early '90s."

Maybe this comes as less of a surprise to some readers now than it would have ten years ago. A lot of the ambient and new age music that inspired Ten Days of Blue – as well as the chillout and ambient techno records that also drew from those genres – have only achieved respectability pretty recently. After a decade that revived and reissued everything from Mort Garson's Plantasia to '80s spa tapes and Japanese environmental music, these genres have reclaimed a new kind of cultural cachet that would have seemed laughable before. New age became all the rage. Yet, Ten Days of Blue has maintained a particular kind of currency with certain electronic music fans that both predates and goes beyond this revival.

The album has been highly regarded and sought after pretty well since its release, with high demand for early Beltran records leading to a controversial reissue of Ten Days of Blue by Peacefrog in 2018. Even Paul McCartney was supposedly once seen with a copy. To illustrate this lasting resonance, Beltran tells an anecdote from a recent set in Colombia. Opening for Beltran's set, a younger Colombian DJ gestured enthusiastically at him, saying only "Ten Days of Blue!" and tracing a tear down his cheek. "That's all he said! I think that's a good thing? Emotionally, the record stands the test of time. I think it translates to anyone who's serious about underground or electronic music, and crosses generations."

But this was as much of a surprise to Beltran as anyone. "This record was never meant to be anything special", he insists. "I put a lot of stock into my record on R&S from the year before, Earth & Nightfall, but then [London record label] Peacefrog came calling. I meant Ten Days of Summer to be more minimal, if solid – I definitely wasn't expecting it to get much attention! It was always going to be as efficient of a record as I could make."

What's more, it's a record that technically should never have been released. At the time, Beltran had an exclusive contract with R&S. "Renaat [Vandepapeliere, co-founder of R&S] called me up one day and said, 'Why is there a blue record of yours on my desk right now?' I was like, 'Uh, is there?'", remembers Beltran. "I hadn't even read the contract when I got it from R&S! I was just happy to sign."

Perhaps another reason for the record's enduring appeal is its warmth. Tracks like 'Flex' and 'Venim and Wonder' are built around techno hi-hats and IDM-style drum programming, but the rest feature almost no drums at all. Instead, the predominant sounds are a highly melodic staccato of featherlight synth sounds and aqueous, billowing pads. "All these sounds I was using were pretty organic, world music textures (I was into Peter Gabriel at the time), but I put them into more techno, rhythmic forms."

In this way Beltran seems to have departed from the Detroit techno scene that he'd embraced early on, having grown up in nearby Lansing. What was it then, I ask, that drew him later to making much more introspective, softer music? "Growing up!", he chuckles. "I didn't want to just be in a club all the time. I listened to so much other music, so I was just moving past these more mechanical sounds."

"But you'd be surprised what electronic music producers listen to", Beltran points out. "I asked Derrick May what he was listening to back in the '90s and he said TLC! For me, it was a lot of Sting – Ten Summoner's Tales. That lushness was really inspiring for me at the time, and that's where my headspace was. I wanted a more elegant approach to electronic music. I wasn't so much into the dirty side of things."

In casting his musical net so wide and unpretentiously, Beltran finds himself in another way aligned with a newer generation of electronic music listeners and producers. For example, Beltran has collaborated with the famously eclectic Four Tet, as well as Malibu and Baby Blue, both of whom he praises for their trance and pop-inflected takes on ambient and techno. And his own colossal discography has spanned everything from drum 'n' bass to acid jazz and Latin.

So why revisit Ten Days of Blue now, two and a half decades and countless releases later? Beltran certainly started with mixed feelings: "In some ways, I've always been trying to run away from this record. I hate to say that to everyone who loves the record, but when people tell you it's so great, you can't help but think, 'Well shit man, I'm still making music!' I think what I do is pretty good still – I'm ten times the musician I was then. So there's that part, but I'm also really excited. I'm starting to fall in love with the record again!"

Most importantly, the performance gives Beltran the rare opportunity to apply a long career's experience to tweaking a classic release. "I would never changethe record – I love it as it is", he clarifies. "But it's fun to put a twist on things for a live performance. On the one hand, it's going to be almost like a listening party: we're all connected by this record. But I also want to make sure this thing sounds killer, you know? I'll be playing a lot of parts live, but I'm also basically re-producing the whole album right now from scratch. I'm bringing the energy, but the emotion and the melodies will be there in full and up front. I'm really excited about the work I'm doing on the record and what reaction it'll get!

"You want to know another reason I'm doing this? Dekmantel is a pretty fucking huge deal! And I never got a chance to play this record live when I was just a kid, so here you are: I love the record, here it is, and I'm finally here to make it rock."