Tiga Eye of the Tiga

Tiga Eye of the Tiga
Tiga Sontag is, like most of us, a product of his times. You may have guessed this when the domestic DJ/producer hit the world stage a few years back by applying an electro shellacking to fellow Montrealer Corey Hart’s ‘80s staple "Sunglasses At Night.” But while renowned for his retro fixation, Tiga’s career is actually built on a litany of firsts. And almost no lasts.

After spending the ‘90s taking Montreal’s electronic music virginity with the city’s inaugural rave, techno radio show, DJ record shop and legal after-hours club, Tiga leapt off the sinking rave ship to single-handedly lead the northern wing of the early 2000s electro revival via his sweat-soaked Neon parties and acclaimed Turbo record label. Then, as contemporaries like Fischerspooner and Felix da Housecat were crushed beneath electroclash rubble, Tiga sauntered away unscathed. Hell, he’s been on an essentially endless DJ tour ever since and seemingly every major player in electronic music has him on speed dial. The global dance community continues to contract and yet our home grown hero’s rep just keeps rising.

He’s an undeniable talent behind the decks and inside the studio, but what’s kept Tiga from becoming a musical footnote — which seemed likely back when local papers were dubbing him the "czar of rave” — is the man’s unimpeachable sense of timing. His career is like a perfectly-paced DJ set, with Tiga consistently in the right place at the right moment with the right music and — now this is key — he’s always known exactly when to move on.

"I take it as a compliment,” Tiga says during some rare downtime. "The most important thing is having the confidence to listen to your gut. We all know when something’s not as good as it should be or as it was. At that time you have a choice — you keep going or you move on to something else that gives you that same exciting feeling.

"Most people know when something’s not that amazing. They know when it’s a shadow of itself and they either lack the confidence to think they can recreate it in a different area or they just don’t care or, I dunno, they think they can fix it,” he says incredulously. "For me, you have to follow your instinct — in a way that’s all you have.”

Though 2006 marks the 32 year old’s first foray into full-length territory with Sexor — a knowingly campy electro pop album that has already arrived to much fanfare and countless multilingual magazine covers in Europe — his story, to paraphrase the Chemical Brothers, began in India.

In Goa, to be precise, the party-friendly province butted up against the Arabian Sea that was a hippie enclave in the 1960s before becoming synonymous with psy-trance once bongos were replaced with electronic beats. This past winter, for the first time in a few years, Tiga spent three weeks vacationing in the Goan village of Anjuna before his ever-present DJ duties took him to Japan and then across Europe for a lengthy record release tour.

"It’s like going back to where I grew up. I play a lot of soccer, smoke a lot of joints, and listen to music. I guess that’s what everyone does, but I don’t really party there,” he says. "My dad was there at the same time and my brother. I don’t have family [living in Goa] but there are so many people who knew me as a kid, locals and other foreigners, so it feels like that.”

Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, Tiga’s father was a pioneering party DJ in Goa, taking his son along with him for the entire winter season until high school reduced Tiga’s annual sojourns to one month a year.

"When I was living there it was pre-acid house,” he recalls. "Then when I went back there in my 20s it had already gone to trance and the whole world had turned into one big rave. I didn’t really see the transition but it was pretty logical — even when I was there as a kid that idea of these all-night parties and drugs was already in place.”

He took that idea home with him and a few years later, while whiling away the hours in high school, also noticed the rising rave movement in England. Inspired, he began staging all-nighters in Montreal, first with small parties and then, as a member of Bus Company, Tiga promoted 1993’s Solstice, better known as Montreal’s first full-blown rave. His entrepreneurial acumen led him to open the DJ-centric vinyl shop DNA Records the following year. He kept spinning techno at parties and on college radio and soon launched Sona, an after-hours club which, alongside Toronto’s Industry and Ottawa’s Atomic, made Canada a must-spin stop on the international DJ circuit.

"In rough brushstrokes, the early ‘90s were a really exciting time in Canada for electronic music. It was genuinely new. Mid-’90s was the explosion of clubs and after-hours as techno and electronic music filtered through to the masses and that was also exciting in its own way. But by the end of the ’90s, I got bored of it.”

Not the music part, obviously, but the electronic impresario didn’t want to be a businessman — it had always been a means to an end — and began divesting himself of his still-successful holdings, save his Turbo label (which he recently assumed full control of after buying out his partner).

"It definitely ranks with the best things I ever did. I think I feel better about getting rid of them than starting them,” he laughs. "I have zero regrets. There’s no way I would be where I am now if I hadn’t run a record store for six or seven years. It’s an integral part of everything — the confidence that comes with knowing your music. If you go up all those different steps on the ladder you appreciate all the work that goes into things. Same with the nightclub, I have an understanding of how it all works. It’s really easy to get fucked over as an artist.”

2000’s double-CD Mixed Emotions was where most people outside of Montreal got their first glimpse of Tiga and quite a sight it was, as the rail-thin disc jockey donned lip-gloss for the cover and posed in a pink water-filled bathtub inside.

"I created a pop persona, put myself out there as an image, a character, and added more personality to the DJ thing. That got the ball rolling as far as being an artist, being more creative and not hiding behind the turntables.”

The critically acclaimed mix also revealed Tiga’s split sonic loyalties, with one disc focused on his trademark techno while the other was all about electro, an ’80s-rooted sound that had never fallen out of favour in Germany but wouldn’t regain prominence in North America until the following year. Though the popular mix gave Tiga cred outside his hometown, it still didn’t fulfil his artistic ambition.

"I always wanted to be a DJ. It was never a compromise. I was a product of the acid house movement,” he assures. "But a few years in I felt I really wanted to make records and by the late ’90s I was like, ‘Fuck, I should be making music. Why aren’t I making music?’ Eventually the dam just burst. I had a lifelong pop and music obsession stored up in me that I wasn’t channelling through DJing.”

But first the vigour of the electro revival prompted Tiga to get back into promoting, since nobody else was putting on events he wanted to play out at. The result was a series of now-legendary Neon parties, which perfectly encapsulated Tiga’s retro-futuristic vision (though the parties continue, Tiga ended his association well over a year ago).

"For two or three years the Neon parties really had something. There was this new energy and excitement and I think everyone felt it — this is the way it’s meant to be,” Tiga recalls. "I have a lot of respect for the audience. If something excites me enough to keep playing at home, well, someone else is going to like it too. That’s instinctive. So there are times that are going to make you really popular. What happened with the whole electro thing was that my tastes really coincided with a lot of other people’s. That also happened with the early rave years. You have to listen to that voice and follow it.”

During this period Tiga finally started messing around in the studio and wound up making that tongue-in-cheek cover of "Sunglasses at Night” with his buddy Jori Hulkkonen, a Swedish producer sometimes known as Zyntherius who boasts similarly ‘80s-formed tastes.

While Tiga’s genre-hop may’ve seemed like selling out to techno purists, Tiga has never been a member of that Hawtin school — it’s unlikely Richie’s early warehouse gigs in Detroit concluded with Prince’s "Kiss,” as Tiga’s more populist sets were known to.

"I have total respect for him,” Tiga says of his friend. "[Richie] stays on the edge. He’s always got some new technology or new technique. It keeps him fresh and I strive to be the same. But when it comes to making music I’m not too serious because I’m not trained like that. It’s more about mixing and matching and personality.”

Completed in just a few hours with an 808, an MPC and his own deadpan vocals, Tiga’s spur-of-the-moment Corey Hart cover debuted on his American Gigolo mix. Handpicked by Germany’s DJ Hell to introduce North Americans to his label, International DJ Gigolos, Tiga’s mix gave the genre a credibility that the fashion-fixated New York electro scene could never pull off.

But rather than breaking DJ Gigolos in America, it wound up breaking Tiga in Europe when "Sunglasses” became an unexpected smash, eventually selling 200,000 copies, cracking the pop charts in Germany and the UK (where it also peaked at number two on the dance chart) and topping MTV’s dance countdown for six weeks. It was licensed to countless compilations and even landed Tiga on Britain’s venerable Top of the Pops TV show.

All of this created intense demand that Tiga was utterly unprepared for. "I had as much clue about songwriting as I did about playing hockey. Not that bad, but I had never tried to write a song,” he says (and to anyone wondering why a Montrealer can’t skate, remember Tiga spent his childhood winters in India).

So Tiga initially stuck to covers which, like the remixes he’d become equally renowned for, allowed him to find his voice by working within a preset template. He also felt at that stage his strength was in reinterpretations and besides, playing around with pop was fun.

"When I did ‘Sunglasses’ the point was if you dilute one of these top 40 radio songs to its bare essentials, which in this case was that synth line and a few catch phrases, does it still hold up? And usually the answer is yes.”

He would prove this again with 2003’s subtly homoerotic "Hot In Herre” (featuring backing vocals from Jake Shears of the then-obscure Scissor Sisters), which Tiga debuted at a particularly epic Neon event during which the crowd went absolutely insane over the cover and accompanying puppetry by Tiga’s brother Thomas, "Lord of the Marionettes.”

Though Tiga kept busy with remixes — his illustrious catalogue includes Martini Bros., Crossover, FC Kahuna, Cabaret Voltaire, Telepopmusik, Felix da Housecat, Fischerspooner, FPU, Danni Minogue, Peaches, Scissor Sisters, Mylo and LCD Soundsystem — he finally began making waves with his original material thanks to the floor-filling single "Burning Down (London’s Burning)” and the even more crowd-pleasing classic "Pleasure From the Bass,” a 2004 low-end anthem that proved he was more than just a novelty act.

Tiga is more often than not in Europe, but he’s thus far resisted the urge to relocate to Berlin, which has become an electronic music Mecca, especially for Canadians. "I’ve seen everyone from Peaches to Richie to Miss Kittin take their turn moving there. Me, I like being somewhere different. I like my headquarters off the beaten path. There are definitely downsides to living in Montréal but I like that it’s so separate.”

Still, while working on what would become Sexor, the avid collaborator headed across the pond to spend studio time with the Soulwax brothers in Belgium and Swedish cohort Jesper Dahlback.

"It wasn’t the most organic process in the world for reasons outside my own control. I had a lot of family problems and during the two years over which the album was made my life was pretty much a mess and things were very chopped up. It was a bit of a struggle,” he says, obliquely referencing the illness and death of his mother, whose sweet Valentine’s Day voicemail to her son is included as a hidden track, ending the generally celebratory album on a poignant note.

"I wanted her involved a little,” Tiga explains. "She never got to hear any of that stuff so I just wanted her on there.”

In keeping with Tiga’s established M.O., Sexor contains several covers paying tribute to his musical inspirations — including a "campy rap hip-house techno” version of Public Enemy’s "Louder than a Bomb,” an acidic swipe at Talking Heads’ "Burning Down The House” and Nine Inch Nails’ sombre "Down In It” — though he admits to misgivings. "In hindsight I should have, I dunno, I don’t like to second-guess things. All my friends told me, ‘Don’t do so many covers’ but it just happened that way.”

But don’t mistake it, Sexor remains dominated by his originals, though fans may note that some are previously released singles while other well-known Tiga tracks are missing.

"I’m a bit old-fashioned and my own idea for an album is that there shouldn’t be anything on there that’s too crazy, too energetic, too main room. With ‘Burning Down’ or the new song ‘Move My Body,’ if I’m listening at home I don’t want to hear those songs.”

So Tiga tested out a few different directions, including "happy cheery pop” on the radio-friendly "(Far From) Home,” ecstasy-fuelled uplift on "High School,” vocal house on "Good as Gold” and then there’s "You Gonna Want Me,” a Brit hit combining campy vocals from Jake Shears with samples from Altern 8’s rave classic "Infiltrate 202,” the song that got Tiga into techno in the first place. Though the production quality is uniformly cutting-edge, much of Sexor’s aesthetic is borrowed from his ’80s upbringing.

"I grew up during that period and there was an impact. It’s just in me. I was recording Friday Night Videos on my Betamax. Those are things that stay with you. All my formative ideas on what a pop star should look like or what makes a cool pair of pants or what sounds good are from those times,” he says. "You had all these people, really interesting characters, just experimenting in a way that now seems completely foreign. That’s what interests me.”

But Tiga largely avoids the pitfalls that have hampered similarly fixated artists, most of whom fail to see beyond the superficial trappings of analogue synths and silly fashions. Of course, the Duran Duran decade informs both Sexor’s sonics and Tiga’s fey public persona, but he’s also absorbed nearly every dance music permutation from glam and disco through electro, house, rave and techno.

Like the DJ he is, Tiga is able to pull all of his inspirations together and play them back out, creating something new, something vital, out of the juxtapositions. In the end, Sexor simply sounds like post-millennial pop.

"A lot of the stuff from the past five years is too obviously pastiche, too much about referencing the past. You need songs. You need something new,” Tiga readily admits. "And you hope that you have something different to offer by being you. Be true to your influences and that’s your best chance of having a fingerprint.”