Music Interview | posted 28.02.2011
Virgo Four
Born Again
The two Chicago natives Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders are set to make Chicago House enthusiasts go apeshit again in 2011 with a huge collection of unreleased tracks, mostly recorded prior to their classic debut. Merwyn Sanders sat down with us to talk.
Text Florian Aigner

Topping last year’s best albums list with a reissue (!) of their 1989 selt-titled classic longplayer Virgo, the two Chicago natives Eric Lewis and Merwyn Sanders are set to make Chicago House enthusiasts go apeshit again in 2011 with a huge collection of unreleased tracks, mostly recorded prior to their classic debut. Merwyn Sanders sat down with to discuss the details of their upcoming release on Rush Hour, the best Chicago clubs of the 1980s, Elevator House Music, the current resurgence of Chicago’s pioneers and his relationship with Trax head honcho Larry Sherman (who made them change their name from M.E. to Virgo/Virgo 4 in order to cater to the fans of Marshall Jefferson’s and Adonis’ project of the same name). And what a humble and communicative fella he turned out to be…

You supposedly have tons of tapes with unreleased material, how did you pick the cuts that ended up on Resurrection__?
Merwyn Sanders : Well when I originally told Christiaan (Macdonald) of Rush Hour about the tapes, he may not have totally believed there are as many as we said. So he came to Chicago and saw for himself and stayed with Eric for two weeks going through them and hand picking ones†˜ he wanted to try. It†˜s kinda†˜ funny. Eric and I were still going on with our daily lives and Eric says he would first see Christiaan up and perky and ready to start goin†˜ through tapes, but when he would get home, Christiaan would be lying on the couch looking worn out by then but still pushing tape buttons with pieces of paper in front of him trying to note which tracks he liked. See, the tapes mostly just had a number on them so Christiaan would write #250 and make up a name for the track by either a vocal on it or just where it was on the tapes. I think he had about 50 listed and then we narrowed that to the 30 now being released.
I really appreciate Christiaan doing what he did and coming to Chicago and going through all those tapes. It’s actions like that, that make a difference with someone and other labels need to take notice even if Eric and I aren’t selling a million. He could have just passed on it and none of this would be happening.

»We thought it may be nice to feel that you are getting†˜ a raw look at what we were doin†˜! Kinda†˜ how it was back in the day when everybody wanted a tape of Your Love by Jamie Principle, but by the time you got it, the fidelity had been lost because so many people had past it around… but you didn†˜t care!« (Merwyn Sanders) I remember you mentioning that most of your early stuff was recorded live, without a sequencer. Was this technique still used on what we now get to hear on Resurrection?
Merwyn Sanders : Yes it is! We just never bought a sequencer. But for instance, on In A Vision, the repeating high note pattern were notes triggered through the drum machine, so in some cases we would use the drum machine as a sequencer in a sense but just for little parts like that. We would just assign notes on the keyboard to the drum pattern we programmed and then the rest we would just play and add and improv live over it. Even changing the drum pattern live, not programming it section by section. We would be playing as if we were playing it somewhere, the room would be dark and Eric had these actual City of Chicago traffic lights in the room, so it totally set the mood for the music!! And all the tracks on Resurrection are done the same way! A lot of the tracks on Resurrection were done before the first 1989 Virgo Four release. I think a lot of material has gotten lost over the years because we did a ton of recordings even before this stage of our music. It was when we first started getting into it. There†˜s a lot we did on this Moog Opus 3 keyboard around 1981 or 82. We had very minimal gear as you can see, but that†˜s why we sounded the way we did, or should I say do! But now we are up to par doing everything digitally, primarily using Logic or Cubase, we still love the old way though. It†˜s just more fun!!!

Was it remastered or left untouched?
Merwyn Sanders : All the tracks on Resurrection are mastered. Keep in mind though, all this material is actually off a 4-track recorder, so the fidelity is not typical of today. That made doing this somewhat difficult at first. We never thought we would be putting out 4-track recordings. Our thought was always that, if any of these tracks we do, we would redo or record them in the studio. But to keep their feel and the way these tracks were recorded, we decided not to redo the tracks because they would probably lose any charm they may have. And we thought it may be nice to feel that you are getting†˜ a raw look at what we were doin†˜! Kinda†˜ how it was back in the day when everybody wanted a tape of Your Love by Jamie Principle, but by the time you got it, the fidelity had been lost because so many people had past it around……but you didn†˜t care! Hopefully that†˜s the feeling with Resurrection!

Have you been working on new music as well?
Merwyn Sanders: We have music before this and have been doing music since. And not just house or electronic. Maybe in another 20 years all the music we†˜ve done since the early 90†˜s will be resurrected! (laughs). We are use to it now! Christiaan tells us the same thing that Larry Sherman use to tell us about new material we wanted to put out back in the day! »I don†˜t like it« or »I†˜m not feelin†˜ it« or because it†˜s not sounding like the other material there is a fear it won†˜t sell any or something. So I†˜m predicting someone will ask in 20 years, »so after the 2011 Resurrection release did you guys do any more music?« and hopefully we can do again what we are doing now, and call it Born Again or something†˜! We†˜ll be senior citizens putting out House Music!

Is there anything else you were working on tha last years?
Merwyn Sanders : I actually released something with Trax/Casablanca as a solo project about 5 years ago called †œElevator House Music†œ. It†˜s funny because Larry (Sherman) asked me if I could give him some Larry Heard kinda†˜ tracks. In hindsight, now seeing the love for our first release, shoulda†˜ said, †žhello…….what about some Virgo Four-ish kinda tracks! I didn†˜t even think about that at the time. But he was still askin†˜ me to do something like someone else! Still missing what we have to offer!!! But anyway, he didn†˜t like the Larry Heard kinda†˜ track I did(which is good) but he did like this other one. I remember Farley JackMaster Funk was there to talk to Larry about something and we were finishing the track. Van Christie did a lot of work on the track and I had a great sax player named Traysee J Leonard play on it. That day Van asked me what the title of the track is, and I just responded †žElevator House Music†œ and then I went into the office and Farley asked what†˜s that playin†˜ and I told him †žElevator House Music†œ, he kinda smiled, almost a laugh, he gave his number actually just as a new connection but I haven†˜t talked to him. Anyhoo, we still love analog though, it†˜s just much more cost effective etc to go digital. There†˜s stuff I†˜ve written to do for an orchestra, Eric has written Christmas songs, I want to get back into Gospel, you name it!! There†˜s so much we want to do, but life gets in the way, huh!!!

Why did you take so much time to relaunch your music career? A case of different priorities or did you just not think that the market for your sound was still there?
Merwyn Sanders : Actually both! Different priorities and we had no clue of the appreciation of anything we†˜ve done. Thank you for the compliment of us having »a sound« and I also have to add. If no record label ever put out anything by us we still would never stop doing it. We can†˜t. It†˜s not a choice! Even when we are not together we are doing music. Eric has so much music he†˜s done alone and so do I. Not purposefully really. Like I said, we can†˜t stop! Our music kinda†˜ relaunched itself actually. I think it†˜s God smiling on us. Believe it or not but right before Rush Hour contacted me, Eric and I were talking about just putting our music out there, for free. We truly feel it†˜s really not about the money or business side of it, or us even, but THE MUSIC. »There But By The Grace of God Go I«. We felt if there is one person out there that would like it, or it moves them or touches them, then let them have it, simple. Yes, musicians have to make a living, but that will come on its†˜ own, especially if you are a christian like me. Give God the glory and not yourself and you†˜ll have everything you want and need. You give and you will get back! We have never been tryin†˜ to break down doors to get our music heard and that kinda†˜ thing. We know a lot of our stuff »doesn’t have mass appeal maybe«, a certain niche. We have music we feel could be huge also though! What†˜s funny is, Eric literally told Larry that what†˜s happening now, would happen… (it) just took 20 years!

Your moniker of choice was M.E. Are you still somewhat unhappy with being forced to call yourself Virgo 4?
Merwyn Sanders : I am. For one, I†˜m not into »Horror-scopes« (laughs), and all the zodiac stuff. Eventhough, I know about it because it was a very »black« thing especially in the 70’s. You know, »what†˜s yo†˜ sign« kinda†˜ thing. Also Larry gave us that name and it†˜s simply not our name. I just live with it now, and I think Eric kinda†˜ feels the same. A »whateva†˜« attitude towards it. Whatever works you know. We thought about switching it to just V4, but that may just further confuse things. We are still getting mix ups with whether it†˜s Virgo 4 or just Virgo.

Did Marshall Jefferson ever comment on the whole name fiasco?
Merwyn Sanders : No. We haven†˜t talked or know any of those guys except Adonis. I think maybe he doesn†˜t really care about it really. He probably assumes that that was some Larry Sherman doing and kinda†˜ whatever about it. He really wouldn†˜t have anything to say to us about it, you know. That name is probably all in the past for him anyway and he†˜s moved on to bigger brighter things. It†˜s cool.

Can you describe your relationship with Larry Sherman? From an outside perspective, he always seemed to be a very unconventional character. *
*Merwyn Sanders :
Yeah, he was very unconventional. On a business level, yeah there was stuff we didn’t like. On a personal level, we actually got along great with Larry. Larry would help Eric with college tuition or have me do something over at Trax to make a little cash when I was in college. We would hang out at his house and play Nintendo. He knew something about everything, not sure if he was right all the time of course, but we would ask him about things and we would learn a little something. I remember when we signed with him. He made a point to sit down with us and go over doing clearance forms for publishing. I later thought, as shady as he seems sometimes and with what everybody else says also, he could have not offered that help and just said later that we should have known that, but he didn†˜t. I was the one always arguing with Larry. But it was about things such as changing our name or cutting off the intro to a track because he thought it wasn†˜t necessary or something, but that†˜s about it. Eric even bought a building from Larry. So personally we were cool. Now what was really happening with everything else we don†˜t know. When you would walk into Trax warehouse, there would be a guy sitting there on a crate with a block with a hole in it and he would put old records over the hole and hit it with a hammer to knock the paper center out, and that†˜s what Larry would use as vinyl to press his records. Being around him often I started to think that he†˜s not looking at it as a way of cheating people, but being smart. He could make a record for 25 or 50 cent or whatever it was, not sound that great, and people would still buy it? And this is when house music was starting, so nobody knew how for sure this would be for how long. I†˜ve also heard how people felt Larry was just taking advantage of young black kids and their music, and I†˜ve thought about that too. So often I†˜m torn between these things and how WE were actually with him. He useta†˜ call us his sons every now and then strangely enough.

»When you would walk into Trax warehouse, there would be a guy sitting there on a crate with a block with a hole in it and he would put old records over the hole and hit it with a hammer to knock the paper center out, and that†˜s what Larry would use as vinyl to press his records.« (Merwyn Sanders) You both have a musical background, playing the bass and guitar and you (Merwyn) even singing. Did you ever want to branch out and enrich your House productions with more – for a lack of a better – uncommon elements?
Merwyn Sanders: Sure, all the time. I wanted to incorporate other styles of music, work with choirs, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra! I have always envisioned a fairly unknown act appearing on the Grammy†˜s or something here in the states with a full orchestra, choir, live band and electronic instruments and doing a killer performance! Some have come close, such as Janet Jackson, with some of her more House sounding tracks and also C&C Music Factory’s A Deeper Love, there may be others, but those are the only I can remember and they are already huge artists. Maybe one day I†˜ll get to do these BIG ideas!!! We just need to find that one track that crosses over or crosses the line, that HUGE HIT!

The Chicago of the early 80s has become such a myth for House heads around the world, any special memories or stories you would like to share with our readers?
Merwyn Sanders : Well, we go to places now and everybody looks the same, acts the same, and it seems to be about drinking or finding someone for the night, and the music is just secondary, background, except for overseas a little, I don’t really go anywhere anymore, but that’s the feeling I get about what I have seen here. What I can say about back then is it was about dress, being different. People dressed preppy or funky or punk or whatever it was. It was about dancing and the music too of course. Often dance circles would form and there would be a group »jackin†˜ it up« while everybody formed a circle around them to watch! That doesn†˜t happen at all today! There was a way of dancing to house music, you would have had to see it! That†˜s why it was kinda†˜ funny to me when Madonna came out with Vogue and the general public made it seem like it was something new, and it was actually pretty tame for what you would have seen back in the day and Madonna was 10 years late I think! It was emotional! People would scream and yell or even cry because of what was playing and how! Guys would make dog barking sounds cause†˜ it was just pumped up, you know! I remember when Jamie Principle performed at Mendel, it was crazy! I just remember the feeling about it! The energy back then!

You went to the Music Box, you went to Powerplant, you went to the Warehouse. Let’s settle this once and for all: which was the best Chicago club of the eighties?
Merwyn Sanders : For me it was Mendel Catholic High School. Eric and I were younger so we really weren†˜t old enough. But over all I would say the Music Box, then the Warehouse, and then the Powerplant. I was more into Ron Hardy, so Music Box is 1 on my list. But Mendel was more of our stomping ground. Eric went to school there, so a lot of the time we got in free. There were two floors with the main floor I think holding 1000 or more people and the lower level another 7 or 800, so the crowd was huge! And it was all about socializing and the music. It was a catholic high school so there was no drinking or drugs etc. Those were the days!

A lot of Chicago legends have been more active overseas over the last couple of years, is this a coincidence?
Merwyn Sanders : Well, I don†˜t believe in coincidence. I think it†˜s just that the music is more appreciated overseas right now that†˜s all. Seems as though most of the kids here in the states are into Hip Hop, so the older crowd is the one that knows about the Chicago House legends, but these people are married with children now so it†˜s not the same anymore. And so this older crowd still wants what they remember back in the day, so it†˜s hard for these »Chicago legends« to do other things or play new music probably, which they can do more freely overseas.

Are there any contemporary producers that you are feeling right now?
Merwyn Sanders : Wow, I feel badly! I can†˜t name anyone! The only people I can name are some of the Chicago people I†˜m familiar with, such as Maurice Joshua, Vince Lawrence, a guy named Van Christie. Yes I know, I need to get out more, huh?! Hey you tell me! I always wanna†˜ work with other people but never do, just never happens. Wish I could.

What are your favorite 5 house records of all time?
Merwyn Sanders : Not in this particular order but I would name Fingers’ Can You Feel It, Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body, Jamie Principle’s Your Love, Ten City’s Devotion und Crystal Waters’ Gypsy Woman. There are many others, but these were very defining tracks. Everything after these tracks had an element taken from them. For instance, I would put C&C Music Factory’s Pride on here, but I don†˜t think you would have Pride without Ten City†˜s Devotion not being out there, feel me?

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The guitarist Jeff Parker is no newcomer to the music scene. And yet you get the feeling he’s just starting out. But he already wrote music history as part of Tortoise. Now his new album »Suite for Max Brown« has been released on International Anthem. For this occasion we have asked Jeff Parker to choose 10 records that have shaped, improved and formed him.
Music Portrait
Kalahari Oyster Cult
The best of all possible worlds
Diving for pearls in the mud, tracking down rave classics from the nineties and working with producers for whom it doesn’t matter if the record ends up in the Beatport charts: Colin Volvert’s label Kalahari Oyster Cult mixes up the underground with its DIY ethos.
Music List
Malcolm Catto of The Heliocentrics
10 All Time Favs
The Heliocentrics have just released »Infinity Of Now«. The album has the potential to inspire future musicians. Malcolm Catto, however, has first revealed to us the records that have shaped, improved and formed him.