On an Internet overpopulated by remixes, it’s not easy to stand out. But who hasn’t heard the warped, slinky version of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” that dominated music blogs two years ago? The man behind that and many other of the web’s most popular remixes is Cyril Hahn, a soft-spoken, Swiss-born Canadian who was weaned on a diet of DIY hardcore punk, indie rock, and early 2000s electronic music. Those influences somehow led to the 27 year old’s knack for taking things like the silly seduction of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” and turning it into something ghoulish, disembodied, and insanely listenable. Since Hahn unleashed those ethereal lovemaking beasts to his SoundCloud page two years ago, he’s kept up a relentless touring schedule while releasing new material on the esteemed PMR Records (home to modern house stalwarts Disclosure, Julio Bashmore and Jessie Ware, whose “Tough Love he turned into an addictive club jam). We caught up with this affable purveyor of solemn rhythms during Montreal’s Osheaga Festival earlier this month to chat about unreasonable requests for selfies, like-minded Canadian peers, and the process by which he unearths layers of meaning buried deep within some of pop music’s most ridiculous jams.
As a young teen, your older brother would take you to squats and live shows all over Switzerland. What are your fondest musical memories of that time?
It was great. I was only 12 or 13 and we ended up going to different cities every weekend because Switzerland is so small, that if a band comes to the country, they’ll only play one or two cities. That became a thing for us. It was always a very warm, welcoming scene, and nobody cared that there was this little kid at the shows. There was no pretention; it was just about people doing what they loved. Most of the bands we saw just broke even, they got their travel and accommodations covered but they weren’t doing it for the money. It was the DIY spirit. Maybe that’s why I started doing bootlegs, not trying to sell anything at first.
What was the tipping point for turning you on to dance music? As someone who had never given it much heed, which artists got you all worked up?
It started when I was into post-rock music and a lot of instrumental and ambient stuff; Sigur Rós, Caribou, Four Tet and Pantha du Prince. DJ culture was not something I was ever really familiar with; I’d go to live shows to see musicians perform. So it started with alternative electronic artists and that paved the way for me to like more clubby stuff.
How does one go from digging Caribou and Pantha du Prince to creating house-inflected remixes of R&B starlets?
Well, I only even started listening to house two or three years ago. When I started remixing, it was just a fun project for me, learning how to use the music software. I had no goals other than to have fun. It was sort of ironic at first, I didn’t take it very seriously, which helped me not overthink things. I mean, Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body”, the lyrics are so stupid, right? But I wanted to juxtapose them with something a bit more serious and it turned out really weird, so I decided to explore that some more. It really was more accidental than anything.
That “Touch My Body” remix really set the tone for a string of infectious remixes that all had your signature ambient sounds and pitched-down vocals, and a highly charged mood that sat somewhere between gloomy and sexy. What made you decide to sample the vocals while shuffling everything else around and reshaping the tracks’ DNA?
I usually would only take the vocals and rewrite the music, and that was kind of different at the time. I think that’s what initially stood out to people, hearing a remix that’s so different from the original. I never cared much about lyrics, I was just looking for vocal melodies that I really liked, and to this day, I still do, when I chop up vocals for remixes or original tracks, so I was just gravitating towards a capellas that had standout moments.
Your remixes really took off around the same time as they did for two fellow Canadian producers, whose reconfigured soul samples also became their calling cards: Toronto’s Ryan Hemsworth and Montreal’s Kaytranada. In hindsight, do you think there was something specific you guys all tapped into?
Ryan I know pretty well, as we toured together for a month last fall, and we definitely have a similar background. We both started out listening to indie music as opposed to electronic music, and then slowly began gravitating towards the latter genre. So we brought a weird perspective to the table at a similar time. I also think we’re both really weird nerds that ended up doing well on the Internet. I definitely can relate to Ryan in a lot of ways. I met Kay as well, and I really like his stuff. Remixing is something that helped us all tremendously.
It’s definitely been pretty strange: Ryan, Kaytra and I are all producers first, so we were just writing music that really picked up and we realized that we could play shows if we wanted to. We didn’t come from DJ backgrounds, so I think our sets are also a little different that way. But it’s definitely weird just being in front of people, it’s never something I aspired to do. It took a lot of getting used to, being the center of attention for 90 minutes, but it’s grown on me. And festivals fluster me a lot less than intimate club gigs, where the crowd is so much closer to you.
Are you afraid that patrons are going to come up and make terrible song requests?
Oh, that already happens all the time. I have these strange experiences of people coming up and taking selfies with me as I’m playing… I’m like, what the hell? I’m trying to do my job here! It’s really strange to see the kinds of boundaries people have, or the lack thereof. Most clubs have good security so it won’t happen, but every now and then, there’s a show with no stage security, and all bets are off. It happens more in Europe, especially in the UK, where DJ culture and clubbing in general are massive. In North America, it’s a lot more chill.
We’re big fans of your recent re-work of label mate Jessie Ware’s “Tough Love.” You preserve the bittersweet ballad’s slow-burning magic while shooting it up with a few uptempo jolts. Did you hesitate prior to taking that one on?
Yeah. I had already remixed Jessie, so when my label reached out to ask if I was interested in remixing her again, I didn’t really want to. I thought that was boring, the idea of remixing somebody twice. But then I heard the song and thought it was so good! One of the best songs I’d heard all year, so I really wanted to do it. In that remix, I kept a lot of the original parts, and just tried to make it more danceable and poppy. It’s almost more like a radio edit. It was fun and different from how I usually do remixes.
Cyril Hahn’s Voices EP will be released August 18 on PMR.