Walker & Royce talk new album and championing tech house in the USA

Headliner recently sat down for a chat with Sam Walker of American dance music duo Walker & Royce, who released the second part of their latest album, No Big Deal, in January this year. Walker shares his experiences on collaboration and experimentation, reveals his workflow and preferences for using soft synths, and discusses the growth of tech house across the US, highlighting the power of festivals in popularising the genre…

Walker & Royce had just wrapped up their latest album tour as they joined Headliner over Zoom for a candid conversation about all things music back in early April. Some of the tracks on the new record have been firm favourites in their festival sets for a while now, and they’ve been releasing them gradually as singles in a bid to tease the senses of their loyal fan base. The duo have been making music together since around 2011, and by their own admittance, approach the project from very different angles.

“I went down the production route, and Gavin [Royce] went down the DJ route,” Walker begins. “He made a lot of connections over the years in New York City, whereas I’m a bit more introverted, and would rather sit in a basement for hours working on stuff. I worked at Ableton in NYC from 2007 to 2010. Gavin had been DJing for a while and people were starting to give him remix opportunities. He wasn’t really a producer then but he had a lot of cool ideas, and so when I quit Ableton he asked if I wanted to work on some music together. Things took off right from the get-go.”

The pair were surprised at their initial success before things took off, and it was a long, slow grind up until 2016, when independent electronic music label Dirtybird Records came knocking.

“We had two or three tracks which people immediately latched onto,” Walker recalls. “One of them was a remix of SAARID called Future Lately; he’s a friend of ours and we took it in a totally weird, techno direction. Damian Lazarus then started playing it, so that made it more popular. Then we had this track called Connected which Solomun started playing in Ibiza, and people thought it was his! Over the next few years we went over to England and Germany just trying to make something of the music we’re doing. Nothing really cut through until Justin Martin and Barclay Crenshaw noticed us, and we got signed to Dirtybird. That was when things really took off. Up to that point it was a slow burn, and definitely took a lot of patience from the girlfriends and wives!”

When Walker & Royce were creating their debut album, 2017’s Self Help, there was no pressure and expectation for the record to succeed; they had already hit the charts with nostalgic synth-laden anthem Take Me To Your Leader. Crafting the sound for their latest project, No Big Deal, was an entirely different beast however.

“With this one it was a little tough, because we didn’t walk into it with a massive hit already on our hands,” says Walker. “We had just done Stop Time at the end of ‘22, and put that on Rules Don’t Apply, which is our own label. The tracks we were making felt like they were starting to coalesce, and so the idea was to just go with the vibe and let it unfold.

“When we did Self Help, we weren’t touring every single weekend, and we didn't have the chance to test material out. Now we do. It's funny, because the drum and bass tracks on No Big Deal were both started in the midst of COVID. We were trying to do this album three or four years ago but COVID derailed the creative process a lot. We were monkeying around in the studio, seeing what else we can make, and came up with these drum and bass tracks. Then they just sat there for a while because we didn't finish them, but then we circled back and did just that.”

It used to just be rock bands and live acts, and now it's house music all over the place.

It’s evident from listening to the duo’s material, old and new, that there’s been a gradual shift to the slightly darker, harder and faster side of house music.

“At the same time, like with our track Cheap Thrills, we're still trying to put these big glaring synths in there. It’s just what we like to do!” Walker adds. “I'll be playing around on a wide open, no filter, real razzy kind of synth. I feel like it comes back to the fact that I used to be a trombone player. Maybe that's coming through in the music somehow. It’s a bit harder, a bit darker, and also trying to maybe step outside of house a little bit more with some drum and bass.”

When it comes to sharing the music-making load, Walker does most of the engineering, as well as channelling what Royce is doing – described by Walker as “almost like puppetry somehow.” Walker comes up with the initial ‘sketch’ as it were, while his counterpart acts as the first line of sounding board.

“I’ll often come up with something that I think is crap, and he will already be sending it to DJs,” Walker says with a chuckle. “He’s sort of a gatekeeper, and always has the first set of ears on something to see how we could do it better, or differently. Production-wise, most times it’s just about throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Cycling through patches, recording everything and finding some interesting transition or weird sound, sampling that, bringing it back in; sometimes you can make something off just one accidental note on a keyboard.”

Walker’s production mostly takes place in the box, aside from his newly acquired Novation Summit and Bass Station, the latter of which he uses as a MIDI keyboard: “I like my desk not being cluttered with all this junk,” he says. “I've also got the Behringer ARP 2600, which is really cool for making this angry, distorted FM-ish kind of stuff. It's a very specific sound.”

When it comes to plugins, Walker cites Vital, Astra and u-he Bazille as some of his key tools: “They all sound a bit different, but they're also specific,” he adds. “See what sticks in a mix with this drum sample and with this hat or whatever; suddenly that patch which sounded vanilla as heck sounds awesome.”

As an electronic dance music artist, especially in a demographic where the genre and their sub-genres are still relatively young compared to Europe, Walker has witnessed a number of changes take place in the industry, all of them undoubtedly for the better.

“The biggest thing is the explosion of festivals,” he muses. “It used to just be rock bands and live acts, and now it's house music all over the place. In the past eight to 10 years, to think we’re now going to small southern US cities and towns, and having full crowds listening to house music, blows my mind. The success of Dirtybird becoming this major American record label for house music and this weird glitchy stuff. It’s really helping to spread tech house everywhere in the United States.”