Flashback to 2002: Ivan Gough and the first ‘Melbourne Sound’

Before Dirty South and co. exported their dirty electro to the world and long before Melbourne Bounce was a twinkle in the eyes of Orkestrated, Will Sparks and their compatriots, there was a very different ‘Melbourne Sound’ drawing the world’s attention.

In the years around 2000, the reign of progressive house over clubland had struck a particularly strong chord with a collective of DJ/producers centred around the Sunny nightclub and DMC Records in Melbourne’s Prahran. They tapped into the lingering remnants of pre-millennium tension and crafted a dark, drum-driven sound that attracted the notice of DJs like John Digweed and Sasha – then at the very top of the dance music totem pole – but unfortunately timed their run with the imminent decline of prog and the financial impact of widespread illegal downloading.

Ivan Gough was one of the producers at the epicentre of the Melbourne prog sound of 2002. In fact, as the main studio man of Zero Tolerance Recordings – the highly influential record label which ran from 1998 to 2004 – you could mount a case for Gough being the sound’s most influential figure, particularly as he enjoyed releases alongside Olivier (as Deep House Project), Phil K (as Dark Alley) and Luke Chable (as Digital Mind Control) in 2002 alone.

A dozen years down the track and Gough’s international profile has never been bigger, though the tune has definitely changed. Dark prog is long gone, as Gough has charted a sonic course somewhere between Eric Prydz and main room EDM, from the chart-troubling hits of TV Rock to more recent collaborations with local artists like Feenixpawl (‘In My Mind’) and Nervo (‘Not Taking This No More’).

But the passion for his first musical love still runs deep. “You can’t escape the dark beat, my friend,” says Gough towards the end of his freewheeling conversation with inthemix, during which he talks himself into getting the Zero Tolerance band back together for a club night to celebrate ten years since the label’s demise and lets slip that he and Chable are eyeing off some studio time together. (Listen to Ivan Gough’s mix of the best tracks of 2002 at the end of the interview.)

Is it true that you were the main man in the studio for Zero Tolerance while that label was running?

Yep, absolutely. There was a bunch of guys who were doing stuff – Jason Digby, Gab Oliver, Phil K, Jono Fernandez was involved on the side. But I ran the studio that we had there. We had quite a large analogue mixing console and a bunch of gear, and I used to mix down a lot of tracks for people. I bought a mixing console – it was second hand, and it came from the Arts Centre here in Melbourne. I got it for a ridiculous price because they just wanted to get rid of it, they’d bought a new one.

So anyway, this thing weighed around 350 kilos, so I had to get my old man to build up a frame for it – we had to use a special crane to lift it in through the window of the shop to get it in on the second floor. It took about seven blokes to get it down the corridor and set it up, and that was the console we mixed on for the next five or six years.

Zero Tolerance was building up a fairly strong reputation in 2002 – there was a lot of quality music coming out of that room at the time.

Yeah, it was good times. In fact, I miss it – I really do. With all of this big room stuff going around the clubs at the moment, there is a lack of innovation amongst a lot of people. There is a tendency for producers to go after the quick dollar and not necessarily try anything different. The amount of people that come to me today and pat me on the back and say ‘you know what, that was something special going on back there’ – yeah, I guess it was. Unfortunately for us, financially it didn’t make sense in the end. We were struggling, there was a lot of illegal downloading taking off, and we were having trouble making any money off the label. But they’re days I remember very fondly.

What do you think was behind that deep and dark sound that was happening – not just on Zero Tolerance, but with a lot of the production in Melbourne at the time coming out on EQ and Vapour?

The music that has always been closest to my heart is proper progressive house – late night music, melodic, not necessarily vocal-driven, certainly not big chords and that sort of stuff. I guess when we got to the studio, we just tried to emulate that feeling. We used to call it ‘haunted house’, because at the time we didn’t really think there was anything else worldwide that sounded like it – it was pretty unique what we were doing. It also had a scary undertone, which in the end made the music harder to sell.

There were some people who loved it, but for a lot of people it was just too dark. As to where it actually came from, I’m not really sure. I think it was just a product of the time and certainly the club, Sunny, had a big influence on it. That nightclub played a fairly dark, tribal sound, so we just plugged into that and took it as far as we could.

There seems to be a real sense of space to the music on Zero Tolerance as well.

I think that was created by the way we produced it, and the fact that we were always trying to put less instruments in. There was never this ‘let’s stack up multiple sounds’, it was always ‘let’s put a couple of sounds, let’s put one synth in here’. We had a minimal kind of aesthetic, I suppose. You look at a track like 2 Heavy – the success of that track is based on a drum loop and one synth chord that opens in the middle of the breakdown. The rest of the record is simple and straight, but it works a treat.

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