he weirdest song—or, the most defiantly un-weird song, really—on Gui Boratto’s Chromophobia is “Beautiful Life,” eight-and-a-half minutes of blossoming synthesizer drones, straight-ahead trance rhythms, and a vocal hook that sounds primed to hawk cell phones. Though Boratto’s label, Kompakt, probably the premier techno imprint in the world, has been stepping—schaffelling, whatever—away from minimal for the past several years, “Beautiful Life” is a barrel, a headlong dive. “Most people liked ‘Beautiful Life’ more than anything else on the album,” he tells me.
And while a lot of artists might chafe at questions about the commerciality of their own work—unless they’re being calculated to the point of irony—Gui Boratto is pretty nonchalant and earnest about it. He’s pretty nonchalant and earnest about everything. Mannered. “My first studio was in a publicity agency, and I worked 100% for publicity. That was around ’93-’94. I used to make commercial jingles and radio spots, mostly. But I’d be working on my music in my smaller home studio. I started focusing more on art music in about ’95-’96.”
I had a friend that did the same kind of work, and he was constantly coming home with ridiculous stories of conversations with bosses—“Vince used to rant on and on about how my tracks needed to be ‘more redneck,’ because NASCAR was one of our clients.”
Gui’s absolute lack of pretense makes most people seem like assholes. “I was just trying to join my pleasure with a client’s needs. I didn’t do anything ridiculous. Well, I made some very nice music for a kind of Disney thing…a Brazilian Disney.” He has no qualms about it, and it occurs to me that only a jerk would. Because it’d be hokey to admit that Boratto’s compromises in life—not compromises, even, but just his near-Christian appreciation of his opportunities to be an artist and make money doing it—are inspiring, I don’t. I keep that to myself.
In the ensuing decade, Boratto went to work at major labels as a producer, remixer, and engineer. Gui Boratto has done work on a Garth Brooks record. Gui Boratto, who recorded one of the most colorful and appealing and finely detailed and well-composed electronic dance albums of 2007, has done work on a Garth Brooks record. The intersection of art and commerce is still the most consistently mindflaying one in the universe. “I did a pretty wide range of styles as a producer. I was making money from the big companies and making techno—if I can say that—in my own house.” “Wait, why did you say ‘techno, if I can say that’?”
Gui Boratto’s music is techno, by a certain measure. Well, actually, there’s no way it could be mistaken for anything else. But Chromophobia isn’t a part of a budding movement in Brazil, and Boratto’s style doesn’t have a particularly straight-jacketed sound—actually, I’d be really hard-pressed to describe what makes Gui Boratto’s music his own. The rush to talk about displaced house music from South America—Ricardo Villalobos, Luciano—often overlooks the fact that, well, South America is an entire continent, and Villalobos moved to Germany about ten minutes after he was potty trained. “In the ’90s I was starting to use synths and samplers, and that stuff was kind of expensive in Brazil, so I didn’t really see anyone else doing the same thing. Rock bands were much more common. I was in two or three bands, playing guitar, keyboards. But when I got my first sequencer, it was a big step to controlling the whole sound—I didn’t have to rely on other musicians. I was controlling all the elements of the music. That was really my first pleasure.”
When Gui uses the word “controlling,” it occurs to me that his music doesn’t have a lot to do with feelings, and has even less to do with dancing—having feelings about Chromophobia is like having feelings about a really nice kitchen appliance. Which isn’t a slight of any kind. Having feelings about a kitchen appliance is probably really healthy. Beauty isn’t always about emotional response, and the concept of design rests on efficiency of use and harmony of form. Gui Boratto was trained as an architect, and while he never practiced, still maintains an organized mind about music: “I think that music, mathematics, and architecture are pretty much the same thing. It’s just a different way to express art. You know, you compare spaces: full, empty. It’s the same thing.”
It’s not that his music is particularly clinical or lacks spirit; actually, it’s cozy and approachable enough to have made Chromophobia frontrunner for Token Techno Album of 2007. And Gui’s approach to his music—a math problem; building a blueprint—isn’t far removed from the idea of making work for commercials, a kind of disciplined, purposed approach to art. Gui Boratto loves Leonardo da Vinci. “He used to do everything, really. He made the most wonderful machines. Accidentally he became a painter, and he was one of the best.” It’s the cleanest choice in the world. Before getting into New Order and Depeche mode, he loved Zeppelin and Sabbath, not because they provided awesome mirrors for routinized teenage angst, but, because, well, he liked practicing guitar. For seven or more hours a day.
Doing interviews is always awkward: artists are forced to perform their personalities, and writers are supposed to catch whatever interesting things they say and contort them into a soundbyte. Gui Boratto is a simple, happy man. He doesn’t have a deep agenda, he’s not weird, and he’s not neurotic. I ask about his recent trip to New York. Did he do anything wild? No, he did not. He enjoys going to restaurants and shops. “It was such a nice time.” The uncomplicated brightness of existence. The single “Like You” was recorded with his wife after coming home from a party. “I was working on the track and my wife said, ‘Ah, Gui, let’s put some vocals on it.’ So we just worked on it together.”
The video for “Beautiful Life” is almost surreal in its simplicity. There is a kid spinning skateboard wheels, and an old man smiling, and a woman sleeping. The sleeping woman smiles, and eventually, so does the kid. Later, they all meet and have dinner. They are a family. My cynicism suggests that it is an advertisement for investment services. My cynicism is being tested. My cynicism is being slowly eaten by an earnestly optimistic Brazilian dance producer. Gui Boratto is naughty, just for one second, in the most harmless way possible: “There’s that bassline at the end of the track—well, I made a little joke. I was pretending to be like Peter Hook. It was just a little joke.”