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Sandy Squatters and Italo on cassette: Travelling through spacetime with Intergalactic Gary

Having been a key figure in The Hague’s underground music scene since the 80s, Intergalactic Gary is one of the few artists who was at the very genesis of what has evolved into the lauded West Coast sound. More than three decades down the wire and showing no signs of wear whatsoever, Gary is still in it for the love, and is as dynamic as ever.

Words by Leonard van Hout

As far back as his residency in The Hague’s first house club, La DS, in the early 1990s, Gary (real name John Scheffer) has been exalted as a sharpshooter behind the decks. Always in complete focus, immaculately stringing together anything from techno, electro, acid and the odd forgotten treasure from the rough-edged fringes of Italo. His trail takes us to the earliest days of the Dutch West Coast scene, home to illustrious names like I-F, Legowelt, Rude 66 and Unit Moebius, and along a concise trove of releases on labels like Viewlexx, Clone and more recently Bio Rhythm, Midnight Shift and Dalmata Daniel. You get the drill — this man has been places. Ahead of his inverted back-to-back with mad miran as part of our Dekmantel Connects program, we got up to speed with Scheffer to pin down his decade-spanning career and the dynamics behind his current approach.

Hi John. What have you been up to in this odd year?

Funnily enough, I’ve been rather busy. Not a second of boredom has passed and to be honest, I still feel like I don’t have enough hours in a day to do the things I want to. But to be more specific, I’ve steadily been producing, finishing off some tracks and working on a forthcoming project together with Pasiphae, which will be under a different name. I’m also taking time to digitalise part of my record collection, which is quite time consuming. And as always scanning for new music, at Clone, Bandcamp, and going through the promo’s I receive. Doesn’t seem like it’s that much, but it easily fills my days. And then there are also the radio shows and the requests for mix series, of course. Initially I decided to ease off a bit these days, but they’re hard to say no to, and of course a lot of fun to do in these times without gigs

These are quite uncertain times — how do you cope with that? Does it help having been around for so long?

I experienced ups and downs, that’s for sure. I was quite at ease in the beginning as I thought it wouldn’t take that long, later it got somewhat less promising. I’m still rather positive now, if I compare it to how some others are doing. It’s not always easy, especially since it’s so uncertain when things flip back to how they were. I aim not to dwell on it too much, I just try to keep in mind that it will hopefully be alright at some point. And I never get tired of what I’m doing, perhaps that also helps. About 10 years ago, friends from back in the days would already ask me things like, ‘don’t you ever get tired of all this, of these clubs, the people, the music?’ Back then I still had a fulltime job, and I felt exactly like that about my office life — that was tiring to me, not the times when you’re asked to play somewhere and people come to hear you play your music. To me, that will never lose its appeal.

You said you’ve been spending more time in the studio these days, what role does producing play for you as an artist?

I’ve always been invested in producing in one way or another. I did The Parallax Corporation with I-F around 20 years ago and when we would just decide to meet up in my home studio, things just took off from there. But arriving home after a long day in the office, planning to spend the evening in the studio by myself, just didn’t work out like that for me. I hoped I would have more time for that after fully committing to music professionally, but DJing always remained my priority. Perhaps I’m also just a bit slow, you know, I take things easy. I don’t approach it as if I would ‘need to finish an EP by this month’, or something along those lines, that’s not how things work for me. So since I have more time on my hands now, I feel like it’s only been beneficial for me in terms of studio time.

In your DJ sets, you play a distinctive yet diverse range of music. What is the common thread that binds together the music you play and search for?

In one way or another, there should be something in it that makes it stand out to me. An emotion, or something like a specific vibe or atmosphere. That can be melancholy, or rather something with a certain drive. At least music with some sort of character or originality that speaks to me. I’m not sure how to properly put it into words, the direction of it also changes from time to time.

Has your approach changed much, over the years?

When I just started out — and I’m really talking 80s here — disco was my thing. Then at some point also some Italo-disco, and then the first electro records came around. Things developed much more quickly around that time, different styles followed each-other up rapidly and there was a lot happening in a very short timeframe. And then in the 90s my taste was quite diverse: from Italo-house to the first progressive records, Detroit techno, but also things like hip hop, jungle, drum ’n bass, breakbeat. If a new genre popped up and it had some sort of appeal to me, I wouldn’t consider myself a purist, sticking to one thing and not batting an eye for the other things coming out. Although it all had to somehow fit in with the rest of my music, of course. Looking back now, I did get rid of a lot of those records, which I don’t really regret in most cases. There might be a revival of some styles at some point, but I’m usually not that bothered by that.

How do you experience those revivals? In many cases, you were there when it came around the first time.

I usually have the impression that with every past trend, there’s only a limited amount of releases that is truly interesting. When people start picking up these old records, sooner or later there’s going to be some sort of saturation, just as it was back then. Perhaps it’s because I experienced it up close as it happened and that it’s an entirely different story for someone who is, say, 24 right now. If someone like that discovers an ‘old’ genre there’s still so much to discover, so I can definitely understand the appeal.

Let’s talk about a style that never left in the first place: the West Coast sound. You’ve been there when it started — what does stand out to you from those early days?

I already knew Ferenc [I-F] from the Hotmix record store in The Hague, which was the best in town in the '90s. I’m not sure whether it was at that point in time that the West Coast sound came into being, but it was when he started his label and his productions, and then Guy [Tavares, from Unit Moebius] also started Bunker Records around that period. I think that was the beginning of it all. I cherish a lot of fond memories from those days: every Friday after work, I’d cycle up to Westeinde, exchanging and listening to records together at Hotmix. After some years, Ferenc closed the store, and then Clone popped up, and not much later we started The Parallax Corporation.

The West Coast sounds seems like a beautifully mutated blend of techno, electro but also draws influence from Italo-disco. How did that all come together? 

It was around the time when I had a residency at this small club in The Hague called La DS, known as the first house club in The Hague. It wasn’t big, but that was where this sort of mellow club sound was played back then. Then the Hotmix store came around and not much later De Blauwe Aanslag, a squatted building in a former tax authorities office in which the basement functioned as a club. Entirely made of concrete, with these concrete pillars and filled with stroboscopes and smoke. I used to sometimes play there back then, mostly Chicago house and Detroit techno, but gradually the sound became tougher and more stripped-back. There was also gabber, of course, which was also popular in The Hague around that time but which doesn’t have much to do with the West Coast Sound, and the same goes for the Mellow house sound. It was more of a Detroit- and Chicago-inspired electro thing, but then in our The Hague kind of way.

When that sound started to form, what was the moment you realised that the West Coast sound has become ‘a thing’, something that people knew of?

I barely noticed it here in The Hague to be honest, perhaps not even at all. We had some releases out as The Parallax Corporation at the time, and when Ferenc and I travelled abroad for gigs we started to notice that people were into it. We would play a gig somewhere and people would be enthusiastic about the music we’d play, visiting our gigs, approaching us, buying the records — and back home we didn’t really hear much about it. Perhaps it was just a small group of people keeping track of our music, but it was mainly abroad that we actually felt it was more appreciated at that time.

It also wasn’t something that we had consciously on our mind either, we just wanted to do things in our own different way. It was around 2000, when the minimal house and techno sound was the more dominant sound in clubs — which was a bit boring to us. I don’t think we really wanted to rebel against that or anything, but it just made us delve back into the things we ourselves were into, like how Italo-disco had a major influence on Chicago house. There was this WBMX radio station in Chicago where they would play house and disco but also Italo, which felt like a revelation when we first got ear of that. But then again, when we’d play somewhere, people would often come up to us and ask things like ’why aren’t you playing something a bit more danceable?’ or ‘when are you gonna play techno?’ Then I might have one Basic Channel record with me that got them super enthusiastic as I played it but, well, that would be it, just that one record! It sure wasn’t always easy. I think it’s good that it has spread out more over time, also with the internet making things more accessible.

The West Coast acquired a devoted following over the years. What do you think that makes it so appealing to people?

I think it’s quite difficult to precisely grasp what the West Coast sound actually sounds like or what defines it in the first place. Take Legowelt for example: his sound is entirely his own, yet it’s safe to say that it’s really that West Coast sound. It can have influences from many different things made into something new, like elements from Giallo Disco, with those horror soundtrack characteristics, and Italo disco, electro, Chicago and Detroit influences — but it doesn’t sound like any of those things, it has become its own thing, so perhaps that could be part of it. But it might as well be coming from someone who makes electro in his own way, like DJ Overdose, where you could recognise the West Coast sound or way of doing this. It’s not strictly a geographical thing.

Then what caused it to originate here, and not in other cities?

I think because Italo was quite widespread here in this area. It was aired on pirate radio stations, the imported Italo records were in the local record stores — whereas in stores in Amsterdam, you would only find it in the sale bins because people just weren’t into it over there. For some reason, it just caught on here in The Hague. We also had this club called De Marathon where they would sometimes play Italo, and I know that it influenced me, as well as Ferenc, and also others probably. Ferenc pushed the sound too. Ferenc once told me a story about this one time that he and the guys from Unit Moebius were on the road to a gig somewhere, and he coined to put on an Italo cassette in the car. The others were like: ‘no, no, Italo’s horrible, please don’t’, but he did anyway, and then stuff like Charlie’s 'Spacer Woman' and Sun-La-Shan started playing. They were like, wait a minute… This is actually great. Many people just had a different idea of Italo, more of the commercial kind rather than the Italo that was more towards electro.

You said you also used to play at squatters parties and illegal raves. What were those like, did those leave their mark on the West Coast sound?

It has been of influence for sure. It was this raw acid, stuff you wouldn’t hear elsewhere. Besides De Blauwe Aanslag there was another one which we called De Zandvlakte, “the sandy plain”. It was a squatted residency, and somewhere in the back there was this warehouse that was completely empty except for the layer of sand that covered the floor. Every now and then there were squatters parties there, and they would play stuff like Spiral Tribe, all very fast and distorted, things you just couldn’t play in an ordinary club. It was a bit of a raw, uncompromised underground sound, rough around the edges — I think you can still hear its influence clearly on things that are being released on labels like Viewlexx, Murder Capital and Bunker.

Do you still feel a connection with that way of doing things?

For me, it’s really something that belongs to that specific time. I wouldn’t want to have missed it for anything, but on the other hand I don’t miss it right now. It was also very much born out of necessity. The people organising those parties didn’t have many alternatives, no place to do their thing. I think it also shows how different things are now, and how much more is possible nowadays.

That’s interesting, also since illegal parties have been on the rise again since coronavirus started.

Yes, and again it’s born out of necessity. But generally speaking, there’s much more possibility nowadays, and not just commercially. Dance music, especially house music, had quite a bad reputation in the Netherlands back then. Quite often promoters had to lie about the type of event they were going to host, or they couldn’t make use of a place.

You’ve been around for three decades, and saw a wide range of genres, trends and scenes come and go. Drawing from that fortune of experience — what advice would you give a younger generation of DJs just starting out?

I think it’s good to realise that if you sincerely believe in what you do, you just have to push through. It might not always be easy, even though it might sometimes seem like that from the outside. Just keep it musically interesting and try to maintain an open mind towards your selection and how you’re playing it.

Photo's by Tim Buiting and Loes de Boer