Home Music Music Features

‘Just Make Songs’: The Low-Key House-Music Genius of Fennec

This part-time producer recently enrolled in grad school. He’s also finding time to craft exquisite dance music

Fennec's upcoming album is titled 'A Couple of Good Days.'

Jessie Davis*

After working for several years as an employment lawyer in Indianapolis, the artist known as Fennec decided to apply to graduate school. “I loved learning and reading about law, politics, and economics, but was kind of checked out and unfocused when I originally went to college,” he says on a call earlier this month. Grad school seemed like a way to find what he describes as a “second wind,” and he landed a spot at the University of Texas, Austin, studying public policy. In 2021, he moved there with his girlfriend, settling outside Indiana for the first time after 31 years in the state. 

What his new classmates probably do not know is that Fennec has been quietly releasing lustrous, impassioned, sample-based house music at a steady clip since 2014. It’s the type of stuff a club DJ might use to encourage the last wallflowers to embrace motion — impeccably structured, with plenty of imperious four-on-the-floor to guide the meek, and punchy, gloriously repetitive hooks in the best tradition of house. Except, due to the vagaries of the pop universe, most of these songs have just a few thousand streams on Spotify. (Fennec declines to share his real name, but he borrowed his moniker from his favorite type of animal, a fox known for its large ears, which is native to parts of Africa.)

Fennec’s new album, A Couple of Good Days, due out March 11, gurgles and flutters and kicks and shimmies and cracks wise. The producer describes the effort as a wistful attempt to recreate a golden glow he felt during a night out at the Indianapolis tiki bar Strange Bird in 2019. “We were getting drinks; they were playing Roy Ayers, Fatback Band, and MFSB,” he recalls. “I was a little high as well.” Nights out are fleeting, but albums linger — at least for a little while — so Fennec set out to capture “the mood, what I was hearing, what I was seeing, what I was drinking,” and stuff all that into 14 songs.

These tracks weren’t necessarily predestined to sound like this. Growing up in Indianapolis, Fennec was initially drawn to the scraggly, scuffed-up rock of the Strokes and the White Stripes. But listening to Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and scouring the liner notes of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch — which included a list of everything the artist was listening to during the time he made the album — made Fennec curious about the value of the sampler.

That rabbit hole led him to the likes of J Dilla and the Avalanches; it also brought him to the brazen mash-ups of Girl Talk. “That’s where I got into the idea that samples can be used in a dance context,” Fennec says. “I wish I could say I was listening to DJ Sprinkles” — whose 2008 album Midtown 120 Blues is widely, and rightfully, seen as a deep-house masterpiece — “but listening to Girl Talk was the first instance I remember feeling, ‘Samples can be fun, and it’s dance music.’ ”

Another revelation came courtesy of the producer-DJ Avalon Emerson, whose rubbery 2014 single “Quoi!” buzzes and bucks. “She samples this French pop song, and I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Fennec says. “‘That’s so direct, so fun. How could I make my version of that?’ ”

Fennec had once picked up the guitar after getting into the Strokes, but he changed his instrument of choice. And by 2014, he was enthusiastic enough, and practiced enough, to attempt his own sample-based dance music. “The first Fennec album came together when I was like, ‘I think I can sample anything, and I don’t think I’ll ever be big enough that anyone would care,’ ” he explains. “‘So why limit myself to something that has to be commercially viable?’ ” He cast an audaciously wide net, pulling sounds from video games (Dead IslandBioshock) and TV shows (Adventure Time), along with canonical dance music (the great producer and DJ K-Hand, known as “the first lady of Detroit,” who died last summer) and sampling references (Dilla’s Donuts).

He’s struck gold close to a dozen times in the years since. To name a few examples: “Ahfeelitnah,” which hammers the title phrase into your hippocampus with single-minded intensity (Fennec doesn’t care for this one, except for the hi-hats); “Kurabu,” a euphoric command to keep on keepin’ on; “Takeoff,” which merges weepy strings with a Kings of Tomorrow–like bass line to great effect while also quoting from a disconsolate Jim Carrey monologue; and “Boy-U,” which was pound for pound probably the most infectiously cheery song of 2020.

Fennec doesn’t tend to hold his work in high regard — when he puts out an album, he says he likes it for roughly a week before deciding, “Oh, man! It’s flawed” — but he remains proud of “Boy-U.” “When I started chopping up that sample, I would have to pause it and get up and leave the room,” he says. “I was afraid to keep working, like I might ruin it if I kept fiddling with it.”

A Couple of Good Days doesn’t have a runaway train like “Boy-U” — Fennec trades in that overwhelming giddiness for something gentler but maybe more sustainable, the feeling of that lovely night on the town in 2019, the boozy buzz and the Fatback Band.

To get there, the producer drew from more humorous reference points. While making “Bounce,” which brings to mind Etienne de Crecy’s “Prix Choc,” a suave monster from the French electronic scene of the late Nineties, Fennec looped a dance sequence found in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as a visual reference point. For “Russian Dressing,” which feels like it could be dance music’s answer to “The Oompa Loompa Song,” the visual playing as he worked was culled from Happy Days.

This zany, cartoon-soundbite–like track somehow fits comfortably on A Couple of Good Days next to playful hip-house, crystalline piano thumpers, funky strut, and alluringly low-key disco. The album is mostly laid-back but shot through with radiant moments, perhaps a sign that Fennec has mastered the passion-project-as-second-gig lifestyle. “I wasn’t a great lawyer,” he says, but luckily, grad school is “not too much of a time suck.”

At the same time, he continues, “I’ve started to figure out the best way for me to work.” In contrast to the popular conception of creativity as a divine bolt from the blue, Fennec ascribes to a different theory. “Just make songs, work quickly. If it’s not coming together, scrap it. If you can do something for an hour every day, at the end of a year or two, you’ll have something that’s decent.”

And with that, he went to finish some homework.

From Rolling Stone US