Insomniac’s Metronome series features mixes from some of today’s fastest-rising electronic stars, as well as championed legends. It takes listeners deep across a wide range of genres, movements, cultures, producers, artists and sounds that make up the diverse world of electronic music.
It’s been a wild and raucous journey for the London-based DJs, radio presenters, and producers known as Tough Love. Having exploded onto the scene with crossover hits like “Pony” and “So Freakin’ Tight,” as well as club anthems with Roger Sanchez and Todd Terry, the duo have continued to elevate their sound via their Get Twisted imprint, while being in high demand around the globe as trendsetting DJs.
Whether in solo mode or collaborating with the likes of Guz, Tough Love’s latest and forthcoming output continues to smash its way through festival season, as the dank and percussion-driven house vibes the pair are known for merge their love of everything from bass house to ‘90s R&B and garage. Just as likely to be smashing up a Top 40 remix as they are to be dropping underground anthems, the crew have also hit the sweet spot with their popular weekly radio show on the UK’s Kiss FM.
To get a sense of just what kind of vibes the duo is pushing, we locked in an epic Metronome guest mix that works just as well poolside in the blazing sun as it does deep in the heart of a full-moon night. We also sat down with Tough Love for an in-depth chat that gives a rare glimpse into the amount of hard work and passion the pair are pouring into the scene, as well as their ongoing love for the music.
Talk a bit about growing up and the kind of music you remember hearing around the house. Was there anyone musical in your family?
Stef: My mum was a singer back in Ireland, but not something I got to witness, unless she was singing in church. Our house had an eclectic mix, from Adam Ant, John Holt, Garth Brooks, the Wolftones, to the likes of Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and Rod Stewart.
Alex: I grew up in a really musically talented and eclectic household. My dad was a guitarist and drummer in a rock band; my sister is pretty handy on both of those, as well. My mum worked as a dancer and choreographer. Everything from the Fugees to Sinatra to Def Leppard was played in our house.
At what point did you start to develop your own taste in music, and what were some of the early tunes, genres, and labels you remember getting down with?
Stef: I suppose as far back as I remember, but I started DJing at the age of 13, and dance music was always at the core: acid, jungle, house, and garage. I spent a lot of time in London record shops hunting down records I heard on pirate radio—tracks from the likes of Prodigy, Todd Terry, Roger Sanchez, and labels like XL Recordings, Nervous, Azuli, Positiva, and Locked On.
Alex: My early years were spent listening to hip-hop and rave music, from the Beastie Boys to the Outhere Brothers. My parents started taking me to Ibiza from 13 years old, where I got to witness guys like Roger Sanchez on the decks, and my love for house music was born. Every year, I’d come back from summer with all the new Cream, Pacha and Manumission albums. It wasn’t long before this developed into a real following and love for the art of DJing.
What artists or labels do you consider your “gateway” into house music and/or electronic dance music in general?
Stef: I was born in the ‘80s, so electronic music was already at the forefront, and I was in the mix from very early. That electronic sound and dance tempo was my preference when mixing. I leant more toward house music, and then garage came along and played an instrumental part in my early career. I loved the bubbly, feel-good vibe from records like Tori Amos, Astro Trax, anything by Masters at Work, Todd Edwards, MJ Cole, Tuff Jam… the list is endless.
Alex: I was starting to collect music from the early 2000s. Strictly and Nervous were the main labels I followed, but to be honest, it was more about the DJs for me back then than it was about the labels.
Which came first: DJing or production?
Stef: DJing definitely came first. I was partying in the clubs way before I should have been, and I suppose my first big club show was at a venue in London (Park Royal) called Zeniths, when I was 16 or 17 years old. I built a decent name through pirate radio and club shows and have been fortunate enough to maintain it as a career ever since. I fell into production unintentionally in the late ‘90s, as it was what made my sets stand out from the others. I started to get a bit more creative with sounds and melodies, so I decided to release my first record in 2001. It was a bootleg using a Beverly Hills Cop sample and sold 1,500 units, which was great at the time.
Alex: DJing always came first and still does today. I started messing around at my fitness houses around 16–18, but none of us shared the same passion for music. Rap was really big back then, as was Tiësto—whereas I was into vocal house. I didn’t have decks or any money, so it wasn’t until I was at Uni that I really started to mess around. By the time I was 21, I was playing out—mainly warmup sets—building a couple of aliases. At 24, I was starting to really get into the groove and know my sound, but I had a few issues going on in other parts of my life at the time, so music took a back seat. Eighteen months later, I bumped into Stef, and Tough Love was born.
What we love about your style is how your diverse influences find a way to surface in your output. Talk a bit about what you see as your own genre inspirations and how you see those filtering down into your own output.
Stef: We’re known for making predominantly house music, but people would be very surprised to hear the other stuff in our catalog. We have ballads, pop, hip-hop, and some random cross-genre material waiting in the wings—a culmination of all genres that have influenced us both over the years. We’re not music snobs and like good quality records, so we can appreciate a good pop single or a dirty bassline club groover. When it comes to our own sound, we try and incorporate all of that. Familiarity works; people like to reminisce about the good times, and we all love to feel good and shake our butts. Music emits emotion, and we try our best to make sure our records do exactly that.
Alex: From quite early on, our sets comprised about 80 percent of our own material. We took ideas from our influences growing up, and elements from the bubbling scene that people seemed to really like, and then tried to make our own version of it. We used signature sounds and the occasional familiar sample that caught people’s attention, and we weren’t afraid to play these records out. The response to most records was amazing, so we just kept on playing them and eventually handed them around to a few key DJs in the scene that also started to support. We weren’t trying to be too cool or too pop; we just wanted to have fun, and hopefully the people who came to see us had a good time, too.
Your strategy of returning “back to basics” seems to have struck a nerve. Reflect on how the past year has gone since your Past Present Future album, and how you guys see yourselves continuing to evolve as artists.
Stef: It’s difficult to tread that fine line between club and what clubland would consider pop. People seem to forget that our earlier material came from the club, and we were chugging along nicely in a bubbling underground scene. Tracks like “So Freakin’ Tight” and “Pony” took us to unfamiliar realms, and the market we had to cater for expanded. We also had a major record deal, which meant we had to try and deliver hits. They had no interest in what we were trying to do at club level, and our hands were tied with regards to our output. The house scene in the UK became saturated, and it quickly turned on its head and separated into club world and underground again, so that fine line between both was no longer there.
Alex: People wouldn’t believe the amount of difficulties we faced during that time, but we’re a pair of resilient bastards and have done everything possible to make good of a bad situation. Behind the scenes, Past Present Future took a lot out of us, and if we’re honest, it wasn’t a true reflection of us as an act. It took us 18 months to get out of our deal, and we felt free to experiment again with our music, with no rules or red tape. So, we’ve taken it “back to basics” with regards to how we started as an act, and it can definitely be seen in our recent output. We’ve got through some tough times and learnt a lot about the industry and ourselves, but we’re very positive about the future and the music we have to come.
What do you appreciate most about each other’s DJ/production skills?
Stef: It’s weird, as four hands on one mixer and four decks should be a complete mess, as we’ve never rehearsed sets or shows, but we’ve always been on the same wavelength from the get-go. Alex has a good ear for new music and isn’t afraid to experiment. Same goes with production—he’s not precious on formulas or trends and is always up for pushing new boundaries and trying new things.
Alex: Stef is technically unbelievable on the decks and is up there with the best of them. In the studio, he’s extremely quick to work with. When we’re in sync, we can turn out really strong records very quickly. Having come from a multi-genre background, his musical output and technical ability, in both the studio and on the decks, is flawless—something I couldn’t say for most DJs who play and produce on four/four.
If he weren’t a DJ/producer by profession, what do you think your partner would be doing for a living instead?
Stef: I believe it would be something sport- or fitness-related. But recently, he’s found a new love for restoring old bikes, so I could see him in his own chop shop in the near future.
Alex: Stef is very creative. He does almost all the Tough Love and Get Twisted artwork, not to mention videos and live visuals. I think he’d be a very strong asset for any media/creative organization.
What are some things you wish people knew about the other?
Stef: That he’s not just a pretty face behind a dodgy moustache! (laughs) He works ridiculously hard, he’s incredibly loyal, and he’s got an absolute heart of gold and would do anything for anyone.
Alex: Stef is a very cool, calm, and collected man. You won’t find a better human on the planet—loyal to the bone. He’ll stick with you through the good and bad times. The best friend and business partner you could ask for.
What do you think annoys them the most?
Stef: People that request songs while we’re in the mix (laughs). People that say one thing and then do another. Unappreciative little shits—and of course, lazy, unreliable label workers who are only in the industry to pick up a paycheck and get free concert tickets.
Alex: To quote Stef: “Everyone is a c*nt until they prove otherwise.” He doesn’t actually live by this rule and gives everyone a second chance. But because Stef is so loyal, honest, and hardworking, if you don’t share those same values, he will have no time for you. People need to be upfront, leave the bullshit at home, and get down to the point with Stef—however hard it is to say—and he will, in return, respect you.
What’s one artist or song you like that your partner has probably never heard of?
Stef: We share our likes for new acts or music quite frequently, so that’s difficult. I’m not sure if he’s familiar with Alma, Rex Orange County, or Parcels.
Alex: Stef is likely to know the music but maybe not know the artist so well. I love listening to Manu Chao in my downtime.
If you guys were forced to go solo and you were tasked with giving your partner a solo artist name, what would it be?
Stef: I could do the obvious and focus on the ‘stashe, but I’d be a bit more creative and focus on one of his tats. I’d call him Five or Hamsa, with regards to his Hand of Fatima tattoo. I reckon you could have a lot of fun with that concept and develop it into something crazy.
Alex: He’s gone through a lot this year, and if he was to go solo, it would be like a rebirth—and god knows he’s due some Irish luck—so maybe something like Stefan Shamrock.
Before we go, tell us what kind of vibes we should be expecting from your Metronome mix. And if you have any final shout-outs, now’s the time to hit us!
Stef and Alex: Big bumpy Tough Love–style vibes, with a tip of the hat to the old-skool, and of course, fully welcoming the new. As for shout-outs, firstly, thanks to Insomniac for the support. We’ve also got to big-up our family and friends for all their love, of course to the DJs in the clubs and radio spinning our material, and most importantly, the fans who have been following us on this mad journey we call music.
- Tough Love ‘Metronome’ Mix Track List:
Volkoder & Barja “I Want U”
Billy Kenny x Amine Edge & DANCE “Balloon Party”
Mr. Kavalicious “Keep On”
Juliet Sikora, Return of the Jaded “What Did I Tell Ya”
Tough Love x Soul Divide “Keeping Warm” (Tough Love Remix)
Chris Hartwig “Bang the Groove”
Tough Love “Platinum & Gold”
GW Harrison “Show Me What You Got”
GAWP & Tough-Love “Chicken Grease”
Ernest & Frank “Aalive”
Tough Love “Break of Dawn”
Guz & Tough Love “Dancin’ Kinda Close”
Tough Love “One Love”
Torren Foot “Hot Sauce” (Tough Love Remix)
Dajae “Brighter Days” (Angelo Ferreri Remix)