Read my in-depth interview with the Fifteen Questions Blog about my thoughts on the art of DJing and the profession as a whole.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for DJing? Which DJs, clubs or experiences captured your imagination in the beginning?
I knew I wanted to be a DJ from a very early age. I would have been around 8 years old when I saw a mobile DJ come to a hotel I was staying at with my parents on holiday in Greece. He let me help him set up all the equipment and I stayed up for the nighttime disco that ensued. I was pretty much hooked from that moment forward. This was the mid 70s, so way before DJing was seen as a career option. My biggest ambition back then would have been to get a job at the local nightclub on a Saturday night or a show on the local radio station. The idea of being able to travel the World playing music for people similarly to how a band toured, would have just seemed utterly ridiculous at the time.
What made it appealing to you to DJ yourself? What was it that you wanted to express and what, did you feel, did you have to add artistically?
I’m not sure it was particularly any kind of artistic expression I was trying to convey back then but seeing a group of people thoroughly enjoying themselves to the music that was being played and being in control of that was definitely the appeal. I love music to the point of obsession and seeing other people really love it too is still a buzz to this day. Having an entire room losing their shit to the music you’re selecting is the holy grail for a DJ. Something you set out to achieve with every set.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to DJing? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or lineage?
Well, as I just alluded to, I’ve been DJing for a long time now so I suppose I still carry some of those original ideologies with me. I still see DJing as means to share a listening experience, enjoy the connection that music can bring in a positive uplifting sense, where the dance floor can be a place to temporarily escape. My aim is, and always has been, to send as many people home happy as possible, with some fond memories of special communal moments listening to good music. Celebrating life together to the sound of a drum is a human trait as old as the hills.
Clubs are still the natural home for DJing. What makes the club experience unique?
They’re generally purpose built for the sole purpose of the ritual I just described above so when other sensory elements are brought into play such as lighting, video screens, Co2 cannons, smoke machines, etc, it all combines to create an atmosphere that can take us far away from the normalities of the everyday, bring us into the moment, and enhance the overall effect. Then, of course, they tend to be the best places to listen to electronic music because the sound systems will have been designed for and tuned to their optimum in each particular space. Or at least in theory! 😉
There is a long tradition of cross-pollination between DJing and producing. Can you talk a bit about how this manifests itself in your own work?
Yes, one feeds the other. The music I play generally informs the music I produce and vice versa. They’re inextricably linked.
What role does digging for music still play for your work as a DJ? Tell me a bit about what kind of music you will look for and the balance between picking material which a) excites you, b) which will please the audience and c) fulfill certain functions within your DJ set.
For me, it’s the single most important aspect of being a DJ. Of course, other factors play their part, namely programming, technical proficiency, the ability to read and work a crowd, etc, but it’s the music you play that you’ll ultimately be judged upon. And yes, all of the above can be the reason why a track gets added to my USB stick. Ideally, I’m looking for as many tracks I can find that tick all of those three boxes.
I’ve always wondered: How is it possible for DJs to memorise so many tracks? How do you store tracks in your mind – traditionally as grooves + melodies + harmonies or as colours, energy levels, shapes?
Yeah, it’s increasingly difficult to memorise everything these days down to the sheer volume of music out there. It can be overwhelming. And there’s really nothing quite like hearing music out at a gig to really cement itself in your brain. Music can sound very different in different environments and under different circumstances so it’s a constant process of trying to bank how tracks sound, how their arrangements unfold, how they impact sonically, etc. I tend to make little notes about their general vibe in the notes I can attach to each track to jog my memory but the best way to remember them is to listen to them as many times as you can and there’s not really a shortcut or a hack for that.
Using your very latest DJ set as an example, what does your approach look like, from selecting the material and preparing for and opening a set?
The last set I put together would have been for my most recent Radio Therapy Show, the process for which starts very much like I would prepare for any weekend of gigs. Firstly, several hours spent wading through the weeks new music to decide what to keep or delete. Once I’ve whittled down to a the long list, I’ll go through them all again and BPM, Key and add them all to my iTunes & Pioneer Rekordbox libraries where I might group tracks together which naturally have a similar vibe, music that’s more suitable for early warm up sets or others that fit together as a run of peak time bangers. At this point there’ll be certain tracks that reveal themselves to be natural bedfellows so I’ll try a few mixes out and create little sub groups that work together and so on and so forth. Then it’s just a case of getting ‘stuck in’.
How does the decision making process work during a gig with regards to wanting to play certain records, the next transition and where you want the set to go? How far do you tend to plan ahead during a set?
I’ll have a rough idea of how I’d like things to go but you need to be adaptable depending on circumstances. As I just mentioned, I’ll have little groups of tracks that I think work well together and fit a certain mood and then it’s a case of how you navigate from one mood to another. I’m usually thinking 4 or 5 tracks ahead, sometimes more. One choice informs the next, you aim to set things up a bit like a snooker player building a break.
As a DJ, you can compose a set of many short tracks or play them out in full, get involved with mixing or keep the tunes as the producer intended them, create fluent segues or tension. Tell me about your personal preferences in this regard, please.
I suppose I’m quite traditional in this respect. On the whole, I tend to play tracks pretty much in their entirety. I choose the tracks I play because I really like the whole composition. If there’s something about a track I don’t like, I tend to dismiss it. And that can be the smallest thing sometimes, a particular sound or a clichéd production technique. On occasion though, there may be a track that I really love but there’s one aspect that puts me off, or one part that’s just not used enough so I’ll create my own edit in Ableton. But generally, I’m not a cut and paste ‘magpie’ style DJ who takes lots of little bits from lots of sources to create something else, which by the way, I have great admiration for when done well. It’s just not my thing. It’s all about the flow for me, enjoying each production in its own right while trying to effortlessly transition from one to the next.
Pieces can sound entirely different as part of a DJ set compared to playing them on their own. How do you explain this?
Very true. It’s like a particular footballer might not be the most obviously skilful or gifted or crowd pleasing player but as part of a team, he/she may well be the vital cog that makes whole team work, making everyone else around him or her better. For me, building a DJ set is an art form akin to an audio collage where the individual pieces can become greater than the sum of their parts. Obviously, layering is a huge part of that. To use a colour analogy, if you have one blue track and one yellow, when mixed together you can create a section of green which has its own unique flavour. It’s one of the fulfilling pleasures you can take from the art of mixing.
In terms of the overall architecture of a DJ set, how do you work with energy levels, peaks and troughs and the experience of time?
It kinda depends on when or where I’m playing but in general terms a set would build momentum and energy as it went along. Although, over longer sets there’s opportunities to ebb and flow more. Again, there’s no real hard or fast rules though. It’s whatever the mood and circumstance dictates.
Online DJ mixes, created in the studio as a solitary event, have become ubiquitous. From your experience with the format, what changes when it comes to the way you DJ – and to the experience as a whole – when you subtract the audience?
It gives you carte blanche to build a set based solely on how you feel the music sounds best together rather than for the dance floor reaction it might receive. Actually, it’s the artform in its purest sense without making any decisions due to external influences. Personally, I tend to think of online mixes as being personal listening experiences rather than for the communal cut and thrust environment of a night club which are two quite different mindsets.
Advances in AI-supported DJing look set to transform the trade. For the future, where do you see the role of humans in DJing versus that of technology?
I may be being naive here but I can’t see AI being able to replicate all the components that are important in the role of a DJ in the same way a human can. Of course, it could choose tracks and mix them together based on algorithms but knowing how to react to the vibe of a room, when and where to change course or to loop up a holding pattern to create extra tension before releasing the drop, dependant on how the crowd are reacting, etc, etc, are all quite nuanced decisions that would never quite be the same. There’s also something particularly exciting and inspiring about watching another human performing a skill with impressive ability that I’m not sure you’d quite get the same kick from were it to be it a ‘robot’ instead.
Let’s imagine you lost all your music for one night and all there is left at the venue is a crate of records containing a random selection of music. How would you approach this set?
Ha! I would imagine, like most, with a mild sense of dread and panic. Your only hope would be that you’d recognise some of the records, or at least some of the artists, producers or labels to give you some sort of fighting chance. If not, it’s the equivalent of DJing blindfold with two hands tied behind your back!
Please recommend two pieces of art (book, painting, piece of music) to our readers that they should know about.
Brett Morgen’s David Bowie documentary ‘Moonage Daydream’ & Jarvis Cocker’s audiobook ‘Good Pop, Bad Pop’.
If you like, invite an artist whose work you enjoy, respect, or simply are interested in, to answer these questions.