Savile is a producer and DJ from Michigan based in Chicago. A resident at the hallowed smartbar, he’s also the DJ partner of Steve Mizek, and co-runs the labels Argot and Tasteful Nudes with him. As a producer, he’s released on a variety of labels, from Argot and smartbar’s own North Side ’82 to Mike Simonetti’s 2MR. We caught up with him over Skype for a lengthy chat while he was in New York to play some gigs. Our conversation ranged from his early days at smartbar to the parties he’s throwing there now, his Midwest origins and the latest on his production techniques.
What have you been up to? “I bought an effects pedal for the show on Saturday. I’ve been wanting to add an effects pedal to the setup, like a delay box, and since we have seven hours on Saturday, we’re playing all night, I think that that would be a good time, trial by fire. I’m playing at Bossa Nova Civic Club for a party called Pure Immanence. It’s a really heady, wormhole shit. They had Aurora Halal at the one before the last one, and it was one of the wilder Wednesday night parties I’ve seen in quite a while. They’re giving me a full three hours to stretch out tonight, so I’m going to try and get really fast and really strange and very syncopated.”
What kind of crowd do they get on a Wednesday in February/March? “Bossa kind of ends up being a rallying point for folks in Brooklyn, because on any given day, as it’s open seven days a week, there’s always music. So there’s an interesting midweek experience there because for just as many people as have to be up in the morning on Thursday, there’s a lot hospitality folks and heads that don’t. It’s like smoke, low ceilings, body to body, smushing around, which can make it quite kinetic when it captures a vibe.”
Then Saturday you’re playing again “Yeah, twice! Saturday, we play at The Lot Radio, which we visit pretty much every time Steve and I are in town together, and it’s been a source of a lot of really wonderful afternoons. Just chilling in the storage container, looking out into the yard, and having a bunch of friends sitting in that tiny room with us. It’s one of those things that when you’re there, it occurs to you that is the type of shit that could only happen in New York City. So, we’ll do two hours there, and we play seven hours at Good Room. All night in the smaller room. There are two rooms, the main “good room” and bad room. It fits our vibe well. It’s smaller and it’s pretty fuckin’ ideal. It fits maybe 70 people on the floor, and it’s got a decrepit disco ball hanging in the middle of it, shit’s peeling off it, it doesn’t work. We just fill the room with a shit-ton of smoke and put these fake votive tea candles everywhere. I ordered 36 of them and I got another few here, so every inch of the room is going to be flickering. It should be just like a simple way to get a bit of a vibe. I’m excited, can you tell?”
What’s smartbar like in comparison with these places? “smartbar is a proper basement. It’s quite large in square footage and capacity, it’s like 5-600 people, which you don’t really get a sense for when you’re in there. It has a large lounge area one side of the dance floor and a bar that runs the length of the club on the other side. Not unlike Cielo in New York, you step down a couple of inches to get on to a dance floor. There are four Funktion-One stacks and horns, firing inwards, so you can get a really concentrated and focused sound. The floor is wood, ideal. Jose Luna does the sound there, and he’s really passionate about it, a dude who came up through different music scenes and has worked at smartbar in various roles for a couple of years. I think his official role is production manager, and he does a really good job looking after the system.”
Is that the guy who was interviewed in Resident Advisor? “That’s exactly right. So the sound can be really tight. Super punchy. When everyone’s on the ball it makes a really nice transition from digital to vinyl, obviously that requires some pretty close attention, but usually that switchover is handled really well. On vinyl-only nights the system has a distinct character outside of when people are playing on it on CDJs, and obviously depending on the mixer. I always thought that the nights that Frankie would play, may he rest in power, on the Rane rotary, that the system had a different character, which I’ve always really enjoyed knowing a place that well, you can get an idea how a different mixer affects the room.
The lighting is minimal but is done quite tastefully by our friend Kobe (Dupree Thompson), and the majority of the staff has been there for a long time. There is of course, some turnover, but a lot of the people have been there for as long as I’ve been going, which is almost a decade at this point. It’s a special place. Just like any other club it has its good nights and it has its slow nights, and Chicago is a complex and unique beast with regard to its scene and its lineage. The high points that I’ve had in that room parallel any that I’ve had anywhere else in the world, for sure.”
The mix you’ve done for us – you phase in with the intro, but it starts pretty hard, certainly tempo-wise. A lot of mixes, they build, whereas in your one you’re pretty fast from the get-go. How representative is that of the styles you play out? Obviously it’s not a seven-hour set. “So, with this Truants mix, it was definitely my specific intention to start at that pace, the goal was that the arc would then look different but still exist. The Stephen brown track that opens, after the Aleksi Perälä ambient track, to me that’s still deep. Yes, it may be fast, but I have been trying challenge myself to work with tempo in a way that is not completely tied to an energy level. I think that oftentimes we simply associate 128bpm+ as “bangers” by default, and actually there is a dynamic range and a level of intensity and energy that exists at every tempo range and is simply created by the person writing the track and not by the speed. So, this mix starts purposely at tempo because I wanted to see how fast I could push it, whilst still keeping close to the ideas that I’ve been working on in the booth: a thread of definite and distinct soulfulness, a lot of tonality and timbre changes, melodic sections that transition abruptly from harder sections, and always this sense of a percussive heart.
The thing that I work on the most these days is what David Mancuso referred to as “landing the plane”. It really fucked me up, this quote. He said something like, “it’s easier to take off in an airplane than it is to land one”, and that the landing that you offer to the room is arguably the most important part of your set, because you’re re-entering folks into reality, real life. As far as I understand, that was a big tenet of The Loft musical programme: the re-entry section. So, I’m trying to teach myself that winding down, is just as important as winding up. To have the presence of mind in the booth to know when to shift gears in a way that is sensitive and thoughtful and respectful to the people in the room, people who in 30 minutes might be walking out on to a crowded street, and what might be responsible in terms of a way to guide them in that direction. That’s the ideal, at least.”
With the Fiona apple and Jill Scott quotes, you put them in yourself? “Yes! The Jill Scott quote is from an interview that my partner sent me (we work closely on mixes when possible), and the Fiona Apple monologue is from the MTV Awards in 1997, which I found one night trawling on YouTube. The first track I chose for the mix was called “The Self” and so this message rang loudly for me. I’ve felt, like many peers, frustrated by social media pandering and the hierarchical ladder climbing of fast friends and empty allyship. I myself having fallen victim to questioning my own self-worth and drive with the constant noise, and I thought nothing more powerful than showcasing the voices of two great womxn. These spoken intros I find are a really nice way to speak without speaking myself. It’s a practice of intention-setting from the beginning, because we’ve only got an hour to get some work done together, and I like to make the point clear from the beginning.”
I just did an interview with Will Long and he said: “I’m not a singer or lyricist, so for me, quoting these people is both a way to empathize with their words, give my respect, and bring attention both to them and to their ideas, as well as to house music itself, and what it represents.” “Hmmm, that’s beautiful.”
Tell me about your working relationship with Steve Mizek? “I met Steve in 2010, I was well aware of his reputation with Little White Earbuds, and obviously had studied that website closely, and it was a great source of information and learning for me, before I was living in a place that had access to nightclubs in any sort of quote-unquote scene, if you will. Jason Garden who is Olin and now talent booker at smartbar, he was friends with Steve before I moved to the city, and he started sending Steve tracks that we were working on and Steve was sending back really superb feedback, and became one of the only sources for really honest feedback and general critique, early on and we developed a relationship through that, and through Jason and I working on music together for Steve.
Eventually a couple of years later Steve and I got booked for the same party, and we both had two-hour slots, or something, and I asked him if he wanted to combine them and just tag for like five hours and see what happens, and he said yes. And so we spent what was not a super-busy party, hanging out with each other. He was learning vinyl at the time, so we were kind of hanging out together and doing vinyl lessons and practicing, and this became a comfortable and natural fit to work together as DJs. We played a show a couple of months later, maybe the next spring, with John Roberts, who is one of Steve’s favourite artists. I think we played three hours to open and two hours to close, and John Roberts played an hour in the middle, and that was an absurd opportunity for us to try out what we had been working on in prime time.
John played a really excellent live set/hybrid thing, and we closed it out, and it was fucking crazy. I believe it was on Steve’s birthday, the day before/day after, so it was all round a really memorable experience, and that cemented our relationship as partners that had something to offer each other as well as something to do together and something to learn through each other as DJs. So, I continued producing, he continued giving me a lot of feedback, and that naturally grew into us deciding to play gigs together. What Steve did, I will never be able to thank him enough. because essentially, he decided to play together with me, to give me an opportunity to play elsewhere. because Steve was Steve at the time, he had Little White Earbuds, and was running both Argot and Stolen Kisses and then Tasteful Nudes, and had traction and was going overseas to play Panorama Bar eventually, and people knew who he was and nobody knew who the fuck I was, and he was kind enough to say “yo let’s team up”. When he would get gig offers he would offer the both of us to play, and as I slowly started to get my wits about me, as our friend network grew and projects started to shape up, we started to play out together quite a bit.
In March of 2016, Steve asked me to join the label and we started touring in earnest, playing a couple of shows a month. In the fall of 2016, we went to Panorama Bar together for the first time, to play the Sunday evening slot, the sunset slot, which, you know, that’s another one of those opportunities that presented itself in an absurdly fortunate way. It gave us a chance to show our worth and to step up to the occasion that was way bigger than what we had ever seen before, and the club was willing to take a risk on us. It’s been incredible to get to know your best friend in several different ways. As partners in a business, as DJ partners, me as someone who’s been very reliant on his feedback and honesty over the years, and spending hundreds of hours DJing and travelling. It’s been quite a journey.
Both times we played [Panorama Bar], last time in April and the fall before that, it was five hours. What can I say about that club that hasn’t been said a thousand times. It’s truly an incredible room to play in. The first night we played there was one of the greatest nights of my life. The crowd follows you pretty much wherever, the sound is good enough for the room and when you combine this sort of mythology around the club, the people that come there being folks that have travelled from all over the world for a specific genre of music, it all combines into a level of attention and knowledge in the room (generally) that makes for a really exciting experience. And it was fucking beautiful. I would play there again in a heartbeat.
At the same time, I always try to lean on this other thought, which is that any room in the world on the right night at the right time with the right people can be as good as any party in the world. For every conversation I have about how good Berghain and Panorama Bar can be, I always, perhaps curmudgeonly, raise a finger and repeat that idea that any place you can gather and dance can be that good. That it isn’t necessary to have all of those components in the same place, that capital, that platform, to throw a beautiful party with people you love.”
Can you tell me what’s coming next with Argot and Tasteful Nudes? “It’s a mix from one of Steve’s friends, Unscented DJ, former LWE assistant editor and currently working at RA Brandon Wilner. I have not been so heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the label as my touring schedule has picked up, and Steve has naturally always functioned in the primary role and I’m on support, so we’ve spent most of the couple of months kind of burrowing into our respective projects. But yes, the labels are still very much kicking. Last year was a very dynamic year, trying different ways of approaching distributing music to people, doing the JIL project with the t-shirt instead of pressing a record for it, just trying to try some different angles for people to own music, what isn’t necessarily what Steve would call a “tone carrier”. It’s a constant process of cycling through things, right now we’re kind of in the heavy R&D phase.
Anything that you expect to come out at a specific time you just add six-to-eight months to that. The situation has significantly improved in the last year and a half, two years. The situation here was quite dire with the number of plants that were in operation, and I’m not sure, I don’t have the specifics with regards to whether it was more plants or more machines, but the production times seem to have shrunk. But I think it’s a chore for everyone everywhere, to be honest.”
So you’re from Detroit? “I’m from a small town in Michigan called Sturgis. It’s right on the border with Indiana. about four-and-a-half, five-and-a-half hours south of Detroit, south west. so, it’s about two hours from Chicago. a little town, about 10,000 people.”So that’s proper Midwest? “Yeah. Some would affectionately call it the Rust Belt. It was a steel town, factories, trailers and corn fields.”
I see a lot of people talking about the Midwest at the moment, there seems to be a kind of bubbling up of a lot of people from that area. I think it was Noncompliant who said something about how because where she was living and playing was a small area, it meant you had to be really fucking good at every different genre because you had to keep a crowd, and it was much harder. Maybe she meant in terms of getting people to come out in the first place. How do you feel about the Midwest identity in terms of music and so on? “That’s a big question! I think I remember the post that you’re talking about that Lisa (Smith, aka Noncompliant) wrote. I think that one of the amazing things about the Midwest is that we all have such a distinct experience, in that so many of these towns have different degrees of scenes, or non-existent ones. In Indianapolis, for example, having maybe a couple of places to play, or maybe one bar or something, versus small towns that had no place to play or to go, let alone anyone around you that listened to the same music, and that sort of isolation that comes with it. Perhaps, you might have a couple of lighthouses either in places that you can go to listen or dance, or a couple of friends that you know that share the same musical taste.
This sort of combination of isolation, lack of exposure and the necessity for you to dig on your own and to discover for yourself, I think contributes to a really interesting cocktail that creates this sort of Midwestern DJ idea that has become kind of mythology at this point. The reality of the situation is that people in the Midwest play whatever music they want, in whatever style they want. So when you cover the gamut from Chicago DJs to Columbus to Cleveland to Indianapolis to Detroit and between, you’re seeing distinctly individual take on “dance” music – this sort of “I’m playing for my life, this is all I’ve got”, or “I’ve found my chosen family on the dance floor” – this is the reality for many in the Midwest, especially those that exist within marginalised communities and intersecting marginalisations.
Without having a networked scene where you have a lot of different options to intermingle, you may have one place that you can go and six different people that need to play, each with a different style. The Midwest rave concept including big parties that included all manner of styles, combines into this cocktail as I said that makes the Midwestern DJ particularly unique to ears in different places, because of the breadth of genres that Midwestern tastes generally span. That sort of uniqueness and bubbling of talent from people that are just working their asses off alone in their room, the hunger and the tenacity, it all comes together to make a really interesting experience as a dancer. And as someone who’s studying the lineage.”
How is that transferred over to when you put on nights yourself? “I’ve had an experience travelling that things that I’ll feel comfortable playing in Chicago are quite out there for people in other cities. and a lot of that has to do with the fact that, especially my experience playing in the Midwest, majority of that in Chicago, is that people just want to fucking dance. and they want to hear good music, and they want to hear the groove, and jacking is the central theme of your presence there. You came to jack. It’s time to jack. And that idea as lofty as it is in some ways, is also just real.
Because we don’t necessarily have time to split hairs about what genre this is, or whether we care for it or not, we’re here to do work – “I came to jack and I don’t care if it’s electro, if it’s EBM, if it’s no wave new wave, techno, house, it’s music.” And so, I really enjoy putting on shows and playing shows in the Midwest. In training in Cleveland, Midwest Fresh in Columbus, Texture in Detroit, Hot Mass in Pittsburgh, smartbar in Chicago, wherever in-between. There is a hunger and a tenacity that translates to the crowd as well. Motherfuckers are just here to work. and we’re here for this. And it does translate in some way to the crowd.
The description that I just gave you, that’s the ideal. There is always a 50-50 chance that the party is flat. One of the principles of my travel that has really stuck with me and I try to return to it as often as I can when my ego gets in the way, is that expectations are the betrayal of a good party. As a DJ, as someone that’s trying to throw a party, as a dancer, as a punter, quote unquote, going into the room with expectations is a sure-fire way to fuck everything up for yourself and those around you. What I describe to you is an ideal, and is an emotional experience and a trait of people from the Midwest, but there are flat parties there just like there are anywhere. If I go into every party as a DJ or dancer with pre-conceived notions, I have found it betrayed my experience many times, and either gotten in the way of me playing as freely and as respectfully and as lovingly as I would like to, and has also kept me from being open and warm and empathetic to the experience as a patron. That’s one of the core components of who I am as a person, one of the pillars of my DJing, and one of the hardest lessons I’ve come to learn over the past few years.”
Can you tell me about Service? “I do Service currently with three other people. Craig Gronowski is one of my best friends and an interior designer by trade, Brian Okarski is a graphic designer who lives in New York who I’ve been working with for over 12 years at this point, and my partner Anne Lacy is collaborating with us on this project, she lives in New York City and she works on the Unter parties, and her experience and expertise as a partygoer, as a dancer, and just as like an all-round creative has been essential for this service. We work together as a unit. Initially SERVICE was offered to me as my residency, but it was really important for me to build a creative team around me that represent different viewpoints beyond my own and that I trust very much to tell me when I’m being an idiot. Because that’s going to happen a lot!
Craig builds spaces for a living, and I never would have been able to do any of this without his expertise, and Brian does art for a living, and Service would not look the way it does without his taste, and Anne throws and helps organise one of the most interesting and exciting parties I’ve ever been to, and has been one of my best friends for five-plus years. She knows my taste and I know her taste, and she’s brilliant. So, having a group of people around me that can kind of work in symbiosis has been really exciting. Service is meant to challenge common arcs in club nights, it’s meant to experiment on a level of installation, spatial work, in a way that flips the rooms that we’re working in on their heads. It’s been a really exciting project and one that’s been more challenging than I ever could have expected. I’ve never thrown a party in my life, and next week will be the third one ever. it’s a residency centred around hospitality, and that’s why it’s called Service.
The idea centres around we as people who’re throwing the party are here to be in service at the people in the room, full stop. Music, design, everything comes after that, and in accordance with that. For years I had been thinking about how I would get frustrated when I felt like a DJ was playing almost in a way that was disrespectful to the room… that they weren’t being sensitive to the moment, they weren’t being sensitive to the people around them, there was no empathy, there was a wall up in a certain capacity. The goal was to decentralise the focus of the dance floor from this kind of idolatry around the DJ to the idea that the floor is nothing without the people on it. The party is about the people that are there and it’s our job to take care of them, make sure they’re in an environment that is as safe as we can make it, they are nourished, they have people to turn to if they need help, they are engaged, excited, challenged, hopefully all of that in some capacity or another. And obviously this is quite lofty but we aim really high as a group and we just try everything that we can, and not everything works. But approaching a club night in that way, rather than just booking a DJ and showing up, has given us a platform to really push each other, and it’s been really exciting.
The musical programme at Service is specific in that we don’t really book big names, at all. The goal is to showcase voices that are exciting and interesting, regardless of where they are, what clubs they’re playing or lack thereof, and the line-ups will always cover as much ground in a way that’s cohesive, and to make sure that there is as much representation as we can muster. We don’t put this front and centre, it’s not on the press release or event copy, because these are guiding principles that should be centred by default. Intersectionality and equity should drive the work at its inception. This comes together into a night that has been really fun to participate in, and to know that the people you’re looking at who are smiling and dancing are dancing inside of something you’ve created for them and they’re having fun is one of the most interesting kinds of satisfaction and excitement and love that I have felt before, and it’s quite different than being a DJ and I really like that.”
Obviously being a DJ, it’s not exactly instant gratification, but it’s a more holistic experience if you’re putting the whole thing together, rather than *this moment*. “That’s a really good way to put it. The thing that always drives me nuts is you got to just make sure that people show up, or do your damnedest. And if you’ve ever thrown a party you know that feeling, the one variable that makes it or breaks it is completely out of your control. And that has been one of the more humbling parts to silence my crippling my anxiety is to wrestle with that idea, there’s nothing you can do besides do your best to create a space that people will want to be in.”
What’s the next one going to look like? Or can you tell me? “I can give you an idea! smartbar’s dance floor is quite large and people don’t really gather on it until midnight, 12.30, sometimes even 1. And that means the club has been open for two, two-and-a-half, three hours before there’s more than two or three people on the dance floor. The opening DJ’s conundrum. That’s an important lesson for an opening DJ, and always a learning experience. As has been said so many times, the opening set being just as important as the peak-time set, if not more so. What we’ve tried to do at SERVICE is create an environment on the dance floor that is welcoming and encourages people to be curious and to get involved, and so what that entails is that we essentially create a lounge seated space that’s sectioned off into compartments or rooms on the dance floor itself.
So, for the previous two Services we have hung different materials across cabling on the ceilings to create four, five, six separate compartments, each compartment with furniture, seats, oddities, strange sculptures, candles and things like this. Then as the night transitions the room transforms, and we start to pull pieces away and peel back parts of the space, and pull one curtain back, and all of this happens completely randomly, depending on what the room demands. And so it ends up becoming a really unusual story arc to a club that’s usually people standing on the bar side or sitting in the lounge for two or three hours. We build a little deck at the back of the dance floor that stays there the entire night so if people want to take breaks, rather than leave the floor they can take a break on the floor. they can still remain engaged to the heart of the party, but they can chat, they can sit, they can relax and they can spectate and engage, they can stand up on the bleachers and dance if they want, and all of that has happened. When you think of current parties like no way back, or the minus parties that Richie Hawtin threw and the Syst3m parties in Detroit in the 90s, there were so many ways that they were experimenting with how you could change spaces and create mystery and confusion and disorientation and excitement and energy and change over the course of the night.
I remember hearing a story about slowly the temperature getting cranked up, or the ceiling in a giant room being put on ropes and slowly being lowered down to the crowd over the course of the night, and the all of a sudden, the ceiling is within arm’s reach. These sorts of perceptual tricks, all of that kind of influenced the idea that we could make the space change over the course of the night, and not just the static installation. One of the most exciting parts being how we interact with the people as we’re doing this process and how they interact with us, cause it’s Craig and I and our friends pulling the pieces off the floor and moving shit around and sliding curtains back and forth.”
You’re the stage hands of this night, as it were. “Right! That’s part of the reason, generally, that I play at the beginning for a little bit and at the end. It’s important that I be in the mix and that we’re physically changing the space. The materials and stuff I won’t get into cause that’s a surprise, but that same basic format will exist, but we’ve tried to elevate the production values each time. This will be much more of a sensory experience in that we are renting additional lights to install in the club, additional controllers, different kinds of materials than we’ve ever used before, and we’ll spin the wheel and see what happens!”
Where are you at with productions yourself this year or is that taking a backburner while you DJ? “I am actively working on stuff right now, and have been somewhat in earnest since November/December. My practice has changed quite dramatically almost every year for the last couple of years, and I finally picked up a couple of pieces of hardware last year and integrated that into my setup, which is what became the 2MR record Compersion. Right now I have kind of a personal mandate to have more fun in the studio, and what that means is removing the sometimes hyper-capitalist, hierarchical approach to production, where you’re always looking for the product or to complete the package.
For me, I’ve always been trying to compile things and put them together and think “what’s the next release”, because I didn’t go to college or have any other real work experience, besides working in restaurants for quite a long time, so I’ve always thought about dance music as my bread and butter. Something that I’m working really hard at and trying to grow through and move forward with. What that can become with too much of a narrow focus, for me, at least, was a focus on results, and less of a focus on creative exploration and fun and silliness and absurdity, and that for me is where I’m looking to go next. To embrace the beauty and the unexpected chaos of doing whatever the fuck you want in the studio. So I have more demos in process, and skeletons and sounds, happening now than I ever have in my life at one time. and that for me is the focus: to continue to create new things, and to have a cycle of new and old flowing consistently, so that when a record appears, or when a label picks several demos that they like, those move out of that bin and into the finishing pile, and I can continue to make new things and skip through the puddles and be silly and have fun without this sort of spectre of seriousness hanging over what I’m writing.
I would like to put out a couple of records this year, but there’s nothing concrete happening right now. I’m in a fortunate position in that I feel that there are people that would probably be interested in putting out stuff when it’s done, and so in that way I have this in the pit of my stomach driving me along to complete things. I’m just trying to figure out how to be more honest, always, and that’s always a struggle for someone with as shitty self-esteem as I have. so, the better I can get at that, the better I play, the better I am as a person and the better my music sounds to me or the better I feel writing it. I think it’s easy to forget, but that’s first and foremost: it needs to feel good, and it does right now and I’m really excited.”
That’s great to hear. You say you’ve got hardware, what was it before, was it just Ableton? “I got my first software program, or DAW when I was 11 or 12, thanks to my best childhood friend Noel (what’s up Noel!). He got Sony Acid for Christmas and we tried to make hip hop beats that sounded like the Es’ Menikmati skate video that came out in 2000. That became my early introduction to production. So I’ve worked in the box, on a computer, for my entire life. I’ve never had enough money, ever in my life, to buy any equipment. Short of used midi controllers on eBay. I got to use some friends’ synths here and there, over the years, but I never owned one until last year. Thanks to some very generous folks at Novation, who gave me access to some of their gear, let me try some stuff out and see what worked.
I got a Bass Station and it’s been an incredible friend, and then I have a TR8 that I bought from another friend, used, and that has kinda become my left hand, it’s like my extra limb at this point. I love that machine. So it’s been in the box up until last year, and now it’s super simple – an APC 40, TR8, Bass Station 2 and Ableton. I just rearranged the setup, because I’ve been living in the same apartment in Chicago for the entire eight years that I’ve been here. Every record I’ve written, every major experience I’ve had in my life I’ve lived in this apartment, so I needed to flip that shit on its head. So, I transformed the room into a standing desk, with an anti-fatigue mat, so now I can stand around and dance while I’m writing. I’ve had that for about a week and it’s fucking awesome. and I can’t wait to go back home and keep working.”
If you’re slumped over your laptop it’s not healthy, so that sounds like a good idea. “No, it’s not! That’s what I was thinking. It encourages me to do push-ups when I’m rendering and shit.”
You were talking about being isolated. I first came across you through the Erol Alkan forum, do you think that might have been a reason why you joined music forums? “Woooow. (laughs). That is absolutely a reason why I joined music forums. My first musical production experience was on the Underground Hip Hop forums, undergroundhiphop.com, and I religiously posted text raps, written rap, and beats there for like three years. Participated in MC competitions, quote unquote, but it was just text. Rap was my intro. But yeah, the Hip-Hop Infinity Forums, Underground Hip Hop, Super Future, the Erol Alkan forums, these were the centres of culture for me because I lived in the middle of fucking nowhere, I was really unpopular, I was terribly bullied and nobody that I knew listened to the music I loved with the exception of my friend Noel, who lived like an hour away from me. I didn’t live in a neighbourhood, I lived 25 minutes outside of our town, and either side of me was fields. As an only child, isolation, that was my existence, I lived in a bubble of my own favourite things that I couldn’t relate to anyone around me for. So, the Erol Alkan forum was actually a place where I met a swathe of people that created opportunities for me initially in dance music. My first record got signed through the Erol Alkan forum, remixers came from there, that’s pretty wild.”
What was your first record? “It was on Fatboy Slim’s label Southern Fried, me and NT89, some straight blog house shit, and the remixers were Matt Walsh and Milano, both Turbo darlings at the time. We all idolised Tiga. I can remember going to Chicago with my grandmother on a weekend trip in 2003, and I went to the original Gramaphone location, and I remember seeing smartbar flyers, seeing Felix Da Housecat on them. I have this distinct memory looking at the flyer like “Man this must be so fucking cool! It’s a nightclub”, and it’s funny to think how life comes full circle.”
That must be pretty special. “It’s fucked up… (laughs) It’s hard for me to put it into words. I moved to Chicago with the intention of being a resident at smartbar, so, for something like that to happen, after that being the sole reason for me going to the city in the first place, I will never understate (and probably overstate) the level of gratitude.”
What was the time distance between you coming to Chicago and working at smartbar? “My first show at smartbar was five months after I moved to Chicago.”
That’s pretty quick then! “Yeah, it’s absurd. One thing about me is that I am quite heads down when I’m looking to accomplish something, so when I moved to the city of Chicago I made a list of all the people who were throwing interesting events, and DJing and making great music, and I moved down that list for the next four or five months, until I had met everyone that I wanted to connect with. It was really important for me to present myself to the scene and to the city as a dancer, as a lover of music, as someone who was here to contribute to be a part of it, and not as someone who came in the door expecting anything.
I came here with the mindset that “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life” and I needed to be careful and respectful and mind my fucking Ps and Qs. If there’s anything that Chicago teaches you, it’s to watch your fucking mouth, ’cause you never know who you’re standing next to, you just don’t. You’re living in a library of house music, it’s not a very old genre so the people who created it could be standing next to you drinking a coffee, so keep your fucking mouth shut. That is an incredible sort of situation to learn from and learn in. So I came to the city and I was a resident in another club for a couple of months and was playing a lot of underground parties with tech house folks, like Lee Burridge, Danny Howells, Jamie Jones, Damian Lazarus, a totally different time and a different world at that point.”
But even still, those are some big names. “Yes, I was very lucky to get a running start thanks to some kind friends at the time. I showed up and I practised my fuckin ass off, all the time, and I tried to make sure that if I was given an opportunity to play that there was no mistaking the fact that I was putting work in and I came to share but not to throw my weight around for no reason. In January of 2011 I played at Smartbar with Nick Curly, and there was nobody there, and I was late, and I set my Traktor up incorrectly, and Lenny the club manager, who is now a friend, I think he thought I was a fucking asshole. I didn’t get booked again at smartbar for like seven months. And then one of the sweetest, most generous and kindest people that I’ve ever met in my life, Derrick Carter, offered to have me split a Classic Residency at smartbar with him. And so, Derrick played three-and-a-half hours and I played three-and-a-half hours. And that pretty much blew my head open, as you can imagine. He asked me to do it maybe three or four months in advance, and I’m like Jesus Christ I’m 23 years old, I don’t know anything, what the fuck do I know about dance music? So the next months were spent researching, listening, going through back catalogues of classic labels, trying to build up some sort of sound bed, build up a crate of music to play that didn’t make me look like an asshole and do justice to the night, and did justice to the opportunity that Derrick was so generous to offer to me. And it’s one of the most special and important nights of my life. When Derrick plays at smartbar, especially at that time, he wasn’t playing at smartbar very often, so there was a line down the block. For that to be my second experience playing at smartbar, to a full floor at 11.30 at night, people clapping and stomping and yelling, this was the benchmark.
At one point I dropped a track in and it was the first time in my entire life a crowd had cheered when I was playing music. There’s actually video of it, and I actually got down underneath the booth cause I was so overwhelmed, it was just that kind of awe-inspiring moment that I’m always chasing, that moment of overwhelming experience and awe and gratefulness to be surrounded by the people that you’re with, strangers or not. And Derrick was a person that went out of his way to make sure I felt welcome, and introduced me to a lot of beautiful things. We did two Classic Residencies together, one in 2011 and one in 2012. And that was my introduction. After that party that I did with Derrick I started getting booked at the club more frequently, and then Marea (Stamper, The Black Madonna) took over as assistant talent booker, and then talent booker, and started a programme of junior residents – not having your own residency but playing at the club a little bit more frequently. And I did that for a couple of years, and then Jason asked me to be a resident in 2017.”
That’s a bit of a journey. “Yeah, it’s been a wild and wonderful trip! I try to thank Derrick as much as I can for that, and Nate Seider at Smartbar, Marea and Jason. A lot of people have been very, very kind to me and I just try to reflect that back to everyone I come across in the scene, and elsewhere, as often as I can.”