The colourful flier from my recent gig in Croatia.
I'd almost forgotten what blue sky looked like. It's August, which in the UK has become "monsoon season." So I'm hoping for some brief respite—and a much needed dose of vitamin B12—as I head to my gig in Zagreb, Croatia. After an hour of flying through milk, we finally burst out of the clouds and the blue horizon stretches before us. The mass of cloud below clings to Western Europe like a shroud.
I'm typing this at 30,000 ft, relaxed and looking forward to tonight's show at Sirup. It wasn't always thus. Several years back I developed a true aversion to flying. The music industry is littered with those who famously refuse to fly—victims of a "perfect life" syndrome. Life is so good: Why risk it by flying? Of course to live a life by this mantra is no life at all.
Through a combination of logic testing and exposure, I managed to conquer my fears and would now fly to the supermarket if a budget airline should ever find a way of making it profitable. Logic testing is actually quite fun. If you think the plane you are about to board is going to crash because a black cat ran across the road in front of you en route to the airport, you test your theory by the reaction of others. If you demanded to speak to the pilot and warned him he was risking the lives of hundreds of passengers by flying this aircraft because a cat ran in front of you, what would his reaction be? Yes, the people in white coats would be called to kindly escort you away somewhere calming.
Flying is a perfect example of technology surpassing people's understanding. It therefore has a feeling of unreality about it—even now after decades of mass air travel. Digital DJing is the same. Many vinyl DJ's still have a hard time comprehending the concepts behind using a computer to play music to people in clubs.
My current setup is a far cry from my beginnings as an electro DJ back in Ipswich in the mid-'80s. As I provided the backdrop to breakdance competitions at the local Caribbean Community Centre, I could hardly foresee myself flying around the world doing this for a living. In those days, myself and a few mates used basic scratch-techniques and mixing briefly practiced at professional footballer Louis Donowa's house. His son was the only one of us who could afford a pair of 1200's and a mixer. We would take turns practising until his Dad returned home from work and a deathly silence enveloped the household. Even at that age we knew it wasn't wise to test a West Indian man after a hard day's work.
After a comfortable, uneventful flight I emerge squinting into bright sunshine and gorgeous summer heat. This is more like it. As is often the case, the people looking after me are not only exceedingly polite and good company, but also incredibly knowledgeable about my career.
It still humbles me that I can meet people from all corners of the planet that know my back-catalogue better than myself.
We all have a good feeling about tonight's gig at Sirup. It's the first post-summer party and everyone has returned from the coast ready for some serious techno action. What none of us expected was a party so rocking that I ended up playing for double my two hour slot. The crowd were so receptive I just didn't want to stop and the generous residents let me continue. A few hours later, showered and nursing a sore lower back—a habit of standing for hours hunched over DJ gear—I'm back at 38,000 ft flying through a thunderstorm over the Alps.
On the decks in Oslo.
A week later and the Norwegian promoter tells me it's a lovely, warm and sunny late summer's day in Oslo. I prefer to travel as light as possible, so I decide to travel with just a couple of t-shirts and change of underwear.
The flight is a beauty—clear skies and a magical array of colours as the sun slowly sets to the west.
Norway is clearly recognisable below. Forested low mountains with glittering lakes as far as the eye can see. Joachim, the promoter, is excited. He's continually taking calls from mates asking for tickets as we drive to the hotel. The event has sold extremely well, and I'm guaranteed a good crowd. This is, of course, what every DJ wants to hear—but perhaps more so in my case, as my Ableton Live DJ sets can be quite intense and tend to work best with a full club.
I can strip the set down if need be, but I prefer to start intense and keep building—seeing how far the crowd want to go with me. It's taken me eight years to get to this stage with digital DJing. It's become so nuanced and personalised that another DJ using my exact custom setup would still sound totally different due to the little tricks and techniques I've learnt over this long period.
Without giving too much away, I approach each set as a live two hour remix. But rather than doing this with the unexciting look and feel of being hunched over a laptop with a mouse, I put the laptop to one side, needing only brief glances to get my bearings or drag in more tracks—and perform everything from my Akai APC40 controller. I find it's all a matter of delicate balance. (Maybe being a Libran gives me an edge in this department.) You want to justify the creative power at your disposal, but not overdo things with effects, layering, editing, etc.
There is a lot of preparation too— editing up tracks into sections for looping and layering, colour coding parts, creating effects chains for each individual channel and master output. It's all a far cry from the horror stories of somebody using the software to simply launch one clip after another—effectively doing nothing more than moving faders up and down. Utter pointless in my opinion. I couldn't imagine anything less inspiring.
My sets are energy-sapping, being both physically and mentally demanding. And there's nothing more satisfying than having a vinyl devotee giving some respect after my set, and this happens in almost 100% of the places I bring my unique approach. No matter my mood, I never take my career for granted and always give everything I've got to the crowd.
A great indicator of how a party went is the physical state of the promoter and his team the next morning. Sure enough, I get a call asking if it's OK to jump into a pre-paid taxi and make my own way to the airport. A few hours later, as I stand waiting on the runway to board my flight in the early morning mist, I start to regret only bringing a t-shirt to wear. It's absolutely freezing.
Top: Amsterdam's Metropole Orchestra
Bottom: On the Isle of White at Bestival
Late summer is peak festival season in Europe. I usually perform at them, but an opportunity arises this year to be a guest as a punter. The organisers of Bestival—probably the UK's best music festival these days, in my opinion—have asked myself and DJ/A&R Ross Allen to research and scope out this year's event to garner ideas for some special happenings at Bestival 2011.
Bestival seems to have the perfect mixture of attendees. The considerable cost of attending multi-day festivals can sometimes lead to an overly middle-class, mature crowd. Bestival, however, seems to attract a real up-for-it, friendly and fun lot. It's the perfect event for a range of music, and that's why Ross and I are here this weekend.
Myself and three mates leave Suffolk at 3 AM to catch an early ferry over to the Isle Of Wight location. I have no time for sleep, though, as I am still preparing audio tracks for recording sessions with Amsterdam's Metropole Orchestra which are booked for the day after we return. In a last minute rush, I get my stupidly oversized tent from the garage and find it smelling of three years of under-usage. I haul the entire thing over a rotary clothesline and proceed to empty an entire bottle of washing up liquid over it before blasting with a high-powered hose for a good twenty minutes, leaving it smelling lovely but sopping wet.
Four hours later I'm dragging the tent like a dead body across the dried mud of the Bestival Car Park. I'm nearly in tears as we attempt to erect the over-engineered monstrosity with no instructions and no sleep. Finally, with some help and many laughs, the tent stands proudly erect and rather than sleep, we head off into the main site.
The day starts with the disappointing news that Ulrich Schnauss is even less organised than myself and has forgotten to book his ferry. The disappointment is quickly forgotten when Four Tet delivers what I thought was the best live show of the entire festival. My friends sensibly head back for some sleep, but I'm determined to stay for Dave Clarke's closing set in the Big Top. I'm close to 36 hours without sleep but I manage to enjoy sets by Magda and Plastikman behind his amazing curtain of LEDs before losing track of time and mysteriously waking up slumped over in a portaloo. I'd obviously fallen asleep on a toilet break, so I admitted defeat and headed back for some much needed sleep.
My apologies, Dave.
On the second day the Bestival site resembles a large refugee camp after a mudslide. My aching limbs struggle across to the main site once again just in time for... Rolf Harris. Sanity is quickly restored as I push myself to the front of a heaving Bollywood and frighten the life out of Gilles Peterson before his set. I've seen Gilles play more than any other DJ, being a regular at his Belvedere Arms nights in the mid-'80s, and then at Dingwalls and That's How It Is in the '90s. He plays a blinder, as does David Rodigan straight after. It's about 200 degrees in the tent, so we head for some relief outside and end up staying for the reformed Roxy Music. I got a bit over-excited when they played "Virginia Plain" followed by "Love Is the Drug."
After the long drive home on the Sunday I have roughly an hour's sleep before heading off to Stansted for an early morning flight to Amsterdam. A few hours later and I'm in a control room behind an enormous Neve console listening to a symphony orchestra play the arrangements for my forthcoming Beauty Room project. From the ridiculous to the sublime.