Niall Mannion has hit these heights through a rich, melodic and often song-based take on house music. When I met with him in London last month, he spoke of a desire to connect with people on an emotional rather than purely physical level, and this is something you can sense in most of his work. Last year's Changing Days, an album with a knack for hooks and a focus on songwriting, reached the core of Mannion's style, even if upon reflection the man himself sees the record as something of a work in progress.
Stylistically Mannion occupies a similar space to Innervisions, and indeed, he now regularly plays alongside Dixon and Âme as a sort of honorary member of the Berlin label. He's also found likeminded souls in the Italian duo Tale Of Us. Mannion collaborated with the pair earlier this year on a remix of Caribou's "Can't Do Without You," scoring one of the summer's biggest tracks. It was a follow-up of sorts to Tale Of Us's remix of Mannion's "Primitive People," which itself became summer anthem when it was released last year.
These successes have had an interesting knock-on effect to Mannion's personal life. After years of leading what you could describe as a typical lifestyle of a touring DJ, Mannion decided that the hedonism connected to his profession was actually lessening his enjoyment of it. He almost completely stopped drinking, and started playing sports again. And he now says he's enjoying DJing and producing more than ever before.
When we first met, in 2010, you had a couple of records out and were DJing mainly in Germany—
—playing in Berlin mostly, yeah.
And earlier I counted on RA that by the end of this year you'll probably have played around 100 gigs.
I think a bit more than a hundred. Same as last year.
I just wanted to ask how you feel you've handled that transition, from being a gigging DJ in Berlin to an international, touring headliner?
It's been amazing. It's been an amazing journey. Obviously my life has changed a lot, but just in a really positive way. I went to Berlin because I wanted to have a successful music career. I wanted to be touring and travelling the world, and it's just been positive. You know obviously sometimes you get a bit stressed or it's a bit much, but in general it's just been good.
Would you say it's actually been more of a gradual step up to this level?
Yeah, pretty much. Since the start, it's built up very naturally. I didn't just have one massive record and then all of a sudden there were like three bookings a week. It was just quite gradual, and when I released my album it got a bit more, but it wasn't one thing that made it go up from one day to the next.
Do you think hustling as a local DJ and playing lots of gigs in Berlin prepared you for what came afterwards?
Absolutely. It was the best thing that I could ever have done, because there's no city where you can play three gigs in a week, and like at one stage I was playing really a lot in Berlin. You're playing long sets so you're learning so much. I could do like an all-nighter on a Wednesday at Farbfernseher with The Drifter. We were doing that sort of stuff all the time. In terms of DJing, Berlin was where I learnt the most.
Were there specific things you learnt?
Just getting the experience of DJing for different crowds and different kinds of atmospheres, and just putting in the hours of playing in front of people all the time, and I think Berlin is definitely the city because there's so many small bars and small clubs and everything where you can do that.
As someone who was new to the city, how easy did you find it to get gigs?
It was slow at the start. I really struggled for a couple years, which everyone would if you didn't have any records out. I just got a gig here and there, but I gradually became more of a Berlin DJ. You make more connections, but it was definitely gradual and I definitely struggled financially for a couple of years [laughs]. I was skint. It was definitely tough, and also because you're like, "What am I doing here?" You've moved to a different country and you're starting really from scratch, and you've moved there for a specific reason, which was to make it in a business that very few people actually can make a living out of properly.
Are you someone who thinks quite closely about where they're at in life at any given time?
Yeah, I think I've always been like that. I definitely have to have an idea of where I am, where I want to be, what I want to do, what I want to do musically. I'm definitely always questioning it, and it's also like you can never really get comfortable, especially in a business like this, because if you take your foot off the gas or if you take things for granted it can all be over very soon, you know.
What were you doing before you moved to Berlin?
I finished university just one or two years before I moved to Berlin. I was just having fun, hanging around with my friends. But the years before I left, I studied French in university and economics—obviously can't speak French, can't really speak economics—but I was doing substitute teaching in secondary schools in Ireland, and going out and DJing a bit in Ireland as well, but doing secondary teaching was a big motivator to get out of Ireland. It was great for a time, it kept me going, money and stuff, but it made me feel a bit trapped.
Did you have any connections in Berlin before you moved there?
Not really. There was only one other Irish guy, Dara O'Neill, who opened Kleine Reise and Loftus Hall. So we were the only two Irish guys that we knew at the time. A lot more Irish people have moved there since.
When Kleine Reise started, when me and The Drifter started our night Passion Beat, which went on for like three years, that was one of the most important things we ever did. We had a monthly party, we got to book people we really liked. We had John Talabot play like three times before he was big or anything, and Nicolas Jaar. It's like you have this old basement—it was so fun. Like, really fuckin' fun.
It did feel like one of those quintessentially Berlin places. Why do you think it worked so well?
It was just such a wild place. Everyone who worked there was Irish, like all the staff and everything. By the end of the night all the staff would be drinking and everything as well so it just turned into a house party almost.
Do you think Berlin is a mixed blessing in a way? On the one hand you have cheap rents and the feeling of freedom, but on the other the temptation to go out and party is extremely high. People's aspirations might fall by the wayside.
I've seen it happen so many times, to so many different people. They'd just be like partying all the time. It's one place where you have to be quite focussed.
How do you think you handled that challenge?
I just gave myself some rules, you know, that I wouldn't go out so much, and just focus on making music. I actually got quite introverted to be honest. But maybe I had to just do that.
We were talking before about how you'd recently made some lifestyle changes. Did this represent you getting into a more grownup groove in Berlin?
Yeah I guess so. It's also just because of touring so much, time constraints—you want to make the best of your time. When you get really good opportunities in your life, you sometimes have to like look at yourself and go, "OK, am I making the best of this?" That's kind of a big motivator for me. You see all this great stuff happening and it's like, what's the point in being hungover or whatever rather than being able to make the best of it.
If you DJ three nights in a row and you're drinking every night, you're going to be in bits for like two days afterwards, and when you get over 30, all of a sudden you're getting proper hangovers. So then you're missing the whole week, and you have to go on tour again. So I just prefer the time that I do have to make music. My brain feels sharp.
Over the past couple of years you've obviously become quite closely associated with the Innervisions guys, but you've never released anything on the label, is that right?
Is that likely to change in the future?
I don't know. It should do some day. Like, it's one of my favourite labels of all time. I remember going to Innervisions parties in Panorama Bar back in the day, like Sunday night, and just being like, "Wow, this is so great." I've always been a massive fan, and the guys really took me under their wing. I played with them a lot the last couple of years, and we're good friends.
How did the connection come about?
I think they were playing my tracks in Panorama Bar, and then I started talking to them, and Kristian from Âme played at Passion Beat.
Do you see similarities in your attitudes or in the way you approach music?
I've learnt a lot from them. They do things in a way that I have a lot of respect for. They really think about things, they really think about what they're doing musically, they think about all the aspects of what they do.
Have they influenced your DJing?
Yeah absolutely. We don't really have exactly the same taste or anything, but it's just certain things. Dixon's patience—his massive patience in his DJ sets. They probably are the guys I listened to more than anyone over the last few years, so I definitely picked up stuff.
Do you remember why you first started DJing?
Yeah, I went to a party in Dublin called Backlash, which was kind of like electroclash but kind of house. It was in about 2004, and I just really liked it. I just really got super into the music, and I just decided that I wanted to DJ.
How aware of dance music and club culture were you growing up?
Yeah, pretty aware. In the '90s you'd hear dance music on the radio all the time. When I was a really small kid I told my mum I wanted to go clubbing [laughs]. I was like eight years of age or something. I'd just been listening to pirate radio and stuff, and I was like, "This is amazing, I want to go to a nightclub." I thought it was the most amazing concept. I didn't realise that you couldn't go until you were older.
That must have been a crushing blow for an eight year old.
I couldn't really get my head around it. It's for grown-ups [laughs].
And you played in bands growing up?
Yeah we just had kind of garage bands with some friends from around Greystones. Also with The Drifter—we always did stuff together since we were like 13 or 14.
So what drew you to club music production?
Just from going out and then being like, "This is amazing," you know. I started DJing but I'd kind of been making music before that, like recording stuff on the computer—not so much electronic music, but like more songs or whatever, so then when I started DJing, or when I started thinking about DJing, I started producing the music as well.
Was it something that you took to quite naturally?
Yeah, because I'd been writing songs for years, writing music for years before that and playing a lot of music, so when I first opened Ableton Live it was just like, "This is the best thing ever." I got really into it. I got really into it straight away, like really obsessed with it.
People sometimes associate your music with disco, but was this actually an influence for you?
When I first started DJing I was really into Italo and stuff like that. I remember I found a Sylvester record in a second-hand shop, just when I started DJing—"Do You Want To Funk"—and I really liked that sort of stuff. I also quite liked all the Prins Thomas stuff. The first Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas album was just amazing. The sound of them—because you still had live instrumentation, like live drums and everything, but the synths and everything. I thought it was amazing.
So it was almost like you were into disco but through a contemporary lens?
Yeah for sure. There's a lot of classic disco stuff that's a bit much for me, to be honest.
So your first release was on Prins Thomas's label. Had you been hustling quite hard up to that point to try and get your music out there?
That was the first track I ever made.
Oh shit, OK.
I put it on MySpace and that afternoon Tensnake found it and was like, "I want to sign this to Mirau [his label]." Literally I'd only been using Ableton for a week or two weeks, and I put it up on MySpace. It was this track "Warhorn," which was on the A-side of my first release. It was supposed to come out with Tensnake, but they had some problems with the distributor or something, and then Prins Thomas was playing in Dublin, and I just gave him a CD, and he was like, "Yeah, I want to put it out."
You said in your biography that when it came to your album you didn't want to just release a bunch of club tracks, but do you feel as though your sound lent itself quite naturally to doing something different in the album format anyway?
I think so yeah, because the buzz [for me] is writing music that is kind of like melodic. I started singing on the first album, but I'm already working on a new album—it's the same kind of approach, it's just trying to be really open with what I'm doing and not feeling under pressure to make it like something that you can play out.
People often talk about the emotional quality of your music—did you see the album as platform to explore this idea more thoroughly?
Kind of, yeah. I still think it was a failed experiment, you know. It's like, most people if they do their first thing it's not going to be their best work, so it's just—it was OK for what it was, but I don't feel I really got there with what I wanted to do. I look forward to making a new record.
Was it a straightforward decision to sing on the first album?
I just started messing around at home recording the vocals and it just felt quite natural to do that. They're pretty rough vocals, like I recorded them really badly at home and everything, so I think I've learnt quite a lot. On the next record I hope to take more care.
Are there others lessons that you'll carry into the next record?
Kind of to have more confidence in the project. To have less preconceptions, just let the record be what it is. I think that you just grow in confidence, like if you have some success or whatever, you just learn to trust yourself more.
In the past you've said that in addition to making people dance you're interested in connecting with people on a deeper level.
It's just like when you hear a really good song and you can really identify with it. You can identify parts of your life in it. That's the thing, it's like it's certainly something that I've always like wanted to do.
Do you have a theory on where that comes from?
I think it's just from listening to albums when I was younger. I'm obviously in love with the club thing as well, but just from listening to records when I was younger—you just identify a lot with a record, and you attach a lot of your feeling or emotions to them. That's always something I wanted to do.
Is this an idea or a feeling you try to explore with your label, Maeve, as well?
Erm, no I think the label is just for us to put out cool dance tracks [laughs]—from us and a few of our friends. Baikal was just like starting or restarting, and me and The Drifter had been around to his house and listened to his tracks, and he had so much amazing material, and he was like, "Oh where am I going to put it out?" Me and Mark, The Drifter, were just like, "Yeah come on, we have to put it out ourselves."
It's just become a really nice thing, because it's like you're doing something with your really close friends, and you get to travel together and have fun together, and so it's just a nice project.
Where are you at right now in terms of writing music? Would you say you're in a creative headspace?
The whole year has been insane with travelling, but now it's gone a bit slower. I'm taking off six/seven weeks at the start of next year, and that's just going to be for writing. I'm starting to get to a point where I'm starting to feel comfortable and starting to feel productive. I was moving to Zurich, so that also was taking up a lot of my time.
Do you think moving to a quieter place will benefit your music?
I think so, yeah. It's really nice; it's just beautiful. I think my dream when I was a kid was to live in the countryside and make music, to have a studio in nature. It's just like the dream.
At this point you've achieved most of the goals that you first set for yourself—becoming a touring DJ, recording an album. So how do you measure success right now?
One of the biggest things is when I go to play in different countries and you start getting real fans, you know? And you start recognising people who go to different gigs and follow you around a bit, and you see people who come and see you a lot—like, many times, you know? That's one of the biggest things, where you're like, "OK you're building some sort of a proper fan base."
In the end, your audience is the most important thing. They enable you to do everything else. That's how you can pay your rent, that's how you can make more music. So that's probably the biggest thing: you can see that your music has an effect on people in a positive way.