MacDonald comes from Edmonton, Alberta's second city, situated just north of Calgary. Known for its dreary architecture and harsh winters, Edmonton is no cultural hotspot, but it's been an unlikely incubator for a number of house and techno artists, Eddie C and Jex Opolis among them. Through his tireless efforts—he's run all kinds of parties in Edmonton—MacDonald has helped build a dedicated scene there. It's exemplified by promising labels like Normals Welcome and Heart To Heart, both of which have great records in the works featuring artists from all over Western Canada. MacDonald's influence stretches to the West Coast, through Vancouver and Victoria. His wide-ranging record bag, which includes rock, new age and some of the weirdest disco ever made, has had a big influence on the area's cast of rising stars—especially fellow diggers like DJ. D.DEE and Liam and Jack of the Pender Street Steppers—who are breaking away from the region's traditional association with bass music.
MacDonald says Western Canada has a distinctive sound now—mostly loungey but uplifting house. This wouldn't have been possible without him. His sets have been influencing dance floors in Vancouver, Calgary and Victoria for years, and he's been a frequent guest at parties thrown by associates of Mood Hut and Pacific Rhythm in Vancouver's house scene, where he's something of a father figure. (He's only 30, but his signature long hair and beard gives him the wizened demeanor of someone much older.) He was an important mentor for Dylan Khotin, a 22-year old Vancouver-via-Edmonton transplant whose stellar DJ sets and productions are getting attention from all over. And he's a friend of noted disco heads Eddie C and Koosh, whose love for music old as well as new have clearly rubbed off on MacDonald.
My chat with MacDonald came at the tail end of a remarkable 2015. He had a string of well-received appearances in Vancouver, including spots at the dingy Hindenburg club and the beachside New Brighton Park, followed up with gigs in Montreal and Toronto in January. But maybe the biggest highlight was his set at last year's Bass Coast, where he got a bunch of dubstep and bass music heads grooving to house and techno at the Slay Bay stage. People were telling me all weekend how much they loved his set, even those who said they weren't usually a fan of the genres he plays.
MacDonald also recently opened his own venue, 99ten, in Edmonton. It's actually the basement of the Common, the bar and restaurant where he spent the early years of his career. He played at least once a week with a series of residencies, sometimes for just a few people on a Tuesday or Wednesday, sometimes drawing bigger crowds on a weekend. It was here that he learned how to be the kind of DJ who can work almost any room in any setting, the kind of selector who can go from Aretha Franklin to Daniel Bell at the flick of his wrist—a taste that was obvious as we rifled through his record collection.
I Gotta Woman
You said you didn't want to include any edits. Why that one?
It's one of the few edits that I own where I don't know the original. It's the sweetest, most innocent tune of all time. I play it every Wednesday when I have my lounge night. I'm kind of infatuated with songs that are about love and that are just innocent. It doesn't need to be anything vulgar, dirty or whatever. He talks about like—what are some of the lyrics, god—I'm gonna pull it up on YouTube right now cause I can't remember the one lyric I love so much. But it's like—something about bees. It's so good. I've always loved rock music, and I listen to a lot of soul and funk and stuff like that. It's in a weird sort of crossover zone I guess, but I love it.
You run an edits label. What makes a good edit in your eyes?
Well, it's down to the definition of it, in a sense. I feel an edit is a tune where you only use the original tune and its original parts. A little drum sample here and there is, I guess, OK for me, but I feel an edit is only using the original parts. And as soon as you start throwing in drums, or other sounds, or another synth line, it kind of turns into a remix at that point. I have a set of rules for it—if the original is dope, don't touch it. What's the point?
Koosh did an edit of Diana Ross for Common Edit number two, "Love Hangover." And it's an edit of the intro… All he really did was loop up the dope part, and then he sampled the initial strings that start the tune off, and they're like slightly off-time but it works perfectly. There's nothing flashy about it, but it's perfect, you know? Same with like another tune I included on this Playing Favourites thing—Michael Cretu.
Flying To Heaven
The original is incredible, but I actually picked the jazz edit of it. The jazz edit is the whole song, it just gives you an extra bar of intro, which is kind of a necessity, at least when you're DJing. That's all it does, and that's all it needs. The whole theory of an edit is to just make it more playable for a DJ. I also feel it should always be sampled off a record, you shouldn't necessarily do it from a file or something like that.
How'd you find Michael Cretu?
Koosh. I was really getting into disco and then I met Koosh. Koosh exposed me to that one. And I fell in love with the tune—the lyrics are incredible. With music, I really feel it should only be about love, sex, drugs or space. The lyrics in that one are so dope: "Every night I look to the stars / I wonder how they are." It's so amazing. He had a few albums but that one is definitely the highlight for me. It's actually classified as electronic rock on Discogs. But I'm super into, like, leather disco, stuff that has a little bit of a rocky feel, big guitar riffs.
Is this the kind of thing that you'd play on the Wednesday lounge night?
No! That's like a party time tune for me! I tend to play pretty energetic, dramatic things when I play at a dance party. That tune to me is a hit in every sense of the form. It never leaves my bag. Almost ever. I always take it with me no matter where I'm going. Even if I've played it a hundred times in Edmonton, I still play the crap out of it.
And talking about electronic rock—The Supermax track.
They're pretty much my favourite band of all time.
Yeah. Kurt Hauenstein—he didn't do a ton. They put out what, four or five LPs, I guess? They toured up until he died a few years ago. They were still touring Supermax. And they were one of the first, or if not the first, multi-racial band to play in South Africa. Which is pretty cool. He always had a couple of black ladies singing backup for him, and he's always singing about chocolate ladies [laughs]. They were the best. He had his hand in some pretty classic disco records. The Bombers and stuff. And he did some uncredited production. Well, not uncredited, but stuff that didn't have the Supermax name to it. He did this one LP, Bamboo, that's self-titled and so badass. It's another great record. But he was rad. I loved him. And minus my beard, we kinda have the same look. He's got long hair and a 'stache.
Most of the disco you picked is older disco—but you picked the House Of Spirits track, which is a newer one.
Yes. The bassline is absolutely killer, and the break in the middle. I have two copies of it—there's a break right in the middle of the tune, and I bought doubles of it just to play that over and over again. The bassline is so dope. And I love everything that Tom Noble does. His Superior Elevation label, I pretty much have all of them. And the ones I don't have are in my wantlist on Discogs, and I'm just waiting to find one that isn't $200 or $100. They're pretty expensive records, but every edit he does is something I've never heard before. Incredibly good.
The edits are very tasteful—they're not overdone, or super loopy, it's just extending the good parts. And they sound a little bit better than the originals, too. They're a little bit more DJ-friendly in that respect. You don't have to worry about low gain. They thump pretty good. So I buy everything he does. And from what I understand, this is his new project that's, like, original disco.
You could be fooled into thinking it's some old record..
For sure. And I'm totally obsessed with strings. Probably half of these records that I've put on here have massive string leads. I've always said it would be the best to be a disco violinist—it's just like [makes dramatic hand motions]. Pretty simple, but they all have punch.
I Can't Get Along Without You
The Vance & Suzanne record, it's funny because it almost sounds like an edit.
That record I wanted for a really long, long, long time—probably a good six or seven years, and it's a pretty pricey one. I lucked out recently. I'm an everyday Discogser. I got it for under $100. I was supremely excited about it. And it's such a good tune. The musicality in it is pretty out of this world.
They only did that one record. How did you find out about it?
I really don't know. Half of digging, at least these days, is jumping around and looking at recommended videos, or people who bought this bought this or whatever. I just kind of stumbled upon it via YouTube. You click one thing, and it leads to another, it's always kind of like a chain. You can sit for hours and click and click and click and click, and find new songs. It's pretty amazing that way. When I first found out about Juno, you know, ten or 12 years ago or however long it was, it blew my mind.
When I first started DJing, you just went to the record store and whatever was there, you bought, and that was pretty much as far as it went. You weren't like getting overly exposed to all different kinds of stuff, you just kinda had to dig it out and find things. Which is why I still play records and love records. It's easy to download stuff and find stuff that way, but if you're really searching it helps you build a catalogue of records that other people may not have. And I feel that's what makes you unique as a DJ. There's tons of DJs out there that aren't the greatest mixers, they just play really good music and put it together well. And that's really the key to it in my opinion.
Jump To It
Moving from a pretty obscure record to a more obvious one.
That's another thing that doesn't leave my bag. I'm a firm believer in the $5 hit. Obviously I'm searching for the weird and the rare and the exclusive stuff, but if it's a good tune it's a good tune. And it's such a good tune. It's a Luther Vandross production, and you can't go wrong with Aretha. And the melody and everything just fits together perfectly, it's like a couple holding hands. Everything just follows itself and it's perfect. And it's another sweet song about love.
I think you're one of the only DJs I know who thinks about lyrics so much.
It's important! I do feel there's two types of music listeners—ones that just kinda pay attention to melody, and others that really dissect lyrics and think about them. But whether or not you're listening to them, you still hear them, and it does pass on a subliminal message. If it's happy and uplifting and about love, it's gonna make you feel that one way or the other, whether you're listening to the lyrics or not. I won't play a tune if it's got a lyric that I don't believe in. Maybe once in a while if the backing tune is that good, I might play it. But if I can't really get behind the lyric, then I don't wanna play it or listen to it. It's pretty important.
(You Are) More Than Paradise (Theo Parrish Long Version 2
When do you get a chance to play a 14-minute track?
Never! [laughs] I used to play the crap outta Chilly's "For Your Love," which is just shy of 12 minutes, and you can play that tune start to finish. It's about how you set it up. I've seen Koosh literally play that record till the end, and then play a sound effect, and grab the needle, pull it back to the start and restart the record, and everybody flips out and loses their mind. If the tune's good it can go on forever.
You've mentioned Koosh a lot. Has he been a big influence on you?
For sure. I think he has been for a lot of people doing stuff on the West Coast over the years. He's been around for a long time, and he was one of the main reasons I started the Common Edit label. My boss at Common was just like, 'Why don't you put out records? Why not? Do some edits and put 'em out!' I'd probably known Koosh for a year or two by then, I was talking to him about it and he was like, 'Yeah, why not? Just do it.' We sat down and slammed out and then I pressed it, and so it began. You just gotta do stuff. You think about it and you wanna do it, why not? Go for it. It can't hurt.
If Koosh was the influential figure for people like you, maybe Dylan is the next generation. And you've obviously been a big influence on him. What about his music do you find so interesting?
He has a really good way with pace in a song. "AT04" is perfectly paced. It doesn't have any big stabs or crazy in-your-face parts to it, it just slowly picks up the pace and then it goes through that little break, and when it kicks back it's the perfect time. If you were to skim through the tune you may not really understand that.
He has an impeccable melodic sensibility. I've worked on tunes and hung out with him enough to know that he can just sort of walk up to a keyboard and play a really good catchy melody, like, right away. He's very talented for—I don't wanna say for his age, but he is. He's a talented dude. And I met him before he really started getting into house music. And instantly he was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna start writing house,' and just like slammed out three tunes, and then that was his first Normals Welcome record. Through listening to it over a small period of time he was able to walk up and just make good music right away. He became one of my best pals over the last three or four years. And I love the guy. I'm sad he moved but I'm happy for him as well cause I think Vancouver is a really good spot for him.
Are there any other young producers in Edmonton right now that are interesting you?
I think a lot of people have come out of Edmonton. I feel Edmonton's always been a pretty creative place, because we have eight-month winters and you're trying to survive and stay warm and not freeze to death. So it pushes people to spend a lot of time indoors and in their studios. And like Jex Opolis, who I also included on this list, he hasn't lived in Edmonton for close to a decade but he's an Edmonton guy!
On The Cliffs
I actually didn't know that.
He used to have a project called DVAS with another dude from here. "On The Cliffs," that's like the smoothest tune I've ever heard. It's so amazing. It kinda feels like you're swimming underwater. He's the smoothest guy I know, and I'm sort of always slightly attached to things that get a little bit dramatic. That's probably why I like strings and keys and chords so much. I think it's around 112 or 113 BPM, and it's got punch to it even though it's like a laid-back, sort of Balearic vibe.
The vibe of that tune is very similar to what's happening in Vancouver right now, with Mood Hut and Pacific Rhythm, all these guys making loungey house. Why do you think that is?
It's pretty rad. I feel like Western Canada has a sound. For the first time in a long time. I started DJing 15 years ago, but it was much simpler back then. You went to raves and there was house, techno, trance, jungle, drum & bass and breakbeats and hardcore. There was none of the subgenre stuff, it was just very basic.
My first exposure to more serious dance music, in terms of where it's going today, was going to my first MUTEK—it was MUTEK six or something. And, at that time, the East Coast was killing it. There were a ton of dudes like Deadbeat, The Mole and all those guys that were living in Montreal and there wasn't a whole lot going on out West. Mathew Jonson lived in Victoria, and Nathan [Jonson, AKA Hrdvsion] was out there as well. But there wasn't a whole lot going on here. And then MUTEK kinda reached this high point and then all those guys left. And moved to Berlin. Canada was kind of devoid of anything.
And then, out West, Eddie C, who's a dear friend, started putting out tunes about five or six years ago. Mood Hut started doing parties, I guess with the Love Dancing thing and then moving onto Mood Hut, but… it's slowly turned into West Coast Canada doing some pretty awesome stuff. The Mood Hut crew, the Pacific Rhythm crew, Dylan—there's stuff happening all over. Heart To Heart here in Edmonton, and I guess myself with the Common Edit thing. I feel like it's a pretty West Coast sound. It's pretty laid-back and smooth. I guess I don't really know why it's become that, but it's definitely a sound. Could be the weed—who knows! It's almost to the point now where you can hear a Mood Hut record and know that it's Mood Hut. Which is pretty cool.
Going from this smooth sound to Daniel Bell—that one kinda stands out in your list.
When I first started going to MUTEK I got bit by, I guess, the minimal bug that everybody and their dog was on. That's where techno went, it slowed down and stripped itself and that was that. That's another record that never leaves my bag. At least when I leave town. I always take it with me, and it's as minimal as a song can be. It's just like a little bloop and a 909. And that's really it. I love the—I guess you could say lyric, it's just him talking, but it's slightly shocking. It's just bizarre. But it's a dope tune. It works on a dance floor, even though it's incredibly simple, it doesn't have a bassline, it doesn't even really have a melody, it doesn't have anything to it—it just chugs along with him talking about locking a baby up to a chain and shit. It's slightly disturbing but it's dope.
How do you go from playing Michael Cretu to playing that?
I've always felt things should have a flow and it should go, but I always find it pretty boring if you just stick to one sound. I like to throw in some wildcards or oddballs. I like everything. I play a lot of techno, I play a lot of house music, I play a lot of disco, I play a lot of funk and soul. I pack a record bag, and I go through it, and I'm not making too many conscious decisions outside of the fact that, 'Oh I like this one, let's play this one.' And that's really it. It's fun to keep people on their toes, it's nice to play some charging disco and then all of a sudden drop it down into something dark and weird.
It's just such a dope tune. It's funny actually, the first time I ever heard it was from [Vancouver's] Scott W. I love hearing Scott play, he's one of my favourite DJs in this world. I would come out to Vancouver to catch somebody like Levon Vincent or Omar S, or something I wouldn't normally get to hear in Edmonton. And I always felt like whenever I was going, he would like purposely bring that record and maybe one or two others that he knew I really liked.
The descending bassline in that tune is right up front and it's pretty unique. I've never heard another tune even remotely close to it. If I hear that tune out, and I'm not playing it, I usually need about four-square feet of dancing space, cause I stomp around like a nut. Freaking out cause it's such a dope tune.
The Chez Damier and Ron Trent track—it struck me that there's a ton of music now that sounds exactly like this track. What makes you go back to the original stuff?
Simplicity. The whole world of house music has based themselves off Chicago and Detroit. The Prescription records were dope. I dunno what always makes me go back to that, but I've been playing that record for a long time. That's another one Scott W used to play a lot too, that I just absolutely love hearing and playing myself. I dunno, that's a hard question to answer in terms of what makes me go back to the older stuff, but I guess it was maybe not being made for a purpose as opposed to just being made.
It's the analogue factor to it all. There was either like samples or synths, and drum machines. That was basically it. There wasn't anything else. I've never really been a huge fan of computer music; I don't buy a lot of records that are obviously made in Ableton or something. I like to hear a synthesizer, I like to hear an 808 or a 909 kick. It does get a little tiring to always hear a 707 or 808 or 909 drum claps and snares, but you always will love them. It's the root of it all.
Most of the records you've picked are very live sounding. Or they're just actual live music.
It goes back to what I said, I've never really been a fan of computer music. Over the past seven or eight years, I've been slowly starting to work on more new original stuff, and I started writing music in Ableton. And I wrote a few things and I'm pretty hypercritical so I never really put anything out or attempted to in the first place. But I got really tired of the process. And it all kinda started over when I got my first synth. I got a Juno 106 like everybody else did, and I'd sit there for two hours playing around with a sound in Ableton, and then I'd lean over and hit a key on my Juno and instantly delete everything I'd spent all that time on, cause it just sounded so much better. And that's actually when I said screw it, and ditched writing music on computers and made a decision to not really work on original stuff until I'd built a decent studio for myself. And that's when I started focusing more on edits and stuff like that.
Over the last year I've managed to score some deals and accumulate a pretty decent studio. I scored this 808 this year for a crazy, crazy, crazy price, at least for what they're going for now. And I picked up a couple more synths and a Space Echo and more TR machines and stuff. I've actually finally got my studio to a point where I'm actually stoked on walking up and turning things on, goofing around.
I don't see the purpose in writing music for a purpose, like to further your career or anything like that. I love music, and my whole life has been focused on love. I work with people I love, I do things that I love, and I play the music that I love, and that's really about it. I always felt that if you're making music to make a buck, or turn it into a business or sorta like further your career, it ruins it as a creative expression. For a long time, I was wanting to put out music and tour the world and make a career out of DJing. I still wanna tour and go play parties, but I don't wanna have to rely on that as a source of income and a way to make a living cause then I feel you start sacrificing... I don't wanna say integrity, but in a sense I guess that's the only way to say it. You start sacrificing a bit of integrity to keep yourself current, do whatever. I've always just wanted to do what I like and, if people dig it, cool, and if they don't, then whatever.