John Scheffer is the man behind the Intergalactic Gary alias. He began DJing in the early 1980s, first in his bedroom, then at The Hague's first house club, La DS. He cut his teeth as a Sunday night resident at La DS in the early '90s, a time when he was also a regular DJ on the city's squat party circuit. He's a pillar of The Hague's electronic music scene, epitomizing the "West Coast sound"—a sound that's underpinned by a passion for Detroit techno, Italo and electro. He has a kindred musical spirit in I-F, who he met at the Hot Mix record shop around 1993. Together they released a string of mutant, disco-tinged electro records as The Parallax Corporation.
Though he's long been admired in certain circles, at times Scheffer has struggled to get gigs outside the Netherlands. He's shy, he rarely does interviews and it pains him to promote his own gigs. But his career received a shot in the arm a couple of years ago with two well-received mixes—first the Nicotine mix for Intergalactic FM and then a subsequent mix for Crème Organization. In 2015 he's enjoyed one of his finest years to date, with a busy European club schedule and slots at major festivals like Dekmantel and Dimensions.
These days he lives in a small house in The Hague, where he keeps a stash of roughly 5000 records, a couple of synths and a DJ setup that includes a pair of Technics 1200s he's owned since the '80s. It was here that I met Scheffer, who sat rolling tobacco and drinking coffee as we discussed his approach to DJing.
You've been DJing for nearly 35 years. How did you get started?
When I was about 15 I went to a discotheque in The Hague called The Marathon. I was totally blown away by the music. The scene was very lame, very square, but the music was amazing. It was late '70s Italo disco and Italian-American disco—anything from Giorgio Moroder to really raw, obscure stuff. I had never heard anything like it before. I would just stand in the corner and watch the DJ and listen. I was never really on the dance floor or partying hard. I went out and bought my first disco record, and then I began spending all my allowance on buying records. I didn't really dream of becoming a DJ—it wasn't easy at that time because clubs had fixed DJs who would play every weekend. But at some point I saved enough money to buy my first turntable. Then I got a little mixer, and I started mixing one record player with a portable cassette player and recorder at home.
How did that setup work?
I had this thing from the '70s with a pickup and a radio and cassette player, all in one. It had a little pitch switch that would only go 2 or 3% either way. It was very limited. I would record disco tracks from pirate radio stations and try to mix them using the cassette player. I didn't have speakers—the sound was coming from the tape recorder.
That must have given you a good ear for mixing.
It was very difficult. I'm not sure how good I would be nowadays. It was at least two years before I bought a proper Technics turntable. It was something similar to that one [points at his Technics SL-D2]. Then I bought a Marantz turntable and then my first proper mixer. Four or five years later I bought my first SL-1200.
Your real name is John. Where does Intergalactic Gary come from?
For the first two months of my life, I was actually called Gary, that's the name my New Zealand birth mother gave me. I was adopted by a Dutch couple, renamed John, and relocated with my new family to the Netherlands when I was two. The "Intergalactic" bit just comes from watching too much Star Trek with I-F.
Tell me some of the DJs who inspired you in those early days.
I think the two DJs that were playing at The Marathon, Eric Benjamin and Rens Van Der Mar. And I think the one that inspired me the most, even if I only saw him playing once in The Marathon because he was a resident in Rotterdam, was Peter Slaghuis. Peter was famous for his mega-mixes. In the early '80s he released a mix called Disco Breaks. It was very ahead of his time. He was using loops and making quick cuts—you couldn't hear any mistakes and the flow and the energy was totally amazing. He built this whole journey in 15 minutes. I could listen to it now and think it's still pretty amazing.
Were there any records in those early days that were the backbone of your learning to DJ?
Many of the tracks on Goody Music have a long intro and a long break. Those records are made for mixing. Disco at that time was not the easiest music to mix. Most of the time you just used the long break, mixed it with a long intro and tried to keep the break steady for as long as possible.
When was your first gig and how did it go?
I was making mixtapes for friends and spreading them around. And there was a party crew in The Hague, they were pretty small, and one of the guys behind it was also playing at the parties and he got a bit too busy with everything. He needed more DJs to fill in the night and a girlfriend of mine suggested me to him. So I played at this party—the first time was 1990 or something. I remember I was nervous. I think it went pretty well.
Were you feeling ready to DJ in public?
I didn't know what to expect. Playing for a big crowd, with a big soundsystem and everything—it's different than playing at home. I used to mix at home. I would come home from work and after dinner go down on the turntables and mix for at least two or three hours. But in a club you have monitor speakers and skipping needles. You're not prepared for that if you've never played in a club or at a party. Gigs like that are a great learning experience.
In the early '90s you became a resident at La DS, The Hague's first house club. How did that come about?
That was very important. It opened in 1989 I think. The resident DJ would play four nights in a row and he was a bit fed up playing Thursday through Sunday, so I got to play on Sundays. When I started there, the Sunday was really quiet. It would open at midnight and close at 4 AM. The entrance was free and there were a couple of coffee shops around the corner that closed at 2 AM. So before 2 AM the club was empty. When the coffee shops closed, a few people would come to the club. They would sit in the corner and smoke weed and drink a coke or a beer and the only way to get them on the dance floor was if you played hit records—stuff like Felix's "Don't You Want Me." And then as soon as you mixed in the next track they'd go back to their seats. It was frustrating. I also got complaints from people working there, saying I didn't play enough hits and that my music was too dark and instrumental. But the resident DJ told me to just play what I wanted to play.
Was there a turning point when things started going well?
Yes, and it happened after about one year. It was a night in summer and there were 20 people inside or something. But there was one girl dancing on her own all night, from midnight to 4 AM. At the end she came and asked if I played every Sunday. I said yes, and she said normally on Sundays she went with her friends to Amsterdam, but if I played like that every Sunday she didn't need to go to Amsterdam anymore. 'Next week I'll bring my friends,' she told me. I though OK, this happens with people, they're drunk or high, they say stuff like that and you never see them again. But the next week she came in just after midnight and she had 15 friends with her. They all went crazy, and then suddenly there was an in-crowd that was there every Sunday. I think the people behind the bar were a bit shocked. And from that moment on things changed rapidly. We went from 20 people to 400 people every Sunday.
What kind of sounds were prevalent in The Hague at the time?
There were two scenes in The Hague in the early '90s. There was the hardcore side of things, the gabber scene, and then there was the mellower house scene. At that time I thought the import record shops in The Hague and the people running them, and generally what people were listening to, wasn't daring enough. I would go to record shops in Amsterdam or Rotterdam and pick up the records I liked. I would tend to go more to the darker side sometimes. Normally you would need to go to illegal parties, or to Belgium to hear what I was playing on Sundays.
What were these darker sounds you were drawn to?
Detroit techno, electro and Chicago house from the late '80s and early '90s. It was not being played anywhere. It was all seen as too weird, too obscure, not club friendly. You wouldn't say that nowadays. If it was a tune they didn't know it was weirdo music, drug music or whatever. If you played an acid record it would be regarded as horrible noise. I also played at squat parties and there I would play a different set to what I would play in a club. The squat parties were more about really dark techno.
How did your approach differ when it came to DJing in club versus a squat party?
The residency was good practice to improve my mixing skills and everything. I guess also it was a good way to feel the crowd. I learned how to mix on a soundsystem. But when I started shopping at Hot Mix, I-F's record shop, I would find way more interesting records than the other import records shop in The Hague. I wanted to play that stuff but a lot of music that I bought was too difficult, not danceable, not something for my residency. You could empty the whole dance floor with stuff like that. So I had the opportunity to play at squat parties and I would take those records—stuff like Unit Moebius's "Panta Rhei" and The Martian's "Star Dancer." Some people would come to the club but would also come to the squat parties. But really it was two different scenes.
What kind of crowd did you get at the squat parties?
A very mixed crowd. It was quite hard to tell at times, as they'd be in a concrete basement filled with smoke and you couldn't see what anyone looked like. There were of course squatters and alternative people. Maybe even football hooligans.
Was there much overlap with the gabber scene?
That was a whole different thing. Also the definition of techno was very different then. Once I got booked for a techno party at the beach. There were mainly hooligans in the crowd. And I was playing my Detroit techno records, then ten guys came over and asked me, "Buddy, when are you going to play techno?" I said, "This is techno." And they answered, "No, this is not techno, [L.A. Style's] 'James Brown Is Dead' is techno."
The La DS residency last four years. How did it end?
Well, the popularity lasted for a couple of years. After that people maybe got bored. A big club called the Asta opened in a former cinema, and it was new and interesting. It attracted a lot of people and our club was going downhill. It ended up back where it started, with 20 people turning up. At some point I decided that I wasn't enjoying it anymore, so I gave it up.
I didn't buy that many records for two or three years. But then Clone Records opened in Rotterdam. They opened because of the gap Hot Mix left when it closed. So I started to get into music again. I also thought that when I quit the residency, music-wise things were not so interesting. Then Clone started importing interesting stuff that was hard to find anywhere else. I got back into contact with some friends and my interest in music grew again.
How did you first hook up with I-F?
It started in the Hot Mix shop. At some point he was producing and setting up a record label and he asked me if I was producing. At some point I gave him a track of mine that sampled a drum loop from an Italo record. He recognized the sample immediately. So we had a click, a connection. And after he closed the shop I didn't see him a lot until the Clone shop opened. That's when we got into the studio together [as The Parallax Corporation]. We both really dug into the past. I-F was already playing a lot of old school electro and Italo records that were very electronic and would connect with Detroit techno in style. So between studio sessions we would play mixtapes and inspire each other. He knew a lot of tracks that I had never heard of and I would play some tracks he'd never heard of.
Tell me about your current setup at home.
I have an Ecler Nuo 5 mixer and the same Technics 1200s I got in the mid-'80s.
And one CDJ-850, which I hardly use. I am digitizing my records and I definitely want to play a mix of vinyl and digital at some point.
And what about in the club—what's your preferred setup there?
I really love the E&S rotary mixer. I've played with it three times now and I think the sound is amazing. You can make really fluent transitions and I love the warm sound that comes out of it. And I still prefer turntables.
You mentioned that you're interested in being able to play digital music as well as vinyl. Why's that?
Sometimes you play a gig in a club and you're using worn-out needles and the tracks are skipping. In those situations, being able to play digital is a good thing. Also, on a lot of synth records the pressing is quite low or it has been recorded from tapes, and the quality is dodgy. If you record it digitally you can enhance the volume or the bass or make an edit.
How would you describe your mixing style?
I prefer to do long mixes when records go well together. Also mixing up different styles, it's not always what I do but, you know, anything goes. Being able to switch from one style to another. Maybe playing a disco record and the next one could be techno or electro. And I try not to do the same mix more than once or twice.
One thing that really stands out when you DJ is your tendency to speed up a 33 RPM record by tapping the 45 RPM button. Can you talk me through that?
That is one little trick that I do. I first saw it during a DMC mixing championship. You can only do it with 33 RPM records—if they are a little bit behind, you can speed it up by holding down the 33 RPM button on the Technics and tapping the 45 RPM button. It speeds up slightly, but you have to be careful not to do it on the high tones and hi-hats, otherwise you'll hear it. It only works when it's just a little bit behind—if the track is too slow you'll really hear it as it's not a fluent way of speeding the track up. It's more of a shock effect, and you have to do it at the right moment, in between beats.
Is there a reason you'll do it this way instead of giving the platter a flick or using the pitch control?
I use all three ways. It depends on the moment. Sometimes it feels right. Using the pitch is still the best way. But when you give it a flick or a yank, you can hear it, especially on the track's higher tones, so you have to be very careful.
How do you prepare for a gig?
Most of the time I make a pre-selection of the records in my house. Then I start mixing and decide if I want to take them or not. There are the records I could bring but sometimes they sit at home for over a year and I never bring them out. Maybe they're just waiting for the right moment. I don't want to bring too much music to a gig. I never bring more than 60 records—I can play five hours with 60 records. With too many records I get lost, I keep going through my records to find the one I want to play. I want to keep it compact. I think if you prepare too much you start overthinking things and it's more about thinking and not about feeling.
How are you finding new music these days?
Most of the new records I buy these days come from Clone. I check their website every day for new music. I reserve a few records—they put them aside for me and once a month I go to the shop and listen to them all again. Some come home with me. I just buy stuff that I really think I need. When I buy like ten new records and bring them home, I put the first record on and then just mix the next one and then the next one, just to get them into my system, so I know where to place them, in what part of my set.
Sometimes I find stuff on YouTube, clicking from one track to another. Also friends, sometimes in the weirdest moments they contact you with music or tell you about artists they've heard of, telling you to check him or her out. In that case I would check the artist, the label and the previous releases.
Tell me about your music collection today.
I have a digital collection of music I listen to at home, stuff I digitized from my old record collection. I have downsized my record collection. I bought so many records. When I moved from a bigger apartment to this small place, I couldn't fit all the records in here so at some point I thought, "OK, what do I really need and what's just in the way?" I sold a lot of stuff and I think the collection is pretty complete now. I had 10,000-odd records at one point but it's closer to 5000 now. It's easier to find stuff that you want to play. You don't have to go through 300 records to find one record that you want to play.
Are there any records in your bag that never leave?
East Wall's "Eyes Of Glass" is one. But I tend not to play records too often otherwise I get tired of them.
What are some of your favorite places to DJ??
I really like Dublin, Glasgow, because of the crowd. Pretty wild. They don't hesitate, they just come in, order a beer and then they go on the floor and go crazy. They are really party-minded and they have good knowledge of music. Also places like Athens and Zagreb. Some places are more interesting because people are really looking for good music and it's not always available for them so they really appreciate when you come over. They really show their appreciation, and that's really rewarding.
What would you say is the hardest bit of DJing?
Not so much actually. It's quite enjoyable. It's not difficult, but the most frustrating thing is when you want to play the music that you believe in and you sometimes end up in clubs with people who want to hear something harder or faster, and your music is not danceable enough or too weird. Or they don't know any of the tracks you are playing, and people ask, "Can you play something I know?" But I have to say there's nothing to complain about.
What's the best piece of advice you ever got about DJing?
Play the music you really believe in. No concessions. No compromises.
What advice would you pass on to aspiring DJs?
Try using just the pitch-fader while correcting your mix instead of the platter. And if you want to do an inspiring set, then you have to play stuff that inspires you. If you think too much about what the crowd wants, you start overthinking things.