This young Glaswegian might be house music's next big thing, but his journey to this point has been far from straightforward. Carlos Hawthorn tells his story.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download an exclusive track bundle from Denis Sulta's Atlus project.
Sometime in the afternoon of Friday, August 19th, Hector Barbour stood by a ticket machine in Glasgow Queen Street train station asking random members of the public if he could borrow their bank card. Barbour, who DJs and makes music as Denis Sulta, had lost his wallet earlier that week on a flight home from Berlin, which left him in a sticky situation. (In the UK, you can use any card to access the train booking, which you then complete by punching in a unique reference number.) Eventually, after a string of rejections, he was approached by Ryan Savage, a customer service manager at ScotRail, Scotland's national railway company. Someone had complained about a young man acting suspiciously.
Barbour explained his story to Savage, who believed him and printed off his ticket. To show his gratitude, Barbour tweeted ScotRail as soon as he was on his way to Edinburgh. Six minutes later, he was surprised to receive a response. "Cheers! Will pass this on to Ryan just now. It's Only Real is a cracker of a tune btw! Have a good weekend."
Barbour was travelling to Edinburgh for Sulta Sheikh Down, the residency he's held since March 2015 as part of the FLY Club party. It runs roughly once every two months at Cabaret Voltaire, a lively basement venue in the city centre that's popular with students. Barbour usually plays all night long, which makes the residency a good way of tracking his rise in profile over the past 18 months. In its early stages, Sulta Sheikh Down never sold more than ten advance tickets; these days, the parties sell out weeks before the date. 2016's Halloween edition was the fifth in a row to sell out.
Whether you're basing it on tweets or ticket sales, Barbour is currently flying high. In a year, he's gone from playing mostly local shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh to touring his own party brand, Sulta Selects, around 15 cities in the UK and Ireland, racking up guest slots at the likes of Space Ibiza and The Warehouse Project along the way. He finished 2016 as the highest new entry in RA's annual DJ poll, sandwiched between Joseph Capriati and Laurent Garnier at #26. Sometime in the next few weeks, he'll launch his own record label—also called Sulta Selects—with an EP from him featuring two of last summer's biggest tracks: "Nein Fortiate" and "Dubelle Oh XX." Jackmaster included "Dubelle Oh XX" in July's DJ-Kicks mix.
"I mean, it all kinda seems to be one big blur, really," Barbour said. "It's kind of mad trying to think back on how quickly this has all come together. It's been amazingly exciting and thrilling... I'm a bit lost for words actually, you know?"
Barbour is a skilled DJ who plays with a lot of heart, but it's his music that has catapulted him into the spotlight. Nein Fortiate / Dubelle Oh XX will be his fourth solo EP as Denis Sulta, following two on Dixon Avenue Basement Jams and one on Numbers. (He's also put out an EP on Mister Saturday Night under his darker, grittier Atlus alias.) As Sulta, Barbour makes catchy house bangers powered by striking synth melodies. Occasionally, there are larger-than-life vocal samples. This might not sound extraordinary, but on a dance floor his tracks turn heads, the kinds of sounds that have clubbers scrambling for the video record button on their smart phones. Or simply bursting into tears.
"I was impressed by how advanced and mature his music sounded for such a young kid," said Jack Revill, AKA Jackmaster, a friend and sometimes mentor to Barbour. "He had his own sound which most people don't find till a lot later, and his mixdowns were good. He was also experimenting with different rhythms, dynamics and change-ups that kids of his age weren't doing. He wasn't looking to try and copy his idols. He took bits and bobs from various influences as everyone does, but he was looking firmly forwards with his output."
Barbour's music has also had heavy play from house and techno tastemakers like Four Tet, Ben UFO, Skream and BBC Radio 1's Annie Mac. "He's a real true talent coming through, especially in a world of throwaway paint-by-numbers sorts of music," Oliver Jones, AKA Skream, told me. "His stuff really stands out. Not just the actual sound of it but the content as well. There isn't really anyone on his level at the moment."
2016, then, was a life-changing year for the 23-year-old from Anniesland, Glasgow. We met for the first time in Edinburgh, several hours before the August edition of Sulta Sheikh Down. It was the peak of the month-long Edinburgh Festival and it was raining heavily, so the pubs and cafes lining the city's cobbled streets were packed and noisy. Eventually we settled in a gastro pub. In person, Barbour, who has faded bleach blonde hair, is affable and polite. At no point during our two-hour chat did he have his guard up. He spoke about his life and work with a thoughtful intensity that belied his age, projecting passion and ambition.
This might come as a surprise to fans. Barbour's public persona, based on videos of him crowd-surfing or standing on the decks, portrays a showman with a laddish streak. But this, like his frank face-to-face manner, is simply the behaviour of someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Later that night, I went to Cabaret Voltaire to watch Barbour DJ. It was my first time seeing him play but I had an idea of what to expect. Friends of mine who'd seen him described a rowdy-yet-jovial atmosphere and feel-good tunes. The vibe was similar in Edinburgh. Around 1 AM, when he dropped "Nein Fortiate," the noise on the dance floor was like that of a football match. Onstage, flanked by two fake palm trees, Barbour's body rocked vigorously, his back arched while both fists punched the air. To his right, a huge man in a kilt nursed a beer and gazed triumphantly at the scene below.
Barbour mostly played house music big on colour and percussion. His mixing on CDJs was fast and efficient, embellished with occasional loops or a well-timed spinback. There were a handful of classics—Romanthony's "The Wanderer," The Ones' "Flawless," his own edit of Thelma Houston's "Don't Know Why I Love You"—but their reception paled in comparison to his own tracks, of which there were at least five. In a particularly neat move, he opened with an unreleased beatless mix of "L.A Ruffgarden" and followed it up an hour later with the clubbier "Terrace Mix." The moment the crowd noticed the synth line for the second time you could barely make out the kick drums over the roars.
Denis Sulta brings out a side of Barbour rarely seen in his day-to-day life. Watching him parade about behind the decks, totally in his element, I was reminded of the stand-up comedian stereotype: funny onstage, anxious behind the curtain. "Denis allows me to be confident and he allows me to be myself," he said. "He gives me the stage to stand up and say, 'Right, I'm a leader, I'm in charge,' without seeming like I'm being a dick about it, you know? Because I want to be confident, I want to be good at what I do, and I want to share that with other people. Plus, if I don't look like I'm having fun, then how can anyone else have fun? At the more ridiculous gigs, like the one in Aberdeen, where I'm mixing on somebody's shoulders, that sort of shit is fun, man. Sometimes you want to be able to bring that silliness aspect to the club."
Barbour's earliest DJ gigs were in 2011 at the now-defunct Glasgow clubs Chambre 69 and 520, playing moombahton and jump-up electro. In April, he landed a Saturday job at the Glasgow record shop Rubadub. He had just turned 18; five years later, he's still there, working part-time during the week. Rubadub has played a big role in shaping his career. When he took the job, he was into gangsta rap and trashy club music, but over time his tastes aligned with his surroundings. He developed a love of Moodymann and classic Underground Resistance, and expanded his knowledge of disco, a sound he'd been fond of ever since his father played Earth, Wind & Fire in the car. He started collecting records and going clubbing more frequently. After a while he grew tired of just playing other people's music, so he decided to make his own. In 2013, he produced his first tracks, as Atlus, using only a laptop.
"I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, because I was a young guy against the world, you know what I mean? I was going through the young adolescent days of feeling like everything's shit, and I hated everything. So that's why the music that was made under that alias was quite tough and abrasive and angry."
Around this time, Barbour and Jackmaster first crossed paths. It's a story the elder Glaswegian remembers fondly. "Unbeknownst to me until recently, Hector was this kid who used to come to the Rubadub warehouse (where I worked at the time), which was about 20 minutes outside of Glasgow, and offer me free lifts home so he could stick his demos on the car stereo, trying to get them noticed for Numbers, I guess. I didn't even know that he worked for Rubadub at the time. I just thought he liked my DJing so was turning up to drive me up the road! Either way, it was pretty keen and shameless but I admired that. I thought he was bold. I didn't think much of it until he sent me an Atlus demo months later, looking to get something signed. I really felt like it had something but it wasn't quite right for us yet."
Barbour didn't release his first (and only) EP as Atlus until 2015, after he met Mister Saturday Night's Justin Carter in Rubadub. ("Zopiclone", the EP's title track, is one of Barbour's best.) By that point, Barbour already had another record out under a new, sunnier alias: Denis Sulta. "I just decided not to be miserable anymore," he said. "Atlus backward is Sulta—it just had a ring to it."
Sulta Selects Vol. 1 came out on Dixon Avenue Basement Jams, the Glasgow label run by Dan Lurinsky and Kenny Grieve, in November of 2014. In the months before its release, a pattern had emerged at Rubadub: Lurinsky was a store manager and Barbour's boss, and Barbour, whose productions were now heavily influenced by disco, would often play something he'd made over the shop's PA.
"He would sneakily start playing the odd tune in the shop," recalled Lurinsky over email. "I actually once remember asking, 'What's this shite that's on?' when he played an early track, only to be told, 'It's one of mine,' by Hector, much to my embarrassment! Needless to say I grew to love pretty much everything he did not long after that."
The track that finally pricked Lurinsky's ears was "A.A.S (Nite & Day Mix)," which speeds up the vocal from Smokey Robinson's "Being With You" over a bumping house groove. It's a simple, smart cut that lets Robinson's smooth, catchy flow do the work. "When Kenny and I first heard 'A.A.S (Nite & Day Mix),' we just knew it was gonna be an instant hit. We played an early version of it on our DABJ Essential Mix and it was by far the most requested ID of everything in that set."
Barbour's artist name was supposed to be Dennis Sulta, with two n's, but Lurinsky made a spelling mistake when he sent the information to the pressing plant. "And that's how it stuck," Barbour said.
Between 2012 and 2013, Barbour spent an unhappy year at Edinburgh Napier University. Disaffected with his course and the people around him, he focussed his energy on DJing. He met Tom Ketley, a young student promoter who'd been running parties in the city since 2009. In February 2013, Ketley approached Barbour about a new weekly night he was starting at Cabaret Voltaire. Barbour started off playing hip-hop in the side room, before graduating for his debut house and techno set in the main room in May. "We did a Chicago vs Detroit back-to-back and he just killed whoever was Chicago," Ketley said. "His showmanship behind the decks, he had so much energy... Straight away I was like, 'Fuck man, he's maybe the best we've got.'"
After the parties, Ketley and Barbour would walk back to their halls together, brainstorming ways to advance their respective careers. It was one of these conversations that birthed Sulta Sheikh Down, a party concept based around an "oil baron of disco from the Middle East" called Denis Sulta. The first edition happened on March 10th, 2015, without selling a single ticket in advance. Almost exactly a year later, Sulta Sheikh Down sold 130 tickets. In that time, Barbour had played his first Boiler Room set and released another two EPs: L.A Ruffgarden on DABJ and It's Only Real, a single-sided 12-inch on Numbers that featured the biggest track of Barbour's career so far.
It's Only Real came out in December 2015, though by that point it was already a hit. Four Tet, Bicep and Jackmaster were hammering it. The track established a new direction for Barbour, moving away from the upbeat disco house of tracks like "Duh Yuh Luv Meh" and "A.A.L.A.S." towards a cleaner and more original sound. Like the wonderful "L.A Ruffgarden," which had slipped out to lesser fanfare on DABJ several months earlier, its centrepiece is a bright, snaking synth melody, the kind of earworm that reverberates around your brain for days.
"It's Only Real" changed Barbour's life, for good and for bad. He started getting more bookings around the UK, and for the first time in years he could spend money freely. At the end of January 2016, Annie Mac aired a mini-mix of his on her BBC Radio 1 show. He also started partying a lot, revelling in his newfound success, and, by his own admission, it all went to his head a bit.
"I sort of lost track... I became a bit of a dick, basically. I wasn't treating myself or any of my friends or family with respect any more. I was kinda being like, 'Yeah, fuck you all, I'm doing it.' I became a bit of an arsehole. I just got caught up in it."
For the second time in his life, Barbour fell into a depression. The first spell had lasted for about a year, just after he dropped out of university. With his spirits low and his parents on his back, he moved into a flat in Glasgow's West End with a promoter friend, working Monday to Friday in a shoe shop and weekends at Rubadub. His friend ran a weekly night, and early every Friday morning he'd bring the party home with him. People would hang about until Monday, leaving Barbour with little choice but to join in. Gradually, he became more and more broke, until eventually, to pay rent, he was forced to sell his Serato box and then his beloved Dark Energy synth. The partying continued, and later down the line things took a shadier turn. Barbour wouldn't expand on the details, but his voice trembled as he spoke.
"I got myself into a lot of trouble," he said. "And I mean that in a dark way, man. I got into some situations that I really haven't told that many people about. It's hard, man, it was really difficult. But you kinda need to know what the bottom's like in order to understand how good the top is."
Barbour hit rock bottom again in 2016, when the depression returned. Before when the partying got too much, he'd lock himself away in his room and make tracks. As soon as he finished one, he'd open the door and blast it: "If people came in then it was a sign that it was a good record." But the second time around, through a combination of excessive partying and a lack of confidence, the creative well dried up. "I stopped for a long time. Once you make a record that is sort of popular ['It's Only Real'], the pressure that you put on yourself to make a record that's better is so, so much. When you sit there at your computer and you're like, 'This has to be amazing, it has to be better than the last,' you lose a lot of faith in yourself."
The issue of confidence came up repeatedly during our conversation in Edinburgh. At first, his overnight popularity was hard to come to terms with. "I felt like what I was doing was a waste of time," he said. "I questioned whether or not I was doing it for the right thing, and if it was doing the right thing for me. It's difficult, because you question your self-worth at every single possible moment, being an artist. And a good artist should question themselves at every single possible moment. But I definitely did feel that I was being a bit of a fucking poser, and that what I was doing was daft, and that there were about one million other people out there that were better than me."
It took a trip to the hospital for Barbour's outlook to change. In the early hours of Sunday, May 29th, he collapsed onstage at Common People festival in Southampton, due to a combination of too much alcohol and not enough sleep. It was the wakeup call he needed. Slowly, he got back in the studio.
The first tracks he made were "Nein Fortiate" and "Dubelle Oh XX," two festival-sized bangers as intoxicating and distinctive as anything he's put out. ("@DenisSulta has made an almost comically massive tune and it's going to be very successful indeed," Ben UFO tweeted.) Together they'll form the first EP on his new Sulta Selects label. Of the two, "Dubelle Oh XX" is the more dynamic. It was inspired by an argument Barbour had with an unknown person on a wet night in Glasgow:
"So the first synth line says something, and then the second one that joins it is the answer essentially. There's a conversation throughout the entire track. Even the simplest of melodies can be made interesting by using dynamics like the velocities... I'm just trying to make synthesizers sing. Tell a story. And that story, it's a personal one."
There are various versions of the track, but the most famous one—thanks to Jackmaster's DJ-Kicks mix—is the "JVIP." It contains arguably the most dazzling few seconds of any club track made in 2016, a switch-up in mood and tempo that couldn't have come any more out of left-field.
"There's a lot of hate in that drop, man," Barbour said. "That part is the 'fuck you.'"
Jackmaster had heard the original mix in Rubadub and emailed Barbour straight away. To this day, it's his favourite Denis Sulta track. "The 'dubstep' switch in the middle was so fresh-sounding," he said. "He tried to take it out but I begged him to leave it in and he agreed after trying it out in the club."
After Nein Fortiate / Dubelle Oh XX, Barbour has two more Denis Sulta EPs ready for release through Sulta Selects. What he'll do after that, he's not sure. For now, he's just enjoying feeling like himself again. He's playing killer sets, releasing music that people love, and getting to spend time "in some of the most beautiful cities in the world."
"I feel more competent, certainly, because I'm thinking about it more and I'm working harder at it," he told me. "With hard work comes confidence. Plus, I feel more confident about who I am as a person. That's part of growing up, part of being an adult. Before I definitely didn't feel very comfortable with what I was doing. But it's also something that you need to be aware of, because there's a very fine line between confidence and arrogance, and that's a line I never want to cross. There's still a long way for me to go, and I'm just excited to explore and develop as a DJ and producer. The more you learn about something, the more you learn you know nothing about it."