TJ Hertz is one of techno's most dynamic DJs. Will Lynch hears how he does it.
At this year's Freerotation, a few days before we sat at his kitchen counter, Hertz delivered a set that was both more understated and more radical than any I'd heard from him before—smooth and intuitive, yet totally unpredictable, slipping easily through genres and tempos with subtle sleights of hand. A friend remarked that it was the first time in years he'd seen a DJ and thought: "What is he actually doing back there?" Or more specifically—how exactly did we get from that track to this one, and how is it that such a dramatic leap made sense?
For many DJs, the answer might be vague and cloaked in mystique. For Hertz, it's likely to be quite straightforward, a result of specific methods he's happy to explain. Hertz is a passionate artist, something his productions and his DJ sets make clear, but he's also a hardcore pragmatist. For years he's worked as a DSP developer at Native Instruments, where he still holds a part-time role. He applies an engineer's logic to every aspect of his craft, from how to execute a transition, to the way he organizes his USBs, to his choice of which gigs to play. This has made him an extraordinarily capable DJ, with a record collection and mixing technique well beyond his years (at 29, he's been DJing for barely a decade). This mindset, combined with his ear for high-impact club records, has shaped a sound that's utterly his own.
Ahead of his appearance at RA's party at RADION during ADE, Hertz told us some of the tricks of his trade.
There's something about your DJing I noticed at Freerotation and on your Kern mix. I guess I'd describe it as a kind of nimbleness—you jump around, take hard turns, veer through different genres and tempos, all pretty smoothly. Can you explain how you do that?
It depends what direction I want to go in. Going up is comparatively easy, you just find a high note to end on, go into something beatless and fairly intense, maybe do a couple of those in quick succession so it feels a bit more fluid, and then go into something faster.
You would play a few beatless things in a row?
Maybe. Or layer a couple of them. It really depends on the track, but sometimes if you do it with only one, then it sounds a bit contrived somehow. Whereas if you bridge the gap with two ambient tracks, or layer them somehow, or do a bit more performative EQ work with them, then you can shape them in a way that works with the direction that you want to go in, tempo-wise and energy-wise. And obviously you have to pick the right track to start the new section and the right track to end the last section.
I haven't quite perfected the formula for it yet, but I'm getting better at it for sure. It's important for me, because there's a lot of stuff at different tempos that I want to play, and I don't always want to spend 45 minutes ramping the tempo in between. Sometimes I want to go from 150 to 110 BPM, and there's no way of doing that without taking a few minutes in between to let people forget what tempo I was at before.
How much of that is consciously strategic, and how much is gut instinct?
A lot of it is gut instinct. A lot of it is thinking strategically about where I want the set to go. Sometimes those are the bits that are pre-planned. If there's a part of a set that I'll ever plan, then it's usually the transition points. Like, where do I want to get to at this time, and where do I want switch to, where do I want to get to from there, where do I want to finish?
I've got a couple of useful playlists for that kinda stuff in Rekordbox. Like "Section Starters," "Section Finishers," stuff that ends on a beatless section, stuff that begins with a beatless section, maybe something that doesn't begin with a beatless section but starts emphatically enough that you can use it to start a new section with a new tempo. And then a whole load of beatless DJ tools, which I'm always on the lookout for. I don't spend that much time actively seeking them out, but a lot of it you just come across over the course of browsing for records.
When you say "sections"—in a way, is each section almost like a mini-DJ set, which you string together into one longer set?
Yes and no. I mean, if it's a really long set, if I'm playing for three or more hours then I might do that. If I'm playing for two hours then maybe I wouldn't jump as far. Or maybe I wouldn't do any jumps at all. If I'm playing for two hours then I might play across like five or 10 BPM, or maybe not even change tempo that much, but I probably wouldn't have a 150 BPM electro section as well as a really slow section. Obviously, tempo is kind of the deciding factor in when and where I can play a lot of these tracks, because almost all of it is going to be beat-matched.
You mentioned your USBs—
Oh, I can say a lot more about how my USBs are organised. I mean, I don't know if it's interesting.
I think it is, actually—everyone does it differently, and it definitely influences the way you play. So, you stick in your USB. What folders do you see straight away?
I have pretty big USB sticks, like 128 GB. And I have two main folders: monthly playlists of new stuff, or stuff that I haven't played in a while that I want to make a point of playing, and then I have my kind of... I don't know what you call them, genre playlists, I guess. So in the first folder I have subfolders for every month, and every month I'll make a "Club" playlist, which is basically promos and new downloads from that month, and maybe some from the previous month. All of that will be between 110 and 135 BPM. Then I'll have a "Fast" playlist, which is clubby stuff between 135 and 160 BPM. I'll have an "Other" playlist, which is beatless stuff, and sometimes I'll have a "Slow" playlist, which is like 90 to 115. If I've got enough stuff from that month.
How many tracks would be in each of those playlists usually?
It depends on the month. Typically the club playlist would be the big one, and it would have somewhere between 50 and 150, something like that.
Each month, yeah. Not all new stuff. I mean, sometimes I'll have like 150 new tracks in a month, in which case I probably wouldn't include any of the stuff from the last month. But sometimes maybe I'll only have 50. And then the "Fast" playlist, I'll have maybe five, ten new things per month. Same with "Slow" and "Other." And then in the regular playlist folder, I have a techno subfolder, with a few different playlists: "Tracky Above 130 BPM" and "Tracky Below 130BPM." And all of the tracks in the tracky techno folder have a number from one to ten in the comment field, and that's basically their hardness factor. And then I sort it by hardness, which is really useful. Then there are the utilitarian, transition-oriented folders: "Section Closers," "Section Starters," "Beatless Transition Tools," and an "Empty Club" playlist, which is music I would play when doors open. What else... "Fast And Functional" is a big one. And I recently made a playlist called "Urgent Wee," which is tracks that are all more than ten minutes long for when you really gotta go.
What else... "Slow And Functional," which is still pretty thin on the ground, but it's getting there. That's the 60 - 90 BPM range.
That is quite slow.
It is, but it's really fun as well. Something i'm striving for over the next few years is being able to play a full-length set at any tempo between 70 and 150 BPM.
The subject of tempo is coming up a lot. Why is that?
I don't know, I was noticing that as well. It sounds like I'm really preoccupied with tempo, but I'm not really. It's more that, when you're talking about playing beat-matched sets, then the tempo is critical to whether or not you can play something in a certain context or not. And it's also that I'm getting better at—or my record collection is getting better at—playing to a certain energy level with a degree of freedom from tempo, rather than using tempo to make something more energetic or less energetic.
In a way this goes back to my opening point about the free-floating quality of your sets. For most DJs, tempo is a constricting force that limits what you're able to play. It sounds like a lot of the methods you're describing, consciously or not, are efforts to escape that limitation.
Yeah, I don't know. I guess what it comes down to is a desire to be able to play to the fullest possible extent using other people's music. And tempo is one axis—like, one axis in the overall multi-dimensional space of music. Energy level is another. There's a lot of different melodic components that factor in as well, like density and sparsity. All of these things are directions that you can go in from a certain point. And it's really useful to me to have my music sorted in such a way that I can start from a certain point, and go in an incremental direction from there, or switch to something completely different via some tool.
Another thing that defines your sets is the way you mix. The jump from one track to the next is itself unpredictable and dynamic. Is that something you do without thinking, or do you have established tricks and routines?
I mean, I have a lot of tricks that I use again and again, sure. I can't really scratch but I have a few basic things I like to do.
I've heard you scratch.
OK, yeah, but I can't do the crossfader shit, I just cue up the first beat and make some wicky-wicky noises from time to time. I guess I use mixing trickery as a way to create momentum where momentum isn't forthcoming. I see EQ'ing and mixing as compositional tools as much as anything else, and in the overall layout of a DJ set I feel like it really helps to kind of define the way in which you're trying to combine two different things. I don't really subscribe to this idea that DJing should be just about playlisting one track after another and letting the music speak for itself. I mean, I have the utmost respect for people who can mix that way, but that's not really what I'm about.
What are some of your tricks?
Let's see. Cutting in individual beats with the crossfader, that's a big one. You know, punching in the snare so it feels like you've brought in an instrument, rather than a whole track. Using the filters and the EQ in combination, knowing exactly what the frequency response of each of them is and how they interact. That's something that's really important to me.
In my day job, several years ago, one task that I was asked to do was to write a report on the EQ and filter curves of a lot of industry standard mixers, including the [Pioneer] DJM-800/900, [Allen & Heath] X:ONE 92, and one of the Rane mixers of the time, which was actually tremendously helpful for me, because for the first time I could actually visualize the curves on all of those EQs. And they vary immensely, they're really, really different. It made me think a lot about—OK, I'm going on a slight tangent here, but it gave me a lot of insight into why some people think certain mixers sound good or sound bad, and that a lot of the time it's not necessarily to do with the in-to-out signal path, but what exactly the EQs are doing—whether when you cut the bass it's cutting stuff that makes musical sense to cut, or sounds good on a big system or whatever.
The upshot of that is knowing graphically what the frequency response of a X:ONE 92 EQ and filter looks like, in combination with having one at home and being able to experiment to my heart's content. I know that frequency response by heart, so if I want to bring in a track in a certain way, I'm not guessing where the EQ should be or where the filter should be, I know exactly what to do in order to just get the sizzle of a hi-hat, or just get the body of a snare or whatever. Or whether it's possible on certain mixers to do certain things, like turn down the mids and the highs so that you only get the bass, and then bring in the hi-hats from the other track as a kind of shock tactic. Which you can do, for example, on the isolators on the DJM-900, but not on a X:ONE 92, unless you use the low-pass filter, but then you're doing it with a filter and not with the EQ.
So, long story short I guess creative and extreme use of EQ'ing is another trick. Also, I do a lot of stopping the platter, rather than putting the fader back.
You mean just hitting the start button on the turntable?
Why do you like that?
Well, I have a tendency to do more spinbacks than I should, which is a bad habit. One or two in a set is OK, but five or six is a bit much. Stopping the platter is a lot more subtle than a spinback. Sometimes you don't even notice it, but if you do it in the right place—if you pull out the bass on the other channel first, and then bring it back in when you stop the record, and you do it with the right combination of records, then it gives you a much more definitive transition, much more than if you just pull the fader down.
Because there are still some frequencies coming through?
No, because you've got the "duuurrrrrr," whereas if you just cut the bass and pull the fader down at the same time as bringing the bass back in, then it's just gone, and sometimes you're left with this kind of hole.
What else... tricks, tricks, tricks... Playing the EQ rhythmically, you know, "tck tck tck tck" with the highs. You can make it a lot more dynamic. If you do it musically enough, it can make the difference between a mix that sounds really static and boring, and one where you've kind of propelled forward to the next track. A lot of these are old Detroit tricks, which I apply more or less tastefully depending on how I'm feeling.
Seems like your mixing style is an even blend of old school Detroit and UK. Is there anyone in particular that inspired your technique?
Derrick May and Jeff Mills for a lot of the EQ and mixer-y stuff.
Was that from recorded mixes, or did you see them play?
More from recorded mixes. Like the Purpose Maker mix, for example. And seeing Derrick May a couple of times. But I didn't really grow up immersed in dance music culture, so I can't claim to have spent my formative years going to see such and such every other weekend and absorbing all of this stuff. [DJ] Bone as well, I guess, in terms of turntable tricks.
I didn't realize until recently that you still played records, which surprised me, given how thoroughly optimized your methods are. What is it about records that makes them worth carrying around?
I really need the records to maintain this sense of immediacy and fun. I can and do play sets off USB only, sometimes. I've long since got past the point where if my record bag gets lost by an airline then I'm totally fucked. But every time I think to myself, "You know what, records are a pain in the ass, I'm just gonna go digital," it doesn't take very long before I end up coming back to vinyl. There's something about playing a whole set on CDJs that just feels too detached somehow.
I think the bottom line is that I find playing records a lot more fun. There's things I can do with USBs that I can't do with vinyl, but there's a kind of enjoyment that I get out of playing vinyl that I would miss too much if I gave it up, even in a time when it can be an uphill struggle. And it certainly can be an uphill struggle.
Well, I guess it's fairly obvious that I'm pretty anal retentive when it comes to tech stuff. My tech rider is basically industry standard, but it's still about a page and a half long, or two pages long, and it's mostly on constructions for preventing feedback, and for setting turntables up properly, and for setting a booth up properly. All of which should be fairly obvious to a professional, but you can't rely on that all the time. 95% of the time I soundcheck, unless it's a club that I've played at enough times that I really trust them, or a festival where it's just not feasible to get there early enough in the day. And when I soundcheck I would say that probably 50% of the time the vinyl setup is good to go without any input from me, 25% of the time it's not ideal, but it's fixable as long as they've got some concrete blocks to hand. 15% of the time it's not great but it's usable. And then 10% of the time, I have to only play USBs.
I think if you're educated in how to deal with technical problems, 90% is not so bad. It just means a lot of effort, and that's more effort than some people are willing to put in, which I can understand—if you're a regularly touring DJ, it's the difference between having a relaxing evening and showing up half an hour before the set, or, with my approach, basically working the whole time, going back and forth between venue and hotel doing a ton of setup.
I think many DJs, if they turn up and things aren't right, the reaction is to just be pissed off. Whereas you're approach—maybe to some extent you're doing someone else's job for them, but if that's what it takes...
Yeah, exactly. Ideally you should be able to say, "I need two turntables, a mixer, two CDJs, and it needs to work properly," and you should be able to show up and play. But I think you're a fool if you take that for granted these days, and you're an asshole if you get mad about it. Because you know, frankly, DJs get paid too much for their job just to be showing up with the tunes. I think you need to take a certain amount of responsibility for this stuff yourself, and make sure it's up to your satisfaction. And I've never had to—touch wood—I've never had to actually say, "Look, I can't play, because this setup sucks."
To take it back a bit—you mentioned earlier that you didn't spend your youth immersed in dance music culture. When did you start DJing and what got you into it?
I started DJing when I was about 19, having spent most of my teenage years playing in bands, playing drums and bass and guitar. I was taking music pretty seriously, I was toying with the idea of trying to go professional as a drummer in my late teens, but then basically burnt out from too many rehearsals and too many gigs, and not enough time to myself. And I fell into DJing very quickly after taking a break from being in bands and playing instruments, because that was when my friends at university were getting into clubbing and going out and listening to dance music.
Where did you live at that time?
I was studying at that point, I was in Oxford. Which, it had a scene, but it was a small city and it was obviously a lot of students. I was involved in putting on the odd gig, like bands and stuff, at this club in Oxford called The Cellar. I would just go down early during sound check and teach myself how to use the CDJs. I bought a really cheap mixer and taught myself to beat-match using a pirate copy of Traktor and the keys on my keyboard to nudge tracks forwards and back.
The kind of stuff I was listening to at the time doesn't really bear thinking about. I had a brief period of going through the same phase that I think a lot of kids at the time who had been listening to bands and got into dance music went through—I think the trajectory was basically Ed Banger, Diplo, blog house, minimal techno, then techno, over the course of about 12 months.
I ended up DJing quite a lot at smaller student-run nights around Oxford, and then taking over a small dance music night in a bar with a soundsystem called Eclectric, which had an built-in crowd already, because it had become in the years before I took it over a kind of cool night for the more scenester-y kind of students at the time. It meant that every other Thursday there were 200 people rammed into this basement bar, who were, if not willing, then at least ready to listen to whatever kind of techno I wanted to play at them.
I was maybe 21 then, so by this point I'd kind of jettisoned all the different blog house nonsense. Surgeon was kind of my gateway into more serious techno, I guess. And I pretty much had free reign to play whatever kind of relatively inaccessible techno I wanted to. I certainly wasn't a good DJ, but I was happy to take risks. I think maybe in a way, starting out by playing this party stuff, which still had a kind of mashup angle to it, gave me a sensibility that has, to an extent, stuck with me: mixing pop records that shouldn't go together, but kind of do. And even though I'm obviously playing different music now, this whole approach of, "Oh I wonder if I could fit this in there," is still present.
Was there a point when you thought, "This is starting to feel like something I can properly go for"?
No. I wouldn't say I had no desire to do it professionally, but I certainly wasn't planning on making that push until the opportunity basically fell into my lap with my first record.
And how did that happen?
It was 2011, two years after I'd move to Berlin. I had been making music in my bedroom and putting it on the internet. And Jack Revill—Jackmaster—who at the time was working at Rubadub, offered me a P&D deal to put out my first record, which was Objekt #1. And everything really took off super-quick from there. It came out in January 2011, the second one came out in mid-2011. The Hessles picked it up really quickly, and I played at-
Did you say The Hessles?
That's what I call them, yeah—Hessle Audio of course. I played at one of their nights at XOYO in April 2011, which was, like, maybe the first or second actual club gig that I'd played for about three years, 'cause when I moved to Berlin, suddenly I went from playing every week to not playing at all, because I didn't have the connections, I didn't know anyone. So I went from that to suddenly playing with some of my—it sounds weird saying "heroes" because now they're really good friends of mine, but yeah, musical heroes, in a 500-capacity club. And then by the end of the year, I'd done the SBTRKT remix, the Radiohead remix, I'd been to Tokyo, played at fabric, Berghain and like a bunch of other clubs that, 12 months before, I'd never thought I'd be playing at. And suddenly it was like, "OK, I guess this is kind of happening."
That said, I never quit my job thinking, "I'm gonna make a stab at this, and I wonder if it'll work out." I still kept the day job for another two years after that. I took a sabbatical in 2013 and spent that time writing Flatland, and then went back to the day job. Still part-time though, doing 20 hours per week. I'm gonna take another break in September, and see where to go from there.
Having a job—what impact does that have on your DJing?
It's certainly a double-edged sword. On the one hand it's really nice to be able to be choosey about the gigs that I do, to pick the gigs that I'll really enjoy, rather than the ones that'll pay the bills. On the other hand, I do feel like I'm not able to invest as much time in either thing as I'd like to. I spend time digging, but I don't have a huge amount of time for the studio, for producing. I really need to feel like I'm doing a good job at something in order to enjoy it. When I'm so busy that all I can do one week is check promos and maybe go through the first page of Hard Wax, I end up feeling like a bit of a phony.
Speaking of checking promos—how do you have time to listen to enough new music to fill those USB folders with 100 new tracks every month?
Um, I mean it's just dance music, you can flick through it. You don't need to listen to all six minutes of a techno track.
Some people say just the opposite, that it's essential to properly soak up your music before you play it out.
I disagree with that completely. I almost never listen to dance music in my private time, I actually spend as little time as possible listening to functional dance music. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy playing it, or don't enjoy listening to it in certain settings, but you know, I listen to a lot of this stuff every weekend. And I need to establish some—well it doesn't sound quite right if I say, "I need to establish some boundaries," but you know...
I get it.
Look, club music is inherently functional. It can definitely be emotional and transcendental and everything else, of course, but it is still built to make bodies move in a club, right? And I think it's important to me to preserve the enthusiasm and love that I have for it, which I can only do by not listening to it all the fucking time. I don't think that's so controversial. But when it comes to listening to a techno 12-inch, first of all, they're not tracks that are designed to be listened to from beginning to end, they're designed to be mixed into a set. And I think as an experienced DJ, you can get as much information out of a track by flicking through it, seeing how it drops, seeing how the break comes in, when it comes in, and seeing how it progresses over the course of the track, as you can from listening to the whole thing. Also, I'll spend a lot of time on airplanes and in hotels listening to music. And I never play stuff for the first time during a gig. Although I know people who do.
Do you still practice at home?
Yeah, actually. Because before every weekend I'll be pulling out records and usually I'll have a mix then. So yeah, I do mix quite a lot at home. I don't do it for fun during the week, but I'll do it in advance of every trip.
There's another thing that I wanted to say, but I can't think what it was. It was related to the last point. What was the last actual question?
How do you find time to listen to all that music?
We were talking about whether or not having a job has a good impact on your life as an artist.
Right, right, yeah. I would say that there is one other definite positive point about having a job. Basically, it's often on a knife edge with me, between really loving what I do and being quite frustrated by it. It doesn't take very many gigs where I don't feel enough of a connection with the people that I'm playing to to make me feel quite disillusioned. And that's certainly not to complain about being able to earn a living doing this, but I find it's really important to play parties where I would want to be in the crowd myself. Otherwise I'll come home on a Sunday night thinking, "Why am I doing this?"
At the end of every gig, I want to feel as grateful to the people in front of me as they do for whatever I've played. If I don't feel that, then the whole thing, the situation of being a well-paid DJ flying around and playing techno at people in clubs, it just feels wrong to me somehow. The only way that it can feel right is if there's a real personal connection that validates the whole experience. Otherwise I think I'd get more satisfaction out of a line of work where I could exercise my brain in a different way, I guess doing maths or coding or something. Having a secondary source of income has allowed me to be really selective over the offers I accept so that these positive gigs make up the vast majority—maybe like nine out of ten this year. That's something for which I feel incredibly lucky.