One of the scene's favourite party starters discusses his journey through DJing.
The often dour demeanour of big-ticket DJs seems a world away from everything that orbits Jackmaster. Few embody the raw joy of loving music as visibly. Behind the decks he's a whirlwind of glee, as eager to share the fun with the bouncing bodies in front of him as whoever is lingering behind him. It's not uncommon to see Saltire flags or Celtic F.C. shirts waving in the front rows of his shows, a sign of his status as a people's champion. Not only this, but an emergent breed of party-starters like Denis Sulta and Peggy Gou have come up under Revill's tutelage.
Revill's mutual thrill-seeking with the audience guides his selections and technique. He appears drawn to the inner energy of a tune as much as the melody or the drop, his next moves guided by what will create surges of excitement in the room. This passionate approach has boosted Revill's reputation as a quintessential party DJ, even as his style has evolved. No matter what hat he's wearing at any given gig in any given country, his magnetism makes the experience feel like a celebration.
More goes on in the headspace of a headliner than meets the eye, though. Revill didn't have an easy upbringing, leaving him pockmarked with self-doubt in spite of his status. Clocking hundreds of high-velocity gigs per year for the best part of a decade has begun to exert a toll. So as well as his understanding of what makes for an electric night out, he wanted to talk about the other art that comes with DJing at the highest level: that of keeping your mind intact, while trying to make everyone else around you lose theirs.
You got your bearings in dance music earlier than most.
I had a definite head start, right. My radio alarm would go off for school, and it would be Zoë Ball or Sara Cox playing Daft Punk on the Breakfast Show, prime-time slot. On TV, you had a show called Ibiza Uncovered. I was over at T In The Park festival from age 14, happily drowning in the lethal DJs filling the Slam Tent.
You could call it luck or fate, but there's been little things along the way that helped counter the adversity I had to face. When my mum passed away, we went from being a stable middle-class family to one scraping by for money. I had been training classically, playing cello up to Grade 6—then everything changed, I got binned from school for smoking weed, and went off the rails a bit.
I was very fortunate that Calum [Morton, AKA Spencer] came into my life then. He'd see me in the street with see-through poly bags from the record store Fopp, stuffed full of Alice Deejay and Basement Jaxx. He knew that I was in a bad spot, so the kind soul took me under his wing and showed me a world of much better stuff.
We started doing work experience at Rubadub on alternate Saturdays, paid one record per hour rather than any cash. But I was being a little shite, going out spray painting til about nine in the morning and missing the shifts. So naturally I copped the sack soon enough. I wormed my way back in, because my boss Barrie [Watson] saw the store as a way to get me off the streets. It was inspired. He thought, "What are the rough kids from Paisley into? They like hardcore and fast, hard music." The closest thing we had at Rubadub distribution was the booty and ghetto section. He figured it was close enough. So he gave me a big stack of Databass records and sent me off to make some mixes with a MiniDisc recorder. He effectively saved me by getting me addicted to ghettotech.
That's pretty sick.
Very sick. I've got a dream to start a charity in Glasgow and work with underprivileged kids, get them DJing after school, pay that positive change forward. It's something we wanted to do but never got the chance. Because of what Barrie did for me, it's instilled this desire to bring people up wherever possible.
You play back-to-back sets a lot. Some say they are like creating a third plane of mixing style. It appears that for you, turning to one of your best pals and giving them a wink and a nudge is the biggest incentive of all.
If there's no energy from my partner or the crowd, I can't perform to the best of my ability. Even so much as a wee pat on the back or being told you executed a good blend really helps. You can feel when it's dead out, you don't even need to look up. I'm looking for a response, almost for the crowd to take control and tell me what to do next. When I had Serato everything was perfectly categorised; my rekordbox is a mess, though. Nowadays, when I turn up in a town, I will spend half an hour before a gig putting in fresh stuff, and that'll be that.
Literally just half an hour?
Obviously I'm doing stuff all the time in my house, so I'm not nicking a living here. But before a gig I'll suss what's happening: maybe know the vibe of who's playing before or after, or the mood in that region at that point in time. When you play in certain towns with younger crowds, what you need to do to catch their attention changes every year. In the summer I might have a Circoloco crate that lasts me for the duration with some additions as I go, but that aside I make a specific crate for each and every gig. From there I'm usually winging it.
A few summers ago you had that blend of The Streets' "Turn The Page" and Kölsch's "Der Alte," which became quickly well-worn at festivals. It was like your own walk-on anthem.
True—so then I had to purposely stop myself from doing that, it got boring. I don't sit at home and think these out, they're born on the road and they stick. On the flip side, my mixtapes are almost always meticulously planned. To the second.
So at shows you have this guiding mindset of, "I've played in Napoli before, I've played in Moscow before, I kinda know what they're gonna go in for." What happens when you guess wrong? How do you get out of a misfiring situation?
That happens to me a lot, to be honest. I'm my own worst enemy when I'm DJing. I overthink how the reaction will go before some shows. That can manifest in hammering it harder, thus digging a deeper hole. The body language you give off from the booth resonates with the whole room, and they're more likely to go with me when I'm not evidently panicking.
As much as I loved it, getting #2 in the RA poll added a massive extra pressure to the job. I feel that as I'm DJing certain people are whispering to one another, "He's supposed to be the second best in the world and he's just clanged that mix!" Even though we know it comes from fan votes, it removed me ever really being the underdog again. I see myself as good, but in the second or third tier—not #2. I try not to fuck it up for their high expectations.
Have you had to adapt and smooth out your choppy mixing style as you've travelled more?
Letting a tune play right out is something I've had to force myself to do. I don't subscribe to the style of mixing a steady intro with a steady outro for 30 seconds. There's no character in that for me. I'm far closer to the old-school hip-hop and breaks style.
Only the gold makes the cut.
Exactly. You mix the best bits. Why wouldn't you? I'm using the choruses and the bridges, or the intros and outros only if they're up to scratch. I've definitely got this ADHD sort of approach as a DJ, and I need to cull that.
How long did it take you to get into the groove with Circoloco? You're one of the only DJs who rose from the class of the UK underground who not only took to the island like a duck to water, but seemed delighted that it became part of your repertoire.
My first time in the building, I was with Pete [Joy Orbison], and he pretty much had to drag me there in the first place. If you're an artist or know people there, you can actually go above the DJ booth in the main room to where they do all the sound and lights. It's almost like the top-down view you get on a footy highlights DVD. I could see everything Dixon and Ben Klock were doing that night. I turned to Pete and went, "Alright, you're onto something here," which very quickly became "I need to play here."
The first gig I did at Circoloco, our taxi was taking so long to get us there, I was almost having a panic attack. I got out and started to walk using just Google Maps, lugging my record bag with the planes going overhead, trying not to be physically sick in the bushes with nerves. The house and techno I knew was not that smooth European vibe either. I idolised Mad Mike, not Ricardo; I was very much buying things based on hooks and impact. In the end I couldn't have asked for it to go better, and I'm not blowing smoke up my arse saying that. It was very much because I'd watched, learned and picked up the vibe of DJs in that crucible. Since becoming a resident and getting relaxed in those kind of environments I have started to return some flair and tricks to how I play.
I started doing it with a DJ Deeon track, "House-O-Matic." It came to me one night, I tried it, and since then it's been the thing that a lot of people request. The trick starts where it goes into that middle beatless section. I'd loop it for ages—dum, dum, dum, dum—change the tempo setting to wide and slow the track right down to a crawl then back up again. I'd gradually bring it back, but maybe this time to 130 BPM, not 120 where it started. You release, and people go fucking spare. It's not exactly pioneering. It's a very primitive technique but we all know sometimes the best things in dance music are the most primitive. The energy rises, but it's not as obvious as leaping tempo when playing a track with active beats.
When I saw you last in Bristol, you did similar stuff to diffuse the mood. You played the acapella from Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" early on, then also switched from Suzy Q's "I Can't Give You More" into some old rave pumper. When deploying a big female pop vocal, it feels as if you could go anywhere.
I do these things when I feel really free. When I'm confident, and I feel at one with the crowd and their energy, that's where the magic happens I think.
What are some of the other tricks you've picked up?
I use the CDJ's Slip function, but that's about it. You can double up what's going out to the crowd while keeping the track moving in the background, so it still drops on the beat. I find myself using that a lot when creating a crescendo with two tracks running.
CDJs as a format is a gift and a curse, to be honest. Mixing on vinyl, you're keeping yourself busy by spending time making sure the tempos are matched perfectly. That takes two seconds on the CDJs. In an ideal scenario, I'll be playing records and digital in tandem, as it feels real and sets a more fluid pace. Nowadays DJs stand about waiting for a six-minute song to finish, and it's like, "Come on, bring another deck into it, or do some tricks, or something." With CDJs, everything has become so easy that I get ticked off for touching stuff too much to compensate.
You seem to be pretty filter-happy.
Part of it is that ADHD tendency, and part of it is feeling like the crowd needs something to give them a boot up the arse. I can't handle seeing a crowd look stagnant for too long. With the low pass filter, I'll just go "thud" and then just leave it subdued for ages, and as the crowd starts getting vocal, I'll slowly bring it up, but with the bass rolled off, so there's extra room to power the tune back to max. Again this is from a vintage handbook, but it's almost always effective. I do use the high-pass far too much, mind.
I don't practise DJing at home anymore, perhaps to my detriment. I rarely listen to other people's mixes anymore. It's that kind of mentality that James Stinson had about the fact that he wouldn't listen to anyone else's electronic music, but just jazz in his truck when driving. Only jazz. He didn't want to sound like everyone else out there, and neither do I.
Do you think that's why you took such offence to the idea of people biting at your heels, lifting tracks from clips of yours circulating on ID groups on Facebook, then putting them wholesale into their sets?
Ah, that got misunderstood. Even if I've signed a track by someone, and it's on my label, that's not my track. It belongs to the person who made it, and a small part of it belongs to anyone who has ever danced to it or loved it or shared an experience to it. No, what I was getting at with that post is when I know for a fact that touring professionals will be going on the Identification Of Music Group and they're searching for Jackmaster or Ben UFO or Job Jobse, and then going to hunt down the tracks we have been playing. And I know when it's happening because they're using tracks that I've hunted to the ends of the earth for, yet everything about the culprit screams "never ventured outside of Beatport."
If you're getting paid thousands of pounds to play in arenas then you should have enough passion in your craft, or even a basic desire, to be original, to shape your own niche. Otherwise music becomes a race to the lowest common denominator. The DJs I look up to, they're going that extra mile to find stuff you're never, ever going to hear from anyone else.
With Mastermix you're basically shaping a night from the top down. From Shaun Murphy creating light installations, to all the performers you think might gel together, the design––the point is to create something bigger. But if you aren't listening to people's mixes, how do you know who to pick?
Well, I get to hear mixes at house parties or in the car, or I'll take a recommendation from someone I trust. But too much listening to others and I'll start twitching to reach for Shazam.
I'm lucky that I've got an incredible tour manager, Alex, who is a gannet for music. Even if I'm beat down and jaded on the road, he will push me to go to a record shop or check another act out, live band or DJ, to––
––reignite the fire?
Yeah, rejuvenate that essential fire. We'll go to fabric just to listen to Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos for 20 fucking hours, and walk away inspired. Investing in people as people cuts a similar way. If there's someone I like to be around, or I like their patter online, and I pretty much can gather they play the good shit, then I'll book them and they're more than welcome in my camp.
I try to veer away from booking people who just wanna get paid and head home. I am conscious about Mastermix having a crew dynamic, and I specifically wanna build up young blood from Glasgow as well. For the Bristol leg, I booked Barky [Bake, All Caps] and Sofay together. Now, I know Sophie less well personally. But I can tell from the type of things she says online, and the type of music she's into, that she's right for us. And so it worked.
All that being said though, at that particular Mastermix I was not happy. It's weird: no matter what I put in my body, the adrenaline when I'm playing will usually keep me on the straight and narrow. But I had this thing that night where I was so nervous when I played, because ultimately it's all on Jackmaster. Half of my hometown was there standing behind me. It overtook me.
There were two things I remember didn't go over with the crowd. One was just as you'd come on, when Errorsmith's "Superlative Fatigue" flattened the energy. I recall thinking it was an odd reaction for such a banger. It happened again when you played some LFO.
Right, so I started going harder and bigger, which is not always the right answer, as you know. That usually works in a big room, and especially with Glaswegians. Back home, because of the licensing laws, you get an hour to just go for it hell for leather. But up against Hector [Denis Sulta], who was rinsing the stuff kids go mad for nowadays, meant it just wasn't clicking.
So that's a relatively bad night. On a good one, I've noticed you bring out a trick: dummies and feints. You kill the tune then punch it back in. It's as if you're a matador, baiting the bull.
Yeah, I do that a lot when I get excited. Do you know what I think it is? It's like a techno version of a rewind. Not everyone gets UK rewind culture as a style of paying compliments. I've pulled up tunes before when the place is rocking, and you hear that people ended up upset instead. They think you're some bozo pulling the record, when actually it's the highest compliment you can bestow. Yanking the faders down for a couple of bars gives that same effect with less room for controversy.
Like opening up a new channel of energy within the general energy?
Exactly. The dancer's brain becomes alert, going: "Fuck, what's going wrong here?" Then it comes back, and they're like, "OK we're in it again!" I've got a kind of flicky wrist anyway so dicking about on the faders keeps me busy.
I've noticed you've begun to use a rotary now and again. How does that change things?
Say I play after Hunee, and he's got a rotary there on stage with beautiful sound, I will take on the challenge. Downgrading to another mixer after someone's been on the rotary can end up making you sound shit, which is a factor, but a rotary helpfully makes me more patient. It used to be that if I went to the club and it was an Allen & Heath, I'd be like, "Nah, I really can't do this," because the EQs are so clinical. You can use the echo, filter and reverb on a Pioneer to mask anything. To get out of a mix like that is a little bit like cheating, in my opinion, and I used to do it far too much. The way I saw it, as I hated Allen & Heath, the logical thing for me to do was to buy one or borrow one and just learn it inside out. And it eventually got to a stage where I preferred the Allen & Heath, because for me, it was more pure. Same now with rotaries, when the opportunity comes.
Really, if you're good at what you do, you should be able to use any tools put in front of you without complaint. You should be able to turn up to a tiny room, stare down a two-channel Numark with solely a crossfade, and make it work for you.
There's the old adage that if you can learn to play records on belt-drive turntables, you're set for life.
That's what I had! When I started I bought two belt-drive Gemini decks, and they were the worst. They are super sensitive kit, so any wrong movement and it goes to shit. I was as good as giving up a few days in, because they were so feeble. Any heavy-handed movements and the platter just stops. I see people matching up waveforms with headphones evidently not in use, and it's such a giveaway. DJing is not a visual artform.
Calum and I used to play this game when we came home from a club and had a wee mix. I had my record collection, mostly my dad's '80s stuff and soul at that point. Calum's record collection was mostly happy hardcore and hard house. The game was to mix the two most polar opposite tracks you can from each side.
You must have had some of the worst trainwrecks imaginable.
Oh yeah. Say Calum would pick a real fast DJ Assault record, he would then look through my box and pick some quiet storm, like, "On you go." My girlfriend at the time would be sitting on the bed, so I was trying to impress her, 'cause her siblings were into house and techno, and they used to go to [foundational techno party] Monox. I would have to flick the oldie on 45 RPM, set the tempo at +8, yet it still wasn't fast enough. So I'd have to ride both tracks at the same time. That was pretty much how I learned to mix disparate styles.
Can you reflect on periods where you weren't on your game for an extended period of time?
Absolutely. This used to happen to me a lot when I would be so busy I had no downtime to relax, and no structure to keep me at bay. Back then, I might have like 20 people at this crap gig in a city that's not really known for its electronic music. You're not enjoying yourself, so you're using alcohol as a crutch. Then you wake up hungover, you look at the next show, and there's no one on Twitter talking about it. The promoter is hounding you to put social media posts up, so you know the gig has probably not sold well. You can quickly get in this rut, playing badly night after night as a result. It's a domino effect.
My sets can still suffer in the summer where I've lined up too many shows in a row. I'll be doing Thursday gig, Friday gig, Saturday gig, Sunday gig, and then I'm in DC10 on a Monday. I'm recovering Tuesday, Wednesday, then back on a plane on Thursday and then finding I'm not having time to look for new music. That's something I need to work on. As I fucking love DJing so much, I tend to say yes to so much. Whenever I take time off, I'm in my house getting bored. I want to be out and in that booth.
I'm utterly addicted to the buzz of DJing. You take a risk, thinking, "I don't know if this is going to work." Maybe you have the crowd in the palm of your hand or maybe you don't, but you push it all the same. Right before that, I'm shaking; partly from nerves and partly because I'm excited to see what's going to happen. But the risk starts to pay off, and this feeling just comes all the way up my body and manifests itself as an enormous smile. I can't get that release anywhere else, as hard as I try. You have to respect people like Carl Cox, who after 30 years of DJing still look like they're just having the same buzz as they did when you watch old videos of them DJing on three decks in the '90s. Why put yourself through this circuit if you're miserable? I've made conscious efforts lately to take smaller gigs, to stay sharp and stop myself getting disenchanted.
Does it matter to you, seeing the whites of the eyes of the kids up close?
Make no bones about it, there's a different takeaway between playing at a festival where you're 20-30 yards away from the crowd to one where they're right there in your face. I'll do little gigs and the next day I'll be beaming ear to ear, with inspiration to spare. It's reason I got into this game in the first place.
I mean, I'm fortunate that in the UK I can pretty much guarantee that any gig is gonna be well-attended, and for that reason you go in and you get a vibe off it. And it's getting that way in Europe. Slowly.
I think a lot of people would be surprised it's not been there already for years.
Again, there's a misconception that I'm bigger than I am. It's like one of those memes you get: "What my parents think I do. What my friends think I do. What I actually do." My mates think that I'm touring the world and it's a doddle. No. A lot of gigs are still not good. Everyone always thinks I'm this super confident Jack The Lad, but I suffer from heavy anxiety sometimes. Before this interview, I was going between yes and no in my mind as to whether to even turn up. As soon as I explained the vulnerability to you before we got rolling, a weight was off my shoulders and I felt a lot more easy going at this. With the RA ORIGINS film, when Patrick and Debbie knocked on my door the first day of shooting, I actually didn't answer it. I was that scared. But it ended up like therapy for me.
So that's become an unfortunate feature of the reputation that you have? The 19-year-olds in student cities think, "This guy is my hero, he's going to lead us to the good times, he's the fucking boy."
I have to put on a façade in certain instances because of that. It's one of my real regrets, that this portrayal of me as a party boy is maybe leading impressionable young music heads to see and replicate that mentality as a benchmark of cool. Jackmaster is expected to be this guy who is the life and soul, cracking jokes, good times personified. But there is a difference between Jackmaster and Jack Revill. I can't turn it on all the time. That can be very draining because a long party really takes it out of you at the best of times. I've seen quite a lot of DJs fall by the wayside. You can tell as soon as someone starts slipping. Retiring under the age of 30 because their body is simply fucked.
I recall Erick Morillo speaking about this. Realising he wasn't the top dog anymore and suffering a dramatic ego crash.
It's fucking hard to have a thousand people looking at you every night. Nearly everyone relies on something to calm them down. Gerd Janson relies on tea, Ben UFO relies on maybe some water and a banana when he plays a marathon; both approaches I respect. But I am not strong enough for that yet.
Does this association actively affect the shows you play?
It cheapens my image a bit. Ibiza has opened a lot of doors for me, but caused some problems too. I'm blooded in very underground, specialist ways of thinking, constantly having to prove myself to my peers. So I'm not changing my style now even if it's some big event and if I'm playing before a DJ who'll be taking easy street. I'm just not fucking doing the snare roll, cheesy pop sample, bouncy, loopy, swooshy bullshit. If the 16-year-old Jack looked at the 32-year-old Jackmaster right now, and saw some of the DJs I play alongside, then he would be very confused. But in those situations I just bridge the gap. That's something I'm quite proud of.
I remember one thing you said publicly years ago that divided opinion. Something along the lines of, "I used to rip on Hed Kandi back when, but I would play half of these compilations now, these are bangers."
Being a snob and trying to find the faults in every track is no fun, trust me. I have tried it. There are tunes you can play in any situation, even headsy nights. If you've got that arsenal, it can be done. I get that I carry a reputation of playing to the crowd, but I've never played a tune I don't like. I'm happy now that I can draw from so many different things to give the people what they want, but also give them what they need; something new to them. There doesn't need to be a line drawn between those two approaches. They can coexist if you know what you're doing.
You have a very obvious tell when hitting upon a combination to rock a crowd: you lick a finger before cueing everything up, as if you're turning the page of a juicy story. When you're in that lightbulb-over-head moment, are you planning your next two, three, four moves?
If I've got one tune playing, hitting its max, then I pretty much know what I'm gonna play next, so I'll rack that up early. I've started being more confident recently by doing three-deck mixes where I'll have an intro for a track that's very percussive but that has nice elements, some nice tones. I'll loop that for eight bars, match the tempo, and then maybe play a third record over it as well at the same time. Even though you've lined them all up to the same tempo, they don't sit perfectly all the time, so riding them live is a must.
I'm absolutely obsessed with Jeff Mills's Exhibitionist DVDs and his old Liquid Room sets. I will watch those things just agog at the way he pushes and pulls tracks back into play. When Jeff is riding across three decks, it's spinning out of control, and he brings it all back home, I just sit back and go, "Fucking bang." So I've started attempting that as a way to up my game. To be honest, I usually go in for a blend for so long that it eventually goes out of time and I have to revert to two. But those are the moments that I really genuinely enjoy as a DJ.
Shaun [Murphy] and I were recently discussing the "four ages of Jack," as it were. To us, your first age was that young gun flying out the traps with nothing to lose. Second was when people started to cotton on; you were still a whirlwind, but lovedrunk on what was coming out of the UK underground, so predominantly played that. Third age is where you leapt from being nationally well-known to internationally famous. And now we think you're in the fourth age: you can cycle between it all, combining those elements depending on the environment. But you're also looking to return to the beginning, and get that fire back. Is that fair?
Yeah that's very fair. And as well as the first, I'm also looking to get back to the second.
Not in terms of what I played then, but the time and place. How it made me feel. On the one hand, I had all these demos coming in, so I was able to give them P&D deals at Rubadub. We were importing all the hottest stuff in Germany, France, Italy, America, everywhere. I basically knew everything about all dance music, because it was my job to do that. And then on the other hand, my peers were pushing it forward. Bok Bok, Oneman, Brackles, Hessle, all those boys.
I felt like I was super knowledgeable then, whereas now I feel like because I'm so busy, stuff gets past me and I absolutely detest that. But there was also this vital comradery, too. And it was very easy to entertain in those days because we traded the hottest tunes, and you could drop them in whenever you wanted. I'd have a brand new Jamie xx track before anyone knew —just like I had all the Dance Mania, Underground Resistance and real Chicago shit when I was even younger, thanks to Rubadub. When I sat down and pulled some old favourites out for this, that feeling rushed back. So I do miss those stages of my DJ evolution, as it were.
You assembled a great gang in support for a US tour last year: Carlos Souffront, K-HAND, The Punisher, plus more. Did you walk away inspired from anything there?
Absolutely, being around people like that is very inspiring for me. I did learn a lot from the crowd across America. In Germany, you can tire them out with too much of a frenetic style. They're used to being in the long-haul for sets. So if you flit between tracks too quickly, you tire them out. They just leave.
America, the club opens at 11 PM and by half past they're all getting down, not caring if the club isn't that packed either. They stay and they dance. They want it to be a bit more rapid fire, so you adapt to that. And I find that the way we DJ in Glasgow is very much the way that Midwest DJs do it, a very cut-and-paste style. I noticed that a lot when I was in Chicago with Marcellus Pittman especially.
The paradox of watching to learn is that I start to run an internal monologue. "Oh, they're really good at this. Wouldn't it be better for me if I just DJ'd more like them?" But ultimately no, you need to be yourself. You compare enviously all the time and you're just gonna end up depressed. The prevalence of social media has made this so much worse. It's a big competition now.
Are there other issues that hamper you, as well as this self-evaluation?
I will put my hands up here: I am far too impatient. All you have to do to send a Scottish crowd mental is slot in an extra snare or hi-hat. I'm very much conditioned by that. So if I do something in another country and that reaction never comes, I have a tendency to see that as a bad selection on my part. You might see me smiling selecting the next tune, but if I don't reckon the crowd are feeling it, in my head I'm going, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK." That will affect my selection; I need to teach myself that home turfs are very much anomalies.
Ultimately I need to be able to trust the fact that I'm a good DJ and I know what I'm doing––which, even at 32 years of age, is still a trust yet to arrive. Hopefully one day soon.