Becoming a top techno artist is a dream come true for Dax Heddon. Matt Unicomb hears about the hard work behind his success.
One decade later, Heddon is among the style's biggest names. A DJ for more than 15 years, he kick-started his ascent in 2013 with a string of well-received records on labels such as Deeply Rooted, Arts Collective and his own Monnom Black. A 2015 album, Shades Of Black, pushed him to the upper echelons of a scene that, only a few years earlier, didn't know anything about him.
Techno's big leagues are notoriously difficult to break into, yet here was Heddon, a smiling Englishman who swiftly went from having one or two locals gigs per month to playing some of techno's best events. Most people don't realise the effort Heddon put in to get there. A workaholic who can spend up to 17 hours per day in the studio, he'd been dreaming about a DJ career since he first heard recordings of UK pirate radio on a Walkman as a teenager. Since then, he's dedicated his life to reaching that goal, churning out tracks like a machine, running the Monnom Black and EarToGround labels and DJing wherever he can.
I met Heddon on a chilly Berlin afternoon in March. A few days later, in Tunisia, the decision to play a track sampling the Muslim call to prayer would briefly make him the most famous DJ in the world, but for the wrong reasons. After waves of death threats, reports in mainstream media and a conviction in a Tunisian court, Heddon offered an apology. "Through this experience, I have gained a greater and deeper insight into the world that we live in," he wrote. "I will continue to create art through music, and I look forward to sharing this with you."
Because we spoke before Heddon's trip to Tunisia, you won't find any reflections here on the incident and its aftermath (he didn't want to speak about it afterwards and risk inflaming the situation). Instead, you'll find insights into the life of a breakthrough artist.
I heard that a trip to Ibiza was a turning point for you.
I come from a drum & bass background—I only got into techno in 2007. I was doing music technology at university. I'd just finished a three-year course, and I wanted to escape. I'd never been to Ibiza or heard much about it. You just hear about how amazing it is. I'd been heavily involved in the drum & bass scene, but for the last year I wasn't that happy with the music. I was losing interest in the scene. The music had become quite jump-up, and the raves were full of rude boys. There was loads of trouble, and I was growing up by then. I was 21. You start feeling old in the rave when you're 21, surrounded by these rude boys. I didn't know any differently, but I just wasn't feeling it as much. I was starting to lose my love for it.
What was happening in drum & bass around that time?
By around 2003 and 2004 it had become a lot more jump-up. Jump-up is more modern, noisy and sometimes a bit cheesy. You still had good music, but there was a lot of crap stuff. And it was the raves as well. I just started to think, is this it? I was around all these idiots and people were getting robbed in raves. I'd had enough and I was ready for something new. But I didn't know anything about house and techno.
Did you consider those styles cheesy?
All I knew about techno was the tune that went, "techno techno techno." And Hed Kandi was all I knew about house. That was about it. I had such tunnel vision while I was in drum & bass—I literally knew nothing else. So going to Ibiza was something new for me. My plan was to get a job DJing there for summer, but I didn't know anything about the music. So I went to HMV and bought a load of house CDs. I didn't even really like them. I got a job in this crappy little bar playing house music. It was all commercial, like electro and all this crap. I was playing it but I wasn't feeling it at all, so I nearly went home. I went really early, in mid-April, and the season doesn't even start till June. I wanted to go early so I could get a job.
Then Space opened. It was the first proper club I went to in Ibiza. I was like, I get it now. Before that, I'd only been to crappy bars in the West End in San Antonio. I then understood why people have this love of Ibiza. It's such a spectacle. In drum & bass you don't really have that. The soundsystems were good, but there was never a focus on big shows. This was a real step up. I asked my friend, "What music is this?" He told me, "This is techno." I said, "Alright, I like techno."
Did it feel simple after listening to drum & bass for so long?
I realised that I didn't like minimal. I'd come from amen breaks and stuff like that, so I'd go to Amnesia and just hear hi-hats—tst, tst, tst. But I went to some parties with a more tribal sound, with more drums. I got that. I saw Chris Liebing at Space. I saw Carl Cox at the opening—he was playing fast, driving techno. But when I heard minimal, I didn't get it. I'd always liked percussion, so that was my thing.
How was the atmosphere compared to the parties you were used to?
A lot more friendly. There was no trouble.
Were you hooked right away?
Yeah. When I went to the Space opening, I had the same feeling as when I walked into my first rave in London when I was like 15 or 16 years old. It was the first time I had that feeling again. I remember feeling that and thinking, this is something special. By the end of summer, I wasn't sure which path I wanted to follow. I still had so much love for drum & bass, and all of a sudden I had this new thing I'd been into for two or three months. There's actually a guy called DJ Hype, who I met in Ibiza that summer. He was like, "Dax, I thought you were supposed to be the next big thing in drum & bass. Why are you out here?" Little comments like that had me wondering if I really should give up drum & bass. But I think I knew, in my heart, that it was over. That chapter was done.
Do you think drum & bass and techno have much common ground?
They're so different tempo-wise. Sometimes if I'm listening to drum & bass for an hour or two, then I put a techno track on, the techno track won't sound like it usually does. Your head's into a certain rhythm, and then, all of a sudden, you move to a different rhythm and it doesn't sound right. It takes me a while to adjust.
Did you find DJing with techno easier?
While I was playing drum & bass, me and my friend analysed a lot of DJ sets—we learnt it all. I used to write on my records. I'd have a code: two, three or four. Usually the intro was 32, 48 or 64 bars. So I'd write two for 32, three for 48, four for 64. And I'd write the same for the breakdowns, so if I had a 48-bar breakdown, I know I'd have 16 bars to get a record with a 32-bar drop, and then I could start mixing it and double-drop it at the same time. When I first started playing techno I was like, I'm going to be the first DJ to double-drop techno. Well, I tried it and it doesn't work.
Do you have other tricks left over from drum & bass?
I'm always trying to incorporate that style. Sometimes it can work, but only with certain tracks. For example, if I played a dub track, mainly beats, then I can time another track that's a bit noisier—maybe it's acid or it has a distinctive lead—and then on the breakdown of that dub track, I can mix in this other track, and I can have them drop at the same time. It works because one's dub and one's noisy. In drum & bass, you could literally drop anything together and, for some reason, it works. You have to be a lot more selective in techno.
Has this analytical approach helped your techno DJing?
I've always been mixing in bars, sections and numbers. Always. We would analyse Andy C, thinking, how does he mix so quickly? We couldn't get our heads around it. And then we worked it out—he mixes in 16 or eight bars. Everything is in 16. Then we started making music, which helps with understanding mixing techniques.
What were your initial attempts at DJing techno like?
Before I left for Ibiza, I bought two Denon CD players. I knew that everyone uses CDs, I thought I'd practice with the CDs I bought from HMV—I was worried cause I'd never played on CD players before. I think drum & bass was the last scene to adopt the digital age—everyone was on vinyl till the last minute. So I got these CD players and I remember mixing for the first time and thinking, is that it? I was like, what? I didn't even need to buy these. I was expecting to learn this whole new language, but it was pretty simple.
What's harder about playing techno than drum & bass?
There's more of a journey. When I was going out raving, drum & bass DJs would play one-hour sets. When I came into techno, it was two, three or four hours. That was weird for me. Then there's more emphasis on track selection, the journey and variation. But they're completely different styles, like two different worlds.
Was there anything you found particularly difficult?
The main troubles I had were to do with writing the music—the riffs. I was used to writing in drum & bass tempo, so if I played something on a keyboard, the riff would suit something at 170 BPM. It wouldn't go with techno beats. The engineering is also different. In drum & bass, the bass is lower then the kick. In techno, the kick is the main bass. That took me ages to get my head around—I was writing techno tracks in a drum & bass style. It took me a long time to adjust.
How did you get so deep into music?
It was at school through pirate radio and friends coming in with Walkmans. I'd listened to a friend's tape, and he told me, "This is pirate radio." I went home and tuned—I couldn't believe it. I would've been 13 or 14 years old. All I knew was commercial radio, so this sounded so fresh and rebellious. Knowing it was illegal made it even cooler.
I managed to get a pair of decks, a really crappy pair of Gemini XL500s, and a mixer for £250 from the back of a magazine. I bought some garage records and learnt how to mix, then called up this pirate radio station, Time FM, and told them I wanted to be a DJ. They told me to send a tape. After I did that, I called up the guy, his name was Groovemaster, asking if he'd listened to the tape yet. He'd say no, so I'd call him the next week. This happened three or four times, until he said he'd listened to the tape and would give me a show: six till eight. I said, "Wicked, prime-time?" "Nah, graveyard shift—Sunday morning, 6 AM till 8 AM."
That lasted for about four months until I was promoted to 8 AM till 10 AM—I think the guy just stopped coming. Eventually I discovered drum & bass, so I told Groovemaster that I wanted to leave for another station called Origin. I sent that guy a tape. He didn't listen to it, but I called and called. Eventually he said, "I didn't listen to your tape, but I'll give you a show—you've called me so many times that it must be OK."
It seems like you've never worried about going after the things you wanted.
I've always thought anything is possible if I put my mind to it and stay focused. I never had a reason to believe I wouldn't be able to do something. If have something in my head that I want to do, I'll always do it. I remember my friends telling me I wouldn't be able to play on pirate radio, and I'd ask, why not? I pursued everything, and most things have ended up happening.
Pirate radio must've affected your studies.
The more I got into music, the worse I was at school. I was so disengaged. I'd skip school to go and buy records at Black Market in Soho. I could've just gone after school, but I was so rebellious. My school career started stellar—in year seven I was a really good pupil, but then I got into pirate radio and smoking weed and became one of the worst students.
What did your parents think about all of this?
They couldn't really say much. I didn't really talk to them at that age. Constantly being stoned didn't help. It's like a drum & bass mentality, this moody thing.
My sister, who's five years older than me, had this obsession with buying CDs and tapes. This is going back to when I was ten years old. That was how I discovered The Prodigy, Massive Attack, Leftfield—everything. I'm pretty sure I remember she showed me this drum & bass track [Origin Unknown's] "Valley Of The Shadows," with this hypnotic xylophone thing.
There was also a game called Wipeout. It was a futuristic racing game that came as a demo with the PlayStation 1. I used to love the music from it, so one day I put the disc in a CD player, hoping that it might play the tracks—it did. It had all 11 tracks on there, so I recorded them to tape and would listen to them. Once I put a few tracks on a mixtape I'd made for a girl. She said to me, "Oh, weird music. What's that?" I was so offended. But anyway, I loved these tracks. A year ago I was thinking about them, so I bought the game again so I could listen. I think Wipeout—it had tracks from Leftield, Chemical Brothers—must have something to do with my interest in electronic music.
When did you realise you'd be able to do music as a full-time job?
After college, I worked as a teacher, teaching basic maths and literacy after doing an English as a second language [ESOL] teaching course. I also taught music tech at a college for nine months. Then I worked promoting a club. The whole time, on the side, I was making music at home. Every spare hour I had.
The music was going OK, but still nowhere near where I wanted it. I was nowhere close to living off it. I thought that, if I wanted to take it further, I needed to put more time in. I'd saved up a bit of money from this teaching thing, so I stopped that. I ended up managing a crappy bar in Finsbury Park, where I was booking myself to DJ on Friday and Saturday nights.
Sometimes I would stay in the studio for three or four days at a time, literally working for 15, 20 hours a day. At that point the music accelerated. It became a lot better, and I began to see rewards—I'd release a record or notice some DJ had put my track in a podcast. Then agents started to contact me, which means you start to get gigs abroad. But I didn't stop working. Even to this day, I haven't stopped—I still work as hard as I did back then.
You're a fanatic.
I love it. That's how I'm able to put in 16, 17 hours a day. I'm blessed—I knew that I wanted to DJ and make music since I was 16 years old. That goal has never changed. The music might have changed, but the goal is the same. I know I'm lucky, because a lot of people are working in jobs they don't care about.
That's why people with a real passion for something are lucky.
But you also need people with no passion for anything in particular. If everyone had something, the world would be chaotic. You wouldn't be able to thrive because there are so many people against you.
How does being so deep into techno affect your personal life?
I don't see my friends as much as I should. I say no to a lot of things. This used to happen a lot before I started touring heavily. I'd have weekends off, and I'd say, "No, I need to work in the studio." Now I play eight, ten gigs per month, so I don't even have that option. My girlfriend deals with it well, but I think she's struggled with it. I went through periods where I wouldn't come home until 11 or 12 at night. When I was making my album, I'd be in the studio until five or six in the morning.
At the start of last year, I read a book about the habits of successful people. It said the world's most successful people wake up at 5 AM, so I did it for the first five months of 2016. I would be in the studio by 6 AM, no matter how late I'd gone to bed. But I started getting exhausted, because I'd be going to bed at 12 or one at night. After five months, I had a weekend with four gigs, and I was really ill—fever, cold, everything. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and it was because I'd pushed it too hard. I've been trying to find a solid routine for my whole life, but it's impossible.
How do you deal with playing so much these days?
I don't drink at gigs anymore. The only time I party is in Berlin. When I'm on the plane, I like to work or read, which I can't do if I'm hungover. It's turned into the opposite of what I'd imagined DJ life to be like. While I was growing up, I thought it would be like a rockstar's lifestyle. But it's the complete opposite of what I'd envisioned. I think I'm actually healthier than I would be if I wasn't DJing. If I wasn't DJing, I'd be meeting up with friends and drinking, which would lead to all sorts of stuff.
What else has surprised you since getting to the level you're on now?
I can handle all the gigs and stuff—I love all that—but one thing that I didn't see coming was reading negative stuff about myself on the internet. This is new to me. I went through a stage, I think it was last year, reading all the comments. And maybe 95% is positive, but there's 5% negativity. I would really focus on it. And then I really started taking it seriously and getting really angry and upset. I wasn't prepared for it, because I'd never had any of that before. It took me a while to get used to that. Now it's fine. I'm off Facebook now—I deactivated my personal account because it's a distraction.
If you've already been DJing for ten years, what kind of things can you get better at?
I still feel I'm improving all the time. Recently, I have more confidence in the ability to hold the energy back for ten or 15 minutes, rather than just blasting it. And then, when you do take it to the next level, it creates more of an impact. Plus being able to move the music around there more evenly and change the energy levels more smoothly. When I started, I didn't have as much variation as I do now, but the flow is better. I have more colours in my palette, so I can take it deep for an hour, go hard for an hour, take out the hi-hats for 20 minutes, whatever. A few years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do this so well. Firstly, I wasn't looking for as much music. Secondly, I play so many different gigs that I can't just play the same energy and intensity at every club.
Do you still make mistakes?
I get annoyed if I do a mix and I haven't thought about it properly, and maybe a vocal comes in and clashes with something else. I'll take it out as quickly as possible, but after the gig I'll be thinking, I really wish I didn't do that mix. It will stay with me all night. It's hard for me to let that go—I'll be angry for hours.
I had the same problem when I was playing on pirate radio. I'd always mess up one mix during a two-hour show, so I'd come away from the show fuming. I'd be so annoyed that I'd messed up one mix. I'd tell the person I was with, and they'd say, "Oh, I didn't really notice it."
When did things start getting serious for you gig-wise?
I've been with my agent for about four years. Before that, it was really slow for a long time, then it accelerated. I'd be playing once or twice a month, getting paid £50 to play at Egg in London. I got my agent around the time the Deeply Rooted record came out, then it blew up. It was picking up more around the time I released my album, which took it to the next level.
Did you feel ready?
I was so ready. I'd been waiting so long. To me, it was well overdue.
Has this success made you happier?
Definitely. I'm a lot happier now than I was five years ago. This is what I've always wanted to do—everything I've worked for. I have to be happy. If I wasn't happy at this point then I never will be.
Is there anything you've found difficult to adjust to?
I don't like DJing really high up, like on a platform or stage. Sometimes the crowd can look very flat, because you're looking down at them from an angle. Even if they're jumping up and down, everything looks flat and you can't see much movement. You could play at the same party, level with the dance floor, and think it was amazing. Where you're located can influence your perception of the gig. I enjoy it most when I'm level with the crowd—it feels like they're going for it more.
Would you play more if you could?
I want to play as much as possible at the moment. That's probably because I'm relatively young, and I haven't been touring for 15 years, like some of the guys. For now, I'm happy to play as much as I can.