The New York DJ opens and closes Berghain.
I went on to spend a total of 12 hours stood beside Parasole (who just released his debut album on Dekmantel UFO), taking in his opening set that night and a closing set three weeks later. He's been DJing since the '90s, and to make these sets a success he has to draw upon everything he's ever learned. The Berghain dance floor is a chaotic mass of energy that needs to be instinctively controlled and properly understood.
Parasole is also trying to perform a tricky balancing act, stemming from the fact that he doesn't strictly see himself as a techno DJ. The Berghain crowd expects a certain type of musical experience, which he's happy to give them, but he also wants to play J Dilla (as he did when he opened) or drop Frank Sinatra (as he's done in the past). It's part of what Parasole calls his "sonic voice," something he cares deeply about. He wants the music he plays to move in a certain way—and he wants to present that music with a technique that's unique to him. Parasole told me things about DJing that I'd never even considered. He wanted to make it clear that even in the often regimented world of house and techno, DJing should be an ongoing quest for originality.
When you finished on Monday morning, I overheard you tell someone that it was one of your favourite closing sets you've played. What made you say that?
The intimacy of the crowd and the vibe, and there were a couple of challenges throughout the night that made it interesting for me. It challenged me to capture the audience and keep them there. I felt like at any moment the room could have gotten lighter. It was challenging because the room wasn't heaving. Usually when you go in there for the closing there's probably more people. I liked the way I moved the room around, you know, brought it up, brought it down. I played hard, I played deep. There were a lot of different colours and contrasts that made it a very unique night for me.
How do you specifically respond to there being less people on the floor?
Not so much in the beginning per se, but more at the end. Waiting for Panorama Bar to close kind of dictates where you're going to go, right? When Panorama Bar closes, and all those people come down, usually it refills the club, and instead of going deeper and deeper, you kind of reset and start playing straight ahead. It's a different kind of energy. But this time when they closed Panorama Bar, the room didn't fill up like I expected it to. Maybe another hundred people came into the room, which really for Berghain is not a lot. So it was kind of still the same audience.
I tested the curiosity of the crowd to see where they were at. And I felt they were receptive, but not as receptive as I expected them to be. So I moved more into a harder house tempo, because they wanted to be pushed but I don't think physically they could have taken more techno. And I didn't think they were receptive enough to like obscure stuff.
One thing I really enjoyed about the set was that you moved into the final chapter maybe 90 minutes before the end. You introduced lighter textures, some fun stuff, some recognisable tracks. You said to me beforehand that you felt like you close Berghain differently to other DJs. Is this an example of that?
This definitely was an example of what I was talking about. But I think if the room was a little bit more receptive, I may have dropped the kick drum. And maybe played some weirder stuff.
Overall I don't look at myself as a techno DJ or a house DJ. I like to look at DJ sets as though you're painting this picture, and you should be able to hold a sonic voice. From the opening track to the final track when you're closing, there should be a constant line there that is you. Certain DJs who are really special, when you walk into the room you know who they are, or you're like, oh that's X, Y, Z playing. Some people have that. And they get that.
This is something that I've worked at in my life. It was something that I recognised at a young age that I wanted to do, and that's what I tried to do. So from the opening set there were similarities I carried into my closing set. I like to leave certain tracks in there because they are statement tracks, and they keep a voice, a detail that I like.
What are some examples of your sonic voice?
When I'm preparing the music I listen for certain things that I really like in bass tones and subs. I like my kick drums to move in a certain way. So rhythmically, you notice there's a pattern of like—I can't really explain it, but rhythmically there's something I look for.
My own interpretation is that when you play house, there's usually something techno in there. And when you play techno, there's usually something house in there.
Yeah totally. I would agree with that. I always had a theory, in the '90s there was not such a clear definition between house and techno, and techno is being written at the same speed as house, and vice versa. Now it's separated itself so wide that the definition of a house guy and a techno guy is so far apart that it doesn't combine. I like defining the similarities to keep it tied together. Back in the '90s, everything was tied together. There was hip-hop, which also went into hip-house and all that stuff, and it was very easy to keep all these things together. It's not as easy today, but I still try to do it.
You told me that early on you had a big failure closing Berghain. What do you know now that you didn't know back then?
I think there are a couple of things. The first time I did it, maybe the audience might not have been as receptive to my style. See, there's kind of a formula to a closing set in 2017 and maybe for the last four or five years: you just play techno straight through, and then you have a closing track. Well, I kind of went in trying to break that mould. And the very first time it was a failure, I got destroyed online.
Yeah I got completely obliterated, like on a message board for Berghain, they had a forum, and it was just thread after thread of how they hated me. I could have plugged my iPod in, it could have been better than that. They didn't appreciate hearing Nine Inch Nails or something kind of abstract in that room. They were very resistant to it. So instead of me getting angry, I tried to figure out how I bring them in and not deviate too far from what they know, but keep it interesting enough and diverse enough where there's a give and take. So I learned to push the room till the end, in a certain way, like I did the other day, but while keeping it different from what they would normally hear. Cause if I just go in there and I play techno to the end, I'm just another DJ who does the same shit.
I just don't ever want to approach a DJ set that way. I don't think my DJ sets are like anybody else's. There are some that are very diverse, for sure, they play wider, but I think there's a lot of technique missing right now. I don't believe in this "selector" thing. I think that's an easy way of saying you're a bad DJ who plays a lot of stuff.
So you think there has been a de-emphasis of technique?
Yeah, because you always hear, "Technique doesn't matter," or, "It's only about the music." I'm like, fuck that, that's not true, man. You should be able to do everything.
In a club like Berghain, where it's very dark and the lighting is intense, how do you accurately gauge what's happening on the floor?
I do the same thing everywhere. I look straight to the back of the room so I can gauge how many people are in the room. And then when I look straight ahead to the back wall, right over everyone's head, I like to see if they're bouncing. And if they're bouncing to the rhythm, I have them. If there's a lot of moving left or right, they might not be trapped into the music and they're still trying to find themselves, get a drink, whatever. I monitor that. I see if it's flat, and maybe it needs to go up a little bit, I might have to push it harder. With Berghain for instance, they have the boxes, and I can tell when there's a lot of body parts just flinging in the air. When that's happening I'm like, OK, I really have them at this rhythm, and I'll try to stay on that path for a little while.
When and why did you make the switch to predominately playing with CDJs?
It was February last year. I had a run of gigs in a row where turntables were failing on me.
Were you exclusively playing records at this point?
I don't believe in playing one medium. I've never believed this. I would never DJ with a computer. That would probably be the end of my career. I'm not mad at those people who do, that's what they do, and that's cool. If I was to ever go onto a computer, which I never would, it would be more similar to how Chris Liebing does it, because I find that very interesting, it's more like a hybrid live set. But DJing on a computer, like how most people do it, I find it to be extremely boring. There's no physicality there. What I mean by physicality, is like you're not moving to it, you're not counting the beats. And I know everybody wants to say the BPM and beat-matching is not important anymore, but for me that's my clock. That's my physical clock.
DJing needs to be physical, like a sport. If my blood is not moving like that, and I'm not sweating a little bit, then I'm not really working hard and I'm not gonna be so thrilled to be playing.
Back in the day when I played records, I always used to bring a sampler. And I always liked the idea of looping. But on the early CDJ-1000s, the looping wasn't as tight. So you'd have to tap it out and do all that stuff yourself on the fly. And that was cool, but I always found it used to slip, so I used to always have a sampler. So I had my records and CDs at the time. And as the CDJs got better, and the turntables started getting worse and worse, right around February last year I had a run of turntable failure, failure, failure. I mean like serious technical issues where you put the needle down and it starts feedback looping, it's not calibrated right. All this kind of stuff. It shouldn't be my job to calibrate the record, to have to set your tone arms and do all that shit while I'm trying to play the party right. It's too much pressure. And right now, the audience isn't forgiving enough.
So due to the ineptitude of the venues, you're getting it in the neck.
Totally. I feel like in the entire club world right now, the new clubs that are opening, they're taking away stuff. There's no more isolators in DJ booths. That's bullshit. The sound guys are overbearing with dB meters. They don't open up the headroom on the soundsystems. You take a little bit of this away, you take that away, it takes away from the artistry.
Most setups in the world right now are these festival tables on a stage, and they drop an Allen & Heath on there, and they tell you to go DJ. That's DJing in 2017. If you look at pictures of the old DJ booths, with like Larry Levan or Danny Tenaglia or Junior Vasquez, they're custom made. Like spaceships. Every box was checked. Tons of effects that were useful in the club. They used to have this remote control panning option, where you can take the joystick, move it around, and sonically move the music around the room. This stuff just doesn't exist anymore.
It's strange that this is the case at a time when club culture has never been more widespread.
When I stopped playing records so much I had to keep myself interested. I've always played with effects, I'll play with different reverb pedals, different delay pedals. I would bring an isolator but they're too big to pack in the bag.
One technique I noticed you using was looping near the beginning of the track you're bringing in.
And you noticed that I never loop on the same point?
Yes, you very rarely play a loop from the first beats of the track.
Yes, depending on the track and how it's written. Maybe I'll count out a five step, or sometimes I'll loop on an eight, or I'll loop on a four, or I'll loop on a two. Instead of just mixing on a kick drum, I'll also want the synths and stuff to sit in a certain way. And I want the music to move in a different kinda pattern. That's why I do this. I really like having the ability to create in the mix, and looping gives you that. It gives you your own signature. So if you're just mixing on the four, or the 16, or you just let it play, then you're losing your own kinda texture.
I noticed that you'll have the loop running and when you've got the tracks up to somewhere near full presence on both, that's usually when you release the loop.
Yeah totally. Or when I feel it. I'll feel like together these tracks have peaked. That's when I release it.
It was very noticeable that you were paying attention to the variety of your mixes. Some were very long, some were very short, and so on. Why is that important to you?
The other night was a perfect example. I had to do that a little bit. Maybe with the crowd, they have ear fatigue and physical fatigue, and this keeps the set interesting. Because if it's just a standard count, and you just swap the bass, and you lower the track, I feel like it might become this flat rhythm. Rhythm's not the right word—the room is just flat, moving in a certain way. When it becomes that, you can see the crowd is kinda like, "OK, alright," and they might leave, or they might go to Panorama Bar. So, you know, I wasn't doing it on every single mix, but when I felt like I needed to grab them I'd pull them in and do some stuff.
Another technique I picked up on was that often at the peak of your mixes, you'd have the bass completely killed on both tracks.
I don't necessarily drop both basses. Sometimes one's up. See that's the thing, you may not realise it, but I'll cue the track and I'm pulling this sub mix, which is the low-mid. So there's the low, the low-mid, the mid and the high. So the bass is the bottom one, the one right above it, if I quarter turn it, I'm pulling the sub out, the bassline out. But the kick is still there. And then what I do, the other track that's presented is up, and then I'll slap it in. And I give it this power, like a power presentation almost, like a womm! sound. And that's become a staple of mine.
I noticed that at certain points you had the bass a little past 12 o'clock. Lots of people say, "Don't go past 12 o'clock on the EQs. Don't add anything." Do you think that's a myth?
Yeah that's a myth. Some tracks need a boost, if you know the music well enough. If I over clock something, it never sounds over the top. What I do, I'll EQ everything, and then in my headphones if I feel it needs a little extra I'll do that. But I know how to control it. I've made tons of mistakes in my career, and I feel like if you're not scared to take the risks, like in sports, if you're too scared to fuck up or make a mistake you're never going to get better.
Do you still make mistakes?
I don't think it would ever be this awful train wreck. But it depends on the club. Sometimes the monitors just aren't monitoring right. Or your ears are fatigued, you've been on airplanes or whatever, and you just can't help it. I think I've become competent enough that it's not noticeable if I'm missing. But if I'm rested and I feel good, I'm pretty confident in my technique.
In the conversations I've had with you it feels like there's a certain New York spirit of DJing that you're channelling. How would you describe that? And who are the DJs who best embody that spirit?
I love going out to hear DJs, right? That's why you do this. You want to be in the club, you want to dance. I grew up in clubs, basically. So you always had your favourites. But the guys who have fully embodied this long format that I love to play—I loved Danny Tenaglia at his peak, or Junior Vasquez—these guys were kings of the marathon. And playing different sounds, different music. To this day I think Timmy Regisford is one of the best DJs, and I went to go hear him play just a few weeks ago.
You mentioned something that Timmy would do a lot is play with the overall volume, which is something you also do. I noticed you had your hand on the master output quite often.
Yeah because I feel like if you have two tracks up, and let's say both tracks are in unity, and they're not in the red, right? But when you put the levels all the way up, the frequencies are now caught in a fight for the same space. Now if you imagine a bubble, the bubble just got huge. And that's when the dB meter starts to spike. When it peaks, if the dB meter gets too hot and the sound gets too hot, and even though on the dB board it might be green, I recognise that it will distort.
You know when you're on the floor and there are those moments when you're like, "Oh that's just too fucking loud." When you're DJing and you're starring at the board, and everything is looking good, if you're not aware of bringing things down a bit, the master volume, you'll have these weird variations. So on the floor you may not hear me doing that, it's just me controlling the mix. And then also sometimes if I wanna bring it down, I'll bring it down a little, and then give it a pop.
Yeah for the contrast, and to give it some power. You do control the power of the rhythm, of how to get it moving. When I do that stuff with those pops, or when you see me push the gain forward in a certain manner, you notice the room kinda moves. And these are things that you learn. It's a lot of experience of trial and error.
You were quite often using a chopping technique with the track you were bringing in. Has this been a staple of your sets down the years?
Well, it's through coming up and playing different sounds, playing hip-hop or whatever. I used to be a very bad hip-hop DJ, meaning scratching and stuff like that. I'm a good DJ in that technique for a house and techno guy, but I'm way off a DMC guy. And one of my good friends used to be a DMC DJ, and he taught me how to transform and stuff like that.
Without using the crossfader, I'm still using that kind of crabbing technique, it kind of flutters rhythmically. And then I pop it in. I like the way that sounds, it's a cool thing. When you're in the room, it sounds awesome.
Tell me about the reverb pedal you use.
It's called Empress Reverb. I'm not married to that one in particular, but I'm liking it right now because there's also delay on it. And there's different combinations. It's a flexible reverb pedal. But I also love the Strymon, the blueSky. I also love the Boss DD-7, which is a digital delay.
How do you incorporate the pedal?
Reverb's not just reverb. You have plate, hall, shimmer. Shimmer makes it go tsshhh!, and I love that sound. I think it's a cool technique, like an accent. And sometimes I'm not filling up all the space, I just like to give it a quick thrash. And if I hear a snare and I'm like tsshhh!, that's all I do, just stab one hit.
It sounds like you have synaesthesia going on with the way you approach your sets. You told me that you see the closing set as being blue, peak-time is red, and I think you said the opening is green and yellow. How do you use this idea to inform your selections?
So peak is red, so it's full on, and the body heat is at its peak. So that's why I use red as the colour. Green is kind of like, the sun is rising, and the grass is green. That's how I picture the opening set, skipping through the park. I have a vision. And I'm not wavering from it, right? The audience is not gonna make me change that. They want to walk into Berghain, they want to just hear the kick drum booming at that point. Well, at the start I'm not gonna give that to them, I'm gonna play abstract. I'm unforgiving on that aspect. I'm gonna make you embrace these different elements. And I play hip-hop or whatever. I play all kinds of different stuff and it's mixed together, and I try to bring the crowd in, and then I'll peak it. And on the opening set, if you're playing just a straight kick drum, you're kind of already in the red. There's nowhere to go from there.
So when I'm playing all these different things, these different rhythm patterns, the break-y stuff or the abstract stuff, there's a lot of room to manoeuvre. So you're not in the red, so that's where the greens and the yellows are. And then the blue is the cool down. So when you have these situations and you're playing these long durations, you want to get the body up to the red. But if you're already in the red, where do you go from there? That's why I use blue at the end, because blue is trying to bring them down, and you're bringing them to the cold point.
It was interesting watching you right at the beginning of the opening. You were playing beatless pieces, but the way you were physically responding to the music it was almost as though there was a full kick drum there.
It's because I'm hearing things five steps ahead of the audience. I already know where I'm gonna go, and what's coming in three, four tracks. And those tracks are setting up to get to those points usually.
How did you learn to mix records?
Erm, badly. One of my friends, he learned to DJ in my house. It took me three or four years to be competent enough to play out, if I'm honest with myself. And this was in the '90s. As I look at it, there's stages to this. When I watched my friend learn to mix records in three weeks, I was like, this kid is fucking blessed. It's the '90s, there's no textbook or nothing. He would come in, and next thing you know he's just mixing seamlessly, and I was like, this is horrible. And I was sweating. I used to get nervous around him when I was a young kid. It was a long, painstaking process. It didn't come to me easy. As I mentioned, there's levels to it. So you just learn how to mix in the house, but mixing in the house is way different. Now it's a little bit closer, the bedroom's a little bit closer to the club. The soundsystems aren't as big as they used to be. Every club isn't Berghain or Output. There's a lot of smaller clubs now. The transitioning out of the bedroom into a nightclub is a lot easier today.
So the route before was straight from the bedroom to a big clubbing institution?
Yeah, it's like you're going from the bedroom to like Limelight or Palladium. For me, one of the first clubs I played was Pacha in New York City. That soundsystem was massive. As big, if not bigger, than Berghain. And that's a big leap for someone who doesn't have the skillset. If I'm honest with myself, I shouldn't have been playing those rooms yet.
I cut my teeth at this club called APT. It was this really amazing little club in Manhattan, and they had residencies with great DJs like Metro Area, who had a famous party there, Duane Harriott, Theo Parrish, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito. It was this little- to mid-sized room, max capacity 250, 300. It was a basement club but it had an upstairs where they fit another 100 people. In the basement they'd lock the doors and all hell broke loose.
They had a banging Funktion-One soundsystem. My party happened around 2005 or something like that, I can't remember exactly. But that's where I really learned how to become a better DJ. Because I was playing there every other Tuesday. Sal Principato from Liquid Liquid, he was a booker there, and I used to be the buyer at Halcyon, and he gave us a night. It was like my transitioning, when I was like, OK this has become real. I want to do this seriously. I'm gonna make a real conscious effort to become a professional DJ. It all began there.
Was there another stage in your development?
I mean, it's still growing. I'm yet to headline a festival. Or play the main stage of a festival. That's a big leap, man. That's a big leap, I still haven't done that.
Is that something you want to do?
I don't know, it's not something that's on the checklist, but if it ever happens... I don't know how far my career's gonna grow, I don't know if I've plateaued yet. Part of the game is getting the crowd to be like, "Yes!" before you walk in the door. I've never got to that point. There are some artists who have won the fight before walking into the club.
What's the best piece of advice you've received as a DJ?
I've really gotten no advice, but the best advice I would give a DJ? I think for up-and-coming DJs, they shouldn't get caught up in this linear thing. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Take chances. If you cut the net, the results are much greater. At least I think so.
I think a lot of DJs are falling into a textbook line. I think you should be curious. One time I played Frank Sinatra in Berghain, "Fly Me To The Moon." That might go well, that might be terrible, right? And it went 50/50. Some of the crowd loved it, some of the crowd hated it. But that's your job as a DJ, to take that risk. That's my biggest thing. Don't fall into the box. Don't let the industry fucking declare what you are.