Matt Unicomb sits down with a seasoned groove selector.
Paic's main objective behind the decks is to make the most appropriate selection for each moment. His sets build slowly. He doesn't worry about making a splash with big tunes. He lets subtle records do the work, building tension over time by steadily increasing, or releasing, pressure with each selection. It's a style that takes years to develop, and requires letting go of your ego and never playing tracks that are more energetic than the situation calls for. Simple as that may sound, it's something only the most patient DJs can pull off.
These days, you can catch Paic behind the decks in a variety of situations, whether it's somewhere cosy, like Berlin's Club Der Visionaere, or somewhere massive, like Ibiza's Amnesia, where he's held a Cocoon residency for 12 years. The constant will be his expert sense of flow. Wether he's blending low-slung minimal or classy modern tech house, Paic always plays with laser precision and free-flowing energy that keeps busy dance floors enthralled. On a recent Wednesday evening, he revealed some of the tricks of his trade. While we sat in his sunny living room surrounded by 8,000 records on ceiling-high shelves, he outlined things like for packing for gigs and working with a mixer's EQs. It's valuable advice from a DJ who has a special way with groove.
Let's begin with packing. You have a string of gigs that you're preparing for now. How will you get ready for them?
I usually take two bags: big and small. I have to find a certain amount of records that will work, more or less, in each situation. If there's a party that needs some other musical selection—let's say an afterhours—I'll include a small selection for that, too. But in general, the big bag should always contain records that work everywhere. I'm lucky because most of the gigs I'm leaving for next week are at bigger venues and, apart from one festival in Romania, I'm not playing the opening slot. The general selection will be a bit more driving and energetic, plus some afterhours stuff in the small bag because there's a friend's birthday in Ibiza around that time.
What kind of tracks work in every situation?
Tracks that have a certain level of energy and are exciting, but also not demanding or pushing too much. They don't suggest too much of a certain mood or feeling. I think that's the key. If you can keep this flow going, there's not much you can do wrong. It goes wrong—especially these days—when people are over-motivated and really try to bang it out.
Will you stick with the same bag of records for a while?
I repack every weekend. I take a look at the records from last week, then go from there. I take out records I've played too many times or don't match the situations I'm heading to next. Maybe I've also received some new records, so I need to make space for them. I realise that I lose inspiration when I play certain tracks too often. There always needs to be a mix of records that are exciting me at the moment, plus some basics—tracks you've played plenty of times and know exactly how they work. You need to find a balance between stuff that's really exciting you and sure-shots. Not sure-shots in terms of hits, but tracks that you're confident playing and find exciting. If you're not able to excite yourself during your set, you won't excite the people.
That's a good point. It's nice to be able to have a few tracks that are guaranteed to get the dance floor going, but you still enjoy playing.
Exactly. You can't reinvent yourself every weekend. I pack fresh from weekend to weekend, but you can't put 100 new records in your bag. Your brain only has a certain capacity, so it has to be a mix.
How well do you know these records?
Pretty well. But these days, without counting the bars, I know just from feeling when something will happen in a track. Most are structured the same way, so after two minutes, three minutes, there will be some change. And not much will happen during the final three minutes, so that's always a good point to mix.
You can't see this precisely with records, like you can with the waveform on CDJs, so it's more about feeling or looking at the needle to see how much time has passed. Playing with CDJs is much easier. You just look at the graphic and mix on the first kick after a break. Most of the time, these are the best mixes. It's the classic way of mixing.
If you miss this first kick after the break, will you just start the mix on the next bar or wait until another perfect moment?
It depends on the situation. If I have the feeling I need to mix out of the track quickly, I'll just do it. But if the record is really working and developing well, I'll let it play and wait for the best possible moment to mix. It all depends on what's happening on the dance floor.
How are your records arranged in your bag?
I always try to have the softer stuff up the front and the tougher tracks at the back. And then, at the very back, some classics or more melodic tracks.
If you're warming up, do you ever find yourself peeking in the tougher section?
You have to be disciplined. I did it plenty of times when I was younger and not as experienced. I'd think, wow, I have to play this track. But when you're the opening DJ, it's probably not the day. We're all happy to own certain records, but maybe it's better to leave it in the bag—you're there to open. Of course, when you get a good reaction and the crowd is building, then you can. But you should always be disciplined and pay attention to the situation. For me, the worst thing is not having enough records to create a certain mood or build a certain tension.
I know you think a few tracks in advance while you're playing.
Well, the best gigs are when you're not thinking at all. You just instinctively pull out records and get ideas from them. And there's the opposite extreme, where you have two record bags, three USBs and no ideas. It all depends on how I'm feeling, the monitoring and if I feel connected with the crowd. It's about lots of small things coming together.
When you're thinking ahead, do you pull out the records you're looking to play next and leave them sticking out the top of your bag?
Yes, maybe I get ideas for tracks to play while I'm mixing. But sometimes I won't end up playing the records I've selected. Maybe the energy has shifted, so these records I was planning to play won't work anymore—they go back into the bag.
This method helps you not forget the records you were planning to play.
Exactly. Sometimes, after a few drinks or something, you forget the idea you had. This drives me nuts. It's great to have the next two or three options—whether they're records sticking out of the bags or tracks ready on the CDJs—ready to play. Because maybe you have a great idea for a mix, but something—a friend looking for their jacket or their bag—distracts you and you lose it. It takes you away from the situation. As soon as you start thinking, what was it?, it's over.
How much time do you spend looking through your bags for tracks to play?
I'm either adjusting the sounds, mixing or trying to think of what to play. If I know what I'm playing next, I will just take out the record then be patient enough to find the right moment for the mix.
You're playing pretty long tracks. Do you ever find it hard to be patient and just let the tracks play?
It's not about mixing fast. Everyone should find their own style and is free to do what they like, but I personally find it really annoying if someone is mixing every two minutes. I was like this when I was younger—you want to show your mixing skills. But, with this music, less is more.
Some people don't have the confidence to just let the tracks play. They feel like they should always be doing something.
You just have to leave your hands off the mixer, especially if you're playing longer tracks or more musical stuff. You need to let the music speak for itself.
How long does it take you to beatmatch a record?
Not too long anymore, because I've practiced doing it without headphones a lot. But maybe if the monitoring isn't very good, or the main soundsystem is very loud, it can be tricky. There can be a fight between the soundsystem and monitors, which means, no matter how long you spend beatmatching inside your headphones, it's not going to be tight when you bring the new track in. This can drive me crazy. I always take my headphones off as soon as I bring the new track in, because the mix is now going on outside—not in your headphones. So just take your headphones off and see how it's going outside.
Have you trained yourself to not need your headphones too loud?
Yes, but it depends on the monitoring. If it's really good, with a nice setup, a proper mixer and a good soundsystem in the club, it's not important to have your headphones loud. It's really important, for your hearing, to lower the level of the monitors from time to time. A friend told me that he got a tip from François Kevorkian, who said that, during longer sets, you should turn down the monitors every now and then. It lets you check the sound on the dance floor. A big mistake you can make is to think, oh, the monitors sound amazing, and just play to the sound of them without having any clue about how it sounds outside the booth.
I think wearing earplugs is one of the worst things you can do. There's no way the DJ can have a feeling for the sound in the room, or know if they're destroying people's ears, if they're playing with a -15dB plug.
You play in many different situations. You could be playing after a DJ who plays subtle music, like Zip, or before someone who plays much harder stuff, like André Galluzzi.
That was always one of my goals—to keep it open for myself. I can say I'm confident in my abilities as a house DJ—I've been doing it for 25 years—but it would be super boring to only play in those house situations. I think I can adapt to all kinds of situations, whether it's opening, closing, or peak-time. OK, maybe I'd have trouble playing a three-hour festival set, but I think that, with enough preparation, I could manage it.
In the scene you're in now, it's all about smooth mixes and long blends. But I have the impression it wasn't always like that?
I think long blends came to Germany, at least Frankfurt, a bit later. There were some DJs who were doing them, but most of the bigger ones were about really short mixes. Sven Väth can do really long mixes, but he's also a genius when it comes to really on-point short mixes that are done exactly when the party needs something new. After a while, everyone can do long blends. But these short, on-point mixes are difficult.
When did this long-mixing style come to Germany?
The first time that I really saw people doing long, long transitions was around '94 or '95. There was a party called Masters Of European Noise Control in Frankfurt every Wednesday, and they were the first ones to bring over people like Laurent Garnier, Carl Cox and Andew Weatherall—the top-notch DJs from that time. They were doing long mixes. When I saw those guys playing, it was something completely different from what I'd seen so far.
I assume mixing was much more creative back then. What changed?
Mainly Traktor and this idea of unlimited creativity, which I think is complete nonsense. As I said before, I don't want to judge—everyone should do what they like or should find their own way of playing music—but, for me, the moment it gets too technical, the feeling is gone.
A lot of DJs talk about the importance of the human touch.
It's very important. If you listen to a three-hour digital set, it will always lack this imperfection. And, for some reason, this imperfection is an important thing. If somehow you mess up a mix, the moment you bring it back gets a huge reaction from a crowd.
It's like DJing at some afterhours and the record runs out. You're thinking to yourself, oh no, but when you bring in the new record, people start cheering. It's actually a great moment.
How do you prepare for sets at Amnesia?
A lot depends on which room I'm playing in. Just recently, I was playing the opening slot inside while Sven and DJ Koze were on the Terrace. I knew Koze would play a bit slower and more melodic, with some cool party-rockers as well. My idea was to contrast this with darker sounds and to not waste too much time with this floaty stuff, because I knew Koze would have plenty of that.
Is there anything you need to remember while playing in these bigger Ibiza-type situations?
It's important, if possible, to have eye contact with the crowd. I'm also not always the best with this—it depends on how relaxed I am or if I have to really concentrate on the sound—but if I'm relaxed and I'm happy, then I can do it. I also look at the people in the booth, which is a good indicator. If you see that they're dancing and having fun—if there's a party around you—then everything is good. But if you're DJing, and everyone is just standing there looking at you and asking things like, "Who's next?" then it's not so good. But eye contact with the audience is really important. It's something that I still have to improve, because I'm not so good with this. It depends on the DJ—some people are great entertainers and others aren't.
Warm-up DJs find themselves in rooms that are empty except for a few energetic dancers. Do you stick with playing for the empty room, or play for the people dancing up the front?
Until there's a certain number of people there, it always better to play for the room. You might give these five guys from Newcastle the greatest 30 minutes of their life, but anyone entering the room thinks, what the hell is he doing? It's always better to build a solid foundation in terms of the mood, and then slowly take it up from there.
In Germany, especially Berlin, DJs play to people at totally different stages of their night. At Hoppetosse and Panorama Bar, for example, some people might be fresh, others might have been awake for two nights. How can you play for everyone?
I had exactly that situation playing in the afternoon at Hoppetosse on Easter Sunday. It was important to find something for the people who had arrived fresh from home, as well as the people who hadn't slept the night before. House was quite good for that. Stripped-down, fat basslines and nothing too obvious or cheesy.
Blending these fat, dynamic basslines can be tough. How can you do it smoothly?
It really depends on the track. In general, there's no formula for mixes. It depends on the records. Some might need a bass boost, others might have clashing mids—it's all about finding a balance. Sometimes when you listen in the headphones you realise it isn't going to be an easy one.
Do you ever put the EQs past 12 o'clock?
It depends on the soundsystem, but it's generally better not to. Especially with the Allen & Heath, and especially not the highs and mids—they can be too sharp. With the Rane, you can tweak it a bit more.
And you'll often have the EQs on both tracks at 12 o'clock?
It depends on the mix and the tracks. The mix might need more bass, or the highs might be too much, or the the mids might be clashing—you just have to balance.
Some records arrived in the post for you today. It's Wednesday now, so how will you get to know them before the weekend?
Yeah, I received two parcels from Discogs. I will listen to each track between three and five times each. I just let them play while I go to the kitchen or do something on the computer—I'm not just sitting there listening. I also try to listen to the tracks while I'm in different moods, because you hear things differently—maybe you'd missed some sounds and then discover something you didn't notice before.
How are you a different DJ now compared to, say, ten years ago?
I'm more strict with playing to the situation. It's the first rule. Never try to show off with your records, or try to show what great musical selection or taste you have. When you're younger and get booked to play at these bigger parties, of course you want to show off your mixing and record collection. But it can really go wrong, and I played music that was not right for some moments—too energetic. I'm now much more strict with this, and it's made a big difference.
So you can be disciplined and only look in the warm-up section of your bag, even after a few drinks?
Yes [laughs]. I never think, now I should play this acid banger. Maybe there are some situations it could work in, but, most of the time, you'll destroy your set with one record.
It feels like this kind of DJing is all about finding a balance.
It's about playing music that works in the situation you find yourself in. Never push it too much, and just focus on the flow. When the ego gets involved, it's over. It takes discipline and a lot of experience, but you learn this at some point. I have a bag stacked with records that I think are amazing, but I don't care if I don't get to play this record at this party—I just leave it in my bag. So what? Maybe I'll get to play it next week, or the week after, or in two months. The moment for this record will come, but it's not now. It's better to just leave it in the bag.
You're playing pretty hypnotic and loopy music, so how do you get a big room rocking wth these sounds?
By increasing the level of tension over time. Maybe you slowly take up the volume or play with different sounds as the room fills. I was a resident DJ at so many clubs in Frankfurt, so if you're opening a party every week or every couple of weeks, plus closing it, that's about five or six hours of work. You really learn how to craft a set.
You have a lot of records. What percentage would you happily bring to a party these days?
The percentage of records I don't like anymore is not so big—I've sold a lot of crap. To be honest, I could probably get rid of some others, because there are certain records I just can't hear anymore.
As someone who's been playing for more than 25 years, what does it take for an unknown DJ to impress you?
If I can hear that a DJ has their own style and isn't just following a trend, this is what impresses me. But it's getting rarer, because most people are just following certain blueprints. It's funny to see these DJs who were playing the first wave of Mannheim house eight years ago. Two years later they were into the Romanian thing, and now they're diehards about electro at 132 BPM. In two years you will find them playing something else. Of course you have to pay attention to certain trends and evolutions, but the most important thing is finding your own style and just playing what you like—not what you think is cool to play. It's pretty simple.
Dorian Paic plays at this year's Sonus Festival, which runs August 20th to the 24th in Pag Island, Croatia.