Clarke is well-known and respected for a few different reasons, but his style of DJing is chief among them. He plays techno and electro with the flair and ferocity of a hip-hop turntablist, and he strongly believes in DJing that goes beyond blending one track into another. Back in the '80s, he was indelibly influenced by the showmanship of hip-hop DJs, and adopted their techniques to suit the dance music he was playing. When I caught up with him in the week following the Melkweg gig, he was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to dissect his arsenal of tricks—at this point, he explained, his sets are almost purely instinctual, the product of decades spent refining his style in clubs around the world.
Clarke's longevity and appeal as a techno artist can also be explained by his fiercely individualistic streak. While very much being a part of the techno scene, he also stands a little way outside of it. He believes that trends and hype should be avoided at all costs, and his DJ sets down the years have shown this: Clarke has evolved while retaining an easily identifiable taste in techno. (Or to express this another way, "That's such a Dave Clarke record.") He's famously intolerant of bullshit, and he doesn't mind publically critiquing dance music and DJ culture when he thinks it's needed, something you'll see clearly in this Art of DJing feature.
How was Friday for you?
Friday was good. There were a lot of people filming, and a lot of people backstage obviously, but I think the general gig itself was really, really good. I really enjoyed it and the crowd were friendly and responsive, so yeah, it was a good hometown gig.
Is filming increasingly becoming a part of your life as a DJ? Do you find it distracting?
I don't find it distracting because the majority of people are quite professional—sometimes it's the person with the camera, the phone, that's distracting, to be honest. When they just stick it in your face and then they stick the flash on, that's not very cool. But film crews are generally quite respectful and they know their boundaries and they don't really get in your hair, but at the same time, you are aware of them being there.
Watching you on Friday, it seems like your muscle memory when performing is completely hardwired. Technically speaking, it was tough to imagine you having many off nights, but do they happen?
Sometimes it can happen due to stress. Occasionally if you're not being picked up at the airport, for example, or there's an issue getting into a festival and people are not being professional, which gets you stressed. I try to be quite quiet before gigs, and I'm very well known for being quite withdrawn, but that's for a reason: it's to keep my energies for myself and for performing.
Then, of course, technical problems, depending which ones they are. They can put you off, or they actually inspire you to think differently. So if you've got a problem with the mixer, for example, you can't work your way around it, but if the sound is generally good and the problem is just with the mixer then you just work around it. But if the sound is bad then that can also affect you, of course.
Do you have a routine for mentally preparing for gigs?
Yeah, ironically my gig at Melkweg is one of those gigs where that doesn't really happen because I have so many people that I know, so many people from out of town that pop in, that actually I'm pretty social backstage, but generally I close down completely, prefer to be left alone or with a calm person who I know. After the set it's different, but that's what I try to do. I don't put a carpet down and start doing yoga or anything like that, but I just try and be relaxed and centred and without any distractions.
You told me earlier in the day that you don't do any preparation for a gig. Did you just mean that you don't consider what you're going to play in advance?
I did. I did with the electro set a little bit, because I very rarely play electro. I would listen to some of the recent electro just to familiarise with it again, because I don't play it that often. But with techno because I do it every single weekend, have done for 30-plus years now, and if I go into the room not knowing what I'm doing that would be a little bit sad. So I don't really need to practise or anything like that, because the way that I listen to music is all down to my radio show, and with the radio show I then categorise everything and then from then it goes into my DJ sets, and if it works well then I keep it in there.
When do you decide which track to play first?
When I'm onstage. Sometimes that can be the first track that I played the previous three gigs. Sometimes there's a sonic quality of the first track that I like, where I can actually then vibe out the soundsystem knowing that track really, really well. But that's about it.
Do you have a system for organising your music in Serato?
I use crates, and what it comes down to is that I go through all the tracks, and then I do the radio shows, and then I have a sort of pending folder as well for all the tracks that need to be listened to. And generally 90% of the tracks that I upload to Serato will be from the radio show. I don't upload stuff for the sake of it. I'll make a very quick decision on listening to it, and maybe I'm making a mistake but it works, for me at least, because there is so much music that comes through now.
I'll then have all my radio shows in the last three months in boxes, each week. And then when I'm DJing I'll browse through some of those boxes and pick some of those tracks. And then occasionally if I had a really strong set that I felt was really, really good and needed logging, then I'll save the history of that and put a date on it and then put that in my battle box.
Have you ever used someone to source music for you? I ask because I've heard that some of the bigger touring DJs rely on someone to help them out with this.
I only ever used someone, about eight years ago, to actually download the music for me and then put it on a hard drive, because in those days the internet speeds were quite slow. They would download all the music for me and then I would still listen to it. I could possibly trust a few of my super fans to know what music I would like, but I wouldn't feel comfortable about that. I think it's disrespectful to have someone else source your music. I think it's disrespectful of the artist that would trust you to listen to their music. I think it's a very corporate thing to do, and I don't believe in that at all.
Why did you settle on Serato?
I got a friend of mine to transfer all my music to digital a long time ago, and that was on CDs, and DVD-ROMs as my archive. So all my vinyl—there had to be a switchover to digital somehow, and at that moment Traktor was just awful, it just wasn't working very well. All the DJs loved the setup but it was always crashing and the sound quality was really bad because hardly anyone was downloading WAVs in those days. I wanted to keep the sound quality at least very, very good, so I elected to have everything put onto DVD-ROM and onto CD to start with, and then I would archive all those DVDs into my computer.
A friend of mine asked if I'd tried Serato. I said, "Umm, not sure," and then he said to me, "Well, why don't you see if you can find a track in your CD box, and I'll see if I can find a track in Serato and see who comes first?" I came first because at the time I was pretty good at filing stuff and remembering where things were. But I started to use it. The setup was always a pain in the arse in those days, because you always had to have this extra box, and setting that box up was always very, very clumsy. In a lot of clubs there's only one setup, and it would cause annoyance for the person before, but still I persevered with it. Computers eventually became more and more powerful, more and more reliable, and I suppose when SSDs came up, then it just made everything just better, and less shock-prone, or bass-prone. And now computers for the past three or four years have been really, really reliable. I've been using Serato for about nine or ten years.
What do you see as the advantages of using Serato over playing directly off the CDJs?
For a start, my ten years of radio history is already there. A long time ago another supplier of DJ software offered to transfer and translate everything that I had to their own format, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that. So you sort of invest in the system. I mean, my base system is iTunes, always has been. That's OK, but I don't do crates in iTunes. So I use rekordbox as a backup, but I find the software itself very slow, very glitchy, a bit derivative of Serato itself in its GUI. The analysis of the tracks is very slow, and I have a lot of tracks, so what I'll do in rekordbox is I copy across a crate from Serato, physically drag it across into rekordbox, retitle it, and it doesn't capture all the names, so I learnt how to put the names in. Then I have a few crates in rekordbox and USB, so if anything goes down then at least I have a semi-up-to-date version of the recent stuff that I've been playing.
Do you feel like Pioneer made significant improvements with the latest CDJ model?
Yeah I do. I think when the first CDJs came out I absolutely hated them. I was playing with the Technics [CD decks], the one with the movable platter. I really despised the quality and the sound and everything with the original CDJs. And then Denon came out with some really, really interesting ones, including some which I actually had a part in designing and doing technicalities of. And then the CDJ-2000 Nexus came out and things started to really improve, and now with the Nexus 2 I feel absolutely satisfied with the way things are. I think it really is finally a mature and top-notch combination.
Are there any further improvements you'd like to see?
If I did, then I wouldn't say them out loud.
Are we talking about ground-up redesign?
I would never talk about what things I would like to see because I know how tech development companies read things and then take it without crediting or anything, so I wouldn't say it in an open forum.
Do you use the sync function on CDJs? And where do you stand on that debate?
I don't. I wish that the sync function in Serato for the samples would work independently to the master tempo, that would be a cool feature. But the sync buttons on the Pioneers I don't use at all. I think by the fact that I don't raise my hands and do heart signs constantly throughout my set shows that I'm working, and I have a sort of Calvinistic approach to that, and also a work ethic. I want to be working, I want to be doing that. You will find the sync button being used by a large amount of tech house DJs, and you will find the sync button being used, of course, by EDM people, if they're actually using more than one source for their whole set. It is up to them.
For me the whole vinyl versus digital debate is done and dusted, the whole manually manipulating your turntable as opposed to a sync button, I think as a debate doesn't really matter anymore. You know, whatever makes the person happy. You know some people do use sync that are quite technical people, who've earned their stripes and their skills and it frees them up to think about other things to do with the music. So with talented people that use sync, I'm not gonna have a go at them at all, I think that would be a really lame, flat-earth approach. I think everyone should be able to have their own technique and use the tools that are available to them in a way that they must use them.
For me, using the pitch control is just something that I like to do. I like to have a little bit of an edge with the mix possibly running away from me. Which isn't really that likely to happen now, because obviously the BPMs are listed quite clearly, but still, it can happen, and I just like that feeling of the mix possibly running away from you, it has a bit of a live feeling and not everything is automated. Because you know if you think about it, we're two or three steps away from software coming out to the club with a hologram of a DJ playing and mixing together with sync, really.
What role do loops tend to play in your sets?
Since the CDJ Nexus 2000 has much better link up to Serato they're much better for me now. I really enjoy looping now, because it just works in Serato. The old physical loops were touch and go, you were lucky if you got them sometimes, especially with old disco records. And now it's very quick. It's great for extending a break, or extending some atmosphere and I actually find it very, very important for DJing in the club.
One of the standout features of your set was the way you incorporated the Pioneer RMX-1000. Tell me about some of the ways you like to use it.
Yeah I mean, there's a very basic drum machine on there with just four samples, and 95% of the time it syncs pretty well with everything else. Sometimes it can be out of time and I still haven't figured out why. But most of the time it syncs and it's pretty good.
I also use a variety of the sort of tonal controls and sometimes just a little bit of echoes, but I like to layer the effects so that you have these really complex effects. It's much more fun and granular for electro sets. At Whip It I was using that a lot more heavily as a sort of guitar feedback in the electro set. And you can create these incredibly complex reverbs and things like that. There's also a lot of subtleties there as well, which people might not notice, but they extenuate certain frequencies just to give it a bit of excitement sometimes, very subtle though.
I first saw you play around 15 years ago, and for me your style of DJing has always stood out as it seems to come from a tradition of performative DJing, seemingly influenced by hip-hop.
It was definitely shaped by hip-hop, without a doubt. As a kid, there were suddenly documentaries on TV with DJ Kool Herc. They really, really inspired me, and then there was some radio, I can't remember who was doing it, but some radio shows on local independent radio that featured hip-hop as well. Information was very hard to get in those days, and Mastermind doing his mixing for the Street Sounds electro compilations, again, was inspirational. Kool DJ Red Alert, massively inspirational. Chuck Chillout, Marley Marl, all these people that just had live skills, and weren't afraid to push it to the edge and make mistakes is something that really inspired me.
This was before samplers, so you had to extend breaks to get a feel of something that you wanted to do; it was very difficult and it was very skilled. So I would keep on trying, keep on trying, and I never really got to a true DMC standard at all, but then that's a different kind of art.
There was a guy down in Brighton called DJ Shem, who sadly passed away. He worked with John Foxx and Tim Simenon. I saw him DJ at a club called Downbeat and his skills were really, for that day and age, very, very good and inspirational, but he wasn't playing with hip-hop, he was playing with everything. Rare groove, funk, soul, hip-hop, house, techno. And it was just good to watch. I took some inspiration from that, too. I like to keep myself busy and do things with the music. The music I choose is always because it stands out alone as it is. But the majority of it is a tool. And tools are there to be used, and it's important to be busy, I think, and creating new things. Otherwise you're just on tour doing the same thing all the time anyway, then you become product. So I was very inspired by those kind of people. And then later on through DJing on the road and seeing other people, I'd be inspired by people like Derrick Carter, for example, and DJ Heather. People from different genres would inspire me because they had different approaches to the way they were mixing.
Watching you play, it seems like you're in a constant dialogue with the crowd. Is the aim to create a feeling in which you're always keeping people on their toes?
I'm not one to generally put on a track and go have a cup of tea and come back and raise my hands like a hero. I think it's important to be on top of it, and maybe you're right about muscle memory, but it's important to be part of the music and to get it to say something. Sometimes it gets to an extra level above that and that's what I seek—to get to that point where you're watching your hands and they're doing things but you're not telling them to. You're just deciding what music to play next without overthinking it, and it's not an obvious choice. That's what I'm always looking for.
Is that a groove you think you've been in for a long time now?
Yeah, I think so. I mean especially I think if you come from vinyl, and you were working it with vinyl, and you weren't one of these boring DJs that would segue one track from the other. I think then yeah, you do. And then some people take that into another realm, so some people have taken that into Ableton, for example, and have done some very creative things with Ableton. But I think if you come from that background it definitely shapes you.
One of the things I liked from the other night was the move where you fed a spin-back through an echo or reverb and were using it as a sort of rhythmic accent. Can you tell me about some of these tricks that you use most often?
I don't think about it, it just happens.
Yeah, I just think, "Oh this should be a good point for this, or that would be a good point for that." I don't really think about it too much. Sometimes there might be an acapella that you're using—when I was playing electro, for example, where you will solo effects onto the acapella and then have that with an intense endless echo. Like a feedback echo but the beats are really strong, then you layer it like that. So everything depends on what was happening at that moment, nothing is really thought about in advance, and you just have an armoury of skills, I suppose, after 30 years.
Thinking about track selections. Is this a decision you take purely based on instinct or do you find yourself returning to particular transitions that you found worked well in the past?
There's a lot of instinct. Maybe very occasionally I'll enjoy mixing two records together and I'll remember that. But most of the time that isn't the case. I think when technology was much more static, you would definitely have two records that I would try to mix together at every opportunity because you knew it worked well and there's not that much you could do with it, tonally, or any other way to make it work. But there's so many tools available to you now, that to do the same transitions time in time out I think would be quite tiring.
Do you ever find it difficult at the bigger venues, such as Melkweg, to gauge exactly what's going on with the crowd?
It's a really strange thing: I just play for myself. I always have just played for myself, and then you do get reactions from the crowd and then that feeds back into that whole thing. But I just wanna play the music that I wanna play and that I enjoy playing.
Do you miss anything about playing on a turntables-and-a-mixer setup?
The simplicity of just turning up to a gig without having to set anything up. But then that is just romanticism because there's many times I would turn up to a gig with just a crate of vinyl and I would always bring my own stylus because generally club styluses were in a completely bad state. I would bring some cotton buds to clean the contacts of the stylus because sometimes the arm was really badly corroded, and then gaffer tape sometimes to set the vinyl up so it wouldn't jump. But the whole idea of just coming up to a club, plugging in a pair of headphones and away you go, that I miss of course.
But then I also miss the difficulty in chasing down tracks that you were desperate to find. When you have it there was an amazing reward in playing those tracks. I miss that, too. But then, you know, the fact that someone can send you a track from anywhere in the world, comes to your desktop, and that weekend or even that day or even that night you're playing it because you like it. I think that can't be beaten as well. The fact that you have so many tracks at your fingertips. Again, can't be beaten.
Something happened to me maybe ten years ago where I started to become a lot more pragmatic about all these changes, and I get a feeling that a lot of the people that complain heavily about stuff didn't adapt or didn't want to adapt or forgot to adapt. And you do have to adapt. Because things change, and it's better to be part of the curve and ahead of the curve than being behind the curve, because then you feel you're playing catch up. I often wonder what would happen 20 years ago if I disappeared from DJing then decided to come back ten years later. It would have been relatively the same, I could have caught up pretty fast with what was going on. But if I stopped DJing ten years ago and came back now it would be a much more complicated thing to do. Because it wouldn't be a question of going down to your local record shop and just buying some vinyl, catching up with stuff and trying to chase it. You'd have to be contacting people, emailing them, getting the stuff, getting to grips with the new software. I think it would be a lot, and in ten years' time it's gonna be even more complicated for people to come back, if there is DJing in ten years' time.
You mean because the range of tools is going to extend?
Yeah. And change massively, and the formats are going to change massively, too. I don't believe stems have really taken off for commercial purposes, but things will change and a lot more. And computers are getting much more powerful.
I wanted to talk about the style of the music you play. To me, it's always felt like there's something a little more playful about the techno you select. You would play ghettotech or electro, for example, or play tracks with big vocal samples. Is that something you'd agree with?
Well it's definitely a little bit more playful, it just has a different groove. If you've just been in the same groove all the time and then you play a different groove then you tend to feel a bit like an afghan hound in the wind, so yeah it's a little bit more playful. And I still like to dance a bit when I'm DJing. So yeah it's like a bit of fresh air sometimes.
Are techno DJs guilty of being over-serious sometimes?
I think everyone says that about me, don't they?
Possibly. But I'm saying something to the contrary about the music that you play.
There's a different kind of serious now, with specifically the tech house people. Behind the decks they can be seen as jovial, friendly and enjoying themselves. Much of it is a charade. Because it is very, very market-driven now. And so the seriousness now that's happening is much more behind the scenes, being market-driven by managers, and the camaraderie that DJs used to have is still there amongst some genres but not with other genres because everyone is so desperate to step on top of the other person. And it's not a competition that's based upon skills or innovation actually. It's a competition based upon bullying and lying. The well-documented DJs that were buying 3-400 fake likes on their Facebook four or five years ago, and on their Instagram, and using that as some sort of marketing tool.
There's always been some form of fakery with everything, including the music industry. But it became endemic, and the spoils of this particular war are still being fought for based upon fakeness and an endemic fakery. I read on Facebook a while ago, "When did mediocre become so great?" And that's really true. There's still a lot of people that I respect that are in this purely for the music and want to earn what they deserve, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there's a lot of people that really think, How can I get somewhere? And they'll invest money in stuff that has nothing to do with what they're actually doing, and it gets them to a place where they're playing commercial festivals. It's a weird system now.
What's the antidote to all of this?
Better journalism. Because journalists don't get paid very much at all these days. I've been really lucky. I didn't know what to expect because it's been a while since I've been in an album cycle, and I have had some fantastic journalists over the last three or four weeks of doing interviews, really, really in depth, really passionate. But there's a lot of journalists out there that call themselves journalists that aren't necessarily journalists, don't get paid very much, trying to use it as a step up on a ladder and are not very constructive. And will repeat what a bio says without fact-checking, will repeat anything without fact-checking. And if people care enough about the scene then the editors have to allow the true journalists without any agenda apart from just being intellectual people with a good oversight of the whole system to be allowed to speak their minds without being worried about advertising revenue.
A lot of people are bandying around the 1997 versus 2007 DJ Mag top 100. And they're missing the point. The point is that 20 years ago the internet really didn't exist. 20 years ago that DJ Mag thing was mostly an English mag thing. If you look at the majority of names within that they're English, and they were all working DJs going up and down the road in England, in cars, driving themselves, whatever. It's a different chart now; now it really is based on PR and marketing, and not on skill. And the weird thing is, it's the same as politicians: everyone is heading for the middle ground, and will move their political belief to where the votes are.
The newer generation of DJs seemingly don't have so much compunction to stay loyal to a sound. They will move around as much as possible until they get to a point where they're earning a load of money and doing high profile commercial gigs, and that's the problem. EDM never went away. EDM filtered down to tech house, and tech house is EDM light. They all learnt from the marketing of EDM and how all that goes, and that's where the problem lies. If journalism picks up on it and is actually a little bit more constructive over what is happening, like, why is this particular DJ popular, really? What's going on? How skilled are they? What kind of music is that person playing? It's a really, really serious situation, but within the industry itself I notice it keeps growing, so obviously people from the industry can take it. I'm not bitter because I'm really enjoying what I'm doing. I really enjoy playing at the majority of places that I play, and it's a good lifestyle. I don't want to ever come across as a bitter person, because I'm not. I want to come across as a truthful artist that's been DJing for over 30 years in this scene, before even this scene really existed, giving an honest overview of where I think we're at now.