Just like Lazarus in the Bible rose from the dead, so did the one in dance music. Four years ago Damian Lazarus emerged from the ashes of the electroclash movement and his now defunct label City Rockers with a new sound and a new plan. And it seems to have worked. These days he fills up his weekends spinning at influential parties such as Panoramabar in Berlin or Circo Loco in Ibiza, not to mention big gigs on the festival circuit.
Yet perhaps his biggest success has been at home in London. When he started Crosstown Rebels in 2003, the town was dealing with a downturn – the bottom had fallen out of the superclub business, labels were going bust left right and centre and people were searching for a new sound. Crosstown was one of the first British labels to fill the niche: Lazarus was an early champion of electrohouse (Kiki & Silversurfer), then the new minimal sounds coming out of Germany (Pier Bucci), and now a bit of, well, almost everything – this year Crosstown's release slate has run the gamut from tech house (Jamie Jones) to dubstep (Shackleton).
More importantly, Crosstown Rebels has been something of a London nexus of what's been happening in Europe over the last few years. Their Stink nights (RIP) at the T-Bar played no small part in switching Londoners onto minimal en masse, regularly bringing many of the continent’s best names in house and techno to Britain for the first time. And Europe has returned the favour: Lazarus is one of the most consistently booked of British DJs on the continent at a time when – not to be too rude about it – the UK is doing more importing than exporting. Example: In February Crosstown held a label showcase at Goa in Madrid. Only ten thousand people came along.
Lazarus brings the same kind of nose for zeitgeist to his DJing, racking up eight mix CDs over the last four years, each different from the last, and each a broad and varied take of what’s happening in dance music. As you’d expect, his latest effort for club night Monza on Get Physical is very 2007, picking up some of the hottest names in deep house (Dennis Ferrer, Henrik Schwarz, Efdemin) to spread the word about in Ibiza.
But the funny thing about Lazarus is that he’s accomplished all of this while keeping his cards close to his chest. You’re not likely to hear stories about him indulging in wild club benders, and the same goes for his interviews. With a background in music journalism, he was (justifiably?) careful with his answers, but sincere with it too. Obviously this is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing. His chat with RA went something like this:
Damian Lazarus is a great showbiz name. Is that your real name?
Absolutely. I'll show you my passport!
Do you have a favourite city to play in?
There are so many actually. I'm a massive fan of Mexico City and other cities in Mexico like Juarez. There's also a party on the beach in Playa del Carmen which is amazing. Where else am I a big fan of? I love Madrid right now. And of course I'm still a massive fan of London.
How is London these days? Do you feel under siege by dance rock?
Slightly, but since we discovered the T-Bar, there's been a huge influx of international DJs playing every single weekend. Now it's very easy to roll around London and hear a lot of similar music. But on the whole, a really great scene has been building here over the past few years. Maybe at the moment we've reached the point where things are levelling out a bit, and I think internationally, everyone's trying to find that new angle because there's a bit of a backlash going on against techno, minimal techno and house. I think there's so many people playing so many similar records that at the moment you can hear in the music, people experimenting, trying to find their own sound, which makes it a really interesting time. But it also means that you hear a lot of things that may on paper seem really exciting but in practice, don't quite get there.
What do you think of the indie dance scene? On a marketing and fashion level, it seems very similar to the electroclash movement from five year ago.
For me, it's something I've totally lived through once before when we set up the City Rockers label. It does feel very very similar to where we were in 2001/2002 with the fashion and the kind of hedonistic, anything goes attitude at parties. Take certain bands that claim to be part of the new rave scene. If you really listen to what they're doing, they all started out with a couple of samples from Altern8 and Shut Up and Dance, and then suddenly they turn into a full-on indie band. I think we were accused of being a flash in the pan back then and I think it's the same again now. But it's so difficult to put music, especially good music, into categories. The better music is always the music that you can't easily define.
That's true. So what record are you opening your sets with these days?
That's an interesting question because it depends on what time you play. Generally I'm playing at peaktime in clubs or festivals or whatever, so you kind of have this temptation to go in really strong. But I always try and fight against that and I tend to build my music quite slowly and gradually. But you take a bit of a risk with that because you have people that are already hyped up from whoever's been playing before. But I think it's a risk worth taking. So, I don't know, I guess I start with a lot of organic sounding lush, quite trippy tracks. I think the music I play is not easily definable. I think it fits somewhere within the realms of techno and house.
Your latest mix on the 'Monza Ibiza' CD has a strong deep house focus.
With that mix I was really thinking about using some of the best music available this year whilst also trying to play very much my sound. There are also a couple of concessions to some tracks that I suspect are going to be really massive this summer, and a couple of tracks that I may not play every set but I think that people are really going to be loving this year.
You've said before that because you don't produce, you need to spend a lot of time putting together your mixes and working out how records fit together. Do you prefer DJing to A&Ring and the label stuff or the other way around?
I love it all equally. I have actually been experimenting in the studio recently, and when I say experimenting, I do mean experimenting (laughs). I'm currently avoiding attempting to make out-and-out dance music. I'm just putting music together and having an interesting time working around some songs that I've written. I don't quite know whether any of this will actually see the light of day but I'm definitely enjoying the process.
Was the temptation to produce too hard to resist?
I think it's more that I just found myself suddenly with an hour of free time a week and I needed to fill it. Some people approached me and that lead to meeting a couple of other people, and suddenly a really incredible studio became available for a long period of time so I've just slotted some of that in and I'm taking each day as it comes. But as for playing versus A&Ring, it's all part and parcel of the same thing, as is the making of music. It's so difficult for me to separate them because I'll be out playing and I'll hear other things and I'll be thinking about my label. Everything is related.
Your label Crosstown Rebels is very good at keeping up with what's current in dance.
I wouldn't say keeping up actually, I'd say it's setting the agenda for what's going to happen.
What's your secret to finding good new music?
People find us. There's a bit of respect and admiration for what we do so there are a lot people who make music for us and then give it to us when we're out and about. I do go and check out up and coming DJs, as well as more established people, and if I hear something that freaks me out then I'm inclined to investigate. But we get huge amounts of demos, both CD and MP3s. It takes up a huge amount of our time, but it's well worth doing. Obviously the other situation is where we've heard someone do something quite special and we'll ask them to do something specifically for us.
Crosstown Rebels doesn't have a particular sound. You've had releases by guys like Minilogue and Pier Bucci and then the latest is by Shackleton. Do you think the lack of a particular sound is an advantage or disadvantage?
I think it's totally an advantage because the music we do can't be pigeonholed to one sound that may or may not be the current sound of the day. We like to keep people guessing. I like the idea of a Crosstown Rebels record appearing on the shelf, and people, regardless of whether they buy it or not, definitely putting it on to listen to and check out. There's certainly a lot of people out there that will buy every release but I'm also aware that sometimes we stretch the boundaries a little bit too far for some. The Shackleton record for example is the slowest track we've ever released but it's absolutely incredible and I think Crosstown Rebels seemed like the natural place for it.
Have you been following the dubstep movement for a long time?
Yeah from day one. I wasn't actually a massive fan when it was in its embryonic stage but when I first came across Shackleton, I thought that he was one of the most interesting artists to come out of the UK scene. We spoke to him immediately but I don't think he was specifically part of the dubstep scene. He just happened to be picked up within that crowd. When he walked into my office, I knew it was an opportunity to release something really special. I don't think 'Next to Nothing' could ever be classified as a dubstep record. There's been a few exciting movements but it's not really something that I've worked into my DJ sets.
In terms of the label between you and Matthew who does what?
Matthew is label manager and he assists me with A&R. He's my rock basically. He allows me to travel the world safe in the knowledge that the business side of the label is being very well taken care of. I consider him to be a brother in arms, and these days we work collectively together as a team. Neither of us make any decisions without the other being aware of it. So in that respect he's my partner. He's kind of grown into that role, but he's also becoming an extremely talented DJ and an extremely interesting producer.
How has the Internet changed the way you do business or helped the success of the label?
Our MP3s are sold via Beatport and Kompakt. It's quite incredible to see the quick rise in that respect. Some of our download sales are equalling our vinyl sales which is quite amazing, and in some cases surpassing them. It's a very interesting angle. I think everybody realised that it was a must-do in this business and it's interesting to see how it's going to develop. We've got a few ideas ourselves and we're working on updating our own website and my own website, and looking at ways to increase the knowledge and awareness of what we do.
You've obviously been around the block in the music industry from DJing around the world to running labels etc. In your experience, who is the nicest person in the biz?
The nicest? Er, there's so many. There's a very strong collective of like-minded people out there at the moment, and it's evident when you go to places like the DEMF and Sonar and events like this weekend's Renaissance party. There's a fairly strong bond between people doing similar things, whether it be M.A.N.D.Y or Luciano or Ricardo or Richie or Magda or Matthew Dear. We all work quite hard and quite independently, but the times when we all get together and get the opportunity to hang out, there's a very strong, quite special bond between people right now, which is really kind of heartwarming. Obviously there are some people out there who feel a bit competitive but on the whole there's a common bond of respect between people out there. It's all good.
Finally, as someone who regularly tours all over, do you feel like all the scenes in each of the different cities are coming together?
Yeah, very much so. When I was doing the Stink parties I'd invite people from all over the world to come and play. It was evident to people here in London the strong kind of connection that people were building behind the scenes. The friendships, the love and the respect that people have for each other, and that kind of common thread that brings it all together ie. partying. It is a bit odd actually as sometimes when I'm travelling around the world I feel like I'm the sole UK DJ playing.
If you're a fan of the Chilean sound and the increased ease with which it bleeds into house and techno these days, then some of the magical and haunting tones on this 12” are certain to please.
This time around Lazarus has moved aside for Jamie Jones, which seems very emblematic of the current shift away from minimal techno and towards housier, ‘deeper’ tracks. It would be hard to imagine a more accurate sketch of the sounds that are big right now than this mix.