While most social media has been overflowing with news about ISIS and Ebola lately, reactions to DJ Mag’s Top 100 is what kept EDM fans feverishly refreshing their feeds. Producers, DJs, revelers, and agents alike agree the list has lost almost all authenticity and relevance, yet it’s impossible not to talk about the remarkable ability for Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike to market themselves to the second position, the likes of up-and-comers Martin Garrix, DVBBS, and Blasterjaxx to claim top 20 positions over electronic ambassadors like Paul Van Dyk, Carl Cox, and Eric Prydz, or the notion that Boy George is somehow a better DJ than Richie Hawtin.
More than just a fan-voted status symbol that draws tons of traffic for DJ Mag and its brand sponsors, the list provides insight into the current mood of the amorphous EDM landscape. It’s no surprise that the scene likes its beats big and its egos even bigger. But when you’re done scratching your head over the rise of DJ Bl3ND and the trio-turned-duo Krewella, there are a few revealing takeaways to uncover. First, despite the resurgence of bass-line techno and deep house, each genre remains vastly underrepresented as they continue to be bested by club pseudo-celebrities. And despite efforts to bring more women into the profession, the Top 100 list is more of a boys club than the US Senate.
New entrant Oliver Heldens leads the charge in bringing dance back to EDM with his future house aesthetic, possibly nabbing some votes from former twentysomething standouts Arty, Porter Robinson, and Madeon. Their massive drops indicate that longevity for electro upstarts can be fleeting without regular international mainstage festivals appearances on their resume, so don’t get too excited just yet for The Chainsmokers, Carnage, and VINAI.
As eclectic as their sounds may be, these 100 artists offer just a glimpse into the more popular tones of dance music. This month, The Drop explores some of the fringes: jumping on a Skype chat with London’s Erol Alkan, cruising through Miami with Anoraak, partaking in the transformative bass of Phutureprimitive, and chatting with artist manager/talent buyer Will Runzel about the first steps in turning fresh faces into possible contenders.
Senior Staff Writer
A Conversation With Erol Alkan
By Derek Staples
Photo by Tom Hart
Over two decades ago, Erol Alkan accidentally stumbled into the world of club music. This fortunate encounter has guided the now 40-year-old every day since. Voted “Best Breakthrough DJ” by Muzik magazine in 2003, receiving Mixmag‘s “DJ of the Year” award three years later, and claiming the UK’s Datatransmissions “DJ of the Year” in both 2008 and 2009, Alkan has been influential in techno and electro circles. He often brings that skillset into the world of indie rock, too. As the founder and talent buyer of London’s legendary — and now closed — Trash nightclub, Alkan played a pivotal role in the success of Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, Klaxons, Bloc Party, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When not constructing his next genre-bending mix, he has produced official remixes for the likes of Death from Above 1979, Hot Chip, Chilly Gonzales, MGMT, and Tame Impala.
While so many of the club scene’s biggest stars stay relevant through Twitter beefs and PR-driven collaborations, Alkan is too busy listening to new music, from Americana to hardstyle, to get caught up in all the digital drama. He has showcased his extensive knowledge of contemporary music with his Bugged Out/Bugged In mixes, organically bringing club culture into the living room, and his ear for psychedelia of all stripes has been the backbone for his Phantasy label.
I’m sitting here looking at the album art for your new FabricLive 77 mix. What’s the story behind this mangled pomegranate?
I don’t actually know who designed the artwork. Fabric usually sends a few designs to look at prior to packaging, and I really felt drawn to this image of the castrated pomegranate. It is not really the macabre; I am not drawn to that sort of aspect at all, but I just felt that it fit quite nicely. A lot of the tracks on that mix bleed a little bit, if that makes sense.
I am still delving into the new one, but I have always appreciated how your tracks and mixes have much more raw emotional sensibilities about them. To this day, your Bugged Out/Bugged In mixes remain high on my list of favorites.
Well, thanks. Yeah, Bugged Out was really instrumental in introducing me to the world as a producer.
To go back to those early days, I find one line quite interesting on your official online bio: “I made no bones about the fact that I fell into DJing electronic music by accident, via a lucky break, but it doesn’t make me any less of a fan of the music.” I was hoping you could clarify that statement for us and how that moment has shaped your career, now 20 years removed from those first weeklies.
When I started DJing, the role of the DJ wasn’t something that was celebrated like it is now. My reasons for DJing were just that I wanted to play the music I loved to as many people as possible. I was always making tapes for people at school, so I thought, “If I can be in control of the sound system, I can play all this music to everyone in one go!” That was my real reason for wanting to play music to people. Also, I was just always fascinated by the culture that surrounded the music that I loved and why people were drawn to certain [styles of] music or how music worked and what it did.
Even now, I try not to think about it too much because I will spoil it for myself. I really cannot explain why, like why I have decided to do this and kept carrying on with digital music. It was just something that I enjoyed, and it just kept developing. I need to keep finding the enjoyment within it to keep doing it myself. You need to keep finding new music or finding new ways of doing what you do. You don’t want to turn into a parody of what it is you do. It’s strange, 20 years or so after playing records in nightclubs, when I was still at school as well, then to go through my 20s and still to be as excited as ever about this … if not more, even. I am more excited about DJing now, because the longer you do it the more you know your duty. People will really invest time in you when you realize that. It makes you feel as if you need to deliver.
Tommie Sunshine has shared similar stories recently about the evolution of the DJ. When the scene started, DJs spent all their time in the record shop: If you couldn’t find the track, you couldn’t buy the track, and thus couldn’t spin the track. And after the hunt, you would just end up spinning in the shadows anyway. These days, DJs have truly taken on superstar personas. Do you feel there are different expectations now than when you started?
I think so, but fundamentally I just want to stick to the foundations as to why I do it. I feel I fall into this, I suppose, but DJs have actually become a brand. I don’t have a huge problem with that, and I really don’t think about it too much, but I certainly don’t want to exploit that. I don’t want my decisions to be guided by that.
It took you about 15 years to release your first original EP, but you have been prolific remixing artists across genre boundaries and curating mixes. Do you find more joy in working with other artists and sharing music as a DJ as opposed to sitting behind a production desk and working out original material?
I have made a lot of records, but with original material, I just didn’t feel that I really had the right thing that I wanted to put out under my name, I suppose. I sometimes think what you don’t say or don’t do is as important as what you do [laughs]. Maybe not releasing original music for that long could have been one of the most important decisions I made.
When you go into a remix effort, how are those relationships normally established? Are these friends, is it music you like, or are they pitched from the artists?
When I first started remixing, it was only people that I knew because they would ask me personally, and I would usually say yes. There were a few offers to remix people that I didn’t know, or would just have been due to a considerable monetary offer, and I didn’t tend to do those. There just wasn’t anything tangible to it; I didn’t want to be someone you could just ring up and get a remix from. I just stuck to what I thought felt right, and it has been that way ever since.
The first time I ever saw you perform live was alongside Boys Noize during Ultra of 2010, and it was just a mess of arms and flying CDs. You each went off to work with several other artists, but do you still get to catch up from time to time?
Well, Alex [Boys Noize] spends a lot of time in the States now, so we don’t see each other too often, unfortunately. Plus, I am quite terrible with staying in contact with people. I did see him recently, and it was a really good catch up. When I see people, it is always great to see them, but there is just too much going on that it is really tough to play catchup. It will often feel that I saw someone just yesterday, and they will remind me that it was a year ago.
Are there any new collaborations that you are working on?
Not at the moment. I did just co-produce the Ghost Culture album, which is coming out in January. There is the Beyond the Wizard Sleeve stuff that I also work on. And I just remixed/reanimated the entire [Sun Structures] album from Temples.
I am actually seeing Temples in just a few days.
They are great, and I really love what we have done. I don’t usually say this, because you don’t want to feel like there is ego involved, but I am really satisfied with what we have done with it. And that is a really good feeling: when you can present something back to an artist that you really love. I think it’s good; I think that it is really good.
That is about it at the moment … we are about to remix an album from a band that I cannot actually reveal, but they are a band that I know you will really like. A lot of people are actually losing their minds about that album right now. There is a lot going on, really.
You mentioned earlier that you are spending most of today just listening to new music. Where do you prefer to scour for new music? Any advice for finding gems that aren’t going to be on Top 40?
Record shops! I go to record shops every week.
I am fortunate that my office building actually incudes an independent record shop. It is nice to peruse weekly, chat with the clerks who are surrounded by music all day, and just thumb through the new collections.
Pressing a record is so different than just placing tracks online. In order to make a record, people have to invest not just time and money but a lot of other assets to make it happen. And that is the benchmark of great music.
Obviously, we can hear a lot of great music on SoundCloud, demos and stuff, but there is nothing like going to a record shop and seeing people who know you and know what you are about. They know the music that you like, and they will hand you a load of stuff, feed you, you know? I love it. I do it every week, and it is probably the most important thing that I do to find new music.
You were really quite seminal in bridging the indie/alt rock worlds and dance music during your time at Trash, helping break bands like LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party, and Peaches. Do you feel when you go out and play a festival that a lot of other electronic artists have become too engrained in a certain niche or sound?
I don’t really take too much notice of those things, to be honest with you. But that might be one way of putting it. I am just so involved with the music that I am working on, the artists involved, and what is close to me that noticing where other people are going wrong is just not something that I concentrate on. That would make me feel like I am wasting my time, just telling people where they go wrong or being negative about things when there is so much positivity close by.
You would rather put all that positive energy into Phantasy, I’m sure.
Yeah, rather than telling people where they are going wrong, I would just rather stay focused on what I am doing and keep that right.
What is the driving philosophy with Phantasy? It’s quite eclectic. I think you have stated that 50 percent of the releases really aren’t meant for DJs.
There is no real kind of philosophy behind it as such. I think it is completely an extension of the music that I love. For me, it has to feel real. I have to believe it. There is usually some kind of psychedelic element to it. It is certainly not straight down the line or music made to be liked by as many people as possible.
I have never told anybody to make music that is going to be liked by more people. If anything, I am more interested in pushing people deeper into their own sound, their own musical philosophy, or their own musical language to see what happens then.
In my opinion, one of the more interesting things currently happening in dance music is the evolution of former vibes, be that Disclosure’s take on garage or current trends in tech and minimal house. So often we hear a genre is “dead” … ska is dead, dubstep is dead, hip-hop is dead … only for a new generation to find a sense of nostalgia in it and bring it to a new forefront.
I never take notice of that, when people say a certain genre is dead. I remember when people were telling us guitar music was dead in 2000, and then The Strokes released their first album. Then dance music was dead at a certain point. You never really hear that from music fans.
No, just from people like me, journalists who want to have good headlines. [shared laugh]
No, I wouldn’t say journalists or fans by any stretch. Sometimes people just want to shift the spotlight from one thing to another in order to keep things exciting and indexed clearly. That is fine. I don’t have a problem with it at all. I don’t take much notice of it, but I am sure that some people have to. It just doesn’t mean anything to me, because nothing really dies, does it?
You are right. There is always a continuance of the energy. Since you de-emphasize creating music for the masses, how do you define success for yourself and the label? Is it just all about delving deeper into your own artistic well?
I just think that it is encouraging for people to find their own unique musical language. I am a great believer that good music will live on. Good music always does live on! We are just encouraging people to make the best record that they can. That is what I always try to do.
I have been around so many situations where someone goes off to make the next big record or to make the big American record, and it perplexes me a little bit. I think that so many people have made amazing records, records that have defined eras, in their bedroom without even knowing what they were doing. They were just focused on what they were doing. It doesn’t work when you sit down and try to be an architect for success.
So many friends of mine have recorded albums in low-rent, really basic studios, producing it all themselves, and they have just been incredible and turned so many heads. And then they go into a big studio with a big-budget producer and then what everyone liked disappears. When I say real and believable, I mean the ingredient that connects with people.
I feel that visceral connection is what enhances a record’s longevity. Even after years of not listening to an album, you will pop it in just to go back to those moments and feelings.
I am a big believer in the element of performance over over-production — the whole experience just connects with people. You must be the ingredient that keeps people coming back to something.
To hop from that performance element, if Erol Alkan/Phantasy were to curate a festival stage, who are the artists you would want revelers to experience?
These artists can be active or inactive? Contemporary?
Yep, just have fun with it!
Well, if that is the case, I would like [1960s American baroque pop band] The Left Banke to play. I’d invite [Detroit soul singer] Little Anne … Man, that is a good question.
I imagine with as much music as you listen to in a year, it is difficult to narrow it down.
Let’s add Wimple Winch. I’ll have to keep thinking about others.
Well, you definitely gave me plenty of music to check out this week. Do you have any plans to hit the States soon?
Yeah, I might be coming over early next year, I think.
As long as you hit somewhere near the Midwest, I will be sure to make the trek!
Great, yeah! It would be good to meet you, man.
Thanks for the chat, and I will be sure to check out these artists as well as the new Fabric mix.
Read ahead for live reviews of up-and-coming Frenchman Anoraak and desert bass specialist Phutureprimitive.
My Evening with Anoraak
By Steve Vaynshtok
Upon arriving at the Hotel Urbano in Brickell to pick up Anoraak, I encountered exactly what you might imagine. Admittedly, I hadn’t the slightest clue what Frédéric Rivière would look like in the flesh, but I was met with a stylish young Frenchman whose outward appearance reflected the upbeat, dance-inspiring tunes he specializes in, holding in hand his gear for the night’s performance.
Rivière immediately comes off as a gentleman, very polite and with a charming French accent. We spoke about his fondness for playing in Miami and at Bardot specifically. He told me about how his tour had kicked off and a specific show in Kansas City, as well as how he enjoys playing for smaller, more intimate crowds as opposed to the bustling cacophony of a large crowd too hip to dance, with drinks in hand and too much to say. We talked about his show at Grand Central on the Drive tour as well. He mentioned he felt it had a really good vibe to it because everyone was clearly there for the music, not because it was trendy. As an attendee of said show, I can confirm that I saw the brilliance of that night in full effect.
Rivière started the Anoraak project in 2006, and has since released three albums via Grand Blanc, with one joint releasing with Naïve Records. His albums Nightdrive with You, Wherever the Sun Sets, and Chronotropic are all bubbly synthpop records bordering on the outskirts of dreamwave, outrun, and electro-pop, with a strong focus in disco/house-infused jams. He has an affinity for playing in America because that’s where most of his streams come from and where he tours the most. With the consistent quality of his music, it’s easy to see why he’s in such demand.
As we arrived at our destination, the Jolt Radio HQ in Wynwood, we discussed how endearing it is to have so much art and music-centric business on a single strip of what was previously just empty lots and warehouses. The attractiveness of Wynwood stood out as we reached the gallery that Jolt Radio calls home. It was plain to see at this point that this would be an entertaining and enlightening interview with an air of catching up with old friends, despite everyone just meeting.
Jolt Radio’s Mr. Jolt (aka John Caignet) greeted us warmly and set up a table and DJM for what would be the most spectacular in-studio I’ve seen at Jolt yet. As we watched Rivière set up his Dave Smith Instruments Mopho x4, MPC1000, and Arturia MicroBrute along with his choice of pedals, a few more members of the Jolt Radio family, Bourgeoisie, Shalenberg, and The Mice Lady, joined us in studio. Within moments, everyone was getting on like friends, cracking jokes and discussing the origins of the Anoraak name as well as how he got into the electronic music scene.
Rivière told us about Nightdrive with You being featured on Myspace Music US’s page and how his play count shot up, setting up the snowball effect of his music career from there. He mentioned being in a grunge band in the ’90s, having long hair and admiring the Seattle grunge scene. Relocating to a smaller Nantes flat forced him to acclimate to prissy neighbors, so he began using his laptop and headphones to make electronic music. Logic is his preferred program, and he refuses to use a laptop live because it simply slows down the flow of a live set.
We also discussed the endearing quality of an American burger and how some of the bigger cities here have some of the better dining fare. By the end of the interview, the room had warmed up in the sense that you really felt like everyone was comfortable and happy to be there. There was no air of a musician whose publicist had scheduled him for an interview with an impartial journalist who had Googled his greatest hits in preparation. You could clearly see that everyone there was familiar with Anoraak’s work and anxious to experience the music being performed live by the man who composed it.
When he stepped up to his setup at the end of the interview, Rivière launched seamlessly into the track that would end up being my favorite of the night for his Bardot performance. It was a real treat to see an electronic producer playing chords on a keyboard while tweaking the bass synth that had an MPC running sequences into it and changing the sequences for the drums and bass on the fly. From a musical standpoint, it was truly a sight in an age of “press play” performances. It was clear to see why Anoraak is so highly acclaimed and why his music and performances stand out from the fist-pumping DJs we’ve all grown so accustomed to here in Miami. I knew without a doubt that the show was going to be special, and with two flawless tracks out of the way and a few British cigarettes shared downstairs, I took Rivière to Bardot for his sound check, ready to catch up with him before his set.
I will admit, Bardot typically is the sort of place you’d find a bunch of trendy, stuck-up bros who grab women to try and whisper some poorly mediated piece of “game” into their ears. But the crowd at Bardot that night was full of lovely young ladies whispering about Foster the People’s DJ set and how excited they were to see Anoraak play before them.
I had missed Laura of Miami’s set and walked into Artime playing some jams. I bought a 1664 (in an effort to make the ambience of the night as French as possible) and headed over to the DJ booth to meet up with Anoraak, while letting Artime know he was killing it. Rivière and I had another conversation about why he specifically loves Bardot, mentioning how it’s a treat to see the pretty girls his shows attract, although he isn’t as big on groupies as he is in a longstanding relationship with his current girlfriend. During our discussion, he said something that really resonated with me, but I must omit it from my commentary because it was a private tidbit disclosed to me in confidence. I will say this: At that moment, I knew that the respect that had built up over the past few hours for the man behind the music was genuine admiration. With that thought he had shared, my opinion solidified that this was a truly fantastic individual, not just in his musical abilities but in his character as well.
It was 12:15 when he took the stage, and the room was nearly packed to the brim. Along the front of the carpet was a group of some of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen, my friends from Jolt who Rivière graciously added to the list, and the pals I had brought along for the show. From the moment the music began, the entire room clustered around the eclectic sounds of the young French phenom. His level of focus was a sight to behold. When he launched into “Behind Your Shades”, I felt the energy in the room pooling around him. Each song blended seamlessly with the last, and he looked to be having a fantastic time, dancing along as he triggered loops and sequences, tweaked synth lines, and played riffs out on the keys. The sound was immaculate, and his control over the music was so precise you could compare it to alchemy.
Photography by Benjamin Levy
I remember specifically turning back to Mr. Jolt and exclaiming, “He really is Gandalf. He’s a wizard!” The crowd was packing in more and more as the set progressed, with smiles and drinks all around, everyone whispering small mentions of how great the music was and how well the show was going. At one point, Mr. Jolt and I agreed this may very well have been the best show either of us had seen at Bardot.
Bardot is one of those venues where there is no stage, no space, and no really intricate light show, so the quality of the experience always depends on the artist and the crowd and how the two interact. There was no shortage of energy and poise from Anoraak as he filled the room with textures and vibes that you don’t see at most shows. Even the interactions between the crowd and the music were obvious to anyone paying attention. This was what a good show was supposed to look and feel like.
Anoraak continued his set, looking up only every once in a while and confirming the pleasant atmosphere with a happy smile at the crowd. When he played “Nightdrive with You”, the excitement was palpable; there wasn’t a still body on the carpet, with everyone dancing both upfront and next to the bar. His set continued for a solid hour of disco-infused electro-pop/house music. When he finally stopped, everyone seemed dissatisfied with the silence. I shook Rivière’s hand and let him know what shining praise I had in store for him, having had the privilege to witness a set like that.
Foster the People played a DJ set after. Everyone left three songs in.