In a time past, a name pairing like “Alkan & Avery” could easily be a quietly diligent high street solicitors firm, or an architect’s practice in a sleepy provincial town, known across the county for helping a small community improve their lives thanks to their specialist expertise. In 2014, of course, those names are synonymous with staying up late and listening to loud music – Erol Alkan as the veteran DJ and founder of the ground-breaking Trash night and Phantasy Sound record label, and Daniel Avery as his young-buck protégé wunderkind whose debut was out on Phantasy last year – but the same community-serving spirit nonetheless endures. In the midst of a summer’s festival bookings that finds the pair DJing everywhere from Victoria Park to Mexico City, via Croatia’s Unknown festival and, of course, Ibiza, we sat them down together to try and work out what exactly makes the DJ – second only perhaps to the guitarist as music’s most enduring fixture of the last 30 years – a relevant entity today.
Sam Walton: Let’s start by defining our terms – what is a DJ in 2014? Is a guy playing videos off YouTube at a house party a DJ?
Erol Alkan: Well he’s a DJ in the same way that if I pull out some art books and start showing my guests some pictures, I’m an art gallery director. It depends on how they do it, and how good they are.
Daniel Avery: Yeah. Like, everyone can tell a joke, but not everyone’s a stand-up comedian. So much time and effort is required – if you know what you’re doing though then you’ll better serve the audience.
EA: But if you’re playing to your friends and to the people you feel represent your circle, that’s the most important thing, and then you’re doing the same thing as most successful DJs: you’re serving a community of like-minded people and looking to inspire them and introduce them to new things. Regardless of whether you’re a club or a radio DJ, or playing to your mates, you’re pretty much curating the music that you believe in, to the people who believe in you.
DA: To take that further, I think you assume something of a responsibility within that community too. I don’t mean that in an overly heavy way, but as you say, a DJ should unite and inspire that community. It doesn’t matter how big that circle is, whether you’re playing a krautrock club in Whitechapel to 30 people, or to 2,000 at Fabric, it’s all about uniting like-minded people, not about preaching to huge masses.
EA: Definitely. For me, some of the greatest DJs I’ve seen have been from the smallest, most unrecognised clubs, playing in back rooms somewhere. There’s something about just entering places like that where, even if you’re not a connoisseur of that music, everything just sounds amazing, and I think that’s all about how somebody presents it to their audience: it’s the unspoken energy that’s generated between DJ and audience that brings you in, in the same way that you can walk into a party and you’ll know within seconds whether you want to stay. And it’s all the work that’s done outside of that moment – building a trust and relationship – that creates that energy.
DA: Yeah, it’s building a world, isn’t it – and the DJ’s only one part of that world. They’re a very important part, sure, but the crowd is too, especially if it’s a regular weekly or monthly club. Like Trash – I went there and I met people whom I’m still good friends with now, ten years later, because we all believed in that cause. Actually, “cause” makes it sound preachy, and that’s not right, but it’s…
EA: It’s a sense of belonging, isn’t it? I think that’s what great weekly clubs have. Like Trash or the Heavenly Social – it’s a third place: not work, not home, it’s where else you go and you feel like you belong.
SW: Can you put your finger on what kind of talent the DJ needs in order to create this world? Is there a technical ability, or something more intangible?
DA: I think that there’s an aspect of technical skill, sure, but it’s certainly not the only aspect of it. You can go and see someone play ska or dub and they’re not mixing at all – they’re just playing one record after another. In the end, though, the record is king every time, and the soul of DJing is about putting great records together in an exciting way that makes sense. For some, that can be extremely technical, and for others it can be pressing play and pressing play again, but it doesn’t really matter. The word I always return to is that it’s about energy, about creating an energy in the room – it doesn’t have to be a hyped-up energy at all – and you can do that in numerous ways, technical and not.
EA: Yeah, I think if you adhere to the basic principle of reading the room and making sure the music is right for the situation and for the people, that’s it. For all the technique, if you have no control over the room, it doesn’t really matter. For example, with someone like [the Avalanches DJ] Dexter, his technical hip-hop ability was just awe-inspiring, but it was the fact he was marrying all these entirely different styles and throwing in curveballs, taking all those references that I understood, and presenting them in a way that I would never have thought of, that was really crucial.
DA: And I think there’s actually a similarity between sets full of curveballs and ones that take you on a kind of tunnel-vision journey: even when you see DJs throw in unexpected things, there’s a linearity to it, and I think linearity is very important. Like, when you, Erol, were playing at Bugged Out, you’d play ‘Seven Nation Army’, but it’s fundamentally a techno record so it made total sense at the time. I guess I play with a bit more tunnel vision, but that goes back to what we were saying earlier about creating this world with a certain energy: you go in, forget the outside, and you lock in. As a punter that’s what I love doing too: at all my favourite club nights, it’s a third place, you go there and you forget about everything else.
SW: How does DJing at a festival differ? Is there still a sense of collectiveness and energy at a festival?
DA: You can get it, definitely, at the best festivals. You just need the same things you have in a nightclub – setting, proximity, and also a big thing is what the festival has created in itself. Something like Field Day is a good example: they clearly have very good taste in what they book, and they stick to that, and that’s years of hard work in the same way that we’ve put in years of hard work building our own thing. A good festival is almost like a weekly club night somewhere, it’s just that it’s a yearly club weekend.
EA: At Unknown last year actually, you got the sense of that – it was fantastic weather, and line-up – it just felt like such a treat. If you can imagine the best elements of UK festivals, but in fantastic weather, that’s Unknown.
DA: Yeah, you can walk around at 4am on the beach and find a little clearing and you’ll be like, “what’s that stage?” and Daniel Bandelli or someone will be playing to 200 people. That sort of stuff is amazing.
EA: I came away from there thinking exactly that. This year, I think we’re both on the same stage I played on last year and the setting is fantastic: right by the sea, and just the perfect amount of people for an outdoor thing – about six or seven hundred – so it’s big but it’s still intimate.
SW: Do you use the same tactics to get a club audience going as you would a festival one?
EA: Pretty much. It’s still the fundamental rules: 50% the records you chose to bring with you, and 50% how you read the room.
DA: Exactly. I mean, the fundamentals of DJing are very basic: it’s just putting one record on after another in a way that’s exciting.
EA: True. And in fact some of my worst set-backs have been when I’ve over-thought things: you might think a record makes incredible sense in a particular scenario, but actually no one gives a fuck unless it makes sense to them, and so you’ve just got to be thinking about sound-tracking the occasion rather than it being smart. Fundamentally it’s about maintaining the energy and the mood.
DA: That liveness is something I’m really interested in at the moment actually. Everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to start doing my “live” show, and the answer is no time soon, because since I’ve realised quite how live DJing is I’m enjoying it now more than ever. The idea that you can lock into a room or a tent and get a crowd on your side – that’s an incredible feeling. And I know it’s difficult to make people see what a DJ’s actually doing on stage, but I genuinely believe that if someone’s really up there doing it, in the moment, then it will come across.
SW: With increasingly instant access to all history’s music, it feels like there’s been a rise of eclecticism as DJs try to play as wild a variation of genres as possible in one set. Has stylistic broadness come at the expense of depth, do you think? Is that a good thing?
DA: Well it goes back to how we began: the reason that someone like Harvey or Four Tet can do that genre-hopping thing is because they’ve built something through every production, remix and DJ set they’ve done: they’ve made their own world that people want to be a part of and which people want to get locked into, and even if Harvey were to play a disco record that no one else would even touch, there’s still a reason he’s done it – it’s not eclectic for eclectic’s sake. He feels that it’s a part of him and therefore it deserves a place in his set. It’s not a random thing or just a cheap trick. I think it’s just like there are different kinds of painters really, it’s as simple as that.
EA: There are too many DJs – literally – too much music and too many parties to worry about whether it’s a good thing or not.
DA: There’s not enough time to worry about it either!
EA: Yeah, true. One of the things that I’ve realised in all my time DJing is that a lot of the worries that you have don’t really matter!
SW: Do you worry about anything before you play a big set?
DA: I never feel nervous, but because you believe in all this music that you’ve discovered, and want to share it with however many people – it could be 50, it could be 5,000 – you just want to make sure you get it across in the best way that you can. So there’s pressure on yourself in that respect…
EA: But measuring success as a DJ is such a strange thing because it’s such a weirdly intimate thing to do. It’s like trying to measure your friendship with someone – it’s all based on the kind of thing that you can’t describe.
SW: When you think of your favourite sets from the past, what do you think they have in common?
EA: More often than not, it’s been about sticking to my guns, doing something unexpected. I’ve thought, “you know what, I’m going to play this, whatever”. I remember times at Trash, in the middle of the night, 2am, pulling out ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ by Dusty Springfield, which you just can’t dance to – you just have to hold someone – and it gave everyone a buzz.
DA: Yeah exactly that, really – the best sets are just when you feel that connection with the audience. You could sit down afterwards and write down what worked, but if you turned up at the next gig with that same bit of paper, it wouldn’t work, and that’s the real beauty of DJing – it’s always different. You require the energy of the crowd as much as they require you. A rock band will have a repertoire of, say, 50 songs that they’ve practiced, but with DJing you can take it in so many different ways. When you’re allowed to do that, and feel the trust, that’s when the beautiful moments arise.