When done properly, combining like-minded selectors, the right environments, and a receptive, curious crowd, a back to back set has the potential to elevate us beyond the realms of each respective DJs individual identities. Like sparring partners, the pair have the scope to challenge and entertain each other, building a whole set of newness from their various visions.
Not only that, but if you apply supermarket maths to nights out, then back to back sets are a complete bargain. You thought watching one DJ was good? Why not try two for the same price. Or you could go one better and have three of them. Actually, fuck it, why not have four? Only, unlike jars of Hellman's mayonnaise, the value of a DJ doesn't necessarily increase exponentially with body count (if that were the case Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike might actually be the number one DJs in the world).
Recently the back to back has become a more and more common feature on the clubbing landscape. In a climate increasingly focused on festivals and major nights like Warehouse Project, multiple DJ sets make up a huge portion of line ups that favor as many names as possible in the shortest time imaginable. The cynical take on this would be to quickly decry the B2B as a convenient way of over-promising on a ticket price, and on occasion this is quite obviously the case. Yet to write them off as a party trick would be to discredit a practice and method of DJing that can, and does, produce genuine excitement on the dancefloor.
In order to question the form, and understand how different DJs approach them in comparison to solo sets, THUMP got in touch with a variety of selectors, for a brief schooling on the art of the back to back. The voices include Matt McBriar, who DJs as half of Belfast duo Bicep, Hodge, Tessela, and Gramrcy, three names who regularly cross paths stemming from Bristol's scene, and finally Krystal Klear who ushered in 2016 playing a NYE back to back with Gerd Janson.
ON PLANNING BEFOREHAND…
Matt, Bicep: We hardly plan at all before a set, communicating during it is the most important part. Firstly, read the floor, then talk to each other and plan periods that feel coherent. For example we would agree to go more "UK bass" focused or very "synthy" for a bit and try and develop from there. We always play our best when we both know 80% of the material we're playing and can judge the right tracks to follow. Throwing in some curveballs and new promos always make it interesting, but too many sharp turns can destroy the flow of a set and that's usually the biggest issue with B2Bs. The flow can suck.
Gramrcy: I approach them the same as I usually do—think about the crowd, the set time, the venue, the country, the people playing before and after, and then pick out a pile of records and make a playlist on my computer. There's always some discussion beforehand, sometimes just a few emails or texts where we'll talk about a general vibe for the set (also boring technical stuff like "are you any bringing records?" "can we play off your Serato?"), and this will naturally influence the records I chose to bring with me.
Hodge: I did a back to back recently with Randomer, at Simple Things festival. We didn't really discuss what we were going to do, but on email and Facebook messenger we would fire tunes at each other. We ended up sending each other loads, from old hardcore to techno stuff. It wasn't even intentionally for the set, more just because he was a mate, but that kind of got me in the headspace of what he's DJing at the moment.
Krystal Klear: I've never mapped a back to back out in advance. I think that would take the life out of it. With Gerd on NYE there was a considerable communication during the set, if it seems like it's lagging, I'll say, "let's go tough, let's pick things up." It's about being mentally prepared for what comes next.
Tessela: Any chat I've ever had before a back to back has been "at the start not too mental, then go a bit more mental."
ON THE PUSH AND PULL…
Hodge: If I think about the first back to back sets I really enjoyed, it was about five years ago back in Bristol, when Pinch and Peverelist used to go back to back at Subloaded. What made that good was how Pev and Pinch were both playing different styles of the same music. Pinch would play a real dancefloor banger, and then Pev would play something weird. That really worked because you'd have half of it really weirding you out and then the other half giving you that release. If you have two DJs playing identical stuff, okay cool it will be coherent, but that's not really what I get excited about. If I'm seeing two DJs I want to see a bit of push and pull. I almost want it to be a bit chaotic because that's exciting.
Matt: Another way to ensure a good back to back is to have a very genre specific set. Our two most successful B2Bs with other artists have been an Italo-disco set with Steffi and a 90s house one with Jeremy Underground. The fact we were all playing within the same genre worked a lot better than if it was a free for all and someone could suddenly change the mood or direction, leaving you with six records left to play in the previous direction.
Gramrcy: Seeing Peverelist and A Made Up Sound play 6 hours at Dekmantel last year was incredible. You can see they're good friends and that really came across. Both had smiles on their faces the whole time, the music was incredible. They pushed each other too, as they both started out playing a lot deeper and housier than they would usually, and by the end AMUS was playing old Dutch hardcore records and Pev was rinsing D&B. It was incredible.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A WORKING RELATIONSHIP…
Matt: We weren't very good as a pair in the beginning, it was all over the place. Really, it took several years and a lot of discussion after gigs to find the right flow and how to be comfortable. Thankfully neither of us are adverse to criticism, in fact we both quite like it, so we used to really tear our sets apart until we felt like that were improving.
Tessela: I haven't done many back to back sets with people I wasn't already good friends with, I think it's probably different if you do a back to back with somebody you don't know. I tend to do them with people I know, and know their music tastes, so I pack to their taste and they do the same for mine. That way you end up with a bunch of records that compliment each other really well. You know you can turn up, go for a drink, and then get straight into it.
Hodge: I've never done a back to back with anyone I don't know quite well or I'm not friends with. I think I'd turn it down. I don't think I would do a back to back with someone I didn't respect. That could be soul destroying.
Gramrcy: When I played B2B with Bruce recently, I was staying at his place the weekend before because I was in town for other stuff, and we spent an afternoon playing records and discussing the kind of tracks we wanted to play, and the direction we wanted the set to go in. That's obviously a rare luxury, and is a result of us being good friends more than anything, but it's a good excuse to hang out and get an idea of where their head is at musically.
Tessela: The most important thing, I think, is to play with someone who is flexible. I've had it before where I've been playing with someone and two hours in they've suddenly decided to push off in a direction on their own, which wasn't what you were doing collectively. The most important thing is a willingness to meet in a middle ground with the other person, to create something other than what you'd normally do on your own. If each person just plays the records they would play on their own, then there's very little point.
Gramrcy: I think if you're considerate of the person you're playing with then there's always going to be some compromise to make a B2B work successfully. If you went into it doing exactly what you normally do when you play on your own, then I feel like it would come across as disjointed at best, and at worst like you were actively trying to one-up the other person, which in the spirit of good vibes and a fun party, is not the point. However it can definitely be fun when someone drops a curveball and you have to find something that will work with it. Again, it helps immensely if you get along to avoid any resentment.
Hodge: The recent set with Randomer was for five hours, and that went really well, because he was constantly trying to go faster and faster to that mid-130 techno place, and I was trying to keep it back. Every time he went up to high speeds, I'd bring in something slightly slower. So we edged it up, getting faster, but much slower than he normally would. It maybe took him longer to get to that all out techno place, and maybe I got there a little bit sooner than I normally would.
ON WHERE THEY FALL DOWN…
Tessela: You need a longer set. If you're playing on your own it can take twenty minutes, half an hour to find your groove. Going back to back it can take a lot longer. You can spend the first hour just finding your feet, finding that groove. I've had experiences where, in a three hour set, you might only find that groove for the last half hour. I saw a poster the other day, the sort stuck on a lamppost near a roundabout, that said 44 DJs, four arenas over ten hours. That's 11 DJs per arena, and they must be going back to back otherwise they are getting less than an hour each. When you do it like it's totally pointless. If you are going back to back I don't think you want to do any less than three hours.
Matt: It's so important to know each other and know each other's records. This is the main issue with a lot of impromptu B2Bs at festivals. The artists don't know the others records that well and haven't played together much before, it really can be awful to be honest. Swings and vocals clashing, stuff being really badly outta key. It takes quite a while it really understand how the other plays and you need to find the right ebb and flow.
Krystal Klear: You do see the same people playing the same back to backs a lot—you can almost guess some festival lineups before they happen. If I was a promoter, the back to backs I'd want to see would be the ones I hadn't see before. If it's DJ Harvey back to back Andrew Weatherall then that's suddenly really exciting, but something like Dixon back to back Âme, that happens all the time. I'm huge fan of Floating Points, Four Tet and Caribou, but those guys play together in a back to back format all the time so I'm not going to break a sweat to see it. Obviously they're not using it as a gimmick, they're just mates who love playing music together, but I would love to see some pairings that shake things up a bit.
ON WHY THEY ARE IMPORTANT…
I love back to back sets, I love playing back to back with people. I love the challenge and the camaraderie. When you are traveling by yourself, playing by yourself, you can end up missing that back and forth.
Tessela: I really enjoy it, you can play for a longer amount of time, but still have the breaks to collect your thoughts and think about your records. There have also been so many tracks I've discovered from playing a back to back with somebody else. When you DJ solo for a long time you can get stuck in little patterns, where you know that two records go together really well so you do that over and over. But when you go back to back with someone, you play that first track, and then they take it over with something you couldn't have predicted.