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How to DJ with Integrity, According to John Digweed

The prog house legend dishes on the current state of dance music.

by David Garber
Mar 18 2014, 10:20pm

You won't see him on the main stage at nearly any festival. His tracks don't grace the upper echelons of Beatport. He won't spray you with Dom P or thrust pastries at your noggin. And he'll probably never hop on a collabo with A$AP or Kanye. But in spite—or maybe because—of all that, John Digweed is still one of the most influential DJs in history. 

Digweed began DJing at the ripe age of 15, when most of us weren't even squiggly lines in our dads' "reserviors." He got his big break in 1993, when he got a gig at the Renaissance Club in Mansfield, UK after a fellow upstart named Alexander Coe—better known today as the techno/deep house messiah, Sasha.

Digweed made his name pushing a progressive house sound that eventually exploded in the late 90s and early 2000s across Europe and North America. In New York City, house music havens like Tunnel, Limelight, Paradise Garage and Twilo were booming. Both Digweed and Sasha held a popular residency at Twilo, where Digweed was revered for putting down marathon sets that often lasted between eight and twelve hours... until Twilo and many of those aformentioned clubs were raided and shutdown by Sgt. Buzzkill AKA NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

The end of NYC's hedonistic nightlife days was only a momentarty hiccup in the longstanding career of John Digweed. Since then, he's established the international label Bedrock Records, has released countless albums (including an impressive "Live In" series), and even took the throne of DJ Mag's Top 100 list in 2001. 

But that was thirteen years ago, and the position now belongs to Hardwell, a DJ nearly half Digweed's age who is pushing a much different sound, to a much different audience, in a much different time. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, I had the privilege of sitting down with Digweed at his hotel in SoHo to discuss the icon's nearly quarter century-spanning career. 

THUMP: You're back in NYC doing a headliner set at Marquee. You've had a long relationship with this city and your residency at Twilo jumpstarted your career. What's it been like to see the progression of club culture here over the years? 
John Digweed: When Twilo and other clubs like Tunnel were at their peaks, there were literally thousands of people out every night. Mayor Giuliani wasn't too keen on that aspect of clubbing. A lot of those clubs got shut down, and there was a sort of fear [felt by] owners and promoters. If you went and spent ten million dollars to open up a club and it gets shut down six months later, that's a massive investment down the toilet.


John Digweed at Twilo in NYC

I think there's been an influx of investments in recent years, and confidence has come back into the nightlife culture. The more clubs are in existence, the more people seem to come out every night. The clubs are busy in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, so there's not this mentality that "this club opens and is taking away from that club." I think what's happened with the growing investment in underground clubs is great, especially because those places are not based around bottle service— it's more about the music. 

Do you think that feeling of positivity from the 90s is in the air again?
Well, when you think about places like Twilo, there was definitely not a bottle serivce culture. It was 90 percent about the dancefloor. There was no place to sit and if you weren't dancing you were at the bar. It really was either one of those two options. I think that's what was nice about it— people went there because they wanted to cut loose for nine, ten, eleven, twelve hours—however long they wanted to stay. I think that's what's happening now again. The undeground culture is having a resurgence and people are experiencing the palettes of a lot of new DJs. The confidence is there, which is healthy for the scene.

What's the last year of your career been like? Are you happy with where you are as an artist right now?
I've pretty much "ticked off all of the boxes" as far as DJing and my career, so I've been able to pick and choose the gigs I want to do. I don't feel as much pressure and I enjoy it more. I've always enjoyed the challenge of going to a new club and trying to win over a new crowd. Last year we had two live albums, the Versus album, a residency in Ibiza, and festivals all over—there's not a lot of free time between all of that, and I'm busy enough to not want to do more then what i'm doing. 


John Digweed and Sasha at Ultra in 2003

Has it been hard throughout your career to remain level-headed? 
I think remaining level-headed really has to do with how you were brought into the scene. I came into all of this with a passion for music but it was a time where there were no DJ superstars. The DJ was probably third on the list of reasons for why people went out to a club. They did this because they wanted to drink, pick up a girl, have a dance. It wasn't how it is now, when people are going specifically to see a DJ spin.

So for me, I was in a club wanting to make people dance, not because I was trying to be seen. I loved the music and wanted an avenue to play it. It took me a long time to be successful and I had many years of playing in clubs that were not that great. But finally you get that break and everything starts to take off. The fact I spent so many years working to get where I am— it makes me more humble. I don't want to be a superstar or a showman. I'm just a normal person. I still have to take the bins out when I get home. [laughs]

So many DJs now have their hands in many pots, whether it be with fashion, TV, magazines or other aspects of culture. It seems like everyone just wants to be seen and get famous as fast as possible. Would you agree?
I've always looked at it as: Do you want to be a sprinter or a marathon runner? I've always wanted to be in this for as long as I can. If you want too much, you can sometimes overexpose yourself, and your career will last for a shorter time in the end.

So many young producers are getting software, making tracks and suddenly going number one on the radio. Do you think dance music has lost some of its patience?
It's more what has happened when you have the Internet. Before you just had a record press and you would give your records to a few people and would have to wait a few weeks to get some feedback from them, and to maybe get it into a record shop. Maybe they would sell a few and let you know they wanted some more copies. It was a much longer process and it would often take three to four months for a record to break.

Now someone puts something on SoundCloud and the whole world can get it, download it, and listen to it instantly. So it's not the fact we've become impatient but more that everything is there for us and is so easily accessible. There are positives and negatives to all these changes. 

What are some of the negatives?
I think there's just much less of a filtering process. When there were just labels there was much more of a process of filtering and selection, but now people are bypassing the labels and just putting it out on their own. There are some genuinely talented people who are getting a stage to show their stuff very early in their career. But then it gets down to whether they can maintain it after having a big record. 

What do you think about the need to make an album in today's music industry?
I think it's a nice concept but it goes back to people's intentions. When you go on to iTunes, many would choose to skip through Pink Floyd's The Wall and just take a few tracks from CD one or four. But when you listen to the whole thing then it really makes more sense and that's why the made the album. 

Now people just listen to a thirty second clip and make up their minds about if they like the song or not. iTunes did something clever when they put the hands of control in the consumer to just buy the tracks that they want. It puts a lot more pressure on the artist to make a cohesive, proper album.

Do you have any advice you would give yourself ten years ago?
I think if I could retrace my career from start to finish I wouldn't change anything. The first five or six years when I wasn't earning money probably made me who I am today. That was a critical time in my "education" because I used to go play in clubs for nothing just to be there during the day, setting up the sound systems, cleaning the lights, all that stuff. And because of that I've gained a really good understanding of how a club works.

Also having promoted for so many years I see it from the promoters point of view as well. I've learned not to just walk in five minutes before you play, do the set and leave. I understand all the work that goes into it and what it take for a party to happen.

All in all, my career has gone in a direction I'm happy with. I've always played the music I want to play and have never compromised. When you play 80 percent new music you better hope that the crowd is on your side because if not there's going to be a lot of head scratching going on. 

You're going to be at Ultra in Miami where you have been a regular fixture for some years. I can't help but notice that guys like you, Carl Cox, and Luciano are playing these tents that are put to the side, never the main stage. Are you happy with where your sound lies?
If I had the choice between playing the main stage or playing in Carl Cox's stage, I would rather take Carl's stage because you know there's going to be a musical flow through out the whole day that will be more suited to what I do. If I ended up on the main stage, people are going to want something more familiar and I can't deliver that. I'd rather be where the crowd wants to hear what I want to play. It just wouldnt work for me to follow an EDM DJ, I dont have that energy in my music even if i'm playing my fastest, most energetic track. The programming is so vital to the success of different stages. 


John Digweed at Carl Cox's stage at Ultra 2013

Where do you feel the best connection to your fans and get the best reaction to your sound?
I would say Argentina. I just got back from a tour there and played Ultra [Buenos Aires] back in March, which was incredible. I did a party in Mar Del Plata on the beach to 12,000 people for six and a half hours. And also played in Mendoza on a Sunday night to about six thousand people. I'm not sure I can explain it but we just seem to have this incredible connection. 


 

You've played in Ibiza for many years. A lot of people are starting to compare Ibiza to what's going on in Las Vegas? What do you think of that?
Everyone's always trying to find the new Ibiza but they wont, because there's only one Ibiza, and it works and will continue to do so because it's so purpose-built. It has the best clubs, the best beaches, the best restaurants, so if you want to go there and go crazy for five to six nights in a row you can, or you can sit on the beach and do nothing. There's somthing for everyone and you're not tied in to what you want to do. Over the years the scene has changed a bit, sometimes its more commercial and sometimes it's more underground. You can go listen to Richie Hawtin or David Guetta.


John at Carl Cox's "The Revolution" night at Space, Ibiza.

I've played in vegas a couple times and it's been OK. It's definitely geared more towards the tourist crowds. Will there ever be a really cool and credible underground club in Vegas? I think it's going to take a lot of work. There's such a transient crowd there, so it will be hard to build such a real following for the underground. I think it will be something that will probably take place on a Monday night and will be for people who don't want to hear a record they know for five hours. For me, it seems like Vegas is more of a business and they're there to make money. I don't see them wanting to take a risk on something that's not dead set. 

David saw John Digweed for the first time at 10AM in Barcelona on a Sunday—after killing a bottle of tequila with two friends. Good times. @DLGarber

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