909originals meets Duke Dumont – “Music should always be at the top of the pyramid…”

There are few dance artists that have enjoyed the commercial success that Duke Dumont has in the past decade, with the Harrow native topping the pop charts with house tracks such as Ocean Drive, Need U (100%) and I Got U, the latter of which earned him a Grammy nomination.

This past April saw Dumont release his debut album, Duality, on Virgin/EMI Records; a long player that explores both the commercial and more introspective sides of his musical personality.

He followed this up in September with Duality Remixed, a compendium of remixes by artists including Cerrone, Luttrell, Mano Le Tough, Purple Disco Machine and Illyus & Barrientos, which further broadens the album’s dancefloor-friendly horizons.

The new album can be downloaded/purchased here.

Of course, both Duality and Duality Remixed have been released amidst the backdrop of COVID-19, which has put a stop to Dumont’s extensive tour schedule, and indeed put the wider sector under pressure.

909originals spoke to him via Zoom from his Laurel Canyon, California residence – “it’s like a big treehouse,” he assures us – about the current health of the industry, where his music fits in to the wider electronic music spectrum, and his most recent release.

Hi Duke, thanks for talking to us. So much of the dance music industry has been framed by COVID this year. As someone who has worked in the industry for over a decade, what’s your view on where the industry finds itself now?

To be honest, it’s an absolute f**king mess. You can see it on social media, and it’s absolutely true – it’s the first industry to go and the last industry to come back.

If you look at it at face value, I don’t think anyone in power cares about the artists, about the festivals, even right down to the company that’s doing the portaloos – nobody gives a f**k about them. Everybody has a perception that people make money from music, and most of the time, they don’t.

Let’s say someone dedicates themselves to music and they make an average living from that, which is hard enough. They don’t have any other skill set. Now, they’re out of a job.

In the UK, there’s a little bit of a safety net in place, with benefits and things like that, but in much of the rest of the world, including the US, there’s nothing. The mentality is ‘get a new job’ – if you can’t, you’ll go hungry.

In your case, your career kicked of around the time of the financial crisis, in 2007/08. Do you see parallels between that period and what’s going on now?

Yes, this is why I have empathy for what’s going on right now. Before the financial crisis, I was at a level where my records were being played in underground clubs, by acts like Justice, Tiga and so on – I had signed to Tiga’s label. I was making an average living, maybe around £50,000 to £60,000 a year. This was in 2008.

I was happy with life – I was travelling, and playing music, and getting paid for it. It wasn’t enough to have a pension or anything like that, but I loved it. Then the financial crisis happened, and I went from making £60,000 a year to £8,000 a year. I had to go back and live with my mum. I was 25 or 26 at the time; it was very demasculating. God bless my family actually, I was very lucky to have them.

Then, at the same time, all the clubs started to close. I don’t think the underground scene in London ever quite recovered from that. What seems like the ‘underground’ in a city like London is a bit more corporate now, they have big business behind them. It was never like that before the financial crisis. I think it made everyone much more business savvy, and more about the middlemen and less about the artist.

It used to be the case that if enough people liked my music, I could go off and play somewhere, but it doesn’t work like that any more. There are lots of managers and businessmen getting involved.

It seems that these days, a lot of what defines ‘success’ is measured through plays on Spotify, or on the social media presence, rather than on the artist. Do you think that COVID-19 will kill that off, that it will become more about the music?

I don’t know. What happened with the last downturn was it saw a clear out of acts that were very good at what they did, but they didn’t have the ‘machine’ behind them. Unfortunately I think that’s going to happen again.

Something else that happened the last time was that EDM got massive – the most corporate element of what you could consider dance music.

There was this idolisation of the DJ – the DJ became the top of the tree – so the creator, the person that made the music, became secondary to the person playing the music. I thought that was grotesque. There’s something about that didn’t sit well with me.

I wonder in a few years from now, is it going to be even more like that, or less so. I hope it’s less so; music should always be at the top of the pyramid.

But what you’re saying about the illusion of instagram, or people looking like a ‘big deal’ on social media – I believe that younger people are smarter than our generation, and they can see through that.

That ‘idolisation of the DJ’ started earlier though, around the late 90s and early 2000s. Things then got magnified, and now you have these festivals that have a ‘last days of Rome’ feeling to them, – they got so grand, so overproduced, and became sort of a celebration of consumerism. Maybe COVID will make people look at themselves in the mirror and say ‘it can’t go back to the way it was’?

I don’t think anyone needs to ‘have a look at themselves’ in order for it to go back to the way it was. If you’re talking about touring, and festivals, the hierarchy is about money first and then that trickles down to the talent pool of the acts.

I used to always say that lot of people have their chips on their shoulder about popular music. Who is the better act – is it a small act from Brooklyn that are making progressive music 20 years ahead of anyone else, which have 2,000 plays on SoundCloud, or is it someone like David Guetta, who has millions and millions of streams and makes people happy, but might not make the most progressive music? To me, it’s a mixture of both.

There’s always this perception that if something is more popular, or bigger, it must have gone got there by nefarious means, and it’s a lesser art form because it’s popular. I got rid of that way of thinking.

It’s really f**king hard to make a credible commercial record, it’s probably one of the hardest things to do. The second hardest thing is to make an interesting eight-minute techno record.

There is this aloofness to the underground. I’ve seen the full 360-degrees – from the deepest of the underground to the highest of the overground. I’ve played Panorama Bar in Berghain, and also gone on before Tiesto at a major festival. I don’t think anybody else has done that in the industry… except maybe Paul Woolford.

Ok, what you’re saying is that people tend to dismiss pop music because it’s popular, and they are drawn to more underground genres. But at the same time, it’s about craftsmanship and songwriting, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s a pop song or an underground track?

One thing that gets missed a lot is that music has emotional context. When you go and see a film, whether it’s The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane or even some 1980s Breakfast Club sort of thing, you want it to trigger your emotions, and to go on some kind of a journey.

That’s what music should do – whether it’s a fantastic record from Bicep, or the latest release from Justin Bieber. It has an emotional effect on the listener. That’s the whole point of music.

You’ve been making music for more than a decade now, and so it’s surprising that Duality is your first album. You had a few massive hits about six or seven years ago, but you didn’t ‘feed the dragon’, you bided your time. Would that be fair to say?

There’s not one direct answer I can give you. The first is that at the time, I was doing too many shows. I remember between Need U (100%) and I Got U there was a year wait, and there was a lot of pressure on me to make a record.

I’m not one of those people that can go from touring to working hard in the studio – it’s two different parts of your brain. When you have four hours on a Wednesday and five hours on a Thursday, that’s not a good way to work.

The second thing was there actually was an album, but it never got released. I’m happy it didn’t come out to be honest, as it wouldn’t have been as good as what Disclosure did with Settle, which would have come out at the same time. I think people don’t give enough credit to Disclosure actually, they paved the way for modern house music that could both have integrity and huge chart potential.

One thing I wanted with Duality was to make every track on there able to play live. When I play live I can take elements of the tracks and mutate it into one grand piece of music and experience, in the same way that someone like Todd Terje does.

The album spans various musical styles, you’ve got pop music on there, four-to-the-floor house music, there’s even a classical piano track, Overture. If you had released an album around the time of Need U (100%) and I Got U, do you think it would have been a lot more formulaic? Now you have an opportunity to express your different musical personalities?

I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for those two records. But two years before that, I was speaking to Stones Throw about putting something out on that label, and speaking to Warp Records about putting a record out on Warp. Nobody sees that side – I’m genuinely obsessed with all types of music.

In terms of the more commercial aspects, the goal with a track like Ocean Drive was to try to make one of the best pop songs possible. Arrogantly or accurately – I’m not sure which – I think I did that. It’s stood the test of time.

It’s a shame that UK radio didn’t really back it, but then again, it enabled me to find my career path in a way, because the rest of the world embraced it. It enabled me to play arena shows in Australia, and to have a presence in America.

It made me realise that a lot of things in your life are kind of on a knife edge, where there are certain people that might pick up on your work, or they don’t.

One of the reasons why I’m so happy about making an album now – and working on a second one – is that I was able to put some time into it, and I wasn’t distracted by the flashing lights of commercial success.

I don’t mind the records I’ve made, my objective was always to make cooler records than the sh*t you hear on daytime radio, and to have a positive effect on people listening to them.

My advice to any act, whether you are a band or make electronic music – if you don’t have commercial tastes, don’t make commercial music. It will send you into a psychosis. Don’t go out simply to make money.

If you want to make money, work on a catalogue of music and play the long game – think of it in terms of a ten or 12 year project, like what Four Tet does, or Bicep, or Bonobo.

If your taste is for commercial music, sign to a label, release a single, and another, and another.

At the moment, with COVID, I can see some acts getting a lot more commercial, but they’re doing it in a really bad way. That sort of approach will leave you in the middle ground of neither being cool or overground. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle.

At the same time, a lot of artists get pigeonholed into making one type
of music, and any deviation from that is rejected. Maybe a younger Duke Dumont could have got comfortable and stuck to one sound, but by takin a step back you’ve had the opportunity to redefine yourself?

I’m in a fortunate position. Fair play to EMI – they’ve never really blocked any music I’ve made – so when the label says ‘we want to put emphasis on Love Song, or Let Me Go, with RY X’, they get behind it and have full confidence in me. They know it’s going to work out. That’s a very rare situation to be in.

So it’s a bit like The Beatles in the second half of their career?

The Beatles became The Beatles because they stopped touring. They were like One Direction before that, like Bill Haley with Rock Around The Clock.

Can you imagine One Direction doing what they did, and going off to work with Radiohead or something like that? It’s mind-blowing when you think about it.

I think the general consciousness pigeonholes artists so badly that people aren’t willing to accept when acts go slightly askew, or even more into sub-genres. If you’re in the Tech House category on Beatport, but you make a melodic techno track, the response can be severe.

On Duality Remixed you’ve worked with a huge amount of artists, such as Cerrone, Luttrell, Mano Le Tough and Purple Disco Machine – when you released Duality back in April, was the idea always to do a remix album?

There have been a couple of remix albums that I’ve been really fond of. I remember Caribou had a remix album, and it really complimented his other work. From a selfish point of view, I wanted to do a remix album so that I could take the tracks and put them into my show and mash them up – turn them into something bigger than they already were.

Quite a few of the artists that remixed the album are friends of mine, and people I would know personally, so it’s always nice to work with them.

Obviously it’s a shame they can’t be heard played out on proper speakers at the moment, but I appreciate those that stepped up and made such a good job of it.

The way dance music has evolved in the past decade or two, it’s not just to be listened to in a club though, is it? It’s for everyday life, whether dancing the kitchen or through headphones. Especially these days…

I don’t think there’s any other form of music that creates a communal experience en masse than dance music, whether that’s hip hop, or trap, or any other genre. No other music enables you to put 20,000 or 30,000 people on the same level.

Duality was made with that mindset of bringing everyone together, and the next album will be the same.

When is the next album due?

Whenever it will be done, it will be done. I’m taking my time with it. I’m working at it like a regular job, and it’s coming along nicely.

[Thanks to Duke Dumont for talking to us. You can buy/download Duality Remixed by clicking here]

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