He’s been described as a ‘benchmark setter’, and ‘the DJs DJ’… and in our eyes legendary selector John Digweed is so consistently reliable, you could set your watch by him.
Having cut his teeth during the formative years of acid house, Digweed has defied definition over a close to thirty year career – blending house, trance, techno, ambient electronica and a myriad of genres into countless impeccably-curated DJ sets, at venues such as Heaven, Twilo, Fabric and many more.
Having set the tone with 1994’s Renaissance: The Mix Collection, the Bedrock Records founder now has a myriad of renowned albums under his belt, not to mention his longstanding Transitions mix show, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary (alongside guest David Morales).
As well as Transitions, the coronavirus lockdown saw Digweed unveil the Bunker Sessions live stream series, while this past April saw the release of Quattro, a stylistically diverse four-CD album aimed at ‘showcasing Bedrock’s bold, wide-ranging musical vision in an expansive and coherent format at the dawning of a new decade’.
In short, it’s been a milestone year for the Hastings native, despite the obvious COVID-related challenges.
Ladies and gentlemen, John Digweed.
Hi John, thanks for talking to us. Few could have predicted the impact that COVID would have on the electronic music industry in 2020, but it’s also offered artists an opportunity to take a step back from the scene and reflect. Yes, there have been challenges, but also opportunities – do you agree?
I can’t speak for everyone, else but as nice as it was to reset the body clock, sleep in my own bed for longer than a week, and keep busy with my radio shows, Bunker sessions, and label, I really started to miss playing to a crowd about a week in.
I think one of the main impacts COVID has had on the scene is that it has shone a light on how a lot of music artists and independent labels – especially smaller and less established ones – are not being properly compensated for their work.
Many social media platforms pay no performance royalties to the rights holders at all, and the most popular streaming services pay a very small percentage for artists’ content per stream. Morally, it’s important that if we can, try to support the music makers out there as they are the future of our scene.
Initially I started working with Mixcloud for my radio show and when they introduced a live streaming service right at the start of lockdown I encouraged my fanbase to use it, as it had a license in place to pay the rights holders for the streams that they broadcast. At first, it was not as stable as the bigger services but many improvements have been made and now it’s a stable and solid platform with many DJ’s now running their streams through it.
Music has been one of the greatest escapes from the lockdown period, so naturally it would be great if artists and independent labels were paid a higher percentage from big streaming platforms for their content. I also think it’s important that artists and labels direct their fans to their content on websites like Bandcamp, which will ensure they get a greater percentage of sales.
The lockdown led to the creation of the Bunker Sessions project, which in a world full of ‘live from the living room’-style DJ mixes has stood out for its originality. When developing Bunker Sessions, what was your modus operandi?
The main focus is and always has been to put the music front and centre. I was not bothered about being in full view on the screen and I think that this worked in my favour.
I think people know by now that I can mix two records together, but I am by no means a dancing/finger-pointing DJ. Why would I set a streaming environment that I don’t feel 100% comfortable in?
In my current set up, people can still see me working the equipment and I have enjoyed having freedom to play what I want; it’s almost like playing at a house party that everyone is invited to.
You recently released the Quattro compilation, which in hindsight could be said to have been perfectly timed – offering escapism when people desperately needed it?
I think music is a great escape from all the white noise and depressing news stories, especially given our current circumstances. The reaction to the release could have gone either way, so I’m really glad people really embraced it as soon as it came out and was met with such fantastic reviews.
Would it be fair to say that there are some autobiographical elements in Quattro? Heaven Scent features on the first CD, for example.
To be honest, I didn’t plan for it but it was a nice coincidence that the ambient remix was ultimately featured on this compilation. It was something that just happened.
Transitions, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, could just as easily be called ‘John Digweed with…’, such as the array of guests that you have had on the show. Any personal highlights from over the years – a guest mix that made you sit up and take notice?
We’ve hosted pretty much everyone that I could ever have wished for on the show throughout the past 20 years. It’s impossible to pick just a couple of stand-out mixes, as there have been so many great ones.
The real stars of the show are our loyal fans around the world who continuously support the show week in and week out. Not to mention those who make the extra effort to subscribe and listen via our Mixcloud every week. Transitions is actually one of the most listened to shows on Mixcloud at the moment.
These days, we think nothing of logging on to Mixcloud to listen to a mix. But Transitions was one of the first shows to embrace digital as a core audience platform. Was this part of the strategy when the series was launched on Kiss FM all those years ago?
At the very beginning, the original strategy was just to have a show on exclusively Kiss FM. When I first started, my show was one of the first to be shared via download sites.
It was initially only available to stream on Kiss FM in the UK so people ripped it and it spread worldwide in quite an unorthodox manner. The show is now syndicated on over 80 stations around the world as well as on Mixcloud every week.
People can find and stream the show very easily on some of the main stations around the world in great sound quality. It’s crazy to see how it has grown and grown into something I am so proud to still be doing after 20 years.
Some of the most fondly remembered Transitions shows are probably the live broadcast editions, from places like Space Ibiza, Time Warp, Fabric, Tomorrowland, Pacha, Ministry of Sound, etc. Are these more challenging to put together logistically?
We did a five-hour live broadcast from a boat in Miami during WMC a few years ago. It was incredibly stressful, but amazing at the same time as we had no idea if the signal would last or not! It ended up being one of my most listened-to shows around the world.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Renaissance: The Mix Collection, released at a time when mixed albums were a new concept, particularly mix albums as adventurous as this. Looking back, do you think Renaissance changed the way mix albums were perceived, setting the template for others to follow?
It had a huge impact, due to its deluxe packaging and three CDs. But what made this album timeless was the tracks that Sasha and myself chose; we captured a clubbing moment in time and, as nobody had used these before on a CD, it identified those tracks to that album and Sasha and me for our mixing style giving it such amazing longevity.
It became an album that everyone wanted to own.
Over the past few years, you have rolled out the ‘Live In…’ series of mixes, with the most recent being ‘Last night at Output’. What prompted you to start this series?
I always did a lot of studio albums which allowed me to get creative with all the studio equipment, but what I love about the Live in albums is that they capture me ‘live’ in the mix at some incredible clubs and parties around the world.
The Live In Montreal was 10+ hours long and the build and journey of that mix are one of my proudest releases. It is a testament to the popularity of the series considering that there are so many free live mixes online and that people still want and choose to support a physical version.
Your fanbase covers a broad spectrum – at a typical gig, you’re going to have a combination of aging ravers longing to hear For What You Dream Of and kids that are just getting into dance music for the first time. When playing out, is it difficult to maintain that balance?
I tend to play mostly new and unreleased tracks at my gigs. While I do drop the occasional classic records now and again, I would rather be known for playing the future sounds rather than playing big, crowd-pleasing hits just to get crowd reactions – that’s not really my style.
I think my fanbase knows and loves me for this as it’s always no-frills and all about the music.
What sort of dance music scene will emerge once the coronavirus situation passes? Do you think the footage of DJs playing festivals in certain European countries (not to mention negative coverage of raves) has affected trust in the industry, which will be difficult to regain?
I think the industry needs to try to be more united and show that it wants to lead everyone back to the dancefloor safely and responsibly when the time is right.
It’s such a difficult situation because so many good people in the scene have had their jobs, dreams, ambitions, and so much more taken away in a moment, with so many more months of uncertainty to come. That said, I understand why people want to play shows and go clubbing as soon as possible, myself included.
Unfortunately, it seems like, without a vaccine and with social distancing still in place, clubs and festivals will be the last to get the green light to open up again. It sucks for so many nightlife and entertainment industry people who invested everything in their craft, but we need to be patient and wait for when the time is right.
In preparation for this interview, we reached out on social media for some quickfire questions to put to you. Without further ado… 🙂
What is the name of your cat?
I don’t live my life as an open book, so the cat’s name is….?
Are you planning to release a Live In…from The Bunker?
There have been over 60 hours worth of music in my Bunker streams already, is that not enough?
What do you do to relax?
I find it hard to relax; I always need to be doing something. I’ve hardly watched any TV or films during this time. I’ve spent more time on my bike than ever before.
Who, in your opinion, were your top three guest mixes on Transitions?
Andy Weatherall, David Morales, Laurent Garnier.
[Thanks to John Digweed for the interview. The Transitions series can be found by clicking here]