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Interview: Danny Howells - Journeys By DJ

Martin G-H chats to the veteran English DJ ahead of his latest release.


By Spotlight

 

What can you really say about Danny Howells? His reputation is inimitable, his career spanning decades of electronic music.

Through it all one thing has remained constant. Whatever the media and tastemakers claim to be en vogue is meaningless. A DJ’s DJ, with two fingers firmly raised at conformity he has paved a path directly to the best dancefloors using aural stones heavy in personality.

This is never more evident than at a Dig Deeper event. Whether finishing with drum n bass, or tuning up to downbeat moods, there’s an educational element, both musically and structurally, to the marching orders Howells hands out.

When playing under this banner sets can last upwards of six hours, straddling genres and tempos. But how can this epic craft be compressed into one release? Well, you could create Dig Deeper: Phase One. A 43 tune digital sampler, comprising tracks from the label of the same name, it will also be available as a mix CD.

Beforehand launch events will take place, including a party with Freeze inside Liverpool’s historic Anglican Cathedral. It’s impressive to say the least, especially as Howells is only just back in Britain following triumphant parties at Miami’s Winter Music Conference.

After 72 hours of hedonism, and one trans-Atlantic flight an afternoon snooze is understandably necessary. So we felt more than a little rude for waking him up to talk about DJs putting ‘Live’ after their name, his near-accidental transition from producer to label A&R, and those forthcoming releases… Kindly, he obliged.

Spotlight: Hi Danny. How are you today?
Danny Howells: Yeah, good, actually. Just got back from Miami for a few days of chilling out and re-charging the batteries before the next round of travelling.

And how was the Winter Music Conference?
Fantastic, really enjoyed it. I had three days of parties out there. The two standouts would have to be The Treehouse, where I did a Dig Deeper party, and a Freaky Tikki boat party, when I played alongside Cassy. It was an amazing gig.

Did you manage to see anyone that stood out?
Well, I was there for five days, but the first three were before everything kicked off properly, then it was time for my gigs. One was solo for 7 hrs, and nobody else played, so the only other person I saw was Cassy on the boat. She was phenomenal, as ever.

Cassy

You’re launching the new album at Liverpool Cathedral. Ever played in a church before?
No… I’ve been to weddings, and funerals, but that’s about it. It’s an amazing venue. If you look at the history I think it’s one of the largest in Europe. I worked with the guys from Freeze on a party last year, a ‘rave in a cave’. They had the idea of taking my album launch party into the Cathedral.

It’s not finishing late- midnight. And it’s only for around 600 people, so I’m pretty sure everyone will be on their best behaviour. Maybe not wearing suits or dressed up, but not going quite as crazy as you would at a normal gig- obviously, you have to respect the premises. But then there is an afterparty, so I’m sure any sinning that wants to get done will get done there.

Onto the Dig Deeper: Phase One album then. Was it difficult to take the concept of all-night sets, and put it onto one CD?
I don’t think it was, too much. Although I have all this music, on a Dig Deeper night, unless I’m playing for a crazy amount of time then it’s not formulaic, but I like to start from some chilled, downtempo stuff, move through deep house, techier stuff, a few bangers, techno… and quite often finish with some drum n bass.

I was able to span that range, and include all those genres on the album, and I’m pretty sure it sounds coherent. It doesn’t feel rushed in anyway. So the right areas were touched upon, in an 80 minute mix, and I’m very, very, very pleased with the results.

So why put the album together now?
I felt I’d accumulated enough stuff. I hadn’t really planned a compilation; I was using the label originally to release my own productions. Then I hit a bit of a rough patch and I wasn’t feeling inspired to make much, so I thought ‘what can I do with the label?’

So it was decided that we’d start to put the feelers out for other artists that might want to contribute. So I switched from producer to A&R. In the beginning I thought let’s just get a few tracks in and put some singles out. But it got to the stage where there was enough to release a compilation. I thought ‘I haven’t done one in a while, and if I stick to the original plan these singles will be coming out until 2013’.

There’s a lot to be said about lengthier sets, and the merits of letting a DJ take control of a club. Do you think people are losing appreciation for that kind of thing?
Yeah, I think there’s an element of that, which reflects the younger clubbers coming through with shorter attention spans who just want to hear hit after hit after hit. And if that’s what they want then give it to them. I don't want to ever force myself to do extended sets. Right now it’s usually because it has been asked of me.

Times are certainly changing. After a couple of decades at the fore, what do you make of where the scene has got to?
It’s still really strong on the whole, with a great underground that, I think, is where all the fun is to be had. But I definitely feel, as I always have, that there is a huge amount of disposable music out there.

I’m also seeing a lot of DJs and producers panicking about their position, or seeming to anyway. Asking themselves ‘am I big enough’ or ‘how can I be bigger’. God knows how many people now put ‘LIVE’ after their name. I’m like ‘what the fuck?’

What are you doing live? Switching on a laptop? There’s no articulated lorry outside carrying your kit- you’re not Led Zeppelin. Warming up a computer to play a pre-programmed Ableton set does not, for me, make a live performance. I think it shows more of a clamour for relevancy, by whatever desperate means. Who knows, you might start seeing DJs turn up to play wearing animal heads, I don’t know…

People are a bit over keen I think. They’re scared of falling down the scale. I don’t give a fuck. I get booked each week, and I’m happy. I could be a lot bigger, and a lot smaller. But if I decide to put ‘LIVE’ after my name it’s because I have an instrument or band of people to play live. And that switch will be a decision I want to make creatively.

So are you anti-Ableton, or just unhappy with how it’s used?
Just not really into the way it’s used. I always assumed that if you played on Ableton it allowed you all this creativity, but then I saw DJs just pressing play a minute before the end of one track to start another, and thought ‘you’ve spent the last six minutes drinking’.

I have nothing against technology, so long as it’s used well. I switched recently to using two SD cards and a pair of Pioneer CDJ 2000s. One card has all my new stuff on it, the other all my oldies. I think there are about 33,000 tunes on each, meaning now when I’m playing out I have 66,000 tracks in front of me.

So the technology has opened up a lot of avenues, creatively when I’m mixing. And at the same time I love the fact I’m not spending 50 per cent of my time with my back to the crowd, rumbling around with a torch, battling with people putting their drinks down everywhere.

Finally, what else is going on over the next few months?
Cracking on with the label, with some vinyl samplers from the album waiting in the wings. Then I’ll be releasing one of the tracks by a guy called Vadim Yershov as a stand alone single, probably on vinyl too.

After that the main project is an album by a guy called Art Bleek, so I’m really happy about that, and it really fits in with the whole Dig Deeper thing. There are a couple of downtempo tracks, some nice, short, deep house, some quite quirky and some soulful stuff. And, of course, I’ll be carrying on with the old travelling around, all the time.

Check out our latest podcast with the man himself - SPTL059: Danny Howells

Dig Deeper: Phase One is released on April 4th 2011


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