We had the chance to chat with Dax J after his debut at the Movement festival in Detroit. Whether you’ve been following the British techno DJ/producer for some time, or just started listening to his music (shout out to his recent 19-track album to benefit Ukraine), it goes without saying he has a lot going on.

Dax talked about adapting to a travel schedule stacked with country switches and rescheduled dates, the importance of lighting and sound at a party, and growing up listening to jungle — topped off with his advice for aspiring artists and prediction for the future of the industry.

You just played Movement and it was your first time in Detroit. Was it also your only US stop on this tour?
■ Yes, first time in Detroit and first time at Movement. I loved it, I loved the whole weekend. It was a nice vibe in the city. My tour schedule has been really crazy — I was actually in New York two weeks before [Movement] and then I went back to Europe for gigs there and then went to Detroit. The week before New York, I was in Europe and the week before that I was in Colombia so I’ve been hopping over the pond every other week for the last six weeks. It’s a result of all the reschedules that have taken place since a lot of gigs planned for 2020 all got canceled.

 

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I’m sure a lot of people don’t realize that not only are you showing up and playing, but you’re also dealing with the logistics of traveling when you’re not in the booth. Reschedules aside, do you normally have time between dates so you can check out the cities you’re visiting, or is it always land, play, leave, repeat?
■ When I was just in New York, I actually had two nights after the gig so I got to explore a bit. I went for a long walk from Brooklyn over to Manhattan and really enjoyed the day. I ended up having an extra day in Detroit since I was supposed to play in Canada the day before but they wouldn’t let me into the county. The day I arrived, I got some food at Hudson Cafe and they give you far too much food it’s ridiculous. I ordered some pancakes to cheer myself up and they gave me like an actual cake. I got to explore the city and walked to [Movement]. That’s what I really liked about the way it was set up — everything is quite close together. I walked down to the festival and looked around all the stages because I was playing the day after. A lot of the time I don’t get an extra day, especially when it’s South America or America because the tours are fitting everything in as compact as possible. I did South America about two months ago and it was like five gigs in five days in five different countries. I really enjoyed America the last couple of times because of those extra days.

You’ve played venues and events all over the world with different setups and atmospheres and crowds. What makes a good party for you?
■ It sounds obvious, but you need incredible sound. Incredible sound will transform any event and everyone will enjoy the party a lot more if the sound is at the top. A lot of places get it good but there are very few places that really get it to an exceptional level and it just creates a different atmosphere. The sound is probably the most important. And then, it also sounds obvious, but getting the lights right. I always try and talk to the light guys before my set at most places I play. When you get a light guy that really knows what he’s doing and you get sound on point, the parties are incredible. It sounds basic but it’s very rare to find a party that gets these things spot-on. Another thing is a no phones policy. The best places I play all have a no phones policy, so there’s definitely a correlation there.

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You have a degree in sound engineering. Has that been helpful with your work as a producer?
■ The main reason I chose that degree was because at the time, I wanted to make music full-time at home and not get a job. I was 19 or 20 at the time when I first went to university and the only way I could make music full-time and not have a job was to go to university because they pay tuition — this was in London and that was my main motivation for doing it. The actual course was quite general and wasn’t specific to production. You’d learn a lot of different things but not on such a deep level, like live sound, recording microphone techniques, music business. All this stuff has been slightly helpful but if I was to do it all again, I’d probably do something like SAE where the courses are specifically focused on music production and are run by teachers who have had experience in the industry as producers and DJs.

When I started the first year of university, I had already been spending hours every day making music for the last two or three years. I remember the first assignment in one of the first music production courses was to create a drum sampler in Logic and create a one-minute drum beat with like 10 different drum hits and create your own patch. That was a 12-week assignment and I could do that in 30 minutes. So, I would get the assignment and wouldn’t go in for the next 10 weeks and be making my own music and with one week to go, I’d do the assignment in one day and turn it in. 

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That’s actually really funny. So you were taking this course while working on your own thing. Was there a particular moment or opportunity that made you realize music could be your career?
■ I always wanted it to be my career and I knew I had to produce a lot of music to get recognition and gigs. It wouldn’t have been until 2014 that I started to get recognized and gig a lot. That was when I [realized] I could do it full-time, but up until 2014, it was a struggle getting by, making music full-time and doing whatever I had to do so I didn’t have to get a full-time job.

Do you remember what your first big gig was? You recently closed the Awakenings 25th anniversary which is huge, but how did it start for you?
■ My friends and I were putting on parties in London and we did this free party in East London. It was rougher back then — this would’ve been around 2009 — and it was this underground basement thing that we somehow managed to pack out. We had no experience in promoting or anything and all the previous gigs I played were for no one; this gig was all of a sudden packed and none of us knew why. I was like, “Wow this is cool, I can’t believe it.” That was the first gig I was playing to a packed room and it was a party we put on so that was a nice feeling. That was the first one in techno. Going back, I played some jungle parties in 2003 and ironically it was a big thing called Movement run by Ryan G — they used to do a weekly party in Central London. I sent them some tapes because I really wanted to play this party and I kept nagging them and then managed to land a set there. That actually was the very first packed-out party I played. They were few and far between then.

 

Jungle is big in London. Were you into that first and then migrated to techno?
■ At school we were all into jungle and garage — that’s what everyone listens to in school in London since like 13 years old. I never once listened to house or techno when I was at school, none of us did. I guess it’s a very UK thing. 

What else do you have coming up?
■ I’m always working on music and running the label. I’ve got two EPs that are basically finished that will be coming out in the next month. And also on the label, I have a new album from Umwelt and a couple of EPs from some other artists. I’ve got another remix that I’ve done of a Japanese artist, the late Susumu — that should be out soon; it was submitted eight months ago but the vinyl delays are long right now.

What advice do you have for an aspiring DJ/producer?
■ First, you have to really love it. If you want to be a DJ or producer, you have to love it more than anything because it’s a long hard road. If you don’t love it, you’re not gonna make it past tough times. Given that you’re really into the music and you’ve decided it’s exactly what you want to do, the best advice is you have to be smart with your time and dedicate as many hours as you can to honing in on your craft. You’ve got to make some hit records if you want to make it as a professional touring DJ on a higher level. It’s extremely rare these days to be a DJ just by being a DJ. Also, I hate to say it but now social media is so important; it’s as important now — which is a horrible thing to say — as the music you’re making and the DJ sets you’re playing, which is sad in a way because it’s taking away from the actual art but that’s the reality of time times we’re in and it’s not changing or going away anytime soon. 

Some people may argue social media is more important if you want to get gigs. I guess that’s another question: do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a DJ that’s getting paid? If you want to be a DJ that’s getting paid, you probably need to focus on your social media. If you want to be an artist, you’ve got to put in the work, concentrate on your craft, make as much music as you can, and spend time looking for interesting music to play that will set you apart. 

There are two avenues there which is something I’ve just thought of as you asked me that question. It depends on what type of DJ you want to be. 

It’s crazy that’s a reality now compared to when you started.
■ I’ve said this before and I’ve thought about it and I’ve described it like this. Imagine when the DJ’ing and electronic music culture started getting really big… to be a DJ, all you had to do was be a good DJ. And then, these people who were making the tracks — the producers — started to get booked. At the moment, social media has been the third major transition, the third major culture shift and with technology accelerating the way it is, the fourth culture shift isn’t far away. I’m predicting it will have to do with AI. I think it will favor software engineers, people who can write code and almost program their AI to create their music and DJ for them, almost like creating a being. This is just my wild thought. Whatever it is, I think AI will play a role in what the next shift is gonna be. 

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