CANADIAN DJ DUO FINDS THE MAGIC
Words and Interview by Laura Studarus.
As far as reasons to form a musical project go, Art Department has one of the best: it can kinda suck to work alone. Friends for years, it wasn’t until No.19 Music owner Jonny White and Toronto scene-regular Kenny Glasgow (Narcotic, Jinxx) were tapped to remix Riz MC that the idea of collaboration was addressed. “We were both convinced that we could do some serious damage together,” says White.
The result of their shared studio time is Social Experiment 003 (due out February 19). In addition to the duo’s buoyant brew of funk, disco, dubstep and house influences, the compilation album also includes contributions from the likes of Fuckpony, My Favorite Robot, Damian Lazarus, and more.
We spoke with White who gave us an inside look at his early mornings, late nights, and why he’ll always look for magic in the world.
This question is brought to you by my attempt to get out of bed for our early morning interview: When you wake up in the morning, after a gig what makes you most excited to start your day?
I feel you; there are probably few people on earth who like getting up early less than I do. These days it’s everything about being at home, waking up in my own bed, having lunch with whomever’s around, being in the studio and being able to write. I’m on a 6-week hiatus to write music and be a normal person. It’s been about 3 years since I’ve been in one place for this amount of time, and it’s only 12 days in.
I can add to all that too, I’ve got some real time to devote to the label and to give all of our artists, especially the ones currently writing albums, my full attention. All that is really refreshing right now.
Growing up, was music always a driving force for you? What drew you to the turntables rather than the drums or guitar or the more “obvious” instruments?
Music was always a driving force, yeah. My pops was in the record business so naturally I grew up aspiring to be involved in that world somehow. Music has always been a massive part of my life, but it was as a listener mainly. I did play sax and trumpet when I was much younger but they weren’t instruments that grabbed me so that faded early. It wasn’t till I was about 18 that the idea of working in music from the creative side, as an artist, a DJ, really got the best of me, and it was my discovering house music that did it.
As far as production goes, that concept, being in complete control of a creative vision, from drums to melodies, and each sound involved in a composition appealed to me much more than playing any instrument in a group. The idea that it was possible is what drew me to this rather than to say, playing guitar. But I think I was afraid to find out that I might not be good at what I wanted to do for a living, so it took me a while to man up and have a go at it. Funny because now I’m dying to experience the band scenario and being a piece of a larger idea.
After being friends for so long with Kenny Glasgow, what made you decide to collaborate?
We collaborated on a remix project for Crosstown Rebels that turned out really well. It wasn’t too long after that we made the decision under heavy influence of… “the influence” to start a new project and devote 100% of our time to this idea. We were both having some success on our own. Kenny wasn’t massively ambitious around that time as he had had the more successful career already years earlier, and was almost content just writing and playing here and there. His head was in the studio. I was having some success on my own and beginning to tour more with a few hot releases I had on No.19 but I wasn’t enjoying the travel on my own. We were both convinced that we could do some serious damage together.
Given that the world is basically your playground, how did you decide where to record Social Experiment 003 album?
When you’re on the road like this, there’s only one place you’re really thinking about going when you know you’ve got time. Home. We’ve been dying to spend some solid time at home as you can tell from what I said earlier… It’s a big thing to us. I actually thought that I might go home to Toronto to write a good chunk of it, where Kenny decided to be rather than in London. Thought the cold and the house where I worked on The Drawing Board would bring some of that energy to this record but home is Barcelona for me now, so here I am.
What does Social Experiment 003 mean to you?
It’s a big moment for me personally in my professional music career from several perspectives. I mean, I’ve been working for ages at all this and to have a label I love, and another artist project I love mesh and come full circle like this is really gratifying. This is AD’s first ever mix comp and I’m doing it on my record label with my whole team who has been there since long before the start. It’s a big thing. It’s projects like this that feel like defining moments for us and inspire us.
What do the Social Experiment parties entail?
These shows are about getting the crew together to hang, do our thing and show everyone what we’re all about. I feel like every artist we work with is doing something really unique, really all their own and when you slot us all together and can feel that continuity and energy through our crew it makes for a really great showcase and a really great musical experience. Plus everyone involved in producing these parties have got a minimum of 15 years under their belt doing events. Before we all met we were promoters in our respective cities and we know how to throw a good fucking show.
Has Deadmau5’s open letter calling out DJs for not doing live production demystified the genre, or helped raise the bar for doing more things live?
I don’t know… I’m not a live show and if he’s trying to say that DJs should be playing live rather than DJing…I don’t really know where to begin. I don’t know if an ignorant statement demystifies his genre, I don’t even know what to call his genre. I’m not very familiar with the music, but I think it’s safe to say he’s not exactly raising the bar by making his irrelevant opinion known publicly. We’re certainly not looking to anyone for ideas or approval.
Is EDM on the upswing or downswing? There are some people pointing to Swedish House Mafia’s retirement as the end of the era.
If only… I don’t think that’s the case in terms of those acts disappearing. They still draw like crazy and make a lot of people a lot of money. I mean, I don’t know if numbers at their shows are up or down from last year, I’m not a part of that world enough to know. But I know what’s going on over here and it’s exploding. There’s no other way to put it. We’ve gone from playing 400 capacity rooms to stages for 10,000 plus people in just a few years. And I’m not just talking about Art Department; I’m talking about the underground as a whole being given new opportunity to reach more people than ever, and the demand for it. Promoters in America have a lot to do with that, they see that there is demand but could easily overlook this and stick with what they know will bank. They’re embracing the movement and feeding the fire so it’s owed in large part to the guys who decide to give artists like ourselves these platforms. The other larger factor is of course the fans and people who are just getting into this shit that we do, that’s the foundation of it all.
When a medium that’s built so heavily on repetition and hypnotic beats, how do you make sure you’re not falling into retread?
Well that’s what separates the real artists in this field from the rest. But it is and should be a natural evolution of an artist. I think it’s less worrying about formulas and more about keeping yourself interested. If a talented artist is constantly and naturally challenging themselves then they’re going to wind up with something that sounds interesting, it’s inevitable…Well, more often than not. It may not be the winning formula for that moment, and it may not be the right time in the industry for what they’re doing, but that’s not really what should matter to any artist. Sometimes that’s all an artist will really need to express themselves…One sound, one formula…That doesn’t mean that you feel the same soul or emotion from all of their music, but the sounds and the general template can remain. The biggest bands in the world will sound the way they sound spanning decades and albums, and you don’t hear people questioning why they’re not changing up the formula.
Do you ever see yourself pushing it into a pop direction similar to SBTRKT, who got more into pop structure and using collaborators?
If your production and your show is being designed to be popular and that’s a concern during the creative process then it’s all gone wrong. If more people get into what we do great, but the day we start making music with that in mind… Let’s just say that’s not us. People, our fans are going to have to come with us on our journey, or not. But we’re certainly not considering how we can become more popular or how we can make our music more accessible. That’s not us.
Will there ever be a time when dance music will be too commercial?
I don’t know…What are the repercussions really from a genre becoming too big? Can it get too big? It can if the music suffers for it I guess. In my opinion, as long as there is still good music being made, it’s fine. Maybe the vibe at shows where some of your favorite artists are playing feel like they’re changing for the worse as more and more mainstream promoters start booking these acts in your city, but at the end of it all, music is a very personal thing. If an artist becomes big or “commercial,” but they’re making music that you still want to buy and you’re still feeling then has it really negatively affected anything? I almost don’t see how it can get any more commercial than it is already at the level of say a David Guetta who’s working with most major pop stars now. Even hip hop and R&B artists have some pretty horrible Euro-trance or dance or whatever the fuck you want to call it as the track they’re laying down vocals on. I don’t really think what we’re doing has very much to do with any of that. If it can get too commercial it probably already is.
What non-house EDM musician would you like to collaborate with?
We’re fans of so much music but if we’re talking about what might produce the most interesting record, I would like to work with someone who we’re, of course, fans of, but also someone who we share taste and general ideas about music with. And then make it a mind that thinks completely differently than we do when it comes to process and bringing ideas to the table. Someone like say David Byrne or someone else who you listen to and think, “how did this guys come up with this?” I don’t know there are too many.
What interests you more: beats that can get asses on the dance floor, or beats that make people think?
Records that are made for a club obviously grab me as a DJ. That’s something a DJ should never disregard. As much as we’re trying to turn people on to something new, experiment, and challenge people, we’re not performing for 600-seated guests in a theatre. It’s a fucking party and people are there to dance as well as listen. As a music enthusiast obviously the music that makes you think is much more interesting…I actually don’t listen to any club music really unless I’m DJing.
What would be the ultimate response that a listener could have to your music?
Instant orgasm! Just to be moved, in some way. Making someone feel something real. Music should touch you in a way and make you feel, whether it makes you uncomfortable, depressed, alone or not alone…Or just makes you feel good. That’s what good music does for me.
There’s a line in “Robot Heart” that I love: “Feel the magic in our hearts, feel the music in our soul.” Do you feel like there’s any mystery or magic left in the world as an adult?
Yes, of course. Fuck, that would be a horrible thought if there wasn’t. Imagine a world without any fucking mystery or magic. It’s everywhere and you’ve got to be fucking blind not to see it. Listen, life isn’t all fucking pixie dust and an amazing surprise around every corner, but you can make a conscious effort to look for it in less obvious places. I think I understand quite well how you can begin to let yourself look at things that way, less exciting, dull in a “been there, done that” sort of way now vs. “when you were young.” At this moment I’ve achieved things I could only dream of, and when I did I imagined it taking a lifetime to do it. I’ve been around the world and I’ve had lifetimes full of amazing experiences, so of course things do lose their luster if you let them. These days I find myself looking to relationships I have with people, finding new people and creating…That’s where I find the magic and mystery for myself.
Are you working apart at all at this point?
We try our hardest not to. There are situations where one of us can’t be present for whatever reason, say if we’re working at home, Kenny being in Toronto and myself in Barcelona, we may do a solo gig or two but we don’t like to. I think the real impact of an Art Department set takes both of us to create. As far as music goes, we’re both writing, not everything is something that can be used for Art Department, or used at all but we do write music that is not for this project as well. Art Department does have a sound and that is what we create together but our interests and range stretch beyond just the sound of this project. We actually plan to release solo albums—together on No.19 this or next year.
Do you foresee additional albums under The Art Department moniker?
Yeah, we’re currently writing our second studio album now for release late this year. This one is a big undertaking for us, so it’s hard to see past it, but I’m sure this isn’t the last one either.
Want more tunes from Canada? Do a deep dive with MTV Iggy here.