Friday, November 12, 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Interview w/ Danny Howells - The true DJ's DJ

In Pic: Danny Howells
Actually getting goosebumps typing this out. Danny '12 hour set' Howells. That's what I used to call him, in honour of his many marathon sets I had the absolute pleasure dancing my nuts off to. The more times I watched him DJ, and this will sound embarrassingly cliche, the closer I felt to him as a person. Through the brilliantly programmed music that spans a variety of deepsexyfuturisitictechfunk sounds. Through his intimate vibe with the punters where he literally is just one of the boys. By the third time I watched him play (lol and this might very well be because of the various intoxicants I had ingested) - I use to wave at him like a little girl in hopes that he would look up and wave back... to the point where my friends would be, "WTF are you doing?" It was only a matter of time before I started calling him, 'Danny - He's everyone's friend'.

The thing about Danny Howells - he's an honest DJ... he knows what he likes and that's what he's going to stick with. There are a plethora of DJs who have jumped mindlessly on bandwagons (some more convincingly than others) and gorged their fans with the flavours of the month, and yet if you've heard Danny's music from the past decade - you'll notice it's been consistently timeless. He's very much a mood DJ and that's what sets him apart; where genres are essentially irrelevant, but the feel of the tune is all important. Very few DJs have mastered this art and Mr. Howells is one of them. He'll be playing the deepest darkest prog set and just to see you smile, he'll bust out an 80s influenced disco beast and it will make sense. That is the magic of Danny Howells.

Danny reigns supreme in my books for a variety of reasons. I can't think of any DJ who can program a set better than him... it's literally like he's picked tunes that have been made to make love with each other. More to the point, he doesn't blow his load. He knows exactly how to build a night; deep and sexy early, groovy bouncy to pick things up and throbbing madness to cap things off. It's all about pace and Danny Howells is the boss of pacing a night, always making sure to snugly grip on to his listener.

Forget that I've had my best nights (my thighs and calves aching from all the dancing the morning/afternoon after), to this day I can put on his NuBreed, GU Miami, GU 24/7 and his Renaissance mixes among others... and it will still sound fresher and groovier than ever. Even when he's putting together a mix that isn't dance music, it still sounds distinctly special and Howells-like (please, please, download his Essential Mix from 2002, it could potentially change your  life).

Do yourself a favour and get some Danny Howells in you - it's not just music to dance to, it's music for the soul.

In an exclusive interview with YHIHF, Danny Howells talks about his humble beginnings as a DJ in South England, his mentor John Digweed, his favourites from his illustrious list of compilations, his upcoming projects with Dig Deeper and much more! 

In a nutshell – who is Danny Howells and what kind of DJ/artist is he?
A 39 year old DJ, producer and label owner. Living in London. Not sure what kind of "artist" I am though - I suppose someone who puts music first and isn't too fussed about the glam! I'm also one who takes forever to answer interview requests, sorry!

In your lifetime, who and what have been your main sources of inspiration?
From an early age, my family who introduced me to a wide range of music - from classical to funk and pop. When I started DJing, John Digweed was a big influence. In more recent years my main inspiration has mainly been the music I have been exposed to, as well as the crowds I play it to.

Tell us about your childhood and what lead to you pursuing DJing as a career.
My Dad was nowhere to be seen, so my Mum raised me on her own, with help from my Nan, Grandad, aunts and uncles etc. That was one of the reasons I got to hear so many different styles of music from an early age as all my family members had different tastes, and I would spend days just listening to their records with them. There'd sometimes be three record players in different rooms all banging it out - pop, rock, classical, everything.

You must have tackled the age-old conflict of juggling ‘DJing as a hobby that feeds passion versus DJing as a profession that puts food on the table.’
I've had struggles in the past but I think I've been quite careful so that I've put myself in a nice situation where I can be a bit more picky and less reliant on non-stop touring, which i find hard as my age increases!

I’ve read somewhere, long time ago, you were once a nurse… besides being the brunt of bad ‘male nurse’ jokes, what was that experience like?
It was a great experience for me. I worked as an assistant psychiatric nurse for nine years in an acute ward in Hastings. It was so unpredictable and extremely depressing at times but also very rewarding. I would definitely consider dipping my toe into it again when I'm too old to travel.

Tell us about your label Dig Deeper, what kind of sound are you striving to push?
The label reflects any style of music that you could expect to hear in one of my extended DJ sets - anything from downtempo, eclectic, deep house through to techno. I've been a bit slow production-wise over the last year so I've been signing up some exciting new music from a range of artists, both known and upcoming, which I'll be putting together along with some of my own productions for a Dig Deeper compilation early next year.

You’ve done your fair share of mixed compilations, which three do you hold closest to your heart?
Probably the first disc of my 24/7 album, the Choice CD for Azuli, and even though it wasn't a CD I'll include my 2002 Essential Mix.

Give us insight on the legendary Bedrock nights on the South coasts of England during the 90s – you were Digweed’s go to DJ for warm ups. What was the scene and music like in those times, besides the bad hairdos and fluorescent clothing?  
For me they started on Hastings Pier, which sadly got burnt by arsonists just a few weeks ago. The scene was amazing - mainly because it was so fresh and new to us all, and less of an industry. I learnt so much from John and those warm-ups - the main thing was about sculpting a night, building it slowly from the start, not just musically but the lights, sound, etc. It showed me that a night doesn't need to be a full-on in-your-face experience from the moment the doors open, that it can be a creative process that slowly sucks people in and slowly develops into mayhem!

What was it like working with John Digweed so early in both your careers? 
He was exactly the same as he is now, very kind and supportive, as well as always being on hand to give advice on all matters. I loved working with him then and I still do now, nearly 20 years on. He was always so hard working and dedicated and that was very inspiring.

When you play around the world as much as you do… do you tend to categorize the crowds you play for? What kind of subtle differences and expectations can you tell between the crowds in Europe, America and Asia?
I never know how to answer this question really - there are always certain places where my sound goes down better, but then everywhere is different and I can have totally different experiences in the same place - it can be unpredictable which I suppose keeps me on my toes!

Tell us about your famous eclectic mixes – the Essential Mix from 2002 and the RA Mix from a couple of years back? What equipment do you use and how do you go about compiling those particular mixes?
The 2002 mix was done with turntables, one cdj500s (I couldn't afford two!), lots of looping and re-editing, and a piece of VERY basic software called Cakewalk Club Tracks. It was an 8 track audio editor which limited me extremely but also forced me to be more creative. The RA mix started from a small leftover from the 2002 mix, and I completed it on Logic 8, as I was touring South America at the time. It kind of restricted me a bit as I wasn't at home with my music collection, so found myself having to extract tunes from my ipod for the mix!

There a lot of mixed opinions regarding the state of dance music - the indefinite future of clubs and record labels, DJs not blagging as many gigs, is it currently in a bit of a recession or is it still blossoming? 
I think I've always kind of operated on the outskirts a bit ... just doing my own thing, so I've never really felt qualified to comment on the state of the industry as a whole. I only really see the things I'm involved in and obviously there are a lot of changes happening. Sometimes things have to be shaken up a bit though for things to move forward.

One of my favourite internet moments happened when you felt compelled to voice your opinion on an Australian forum regarding warm up sets. You were upset with a few DJs who were playing before you. When you’re headlining a night, what in your opinion is a perfect warm up set for you? How do you go about warming up a night for other headline DJs?
My favourite warm-up DJs are the ones who get me totally itching to get on the decks, where I feel I can play what I want without being forced into just "banging it out", and who get me constantly asking what tunes they're playing! Warming up is about setting the tone, getting the crowd slowly immersed into the night without hitting a climax musically when there's still another 6 hours of clubbing to be had! You can't burn the crowd out in the first few hours - you would see the Stones opening a set with their five biggest tunes! Maybe tease them with one or two, but they'll always save the big guns until the end! Warm up DJs should have an idea of how the headline DJ sounds, and not resort to showing off as it kind of looks a bit idiotic, and can totally spoil the flow and energy of a potentially great night.

What has been your most memorable experience DJing, there have got to be some crazy stories… tell us one!
There were many hotel-room experiences and airport vomit experiences, passing out on planes etc, but that was all years ago when I was drinking and partying. I still have a few beers and the occasional champagne but my party nights are very few and far between these days. My body can't cope with it any more!

You’ve played alongside many DJs where you’ve been known to gel and tag team with them (Lee Burridge comes to mind). Given the occasion asks for it, who are some of your favourite DJs to play with and why?
I always enjoy playing with Lee as we do get on and generally vibe off each other musically, plus it all happens without any planning - we just turn up and go for it! There's many other guys I've played with in the past, but I suppose Lee is one I've tagged with the most.

Have there been points of excess and chaos in your career where you look back and think “Alright, that was a bit too Led Zeppelin.”
I was definitely hitting the tequila too much for a while. I think it was probably out of nerves that I started getting into it, but there were quite a few Zep style incidents as a result, some of which affected my gigs and were extremely unprofessional. Today I think I'm pretty boring although I do still (very) occasionally have my Zep moments!

Who are the producers and record labels in dance music you think have truly stood the test of time?
It's too hard to name names but I think any good quality house music that has never sounded totally "current" tends to age better than anything uber-trendy. Take Ashley Beedle's remix of Bent, "Always", which I still play. It's just timeless, quality house music and I can't imagine it ever sounding totally "old". Unlike certain genres like 90s prog and Deadmau5y sounding electro - it's always going to sound of it's time and will date immensely.

Name a DJ who you think is ridiculously underrated and one DJ who you think is overtly hyped.
Most of the DJs who focus on playing quality house/deep house are underrated. If you want to know who I think is over-hyped, just pick any name at random out of DJ Mag's Pop 100 list!

Can you name a few of the secret thrift stores in London/South England where we can find those vintage tees and outrageous shirts you’re always sporting?
They mainly come from the States - New York and LA, as well as ebay. I prefer buying them in vintage stores as I can feel the fit and make sure they'll be tight enough without exposing my beer belly! It's a bit harder online as I'm very fussy about the fit!

Three clubs around the world that you have consistently had amazing nights at.
Good gosh ... a bit predictable but Warung in Brazil, Womb in Tokyo, and Moonpark in Buenos Aires.

Three movies that you can watch over and over again.
Aah my movie taste is pretty bad and I won't tell you some of the monstrosities lurking in my collection! My most-watched movies are usually rock/music related. The Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" is amazing... The Beatles "Let It Be" is pretty fascinating but hard to find. My favourite non-rock movies are usually the old classics, things like "Midnight Cowboy" etc. I like films from the 60s and 70s.

You are stuck on a deserted island with a life supply of batteries and a boom box, list out 6 life changing must-have albums you’d like to have with you and why?
I hate this question!!! I'm not going to answer it properly but I will tell you that Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is the first album I will grab and I could live with that one alone. I will never, ever tire of it, it's simply beautiful.

A huge thank you to Danny Howells for taking the time to do this. As you can see I didn't really hold back on the questions!  But he truly is my hero and one of a kind.  He's taught me what it means to be a DJ and for this I'll be forever grateful. Can someone please bring him down on a massive India tour? Please? And thank you to my old roommate from college Deniz - he took the photos here from one of my most memorable nights partying it up with Danny on the decks (Los Angeles, Nacional, 2005)! - SG

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