Danny Howells is one of those rare breed of DJ/Producers who has been around since the early 1990s who still retains a passion for the music while continuing to tour around the world to this very day. With a new 2-disc mix compilation series called Balance 24 and a mini-Canadian tour this week, I thought it would be a good idea to talk to him about his latest release while picking his brain on what he thought about the state of the current electronic dance music scene.
I've already teased this interview enough with two previews, so without further delay please enjoy my full interview with this legendary DJ/Producer:
EDM Canada: To newer fans to electronic dance music, can you give readers a bit of history of Danny Howells?
Danny Howells: I'm a DJ playing house and techno who started out in 1991-92. My first big break was getting a slot warming up for Digweed at Bedrock back in 1992, a job that I did regularly for about 9-10 years. I've been producing since the mid-1990s, had residencies in different places around the world. The most famous residencies of them all has to be Twilo in New York City, and when Twilo closed down my residency moved over to Vinyl, which then became Arc. Done lots of mix albums like the Global Underground compilations, Renaissance, and the latest one being Balance. I had my owns series called Nocturnal Frequencies about 10 years ago. I had my own record label called Dig Deep, done plenty of remixes... And then just the usual kind of stuff really.
How about more recently?
I've sort of just finished winding down my own record label called Dig Deep because I kind of got sick of it. I've also been focused on the Balance album because basically, I've gotten to a stage of my life where I take on one project at a time. I'm trying not to get too involved in stuff to make sure I have a private life as well.
Describe the Danny Howells style.
It's predominantly house music. From deep house all the way through to techno. I'm trying to focus more on the deeper, more melodic end of house music while steering clear of anything too commercial or tracks with too many vocals. Just nice deep underground, slow house music. I prefer playing in small rooms, and I dislike big rooms unless I'm in certain countries where I feel like my music works. But 99% of the time, the places I play I prefer to play in small rooms. When I say I small, I mean a couple hundred people.
Do you like extended sets?
Sometimes. It depends where I am basically and the sort of energy that I've got. For a while I was known for the longer sets, like when I was doing my residency at Arc over 10 years ago I would do a 10-11 hour set every month. The same would apply to Montreal, Toronto where I would a lot of longer sets. But now I'm not doing as many as before. I find that I don't have the attention span like I used to and the crowds don't quite have the attention spans either. Years ago it was expected that you go all night long, but now people aren't all that fussed about it really so there's no point in wearing yourself out just for the sake of it. I was playing a big gig (1,500 – 2,000 people) in Cordoba, Argentina where I didn't have to compromise my sound and I ended up playing about 5-6 hours until 8 in the morning. So sometimes it works and you just want to keep on playing. It's so much more natural to do it like that versus announcing that you're playing 10 hours tonight, and you get there, and 2 hours into you're really exhausted. It's good to have a short set laid out, and if it's great, then I'll think of extending it rather than the other way around. 10 hours is a long time and years ago it was a lot easier, but now I'm not doing it because it's really really hard work.
I've noticed recently guys like Joseph Capriati went to Montreal at Stereo and declared that he would take the decks at 6 am and play until “????” on Twitter, so I think some DJs are leaving it open rather than announcing a longer extended set.
I think it's nice leaving it open because I think it's a different crowd now. Some people coming to see me, have seen me back in 2000, but there are a lot of new people coming who may not know who I am, or are coming because they are coming with a friend. So they haven't been raised on the whole concept of one DJ a night, where one DJ does the opening, does the peak time, does the winding down. You can really go out there and try to be really educational, where it came from, but really, what's the point? I'm too bloody old to try to educate that much. (laughs) I'm only joking. But when I go to North America these days and I like to play smaller rooms so I have to cram in 7-8 gigs in to pay for the flights, so I don't really have that luxury now to play longer sets because I always have to get to the next city.
You've been in the game a long time, what's your perspective on the recent interest in electronic dance music over the last few years in North America?
There's been an explosion of interest in a particular style of electronic music which is completely the opposite of what I do, and it’s catering to a much much younger crowd. I feel like its a different world really, and I don't over analyze it too much, because it has no connection to what I do. The people that are doing it and are exploding have no connection to my own life, because they don't make the music that I play, or the music that I would listen to. I'm not saying that it's worse or better but it's different to what I do. It feels like a different scene than to what I'm in. EDM is filling out the festivals and the biggest venues like at Madison Square Garden. The world that I live in is where I'm hoping that I'm able to fill a room that holds 200 people. I know as little about their world as I'm sure they know about mine. It will be interesting to see as an outsider where the big names will be in 5-10 years.
Very diplomatic answer.
You can't be mad about it though. I hear a lot of negative things about it from certain people that have been out there for the same amount of time that I have. I don’t think there’s any point in being negative, because if it's making people happy, you might not like it because its too commercial, or you think its cheesy or whatever, but people like it, so let them do it. It's always been the way. 20 years ago there was still commercial music and it was obviously appealing to more people than the underground music. That's why it’s called popular music in the first place, because it's popular and it appeals to more people. People get wound up about it but you can't do that, you just gotta let them get on with it. If the demand is there than there will be something there to satisfy that demand. Some of the old school can get a bit wound up a bit thinking “Why aren't I getting a slice of that?” but they're still making a great career so stop moaning.
The scene is quickly evolving right? It's always in movement.
That's the thing, it's exciting because it's always changing.
In the past few months we've seen an explosion of popularity in deep house on the Beatport charts – why is that?
We have seen a huge explosion on what is labeled as deep house. To me it's not what I would traditionally consider to be deep house. Although some of it I would consider to be very good music, but a lot of it has spun out of this Dirtybird or Jamie Jones’ Hot Creations kind of sound. In the end of the day I think it’s exploding, because deep house is traditionally more underground and would appeal to a much more small amount of people but what would be labeled as “deep house” now is, to be honest with you, is more pop music. It's not necessarily bad, because I think there's a lot of good there but it is pop and radio friendly. If you take a deep house record from 10 years ago you wouldn't hear that in the radio whereas the deep house you are seeing in Beatport is very pop and radio friendly. There is probably a lot of deep house purists that are up in arms but like we said before, things change and move on. The most traditional style of deep house will probably get a new label and still be there in some form or another.
Tell me about your new compilation Balance 24.
To keep it basic it's 2 CDs long, and it’s the 24th release in the Balance series. It's a reflection of the music that I play out and a snapshot of the mellower end of what I do and the area that I predominantly want to move into as I get older and older. As a DJ you can do two things: remain relevant and cater to a larger crowd or you can really focus in on what are your strengths, and I think my strengths lie in the deeper, slower end of the house music spectrum. Balance 24 is very melodic, not particularly amazingly upfront as it’s more of a selection of my favourite tunes over the last 2 years that I've listened over and over again and haven't gotten bored of. I hope that it has these nice summery vibes that when summer does come around again it will feel very appropriate. Hopefully it will be a release that has a long shelf life and will be something that people can listen to more than once and won't get bored with it.
The album is separated into two parts, “This Mix” and “That Mix” - is there a difference between both of these discs or is it designed as one continuous vibe?
When I've done albums before, I don't plan them as they just find their own shape. In the past I've done albums where Disc-1 leads into Disc-2 and you get and overall flow to the 2 discs and a distinct difference between them. When I was putting this one together I kind of felt like they were linked together mood-wise and vibe-wise. What I wanted to get across to people is to say that they can play these discs in any order that they like and that's how “This Mix” and “That Mix” came out.
I felt that both discs are linked and judging from the previews of both discs, Balance 24 did create a very nice mood and vibe for the listener.
There's nothing banging on there. People understand that I can play very very deep, bordering on ambient house music all the way to really hard techno. There are some people that love it when I bang it out and there are some who love it when I'm deep but Balance 24 is a reflection of where I'm at right now, which is very laid back musically. It is a snapshot of the deeper end, where my heart is at right now.
You're coming to Canada for 3 gigs this month, what can fans expect when they see you behind the decks?
I'm going to do my best to play the best music that I can find, and play them to the absolute best of my abilities. This applies to every single gig that I do. In every gig I play I cannot help but to put the same amount of effort into every single time I play. Whether there are 5 people there or 5,000 – you still have to deliver the maximum amount of passion. They will see the best that I can possibly deliver and hopefully it's going to gel. I'm really looking forward to it! I have a long relationship with Montreal, and have a major relationship with Toronto and I've really missed it so I'm looking forward to that. It must have been years ago since the last time I was in Calgary so I'm really looking forward to it. I'm hoping that all of the rooms that I play at are all small with an intimate vibe going on. I'm just really hoping to get a good connection going on. I'll be playing some stuff from the album, play some new stuff, and a few drinks! (laughs)
My thanks to Danny Howells for generously giving me the time for this special interview.